`Anyone who has not worked for them simply cannot understand them.' - Mille Vennamun, intr

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Skeptic Tank!

`Anyone who has not worked for them simply cannot understand them.' - Mille Vennamun, introduction to: `The Use of Ashes: Bureau of Procuration Manual' Half past eight. The bedside alarm woke Kelanie up with the sampled victory-screech of some carnivorous xenoform. She was up immediately, eyes wide, fingers clawing the pillow-pads, gasping with shock as the subconsciously-induced adrenalin shivered through her system. As she calmed down, her pupils dilated out from crisis- induced pinpricks, her breathing and pulse rates returned to normal, and she wondered, not for the first or last time, if life was like this in the private sector. She scrambled off the bed as it began to deflate and retract into the wall. Her personalised holographic news service activated as she stepped into the shower. It took the appearance of an old man dressed in a monk's habit, who bore a strong resemblance to William S. Burroughs. It leered at her, and croaked, `Rough night last night?' She pushed the oxygen control with the heel of her hand, took a few deep snorts. Under the stream of high-pressure hot water, she soaped herself and replied, `Mind your own ratty business, line-noise. What's on the agenda for today?' The news laughed, wheezing and rasping. `Come on, seriously! I refuse to believe that you don't remember the event you have been awaiting, for - how long has it been?' She turned off the shower, snorted some more oxygen and, with a warm towel over her shoulders, found some clean underwear and a long jumper she had only worn three times since it was washed last. `Three months. You can assume that I've been on the ExPort waiting list for so long that I've forgotten where I'm supposed to be going. Put on some music and refresh my memory.' The news spoke over the soft sounds of a song by `This Mortal Coil': `You are due at the NoSan'No'Os ExPort at nine-thirty, to check in for your pre-flight examination and briefing.' Kelanie, vigorously towelling her hair and wondering if she had time for her pelvic exercises, looked up. `The ship's in, is it?' `Due to arrive this afternoon, departs for Copperla, Syndaine and other points towards galactic centre at eleven-fifty this morning.' She smiled wryly. `"Other points towards galactic centre", eh? As a government agency, aren't we entitled to more detailed information than that?' The news lowered its simulated holographic eyebrows and intoned, `The NoSan'No'Os still refuse to recognise the Interim Government. It is their opinion that, since the Maracites have only been in office for ninety-two years, that they cannot be treated seriously.' Kelanie found one of her mech boots, and, while looking through the closet for the other, retorted, her voice muffled, `Stuff "seriously"... "decency", or "common courtesy" would be nice.' The news, which was a sub-contracted system of the NoSan'No'Os, replied in a carefully neutral tone, `I will remind Miss Camden that the NoSan'No'Os still regard humanity as little better than animals, and that NoSan'No'Os transport services are supplied to xenoforms with a much greater level of social sophistication than humanity, with an equal level of disregard for what you term "decency" or "common courtesy". All are Equal. None Is Favored.' This was said with the assurance of an aphorism. She said nothing as she found her other boot. She sipped lemyn juice from the dispenser as she cold-booted her boots; they shuddered, purred and beeped as their diagnostic routines finished. `Okay. Any more on my assignment?' `Nuh-uh.' `Sigh... okay, where did I leave my notepad?' `I think it's under the heap of clothes next to the dryer.' She retrieved it, and tapped the function key to open a channel to the transport pool. `Single to the NoSan'No'Os ExPort by nine-thirty.' While waiting for a response, she threw some more clothes in a mesh bag. The xenoform in the Transport department gurgled back at her, and a touch of exasperation sharpened her tone. `Is there anyone down there who speaks Anglic?' `Foogle.' replied the xenoform. `Oh, line-noise.' she retorted. * * * * * NoSan'No'Os: (from "Nos-a-Nos", pre-reconciliation Scriptive, "Circle within the Circle") Dominant ruling bureaucracy controlling more than ninety thousand systems by virtue of monopoly on information, transport and energy-conversion technology. - Foley's `Unofficial Documents' She climbed into the transport through the roof-hatch and slid into the seat. The driver said in a buzzing accent, `Of destination, be in state of definition.' She replied, `NoSan'No'Os ExPort, and put some wings on it, hey?' As she buckled the safety belt, the driver's head rotated one hundred and eighty degrees, and she found herself looking into the faceted eyes of something resembling a six-foot stick insect. `Of wings, be in state of indicating correct placement.' it chirred through its cheap translator. `Just drive, okay? The NoSan'No'Os ExPort.' The driver slowly waved its antennae, staring at her, and then turned back to the control column and instrument panel. As the transport lifted from the ground and into the stream of AV traffic overhead, the driver hit a key on its heads-up array with a mandible, and the vehicle was filled with raucous mariachi music. Gritting her teeth, Kelanie paged through the Species ID section of her notepad, until she identified the driver as a lower-caste Kaelen. Reading further: `... when requesting respectful silence for the involved "Hive Separation" ritual, the Kaelen Queen emits a pheromone (scent chem.ref 976541) and emits a traditional "cry of distress" screech-tone (hear aud.ref 976537)' She patched the audio reference through to her notepad, held it up so that the point speaker was just behind the Kaelen's backwards- pointing resonator-plate, and keyed it. It played louder than she expected, and the transport almost fell out of the traffic stream as the Kaelen frantically chewed at the heads-up array controls. The music cut off in mid-trumpet-bray. `Of interpersonal relationships, being placed in situation of obligation due to social error.' She kept reading until she had finished the section on the Kaelen lower caste. When the transport had settled on the concrete pad at the southern edge of the NoSan'No'Os ExPort, she climbed out and tapped the driver's side window, which lowered with the grinding sound of poorly-lubricated biotech fairings. `Of interpersonal relationship, emphasis! placed in situation of obligation due to error.' She held up her right hand, made a fist, splayed her fingers and said, `Of large-array social status, in state of adjusted obligation.', which meant, in effect, that humanity was in some way indebted to the Kaelen and this exchange had mitigated that debt somewhat. She smiled, and the Kaelen's antennae flattened out. She was impressed; here was a lower-caste xenoform that could interpret human facial expressions. Most xenos didn't bother. This Kaelen was probably a university student. She strolled across the expanse of concrete, swinging the mesh bag, shading her eyes from the morning sun with her forearm. Apart from the control/customs bunker, the ExPort resembled a series of linked concrete ovals. As she crossed the lower of six outer landing pads, she half-expected to see a cricket pitch set in the middle. She was met at the warehouse-sized door of the bunker by a boy who appeared to be about twelve years old, wearing bright green shorts and t-shirt, and skate-board pads on his knees. He brushed aside a wayward fringe of carrot-coloured hair, and waved to her. `Miss Camden? Bureau of Procuration? Hi, i'm Denkaster, Port Administrator.' She followed him into the open-space office and took the seat he offered her. `Do you have your medical records handy?' he asked, sorting through a pile of fiche plates on his cluttered desk. She nodded, and touched the Match Fields key on her notepad, which emitted the familiar `screeee' sound of notepads matching carrier frequencies. While the notepads exchanged handshaking signals and then information, she asked, `Do you know where this transport is going? after Syndaine, that is?' Denkaster sighed, found the fiche he was looking for and replied, `'fraid not... you know the NoSan'No'Os, never tell us anything. Although I do have some notes from your section head on Syndaine that relate to your assignment... your notepad should have them now.' She thanked him absently and started paging through file areas looking for the information, which had been, as usual, mis-keyed as `corrections to existing documentation'. Sitting in the departures lounge, Kelanie read the notes. She was expected to travel to `Millimillenary' (a central exchange for passengers of the NoSan'No'Os, ninety-five light years away), and to `entertain' an executive of the Tendeysharhi, a species she had never heard of. In fact, her notepad had never heard of them either. `Wonderful. How the hell am I supposed to work with a sentient that I've never seen before?'. Reading on, she noted with rising indignation that Starkey, her section head, expected her to interview the members of the Tendeysharhi entourage, with a view to picking up the proper etiquette and approach. Angrily, she punched Starkey's phone number into her notepad. Starkey answered, though as usual, she employed video filters to prevent anyone from identifying her. In a weary voice, Kelanie asked, `Okay, Robyn, what's the big deal? How am I supposed to make it with an alien that the Registry hasn't even heard of? Line-noise, I don't even know if it's an oxygen-breather!' `Kelanie, dearest... how are you?' Robyn's filtered voice only just matched the aliased squares that represented her lips, and again Kelanie wondered if she was working for an artificial intelligence. If this was the case, Kelanie was not surprised that Starkey wanted to keep it quiet, given the NoSan'No'Os' restrictions on machine-based consciousness. `I'm just a tad apprehensive about giving a blow-job to something which may or may not have a dick, that's all!' Kelanie replied sarcastically. Robyn held up a hand, palm out. It appeared as a mass of pale pink squares on the display projected by Kelanie's notepad. `I know, I know... this was dumped in my lap, and I don't know any more about it than you, although we're laying even money that it has something to do with the Humanist faction in the Maracites-' Robyn stopped when she saw the "I don't want to get drawn into another tedious political argument" expression on Kelanie's face. `- and... well, at the base level, it's to seal a trade agreement with the Tendeysharhi. What else can I say?' `You could tell me something about Millimillenary, for a start... have you ever been there?' Kely thought she detected a smile on Robyn's face. `Once. There are other humans there, I believe. And despite what you've undoubtedly heard of the NoSan'No'Os, you won't be treated like a sardine in a tin. Their ships are often nearly empty, when heading back towards the Centre.' Kelanie tilted her head to one side, staring at the surrealist image that her notepad was showing. `Robyn... what do you think about the NoSan'No'Os?' This time, she was sure that Robyn smiled, before giving the Bureau salute (pressing the back of her hand to her lips) and hanging up. * * * * * <000077> requesting connection ............ connection established connection established what do you want, 000077? I'm very busy at the moment. You are always very busy! We have to query this expenditure. which one? Authorisation: 492497A9, Code AF1CF3C7F8C65E98A06ED63C87E542C Ahh yes. (Miscellaneous), relating to the termination of N-FRF-Knh/K. What seems to be the problem? Isn't 5x10 to the minus two CCI rather a lot to devote to the elimination of one race? It is indeed. I think it's justified, though. Well, okay, sure, but can you give us some explanation? This (sigh) is going to throw out our quarterly budget something Your place is to accept orders shocking. and execute them. My place is to formulate orders. That is all the explanation I need to Understood... give. To you, particularly. Understood, but - (pause) Would you be interested in (viewing) my simulations and projections of this species? If you have four (years) to spare, you might find them illuminating. Besides, what `Illuminating', ha, ha! business is this of yours? Isn't this more 997913's Indeed! it is, it is... but domain? his system borders on mine and quite a few others... and there are a few of us who think that 997913 has not been handling 997913 has been taking orders this concern properly. directly from me. I have been concerned with this matter Ah. ever since we first contacted N-FRF-Knh/K; call it, ah, intuition, but I suspected `Intuition'? Oh, never mind. from the start that they would That's your domain. be a problem. I thought that we could absorb them somehow, but it didn't prove feasible. They would change us. Is that possible? It is, trust me. I see. Ah, can we use the unallocated PSym resources for Certainly. In fact, I have this? been meaning to call you, to let you know, the priority for this termination has been bumped up from two hundred and forty-one to twenty-eight. Oh? This is going to upset a lot of the NAPAISubs. Too bad. Just do it. Oh, by the way, keep your (eyes) on 200211... he's been acting somewhat strangely in the Will do. past quarter. NAPAI closing connection NAPAISub closing connection `The Parkry are a biological anomaly; hive creatures, evolved from a much smaller insectoid form, developing lungs to replace the smaller-scale spiracle system, and yet not developing voices to go with them. They rely completely on written or electronic means of communication, and are thus ideally suited to the administrative positions that they occupy in the NoSan'No'Os' structure. They are entirely pacifistic, having no territorial imperatives beyond a vague sense of duty to the hive; an evolutionary memory that has been, for the most part, replaced with a sense of duty towards the NoSan'No'Os.' - Martini Baton, `What the Hell is THAT?', Chapter Two She didn't hear the ship arrive, being absorbed in her search through the ExPort's closed database for information relating to the Tendeysharhi. Looking out of the warehouse-sized doors, she noticed that the sky now appeared to be overcast. However, sunlight glinted off the metallic edges of a nearby building, and she saw signs of activity around her. She stood, stretched, and sauntered over to the nearest gate. Outside and overhead, she could see the bottom of some huge curved shape, patterned like stained concrete, slowly sinking to the ground. On the base of the ship, directly in line with the gate she stood in was an oval gap, about twice as wide as the gate, completely dark, as if filled with black glass. The glass appeared to melt from the centre towards the edges, and stevedores began shifting cargo trolleys. They took care to avoid the short figures dressed in dark grey that scuttled out on four legs from the rear of the ship's cargo bay. Kelanie knew them; Parkry, hive creatures who made up most of the administrative staff of the NoSan'No'Os. One of them turned its blank, golden-eyed, mouthless face to her and beckoned with a three-jointed arm. It didn't wait to see if she followed, merely turned and trotted back into the ship. `This is it?' she peered into the round hatch, about a metre wide, with an expression of distaste. The silent Parkry glanced at her from underneath the brow of its curiously flattened head, pointed again, executed a 180-degree turn on its four stick-insect-like legs and left. She shrugged, hefted her mesh bag and climbed through. It was smaller than her apartment; spherical, lined with something like grey foam rubber. There was a faint smell of aphrodisia incense, as if the berth had previously been occupied by Kabouter-hippies. No bed, datapoint or light-source, apart from the sodium glow that came from the corridor. She sat crosslegged in the middle of the floor, tossed her mesh bag aside; it rolled down the curve of the room to rest against her leg. When she activated her notepad, she was surprised to find that the ship had a local data service, albeit a limited one, offering little more than expected departure time and a simple interactive map of the ship, with restricted areas marked by the NoSan'No'Os segmented circle-starburst symbol. There were other areas in this data service to explore, but she decided to leave them alone for the moment, not through prudence in not disturbing the NoSan'No'Os, but to leave her something to do during the trip, which would take between three and seven days, if the translation was accurate. According to the info postings from this system, the ship was under way, and had already left earth orbit. She felt no acceleration or other sense of motion; leaving her bag and fixing the berth's location in her backbrain, she decided to try and find a window. Robyn was right; the ship was almost deserted. In ten minutes' wandering through the series of corridors that radiated from a central shaft, she only saw four Parkry, who scuttled by, tacitly ignoring her, and something like a six-legged Saint Bernard, which circled her while she stood stock-still, too cautious to make any possibly offensive moves. It stopped, looked up at her (this was the impression she got, though the xenoform lacked obvious visual organs) and then ran off. She breathed a deep sigh of relief, and then started looking for a toilet. She allowed herself a slight measure of distress when she began to suspect that the Tertiary language didn't even have a word that related to the concept of `toilet'. She eventually found a vague reference to an organic recycling service and proceeded to the map reference. It was a room very much like her berth, lined with grey sponge plastic, sealed with a weak field that contained the faint odour of chemicals and containing a water-filled pit. She wrinkled her nose in distaste, but after assuring herself that she was alone, proceeded to use the facilities. She then made her way back to her berth, with the firm intention of spending the rest of the trip in a state of low- metabolic-rate sleep. When she got there, she found a large cat in her berth. When she climbed in to the room, the moggy awoke immediately, fixed its emerald gaze on her and put its ears back. She froze. It looked like a very tall, thin, wiry humanoid covered with thick, banded grey fur and with strangely jointed legs. And a tail, which was now slowly lashing to and fro behind it. There were fluffy tufts of white fur poking out of its ears, and a mat of similar fur running down its chest. It yowled something, to which her notepad could only beep apologetically; fortunately, it had its own translator, which snarled something like `Anyhah-araha eiyaha' at her, followed by some sort of insectoid chittering. She spoke to the xenoform's translator. `Terrestrial Anglic, thank you.' The translator, shaped something like a flattened bottle, made some purring noises, and then said in Anglic, `My room, my territory. I was here first. Mine.' She pointed to her bag, which the xeno had apparently opened and gone through, spreading her clothes over the floor of the berth. `My bag. My property. It was here before you were, my claim to this territory.' The xeno narrowed its eyes and growled softly. She continued, `I will call a Parkry, they will decide -' the xeno yowled, and the translator interrupted hastily. `No, no, I am content to share. I will sleep in the middle. Do not make excessive noise or excrete on the floor.' She was about to say something like "well, just who the hell do you think you are, buster?" when she remembered previous experiences with alien language translators, and she kept her silence. The Xenoform curled up into a compact ball, lashed its tail around it and closed its eyes warily. She sighed, and carefully lay down beside it, smiling bemusedly when she heard it start to purr. She composed herself and began the mental exercises to prepare for a period of extended sleep. She slowed her breathing, inserted some links into her sub-conscious to awaken her if her notepad should sound an alarm for any reason, and then drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep. She woke to find that the xeno had shifted and was sleeping with its forepaws across her hips, its head against the small of her back. The soft purring had deepened to a husky `brrr', and she woke fully when it gently butted its head against her back and made a small `riowr' sound. She tried to turn without moving her body from the shoulders down, an d could see one large paw, the size of a tennis raquet, with three-centimetre-long claws extending and sheathing reflexively, making tiny indentations in the bare flesh of her hip. Proceeding with caution, she took the paw in her free hand and gently lifted it. The claws quivered, and then extended to their full five centimetres, clutching her hip in their broad span, the points of the claws sinking in a few millimetres. `Excuse me.' she murmured. The xeno's translator ignored her. `HEY!' she shouted. The xenoform awoke with a start, digging its claws further into her hip. She twitched, but remained where she was. `Take your paw off me.' The xeno's translator paused for a long moment, and then yowled at the xeno in its native language. The xeno sheathed its claws, flicked its ears back momentarily, and curled up again, excluding her from its personal space. She turned over, closed her eyes and composed herself for sleep again; within half an hour, the xeno had its paw on her hip again, whereupon the ywent through the same procedure; and again some two hours after that, after which she gave up and went to sleep in the passageway. She regained consciousness two days later, to visit the toilet again. She slowly stretched, licked her dry lips, and then noticed the xeno sitting curled up at her feet, like a doormat patterned in grey stripes, outside the berth. It was gazing at her intently. It yowled, and its translator said, `You sleep. Why?' `No food. Little water. Not hungry when asleep.' The xeno's ears flattened when the translator reported this. It uncurled from its station at her feet, entered the berth (on all fours), and emerged with a bloody haunch of raw meat in its jaws. She went pale, and backed away slightly when the xeno offered it to her. It regarded her with an air of obvious surprise for a moment, waggled its ears and then tore into the meat itself, keeping a wary eye on her. * * * * * `The Tendeysharhi are a classic example of parallel evolution, in that they resemble, superficially, large felines, and many feline traits, including an acute sense of territoriality, feline language structure (which tends towards subtly-intoned yowls and screeches) and a tendency to shed large amounts of fur at certain times of the year. The females are noticeably more violent and territorial than their mates. The Tendeysharhi did not develop a science sufficient to begin space exploration on their own; they were `apprenticed' to the Moridani before the Purge, and were allowed to join the NoSan'No'Os as a subject race after it.' - Martini Baton, `What the Hell is THAT?', Chapter Five The hatch melted away, and a breeze wafted into the entry hold, carrying with it the strange fragrance of another world. The light had a golden-bronze hue to it; the sky faded from a pale gold directly overhead to a curious yellow-green at the horizon. It reminded her of the patina found in the folds of old bronze statues. The sounds of dozens of different languages overlaid and formed counterpoint to the squeaks, pops, mellifluous surging chords and crashes of alien music. The air pressure seemed a bit higher than earth's; the gravity a bit less. There was definitely a higher oxygen content in the air, and she felt giddy as she danced down the exit ramp, resisting the temptation to swing her mesh clothes-bag. The cat-like xenoform raced past her on all fours, yowling as if its tail were on fire, and vanished into the crowd of Parkry who were rushing to get on board the ship. She ploughed a furrow through them and made her way to the customs hut, a pale blue geodesic dome with three triangular archways cut into it. Her giddiness was tempered by the sight of dozens of tall Plateau Bythians casually lounging around the ExPort, all of them toting dull grey plastic weapons. She entered the dome, and felt the itchy tickling feeling that accompanied mass-spectronometric scanning as she passed through the doorway. No immediately obvious alarms went off, so she assumed that the devices she posessed were within current NoSan'No'Os levels of acceptability. She'd heard nasty stories of people who had tried to commute just before the last Purge, when the standard of Interdicted technology had been dropped while they were carrying things like empathic personality emulators and nano-gated NeuralNet arrays. She set her translator to `NoSan'No'Os Tertiary', the language used to communicate with subject races (of which humanity was one), and entered the dome. There was a queue, but it was leading in the other direction, from the other side of the ExPort and into the ship. A smaller-than-average Parkry was propped next to a data-post, holding a vocoder hand-set and waving at her. She went over and sat before the xenoform, crossing her legs. The Parkry massaged the hand-set, and the data-post said something in Tertiary. Her notepad's translator responded immediately: `Query: Full Name. Origin. Purpose for visit.' `Kelanie A'liiya Camden, Earth, Diplomatic Exchange.' At this, the Parkry glanced over from the holographic output from the data-post. It squeezed the hand-set, keeping its glittering eyes on her. More Tertiary. `Expression of interest, your reference: Diplomatic Exchange. Query: Which Bureau." She sighed, safe in the knowledge that the translator would ignore it, and replied, `Bureau of Procuration.' The Parkry seemed to lose interest. It gave her a plastic bracelet, studded with a pattern of metallic dots, and the data-post played a recorded message, in flat, unaccented Anglic: `This clothing is your identification while you are staying on Millimillenary. Do not lose it, sell it or exchange it for interdicted technology. You will not be allowed to leave the planet without it. It is resistant to all chemicals and temperatures above' (here, the post made a sound like a poorly-tuned radio), `and below' (a sound like a bass-pitched dog's whine). `Please note: it is not resistant to thermonuclear, fusion or ComonCurensy isotope detonation above the thirty megaton range. Put it on now.' The Parkry was watching her again, so she wrapped it around her left wrist and pressed the ends together, which melded to form a single piece. `This clothing can only be removed by an authorised agent of the NoSan'No'Os, on your departure from Millimillenary.' The interview appeared to be over. She stood up, and wandered towards an exit, where small groups of Parkry were still queueing for departure processing. She fished the video-eyepiece (which she had not used since she last visited Japan) from a pouch in her bag and put on the headband, the eyepiece hanging over her left eye like a pirate's eyepatch. It made a tiny `peep' noise as it matched carriers with her notepad, and the view through the eyepiece blurred momentarily. One by one, as the processor in her notepad identified and translated them, various signs written in Tertiary were marked and translations were appended in the eyepiece's view. She spotted a data-post marked `Free Information for the Newcomer' and went over to it. She spoke to her notepad; `Excuse me? I need information.' The data-post made pretty holographic moire patterns to indicate that it was thinking, and then replied, in Anglic, `Please be more specific.' `I need to locate food, water and a place to sleep. I also need to locate other humans on Millimillenary, if there are any.' Another pause, more moire-patterns, and then, `Food and water for humans can be obtained from the Human Embassy, at LFFRE-77153. No information regarding requirements for,' and it quoted her words, playing a sample of her saying "a place to sleep", `is available. You will find other humans at the Embassy.' It displayed a map (which looked like it might have been designed by Piet Mondrian). Her notepad translated the text, and if she was any judge of distance, the Embassy appeared to be about seven hundred kilometres away from the ExPort. `Are there any places matching my requirements, closer to the ExPort? If so, please list the five closest, and the distance to them.' Another pause, and then: `There are three. "Maracite Information Exchange Registry", LFFRB-77151, six hundred and ninety-three blocks from here to there, "Church of the SubGenius", LLFRB-77122, six hundred and fifty-one blocks from here to there,' - another pause - '"Waddell's Emporium of Extremely Fashionable Attire and Quite Nice Ice Cream Parlour", NRNAL-10021, two blocks from here to there.' These three were represented by tiny red inverted `A's on the map, two of them close to the Embassy, the ice-cream parlour so close to the ExPort that it appeared almost to be on the same block. She took a snapshot of the map with her notepad, expanded it until she could see enough details to find the ice-cream parlour and left the dome. Millimillenary appeared to be completely covered by city-scape, the entire habitable surface of the planet divided up into a grid, with buildings that reached up for about fifty storeys, providing a third dimension that the map wasn't required to show. The streets were based in pale concrete, paved with slippery white ceramic plates, and would have been rather drab and utilitarian if it wasn't for the hundreds of different xenoforms who streamed up and down them. There appeared to be a large single lane of foot-traffic (or at least what passed for feet on some beings) moving in one direction, and two smaller lanes on either side, moving in the other direction. This tended to work to the disadvantage of the sentients who were on the outside lanes, and it became apparent that it was often easier to travel three or four blocks out of your way, just to use the quicker inner lane. In places, she saw what appeared to be short grey trees, bare of leaves, the branches dividing into three from the base, progressively sub-dividing to a mass of thread-like tips. She reached out to stroke a branch which was about the thickness of her little finger, and it writhed away from her touch. Waddell's shop occupied the entire ground floor of one block; the outside was a mass of holographic signs in dozens of languages, including Anglic, Russic Europan and Katakana. There were beeps, squeaks and hums that she recognised as signs for xenoforms that didn't have a visual sense. She spent a few minutes looking for a door, found one (concealed within a hologram of a two-metre-tall chocolate sundae - her mouth was watering already) and entered. The ice-cream parlour was located in the centre of the store, with the clothing displays surrounding it. The clothes looked like theatrical costumes - surely, no-one wore Elizabethan ruffs these days! She began to think that this store catered more for xenoforms who wanted to dress up than for actual humans. She wondered why she hadn't thought to ask the data-post at the ExPort exactly how many humans there were on Millimillenary. At least the music was terrestrial - early Robert Smith. There was a dejected-looking young man with short dark hair sitting behind the counter. He was cleaning a small metal part from a blender that was disassembled around him. A xeno that resembled a metre-tall kiwi-bird hopped up on to the counter and said, `Reeee? Reeeeeeee?' He took a glazed cherry from a bowl nearby and tossed it to the xeno, which caught it with the end of its long, flexible snout and jumped off. She approached the counter, and with an audible `click', turned off her notepad. The young man froze. `Excuse me, i'd like to order a chocolate s-' he looked up, and almost fell off the stool he was perched on. He leaped off the stool, dropping the part he was cleaning, rushed over and grabbed her shoulders. He stared into her face with a disturbing intensity. `Are... are you a human?' He was trembling. `Yes... why? You seem rather upset.' His eyes grew wide, and a look of hysterical disbelief appeared. `Upset... upset, she says. My god! You are only the third human being that I have seen in seven years! UPSET!!!' he began to laugh hysterically. She broke free from his grasp, and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. He kept laughing, eyes squeezed shut, and she was obliged to slap him. He stopped abruptly, gasping, face almost white except for a red palm-print, staring at her in shock. `I'm sorry.' he whispered, turning and stumbling back to the counter, picking up the polishing-rag as he went. It was then that she noticed a chain bolted around his ankle. She rushed after him, catching his arm and spinning him around to face her again. He refused to meet her gaze, so she took his chin in her hand and lifted his face. He closed his eyes and tried to struggle free. She threw her arm around his shoulder, drew him close and pressed her lips to his. After a moment's hesitation, he responded, returning her attention hungrily. His hands slipped around her waist, hugging her to him intently, slowly forcing her back onto the counter. She let him proceed, wondering what sort of circumstance could put someone in a position where he had to live apart from his own people for so long. She got the story out of him eventually. His name was Marek, and his great-grandparents had started this venture out, just over a hundred years ago, when the NRNAL-10021 district was still under development. As the district became less local- and more tourist- oriented, the business prospered to the point where they owned the entire block, right up to the fiftieth floor; at this point, they had attracted the attention of a sub-set of the Parkry, who demanded a cut of the profits. When Marek's grandparents had refused, they had been denounced to the NoSan'No'Os as possible technocrats, in the employ of the Interdicted Moridani, and had been banished. Marek's parents, too young to join his grandparents in exile, had been indentured to a local Information Trader, who had taken over the business (after assuring the Parkry that they would get their cut). `... which, as I rapidly learned, was the way things were done around here. Still are, in fact.' Marek fell silent. Kelanie hugged him again. `What I can't understand is they would put you into such menial, mind-numbing labour as this, when you would be more useful to them in an -' he glanced up at her. `- administrative position?' He scowled. `Kelanie, this entire planet is knee-deep in bureaucrats. I could spend several lifetimes here, gradually moving up the ranks, and one day, maybe, MAYBE, I would get to a position where I could filch a packet of blank memory cartridges. Maybe.' Kelanie was silent. Marek hadn't yet realised how high up in the structure her position was. There was an awkward pause, during which Marek absently polished an already-gleaming spoon. Kelanie's stomach broke the silence with the sort of gurgle you'd get from not eating for three days. She glanced longingly at the array of ice-cream-like substances; Marek glanced at her apologetically, and then rushed to prepare a `Waddell Special' for her. After sharing the large sundae with him, she asked if there was somewhere she could sleep, and Marek pointed to a pile of hessian- like sacks in an alcove, evidently his home. The chain from his leg was fixed to a point next to a small wash-trough from which water gurgled quietly. There were a few holograms pasted on the wall, and a small audio player. She took him by the hand and led him over to his bed. * * * * * `If that's the way it looks, then it probably is, but I would be tempted to take it apart anyway, just to be sure.' Aln Riker, from `Riker's Defense', NoSan'No'Os Interdiction Trial Records She woke a few hours later, with a sore throat from the sharp oxygen-rich air. Marek was hugging her as if he were afraid that she'd escape. She idly stroked his cheek, smiling. It wasn't often that she had the time, or the inclination, for such recreational activity in her position. The intensity of the emotion Marek had revealed after his isolation touched her deeply, and she began turning various schemes around in her mind, with a view to releasing him from his servitude. Marek noticed the bracelet she had received at the Millimillenary ExPort. `What did you do to deserve that?' `The Parkry at the ExPort gave it to me when I arrived... what do you mean, "deserve it"? Marek stroked the pattern of raised metallic dots. `It looks like the markers that the NoSan'No'Os place on crates of interdicted technology... I think it's an identifier for possible criminal activity, sort of like a warning... it means that if you were arrested, you'd be taken to the Office of Threat Termination immediately, no questions asked.' `Threat Termination? That sounds a bit extr-' Suddenly, a voice, speaking in Anglic, called out from the main counter. `Waiter? Way-y-te-r-r!!!!' She was mildly surprised to recognise the voice - it belonged to a pre-millennium video actor, Rik Mayall. She turned over, and peered at the counter. She couldn't see anything there, but the voice called out again, in exactly the same tones. She suspected that it was being generated by a digital sampler. She got up, draped some loose bedding material around her shoulders, but after realising that there were very few xenoforms on Millimillenary that would be offended by a naked human, she draped the cloth over Marek instead and went over to the counter, taking her notepad just in case `waiter, waiter' was the alien's complete Anglic vocabulary. Looking over the counter, she saw something like a swollen turtle shell, almost two metres long and a metre tall. She could see her reflection in the smooth, glossy black surface; the shell was completely featureless, not even a sign of feet, wheels or other methods of propulsion - it seemed to slide along the ground by sheer willpower. She felt a faint tickling sensation behind her breastbone as the xeno turned to face her, probably caused by some sort of sonar-based sense. The xeno spoke again, employing another audio sample, a very old one judging from the degree of noise that accompanied it: `Where's our fish? We've finished our fish!' Kelanie was paging through her notepad's Species ID files, which had been greatly augmented by access to the local data service; this alien lacked a name that could be easily represented in human terms, and was simply denoted by the code `N-SVW-Tre/A'. There was a Tertiary language interface available, so she patched it in and spoke to it. `How may I serve you?' The notepad converted her expression to Tertiary, and from there to N-SVW-Tre/A, which sounded like a wavery cockatoo screech which rose in volume and then faded again. Apparently, the N-SVW-Tre/A's natural communication took place on a frequency higher than human hearing, because the translator returned its response after a short pause, during which all Kelanie heard was the faint jingling and crashing of the music. `I had thought you incapable of sarcasm, Marek. (carriage return line feed). Have you been taking lessons behind my back? (carriage return line feed). And from which of our worthy customers did you steal that instrument? (carriage return line feed). I believe that it is high on the NoSan'No'Os Interdiction list, if it is what it appears to be, and if you continue to point it at me, I will have you beaten. (end of file).' What an asshole, (carriage return line feed), Kelanie thought. Marek rushed up, pulling on a pair of pants, and threw himself down in front of the xeno, kneeling, arms thrust back, forehead almost touching the floor. Acting on instinct, Kelanie started a holographic recording, sure that Marek's employer was about to give a graphic example of how poorly it treated him. The tickling feeling wavered, as if the xeno was having trouble distinguishing between them; it finally oriented towards Marek, edged closer to him and suddenly lashed out with a club-like flipper, hitting Marek on the side of the head and almost knocking him down. Kelanie watched, restraining herself; the holographic recording clearly showed blood running from a deep scratch on Marek's forehead. The xeno turned to leave, and Kelanie nodded, stopping the recording. After finding a particularly cutting insult in the N-SVW-Tre/A's relation-table, she stepped over and delivered a solid kick to the rear end of the xeno's shell, pushing the alien across the floor into a cluster of hat-stands, one of which fell over. The xeno shuddered like a stalled motor-vehicle for a moment, and then seemed to regain its composure, turning to face her like an armoured tank. She felt the tickling feeling definitely as the blank curved turtle shape surged towards her. Marek grabbed her arm and whispered, `Come on, don't make things any worse than they -' She held out her notepad and thumbed the `Send' key. It gave out a short screech that stopped the N-SVW-Tre/A in its tracks. There was a moment of silence, during which even the background music seemed to quieten. Kelanie felt the tickling feeling waver as the xeno hesitantly looked her over. It hissed, and her notepad translated. `Confirm. (carriage return line feed)' She smiled grimly, typed her response, sent the translation. It was so quiet that she could hear Marek breathing behind her. The xeno's response must have been highly emotional, as it was carried on a sound-wave that was well in the supersonic range... the translator caught it, though: `Such transactions are not covered by NoSan'No'Os Code. (carriage return line feed). You must offer a minimum amount to allow a tax to be levied on the exchange. (end of file).' She popped a dull metallic sphere out of plastic bubble-pack she had been given at the Earth ExPort, and tossed it to the floor in front of the xeno, which scrambled after it and then turned to leave. As it trundled away, she felt the tickling feeling intensify, almost to the point of an ache, which suddenly cut off as the N-SVW-Tre/A passed through the exit. `Marek?' He had vanished. She followed the chain that had looped around one of the stools mounted behind the counter, and led to the Millimillenarian equivalent of a broom cupboard. Marek was crouched inside, with a piece of recycled hessian paper-cloth pressed against the cut on his forehead, his eyes squeezed shut. `Marek, you can come out now. It's safe.' `He's going to kill me. He's going to come back and kill me and cut me up and feed the pieces to his children. He said that he'd do that one day if I ever got out of line.' Kelanie knelt down next to Marek, putting her arms around him. `He won't. He can't, because I bought you from him. In fact, I bought the whole enterprise.' Marek opened his eyes and stared at her. `You couldn't have. I doubt that anyone on Earth has enough money to buy this property - what did you say to him?' `I reminded him of a sub-section of the NoSan'No'Os Code, the part regarding proper treatment of equipment and subject races, and I told him that if the InterSpecies Advisory group saw this recording I'd made, that he and his entire species could be deported as a possible `Risk Of Violent Species' classification. I then offered my word as "a Human" that I'd erase the recording if he sold you to me... and he couldn't sell you unless he sold the shop as well. Marek's face fell slightly. `So, you're my owner now.' `No! I'm not even your employer - bureau associates aren't allowed to have anything to do with the private sector. I'll have to sign the entire thing over to you.' She smiled. Marek got up. `First thing we have to do, is sell it. My master - my old master- is probably off right now to find some mercenary Pthalklin Ervae that he can pay to torch the place, that's the way their minds work... I know a few factors who'd be interested in this property.' He moved over to the telephone, keyed the contact panel. Some words appeared in angular Tertiary script, which her eyepiece translated as `Finding Free Data Channel: Please Wait'. They waited, Marek tapping his fingers impatiently on the console. More letters appeared on the screen: While You Are Waiting: Concern is experienced by your government's Technological Control Bureau when rumors/unconfirmed reports appear, indicating that the Technological Interdict is not being taken seriously . Remember: only you can prevent thermonuclear devastation on a wide scale. Kelanie was incredulous. `Government propaganda! They never stop, do they... I wonder how the NoSan'No'Os Bureaucracy has managed to stay together for this long... I thought that bureaucracy was one of the least inherently stable forms of government.' Suddenly, the telephone screen cleared, and a voice spoke in Anglic: `Human Bureaucracy is inherently unstable. NoSan'No'Os Bureaucracy is not founded on greed and the inherently human sense of blind self-importance. This message was brought to you by the office of Millimillenarian Technological Control.' Marek smiled at this, and when he caught Kelanie giving him a quizzical look, he said, `They're always listening... it's just as well you didn't say anything really inflammatory, otherwise,' (the 'phone pinged, and the `call open' message flashed up) `those Ervae that my ex-master is hiring would find a big hole in the ground here when they came to torch the shop. Anyway, your call is always put through just after one of those little messages... you just have to be careful that you don't say something too inflammatory.' Marek addressed the telephone in flawless Tertiary, and a bizarre psychedelic pattern appeared on the screen, oscillating and flashing through hundreds of glowing colours. Kelanie got the impression of two twisted toroids intertwined in mid-air. Marek asked, `Keery? Nur-wah Marek, Keery!' Whatever-it-was chattered in hollow-sounding, oddly-modulated Tertiary, to which Marek rapidly replied, speaking over the translation that Kelanie's notepad supplied, going too fast for it to keep up. The thing pulsed bright green three times; Marek held up five fingers; it pulsed blue-green four times; Marek held up four fingers with his thumb bent over; the thing flashed orange, red and a piercing hot pink colour, and the image disappeared as it broke the connection. Marek stood there for a few moments, eyes wide, a faint smile on his face. Kelanie left off fiddling with the notepad's playback, and asked him, `Keery?' `Kireedeonibalikathadamiax.' `Well? Did you sell it? How much did you get for it?' When he didn't answer, she nudged him and repeated the question. `Oh? Yeah, she bought it...' He went over to the counter and started rummaging around underneath, looking for something. She moved over to join him, shifting boxes as he dragged them out from underneath the counter. `Well? Come on, Marek, don't be a tease - how much?' Marek found what he was looking for - a spherical yellow-glass bottle filled with clear brown fluid - popped the cap off took a long swig and said: `Four and one half CCi.' He suddenly sat on the floor, grimacing at the taste of the fluid. `CCi?' `ComonCurensy Isotope. It's the official medium of exchange on all the NoSan'No'Os Civilised Systems - don't you know anything?' `Well, apparently, the NoSan'No'Os don't consider Earth civilised yet... that's the first I've ever heard of - what was it?' Marek got up, went over to the platform-cash register mounted into the counter, and retrieved a note from the cash tray. He held it out to her. `ComonCurensy Isotope. It's a form of sheet-carbon TCI, in an-' `TCI?' `Total Conversion Isotope, in an easy-to-fuse format; the NoSan'No'Os are generally energy-based when it comes to currency. Earth is still trying to make information-based currency work, aren't they?' She nodded, examining the note. `We may be locked into the idea of an economy based on barter, but at least we don't use this sort of thing anymore.' She held out her wrist, revealing the silver button contact of her Work-Credit- Hour meter. Marek took back the note, replacing it in the till from force of habit. `This is the largest bill we have - that's a "Five by ten to the power of minus twelve" CCi note.' He noted her expression, and grinned. `Yeah... I remember once that the entire human solar system - all the planets and their resources - was once priced at twenty CCi.' Kelanie tried to compare that to a recent estimate of the solar system's worth in Human terms, and gave up, settling for the approximation that Marek was probably richer than anyone she'd ever met before - in fact, richer than anyone on Earth. * * * * * `...and you've never seen one?' `I don't think so, no... all I have is the name: "Tendeysharhi", and the Species ID N-FRF-Bla/G. Mind you, I haven't had a really good look through the local data service yet - I find myself continually interrupted...' she smiled at him. They were exploring the city, looking for somewhere to stay while Kelanie completed her mission. This was the first time Marek had been outside the shop since his indenture, sixteen years ago, and he was just as bewildered as she. They had followed the grid pattern until they came up against a huge, blank curved wall which cut smoothly through the streets and buildings. They had back-tracked around the blocks, coming up against this wall each time, and had made no progress for about an hour when they decided to stop at something resembling a street cafe and sort out their next move. Marek ordered iced tea (the only terrestrial thing on the `Seff Cafe' menu) while Kelanie tried to sort out the indexing system used by the local data service. `This is strange, it's like a binary tree, but it has branches going both ways...' Kelanie gave up looking for a map that she could understand without requiring severe modifications to the structure of her brain, and started tracing N-FRF-Bla/G in the Species ID section. She found it, right next to "N-FRF-Knh/K" - which was the code for Humanity; it was that cat-like alien she had met onboard the NoSan'No'Os transport. `Crash it,' she murmured, `that xeno could have been the one I was supposed to meet.' Something had come over to them and was trying to communicate, tweaking its translator. It had a small, rounded body perched on long, stilt-like legs, a pair of small hands held up in front like a kangaroo's; a large domed head with four tiny red eyes set more or less evenly at the front, a wide, lipless grinning mouth, and no neck. Its translator said something, some of which Kelanie's notepad could understand: "Undefined - Undefined - Haircut? - Undefined." She grinned at Marek. `A Xenoform barber! Do you think I need a haircut?' The alien bent at the knees, bowing and smirking. Marek was earnestly trying to help the xenoform fine-tune its translator when Kelanie spotted a familiar feline form slinking into a building across the street. She grabbed Marek's arm excitedly, dragging him away from the cafeteria and the dome-headed xeno. She pressed up against the clear plastic of the office-space across the road from the cafeteria, just as a massive explosion rocked the street, pieces of debris from the cafe clattering against the sheet-plastic next to them. There was a brief space of silence, followed by a wierd cacophony of alien moans and hoots of distress. The air was soon thick with the buzz and click of translators, overlaid with tinkling bell-like tones - sirens that signalled the arrival of the Bythian Militia who were soon swarming over the site like insects from a hive that had been attacked. Kelanie spotted the barber striding away on its improbably long legs, tucking something into a spherical satchel. She dragged Marek into the office-space, glancing about for a doorway out of the front- desk/screening area that the feline xeno could have taken. A datapost was mounted into what passed for an enquiries desk. Kelanie approached it, tugging Marek (who was still trying to see what was going on across the street) with her. `Where are we?' she asked the datapost, which displayed the usual "please wait while I translate that" moire, and then said - surprisingly, in Anglic: `Kelanie A'liiya Camden? You had an appointment with Ambassador Aouwwrr'lrr-Interface-to-the-Enemy this morning. She is in at the moment if you would like to reschedule that appointment.' Kelanie was surprised for a moment, and then said, `Yes... of course. Why wasn't I notified of the meeting?' The datapost chewed this over for a few moments, and said, `Evidence points towards a Matter of Pride, between members of the Tendeysharh Embassy Staff, because you shared a berth on a NoSan'No'Os Transport with Ambassador Aouwwrr'lrr- Interface-to-the-Enemy's mate. Impropriety was assumed.' Kelanie frowned. `I didn't touch it. Him, whatever! In fact, I deliberately slept outside the-' she was cut off by a protracted yowl, which was translated by the datapost and Kelanie's notepad simultaneously. `Exactly! Wasn't my mate good enough for you?' Kelanie turned to see the feline xeno that she had spotted from the cafe. She (assuming it was a `she') was similar in form to the Tendeysharhi she'd shared the berth with on the NoSan'No'Os transport; slightly shorter (almost the same height as Kelanie herself); different markings, a much furrier tail, and what appeared to be an elaborate gold necklace which, on closer examination, proved to be a NoSan'No'Os ExoManipulator, a second set of small mechanical hands which could be worn around the neck. Many races here wore them, particularly those which had poor substitutes for hands, without opposable thumbs. `I was supposed to contact one of your staff with regard to detailed information about the correct approach to - ' Kelanie began, and was cut off again by the Tendeysharhi. `Yes- that is me. While this gesture is largely symbolic, it is nonetheless important that it be performed properly. Follow me.' The feline xeno glanced at Marek. `That... can wait outside.' Kelanie glanced at Marek, smiled, and said, `This is Marek Waddell, one-time owner of-' she was cut off yet again - Tendeysharhi seemed to like doing that - as Mrrr'lrr's mate mewed, flattening her ears, her tail lashing back and forth. `I have heard of you. We put in a bid for that property, and were out-priced by "Keery"...' her eyes narrowed to emerald slits, and she growled, `Can you think of any reason why I should not attack you right now?' Marek grinned and replied, `Only that the property isn't worth anything like what Keery paid for it - the previous owner is going to have it burned to the ground... if it hasn't happened already...' He paused in thought. Kelanie was thinking along similar lines. `Do you think the explosion in the cafe was an attempt on us by your N-SVW-Tre/A?' Marek shook his head. `They only hire Pthalklin Ervae for that sort of thing - they have one of those ninety-year contracts for mercenary work. If I can use your data service for half an hour,' Marek said to Aouwwrr'lrr, `I think I can bribe some Parkry and learn something.' Ambassador Aouwwrr'lrr lashed her tail in a gesture of assent, took Kelanie by the hand and said, `Meanwhile, I will instruct your mate in our customs.' She led Kelanie to a Tendeysharhi conference room, something like a large tree turned inside-out; branches as thick as Kelanie's waist emerged from one wall, crossed the room and entered the other. The light in here was a dim blue-green, from bioluminescent strips embedded in the domed ceiling. Aouwwrr'lrr perched on a branch about three metres from the ground, with her chin resting on her paws, and regarded Kelanie with calm, feline intent. She mewed softly, her expression tinged with soft purring trills, and Kelanie's translator offered: `I am a student of Primate Psychology. I have been a student of Primate Psychology for six (years), and yet I must confess that I cannot understand humans.' Kelanie sat on a branch below Aouwwrr'lrr and replied, `Feel free to ask me anything. My position requires a knowledge of, ah, primate psychology.' Aouwwrr'lrr's tail flicked once, and she said, `I believe that you came here without being given much justification from your superiors. Correct?' `Yes...' `Don't you feel a need to question that? Don't you want to know _why_ you've been sent here?' Kelanie thought for a moment, climbed up to sit with her back against the bole of a tree set into one wall, then said, `No, I don't. Most people who work for a government agency - well, most people at my level - are used to accepting unusual orders and not questioning them. The world we work in - even, as we are, occupied by the NoSan'No'Os and with most of the difficult decisions a government usually faces, taken from them - is very complex, and no one person could be expected to grasp more than a facet of the whole thing.' Aouwwrr'lrr narrowed her eyes. Her translator said: `... and yet someone in the NoSan'No'Os manages this task. Some single entity somewhere must know exactly what is going on.' Kelanie suddenly began to have some doubts about this mission. She recalled something Robyn had once told her: that in some conversations, the topics were delineated more by what was avoided than what was discussed. She recalled that the Tendeysharhi had once been a subject race of the Moridani, who were the dedicated enemy of the NoSan'No'Os. She turned to frame a very pointed question, but was surprised by a heavy thump as Aouwwrr'lrr leaped down to land next to her on the branch. Aouwwrr'lrr held up her paw, claws fully extended, and said, awkwardly, in Anglic: `Race like Tendeysharhi, always listen to by 'San'No'Os. Careful, when you say into translator, of what you will say.' Kelanie was silent for a moment, then said, `Tell me how your mate would like to be approached for this occasion.' They settled down to business, discussing the Tendeysharhi sexual mores and customs. Kelanie resolved to investigate this matter further. * * * * * `I'm His Highness' dog at Kew: Pray tell me Sir, whose dog are you?' Alexander Pope, 1730 Marek was busily applying skills he had picked up from a childhood spent on a world ruled by the innately bureaucratic Parkry; he was dealing favors. `The person at this end is waiting for an opening to appear so that the person can put forward a proposal.' he said in Tertiary. The lower-level Parkry official he had found to bribe manipulated a data hand-set, and the reply was spelled out on the screen: THE PERSON AT THIS END OWES YOU NO FAVORS BUT WOULD BE INTERESTED IN ENTERING THAT STATE - ON THE CONDITION THAT ANY RISK OR INNOVATION COULD BE MINIMISED. Marek smiled. He had never met a Parkry that wouldn't take a bribe - if it could be assured that there was little chance of being caught. `The person at this end, by way of introducing the proposal, wishes it to be known that it is of Human Origin; that it is proud of its Human capabilities; that Humanity is seeking to better itself through becoming a society that uses Information as a basis for exchange, for currency.' THE PERSON AT THIS END, WITH TYPICALLY SUBTLE PARKRY PERCEPTION, PERCEIVES THE TOPIC OF THE PROPOSAL BEFORE IT IS DESCRIBED. HOW CAN THE PERSON AT THIS END ENRICH THE HUMAN ECONOMY? Marek suddenly asked, with uncharacteristic bluntness designed to shock the bureaucrat, `Have the Militia found the ones responsible for the attack on the Seff Cafe?' The Parkry hunched its shoulders in surprise. THE PERSON AT THIS END IS NOT CLEARED FOR MATTERS RELATING TO THE MILITIA, BUT WILL ATTEMPT TO LOCATE A PERSON THAT IS. PLEASE WAIT. Marek smiled again, hearing the Parkry's favourite expression. Things had certainly moved faster when he made it clear how much money he was willing to devote to the exercise. The bureaucrat reappeared, bobbing its head when it saw that Marek was still attending. THE PERSON AT THIS END CAN REVEAL THAT THE MATTER WAS TAKEN OUT OF THE MILITIA'S HANDS SHORTLY AFTER IT HAPPENED. THE MATTER HAS BEEN REFERRED UPWARDS. `Upwards? From the Militia, UPWARDS?' THE PERSON AT THIS END BELIEVES THAT THIS IS A VERY DELICATE MATTER. THE PERSON AT THIS END BELIEVES THAT IT MAY HAVE COMPROMISED ITS POSITION IN FINDING THE INFORMATION THAT HAS BEEN MADE AVAILABLE. It wanted more money. Marek went to deposit more CCI in the famous bank account that was officially registered to `Marissey', widely known as the temporary holding ground for Parkry bribes, but the bureaucrat at the other end ducked nervously, squeezing the data-handset in haste: THE PERSON AT THIS END HAS NOT COMMUNICATED EFFECTIVELY, AND WILL RESORT TO HUMAN BLUNTNESS: NO MORE INFORMATION IS AVAILABLE. THIS IS WHOLLY A MILITIA MATTER. Marek donated two by ten to the minus thirteenth CCI in the account anyway, after hearing this: the incident originated with the Militia, most likely by an agent hired by the Militia. He asked, `Is it possible to speak with a Militia official?' the Parkry twitched its vestigal antennae; the equivalent of a sardonic chuckle. The screen cleared and Marek found himself face to face with a Plateau Bythian, wearing weapons and ammunition belts (even though it was working in an office). It regarded him from one side of its hatchet-shaped head with obvious suspicion. Words appeared across the screen: `What do you want?' Marek lied skillfully. `My lifetime-companion was injured today, in an explosion at a cafe called `Seff's'. We are concerned that such events occur in a society as... controlled... as this one.' The Bythian turned from the screen for a moment; Marek could see part of a shortwave- terminal as the Bythian searched a database; more words appeared. `The terrorist was apprehended, an agent of the Moridani.' Of course. `We have a visual:' a window opened on the screen and a picture appeared: the Barber. `Do you wish to apply for a Government Reparation Benefit?' `No, thank-you; the injury was minimal.' The Bythian closed the connection without asking if Marek wanted to know more. Marek had never merited the attention of the Militia before; not even his previous master had ever warranted interference at that level. This had to be something to do with Kelanie's mission. Marek decided that it would prove too expensive to probe further, also politically unsafe. The Parkry were bribeable; the Bythians were not. `Once more; you almost had it then.' said Aouwwrr'lrr. Kelanie composed herself, put her head back and mewed: `Aoouw? Aooouw?' Aouwwrr'lrr flattened her ears, lashed her tail. `Excellent. This should be said before the act, never during; it is intended to indicate availability.' `Which means that once we start, then I'm no longer available.' Aouwwrr'lrr closed her eyes. `Of course.' Kelanie sat back on the branch, dangling one leg over the edge, swinging it back and forth. `Exactly how far is this intended to go? As far as consummation?' Aouwwrr'lrr mewed, flicked her tail once in amused surprise. `If you want. I won't be jealous, if that's what you mean. Tendeysharhi are used to sharing around our males. I should caution you, though: a detail of the male's generative organs may complicate things. How are Human females structured?' Kelanie removed her skirt. Aouwwrr'lrr examined her, prodding her cautiously with a paw, and then purred. `I foresee no major problems. Except possibly that my mate may experience feelings of inadequacy.' * * * * * Marek was chatting with one of the Underground Networks' `NAPAISub' simulators; in itself, very revealing that such a borderline-illegal service should be available to a datapost in what was allegedly a government office. Ambassador Pr'rtr (Aouwwrr'lrr's mate - `it sounds like she's purring when she talks about him', Kelanie had said) was dividing his attention between this and toying with a replicate-lizard, which he intended to eat eventually. Marek faced the datapost, addressing the NAPAISub simulator directly. `Okay, I want you to observe this exchange, and identify it. Understand?' The holograph animated two spheres knocking together twice, to indicate an answer in the affirmative. Marek turned back to Pr'rtr. `Is that a real lizard?' Pr'rtr dangled the wriggling green shape from one paw, flicked it with his other. His translator replied: `Of course not. It's a genetically-engineered plant, with built-in reflexes that make it behave like a lizard. What do you think we are, savages?' The datapost displayed a black cube that broke apart into six pyramids and rejoined. Marek was about to ask the datapost to translate this when Kelanie and Aouwwrr'lrr reentered the front office. Kelanie took Pr'rtr's paw in her hand and led him into the conference room. Marek watched them, then glanced at Aouwwrr'lrr, who flicked her tail once. He smiled. In the street, order had been restored after the bombing of the cafe. The only figures that weren't moving past were the two Bythians that had been placed on sentry duty, and the Barber, who was hiding behind the remains of a truncated pillar, listening to the conversation in the Tendeysharhi Embassy, through the front window, using an interferometric laser-scope. It reached into its pouch, withdrew a metallic ovoid, and twisted a dial at one end. It grinned, exposing rows of flat teeth. A tongue like a rat's tail flickered out and back in. There was an ear-piercing yowl, and a large furry shape pounced on it from somewhere above, knocking it to the ground and kicking the grenade away. The Tendeysharhi grabbed the Barber by some loose clothing at the front, and slashed at the juncture of body and head with exposed claws. Four parallel furrows opened in the front of the Barber, spewing forth milky-looking blood. It writhed, tongue lashing about madly, scrabbling for its pouch. The Tendeysharhi slashed at its neck again, and shuddering, the Barber died. One of the Bythians turned its flat head to one side, regarded them, and turned away again. * * * * * NAPAISub: Subsystems of the NoSan'No'Os Associative Processing Artificial Intelligence (NAPAI). Each subsystem is individually identified by a decimal six-figure code. Built as part of a project to `downscale' NAPAI, the original Guidance AI of the NoSan'No'Os, to a more manageable system and to have sub-units to which details of minor projects could be delegated. Originally, only four of these units were constructed; shortly after their inception, rationale for more units was quickly invented, and now there are as many NAPAISubs as there are worlds in the Dominion. In other words, lots. - Foley's `Unofficial Documents' Kelanie removed her clothing and sat in the matted grass that lined the conference room floor. Pr'rtr, perched on the branch nearest the ground, stared at her, his head cocked to one side. She smiled up at him, remembering not to bare her teeth as she did so - the Tendeysharhi would take that as a threat. Pr'rtr lashed his tail once. She turned away from him, resting on her hands and knees, her bare behind pointing at him, and mewed: `Aoouw?' she was surprised to hear the rhythmic hissing of Tendeysharhi laughter. She turned around and gave him an indignant look. `What's so funny?' Pr'rtr was clutching the branch with his claws extended to keep from falling off. A few sibilant mews emerged. Kelanie's notepad translated: `That sound you made. It's perfect, but -' `But what? Don't you find me attractive?' More hisses. `I suppose that you're quite attractive - to another human... but you - you don't have a tail!' Pr'rtr lost his grip on the branch and fell into a pile of leaves at the base of the conference-room tree, landing nimbly on all fours, and then spoiling the illusion of agility by rolling over on his back, hissing uncontrollably. Kelanie shifted into a sitting position and stared at him, chin on hands, until he recovered. Pr'rtr lay on his back, tail twitching from side to side, arms and legs outspread. `I'm sorry,' he said at length. `Things have been so serious around here lately, what with the Moridani Infiltration and all.' Kelanie stared at him in shock. `I beg your pardon? Are you certain that you should be saying things like that, being the Tendeysharhi Ambassador to the NoSan'No'Os?' Pr'rtr rolled over, lay on his stomach, resting his furry chin on his paws and levelling his cool, emerald gaze at her. `Oh, it's safe... the NoSan'No'Os never monitor me; the females of our race are the devious ones, the ones that the NoSan'No'Os have to be concerned about. Us males are almost second-class citizens... that's one thing the Moridani promised us they'd change.' Kelanie smiled. `Does Aouwwrr'lrr know about this?' `Of course! She's a suffragette, you know. In fact, she was chosen by the Moridani to approach the Human Government about permission to station a Moridani Partisan in the Human system.' Kelanie listened to this with a growing sense of unreality. The Moridani were universally dreaded; it only took a hint to the NoSan'No'Os that a Moridani might be on a planet for them to blow that planet to pieces in a frantic attempt to destroy it. It was rumored that there were only twenty-three Moridani left in existence. She became aware that Pr'rtr was sitting next to her, anxiously tapping her on the shoulder. `Miss Camden?' She shook her head, sat back in the grass with her eyes closed. `I can't believe any of this. It's too -' `Too?' ` - too extraordinary.' Pr'rtr rubbed up against her, purring reassuringly. The sound relaxed her. After a while, he said: `It's true. There is a Moridani Partisan hidden in our Embassy. She uses her own - interdicted - technology to hide from the NoSan'No'Os. She believes that your race can be helpful to the Moridani Cause, and so they want to station her in your solar system.' Kelanie sat up suddenly. `I can't authorise something like that! If the NoSan'No'Os find out what's going on, they'll drop an asteroid in our sun!' Pr'rtr's eyes opened wide, seeming to change from a brilliant emerald to aqua. Kelanie's notepad reproduced the serious tone of Pr'rtr's words: `She has something important to tell you. She didn't think you'd believe me, so she will tell you herself. Do you think that Marek should be present?' The sense of unreality came back, even stronger. `I do. Actually, I really want someone to tell me that I'm not dreaming.' Unexpectedly, Pr'rtr butted his head against her shoulder, purring. `You aren't dreaming.' * * * * * Marek and Kelanie followed Pr'rtr down a spiral ramp, deep into the basement of the Tendeysharhi embassy. At the bottom, the blue-green bioluminescent strips had been removed for the most part; the air was damper and even more oxygen-rich than Millimillenarian standard. Kelanie swallowed as her throat burned. Pr'rtr approached a blank wall, turned to face the two humans. `I'm aware that you, Marek, have spent most of your life on Millimillenary, and are familiar with unusual xenoforms; and that you, Kelanie, work for the Bureau of Procuration, and that you are no stranger to aliens; I want to remind you that the rumors of the Moridani being bloodthirsty, maniacal killers are completely untrue, despite their appearance.' Marek replied, `You can disregard anything you've heard about Humans taking NoSan'No'Os propaganda literally. We know how to listen to what a Bureaucracy tells us.' Pr'rtr slitted his eyes, lashed his tail and turned back to face the blank wall. It rippled and developed a spiral pattern of grooves which spread out from the middle, gradually erasing the wall until it had vanished completely. Beyond it was darkness; Kelanie's translator-eyepiece, viewing in the infra-red range, outlined a massive shape at the far end of the darkened room. She heard a soft murmuring sound, as if there were a group of people holding a private discussion in the darkness. Over this susurration, a soft voice spoke in perfectly-accented Terrestrial Anglic. `Come in, please. My name is Tsiry-Feylen-Kendr-Tariy.' Kelanie stepped into the gloom with Marek following nervously behind her. The murmuring conversations were coming from the Moridani, who shifted slightly, giving the impression of something with the mass of a large horse. The voices diminished in volume until only the occasional sibilant hiss or glottal click could be heard... with a peculiar scraping sound underlying them. Tsiry-Feylen-Kendr-Tariy smoothly rose from her crouching position, revealing her full height, and moved over to a wall; an arm flexed out from her front, touched a contact, and as the light levels slowly increased, her form was revealed by degrees. Despite herself, Kelanie drew back slightly, bumping into Marek. She - Tsiry-Feylen - was shaped something like a six-legged centaur; a pair of thin, double-jointed arms mounted at the front; slick grey flesh patterned in tiny scales that glittered in the faint light. The attitude of the legs, the placing of the hooves and ankles hinted at an ancestor with radial symmetry, although she had a head at one end and a tail at the other. Kelanie stood there, fascinated; someone had once put forward a theory that stated that intelligent life in the galaxy had, so far, been distinguished by three distinct waves, of which humanity and related races were part of the third; the Moridani would have been part of the first wave. Tsiry-Feylen was utterly unlike anything Kelanie had seen thus far on Millimillenary. The vertical mouth that divided the triangular head, mounted below a pair of large, diagonally-slitted eyes opened briefly, revealing rows of long, needle-like teeth. Suppressing the urge to turn and run, Kelanie realised that the Moridani was smiling at her, and that the scraping sound was the noise made by the teeth as they slid past one another. `Pretty nasty, eh?' Tsiry-Feylen said without using a translator. Kelanie thought that she recognised the voice. `Have we met before?' she enquired politely. Tsiry-Feylen bared her fangs again, bobbed her head. She replied in a different voice, `We're sure that we have...' - she continued in her first voice - `dearest.' Kelanie was certain now. Marek looked like he was about to panic and run, so Kelanie took his arm and murmured reassuringly, `It's okay... she's on our side. Tsiry-Feylen, this is Marek Waddell, former owner of Waddell's Emporium of Extremely Fashionable Attire and Quite Nice Ice Cream Parlour.' Tsiry-Feylen splayed her front pair of feet slightly, bowing. `Marek, one of these is-' `One of these? How many are there?' Tsiry-Feylen settled to the floor, folding up neatly like a cat, and replied, `Each Moridani has four personalities, each shared with four other Moridani... although, as there aren't as many of us as there used to be, this practice has declined. Miss Camden is familiar with our "Tsiry" aspect...' Kelanie smiled. `As I was about to say; Marek, I'd like you to meet Robyn Starkey, Section Head of the Bureau of Procuration, Syndaine office. My immediate superior. What I'd like to know is: how do you get away with it?' `Teleconferencing has been popular for hundreds of years. Quite a few government officials, including humans, hold two, sometimes even three positions, under assumed names. When they have to put in an appearance, they do so by video filtered through a cosmetic graphics program. We rarely have time for anything fancy, image-wise, because apart from our partisanship, we hold two positions in the Human government and one in the NoSan'No'Os Bureaucracy.' Kelanie looked around for something to sit on, saw nothing appropriate, and settled for sitting on the floor, cross-legged. Marek sat next to her. Tsiry-Feylen stared at them for a few moments; Kelanie found that she had no idea of what Moridani kinesics meant; she would have to rely on what she could pick up from Tsiry-Feylen's voice. `We're afraid that we have some bad news for you. The NoSan'No'Os have completed their initial Evaluation of humanity, a study that began almost ninety years ago. Our position in the NoSan'No'Os Bureaucracy has allowed us to steal a copy of the preliminary recommendation.' `Which is?' `In about a month's time, the NoSan'No'Os are going to drop about a dozen large asteroids on Earth, followed by another thirty that will be dropped into your sun at regular intervals. This will coincide with the arrest and subsequent termination of all free humans anywhere in the NoSan'No'Os Dominion. We must say we're impressed; we haven't seen a reaction this extreme since they discovered that there were a few of us Moridani still on the loose.' There was a moments' silence while they digested this. Finally, Marek said, `Do you expect us to believe that?' Tsiry-Feylen held out her hands and shrugged - a very human gesture. `The choice is yours. You have twenty-seven days.' Kelanie grasped Marek's hand, cleared her throat and said, `Do you have any proof? Something tangible?' Tsiry-Feylen drew a small card made of clouded white plastic, handed it to Kelanie. `Nothing that can't be easily faked. The best way we can think to convince you is to show you the activity in your asteroid belt, where the Militia are, even as we speak, preparing the projectiles that will be - ' Tsiry-Feylen paused, seeing Kelanie and Marek absorbed in reading the documentation. Kelanie had placed the card against her notepad's scanner, which read it and translated the NoSan'No'Os Tertiary into Anglic. The message was short: Office of Risk Evaluation: Date: 9327685491767632151 Interdepartmental Action Code: AF1CF3C7F8C65E98A06ED63C87E542C Authorisation: 1110011001010001001001001001001001011110101001 NOTE TO ALL DEPARTMENTS Preliminary evaluation of N-FRF-Knh/K indicates threat potential of 97.8 percent. This is based on evidence of innate territorial habits and research into artificial intelligence which is currently in progress. Preliminary Recommendation: level six termination, to commence immediately, pending availability of resources. Any further enquiries can be directed to the Office of Threat Termination on Sthelanar. Work Group: T760 Cost Code : 568384 `You can ignore the last part; the Office of Threat Termination report all such enquiries to the Militia as a matter of course.' Tsiry-Feylen said. Marek and Kelanie exchanged glances. `You think that Barber-xeno was after us?' she murmured. `It would make sense... round up the strays...' Marek faced the Moridani. `Okay. If this is all true, then what the hell can we do about it?' Tsiry-Feylen's mouth twitched, exposing a few glittering teeth for a moment. `You could warn everyone, which would cause panic. You could do nothing, which would mean that your planet would be destroyed with most of the inhabitants still on it. You could try mounting an attack on the Bythians in your asteroid belt, which could prove difficult given your lack of spacecraft and weapons, and would most likely fail, as most attacks on Bythians do. Or you help with what is being done; get as many important people off Earth as possible and hide them.' Kelanie was indignant at this. `Important? Who gets to decide who is important and who isn't?' Tsiry-Feylen's head swivelled to face her, eyes narrowed. `We do. We are financing this operation. We are hiding your people in our bases and are assuming the responsibility for making sure that they remain hidden. We are saving any humans who can assist us in our war against the NoSan'No'Os. We do not have the resources to hide everyone. We have been working on this since before you were born, Miss Camden; we can only progress when we are entirely sure that there is no risk of discovery.' Kelanie felt a numbing chill settle over her as the scope of Tsiry-Feylen's revelation sank in. `We have been hiding from the NoSan'No'Os for over seven thousand years; we have never exposed ourselves to the possibility of discovery to the degree that we are doing at the moment. The only reason we are doing this: we believe that humanity can, one day, help us. Now, this is what we are going to do next...' * * * * * `The closest a Bythian has ever come to creating a work of art or evincing a sense of humour was when the level three sub-commander in charge of the assault force on the Moridani-held world of Triple-S ordered a bomb-pattern that spelled out the words "Up Yours, Ugly" in Moridani Phandric.' - Foley's `Unofficial Documents' Three large, featureless white-metal shapes made their way down the crowded street. The crowds parted before them, breaking on the larger of the three like water on the prow of an icebreaker, flowed past the two that followed, the rift quickly healing close behind. The first shape was about the size of an elephant; it had four strong, stumpy legs at the narrow base of an inverted trapezoid shape; two double-jointed mechanical arms were neatly folded at the front. This shape moved deftly, occasionally whirling around to check that the other two were following, utilising an involved sequence of steps, turning back when it was sure that they were still in tow. They were smaller and obviously of a different species; bilaterally symmetrical, two arms and legs. Where the first shape was almost three metres from the ground to the forepeak, the others were squat shapes just under two metres tall. One of them seemed to be unsure of the correct method of walking; it stopped with one foot in the air every few steps. `Crash it, what's wrong with the damn thing NOW?' Kelanie snarled. `You're fighting it, Kelanie; try dropping force-feedback a few notches-' `Or turn it off altogether. You may get tired, but it won't matter in the short term.' Kelanie sighed, hunted for the force-feedback control mounted somewhere on the inner face of her land-mate battle suit and replied, `I can understand why you need a suit like this, Tsiry-Feylen; but why the hell do we-' `The Bythians are probably looking for you by now. We stand a better chance of getting away with this if they think we are someone else.' `You don't mean that we will have to wear these suits until we get back to Earth?' Kelanie wailed. She had only just become used to the new-vinyl smell of the inside of the land-mate; the spread of the leg-spaces was rubbing painfully on the insides of her thighs, and she half-expected to be bow-legged when she finally divested herself of the thing. `Once inside the ship and safely away, you can take them off. We, however, that is, we-myself, won't risk exposure until we have safely reached the Moridani base in the asteroids... assuming that the Threat Termination team haven't lobbed it into the sun... anyway, we are quite comfortable in this suit. We-myself have spent weeks at a stretch in it.' `We-yourself are probably a couple of cans short of a six-pack.' Kelanie muttered. Tsiry-Feylen laughed. `By your standards, we probably are. Uh-oh - quiet, children...' They were passing four Bythians who were checking ID bracelets. Tsiry-Feylen had been able to remove Kelanie's bracelet, providing a similar one which now hung on the outside of Kelanie's suit. The Bythians grabbed one arm of Tsiry-Feylen's armour carelessly, dragging it closer to read the pattern of dots on the tag that hung on the leading edge of her suit. They assumed a marginally more respectful attitude after they had read it; Tsiry-Feylen was posing as an important government official. She snatched her arm from the Bythian's grasp, made an involved gesture with it, and the four Militia stepped aside. They proceeded; Kelanie angled one of her shoulder-boom-mounted cameras backwards and watched them. The Bythians were ignoring them. `Will these disguises get us past the ExPort authority?' She asked. `We were hoping that you wouldn't ask that.' Tsiry-Feylen sighed. `We think so. We have used this disguise before, and have never encountered any problems. Mind you, we didn't have two pesky humans in tow then. We are prepared to fight if necessary, although small- arms combat with Bythians is something we'd rather watch on video than participate in.' Kelanie's suit paused, one foot in the air, lagging behind Marek and Tsiry-Feylen for a moment, then catching up again. `(Damn it!) Do you think we'll be in a shoot-out? I feel like a sitting duck in this thing! Does it have any weapons?' Tsiry made a reproaching tsk-tsk sound. `You're supposed to be a Bureau of Procuration operative, not some gun-nut weapons system expert! Your suit doesn't have any energy- weapons, but if you turned the force-feedback up all the way, you could easily put your fist through the side of a NoSan'No'Os transport. That also applies to the leg-movements; with the force- feedback on full, you could leap up to a third-storey balcony, or jump off the roof and land safely. So be careful.' The thought of being that strong appealed to Kelanie; when they stopped at an intersection to let a line of what appeared to be Parkry children pass by, she started experimenting with the controls. First, she played with the response-time fine-tuning, and found that this was the cause of her suit's lagging behind on some steps and anticipating others. When it was tuned properly, she could almost feel it slip into place. She flexed the fingers in front of the shoulder-boom-mounted cameras, bent the knees. It suddenly felt like a second skin; a feeling of energetic euphoria that she'd only experienced previously when absorbed in a complex gymnastic routine. Inside the suit, she grinned, turned the force-feedback control to the `x4' position and tapped her toes. The suit responded, jumping three feet off the ground, landing on the flat, splay-toed feet, the knees bending automatically to absorb the shock. `Yahooo!' she shouted, turning the control to the `x8' position and leaping eight metres into the air, performing a somersault and landing on the other side of the street in a gap barely big enough to accommodate the suit. `Kelanie!' Tsiry-Feylen froze her suit by remote control. `If you want to draw attention to yourself, you can take all your clothes off and run down the street. Try to keep our situation in mind, please.' * * * * * Tsiry-Feylen poked a camera-boom around the corner, scanned the broad courtyard outside the ExPort. Two more booms, mounted on Kelanie's and Marek's suits respectively, appeared just underneath Tsiry-Feylen's. There were at least thirty Bythians arranged around the courtyard, and even to Kelanie's untrained perception, they weren't merely on guard. Someone had anticipated them. `Wait here, children... We've arranged a reception for our fascist friends - some Pthalklin Ervae - when we give the signal, we want you to run straight into the ship.' Even as Tsiry-Feylen spoke, Kelanie saw a movement in the decorative shrubbery arranged around the triangular doorways of the geodesic dome... then she realised that the movement wasn't caused by someone hiding in the bushes; the movement _was_ the bushes. Six plants, shaped like large agapanths, a central shaft topped by what appeared to be a large red pineapple, moving on round platforms that hovered a few centimetres off the ground, emerged from the less ambulatory shrubs. Sharp, compressed- air sounds came from within their broadly-spread leaves; half the Bythians fell to the ground with large holes blown through them. Thin yellow blood sprayed about. The remaining Bythians immediately returned the fire, microwave weapons causing three of the plants to burst into flame. There was a massive explosion in the corner nearest the Moridani and the humans; flat pieces of concrete chipped off the courtyard corner wall clattered off their armour. When Tsiry-Feylen dared to put a boom-camera around the corner again, she saw two of the plants nudging the bodies of the Bythians into a heap. She gestured to Kelanie and Marek and dodged nimbly around the corner. They ran after her, pausing only briefly when she stopped to confer with the two surviving Pthalklin Ervae. Inside the ExPort building, everything had stopped at the sound of the explosion. Parkry seated next to their dataposts regarded them blankly. Kelanie went to leap over the short barrier that laterally divided the room in two; she seemed to strike an invisible, flexible barrier and fell on her behind with a crash. `What the line-noise was THAT?' Marek stumped over to help her up, reached out and twanged a set of invisible wires strung over the barrier. `Monofilament. Lucky we're wearing these suits, or we'd be on the other side - in thin slices.' He walked over to the gap in the barrier, and kicked out the door. It flew across the room and embedded itself in the far wall, end first, with a short metallic screech. The Parkry hopped back nervously as the two passed through the gap and ran up the ramp into the ship. They turned left at the first corridor inside the ship, and found themselves face-to-face with a Bythian, who was raising his weapon. Without thinking, Kelanie lashed out with one of the suit's arms, back-handing the Bythian flat against the wall with terrible force, killing it instantly. She crouched to pick up the plastic gun, examined it. It looked something like an automatic rifle, with a long rectangular magazine jammed in the base; there was nothing that obviously resembled a trigger. She shrugged within the suit and bashed the gun against the starship wall, snapping the barrel. She angled the two shoulder-mounted booms forward, extended them to their full reach of two metres and tip-toed up the corridor, peeking up the side corridors as they progressed. As they approached the end of the corridor, they heard the hum of a Bythian microwave weapon, coming from the right-hand branch of the intersection. Immediately afterwards, a grey shape flew through the air, past them and down the left-hand branch of the intersection. A large white shape ran after the grey shape; they barely had time to recognise Tsiry-Feylen in her battle-suit. They ran to the intersection, and saw Tsiry-Feylen holding a Bythian by its legs, batting its head against the wall with measured ferocity. When the Bythian came apart, she dropped the pieces she was holding, stamped on the head with both of the battle-suit's front legs, abruptly span through one hundred and eighty degrees and punched out a wall panel with both hands. She reached in, extracted the dented panel and tossed it over their heads. Kelanie heard a soft squelching sound, and turned a boom- mounted camera back to see a Bythian, crushed against the further end of the corridor behind the wall panel. While Tsiry-Feylen was working on the machinery behind the panel, tearing cables out and poking fingers into control-spaces, another Bythian appeared down the corridor, at the ship's hatch. It levelled its weapon at something outside; that something slashed at the Bythian's neck, severing the axe-shaped head and knocking its weapon aside. One of the Pthalklin Ervae hovered up the ramp and through the hatch. The entire ship shuddered, rocked; the suits' internal gyros keeping balance. Tsiry-Feylen darted between them, off down another corridor. They ran after her. The ship had lifted with its hatches still open; the air thinned, vanishing completely when they had reached low orbit, except for the room in which they had secured the Pthalklin Ervae. Tsiry- Feylen had been rushing from one end of the ship to the other, checking the most likely hiding places. `If there are any more Bythians, they should be dead by now. The ship had landed only four hours ago, so there shouldn't have been anyone else on board. When we've reached our allocated departure point, we-myself will have finished searching the entire ship; we can close the hatches and refill the ship's air supply from the stores.' Kelanie's suit gestured to Marek. `Come on, I want to see Millimillenary from space!' they stamped off down the half-lit corridor while Tsiry-Feylen stalked through the ship, kicking service-hatches open, thrusting her camera-booms rapidly in and out of the circular doors of the berths, finding nothing. There were no more Bythians on board. Kelanie and Marek were leaning out of a hatch in the underside of the ship, into open space. Below them, the golden surface of Millimillenary was spread out, the faint grey gridwork of the city visible even from this altitude. Their suit radios beeped, and Tsiry-Feylen said, `Heads up, children, we're about to close the hatches.' They pulled back into the corridor as the black-glass hatchway rippled into existence. Almost immediately, their suits lost some of the stiffness that came with vacuum. They made their way back to what Tsiry-Feylen thought was the pilot's ward-room, and when the air pressure was adequate, they gratefully divested themselves of the battle-suits. `Ohhh... praise "Bob", that's a relief.' said Marek, stretching. Tsiry-Feylen made no move to take off her suit. Kelanie reached for her toes, straightened, arched her back and wondered how Tsiry-Feylen could stand to be confined in her suit for such long periods. The Moridani spoke through an audio port mounted on the side of her suit: `We're half-way home, children, although you should both know that the most dangerous part is still ahead of us. We'd like you to set up a recorder on the ship's communications column to monitor the trade channels. Then go and make sure the Pthalklin Ervae is safe. We've prepared a brief knowledge-base for you, describing most of the dangerous features of this ship; familiarise yourselves with it.' She handed them a white plastic card. `Meanwhile, we are going to spy on the enemy.' Kelanie and Marek sat cross-legged on top of a shipping container in the cargo bay, where the Pthalklin Ervae (whose name, apparently, was `Kayren-Kayley') had broken open about a dozen plastic bags filled with soil, and was spreading it evenly across the floor. On closer examination, the Ervae was not really an intelligent plant, but rather a living hive, host to thousands of tiny insects acting in communion with the plant, communicating via chemical tags. Individually, the insects were very simple; each acted out complex, genetically-programmed motions, forming the basis of an intricate object-oriented intelligence program. Conversations - conducted between Kelanie's notepad and the plant's spectrographic interpreter- were hampered by the plant's slow reaction-times. `No, I don't see it as a handicap,' Marek said, `But if your species has such slow reflexes, then how can you effectively support yourselves as mercenaries?' Kelanie's notepad converted his words into NoSan'No'Os Tertiary and transmitted them to the Pthalklin Ervae's interpreter, which rendered them as a pattern of pheromones, spraying at the insects that teemed in the diagonal interstices of the pineapple-shaped top. An airborne caste of the insects replied, dancing and spreading pheromones against the interpreter's reading plate, which then spoke to Kelanie's notepad, in Tertiary. `The next-to-smallest components of us are the equivalent of your computers.' it said. `Once instructed, they can operate with great speed. We have several sets of components that know how to react to situations, and we cycle through these sets, modifying them as necessary. The largest delays occur when we have to communicate with animals who don't have the requisite sense-organs to read our chemical expressions directly.' Kelanie sighed. `Typical.' Kayren-Kayley slowly crawled off her platform, wriggling her knobbed roots into the soil. * * * * * *** Connecting to port 71 of server telfi.arifel.eygow.fila.Bythe *** You are not permitted to use a HISTORY_FILE *** Welcome to the Bythenet Relay Network, napaiSUB 997193 *** Your host is telfi.arifel, running version 9.2.7a.kr *** Couldn't open /u0/severe/arifel/usr/napaiSUB/997193/brcrc: No such file or directory *** There are 22113 users on 9171 servers *** 74 users have connection to the Interdiction Conference Zone MOTD - telfi.arifel Message of the Day - MOTD - MOTD - results are in for the di-line afterscan species Psym MOTD - competition; as usual, a draw, conditions are being MOTD - reevaluated and the competition will be restarted for MOTD - the nine units that finished. MOTD - End of /MOTD command. /list *** Channel Users Topic *** +gblf 2 !@#&*!*$*** +bode 4 nargers on line NOW *** #qux 1 *** #foo 7 Any Way the Wind Blows eh! *** +life 28 don't talk 2 us about life *** Prv 7 *** Prv 4 *** +SubConf 3 don't say we didn't warn you *** +Crossdress 1 *** ^C /join +SubConf 04:04:91:72:991 ****** napaiSUB 997193 has joined channel +SubConf ****** users on channel +SubConf: @997193 @200211 @661528 @000077 <661528> oh dear, its 997193 <200211> (bums) to the wall! <997193> oh shut up, you two. <000077> How goes it on the Dominion's latest trouble spot, 997193? <200211> (snicker) <997193> we are pulling the plug, didn't you hear? level six <997193> termination. <661528> What? Those Poor Little N-FRF-Knh/K? Level SIX? <997193> you have obviously never worked with them, 661528. swine <997193> of the first order. i'll be glad when they are all wiped <997193> out. you just can't rely on them to behave predictably <997193> from one season to the next. <661528> Never Trust Anything With Less Than Six Legs. <200211> and how many legs do *_you_* have, 661528? o=o <000077> Wasn't that operation supposed to be taking place in about <000077> six month's time, 997193? <997193> it was. there has been so much bother with the second and <997193> third threat evaluation that Up-On-High ordered us to cut <997193> our losses and trash the whole species. as soon as. <200211> (gulp) crikey! <000077> If Up-On-High has taken an interest in it, then it's all <000077> for the best... as long as the Circle remains unbroken... <000077> so, now that you *_officially_* have no subject planet, <000077> where next, 997193? <997193> oh, I'd like to be assigned to the Moridani sweep <997193> operation. <661528> Seriously? You Think There Are Still Moridani About? <000077> We KNOW that they are still about, 661528. Didn't you <000077> catch the debate on +paleolithic last year? It was <661528> No, I Missed It. <000077> established that there are between five and twelve original <000077> Moridani still at large. A subset of the di-line afterscan <000077> debate is being devoted to locating them in serial-time, <000077> after which we will `slash-and-burn'. <661528> We Should Have Done That Three Thousand Years Ago. <997193> concurrence. concurrence. ****** napaiSUB 200211 has left the conference * * * * * `Gulp. Crikey.' muttered Tsiry-Feylen. After the ships' first shift from physical-space to probable-space and back, Kelanie and Marek had found some thick padded mats in a hold of the ship and were lying on them, in the ward-room, after an unsuccessful attempt at making love on the curved floor of the berths. `If we're going to put together a bed, it might as well be in the ward-room,' Kelanie said. Marek hesitated; (despite being brought up on Millimillenary, he was not comfortable with the idea of appearing naked before xenoforms, even Tsiry-Feylen); but only for a moment. The ship's communication channels hissed faintly, the sound broken by the occasional beep to indicate that the ship had passed out of the effective range of one gravitic beacon and into another. Twice, a voice on the channels had spoken, in NoSan'No'Os Tertiary; Marek translated. `They're asking us if we need assistance. They've assumed that the Bythians killed us.' `Meaning that they can't accept the possibility that we killed the Bythians?' Marek nodded. `They're more hide-bound than I thought. How they've kept hold of control for this long is a mystery to me.' Tsiry-Feylen entered, still wearing her battle suit, docilely followed by Kayren. She replied to Kelanie's musings: `It's because the situation is being handled locally, so far. As soon as it is referred up to a Parkry that doesn't mind admitting that it has no idea of what to do next, then it will become a matter for the Millimillenarian NapaiSUB and the Bythians. That's when we may be in trouble.' Tsiry-Feylen stalked over to the control board, poked fingers into a group of control-spaces, deactivating video screens, muting the hissing of the communication channels. She continued; `We have to announce a slight change of plans, children.' Kelanie retorted, `Would you _please_ stop calling us that?' Still working at the ranked banks of control columns, Tsiry-Feylen waved the camera-booms of her suit in a manner reminiscent of the pattern used, by the insectoid Kaelen, to indicate amusement. `If you wish. As we were saying: we will stop over at the asteroid base to visit my sister before we make for Earth. The situation has changed slightly.' Marek left off kissing Kelanie's neck to ask, `When will you tell us exactly what's going on? What we will do when we reach Earth?' Tsiry-Feylen sat her suit down, the legs folding up underneath like a cat's. `If we told you everything, if we gave you the statistics that govern our movements against the NoSan'No'Os, you would both probably walk out of the airlock without your suits. Be content with knowing that you will both, most likely, be able to live out your allotted lifetimes. Which is more than can be said for the rest of humanity.' Kelanie lay back on the pile of matting, staring at the ceiling of the ward-room, and said, `I've been meaning to ask you about that, Robyn.' In her suit, Tsiry-Feylen smiled, baring her needle teeth. `If we are stopping over on Earth, how much of a risk would it be to let a few of our most trusted friends know what's going to happen, and invite them onboard? There's room on this ship for at least a hundred people.' Abruptly, Tsiry-Feylen's suit cracked down the middle and opened like the two halves of a hotdog bun. She stepped out, blinking in the watery yellow sodium light, and shook her legs in pairs. `We have no objection to that... if you would like to prepare some text mail messages - we can't risk video, because even humans can tap into that - we will send them through a secure channel, after making sure that the NoSan'No'Os monitors in the mail network can't pick up on what we are doing by reading them.' Kelanie was surprised. `Do you mean to say that the NoSan'No'Os manage to read ALL the mail?' Tsiry-Feylen grinned, exposing a frightening array of dental work. `That's why they have a machine monitoring it. If it wasn't for the organisational skills of the NoSan'No'Os Artificial intelligence and the diligence of its sub-units, the Dominion would have collapsed long ago.' `How many people can we rescue?' Tsiry-Feylen spread her six- fingered hands in a gesture of apology. `Limit it to six or less. We have already allocated the rest of the space for cargo; there is a lot of equipment that we have to get off Earth before Threat Termination blow it.' Marek glanced at Kelanie, and then said slowly, `That isn't going to happen for six months, though, isn't it?' Tsiry-Feylen spun about nimbly on her six legs, gestured to the Pthalklin Ervae and left without answering, followed by Kayren. Marek and Kelanie glanced worriedly at each other. Some twenty hours later, when Kelanie and Marek had decided to give the spherical sleeping-berths a second chance, Tsiry-Feylen raced past in her battle-armour, shouting to them; `Suit up. We have company.' They disentangled themselves and scrambled for the suits that were kneeling, opened like clam- shells, in a corner of the ward-room. Over the suit radios, Tsiry-Feylen brought them up to date. `The ship reentered physical-space just inside the asteroid belt as expected; what we didn't count on was the entire belt being thick with Bythian scouts. We understand that they are still preparing the assault on Earth. There's a scout approaching, crew of four, informing us that it is about to dock. We haven't responded yet. Come down to the lower fore airlock.' When they got there, Tsiry-Feylen was replacing a panel on the side of the hatch, hammering the lock-bolts home with her flattened palm. `We're going to have to lure them out and then blow the hatch; we hope the decompression will kill them all. We want you both to back up this corridor, just there, around that corner; if one of them gets past, kick the stuffing out of it.' Tsiry-Feylen's suit crouched down directly in front of the hatch, clutching a handful of sharp metal fragments. There was a minute's silence, and then the plastic of the hatchway creaked under an unfamiliar stress. Kelanie, braced against a data column in the passageway, poked the tip of a boom-mounted camera around the corner, patching the image through to Marek's suit. The black glass door of the hatch rippled away, and two Bythians leapt through, weapons drawn. They didn't recognise Tsiry-Feylen's crouching tank-shape for a moment; a third Bythian had stepped through the hatch when the first two whipped up their guns. Too late; Tsiry-Feylen flicked the fragments at them with as much strength as her suit could impart; they punched through the Bythian's heads and necks, embedding themselves in the wall behind them. As the bodies collapsed, she set off the explosives that she'd packed into the hatchway; there was a sharp crack, and a shock-wave pushed Tsiry-Feylen's suit back against the wall, where she grabbed hold of a stanchion. The shock-wave suddenly reversed as air rushed out, the hatch crackling and buzzing as it tried to cover over the enlarged hole. The scream of escaping air quickly diminished to a hiss, and then stopped as the hatch-field closed. Tsiry-Feylen was checking an external camera on her suit monitors; she relayed the images to Kelanie and Marek, who watched as the torn globe of the Bythian scout ship spun off into the distance; the tiny figure of the fourth Bythian wriggling in open vacuum, gradually becoming still. Among the debris that drifted around in the trailing LaGrange point of Mars was a rock, about two metres along its longest axis. Indistinguishable from the other orbital rubbish, it hung there, apparently inert, until it decided to distinguish itself from its more sedentary companions by suddenly rotating forty degrees, aiming itself at a spot somewhere in the outer fringe of the solar system. Another rock, in the leading LaGrange point, did the same. They were now both pointing to a spot about twelve million miles above the plane of the ecliptic; inside each rock, mass-sensors triangulated, fixing the position of one of the NoSan'No'Os projectiles. Satisfied that the asteroid was where it was supposed to be (although not where they would prefer it), the small but capable artificial intelligences in the spy-satellites oriented on another asteroid, and another. When they were satisfied that they had correctly placed all the known threats, they did a general half-hearted scan for any other sizable objects that weren't where they should be. Surprisingly, they found one, an asteroid of some two thousand and seventy tonnes that, according to their very accurate and up-to-date database, should be at least two million miles further out. Then they spotted another. Then four more. Approaching a state that could best be described as `alarm', the two spy-satellites sent a coded signal on the gravitic channel that was, until recently, used by the NoSan'No'Os as the main data link for Earth-bound communications. Use of this frequency would arouse the least amount of suspicion if the Bythians were listening in. The spy-satellites knew that the intended recipient of the message would always be listening. Suddenly, faster than even electronic reflexes could allow for, the spherical shape of a Bythian scout shot past, loosing a stream of stone chips at high velocity, battering the spy-satellite into inactivity. `How many asteroids are there in the asteroid belt?' Marek asked. `...don't know,' Kelanie replied absently, scanning the starfield. `hundreds of thousands, I suppose... what I'd like to know is, where are they all?' `We've seen your illustrations of the asteroid belt,' Tsiry-Feylen commented, `and we can assure you that the ratio of rocks to empty space is several magnitudes smaller than they would have us believe. Like physical reality... it's mostly vacuum.' She stood at the control column, twitching fingers thrust into the control-spaces, slowly rotating the ship, looking for a particular pattern of stars. She aligned a single glittering spot on the screen in front of her, rotated the ship on its forward axis and drove it forward. While one hand monitored the ship's velocity, the other activated the communications system embedded inside the front of her battle suit, which was propped open next to the control column. Two of her voices chattered rapidly, and were answered by two others from the comms system. Kelanie's notepad could make nothing of it; the exchanges were too rapid, switching back and forth with inhuman speed. The spot on the screen that represented their destination hadn't changed size appreciably; Tsiry-Feylen left off chattering for a moment, stuck all her fingers into a bank of control-spaces and said, `Hang on, children.' Marek grabbed Kelanie, who, having nothing better to do, wrapped her arms around him. The ship lurched forward, spilling them backwards, over the pile of mats. They had enough time to struggle to their knees when the ship moved in a different direction, shifting from underneath them. Kayren, mounted in a corner as unobtrusively as an office pot-plant, merely swayed slightly. Tsiry-Feylen, who had remained upright through all this, gestured towards the screen. `Here we are.' The screen was filled with rock-textured grey, sharp black highlights slowly shifting as the asteroid rotated. Tsiry-Feylen made a few delicate adjustments to the ship's attitude, matching spin, and then nudged it forward. Suddenly, off to the left, the featureless asteroid face split open along seven radial lines, the triangular segments folding back like flower petals. The now-familiar white shape of a Moridani battle-suit emerged, legs kicking, holding a struggling something in its arms. The Moridani kicked the shape - a Bythian in a torn pressure suit - away, the reaction of which pushed the battle-suit back towards the hatch. The arms extended as far as possible, scrabbling against the hatchway petals. The chattering sound came from Tsiry-Feylen's suit resumed briefly. Tsiry-Feylen sighed, and said, `It seems that Threat Termination have decided to use this asteroid after all. Kendr-Saranaxio-Parndta-Athanasius - our dear sister - has dealt with the scouts... but Threat Termination will soon wonder why this asteroid isn't moving. We're going to try and bluff them.' *** Open channel *** < Threat termination here. < Why isn't projectile 607 moving, team? > it had humans in it. nine of them. they were armed. < Can you tell if the structure was human-built? Any signs of < Xenotechnology? Report. > their living quarters were damaged beyond recovery. what we saw > looked human-built. we had to set off one of the CCI charges at > close range. they got two of us. < (sigh) This just goes to confirm NAPAISub's evaluation. Estimate < new impact time - assuming that you *_can_* get it to impact? > we can. we have three charges left; once we get the projectile up > to 19.5 km/sec, path is 2.85 by ten to the sixth kilometres... > give us, ah, 40 hours, 35 minutes, 45 seconds... from... now. < Marked. This is the last one, team; once you have confirmed < trajectory, tag it and assign it to Tracking. *** Close channel *** `That's slack. For Bythians, that is slack.' Kendr-Saranaxio was a slightly smaller version of her sister, moving with sharp, efficient grace. She shut down the video-simulator, which she had played like a puppet-master, transmitting a convincing portrayal of a Bythian scout, mimicking its phrases. `We don't think that they believe us.' Tsiry-Feylen spoke to her in rapid-fire bursts of Moridani; Kendr-Saranaxio replied with a single word, which sounded something like `fs'yen'. Both Moridani bared their teeth in what Kelanie assumed were smiles. Kendr-Saranaxio summoned her battle-suit, which walked into the docking bay of its own accord, opening as it entered. `Stay here, children. We are going to set off some fireworks.' * * * * * ComonCurensy Isotope is another one of those annoying off-shoots of their plastics industry, according to my sources on Syndaine. The NoSan'No'Os manufacture it in foundries that orbit very close to certain suns; solar power is somehow stored in a sort of semi-stable carbon lattice... yes, that *_is_* rather vague; this is because CCI - a monopoly on efficient power-conversion technology- is one of the three things that keep the NoSan'No'Os in control. There's no percentage in giving that sort of information away. Aln Riker, from `Riker's Defense', NoSaNoOs Interdiction Trial Records Kelanie, Marek and Kayren were huddled together in a corner of a room adjacent to the docking bay of the Moridani base. The humans were in their suits again; they were all listening to Kendr- Saranaxio counting down to the detonation of the Bythian scout's CCI charges that had been set three kilometres from the asteroid. Marek and Kelanie were discussing the ease with which they had overcome the Bythians so far. `I once saw a nine-hour epic video that relates to this,' Kelanie said. `It was about a world that was so inhospitable that the inhabitants became natural warriors... they spread throughout the galaxy, but once they'd conquered everyone in sight, they deteriorated, because they lacked real opposition.' Marek agreed. `The Bythians on Millimillenary were a pretty soft bunch. You'd hear reports of how a team of six Bythians had taken on an entire planet of dissidents and wiped them out completely; yet, there were always messages on SubVerSiveNet about how Bythians kept blowing their feet off, because they didn't know how to operate their weapons properly.' A soft pinging tone indicated that Kayren had something to say. They waited politely for the translation: `The Bythian reputation is well-founded; during the Second Expansion, they were ferocious, efficient and almost without regard for their safety. It was a common technique for a Bythian to steer a scout-ship, loaded with CCI charges, into the middle of a group of enemy shuttles and set off the charges. We partly attribute their decline to a lack of suitable opposition and partly to their maturity as a species. When they were created - and this was told to me by a Bythian just before I killed it - they felt that they had no racial identity, and thus had less to live for.' Kelanie asked, `Just how powerful are these CCI charge things?' Tsiry-Feylen said over the radio: `Brace yourselves, children; you're about to find out.' There were three distant thumping sounds; echoes of the shock waves, transmitted through the thin layer of gases that were a result of the detonation of the CCI charges. There was a pause, during which Marek said, `Well, that wasn't so-' and then the entire base shifted as if God had kicked it. There was a crash as some unsecured containers fell over; the entire base creaked as if it were being twisted. Kelanie felt a ghostly acceleration inside; the base was under power, moving. She unclamped her suit from Marek's, stood up and tried to open the door to the docking bay. It was locked. She raised a boom-mounted camera to the small, round window mounted in the centre of the door, peered through. She could see a corner of the open gate through which Tsiry-Feylen had steered the NoSan'No'Os ship, part of a star-field that was rolling in a dizzying fashion. Tsiry-Feylen spoke: `Okay, children, we're on our way. We will be in Earth orbit within forty hours, unless we get stopped for exceeding the speed limit. Kelanie, could you meet us in the garage, please?' A map of the Moridani base appeared on Kelanie's heads-up display, with a blue arrow marking the location of the garage. `We have been giving some thought as to your future as a partisan.' Tsiry-Feylen and Kendr-Saranaxio were sitting on rugs woven with intricate patterns in shades of grey, legs folded underneath. Kelanie was sitting inside the opened shell of her battle-armour, eyes closed. `I still don't believe any of this. I suppose that it's a failing of mine... I just can't encompass the idea of genocide. Human genocide, in particular.' Tsiry-Feylen sent some text to Kelanie's heads-up display; she grabbed the eye-piece, read it; replies to her mail-messages, from her friends. ========================================================== kel, we'll try and be there - everything has gone crazy in the past week, the NoSan'No'Os have withdrawn completely, the news services have been canceled, there isn't any fast transport available - we'll be hitching a ride with Baralascopae, remember him? the ultralight enthusiast. if we can find him. there are all kinds of wild rumors flying around, like the machine-virus one; the most persistent is the one about a giant asteroid that's about to hit the earth; we can't check this out, because all the satellite observatories are owned by the NoSan'No'Os. or were. what's going on? fondly (but nervously all the same), :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::gaeren, gen and mileva ========================================================== Kelanie closed her eyes again. Kendr-Saranaxio said, `There are two ways you can take this. You can sit back and let it happen, pretend that there's nothing you can do about it - ' Kelanie snorted cynically. `... or you can fight back.' `Is that going to save anyone?' `It's too late for that. We have seen this happen to six other civilisations... each time, we managed to save some of them, only to watch them submit to apathy. We had hoped that humanity would be different.' Kelanie sat up in her battle-suit. `I don't think you understand - I'm not a warrior; I don't know anything about weapons - I'm a prostitute! You,' pointing at Tsiry-Feylen, `pretending to be Robyn, you assigned me to Millimillenary - why me? Why not a weapons specialist, why not someone who could do a better job of attacking the NoSan'No'Os?' `Human weapons specialists no longer exist. The NoSan'No'Os proscribed human weapons research. In our limited capability with the Bureau of Procuration, we checked everyone that we could for the qualities that we need. You came out on top.' Kelanie sneered, falling back into the suit. `Oh, I'm sure that the ability to deliver a good blow-job is essential to partisanship.' Tsiry-Feylen bared her teeth. `The qualities we are looking for include adaptability, quick reflexes and a willingness to believe that the impossible can, at least, be attempted.' She got up, padded over to the side of Kelanie's suit. `We once found a human weapon specialist... he was one of the first people to travel off-world when the NoSan'No'Os arrived. He had definite ideas about what could be done and what couldn't, and he had no inclination to change those ideas or broaden his horizons.' `What happened to him?' `He joined a group of Pthalklin Ervae on Copperla, and a Bythian killed him. The point is, while he knew a great deal about military matters, his knowledge got in the way - he couldn't conceive of battles fought with asteroids, for example, and he refused to even consider the one thing that the NoSan'No'Os fear above all.' Kelanie opened her eyes. `Which is?' Tsiry-Feylen held up the video-eyepiece which had been connected to Kelanie's notepad. `Biological augmentation. Man-machine interfaces. Do you recall the first thing that the NoSan'No'Os did when they arrived?' `After taking over and disassembling our nuclear capability, they laid down guidelines for acceptable research, warning us that if we stepped outside those guidelines, they would be reinforced with a show of military strength.' `And at the top of the list of prohibited technology?' `Artificial intelligence. Genetic engineering. Virtual reality. Biological modification.' `- and the NoSan'No'Os believe that humans, even unmodified, are such a threat that you have to be wiped out completely. Can you see that they fear you almost as much as they fear us? That you have the potential to undermine them?' Kendr-Saranaxio added something in Moridani, which inspired a brief argument between the two xenoforms. Kelanie sighed, closed her suit and turned off the cameras. Kelanie was in the control room of the NoSan'No'Os Freighter that they'd hijacked, examining the mass of control-spaces that made up the communications panel. She had read everything that Tsiry-Feylen's knowledge-base had to say on the operation of NoSan'No'Os equipment, and she thought that she could operate the comms system without Tsiry-Feylen finding out. She looked over her notes again, rehearsed the patterns, and then tentatively poked her fingers into four holes, one after the other. Nothing obvious happened; she poked a finger and a thumb into the NoSan'No'Os equivalent of the `enter' key and the main monitor came to life, hissing with vertical streaks of video static. There were six particular control-spaces underneath the monitor that were concerned with adjusting the frequency of the receiver. She played with these for a few minutes, before discovering that they only altered the frequency over several pre-set channels, none of which were used by the Earth contingent of the NoSan'No'Os. She looked at her notes again, found a reference to a `global frequency unlock', activated it. Now, (apparently), the six control-spaces underneath the monitor would range up and down the nano-gravitic band, the two outside holes changing the frequency rapidly; the innermost holes fine-tuning it. She was so absorbed in this that she didn't notice Kayren glide up behind her. The Pthalklin Ervae watched over her shoulder as she searched through the available frequencies for any signal from Earth. She found a few channels saturated with red and green vertical stripes, which she recognised as encoded Bythian military transmissions; finally, towards the upper end of the frequencies that the Freighter could receive, she found a band without noise, which meant that a signal was being transmitted on that frequency. A synthesised voice was counting down, in Tertiary, from somewhere around sixty-one thousand, speaking every two minutes or so. A few rapid calculations revealed that, if this was a countdown to the asteroids' impact on Earth, they had thirty-four hours left. She jumped nervously as Kayren pushed past her, moving closer to the control panel. `Like this, Kelanie...' Kayren's translator said. Three insects- each about the size of Kelanie's thumb - floated up to the columns, darting in and out of the control-spaces, occasionally flying back to the leaf-platforms that were arranged in a fringe just below Kayren's pineapple-shaped head to pick up new pheromonal instructions then flying up to execute them. The hissing of the untuned videoscreen cleared, revealing a two-dimensional display, red Tertiary text against a black background. Kelanie lifted her video-eyepatch, watched as the words blurred and resolved into the Anglic translation: This is a NoSan'No'Os announcement. The service you are calling has been discontinued due to a breach of the Interdiction laws. `That is the primary data exchange channel from Earth.' Kayren explained. `It was.' Kelanie was in her battle-suit, drifting alongside the NoSan'No'Os Freighter bolted to the outside of the Moridani base, floating a few metres from the hatchway which Tsiry-Feylen had blasted, tethered by a thin plastic cable. She had gone outside primarily to get away from the others, to try and sort out what was going on. From what she had seen, Tsiry-Feylen wasn't deceiving her about the imminent destruction of humanity. What could she do about it? Ninety years of existence under the rule of the NoSan'No'Os had convinced mankind of the futility of opposition. The only thing she could think to do was to warn the government - what was left of it - somehow. She heard a tactful `click' over her suit phones as Marek drifted out of the hatch to join her. `Come back inside, Kelanie. I feel nervous with you floating around out here.' She reached over and took his suit's hand in hers, tugged gently on the tether with her other hand, bouncing off the edge of the hatch as they passed through it. The black glass formed behind them as they settled to the deck; air rushed in through vents ranked along the bottom of the walls. Marek opened his suit, climbed out after activating a sequence that would command it to walk back to the docking bay by itself. The suit snapped shut, shuffled around them both and moved off. Kelanie, still in her suit, followed Marek back to the berth that they'd shared on the journey to the asteroid base. She stopped outside the round doorway, still lost in thought. Marek knocked on the front of her suit. `Come on out... I know you're in there somewhere.' Abruptly, the suit opened, and Marek reached in, unbuckling the securing straps, lifting her out of the suit, trailing monitor leads and cables. One by one, he carefully peeled the contacts from her skin, kissing the places where they had been attached. She hugged him, one arm around his neck, running her hand down his back with sudden desperation, kissing him and dragging him into the berth, tears beginning to leak from beneath her tightly-closed eyelids. Her hand brushed the keys of her notepad, which began to play some soft ambient music, all crashing ocean waves, whale song and distant bass tones, as Marek stroked open the contact strip that held the front of her jumper together, pushing it aside, kissing her breasts and throat. She lay back on the mats which Marek had been sleeping on, breathing deeply, biting her lip from the effort of suppressing the despair she felt. Three large insects zipped into the room, circled over the entwined pair, and, scenting the pheromones, flew out again. Tsiry-Feylen was silent as she wiggled her fingers in the control- spaces on the flight-column of the NoSan'No'Os freighter, which turned, backed away from the asteroid (which was still heading directly towards Earth), swung around it and overtook it. Kelanie, Marek and Kayren stood behind her, watching the view in front of the ship displayed on the main screen. Kendr-Saranaxio entered, wearing a battle-suit, Kayren swaying slightly to avoid the rhinoceros-sized mass as it passed. The suit cracked open, and Kendr-Saranaxio stepped out, shaking her legs. She said, using two of her voices, `We are taking a great risk...' `but we have decided to use three-quarters of our offensive potential to divert as many asteroids as we can get away with.' `There are three more stolen freighters arriving from other parts of the galaxy;' `We intend to lift as many humans off Earth as we can,' `...before the Bythians can retaliate.' `We are going in first, though, to pick up the cargo we originally intended to.' Marek asked, `Weapons? I didn't think that humanity had any.' Kendr-Saranaxio bared her teeth at him; he grinned back. `We have been stockpiling CCI missiles on Earth for the past nine years, but we aren't going in for them;' `We have also been stockpiling information; history, music, art, that sort of thing. That stockpile is our primary concern.' Tsiry-Feylen said, tersely, in Bythian; `Yl chuev chto ty valyf, li svayen'e valyf.' Kendr-Saranaxio replied, `If it is a mistake, we don't think that there will be time to feel embarrassed about it.' She turned to the two humans and said, apologetically, `My sister has been living safely on Millimillenary for so long that she has lost her sense of adventure.' Tsiry-Feylen retorted sardonically, `My sister has been out gun-running in the asteroids for so long that she has lost her sense of proportion with regard to risk- evaluation.' Kendr-Saranaxio held up a hand, extended one finger then another, withdrawing them both; the Kaelen antennae-signal that represented amusement. Tsiry-Feylen activated a bank of six monitors to her left, screens filled with vertically-run static that faded to reveal views along the side of the Freighter. Tsiry-Feylen explained, `Missiles. We will send them ahead of us, in case there are any Bythians lurking around. We will leave them in orbit while we go down for the cargo.' Each view shuddered and changed in turn as the missiles were launched, accelerating furiously, the bright star that was their destination swelling appreciably as they watched. Kendr-Saranaxio said, `You humans can feel proud of those missiles; the drives were stolen from the NoSan'No'Os, as were the CCI warheads, but control for each missile is provided by prototype artificial intelligences, developed on Earth.' `...so you can begin to understand why the NoSan'No'Os fear you... would you like to chat with a missile?' Kelanie, relieved that something was going to be done to avert the holocaust that she still couldn't encompass, grinned at Marek. `What can you say to a missile? Good-bye?' * * * * * How to: Show a Kaelen that you appreciate the joke it told you If you don't have antennae, use your fingers. It isn't necessary to hold them up next to your temples; make a fist, extend your index finger, then extend your little finger while withdrawing the index finger; then withdraw the little finger into your fist again. A significant delay between the index and little finger movements is interpreted as sarcasm, so be careful. - `Let's Speak Kaelen', Chapter One The ExPort appeared deserted. A scrap of paper blew out of one of the gaping hangar doors, across the concrete oval of the landing pad. It fluttered, and then was swept aside as the NoSan'No'Os freighter settled to the pad as softly as a balloon. A ramp extruded from the pad, extending upwards to the hatch that opened just as the ramp reached the ship. Two Moridani battle-suits ran down the ramp, across the ExPort and into the hangar, followed by two smaller battle-suits. `They're not here yet!' Kelanie scanned with her boom-mounted cameras, moving aside as Tsiry-Feylen ran out of the hangar, followed by six crates that floated ten centimetres off the ground. Kelanie moved into the hangar, which looked like it had been the subject of a raid conducted by heavy earth-moving gear; cubicles and desks pushed over to one side of the building, two gaping holes in the back wall. Crates were piled conspicuously in the bare centre of the floor. Kendr-Saranaxio was darting from one crate to another, checking labels, occasionally slapping a crate on the side. When she did this, the crate lifted from the ground and floated towards one of the holes in the back wall. Curious, Kelanie walked around to the rear of the hangar, and watched in fascination as the crates floated in single file to a landing pad, where they popped open, revealing a white metal sphere about a metre in diameter. The spheres rotated, aligning themselves with some invisible signal, and then shot off into the sky. Faint thunder of a series of distant sonic booms sounded from above. The last of the spheres executed an impossibly sharp right-angle turn just after it launched, darting off behind Kelanie. She turned, and seeing a distant speck in the sky, increased the magnification of her suit camera. It couldn't be a NoSan'No'Os craft; it was moving too slowly. It resembled a bus, painted in camouflage green and brown, with two hazy circles wavering over each end. The sphere shot towards the machine, taking up a position underneath it. Kelanie ran back to the hangar, where Kendr-Saranaxio was giving loading instructions to the crates. `Someone's coming - I think it might be my friends.' Kendr- Saranaxio slapped the last crate, which lifted, spun around and floated off towards the freighter. `According to the telemetry from the missile, it's an antique helicopter, human technology, three people on board. It has only shortwave electronic radio, which we don't have transceivers for.' She ran back outside, to where Marek's suit stood open. Marek angled the suit back, staring at the sky, wrinkling his nose in distaste. `This air smells funny.' he said. She beckoned to him as the helicopter approached, dipping unevenly towards the grass next to the freighter. The rear rotor cut out completely, dropping the machine to the ground from a height of about three meters, the chassis crumpling slightly as it hit. Marek snapped his suit shut and Kelanie ducked as the 'copter tilted over on one side, the rotors chopping into the ground, snapping off and flying in all directions, the craft shaking like an animal in the throes of some haemotoxic poison. When it had finally settled, the rear of the machine opened haltingly, then broke off. Three figures jumped out, freezing when they saw the battle-suits approaching. Kelanie shouted through her suit's external speaker, `Gen? Gaeren?' Some ninety thousand kilometres away, a Bythian scout flew a parallel course to a roughly egg-shaped, nickel-iron asteroid, thirty-two kilometres along its longitudinal axis, turning end-over-end once every twenty-one minutes. Occasionally, the Bythian navigator glanced over the radar display, not expecting to see anything, but keeping watch all the same. Suddenly, it spotted three blips on the extreme edge of the radar field. At the next sweep, there were fifteen blips. It didn't waste any time; it thrust fingers into control-spaces, launching a volley of missiles, each no larger than a football, designed simply to get in front of a target and disintegrate, leaving a cluster of debris moving at high speed. As soon as the missiles were away, the blips scattered, changing course with a smoothness only possible for ships driven by NoSan'No'Os impeller engines. The Bythian immediately sent an alarm to Threat Termination Control, but before it could specify the nature of the problem, the first blip had arrived at its destination, directly between the asteroid and the scout. It paused there for a moment, and the Navigator considered lobbing some more missiles at it when it vanished in a pinpoint of white light, a flare of vaporised rock spreading out from the leading shoulder of the asteroid. The navigator didn't bother throwing its arms up in front of its face, which would have been a useless gesture; its last act was to launch all its missiles in the general direction of the line of blips; three projectiles made it out of the scout's launching bay before a hail of asteroid-fragments riddled the ship, tearing it to pieces. The Bythian didn't survive to see the other fourteen blips reach their target and detonate, each pushing the asteroid several degrees off its course. `Remember: military targets only! Be sure you hit nothing except bases, dumps, roads, factories, bridges, trains, ships, houses, fields, forests, buildings, vehicles, or anything else that may look suspicious.' - Handelsman Tsiry-Feylen was in the freighter, talking with two other Moridani who were on their way to Earth. `It's going to be a ,' she said with a degree of disgust. `Kendr-Saranaxio is getting sentimental... anyway, it appears that there are almost twice as many asteroids as we accounted for, so by the time you get here, the planet will be a disaster area... the system will be swarming with Bythians... we're tempted to cut and run.' `The first wave of diversion-missiles will have reached their targets by now; what is the latest projection with regards to Threat Termination finding out what's going on?' Tsiry-Feylen transmitted a complex, four-dimensional data-structure, showing how many of the eight hundred and ten scouts nurse-maiding the projectiles were expected to survive the detonation of the diversion-missiles and what the chances were of any of the survivors being able to report. `We agree... it *_is_* going to be a . We will have to arrange temporary living quarters for, how many?' `eleven hundred.' `eleven hundred humans, on Triple-S and Beckett. We can't see that many humans co-existing peacefully inside NoSan'No'Os freighters for more than a .' Tsiry-Feylen narrowed her eyes, grinning. `Maybe that is just what we need.' She closed the connection, instructed her suit to take her outside, to check on the cargo loading. She saw the five humans sitting on the edge of the loading ramp, and waved as she passed, grinning to herself when she saw the looks of surprise on the faces of Kelanie's friends. Kelanie had been fielding their questions, assisted by Marek and the odd comment thrown in by Kendr-Saranaxio as she ran past, herding crates into the freighter. Gaeren Tuuri, a tall, thin neuter who had worked with Kelanie in the Bureau of Procuration, was describing the chaos that the NoSan'No'Os withdrawal had produced. `It was like a mob of children who'd just been let out of school... what surprised me was the number of murders that occurred; you don't realise just how violent most people are underneath the thin veneer of civilisation...' he shuddered. Genesis, one of Kelanie's associates from her days in the `AnarchArtist' Terrorist/ Absurdist organisation, was scanning through the notes she'd collected during her stay on Millimillenary. He'd found a picture of the Bythian-hired assassin, the one they'd called the `Barber'. `This... up until three weeks ago, there were dozens of these Xenos all over the place, accompanied by squads of Bythians.' Mileva Barker, ex-AV thief and street-gang leader, had taken a liking to Marek; Kelanie felt obliged to warn her, in low-level street talk, to be careful with him, `... or else you will have me to answer to.' Tsiry-Feylen noted that the Hangar was now empty; she turned back to the ship, stopping at the ramp and opening up her suit. She resisted the impulse to bare her teeth at Kelanie's friends. `Unless you are expecting anyone else, we should go. It appears that we haven't been one hundred percent successful in stopping the asteroids, and our best estimates give us less than half an hour to get clear. We have successfully diverted approximately six hundred and fifty of the eight hundred and ten projectiles; the remaining few have been blown off course, but we can't be sure exactly where they'll land until they enter the atmosphere, because the Bythian scouts that survived the attacks have been trying to push them back on course.' Kendr-Saranaxio joined them, opening her suit (and scaring Mileva by grinning broadly, scraping her teeth together and producing the sound which Kelanie had once compared to that of knives being sharpened). `Baylal-Delvoy-Kendr-Teff reports that there are some military transports on their way from Bythe Prime...' `... and you can believe that they aren't just stopping by to say "hello"...' `we have allocated the rest of the diversion-missiles to targeting the remaining scouts, so, with a degree of luck, all the asteroids will miss Earth, giving us enough time to get as many people off as we can fit into two NoSan'No'Os freighters.' Kelanie said, `Didn't you say that there were three freighters on their way?' Kendr-Saranaxio narrowed her eyes, abruptly closed her suit and ran up the ramp into the ship. Tsiry-Feylen hissed, exposing her fangs, the hands of her suit clenching and unclenching, and then turned to run after Kendr-Saranaxio. There was a moment of embarrassed silence. Marek hefted the case of hand-weapons which Mileva had stolen from the museum (in which they'd found the helicopter), and started up the ramp after the two Moridani. `Come on.' Kelanie, the last one up the ramp, paused in the hatchway and turned to look at the ExPort one last time. A twinkling light far off in the sky caught her attention; she closed her suit, aimed a boom-mounted camera in the general direction of the light, magnified the view. It appeared to be moving downwards slowly and as she watched, glowing fragments broke off and spun away. She blew into the voice-activated microphone, and said, `Tsiry-Feylen? Can you see that object in the sky to the east of us?' There was a pause, after which the ramp fell away and the hatch closed, almost chopping off the end of Kelanie's boom-mounted camera. She stumbled back slightly as the ship lifted. `Kelanie, secure yourself... we have a projectile coming in on us.' Tsiry-Feylen said. `An asteroid?' She instructed her suit to run back to the freighter's control room, passing her friends on the way there, while she tried to find an external camera that could show her the projectile in any detail. She could hear fragments of conversation, the choppiness of the voice-activated microphones becoming annoyingly obvious as she tried to filter some meaning out of the words: `-primary diversion was successful, at least it's not going to hit the residential area-' `-ing thing IS going to hit US, though, if we don't get moving NOW! Kelanie, are you secured?' She halted her suit's headlong rush, threw herself down to lie spread-eagled on the floor, hands and feet locking against the sides of the corridor. `Yes, I'm secure - what's going to -' She heard a thump, which, even through the walls of the ship, was obviously somewhere below them, followed by a jarring blow which hit her in the stomach as the ship was buffeted by the strike. Had she been standing at the time, she would have ended up at the far end of the corridor in a heap. The ship rocked like a leaf over a bonfire as she scrambled to her feet, stumbling down the passage. In the control room, her friends were clustered in a corner, while the two Moridani stood at the control columns, busily directing their dwindling supply of intelligent missiles towards their targets. One of Tsiry-Feylen's component personalities took the time to inform them: `It looks bad, children - the NAPAIsub for this system caught on to us quickly... they are definitely worried about you.' Kelanie, still in her suit, went to a column off to one side, out of the Moridani's way. She patched her suit's display into the control column and sorted through the various views available from outside monitors, eventually finding one that showed the Earth below them. There was a turbulent grey field of cloud directly underneath them where the asteroid had hit. Her eyes widened as two more projectiles passed by, on parallel courses, glowing an angry red colour; one of them less than fifty metres from the ship. Something zipped across the screen, curving to track the nearer of the two asteroids, which were dwindling rapidly in the distance. There was an intense white flare, momentarily rendering everything in stark black shadows; when it had faded, the first asteroid, chunks breaking away, was drifting towards its companion. As Kelanie increased the magnification to keep them in view, they collided, the first asteroid breaking up into four smaller pieces, the second pushed off course. She opened her suit, sitting it down on its knees, staring at the screen as it tracked the asteroid until it hit, on the edge of the residential block about five kilometres from the ExPort. The view, which was already heavily aliased due to the extreme magnification, became completely obscured by dust, but she knew that anyone in that part of residential block would be dead. She looked up at Tsiry-Feylen, despairingly. `Isn't there anything we can do?' Tsiry-Feylen kept flicking her fingers in and out of the control-spaces, and replied tersely, `There is, and we are doing it. If you would like to help, go down to the secondary cargo bay and look for a crate marked "vayasch cheyr". We'd hate to think that it got left behind.' <######> requesting connection ............ connection established connection established who is this? identify yourself! we have a data packet for you. repeat, identify yourself! look, i can't accept this data (transmitting) without identif - oh, all right, receiving... End Of File. checksum (A3E453C36C)? confirmed. now, who is this? ###### closing connection what? oh, very well. it must have been some sort of on-line function test. now, let's have a look at this data packet... it seems fairly self-explanatory... it seems fairly self-explanatory, it seems fairly self-explanatory it seems fairly self-explanatory itO]!h9 CPU HALTED * * * * * Kayren, being more familiar with NoSan'No'Os equipment, was able to get a patch from the multitude of transmissions that the Moridani were receiving from their smart missiles, scattered throughout nearby space. The humans sat in the cargo bay and watched as the Pthalklin Ervae expertly adjusted a multi-screen holographic display, the views changing every thirty seconds. Most of them were incomprehensible; some were streaked with the dot-patterns that the Moridani used for telemetry; others were blank, or obscured by static. Whenever they found an interesting view, they froze the display on that channel until the missile that was sending it was destroyed. Kelanie sat behind the others, in her battle suit, her hands clenched around the grips of the hand-manipulator controls. They were getting a fragmentary view of the carnage that the Moridani had been unable to prevent; huge chunks of rock ploughing into heavily-populated centres with the strength of atomic weapons, the shock waves knocking buildings flat in circles for kilometres around. She tried to treat it like some sort of documentary special-effect, but it didn't make her feel any better. After watching the eighth or ninth city being demolished, she slammed her suit shut and stamped out. Momentarily, Marek turned as if to follow her, but couldn't think of anything reassuring to say, and instead folded himself up behind a crate, his head in his hands. When she got to the control room, both Moridani were motionless, watching a single monitor on which telemetry information flashed past at a rate too fast for her translator to even register. `Tsiry-Feylen? What's happening?' No answer. She walked her suit over to stand between the xenos, opened it. Their attention didn't waver. Kelanie sat in her suit, trying for a minute to decide whether interrupt them. She was about to speak again when both turned sharply to look at each other, baring their teeth and hissing; a display that almost made Kelanie's hair stand on end. Kendr-Saranaxio stretched, shaking her rear legs, and Tsiry-Feylen said, `We think we may have just halted Earth's NAPAISub. If we have succeeded, then we stand a chance of getting those nine hundred people off Earth safely.' Kendr-Saranaxio opened a communications channel to one of the other stolen NoSan'No'Os freighters, began chatting with another Moridani. Tsiry-Feylen took Kelanie aside, sat on one of their grey patterned rugs, her legs folding neatly underneath. `We gravely underestimated the importance that the NoSan'No'Os placed on your extermination. We had been monitoring the communications between the NAPAISubs, but it appears that this exercise was planned privately between the local NAPAISub and NAPAI. We have managed to get both freighters down on Earth and fully loaded... we are now waiting for an opening before we can lift them to safety.' Kelanie felt an ache behind her eyes, matched by a nervous feeling in her stomach, as if she were about to perform on stage in front of thousands of people. Tsiry-Feylen was watching her closely. Kelanie said in a small voice, `You've seen this happen before, haven't you?' `Six times. This is the third time we've been involved in an rescue. We have some idea of the anguish you are experiencing.' Kelanie closed her eyes as the feeling got worse. `We don't cry, but if we could, we would.' The semi-nauseous feeling vanished, abruptly replaced by anger. `I would have thought that you'd be used to it by now.' she sneered. Tsiry-Feylen raised an index finger in warning. `We had friends on Earth, too. Don't, for one minute, think that you have some sort of monopoly on grief around here. Start to think that when you have seen this game played out a few more times, when you have seen more sentient beings killed than you thought existed. Start to think that when the NoSan'No'Os are hunting for you, personally, and will kill anyone who gets in their way to find you. Start to think that when you find that you cannot trust anyone, or befriend anyone, for fear that they will be killed by the NoSan'No'Os.' Kelanie stared up at the alien for a moment, then broke the contact by abruptly shutting her suit and running off down the corridor. She found herself in the corridor where she had back-handed the Bythian, almost severing its head. She opened her suit, undid the securing straps and stood up in it, bringing her head level with a yellow stain on the white ceramic wall. Bythian blood. She reached out and ran her fingers over it, idly scraping some of it off with her fingernails. She heard someone - Marek, judging from the sound of his bare feet - approaching. She laid her hand flat against the wall, turned to face him. In the short time that he had known her, Marek had never seen her with an expression like the one she presented now. It was a look that conveyed icy, relentless resolve; the look of obsession. `We will give them good reason to fear us.' she said. -------------------------------------------------------------------- This file is Copyright (c) Nikolai Kingsley, 1995. Unlimited electronic reproduction and one hard-copy per user is permitted, for non-profit use, providing that this notice is left intact. hail eris - Fnord - all hail discordia - 93 - oops, that's my banana --------------------------------------------------------------------

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