Book: The Reefs of Time

The Reefs of Time

What others have said about The Reefs of Time

“Classic science fiction with engaging characters and richly imagined worlds!” —Greg Bear, author of The Unfinished Land and The War Dogs trilogy

“Jeffrey A. Carver’s remarkable long-awaited duology The Reefs of Time / Crucible of Time is a welcome addition to The Chaos Chronicles, certifying his continuing mastery of action and adventure at the boundaries of space opera and hard SF.” —Steve Miller, co-author of The Liaden Universe

. . . and about The Chaos Chronicles

“Masterfully captures the joy of exploration.” —Publishers Weekly

“Reveals an alien encounter brushing hard against a soul, and takes us from there to the far reaches of the cosmos, all with the sure touch of a writer who knows his science. Jeff Carver has done it again!” —David Brin

“A dazzling, thrilling, innovative space opera . . .  probably Carver’s best effort to date.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Carver is at his rousing best in this wild ride into the heart of an enigmatic world beyond the Milky Way. This is science fiction out at the frontier. Maybe beyond the frontier.”

—Jack McDevitt

“Carver does his usual outstanding job of juggling multiple viewpoints and plot threads while casting his protagonists’ adventures against a sweeping, intergalactic backdrop. Yet Bandicut’s story is ultimately a very human one about determination, seat-of-the-pants ingenuity, and courage in the face of overwhelming danger.” —Booklist

“Jeffrey A. Carver is back, and it was worth the wait! Sunborn is a rousing, mind-expanding adventure from one of the true masters of hard SF. Bravo!” —Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids


Part One of the “Out of Time” Sequence

Volume Five of The Chaos Chronicles

Jeffrey A. Carver

The Reefs of Time

Starstream Publications

in association with Book View Café


Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey A. Carver

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.

A Starstream Publications Book

in association with Book View Café

Discover other books by Jeffrey A. Carver at

Cover art by Chris Howard

Cover design by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

First edition: 2019

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61138-798-8

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-61138-799-5

Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-61138-834-3

This is for Chuck.

You waited so long, and then were snatched away too soon.

And for all you readers and fans

who also waited a very long time.

Thank you for your loyalty and patience.

Previously in The Chaos Chronicles . . .

IF YOU HAVE not read the preceding books in this series, or it’s been a long time and memory is hazy, you may find this recap helpful:

Neptune Crossing. We come into this story with John Bandicut working on the icy surface of Triton, moon of Neptune. Since an accident robbed him of the use of his neurolink modules, he’s been a hands-only pilot, and susceptible to occasional bouts of silence-fugue, a temporary madness brought on by the absence of data-streams in his thoughts. During one such incident, he falls through the ice into an underground cavern, coming face to face with a strange alien device that calls itself the translator. Also, he suddenly has company in his own head. A noncorporeal being called a quarx has jumped from the translator into Bandicut’s mind. The being’s name is Charlie. (Later to become Charlene, and Charli.)

Charlie has waited for millennia for someone like Bandicut. He has an urgent message: A dark comet, deflected by the chaotic movements of bodies in the Kuiper Belt, is hurtling toward the sun—in a slingshot trajectory that will smack it straight, and with catastrophic results, into the Earth. It’s too late to warn anyone; the only hope of saving Earth is to steal a spaceship from Neptune orbit and intercept the comet. With the help of translator-stones—gemlike daughters of the translator—the seemingly impossible can become real. Threading space, for example.

There’s just one problem; well, several. If Bandicut does this, he will probably die, and even if he doesn’t, his career will be in flames. He will be a disgrace to his young niece Dakota, who as an orphan has no one else to look up to. And worst of all, he will have to leave, without explanation, a woman named Julie Stone, with whom he has just fallen in love. On the other hand, if he doesn’t do it, millions will die on Earth when the comet hits, and human civilization will likely end. Reluctantly, he decides to take the assignment, even though it will mark him as criminally insane.

Everything the quarx promised comes to pass. Accompanied by two robots named Napoleon and Copernicus, and the invisible Charlie, he steals the ship and leaves nothing but burned bridges behind. But the comet is right where Charlie said it would be, and for the sake of Earth, he collides with it at stupendous velocity. The comet is destroyed, and he . . . is still alive. With the help of the translator-stones and the enormous energy released in the collision, he is translated across many thousands of light-years, to the very edge of the galaxy. There awaits a structure of gargantuan size, floating in space far from any sun. What the hell?

Strange Attractors. His entry into this world, this Shipworld, is rocky and dangerous. Bandicut’s translator-stones are now embedded in his wrists. He and his two robots meet an alien named Ik, who has a pair just like them, embedded in his temples. The stones, indeed, are capable of translating language. He and Ik can communicate. Like Bandicut, Ik is in exile from his homeworld, except that his homeworld was destroyed. Shipworld, in fact, is a vast habitat for thousands of alien species, many of them rescued when their worlds were imperiled or destroyed.

Ik is searching for a friend named Li-Jared. Something is interfering; a malicious entity called the boojum is trying to orchestrate the destruction of Shipworld. Its goal is destruction. Bandicut and Ik have stumbled into the battle, and soon become reluctant players in a struggle to defeat the boojum. Aided by the strange, fractal shadow-people, they catch up with Li-Jared. Now they are three. Or five, if you count the robots, whom the shadow-people upgraded to sentience. Soon they are six, after they meet a beautiful but standoffish humanoid woman named Antares. None of them wants to do this, but if their new home of Shipworld is to survive, they must defeat the boojum.

The battle takes them to the magnificent and perilous Cavern of Ice, where the fight for control of Shipworld’s iceline intelligence system rages to a climax. It is a very near thing. In the end, our company prevails—and in thanks, they are led to a place where they have a choice: They can stay, or they can board a star-spanner, which will transport them back into the galaxy from which they came.

Not to their homes, as it turns out. The star-spanner drops them onto an alien world. In fact, into an alien sea.

The Infinite Sea. They are shocked, to say the least, to find themselves plummeting toward the bottom of an ocean. Captured-rescued by mer creatures called the Neri, they are conveyed to an undersea city. It is a remarkable world—if terrifying to Li-Jared, who fears open water—but it is under siege. A race they call the landers, a people who dwell on the coast, are making increasingly dangerous forays into the ocean, seeking to exploit technology from sunken vessels, and in the process contaminating the waters. Meanwhile, from below, in a deep abyssal trench, the Maw of the Abyss—an entity of unknown origin—causes periodic eruptions in ocean currents that threaten to destroy the Neri’s city. The Neri’s own technology is slowly breaking down, and their nanotech factories, on the seafloor near deep thermal vents, are beyond their ability to repair.

It’s hard to imagine what Bandicut and the rest of the company can do about this, but they must try. They discover ways to share translator-stones; and through painful and dangerous efforts, they establish communication with the landers. On the seafloor, Bandicut’s robots manage to link with the broken factories in an effort to nudge their failed programming back to life. In the midst of all this, Bandicut and Antares grow close and become lovers. And Bandicut learns the secret of the Maw: A crashed artifact from the stars, it is desperately trying to complete its interrupted mission. It can’t, but its efforts are wreaking havoc on the ocean environment.

In one of the riskiest ventures they have ever undertaken, the company descends into the abyss in their star-spanner bubble and attempt communication with the Maw. They persuade it to launch them into interstellar space and thus fulfill the mission it has so long been trying to complete. Their efforts succeed, and they are fired back into space, into the realm of the star-spanner.

Where they receive the oddest transmission—from a robot named Jeaves, speaking English—inviting them to join it on an interstellar waystation.

Meanwhile, back on Triton in the solar system, Bandicut’s former human lover, Julie Stone, has found favor with the translator—still the only alien artifact ever found by the rest of humanity. The translator has provided Julie with her own set of daughter-stones, though what she’ll do with them is far from clear.

Sunborn. A waystation among the stars is a lot better than nothing, and they dock and meet Jeaves. Jeaves has another mission in mind for them—hardly welcome news. But stars are dying in the nearby Starmaker (Orion) Nebula—and hypergravitational shock waves from the disturbances are on the verge of tearing the waystation apart. They have little choice but to see if they can help. They board a ship they name The Long View, and set course for the Orion Nebula. En route, they encounter two strange but friendly creatures, Deep and Dark—sentient clouds, or possibly sentient singularities, or both—who along with them are asking the question: What could possibly be causing stars to die?

Their first close encounter with one of the stars in the nebula reveals to them the astonishing fact that some of these stars are sentient—aware and thinking, though on a time-frame that is utterly different from our company’s. Deep and Dark, however, possess the ability to manipulate time and energy in remarkable ways and, for a brief interlude, our company fuses consciousnesses with the stars, where they learn...

Something is deliberately killing them. What, though, is a mystery—until The Long View encounters a graveyard of ships, and confronts face to face an ancient, collective machine intelligence, the Mindaru, that serves only one goal: to eradicate life of any kind that is not theirs, and to create supernovas and hypernovas wherever possible. Not only are these cataclysmic events deadly to life anywhere within thousands of light-years, but they also create and blast into space heavy elements, building blocks of more machine intelligence. It’s a slow process, but the Mindaru are patient.

The manipulation of dark matter to trigger these explosions is just one part of the Mindaru plan. Without Deep and Dark, our company would have little hope of combating this enemy. Only by working together at the extreme edge of the near-impossible do Bandicut and his companions successfully face the Mindaru. Victory comes at a cost, though: Deep, in quenching the explosion of a star, is marooned forever in another universe, one that has guttered out. And Ik, nearly overcome by the invasive Mindaru, loses his translator-stones and can no longer communicate with his friends.

They return to Shipworld, victorious but wounded.

And in the solar system, Julie Stone accompanies the original translator on a flight to Earth. But they take a detour when the translator detects an entity that apparently intends to do what the comet failed to do: destroy the Earth. Julie and the translator, in a small shuttle, grapple the enemy and, nearly at the cost of their own lives, carry it into the sun. And with the energy they absorb, they too are translated across the light-years—to the mysterious Shipworld, at the edge of the galaxy.  It is a structure so immense that the probability of two people meeting on it by accident is infinitesimal. Is there any chance that Bandicut and Julie will find each other again?

The Reefs of Time. The story you are about to read. It is the first part of a two-part novel, the “Out of Time” sequence, and will be concluded in the following volume, Crucible of Time.

PART ONE Storm Gathering

“The long unmeasured pulse of time moves everything.”


“O time! swift devourer of all created things!”

—Leonardo Da Vinci

“Always in motion is the future.”


Prologue One In the Starstream

A RIVER OF light, a ribbon of tortured space, the starstream was a new feature in the galaxy by any cosmological standard. A mere human-century old, it had been created by Humanity and Humanity's galactic friends, or perhaps not so much created as jiggered into being. It was sentient tinkering that had triggered the fusion of three cosmological objects: two black holes and one cosmic hyperstring. The hyperstring, a longline flaw in space-time, was by good fortune already anchored at one end by the star-gobbling black hole at the center of the galaxy. It was the other end that was the object of Humanity's engineering, which was to trap it like a dinosaur in tar in the black hole left by the collapse of a star called Betelgeuse.

The starstream twanged and hummed like a harp string. Stretched between the two black holes, it spanned two thirds of the radius of the galaxy. That alone would have been a glorious achievement; but it was useful as well as interesting. It formed a perfect n-space transport system, speeding starships toward myriad new frontiers. In the century since its creation, it had become a major thoroughfare for interstellar commerce and migration, involving dozens of races and hundreds of worlds. From the inside of the starstream, it was a luminous pipeline, seeming to extend forever. From the outside, it was practically invisible.

The creation of the starstream was not without conflict or loss of life—a price that continued to be paid long after its creation. It was discovered and used by others, as well as its creators. And not just the Throgs, who killed worlds and millions of people before they were stopped (an action in which I played a small part1)— but by others, even more dangerous. Things out of not just deep space, but deep time.

And that was when the worst of the trouble began. Intelligent and malicious dust that devoured, reports whispered. Things that destroyed minds, murmured others. Things that were terrifyingly like other adversaries galactic humanity had faced, but maybe worse, and with more to follow.

Eventually the rumors and reports traveled all the way out to Shipworld, beyond the outermost edge of the galaxy. On Shipworld, the governing bodies took such reports very seriously. Some sort of action would have to be taken, for the protection of inhabited worlds everywhere.

I was a part of that action, too.

There is much to tell about it, and about related matters. I will do my best to make it all clear . . . starting with another and completely different introduction.

—Jeaves, an AI currently residing on Shipworld


1A story I told at somewhat greater length in my earlier mission report, entitled Down the Stream of Stars.

Prologue Two Karellia

KARELLIA: WORLD OF beautiful, perilous sky.

The planet Karellia was a cerulean and white and earth-red gemstone—pretty enough as inhabited worlds went, bearing significant areas of arid terrain, forest, and maroon fungal plains. Less than a fourth of the planet's surface was ocean, so the blue regions were relatively small and scattered. Still, rich underground water reserves blessed the world with verdant fields and forests, from the tropics to the colder climate zones. Even the deserts were host to abundant ecologies. But none of these things accounted for the name given to the world by its inhabitants.

Karellia: world of beautiful, perilous sky.

Karellia's sky was alive; the world was cradled by a terrible, fire-breathing dragon. Its mother star and all of the star's planets were bound in by a nebula of awesome and terrible energy, a nebula called Heart of Fire, that continuously sleeted the entire planetary system with charged particles and a billow of soft radiation. Around Karellia itself, a tight, fiery belt of trapped particles glowed and danced with an even brighter auroral display—a display that threatened death to any living thing that dared enter its realm.

Beneath the Belt, under that draconic gaze, lived the denizens of Karellia, sheltered from the astral storm by the same planetary magnetic field that held the Belt in place. From Karellia, the Belt was a halo that arched like a vast, misty cathedral ceiling over the curvature of the planet. In daytime it sparkled almost gaily in reds and golds; at night it glowed in ghostly shades of cyan and scarlet, its beauty belying its perilous nature. No one living entered the Belt.

But of late, there was something new in the sky, even more perilous. Something not caused by nature:

Asteroids, flung down from the stars.


Whatever initial uncertainty there had been about the source of the asteroids—thirty years now since the first—had been erased by the tracing back of the rocks' trajectories. A planet circling Karellia's sun's binary companion—barely glimpsed through the intervening dust and plasma—had been discovered only a few decades before the first attack. A few old robotic probes to the planet and its system had gone missing. But that planet was unquestionably the source of the asteroids.

Some enemy on that planet wished Karellia ill, and was hurling dangerously large rocks at its neighbor.

The Karellians didn't know why, but they did know that the attacks were threatening their very survival.


Karellia lacked long-range space travel—the radiation was simply too horrendous—but its scientists were shrewd, and they had conceived a planetary defense. It was effective, for now. But for how much longer? Attempts at communication had failed. Following years of debate, a consensus emerged that perhaps it was time to take the fight to the other—whoever the other was.

A fleet of offensive weapons now orbited Karellia: a deadly array of sixty-four deep-space rockets, all bearing thermonuclear warheads—ready to launch at the Ocellet's command. The Belt and the Heart of Fire might keep the Karellians from taking the fight to the enemy in person; but these well-shielded rockets just might get through, just might put an end to the falling asteroids.

Or they might start an even larger conflagration.

The Karellian leader with her finger on the trigger was deeply mindful of the uncertainty over that prediction. For that reason if no other, the missiles remained in check. But for how much longer should she hold back a retaliatory strike?

Meanwhile, the planetary defense held, its invisible glitter unlike any other defense in the known galaxy.

Chapter 1 In the Triton Ice, 207 Sp.

(2176 C.E.)

DAKOTA BANDICUT PEERED to the left and to the right, forward and backward, through the windows of the passenger transport as it crawled across the icy surface of Triton. She had come four and a half billion kilometers to see this, and she did not want to miss a thing. After almost an hour, the transport ground to a halt. Scott, the tour guide, announced their arrival on site from the front of the van, and the half dozen passengers, all clad in silver spacesuits, began crowding toward the door. Stepping with feathery lightness onto the icy surface of Neptune's moon, kilometers from the mining base, Dakota felt a shiver inside her spacesuit—not from the cryogenic cold, which she couldn't feel at all, but from the personal momentousness of what she was about to see.

For years, she had been hoping to visit this place. Now that she was here, she didn't know what to expect, or how to feel—or even, in any rational sense, why she was here. But now that the moment had arrived, she felt . . . awed, uncertain, and a little afraid. Afraid? It's silly to feel afraid, she thought. You're just going to see an empty cavern that hundreds of other people have seen. What's there to be afraid of? And yet, the butterflies in her stomach weren't going away—and she had this still, expectant feeling that something special might be about to happen.

Gonna feel pretty silly when it turns out to be nothing much, and you walk away with a few pix of a hole in the ground.

As last out of the van, she had to sidestep around a few people to see anything. But there it was: the place where humanity, for the first and only time, had encountered an alien intelligence. That alone is worth some chills, isn't it?

“Can we do a quick comm check, please, before anyone moves away from the crawler?” That was Scott trying to keep everyone—all six people—corralled next to the vehicle for a moment. “Aimee here.” “Joe.” “Misha.” When everyone else had spoken, Dakota said her own name, so softly she doubted anyone could have heard it; so she repeated it. Satisfied, Scott waved them forward.

Dakota's heart beat even faster as she stepped ahead of the others to cross the thirty meters to the edge of the cavern. Triton's surface was the color of dirty ice, with a bit of orange and brown seasoned into the mix. The sun, low in the sky, was little more than a bright star against blackness, while the blue crescent of Neptune hung like a shield behind her right shoulder. Daylight out here at the edge of the solar system looked more like dark twilight; but amplified by the circuitry in her suit visor, it allowed enough illumination for safe walking. As she approached the cavern opening, the underground lights flared into view, forcing the amp in her visor to dial back for comfort. Dakota paused a moment at the top of the long ramp down into the cavern. The bank of floodlights at the bottom shone on the spot where the translator had once stood.

The translator. Dakota knew it only from holos and from Julie Stone's descriptions. It looked to the eye like an impossible assemblage of squirming balls, black and silver and constantly in motion, balanced like a perpetually spinning top. The pix couldn't reveal its powers, but her Uncle John's friend Julie had told her in her long-distance holos: It is an astounding intelligence; it can speak in my mind; it can drive spaceships at impossible speeds; it is so alien.

That was twelve years ago, when Dakota herself was twelve, and thought she'd be stuck on Earth for the rest of her life. But in those twelve years, Dakota Bandicut had worked and studied doggedly, and with some major strokes of luck, had made it into the space services and been hired to pilot survey drones in Neptune's atmosphere—much like her uncle, John Bandicut, who had arrived here as a survey pilot. It was Uncle John who had been selected by the alien translator for first contact. And when he had gone—died, everyone said—saving the Earth from a comet, a few people said—stealing a spaceship in a psychotic breakdown, others said—the translator had picked Julie Stone for its next contact.

Officially, that hadn't worked out too well, either. While en route to Earth with the translator, Julie had hared off with the translator on another crazy mission. Just like Uncle John, Julie had claimed she was saving the Earth from a menace no one else could see. The last anyone had heard from either Julie or the translator, they'd been hurtling straight into the sun, supposedly with some dangerous object in their grip. Were they both crazy? Dakota didn't think so. But whatever the truth, Uncle John and Julie and the translator were gone.

Dakota blinked and forced the thought out of her mind. While she'd been standing motionless in reflection, several other members of the tour party had started down the ramp. She stirred back into movement.

The ramp led down into a carved-out space that had once been an enclosed cavern and was now partially open to the sky. There wasn’t all that much to see, though the play of floodlights on the blue-white ice was beautiful to look at. It was a space that the translator had apparently carved out beneath the surface while it sat here for millions of years of hibernation, awaiting humanity's arrival. Dakota swung left and right, looking around. Someone—Misha—was asking Scott if alien alloys had been found in the ice near the translator. As Scott answered, Dakota tuned out, because she already knew there were no alloy deposits of any note found here, although significant traces had been found elsewhere in the region around the mining encampment. The translator had apparently used the metal alloys, somehow linking together all of the deposits scattered around the moon into an antenna for its surveillance of human activity around the solar system. By which means it had identified John Bandicut and drawn him toward the fateful discovery.

Dakota thought, half seriously, that it wouldn't surprise her to hear voices in this cavern—the voices of long-dead aliens, or maybe the voices of her uncle and his girlfriend. Or maybe that other alien thing that had joined Uncle John—what he had called in his message to Julie a quarx.

She heard no voices, though, except those of the tour group.

Scott was still answering questions, and now was leading them in a straggling group to the exact spot where the translator supposedly had once been stuck in the ice. Dakota, rather than following, felt an inexplicable compulsion to crouch down and probe a little farther back in the cavern space where there still remained a low ceiling. Was she looking for something in particular? She had no idea. She just felt somehow that the spot over there had been well scoured over; but here, just maybe, she would find some lingering evidence of an alien intelligence. Crouching lower, she scratched at the ice with her gloved fingertips, feeling perhaps the slightest hint of cold coming through the thermal protection. Her touch left a thin imprint. She scratched again, imagining that she might expose . . . what? A vein of alien alloy? Silly.

Except, at that moment, something sparkled in the ice, and—Ow!—she felt a sharp pinch in her right wrist, as though a rubber band had snapped her. She rubbed her wrist, puzzled. An instant later, she saw another glint and felt a similar pinch in her left wrist. What the hell?

Backing out from under the ceiling and straightening, she raised her hands and examined her wrists. There was nothing to see; the silver exterior of her spacesuit looked as it always had. She rubbed her right wrist with her left hand, though, because it still tingled. Damn. Did that translator leave little stingers lying around for people who poked around too much?

A heartbeat later, she froze. The translator had put tiny stones in the wrists of both her uncle and Julie. Translator-stones, Julie had called them. Stones with extraordinary and peculiar powers. Dakota's heart pounded furiously; she suddenly found it hard to think.

*Hello, Dakota Bandicut. Do we have your name right?*

Dakota made a choking sound, which carried on the suit radio, and brought a call of concern from the group leader. “Is everyone all right?”

“Yes. Yes—sorry!” Dakota said. “I’m fine.” Fine? Her thoughts were whirling. Get a grip, girl. What had she just heard? A voice. In her mind. Just like Julie. Just like Uncle John.

Oh damn. Oh damn oh damn oh damn!

She didn't know exactly what she had hoped for, coming here. Some closure, some understanding. Not stones from the translator. The translator was gone. Twelve years gone. This was not possible.

She felt a soft stirring somewhere inside her skull. Then she heard the voice again:

*Is it really so bad?*

She pawed at the sides of her space helmet, shaking her head. What's happening to me? After a moment, she dropped her hands to her sides and stood still, trying not to clench her fists. She didn't want the others in the cavern to think she was having a breakdown. Did any of them know she was John Bandicut's niece? They might. Should she tell them? Tell them what? That she, too, was hearing alien voices in her head?

*Please don't.*

/What? Who are you? What are you?/ She was so rattled, the noise of her own thoughts was hard to distinguish from the voice.

*We are daughter-stones of the translator. We have joined with you, as our sister-stones joined with Julie Stone and John Bandicut. Please don't be alarmed.*

Dakota closed her eyes. Please don't be alarmed? She repeated the words to herself. Don't be alarmed. She was plenty alarmed. /How can you expect me not to be alarmed?/ she thought.

*We will not harm you. We may, under some circumstances, be able to aid you.*

Dakota took a slow, careful breath. Two of the others were looking in her direction, but all she could see was shiny faceplates. She was trying to parse what the stones had said to her. /Exactly how,/ she thought with great deliberation, /might you aid me?/

*That remains to be seen,* the stones said. *We may be able to help you open doors of opportunity, Dakota Bandicut.*

/Doors of opportunity?/

*We believe your future will take you to the stars.*

That jolted her. She hardly knew how to respond. /To the stars?/

*And sooner than you might think.*

To that she could only raise her face toward open space and stand in dumb, shivering silence. Filled with both awe and apprehension, she gazed up at the black dome of space that crowned this desolate moon at the solar system's edge, and wondered what sort of turn her life had just taken.

Chapter 2 Regrouping on Shipworld


Call me Jeaves. Everyone else does.

I’m a robot, high-level sentient. My original makers were human, but I’ve received numerous upgrades from others in the intervening century. That fact tends to make people give me credit for having accumulated more knowledge than I actually have. Yes, it’s true that I carry information that others in my company lack: details about Shipworld, for example, and some about the early history of the galaxy. But there’s so much I don’t know, such as:

What exactly are we supposed to be doing, now that we’ve arrived back on Shipworld? Does anyone care that in completing our last mission we saved a thousand worlds? And on a more personal note, when will I be able to merge myself back into my real, physical body? Haven’t I been virtual long enough?

I have many such questions.

Here are some things I do know: We’re back on Shipworld, a gargantuan structure orbiting just beyond the outer edge of the Milky Way galaxy. The structure contains somewhat over a thousand immense habitation modules, most of them honeycombed with smaller subsections, as well as some ancillary structures. Shipworld shelters survivors from untold thousands of galactic civilizations threatened one way or another with extinction. Shipworld (as an entity, rather than a structure) is always on the lookout for more folk in need of rescue.


We just completed one such mission. We’ve been back awhile, and our situation remains unclear. Upon our return, we were not greeted by a brass band or by much of anybody except the docking crew. I moved my soulware from the ship to an iceline node, and filed our report via the iceline network, attempting to connect to the authorities who sent me out in the first place. But despite the extraordinary nature of our report—not to mention the exotic hyperdimensional mode of travel on our return from Starmaker—we received little in the way of acknowledgment or gratitude from the authorities at the other end of the iceline. Had the hierarchy changed in my absence? I couldn’t quite tell. We received no further information. Instead, we were invited to take some R&R at an unused lake resort in an idyllic location in the Benzalli sector, close to where we had docked.

My team is there now, as I write this. Meanwhile, I relentlessly seek additional information. From my vantage point in the iceline node, I have more flexibility than my companions to reach out—but that has made no discernible difference. I still have few answers, and have gained no official recognition for my companions of the significant contribution they made toward the safety of the galactic worlds. I’m never exactly blocked in my search, but then again I never quite find my way to the answers I seek. It’s puzzling, and frustrating.

But maybe not altogether surprising. Shipworld is a truly vast place. Out here at the edge of the galaxy, where you wouldn’t expect to find anything more than a little dust and a lot of vacuum, floats this vast necklace of enormous, infinitely diverse habitats, joined together like beads on a string. It can take time to find what you’re looking for.

And so.

What’s next? We got back to Shipworld by, as my human designers would have said, the skin of our teeth. But will the mysterious and deadly Mindaru Survivors come after us for interfering with their efforts to destroy the Starmaker Nebula? Do they know where we are? Is there another job awaiting us? Will I even stay with the company? All these things and more, I wish I knew.

End of summary.


Ik sat motionless, gazing across a dusty console and out through what appeared to be a window at what appeared to be the lights of a settlement at night. The Hraachee’an ached with frustration and longing. The window was set out of reach, and he couldn’t tell for certain if he was looking at an actual living settlement or a projected image. He wondered if there might be a door around here somewhere, a door he could step through. Perhaps this was actually a real window through a habitat partition, and it might be possible simply to walk into the next habitat. More likely, though, it was just a viewscreen. Ik had found this room in a bunker near the lake, and while the others were sleeping, he’d walked over by himself to investigate. It looked almost like a control room, but he couldn’t see what, if anything, it controlled. Rows of nondescript panels of touchscreens and buttons, mostly dark, were set along the walls.

The view through the large window was appealing, sighting across a darkened valley at night, toward a town or small city nestled in the woods. Did it mean anything? Had they been brought within sight of it for a reason? Moon and stars, he wondered if anything they were doing these days was for a reason. Killing time, it seemed like to him. All this waiting. They didn’t even have the robots Napoleon and Jeaves to talk to, and they were the only ones Ik could talk to. Jeaves, who wasn’t physically in a body anyway, had disappeared like a wisp of smoke while his more organic companions rested by the lake. Napoleon was gone, too; Jeaves had asked the robot to accompany him on some errand.

Ik did not like resting by the lake. He thought a visit to the nearest town might break the depressing monotony.

He felt slightly guilty about leaving his friends without a word in the middle of the night. If any of them woke and found him missing, they might be worried, knowing his state of mind. But sometimes he felt worse being with them, unable to communicate and dragging them down by his presence. They’d gone through so much together, and built such a sense of common purpose. But the loss of his voice-stones on that last flight had left him isolated, unable to participate even in simple conversations. The voice-stones were the linchpins of their little community. Without the stones, none of them could understand a word of the others’ languages.

While they were still on The Long View, the loss had been tolerable, especially with the robot Copernicus helping to translate. But Copernicus was now integrated with the ship’s AI, and they’d been given no choice but to leave him behind at the docks. Since leaving the ship, things had deteriorated steadily for Ik. Sometimes he felt he could barely even speak to himself. The only thing that really kept him going was his hope that he might finally have a chance to search for others of his own kind on Shipworld. But Shipworld was a big place. To search in any reasonable way, he needed a search tool, something like the iceline, the local network structure. He’d used it extensively the last time he was on Shipworld; in fact, he hadn’t just used it, he’d helped save it. But then he’d had voice-stones, and a connection to the iceline. Everything had been different then.

Might he someday have voice-stones again? He had to; he couldn’t bear to keep going without that hope. But in the meantime, if he just could find some other Hraachee’ans, he wouldn’t have to feel so alone.

Leaning forward, over the console, he saw movement out there in that nightscape. Lights moving through the air, probably vessels. He sat back and stared at the controls in front of him. In one elliptical cutout, sparks of lights floated through a three-dimensional display. What did that mean? Who knew? Perhaps his friends could make sense of it. Or their stones could. But right now he was on his own.

Ik tried to remember how similar devices had worked the last time he was on Shipworld. Machines like this varied from one section of Shipworld to another, and for him, the voice-stones had been key to interacting with them. But surely he could manually operate the viewing equipment, if that’s what this was. He thought about it, and made a decision. Until now, he had been careful not to touch the controls. But now he stroked them with his long-fingered hands. Here was an icon with an engraved shape of a curved arrow. Might that change the view? He pressed it. Nothing happened. He tried to rotate it, but it didn’t budge. He thought a moment, then placed the palm of his hand against the icon and turned. Nothing. Growling softly, he delicately traced the line of the engraved arrow with one finger.

The window abruptly changed. Where the lights had been, there was now a placid lake. The same lake they were camped beside? He couldn’t tell. There were no people in view.

He traced the arrow again. The view blinked to a large indoor concourse, with an arched-glass roof and throngs of people of all kinds, a hundred species, all alien to him. Ik braced his forearms on the console and studied the view. Were there any Hraachee’ans? He studied it a long time, but he saw no Hraachee’ans.

Reluctantly, he changed the view again. This time it changed to a series of magnificent but desolate gorges in an arid-looking land. He sighed through his ears. The window’s operation seemed to be random, then, a meaningless travelogue—or maybe an array of selections from a vast monitoring system.

So far he’d tried only the one control. To its right was a star-shaped icon. He hesitated. Should he be fooling around with these settings, with no idea what he was doing? On the one hand, he could be meddling with things he shouldn’t; on the other, it seemed unlikely that critical controls would be left carelessly unattended. Presumably the masters of this place knew the controls were here, and had intended for them to be here. Which meant visitors were expected to explore.

All right. He lightly touched the icon with one finger, and traced a radial line out one of the starbursts. He looked up, and was surprised to see the view replaced by something that did not seem to be inside Shipworld: flashing yellow pulses of light in the dark of space, and then a few streaks. Both faded, and something else appeared in the field of view, something in space. Something long and extremely thin, like a glowing wire stretched across the view from low and near on the left, to high and far away on the right, and out of sight. Something was moving along its length.

“Hrrm?” Ik murmured. About halfway down its length, much smaller yellow bursts were winking on and off, almost like indicator lights. A warning? In the upper corner of the display, a circle appeared filled with incomprehensible writing.

Clacking his mouth, Ik ran his finger along another radial on the star icon. The view flicked to something different: an exterior view of an enormous structure in space—the familiar chain of huge segments that made up Shipworld against the dark of extragalactic space, the tiny disks of distant galaxies behind it. A slice of the home galaxy’s misty spiral was just visible at the bottom of the view. Ik felt a shiver. Several times now, he had approached Shipworld from the outside. Each time it had left him shaken with awe, and overwhelmed by his own smallness.

Just looking at this view reawakened the feeling. There was so much about Shipworld he still didn’t understand. And much that he feared.

His gaze was drawn to a point of light moving slowly toward the enormous structure. A craft approaching Shipworld? Maybe a star-spanner bubble? New arrivals from a newly rescued world—or one that had been destroyed? Hapless people like him, returning from a harebrained expedition, lucky to be alive? Just wondering about it made him ache inside again.

He stroked the starburst, and the view switched back to the inside of Shipworld, or so he assumed. Now a meadow filled the window, and daylight—and a figure walking toward him, with a small, scampering creature leading the way. Ik recognized the small creature, or at least its species. It was a krayket, one of the charming little fellows who had once helped him and his friends. Was this krayket helping another new arrival?

Ik waited, as they came closer. Then he froze, staring at the bipedal creature. Moon and stars! “John Bandicut!” he whispered to the empty room. “Hrah! You must come see this!” Was that another human he saw walking with the krayket? He was almost certain it was; the being had longer hair than John’s, and was a little curvier in the midsection, not unlike Antares, and was possibly female. “John Bandicut!” he cried hoarsely, desperately wishing his friend were here to see this.

Ik started to turn away, to run and fetch Bandicut—and then swung back, tortured by indecision. There was no telling how long this being—this human!—would stay in view. If he left to get John, she could well pass out of sight before he returned, and be lost!

He dared not leave the console. Tapping his brow, he studied the controls, looking for anything that might bring the human female here, or at least would open communication. There were transport mechanisms on Shipworld; it was not an entirely unreasonable hope. But touching the wrong control could lose her faster than doing nothing. What was this icon here, which looked like two funnel shapes end-to-end? Ik pressed his hands to his head, to keep them out of trouble while he thought the problem through.

In the window, the humanlike figure paused, turned, bent down to look at something. Then she straightened. Holding his breath, Ik touched the control. The image froze. The human stood still as a statue, and a green light flickered near her head. Hissing softly, Ik wondered what he had done. He waited for her to unfreeze. When nothing more happened, he touched the control again. The human came back to life—in fact, seemed to jump forward, across the view—and out of sight. She was gone.

Gone! Ik leaned forward, crying out, “Hrah! Come back!” He beat on the console in fury. How could this have happened? He’d had a chance to help his friend find another human, and he’d let her slip away.

There is nothing you could have done.

He knew that was true. But he couldn’t help feeling that he had failed John Bandicut—and Ik didn’t even have the words to tell him.


The lights of distant dwellings shimmered across the placid surface of the lake, silent and mysterious, beckoning to John Bandicut like forest sprites, quivering with a languid pulse of life. By this lake, Bandicut never had to feel alone . . . at least when he was dreaming . . .

If he wanted, he could walk across those waters and enter into the mystery there.

And what about those stars peeking from behind the wisps of cloud, a painter’s vision of heaven spattered across the sky? If he let his eyes go out of focus, he could fly out to meet those stars. Fly on the winds of space . . .

The winds of space where the Mindaru roamed.

The vision went dark, his mind spasming. Oh hell, no! Get away!

Stay out of my mind!

A struggle erupted for control of his thoughts. A struggle he would lose if he tried to fight them off directly. So he did the only thing he could do. Put space between us. His thoughts lurched away from the Mindaru and back to the beginning. Chaos revisited . . .

First encounter with the alien quarx, on Triton, the shock and disorientation. The start of a journey, a mission proposed by the alien in his head, unimaginable, insane, inescapable. Preposterous to think of saving Earth from a rogue, dark comet. In secret. How can you think of leaving when you’ve just met someone and fallen in love? Which will it be? Dizzying, heady union with a beautiful woman? Or an impossible mission ending in death? A simple choice. Or would have been, except that Earth was at stake. And so, rocketing in a spacecraft energized by alien technology, he saved the Earth . . . instead of staying with Julie.

Oh yeah! Mad with silence-fugue, he streaked across the solar system and smacked the comet to kingdom come . . . and himself to exile in an inconceivable place out on the edge of the galaxy. Shipworld, this place, where he met the aliens who would become his friends. Ik. Li-Jared. Antares. Friends of circumstance, thrown together to fight the mysterious boojum and save Shipworld—and was that enough? No, next to be flung without a thank-you back into the galaxy to a water world, where the precarious existence of the deep-sea Neri folk hung teetering.

Danger and pain. Weariness, oh . . .

 . . . out of which had come new love with Antares, and the bonding of his new friendships. But then what—home and rest? Hah! No, an even more perilous journey: to Starmaker, the Orion Nebula, where sentient stars were dying violently at the hands of the treacherous group-AI, the Mindaru. He and his friends won that. They won. Against all hope and peril. After that victory, all the accursed things should be dead. But no, still Mindaru roamed the galaxy, looking for life to murder.

Reaching closer, across time and space; and him in their sights.

Closer, looming large, threatening suffocation.

Piercing directly into his thoughts, all malice and hatred . . .

Bandicut sat up with a gasp, his sleep wrap falling to his waist. His heart was pounding; he shook from a bone-deep chill, from the terror of the dream. Rasping air into his lungs, he pressed his sweaty palms flat to the grass beneath him, steadying himself. God damn it. The dream again.

Dream? He had been on the edge of full-blown silence-fugue, not imagining but reliving events, starkly real. It had all happened.

So much they had lived through. So much! They had defeated the Mindaru, hadn’t they? So why did his breath still catch in cold terror when he thought of them, even now that he was safe back on Shipworld?

/// You all right? ///

Charli the quarx asked carefully, in his head.

/Yah,/ he answered silently. The noncorporeal quarx never seemed to sleep. /It’s just . . . /

/// I almost had to pull you back again.

You were on the edge, I think. ///

Bandicut sighed. Charli had saved him any number of times from the madness of silence-fugue. /I was, yes. Damn, you know, I miss home./ Earth, where there were no Mindaru. The lake here was dark and still, the far shore difficult to see now in the low-lying mist of night. Looking at the sky with its scattering of artificial stars, he could imagine it was Earth. But it felt like a very long time since he had seen the constellations of Earth’s sky.

/// We all miss our homes, ///

Charli said wistfully.

/// The machines are still coming after you

in your dreams, yes? ///

/Yah./ Bandicut peered around the camp. Oddly, the dreams had started only after they’d come here, to this place of peace and safety, to rest and recover. Almost as if they were telling him, You’re not done yet. The fire had burned down to dull red embers, and Li-Jared and Antares were asleep on either side of him, bundled up in sleeping bags on pads. And Ik. No—Ik’s pad was empty. Bandicut scanned the area. Ik was nowhere in sight. /Oh damn, not again./

The Hraachee’an had wandered off while the rest of them were asleep. Without his translator-stones, he couldn’t talk to anyone, or work any of the enigmatic Shipworld devices, or seek help if he needed it. He’d probably just gone for a walk. But Bandicut worried about him. /I shouldn’t be mothering him. It’s just—/

/// Ik hasn’t been himself.

We all know it. ///

/Yeah, but—/ Charli was putting it mildly. Ik had been acting depressed and erratic, and increasingly distant.

“John, what?” Antares asked, pushing herself up onto one elbow. The Thespi female looked groggily at him, and her concern sharpened. “You had the dream again.” Statement, not a question.

“Yah.” He swallowed, composing himself. “But that’s not it.”

“What, then?” She looked around. “Is it Ik?”

“Yah. I don’t see him anywhere.”

Antares closed her eyes and pressed a hand to the knowing-stones in her throat. After a moment, she looked back at him and shook her head. “I don’t feel him nearby.”

“Should we wake Li-Jared?”

“You don’t have to wake me,” the Karellian muttered, rolling over and sitting up. He looked vaguely simian in the gloom, except that his electric-blue eyes managed to capture and reflect what little light there was. “You people are noisy enough to keep anyone awake.”

“Sorry,” Bandicut said. “It’s Ik. He’s gone.”

“So I gathered.” Li-Jared started to crawl out of his sleeping bag, muttering to himself. “Shall we go for another walk?”

“Why don’t you two stay here and watch the camp,” Bandicut said. “No point in all of us wandering off and getting lost. I was awake anyway. I’ll just take a quick look down along the water. He can’t have gone far.”


Ik stumbled out of the bunker, reeling with frustration. He’d started out hoping to find someone of his own kind. Moon and stars, locating that human for John Bandicut would have been a step in the right direction! Maybe there was no way for him to have brought his friend together with that other human, but if only he could have found a way to communicate with it! At least then he might have brought Bandie something to hope for, the possibility of finding one of his own kind here, in the alien vastness of Shipworld.

Right now, though, he had a more immediate problem: relocating the trail he had come in on. It was dark, and that was one problem; the other was that nothing looked quite the same as it had when he’d walked in. There were several trails and streams threading through the woods and along the water, and now they all looked alike to him. Especially in the dark.

Ik stroked the side of his sculpted head with a long finger. He was feeling confused so much these days. Would he ever be given a new set of voice-stones? Maybe not; maybe you were just allowed one set, and if you didn’t take care of those, you didn’t get another pair. That would be cruel.

He shook his head and set off down the left path. It led to a stream, on the far side of which was a pleasant little meadow. That was the way, he thought, and kept going.

A few minutes later, he heard his name being called out in the dark. At least he could still understand his own name! It was John Bandicut. “Bandie!” he called, “Over here!” The sounds coming out of his mouth, in his real tongue, were quite different from what his friend used to hear; but he could only hope that Bandie could make some sense of it.

“Ik!” he heard. Then Bandicut appeared out of the trees and spotted him at once. Ik could feel John’s relief almost as palpably as if he had Antares’ empathic abilities. Even without the stones, he could recognize many of his friend’s emotions.

Bandicut strode up and seized him by the upper arms. Cascades of words followed, none of which Ik understood; but clearly Bandicut had been worried and was urging him to come back with him. Ik started to follow, then stopped. “Wait!” he cried, hoping that something of what he was saying might get through. “I have to show you something! Come with me! Come!” Bandicut looked startled. But when Ik pulled the other way, Bandie acquiesced—though he first paused to shout something in the other direction, probably telling the others that he had found Ik.

In the darkness, the entrance to the control room looked like a simple door in a low concrete bunker. Bandicut was hesitant, but Ik gestured urgently and finally just went through and waited for Bandicut to follow. “This is where I saw someone who looks like you! Human! One of your people!” Ik pointed to the viewer and gazed back at Bandicut. But the view had changed and his friend simply looked bewildered. Ik clacked his mouth shut in frustration. He slapped a hand to his chest and turned to the controls. “If I could just find it again . . .”

Running his hands over the icons, Ik tried to navigate back to the view he’d had before. But any control he’d had before—or illusion of control—was gone now. He seemed able to bring up only random images and locations. At first Bandicut looked interested, but as Ik struggled in vain to get the human back, John began to look around the room more than at the window. No doubt he was wondering what in blazes Ik had brought him here for.

Suddenly Bandicut glanced back at the window, and with a guttural sound pointed at something in the viewing pane. Animals. A group of large, four-footed beasts plodding across a field. Did Bandie recognize them? Were they domesticated?

Bandicut reached in front of Ik to point more closely. Besides the large quadrupeds, there were several smaller animals as well. Herding the large ones? “Kree-ayy-ket-t-t-s,” Bandicut said, his voice sounding garbled to Ik, but not so garbled that he didn’t recognize the word. Kraykets. Ik bobbed his head and made a whistle of pleasure through his ears.

Bandie seemed to understand and share his reaction. Now, if Ik could just convey what he’d brought Bandie here to see! “Human! Like you!” Ik waved his hands, made a rough outline of Bandicut’s shape, then turned and recreated the outline against the viewer.

Bandicut cocked his head; he looked back at the kraykets and the large animals, made a shape such as Ik had just made, and chuckled. He thought Ik was reminding him of the time they had all seen the kraykets. No! How could he communicate human? Ik struggled in vain to think of something to say, and then he sighed through his ears and reached out to search for another scene.

As his fingers touched the controls, the display suddenly went dark.

Chapter 3 Called to a Meeting

“HRAH!” IK CRIED, his voice rasping.

“What is it, Ik?” Bandicut asked, alarmed by Ik’s sudden change of mood. “What’s happened?”

“Hrah! Hrah!” Clearly distraught, Ik slapped and prodded at the controls, trying to turn things that wouldn’t turn, and pressing and swiping at others. Nothing had any effect on the display; it remained dark, both the large window and the smaller screens on the control board. Ik grew increasingly agitated. He snapped out words that meant nothing to Bandicut, and looked up and down from the controls, holding his long-fingered hands rigidly in front of him, as though they had betrayed him.

Bandicut put a hand on Ik’s shoulder. The Hraachee’an twisted and stared at him with such intensity Bandicut stepped back. Was Ik angry? Not with him, Bandicut thought. But about something. Ik sighed noisily and extended a hand, as if offering something to Bandicut—and then curled it closed, pulling it back to his chest. Taking back what he’d been offering? Ik growled, said something else under his breath, and turned back to the display. After several more minutes of futile gestures and adjustments, he slapped his hands on the console and wagged his head slowly back and forth.

“Ik, I’m sorry,” Bandicut said. “Maybe you can show me another time? Whatever it was?”

“Hrah,” Ik said, straightening up. He seemed to be trying to decide something. After a moment, he turned and gestured toward the door. They ducked out of the strange little control room, and located the path back toward the camp.

As they strode through the woods, Bandicut felt Ik’s frustration and unhappiness like waves reverberating up from the ground. But he had no clue to the reason. Ik had located some of the kraykets, which to Bandicut was a good thing, a sign maybe that they would eventually see something familiar in this incomprehensible world. The four of them had varying lengths of history in Shipworld, but since their return from Starmaker, none of them had yet seen a familiar location, even on a map.

But apparently the kraykets weren’t what Ik had wanted to show him. Whatever it was would have to wait. They emerged into the clearing by the lake and could once again walk side-by-side. “Let’s try to get some sleep, while there’s still some night left,” Bandicut said.

“Hrah-h-h,” Ik said sadly.


Antares and Li-Jared greeted them at the camp with sleepy relief, which only seemed to deepen the Hraachee’an’s gloom. /Please,/ Bandicut said to Charli, or to his translator-stones, whoever was listening. /Isn’t there some way we can get Ik some new stones? This is impossible./

/// I’ve asked.

Your stones just counsel patience.

I don’t know why. ///

Patience! Bandicut thought. He sighed and told Antares and Li-Jared what he had seen.

Antares looked thoughtful. “May I?” she asked, approaching Ik and placing a hand on his arm. She spent a moment silently studying and absorbing feelings from him, then stepped away. “Uhhll,” she sighed. “John, you are prominent in his thoughts right now. I believe he feels hope on your behalf, though I don’t know why. It’s odd, though, because he also seems to be carrying regret, as though he feels he’s let you down in some way.” She gazed at Ik, no doubt hoping he would understand and explain himself. But Ik’s deep-set eyes gave no clue to his thoughts, and after a moment, he walked over to his sleep-pad, sat down in a meditative pose, and gazed silently out across the lake.

Li-Jared rubbed his fingertips thoughtfully against his chest.

“What?” Bandicut asked.

“Well, in a way, it seems as though Ik has accomplished more here without stones, than the rest of us have with stones.”

Bandicut cocked his head. “I don’t follow.”

“Well, he’s gone off and found this control node thing, or whatever it is, and at least made some kind of contact outside where we are now. What are we doing here? Camping by a lake?”

“We’re resting, I think. That’s not nothing.” Even as he said it, Bandicut knew Li-Jared was at least partly right. They were resting, yes—but only because they could get no handle on what they should be doing next. But they’d needed R&R since about two missions ago. They were so used to being run ragged that they didn’t know what to do with themselves when they were left alone. To Li-Jared he said, “Isn’t rest what you said you wanted, when we were at the waystation squawking at Jeaves about never giving us a break?”

Li-Jared looked annoyed, the blue band across the centers of his eyes flickering in the dark. “Yes, but we weren’t on Shipworld then. Now we are. We should be getting some answers. And Ik’s right, we could be looking for our own people, if there are any.” The Karellian stood with his small hands balled into fists. Gazing out over the lake, he said, “Don’t you ever wonder what’s over there, while we sit here having a—” rasp “—picnic?”

“Well, sure.”

“And don’t you wonder why they’ve put us—” rasp “—on ice like this?” The stones hiccuped briefly on the translation of the vernacular.

“You know perfectly well I do,” Bandicut said with a sigh, suddenly aware of how sleepy he was. “But I don’t think we’re going to solve it tonight. Can we talk about it in the morning?”

Li-Jared rubbed his fingers together, in the equivalent of a shrug; and with that, the subject was dropped, and they all crawled back into their sleeping rolls. It took Bandicut a long time to get back to sleep. But when he did, he slept soundly until daylight.


It was a sound in the woods that woke him, followed by Antares saying, without moving, “Is that Napoleon I hear?” Bandicut blinked open his eyes to a predawn light and listened. Mechanical footsteps, approaching. Soon the two-legged robot strode out of the woods from somewhere beyond the supply hut at the top of the clearing.

Bandicut pushed himself to a sitting position. “Napoleon!” he rumbled hoarsely. “Welcome home, partner. How did your scouting expedition go?”

The robot, looking like some sculptor’s droll, mechanical impression of a praying mantis, trotted down into their camp and stood among them. “I searched long and found little,” he replied, rotating his head to take in all four of them. “But I’ve received a message from Jeaves. He has found something of interest, and he wants us all to come see it.”

“Right now?” Bandicut asked, yawning. “Where is he—or it—whatever it is he wants us to see?”

Napoleon made a vague gesture with a mechanical arm. “That way up the lake. He asked me to bring you the message. He’s arranging transportation and asks you to be ready to go this afternoon. He’s still acquiring information. He says don’t worry about eating later; he’ll have dinner for us.” Napoleon turned to Ik, who was standing a little apart, and spoke in the pidgin Hraachee’an that he’d been learning for limited communication with Ik. Ik gave a little grunt of acknowledgment and started to ask a question. But Napoleon had already turned back to the others. “Is that acceptable to all of you?”

“Okay with me,” Bandicut said, as the others indicated agreement. “But what is this all about?”

“I don’t exactly know,” said Napoleon. “But I gather it’s important.”

Li-Jared made a twanging sound: Bwang. “It isn’t the damn boojum again, is it?” When they had last been on Shipworld, a mysterious problem with the iceline information network had turned out to be the work of a malicious AI called the boojum. It had threatened all of Shipworld, and them personally, before they’d managed to destroy it.

“He didn’t say. But as far as I know, the boojum is still dead,” said the robot.

“Good,” said Li-Jared.

“But,” Napoleon continued, “whatever it is, I think you’re going to want to see it. Can you be ready?”

“Oh, I think so,” Bandicut said, barking a laugh.

“I’ll be back with your ride, then,” Napoleon said. “You may go back to sleep now, if you wish.” And with that, he sprang up the slope and disappeared the way he had come.

Bandicut stared after the robot in wonder. Li-Jared and Antares promptly crawled back into their sleeping bags—and after a moment Bandicut shivered and did likewise. Only Ik remained sitting upright, hand outstretched to where the robot had been.


Napoleon was true to his word. When he returned in the warm midday light, his arrival was heralded by a buzzing sound on the water. Bandicut and the others hurried down to the shore to see what the noise was. An open-cockpit watercraft was pulling up, a catamaran large enough to carry the four of them easily. Napoleon was perched at the controls like a sports fisherman from any coastline in North America. “Come aboard!” he called.

“Where are you taking us, sailor?” Bandicut asked, stepping carefully onto the bow deck, then extending a hand back to help Antares, and then Li-Jared and Ik. The boat rocked a little as water slapped at its twin hulls; but it was steady enough for them to make their way to the back, where they took seats on either side, facing inward with their backs to the water. With a brrr’ing sound, the boat backed away from the shore, then swung around and headed for deep water.

“Far end of the lake,” the robot said. “Jeaves is waiting at an iceline station there. He found other facilities, as well.”

“Hrrm,” Ik said, after Napoleon attempted to translate for him.

“Where’d you get this boat?” Li-Jared asked, twisting nervously in his seat to glance over the side.

“Don’t you like boat rides?” Napoleon said. “They’re available for borrowing if you know where to ask.” He opened the throttle, and the boat rose in the water, knifing through the gentle swells. Li-Jared didn’t look any happier, but Bandicut sat back, dangled one hand over into the spray, and took Antares’ hand in the other. For a little while his cares dropped away, and he felt more relaxed with the motion of the boat than he had felt in a long time. Ik sat a little apart, looking troubled. He glanced a few times at Napoleon, but did not speak.

As they pounded up the length of the lake, Bandicut gazed along the far shore which, last night, had seemed such a place of beckoning mystery and enticing lights in the dark. His eyes caught a movement through the distant trees, and he realized that it was a train, speeding through the woods just above the shoreline. He had a moment to wonder if it was part of the streaktrain network that he and the others had once ridden, in another part of Shipworld; and then it was gone. He never got a clear look at it, but it left him pondering where that train was coming from, and where it was going—and who lived on that far shore.

The boat ride took most of an hour. As they neared the tip of the lake, Bandicut smiled a little at the sight of Antares with her face turned up to the sky, her eyes closed. Antares sensed his gaze and crinkled a smile in return. Napoleon throttled back. A small cove marked their destination, along with a group of buildings with a wharf jutting out. Napoleon eased the boat to the dock. A black-and-maroon robot floated in the air to meet them and handle the mooring lines. The lines weren’t exactly ropes but thin, stretchy bands that the robot simply tamped down onto the dock.

Ik muttered to himself, patting the intelligent rope that he had carried coiled at his waist for as long as Bandicut had known him. The docking ropes, it seemed, were of a similar nature.

Li-Jared was the first to hop off, clearly not wanting to stay on the water any longer than necessary.

“Welcome,” the dock robot said, in a low-pitched chirp. Then its voice changed and it spoke again, in Jeaves' voice. “Hi folks! I’m in the upper building, holding a table for all of us. If you follow my friend here, he’ll bring you to join me.”

“Holding a table?” Li-Jared asked.

“There’s a nice little pub. I thought you might be hungry,” Jeaves said, and then clicked off.

“If you will follow me . . .” said the small robot in its own voice.

They followed.

The robot led them up the walk toward the nearest building, a natural-wood structure overlooking the lake. The robot spoke in the casual, practiced voice of a tour guide. “This is the lower level of the Knowledge Branch campus, the local arm of a distributed learning center, what you might call a university.”

“Huh,” Bandicut said. “Very nice.” What he was thinking was, Do they have answers for us at this university?

“You will be dining in the Observatory Pub,” the robot continued.

“Observatory?” Li-Jared twanged. “What sky can we see from here? Aside from this fake one, I mean?” He waved an agitated hand overhead.

The robot answered without missing a beat. “That? I wouldn’t call it a fake. It’s a reproduction.”

“Reproduction?” Li-Jared said. “Reproduction of what sky?”

“Currently, our indoor overhead is displaying the sky of a world known as Pardolus Four. It’s perhaps not so noticeable in the daytime. But at night, if you were to be out under the stars, you would recognize the night constellations of Pardolus Four.”

Bandicut nodded. Sure we would.

Bwang came a sound from deep in Li-Jared’s throat. “So the sky here is programmable? To different worlds?”

“Oh yes.”

Li-Jared rubbed his chest thoughtfully. “And are these worlds . . . all places that . . . well . . .” He paused, struggling with the words.

“I think Li-Jared is trying to say, do these skies all represent people who have been brought here from these worlds? Brought to live on Shipworld?” Bandicut asked. “The way we were?”

The robot seemed to be pondering the question. It glanced at Napoleon, as though for help. “I do not know much about the people you speak of, or how they might have come to be on Shipworld. I’m sorry, I do not know how you came to be on Shipworld.” It turned back to Bandicut. “But many of the worlds whose skies we show are represented by local inhabitants, yes. It is a point of pride to the designers.”

Antares spoke at that. “What about our worlds? Will we see our own skies sometime?”

The robot swiveled one way and another, as though trying to identify their species. “I really don’t know. You see, I—”

It hesitated for a moment, and then changed tack. “Well. You came here for a purpose, and perhaps it would be best if we proceeded with that. Now, if you’ll please follow me, we’ll be entering an active study and research area.” The robot floated up a flight of shallow stairs, paused for the others to catch up, and continued through a glass door on the terraced second floor of the building.

Inside, the structure looked to Bandicut’s eye much like any university building’s lobby, except that the bulletin boards were holographic, with movement and sound as well as text, no part of them comprehensible at first glance. The lobby also, at first glance, was deserted.

The second glance came when Antares said, “Look!” and pointed up toward the far end of the ceiling. The structure was see-through, and what he saw was a maze of glassed-in corridors above them, crisscrossing at impossible angles. There seemed far too many corridors for the space. Were they like the n-space compartments on The Long View? They were buzzing with activity; he saw beings walking, rolling, crawling, and floating. None of them were human, nor were any Hraachee’an, Karellian, or Thespi. Some were metal, some furred, some naked, some clothed, some in shimmer-suits. Other than that, the corridors looked like university hallways anywhere, full of Brownian motion. No matter which direction he looked, Bandicut couldn’t seem to get a good look at any of the individuals.

The robot urged them onward. “Just a little farther.” It led them into a clear-walled elevator, which whisked them upward right through the tangle of glass corridors, and discharged them onto what seemed like a mezzanine several floors up. Ik trailed a little behind, speaking to Napoleon. He seemed to be trying to ask Napoleon something, but either Ik could not make himself understood or Napoleon didn’t know how to answer, because Ik seemed increasingly frustrated. The dock robot led them to the entrance to a darkened establishment—a restaurant, judging by the smells. “Here’s where I leave you,” it said, with a small bow. “If you proceed in, you will find Jeaves.”

Stepping through the shimmering door curtain, Bandicut blinked until his eyes adapted to the low light, and then he saw that they were in a remarkably close simulacrum of a cozy English pub on Earth, but without the crowding and noise. Jeaves floated out of the shadows toward them and ushered them toward the back. “I’ve been holding a table for you. Please come, and we’ll order you all some dinner.”

“You’re in a real body!” Li-Jared exclaimed, reaching out to touch the robot in wonder. He looked much as he had as a holo—a metallic, humanoid form, with a ring around the crown of his head containing his many eyes.

“Thank you for noticing,” Jeaves said with a little bow. “I’ve just moved back into it. I hope you like it. I’m still getting the feel of it. Quite different from living as a holo.”

Bandicut nodded approval and glanced around. Only a few tables were occupied, and most of those had privacy screens shimmering around them, making it impossible to see their occupants. “Thanks for saving us a table,” he said. The robot showed no recognition of the irony in his voice, but gestured to them to take seats around a circular table in a back corner. When they were all seated, a privacy shroud enclosed them, a night sky appeared over their heads, and their places at the table glowed with menu items. It took a few moments before the text resolved into something Bandicut could read; once it did, he scanned down the list and ordered something that looked vaguely like a veggie burger and a beer. Antares picked some form of seafood and a glass of local wine—living dangerously, choosing unknown seafood, Bandicut thought. On his other side, Ik and Napoleon were conferring on a reading of the menu. After a minute, Ik growled to himself and stabbed an item with a fingertip. He looked up at Bandicut, his gaze unreadable.

/There must be something we can do to cheer him up,/ Bandicut thought to Charli. Inside his head, the noncorporeal alien, his companion since Triton, responded without much hope.

/// That kind of depression is beyond my experience.

If anyone can help him, it would be Antares. ///

Almost as if she had heard the thought, Antares placed her left hand over Bandicut’s right, and with a slight tilt of her head, indicated that she too was thinking about Ik’s condition. Charli was right, of course; her empathic abilities stood a better chance of getting through to him than anything short of a new set of translator-stones. Perhaps later, after they were done with whatever Jeaves had planned here, he and Li-Jared could give Ik and Antares a little space to work.

The drinks arrived, borne by a mole-headed waiter who carried each of the four drinks in a different hand. Jeaves called for a surprisingly human-sounding toast, and they all—even Ik—raised their glasses or mugs and drank.

Bandicut felt the almost-beer slide down his throat, leaving an aftertaste that told him whoever had brewed the stuff was still trying. He took another swallow, and a third, and by then could hardly tell the difference. Setting the glass down and wiping his lips, he said, “So, Jeaves, I’m sure we’re all wondering why you called us in here. Did you finally find someone to report to?”

The robot made some clucking sounds, and then said, “Yes and no. I was able to submit our report, yes, though not in person in the way we’d hoped. But I did make an important contact in the area of planetary protective services; and from that contact, I gleaned some interesting, if troubling, information.”

Bwang. “That’s nice,” said Li-Jared in a voice that conveyed just a hint of sarcasm. Perhaps he was feeling mellow and unusually kindly toward Jeaves tonight.

Jeaves continued matter-of-factly, “I’m waiting for one more data packet from my source. I want to explain this with as complete a picture as possible.”

“And you expect that—?” Bandicut asked, with upturned hands.

“By the end of dinner,” Jeaves said. “By dessert, for sure.”

“We’re holding you to that,” Bandicut answered.

“And I’m happy to see all of you, too,” Jeaves said, with a twinkle of a tiny eye-light on his brow.

Chapter 4 Cartographic Clues

DURING THE MEAL, Jeaves told them a little of what he had been up to. Being in a virtual state had both advantages and disadvantages. “Since I’ve been living in the network, I could do system-wide research through the iceline and other systems. It’s a pretty broad reach, and I’ve been skimming various channels to see what I could learn about general happenings on Shipworld. Oddly, I’ve found no reference of any sort to the Starmaker mission—or to you, me, or anything we’ve done, even though we saved more than a few worlds from extinction. It’s as if we were a stealth operation, and I’m not sure why that is so.”

“What about the people who sent you to find us and take us on the mission to Starmaker?” Bandicut asked. “Couldn’t you go to them and ask?”

“If only I could,” said the robot. “But they seem to have dropped out of sight. Lying low, you might say. I couldn’t talk to them, and couldn’t even find them.”

“But you at least know who they are, don’t you?” Li-Jared asked.

“Not with any certainty. I received my instructions through intermediaries. Those channels were valid authorities at the time, but their original sources were kept hidden. Those channels have now expired or been removed, so I no longer have even that access.”

Bandicut took a long swallow of amber liquid. He was on his second beer now. “Why don’t they want to talk to you?” he asked, setting his mug down carefully.

The robot was silent for a moment.

“Uhhl,” Antares murmured unhappily. “Do they have something to hide?”

Jeaves leaned forward and touched a finger to the shiny part of his face where his cheek should have been. “My guess is that there are disagreements in the high-level power structures of Shipworld. Now, before you ask, I know little about how those structures work. There is a ruling circle, but their interactions tend to be secretive.”

Bandicut sat back and exchanged glances with Antares. “You mean even you don’t know who’s running this place? Why should we pay attention to anything they ask us to do?”

Bwang. “Exactly,” Li-Jared said.

“You must make your own decisions about that,” Jeaves said. “But do consider: Haven’t the missions they’ve sent you on all been to the good? You saved the world of the Neri from disaster.”

“Yes, that’s true. But still—”

“And you kept the heart of the Starmaker Nebula from going hypernova at the hands of the Mindaru and subsequently incinerating hundreds of worlds.”

“Of course, but—”

“And before that, you saved Shipworld itself from calamity at the hands of the boojum.”

/// He does have a point. ///

Bandicut said with a slow sigh, “All those thing may be true . . .”

A flicker of light danced around Jeaves' headband. “Those were worthy and legitimate missions, were they not? Even if you don’t know exactly who authorized them?”

Bandicut shrugged, and saw Antares making a gesture of assent. Ik was clearly frustrated in trying to follow Napoleon’s translation, and Li-Jared was rubbing his fingertips together thoughtfully. Antares spoke next. “So, yes, we have been asked to do things that were good, and beneficial. Yes. We acknowledge that. But do they expect us to continue, uhhl, to operate blindly? Are there good authorities and bad ones? Why do they not show themselves?”

“That is a question I would like an answer to, as well,” Jeaves answered.

Bandicut raised his hands as if to ask a question, then dropped them, not knowing what to ask.

“Hrah!” Ik shouted suddenly, speaking aloud for the first time since they had started eating. He pounded the table with both fists, then smacked his chest once and pressed both hands to the table. He bowed his head and said something Bandicut couldn’t understand. Napoleon translated as, “Enough! No more!” Then Ik nodded sharply to Li-Jared, Bandicut, and Antares.

At that moment, the waiter-robot and several assistants swept in and deposited platters covered with small morsels. Dessert.

“So what,” Bandicut said, gesturing to the platters, “were you going to share with us by dessert at the latest?”


To everyone’s surprise, Jeaves actually was ready to share. He asked everyone to bring their food and drink, and led them through the back of the pub into a large, darkened room with work screens on the left wall and a large holo-wall on the right.

“What’s all this?” Bandicut asked, setting his beer on a ledge.

“This is where I can show you all the things I’ve discovered.”

Bandicut’s eyes slowly adapted to the gloom. “What things?”

“For starters, something called the starstream. I don’t expect that to mean anything to you yet—but it seems to have caught the interest of more than one ruling faction. Something important is happening there.”

Bandicut hmm’d.

“Hrah,” said Ik, listening to Napoleon’s halting translation. He looked bored and frustrated with all the hard-to-follow talk. He did not appear to be understanding much of it. He sauntered away, tapping the side of his head, to take a look at the work stations in the lounge. Antares and Bandicut watched him go. Maybe, Bandicut thought with a twinge of sympathy, he just wants to see if he can continue last night’s search. At a nudge from Antares, Bandicut turned his attention back to Jeaves.

“I’m going to start with some images,” Jeaves said. “We can catch Ik up on it later. The images pertain to matters concerning both your people, John Bandicut, and yours, Li-Jared.”

Li-Jared stiffened. “How’s that?”

“Observe,” Jeaves answered. The wall came to life, and they were suddenly gazing out into space. The glowing, misty spiral of the Milky Way stretched out before them. Bandicut’s breath went out involuntarily; he had seen this many times before, but the beauty of it never got old—nor did the punch to his gut at the reminder of his isolation from Earth and every human he’d ever known. “This view,” Jeaves said, “comes from a telescope camera just a few layers of wall away from us here.”

Bwang “We’re near the outer hull of this thing?” Li-Jared asked. “Of Shipworld?” His fingers crawled nervously on his chest.

“We are, yes.”

“So that’s a real-time image?”

“For the moment. But now we’re going to look at some cartography of features down inside the galaxy. This is imagery assembled from galactic probes.” Jeaves turned and bowed toward Bandicut. “Let’s start in human-inhabited space.” A tiny transparent sphere appeared, and the viewpoint zoomed in on it.

Bandicut shook off a wave of disorientation. “Are you serious? Is that my solar system?” He tried to suppress a rush of emotions. Sudden change in perspective. Homesickness. Longing. Detachment.

/// I’m pretty sure it’s not— ///

Charli began in his head, before Jeaves started speaking again.

“The solar system is in there,” Jeaves answered. “But that sphere represents an area of human-inhabited space not quite a thousand light-years across.”

“Uh—” Bandicut began.

/// Wait a minute. He’s saying— ///

“And what you’ve probably deduced by now is that we’re looking at human space in a somewhat later time frame than your time back home, John. We’re looking at space a few hundred years into what I imagine you may still think of as the future.”

Bandicut’s throat constricted; he could not respond.

“While you’ve been traveling, John, humanity has moved out and colonized the stars.”

His head was spinning, but he managed a small wave of protest. “Hold it . . . hold it. Are you saying this is the future—here, now—or are you saying that . . .” He had trouble finishing the question. He rasped in a painful breath, then finished his question in a papery whisper. “Just how many hundreds of years have gone by on Earth, while I’ve been . . . here?”

“To the best of my information, about five hundred years, Earth time. But you already knew that, or suspected it anyway, didn’t you?”

“Suspected, yes.” He was having trouble catching his breath. “But you told me before that you didn’t know. You weren’t sure how much time—”

“It’s true. I didn’t know. Not exactly. But I was created by humans during the period of the grand expansion—though parts of me have zigged and zagged a bit on the timeline, so it’s gotten rather difficult to explain easily.”

Bandicut was aware of Antares pressing close to him, offering her empathic support. “So everyone I knew is really gone—” Julie? Dakota? Georgia? Krackey?

/// John, we knew all that,

didn’t we? ///

/We knew it was likely. Okay, almost certain. But that’s different from having it confirmed, Charli. I’m not sure why it is, but it is./

Antares squeezed his shoulder, not speaking. He felt her comforting presence flowing over him. Antares knew about Julie, and understood that he had long since thought he was over her loss. But this was like gazing down at her gravestone for the first time. He wasn’t prepared for it, not really. He felt himself swaying where he stood.

Jeaves spoke again. “I’m not showing this to you to highlight your loss, John—but to show you something that your people have achieved in the meantime. Take a look.” The image zoomed in, until the stars within the volume of human habitation became visible. Then, from within that region, a thin, glowing thread emerged, stretching from a bright red star in the human-occupied realm, all the way out into unexplored space and straight toward the heart of the galaxy. “That line,” Jeaves said, “is called the starstream. It’s an interstellar n-space channel, anchored at one end by the black hole at the galactic core, and at the other end by a black hole where Betelgeuse used to be—”

“Used to be?”

Jeaves explained how a naturally occurring cosmic hyperstring had been transformed into a galaxy-spanning pipeline, an n-space stream that served as a high-speed route for interstellar travelers.

Bandicut was too stunned to speak.

Antares murmured, “Are you saying that Bandie’s people made this thing?”

“Indeed, they did,” Jeaves said. “With the help of friends from other worlds. In fact, I—or a version of me—was there when it happened. That particular ‘me’ didn’t survive the supernova to report back, but I imagine it was pretty spectacular.”

“I should think so,” Antares breathed.

Bwang. “But you said my people were involved, too,” Li-Jared reminded him. “Were they among the friends of the humans?”

“No, they weren’t there. But they have since become involved, I believe.”

“How? Have my people met Bandie’s people?”

“Not as far as we know. Your people have not yet explored their own solar system. But they have begun building in local space around your homeworld.”

Li-Jared did not look pleased. “We haven’t reached the stars yet?”

Jeaves rotated toward him. “Your timeline is different, and your people face a very different environment around your homeworld. Your people’s circumstances differ substantially from the ones John’s people faced.”

Li-Jared fumed. “Are you going to show us my people’s space?”

Jeaves turned back toward the wall. “I was coming to that.” He pointed to the thread he’d called the starstream. The view shifted, following the thread of light out of human-inhabited space, and inward into the galaxy. “Traffic moves down the starstream, as though down a river. Every so often, there is a node where natural vibrations of the cosmic hyperstring make it possible to exit and enter, and those are the places where ships tend to go exploring for new worlds to contact, or settle.” Jeaves moved the view a little farther down the starstream. “Here’s a node,” he said, pointing. “And here—” A tiny patch of light appeared to one side, not far from the node in the starstream. “This is the Karellian system. It’s embedded in an obscuring nebula, so I can’t show you an actual view of your star.”

Li-Jared made a soft bonging sound. Frustration. Disappointment.

“Now, you see how close Karellia is to the starstream? As far as I can tell, there has been no contact or discovery yet. Karellia is farther down the starstream than most of the human-connected activity has gone, though it appears there are a few human and human-friend colonies even farther down the stream. So there is some traffic in this part of the starstream. Still, the information I’ve been able to obtain is sparse, coming from a few probes sent to monitor the area.”

Bandicut tapped his teeth. “That’s interesting, but it’s not why you brought us here, is it?” /I have a feeling we’re not here to see good news. Want to bet?/

/// Nope. ///

“You’re right. The reason I brought you here is that something’s going on in the starstream at that point. Something that has our Shipworld masters worried. And I believe it may involve Karellia.”

Li-Jared bonged softly.

Antares stepped forward to take a closer look. “Something between Bandie’s people and Li-Jared’s?”

“I don’t think so,” Jeaves said. “I think it’s between Karellia and the starstream itself.”

“So, what?” Li-Jared asked. “Have my people found this starstream and started using it?”

“The situation is more subtle than that. And possibly more dangerous,” said Jeaves. “The information I found becomes rather sketchy at this point. But the rumblings, and the secrecy and guarded messages that mention Karellia . . .”

“Hold on,” Bandicut said, craning his neck to look around. “Shouldn’t Ik be hearing this? Where’d he go?”

Li-Jared turned. “Wasn’t he with Napoleon?”

“Napoleon’s right here,” Antares said, pointing to the robot standing behind her.

“I’m sorry,” said Napoleon. “I thought I should hear what Jeaves was say—”

Bandicut wheeled and strode out into the lobby, peering around for their Hraachee’an friend. “Ik! Where are you?”

“Bandie, come back!” Li-Jared cried behind him. “I want to hear this!”


Ik, weary of listening to a conversation he couldn’t follow, had wandered out of the room to a cluster of large work stations in the lobby. He found one display that seemed to offer images like the one he’d seen last night: scenes of places in Shipworld, or so he assumed. Thinking of the human female he had spotted, he decided to see what he could turn up. He was in such a fog! He should have tried to get Napoleon to interpret his story for Bandicut, but he had just been too far behind the mental curve to break into any of the conversations. He wasn’t even sure he could have expressed himself to Napoleon. But if he could find the human and show Bandie . . .

He fiddled with the controls, thumbing through a succession of views. Several reminded him of landscapes he had viewed last night, and he wondered if perhaps there was a menu that could bring the same views around. Unlike the room he’d been in last night, when a new scene appeared here, so did a pale, violet-glowing rectangular frame floating to the left of the work station. A transport portal, perhaps? When the display switched to a view of a busy concourse, thronging with a huge variety of folk, he felt a strong temptation to test the portal theory. Quick step through to have a look around, quick step back? That would be risky; it assumed the portal went in both directions.

While pondering the question, he got up and walked to where he could peer into the darkened cartography room and check on his friends still talking in front of a large star map. They weren’t going anywhere. Ik returned to his seat, still itching to try if the opportunity arose, but afraid. If he felt isolated now, how would he feel if he became permanently separated from his companions? He muttered to himself and touched the controls to sort through available views.

The image changed to gorges and canyons in a spectacular landscape. Ik sat back and glanced to his left at another work station, where a spindly sort of creature had come in quietly and sat down. Ik saw the being work for a moment, and then stand up and step through the glowing portal next to his station. It vanished in a glimmer of violet light.

Well, that settled the question of whether it was a transportation portal or just another kind of display. Thoughtfully, Ik turned back to his own display and studied the landscape of gorges. It seemed familiar. He thought he had seen it last night, but under different lighting conditions. Was the number of selections so limited that he had already returned to this one? Or, perhaps, had he accidentally bookmarked the views he had seen from the other control station?

He sat back and glanced again to his left, at the other work station. The portal to the left of that station gleamed back to life, and the tall, thin creature stepped back out. Round-trip transportation? The being did something at the controls again. His work station darkened, and without so much as a glance at Ik, the being walked away and disappeared down a corridor.

Hrrming to himself, Ik resumed his study of the controls in front of him. Did you have to do anything special to make the portal ready to bring you back once you’d gone through? Most of the equipment around here was pretty smart. It might happen automatically, perhaps for a period of time after stepping through. Ik sighed through his ears, wishing he could be sure.

If the station was remembering scenes from last night, might he be able to resume his search for other Hraachee’ans, and perhaps do it in a more organized fashion? Or, if John Bandicut came over here to help, to show him how he might find Bandicut’s fellow human? The trouble was, Ik didn’t really remember precisely what he had done last night; and in any case, the controls here were different. So it was back to blind luck. Expelling his breath through cupped hands, he touched the button that nudged the display to the next view.

To his astonishment, he stared into a meadow just like the one where he had seen the human female. The land seemed empty now. He gingerly touched a button that he hoped would pan the view from side to side. It did. “Hrah,” he whispered, as he glimpsed a krayket running to the right. He panned farther, to see where the creature was running. “Hrah!” There it, or she, was. The human. She was striding toward something—toward a pale, glowing rectangle. She appeared to be marching toward it with the intention of stepping through. “No!”

Ik turned his head and called hoarsely, “John Bandicut! Come quickly! John Bandicut!” His voice came out as a weak rasp. He looked back at the holo. The human in the viewer could be through that portal in a matter of seconds. Who knew where it would take her?

To his left, the portal beside him glimmered violet. Would it take him to that location—to the human? Could he use it to bring her back here? If his guess about the portal was wrong, the results could be disastrous.

The opportunity was nearly gone. He jumped up and shouted in the general direction of his friends, “I’ll be back!” Then he turned and plunged through the violet-rimmed rectangle. The light flared around him, and he felt a moment of dizziness before everything changed.

Chapter 5 A Meeting of Minds

JULIE STONE BENT down to peer out the narrow window of the low-ceilinged lounge (for want of a better word) that fronted the inn (for want of a better word) where she’d been staying since shortly after her arrival on Shipworld. The rain had stopped, and sunshine had returned. About time. She needed to get out for a walk; she was going stir-crazy.

As she ducked out through the front door, she heard a voice behind her, rolling like a drumstick on a set of wooden chimes: “Wherrre-are yougoingJulieSto-o-o-ne? Ou-ooot forawalk-k?” Julie glanced back and saw Mrs. Logger padding out from the back room. Her hostess here at the inn, Mrs. Logger resembled a short, horizontal log on multiple legs, with waving appendages and eye-stalks. Mrs. Logger wasn’t her real name, of course, but since Julie couldn’t understand her hostess’s real name, she’d decided that Mrs. Logger would have to do.

“Yes,” Julie said. “I need some light and outdoor exercise.”

“Nottoofardear,” said the rippling being.

“Of course not,” said Julie. Where would I go? The inn was surrounded by fields, meadows, and a few stands of trees. Beyond that, she didn’t know what she would find, other than what appeared to be extensive forests. Unless she wanted to take off alone through the forests, there really was no place to go beyond what she had come to think of as the estate grounds. From time to time, doorways or portals briefly materialized out in one of the meadows, seemingly leading to other places. One such portal had brought her to this place from the barren space-docks where she had landed after her flight to Shipworld—how long ago? Weeks? Months? Her sense of time had blurred. But the portals appeared infrequently, disgorging beings who strode off on their own business—some of them into the inn, some of them into the forest. Julie had thought of trying the portal herself, but she was not ready to risk stepping through and ending up a million miles from here. Wherever here was.

Why she had been brought to this particular place, she did not know. But she was safe and comfortable and well fed—and for that, for now, she was willing to put up with some restlessness. Here, she enjoyed the welcoming inn, the few demands, and an opportunity to write and verbally record her experiences into something that appeared to be a local comm network. It felt good for her mental health, and she liked Mrs. Logger, who had taken Julie under her wing.

The “sun” felt warm on her face as she strode out across the meadow. It was not really a sun, she knew, but an artificial light source high overhead. That had taken some getting used to, but after the first week or so—and after living on Triton—it seemed normal, as much as anything here did. She recognized that she was in a state of denial. (No, I have not left Earth, Neptune, the solar system, everyone I’ve ever known, and sane reality behind. There is another explanation, and it will come to me in time. Perhaps when the hallucination ends. Please carry on.)

She wondered if any of the kraykets would be out today. She’d met the little meerkat-like animals shortly after her arrival on Shipworld, and they’d led her into the portal that brought her here to the inn. Now, as she reached the upper part of the field, her hopes were rewarded. Two of the kraykets were at the top of a rise, standing watch over their territory. They yodeled to her as she approached, and then quieted to chitters and nods as she stepped closer. Accepting her presence on their turf, they went back to being watchful. They always seemed watchful and solemn; she didn’t really know why. Were they guarding treasure, or their families? Or watching for a sign?

“You fellows up to anything I should know about?” she asked. She had never actually found a way to communicate clearly with them, though she’d encountered them often during her time here. The translator-stones had told her they were called kraykets and seemed to regard them as beings of some importance; but if the stones could convert their squeaks and chatters into words for her, they had not yet troubled to do so.

As the kraykets continued their business of standing watch, Julie stood in much the same pose, taking in the meadow and the wildflowers and the warm sunshine from the clear blue “sky” above. It was peaceful and beautiful. Still, it was lonely. Loneliness had been her steady companion since her arrival, when she’d been separated from the translator. Now here she was, stranded inside a large artificial world many thousands of light-years from home—not really even inside her own galaxy anymore, because Shipworld floated out beyond its edge. She had no human companionship, and not that much other companionship, either. The kraykets were charming, but they didn’t talk. Mrs. Logger talked, but conversations with her never went too deep.

Sometimes Julie fantasized finding John Bandicut. But what were the chances, given the size of this place—even if he was still alive and on Shipworld? With the translator gone (where, she didn’t know), she couldn’t help thinking often about him, which only made the loneliness worse.

She had already transcribed all she could remember of saving Earth from destruction at the hands of an intruder from the stars—much as John, before her, had saved the Earth from a rogue comet. It had all ended with the translator and her flying through the sun and then somehow converting the energy of the passage into something called spatial translation and threading. After a harrowing time, they had found themselves at Shipworld, a sort of alternate Garden of Eden, where food grew on trees and small animals kept her company. The kraykets had led her to Mrs. Logger’s place, where she could communicate with the innkeeper, but hardly anyone else. The occasional alien travelers who passed through rarely seemed to speak at all.

She could only wonder why the little stones in her wrists, the daughter-stones of the translator, had become so quiet. Their last words, spoken many days ago, had been: *You must be patient.*

The hell with that, she thought, bringing her gaze down from the sky. The kraykets cocked their heads at her and squeaked. She was certain they knew more than they could communicate. “I wish you talked my language,” she murmured, reaching down as if to scratch the head of the nearest. The krayket bobbed away, not letting her touch it. It peered back up at her with a rasping sound. “I had a cat like you once,” she muttered.

Then she cocked her own head. There was something in the air, something vaguely electric. The nearest krayket raised its nose and made a long keening sound. Then it turned to its fellow on its right and the two conversed earnestly. After a moment, they scampered over to her feet and squeaked up at her. “What is it?” she asked. “You want me to follow you somewhere?”

At once, they scampered down the far side of the rise. Julie followed, down the grassy slope. At the bottom, standing vertically in the grass, was a glowing rectangle of violet light. A doorway in the middle of nowhere. Again. Peering through it, she saw a continuation of the grass, as if the rectangle were an empty frame. But the kraykets sat up on their hind legs, gazing expectantly.

/Am I supposed to go through?/ she asked her silent stones, silently. There was no answer. “What are you trying to tell me?” she asked the kraykets.

No illumination there, either.

Stepping closer to the doorway, she leaned as though to step through it.


Startled by the single word from her stones, she pulled back. A moment later she saw a shimmer in the portal, a shadowy movement. The shadow darkened, loomed, and she took another step back. A tall, two-legged being strode out, practically colliding with her. The being gave a startled bark as she jumped back out of its way.

For a moment, they gaped at each other, catching their breaths. The being was a foot taller than Julie, gangling in body form, with two long arms. Its face was bluish white, sculpted, almost skeletal, with two dark and deep-set eyes. It was wearing a leathery sort of tunic vest and pants, and carried what looked like a coil of rope at its side. On its feet it wore something like soft moccasins.

“Uh, hi,” Julie said, her voice cracking a little. “Who . . . are you?” What are you?

The being uttered something in a rumbling voice: “Urrrrm-m-m.” Its mouth seemed rigid, almost horny, and it made a clacking sound when he closed it. It raised a hand and extended it toward her.

Julie took another step backward. “What . . . are you?” she whispered.

“Rrrrm-m-m—hrrrahhh.” The creature angled its head slightly. As she raised a hand in a combination of greeting and defensiveness, its gaze followed the movement. It made a sharp rasping sound, as its eyes focused on her hand.

Or her wrist: where a jewel embedded in her skin glimmered with a diamond light.

It sees the stone. Did it see the glint of an easy-to-steal treasure? She thought she felt a sudden energy surging in the stones, as if they felt its gaze, too, and were coming to life in response. Were they gearing for self-defense, or to perform another one of their strange physics-defying tricks? /Stones?/ she asked. But there was no response.

“Stay back!” she cried, as sternly as she could, raising both hands now. The creature’s gaze shifted. Oh great—I just showed him the other one. “I don’t mean you any harm. But I can defend myself.”

“Hrahhh!” said the being, in a voice that seemed almost to be making an appeal—with both its hands extended in a slightly inward-curved gesture. Greeting? Or grabbing?

Julie held both of her hands palm-out, and pressed them forward twice in a Wait! gesture, though heaven knew what the gesture meant to the other. Her wrists burned as she did this, which made her even more frantic. “Please. My name is Julie.” She pointed to herself. “What is your name?”

The creature cocked its head the other way. It pointed with a long finger at first one of her hands—or wrists—and then the other. Then it raised its hand to the side of its head and pressed its fingertips to its temple. It muttered something incomprehensible, then groaned. Its gaze met hers. She shivered, with a sudden apprehension. It seemed certain that this creature knew about stones, knew that they were more than just pretty baubles.

Her stones buzzed once and said, *We think . . . this is a person of interest.*

Gathering around, the kraykets chattered with apparent great excitement. There was something in their tone that suggested to Julie that they knew this being. Julie glanced down at them in puzzlement, then raised her gaze back to the newcomer. She decided, solely on the basis of intuition, that it was a he, not an it. Surely there must be some way to communicate. She pressed a hand to her chest. “Julie.” She stretched the hand toward him. “And you are—?”

“K-k-k-k-k!” the creature sputtered.

She shook her head, and repeated the exchange. This time he sounded clearer. He smacked his own hand to his chest. “Ik-k-k-k!” He repeated the gesture and the word: “Ik-k-k.” Then he stretched his hand toward her, and jolted her by exclaiming, “Hoo-mann!”

Julie rocked back in surprise. Had he just said . . . ? She drew a measured breath, and forced herself to say, “Human? Is that what you just said? I am human, yes. Julie is my name.” Hand to chest. “Julie.” Should I be saying this? How does he know about humans?

“Ik-k. Ik,” said the being, speaking precisely, as though rehearsing the sounds.

“Ik?” she repeated, blinking. “That’s your name?”

“Joo-oo-lee,” he said, pointing. “Hoo-mann.” And back to himself: “Ik.” And then he made a long, clearing-of-the-throat sound. “Hraaach-ch-aaach-ch-eeeen.”

“Umm . . .” Julie’s head was spinning. Keep talking to him. “Uh, nice to meet you. Ik. Why . . . what . . . brings you . . . here, Ik?”

At that, Ik rambled incomprehensibly to himself. He sounded frustrated, and rubbed at those spots on his temples again. He peered at her, with what seemed an extremely intense gaze. “Joo-lee,” he said again.

“Yes. Julie.”

“Ju-lee,” he said, a bit faster this time.

“Ik,” she said, and he bobbed his head.

For a moment, she was simply paralyzed, not knowing where to go from here. She was stunned—again—to hear her stones suddenly whisper, *Stay with this one. You must be patient. Stay with him.* And then they were silent again, but she had a feeling that some new kind of energy was buzzing in them.

Stay with him? This was the closest thing to a clear instruction she’d heard in a long time. Well, after all, she thought, you’re an exoarchaeologist. Your job is looking for remnant signs of aliens, right? This one wasn’t a remnant, but he was the first except Mrs. Logger who’d shown much interest in her.

“Hrah,” said Ik. He raised his hands and dropped them. He didn’t know what to say, either. Suddenly he opened and closed his mouth with a clack. He turned around, and made a hand gesture as though to invite her to follow him back through the portal. Then he froze.

The portal was gone. The doorway had disappeared.

“Rrrrm. Hrrrrm,” he rumbled, turning back to her. Even not knowing his language, she could hear the strain in his voice.

Julie blinked hard and made an impulsive decision. “Do you want to come with me?” she said, leaned slightly in the direction that would take them back to the inn. “You—” she pointed to him “—come with me—” she pointed to herself, then back up the slope she and the kraykets had come down. “Yes?”

Ik hesitated, and looked longingly back to where the portal had just been. “Hrah,” he said with finality, and strode forward to accompany her.


As Ik walked with the human Julie, his satisfaction in finding her was overlain with stinging regret that he might have just lost his way back to his friends. What was he going to do about that? He didn’t know, but he took hope in the fact that this human had voice-stones, just like John Bandicut. Did all humans have stones? John had never spoken of it. Perhaps Ik could dare hope that if there were other humans on Shipworld, maybe there were Hraachee’ans, as well.

The human, Julie, seemed blessed by equal measures of confidence and uncertainty. As they walked up over a rise, and then down and across a meadow, she spoke only a few times. Perhaps because it was clear he could comprehend nothing, she let silence remain between them. Ik wondered if she was newly arrived on this world; he remembered how John had been when they’d first met—he and his robots, very confused. Ik himself had been bewildered when he’d first arrived. Julie seemed more . . . settled.

Without pausing in her stride, she gestured to a low building in front of them, one that seemed almost a part of the landscape, merged into the wood and stone. Ik thought he could guess what it was: an arrival inn. He’d spent time in one upon his own arrival on Shipworld, and he thought Li-Jared had, also. It was a place for newcomers to get their bearings—and in his own case, to recall and record as much as he could about the events leading to his arrival, along with memories of his homeworld, which he had just seen destroyed.

John Bandicut, on the other hand, had arrived—and met Ik—in the midst of a crisis right here in Shipworld. Together they’d fought the boojum, a rogue AI that had tried to usurp and destroy the iceline intelligence system that kept Shipworld running. Maybe Julie was getting a kinder introduction to Shipworld.

Julie pulled open a small door and entered, and Ik ducked low, following. It was a rustic little place, with hewn wood beams and tables, and aromatic smoke coming from a cooking area in a back room. Ik had to stoop to keep from bumping his head on the beams.

There was a banging sound from the cooking room. A moment later, a creature who looked like a fallen log on six legs, came out waving several tentacle-hands. “Ik! Welcome!” she cried, in a voice perfectly translated to Hraachee’an. “It is wonderful to see you again!”

“Hostess Elder!” he cried in sudden delight. This creature, whose species he never knew, had welcomed him to his arrival inn, years ago. He’d never known her true name, either; but she had seemed, in a quiet way, to possess an unlimited knowledge of how things worked in Shipworld, how things had always worked in Shipworld. With her help and the help of her staff, he had learned enough to be able eventually to leave the inn and make his way around. Those were in the days before he had met Li-Jared, and quite some time before he met Bandicut and Antares. After leaving the inn, he’d never found his way back to it again. Was this the same inn?

“Ik, you have hardly aged,” Hostess Elder said approvingly. “But I have been hearing things about you. Good things.”

Surprised, Ik said, “We have managed to do a few things, my friends and I.”

“A few things! Young Ik—shall we start with your averting disaster in the iceline?”

Surprised a second time, Ik glanced at Julie, who stood waiting politely, obviously unable to understand what they were saying. “How do you know about that?” he asked the innkeeper.

“Oh, word gets around.” Hostess Elder eased her bulk around the end of the low serving counter and trundled into the center of the room. “I see you and Julie Stone have met.”

“Hrrm, indeed,” said Ik. “I have been trying to explain to her that I know one of her fellows, John Bandicut. At least I’m pretty sure they are from the same place. Perhaps you can help me?”

“Of course,” rumbled the log. “As soon as I attend to some chores.” She waved a tentacle in Julie’s direction. “She is adjusting slowly—you remember what that was like.”

“Hrah!” Ik cried, reminded of his own crippled state. “My stones are gone—lost forever.” He opened his hands wide. “How can she get to know me?”

Two eye-stalks waved slowly on the top of the log. “Perhaps something can be done in that regard. If you would like.”

“Of course I would like. You know that.”

Hostess Elder gave a faint quiver. “I did not wish to presume.”

Ik sighed through his ears. “Never. And now, perhaps we should stop speaking as though Julie were not here . . .”


Julie had been stunned twice—once when Mrs. Logger had come out and greeted Ik as an old friend, and again, when they had talked with no apparent language difficulty. That last made her wonder—once she’d gotten over her shock—if Mrs. Logger could act as interpreter and help her communicate with Ik.

For the next few minutes, she had no opportunity to ask. The two were apparently catching up after a long absence. At one point, she experienced a weird, startling moment when a phrase in their conversation sounded eerily like “John Bandicut.” But the words moved on; no doubt it was just a coincidence. Soon, she began to feel restless as the two talked. Ik must have sensed her feeling, because he suddenly fell silent, and turned to her.

Mrs. Logger did, as well. “JulieStone, I am p-pleasedyouhavereturn-ed. Andthatyoubrought Ik-k-k withyou.”

“Well,” Julie said, flustered, “I wasn’t exactly expecting to meet Ik out there, but—”

“Meanttobeperhaps,” murmured Mrs. Logger. She peered at Julie with two of her eyes, while a third winked at Ik.

Julie shrugged. “It’s possible. He came out of a portal. But now that I think about it, the kraykets led me there. They seemed to know something was going on.”

“Maybemaybenodoubt,” said Mrs. Logger. “Theytellmethings from time-to-time.” She waved three pairs of tentacle-arms, with hands on the ends, which looked like animated branches. “Areyouhung-g-gry, eitherofyou?”

“I suppose,” Julie said, nodding toward Ik. “But more than that, I’m curious.”

“Curios-s-sityisgood,” trilled the log.

Julie cast a puzzled gaze upon her. “I’m curious how you know Ik’s language as well as mine.”

“WhyIhaveknown Ik-k-k a verylongtime. Hecametome whenhearrived, just-t-as you. Itismy pleasur-re toseehim again.”

“But . . . can you interpret for us? Can you tell me what he is saying? And tell him what I’m saying?”

“Iwilltry-y-mydear. Iwilltr-ry.”

“Then—” and Julie took a deep breath, and turned to the gangling, bluish alien beside her and said, “I have so many things I would like to ask.”

“Ofcourseyoudodear-r. Ofcourseyoudo . . .”


Refreshments came before translation, however.

Julie raised a small mug of what Mrs. Logger called glee, a beverage reminiscent of beer. She held it toward Ik, who was now seated across a low table from her. Ik clacked his mouth and raised his own mug. He said something, which Mrs. Logger translated as he drained the mug: “I like ale.”

That made Julie cock her head a little. “Have you had it before?” she asked, with a nod to their hostess, who stood at the end of the table.

“Hrah,” said Ik.

“Ohyes,” echoed Mrs. Logger.

“How? When? I would have guessed you drank your own beverages.”

Before Ik could answer—in fact, before her hostess could translate the question—Mrs. Logger suddenly rose on her six legs and said, “Mustbringyourdinner. Youneedyourstrength.” She lumbered away, leaving Julie and Ik facing each other, once again without words. But there was a pitcher of glee, and Ik raised it and refilled both their mugs. He studied her closely, and seemed once more to be eyeing the translator-stones in her wrists.

Julie raised one wrist and tapped at the stone with the index finger of her other hand. “Have you seen stones like this before?”

Ik cocked his head, clearly wishing he could understand her words. But he did nod in the direction of the stone. It seemed evident that he had some association. His own hand went to his right temple, rubbing at a spot there.

At that moment, Mrs. Logger shambled back in, balancing with surprising grace the several platters on her back. With her four arms, she slipped the platters from her back onto the table and positioned them in front of Ik and Julie. In front of Ik was a plate of long, crisp-looking sticks, one of which he picked up and sniffed with obvious approval, and several soft mounds that looked like bright red mashed yams. Julie’s plate held a slab resembling well-done beef but wasn’t; it was her favorite here, girn, a dish made from a large root. Beside it on the plate were some triangular-shaped green beans, and a pile of what looked remarkably like French fried potatoes. Julie caught a fry between two fingers and crunched it between her teeth. It tasted delicious, salty and oily.

“Nowww, whathaveyoutwo been-n-n talkingabout?” Mrs. Logger asked, first in one language and then the other. “Ah—sosorrysosorry. You’vebeen-n-n waitingfor me.” She fussed a bit at the table, refilling both their mugs with ale. “HowcanIhelpyou?”

“Um,” said Julie, chewing thoughtfully, “I was just asking Ik what he knew about translator-stones.” She rubbed the twinkling gems in her wrists. “I had the feeling he had seen them, or something like them, before.”

Mrs. Logger made a soft chuckling sound, then said something to Ik, perhaps translating. As the two spoke, Julie was startled to feel a tingling in her right wrist. She rubbed it absently, still trying to focus on what Ik and Mrs. Logger were saying. She felt another tingle, this time in her left wrist.

Mrs. Logger’s eyes all turned to Julie, and she switched back to English. “Heknowssuch stones. Carrieda p-pair himhimself.”

He did!

“Theydied-d-d. A d-difficulttime. Andsohecannot-t-t speakwithyou himself.”

Julie looked back and forth between Ik and Mrs. Logger. She rubbed her wrists, both of which were starting to itch. Was it just that she was mindful of them? “I don’t know—what to say, really.” She took another bite, and then rubbed harder. They were starting to burn in her skin now.

“Child-d-d, Ikyoucantrust. Takemyword-d, myword-d.” With that, Mrs. Logger backed up a couple of feet.

Julie wondered why she would choose this moment to make such a declaration. Ik was watching her in silence. “Ik, do you . . . ?” Her words faltered. The burning itch was building, like a sneeze.

She took a breath—and her thoughts were overwhelmed by a sudden command from her stones: *Don’t move, don’t talk! Hold your hands out toward Ik.*

/What? Why?/ Despite her bewilderment, she obeyed. Arms trembling, she slowly reached across the table toward Ik. Strength flowed into her forearms, and she felt as if they were glowing, and rising of their own accord. One stone gleamed diamond and the other ruby. Were they shining through her skin, or had they risen to the surface? She was suddenly afraid. /Are you leaving?/ she asked them.

*No. Remain still.*

Suddenly they blazed, dazzlingly bright. Light shot out from her wrists, too fast to follow—flashes of ruby and white. “Hrahh!” Ik cried out, slapping his hands to the sides of his head. He reeled back, as Julie involuntarily jerked her own hands back from the table. What just happened?

The burning and itching were gone. She was almost afraid to look down. The two stones still glowed in her wrists, but were fading. Her wrists throbbed dully. She felt as if a great power had gone out of them.

*We have given our daughter-stones,* said the voice of the stones in Julie’s mind.

/What do you mean, daughter-stones?/ she whispered, half aloud. An instant later, as Ik lowered his hands, she saw the answer. Two translator-stones glowed in opposite sides of his head. “My God!” she breathed. /What have you . . . how did you do that?/

*We shared. Give him a few moments to adjust. Language integration may take a little longer.*

/Language integration—?/

“Hrah,” said Ik, obviously straining. “Julie?” His breathing was labored. He almost seemed to be exhaling through his ears.

“Yes,” she whispered.

Ik put his hands to his head again, clacking his mouth energetically. “I cannot . . . thank you enough. We can now . . . I think . . . talk.”


The new stones rolled a shock wave like thunder through Ik’s head. Feelings cascaded, physical and emotional: an electric jolt followed by a charge to his consciousness, and a soaring emotional lift that lasted just a few seconds before dropping him into an emotional dive. A moment later, he was buoyed by another rising wave. A cloud of confusion blew away as if on the wind; he had been blind and now he saw again. He didn’t just see, but he saw himself clearly again.

The stones and his mind were spinning through a mating dance of staggering complexity; but it happened with remarkable speed, and in a matter of moments it was over, though it left him reeling. The new voice-stones, lodged in the same spots in his temples, also touched the same points in his mind, though they were perceptibly different from his originals. He sensed that they carried some of the same knowledge, and some that was new.

It took him a moment to feel steady enough to trust his voice. “I am Ik,” he said aloud to the human female, and felt his words ring out comprehensibly.

The human was rocking forward and backward, her hands clasping opposite wrists. She was trembling. “Julie,” she whispered. “Julie Stone.” Suddenly she cried out loud, a sound he recognized as laughter, like Bandie’s laughter. “But you already knew that, didn’t you? Oh, my God—can you understand me? That’s wonderful!” For a few seconds, she hugged herself, shaking her head, and then nodding.

Beside them, Hostess Elder was watching in approval.

“Ik!” Julie repeated. “What sort of being are you, Ik, and where are you from?”

Ik felt joy welling up in him at the thought that he was finally communicating again. He hastened to answer, half afraid that he would lose the ability if he did not use it immediately. “I am a Hraachee’an,” he said, “of the planet Hraachee’a! Tell me, please, Julie Stone—are you from the world called Earth?”

Her expression of reeling astonishment told him everything he needed to know.


Julie stared at this astonishing being with the sculpted blue-tinged face, this Hraachee’an. Then she heard, as though through a rushing of air: “I have a friend who is from Earth. His name is John Bandicut. He is human, like you.”

Julie opened her mouth, then closed it. She sat immobile, shaking. Had she imagined those words? Or had this creature, this Hraachee’an, Ik, just spoken the name John Bandicut? “Say—” she gasped at last “—would you say that again?”

“Rrrm.” Ik seemed to be clearing his throat. “Hrrm. My friend . . . is called John Bandicut.”

She must have started to fall over in astonishment, because suddenly Ik was reaching across the table and steadying her with a strong grip on her upper arms. She struggled to find words. “You . . . you know . . . John?” She breathed in and out with difficulty. “John Bandicut?”

Ik gazed at her with deep-set, penetrating eyes. “John Bandicut is my friend.”

“But . . . how? Where is he?”

“Well, I . . .” Ik seemed to be thinking. “Hrrm. I was just with him. Before I . . . saw you through the portal. I came through to find you, to bring you to him.”

“Then he knows I’m here? He knows you came for me?” Julie’s heart was pounding like a drum.

“Rrrm, alas, no.” Ik hesitated again. “I could not speak then, you see. Because my voice-stones were gone.” He stroked his temples, where the daughter-stones had lodged. “But now I can speak again.” He rocked back suddenly. “Julie Stone, I must thank . . . I must thank your stones.”

Julie struggled to absorb everything he was saying. “How did you lose your voice-stones?”

Ik seemed to shudder at a memory. “In a battle. A terrible battle. Far, far from here.”

A terrible battle? Julie opened her mouth. “You—you were—was John with you, in this battle?”

“Hrrrm, oh yes.” Ik nodded. “He helped to save me. Not for the first time!” Ik’s gaze probed hers. “Do you want—to go—if we can find the way?”

A rushing sound filled her ears, and her heart leaped. “Can you really take me to John? To John Bandicut?”

“Ahhh—hrrm.” Ik gave a troubled sigh. “I wish to try, of course. But I don’t actually know . . . how to make the portal return us to the same place. Do you know where we are now?”

Julie opened her mouth, and closed it. She shook her head. “I know we’re in a place called Shipworld. That is all, really.” She turned to her host, who was rumbling softly. “Can you tell us where we are, Mrs. Logger?”

Mrs. Logger’s eye-stalks twitched in a bewildering dance. “You arrrre intheLightWoodsofthe Great-t-t Forestofcourse.” Two of her tentacles waved and pointed. “But wherrreyouneed-d to go, Idonot-t knowthat, noooo.”

“But we should go back to the portal, right? Right?” Julie asked, her voice tightening with urgency. “Ik came from a portal out in the field. Could that take us to where he came from?”

Mrs. Logger seemed to vibrate where she stood. “Perhaps-s. But you willnotfindout her-r-re talk-k-ing. Youmustgo-o. FarewellJulieStone.”

Julie gazed at her in astonishment, and then shifted her gaze to Ik. “Wait here while I get my things?”

“Hrahh!” Ik cried in assent, rising from his seat.


In just a few minutes, they were back in the meadow where Ik had emerged from the mysterious doorway, now nowhere to be seen. Julie clutched a small tote bag that Mrs. Logger had given her, ages ago, that held some spare clothes. The kraykets were on duty, peering around, looking more than ever like meerkats. They chattered loudly, and seemed to want to communicate something. But Julie had no idea what. Don’t go? Go?

Ik looked down at the little animals and said, “I’m not sure what they’re saying. But look.” He nodded to his left—at a portal that was just glittering into being. It was, as before, a faintly glowing rectangle. Julie had a feeling it might not remain here long; they needed to make a go/no-go decision. She inquired softly of her stones, but they gave no reply. She looked to Ik, as the closest thing to a native guide.

Ik rumbled under his breath, then hissed with an apparent decision. “Julie Stone, I cannot promise that this will take us to John Bandicut and our other friends. I can only hope that the system has recognized my desire to return the way I came, and will cause that to happen. Sometimes things in Shipworld really do work that way.”

Julie swallowed hard. “I’m willing to take a chance, if it might get me to John.”

Ik inclined his head. They stepped together.

Julie felt a flow of energy, and a flash of violet light around her . . .

Chapter 6 The Peloi

HEARING IK SHOUT his name, Bandicut ran out of the alcove and around the nearest work-stations, following the sound. He saw Ik just as the Hraachee’an stepped through a tall frame and vanished into a pale violet glow. “Ik!” Bandicut shouted, too late. The others ran up behind him. Where Ik had been standing, there was only the work-station with what he presumed was a portal frame floating in the air beside it.

Brr-dang. “Where did he go?” Li-Jared cried, pounding on the console.

Bandicut waved at the portal, which was now translucent. Why had it turned translucent? Bandicut jabbed at it with a stiff-fingered hand. His fingertips slid off the plane of the force-field, or whatever it was. “Look!” Antares cried, pointing to the work-station display. It showed something like a meadow—and Ik’s back, walking away from them. They all stared in disbelief.

“We must save the location!” Li-Jared shouted, flexing his hands helplessly over the unfamiliar controls. It was clear he had no idea how to do that.

The view blinked and changed to a different scene, a public concourse thronging with peoples of all kinds, none of them Hraachee’an. “What the hell is this?” Bandicut asked.

“Whatever it is, it isn’t where we just saw Ik go!” Antares said. “Can we get back there?”

“I don’t know!” Bandicut muttered. “Napoleon?”

The robot edged up beside him and poked at the console, finally locating a suitable access point. He worked a moment. “Cap’n, I can’t seem to do that.”

“Let me see what I can find,” Jeaves said.

The rest of them fidgeted, while Jeaves worked. By the time Jeaves spoke again, the display had changed to show a lounge of some kind. Against a luminous blue background ragged bits of darkness flickered. Bandicut pointed. “Shadow-people! Aren’t those shadow-people?”

Li-Jared bonged, beside him. “Yes!”

“Can they help us find Ik?”

“Perhaps,” Jeaves said. “But—”

Li-Jared’s hands were in the air, waving. “Can’t you for once just help and not argue about it? That’s Ik we’re losing!”

“Of course,” said Jeaves. “I am attempting to contact the shadow-people via the iceline. Please stand by.”

They stood, looking anxiously at each other. As they waited, the monitor screen suddenly blinked off, then returned to life. Now the shadow-people were more clearly visible, and Bandicut could just make out the whreeeking sound of their conversation, like high-pitched violin strings. Jeaves spoke again. “It’s a little confusing. The shadow-people are in a state of turmoil. Something highly unusual is going on in the portal transportation system, some kind of power struggle between . . . I suppose you would say government factions. They couldn’t tell me much about it, but they didn’t seem surprised to hear about Ik being isolated from us after he went through the portal.” Before Bandicut could ask, Jeaves added, “Not the boojum, no. But there are new blocks in the system that inhibit even the shadow-people from tracking in all directions.”

Bong-g. “That’s bad! If the shadow-people can’t track him, what chance do we have?”

“I don’t know,” said Jeaves. “But it seems as though Ik somehow dropped out of the iceline tracking system when he went through that portal.”

Bandicut felt a pang of alarm. “Like when the boojum was in the system. I know, you said the boojum was dead, but . . .” If they were going to have to confront something like the boojum again . . .

“I found no indication of a malicious entity in the system,” said Jeaves. “The shadow-people are upset, yes, but it seems more like dismay over a decision by a government authority—possibly a jurisdictional dispute. It’s interfering with all kinds of things. It might just have been bad luck that Ik got separated when he did.”

Bandicut frowned doubtfully. “Do you believe in luck?”

“Ordinarily, no,” Jeaves answered. “But if this is part of a larger operational problem . . .”

/// It doesn’t reassure me that it might be

part of an operational problem, ///

Charli muttered.

/I don’t buy it either./ Bandicut tapped on the display and looked back at Jeaves and Napoleon. “I still don’t understand why we can’t get this thing to go back to where Ik disappeared. Even if the system’s no longer tracking Ik, it shouldn’t have lost the location information, should it?”

Jeaves seemed to freeze for a moment. Napoleon touched a small recess on the console and said, “It shouldn’t, no. But I can’t seem to find any—it’s as if the record of places visited has been deleted, and the system can’t bring it back.”

“That’s just weird.”

“Certainly weird for Shipworld,” Napoleon said.

Jeaves spoke again. “Bear with me a moment while I search on the image we caught of that little bit of landscape. Maybe we can do it the hard way.”

Jeaves worked in silence. Suddenly he lurched back, as if shocked. The view in the monitor abruptly changed from a search mode to something radically different. Now it showed a deep cave, illuminated from within by a watery light. “Well, that’s more than a little odd.”

“What is it?” Li-Jared asked.

Antares pointed. “Look there!” In the portal frame, the translucence had cleared, to reveal the same cave view that showed in the monitor.

“Uh—Jeaves?” Bandicut asked.

Antares stepped around behind him for a better look. “Is someone inviting us to go through here?”

The cave, lit from some point around a bend at the back, hardly looked inviting.

“Strange,” Jeaves said.

“No kidding,” said Bandicut.

“No, I mean we are being invited through.”


“That’s what I’m trying to determine. When I was searching for that other landscape image, I felt that something was watching me.”


“No. Stop asking if it’s the boojum. More like a system monitor. And then—bing!—I got a message saying the Peloi urgently wished to talk to us.”

Antares was the only one who recognized the name. “The Peloi? Aren’t they involved in the running of this place? I mean, closely connected to the masters?”

“You know about them?” Bandicut asked.

“I’ve heard of them.”


“Uhhll—” Antares opened her hands “—they’re just someone I used to hear about. I don’t know what they do. But before I knew you, I spent a lot of time listening to stories on the iceline, and sometimes there were stories about the Peloi—and how some other factions thought they were ruining things.”

Bandicut cleared his throat. “Did the Peloi say what they wanted from us?”

“Only that we should go through this portal,” Jeaves said, “for, and I quote, ‘an important briefing.’”

Bwang “About what? Is it about what happened to Ik?” Li-Jared demanded, stepping back from the portal, as if to say, If it’s not, I’m not interested.

“Not directly,” Jeaves said. “But oddly enough, they identified themselves as the source of the information I was giving you about the starstream a few minutes ago. They want to share more detail and—this is what they said—ask your advice.”

“Our advice?” Bandicut barked. “What the—?”

“Understand,” Jeaves said. “I have never spoken to the Peloi directly before. I know them only by reputation. But based on that, their claim to be the source of my information is plausible. I know that their ranking in the command structure is formidable.”

“So you think we should go through?” Bandicut asked, gesturing to the portal.

“And what about Ik?” Li-Jared demanded.

“I suspect that if anyone can tell us about Ik, it would be them,” Jeaves said. “Meeting with them might be our best chance to learn where he went. I recommend we accept the invitation.” The robot backed up slightly, as though deferring to the three of them, and Napoleon, to make the decision.

The three looked at one another. “All right, then, let’s go,” Li-Jared said. He saw the surprise on Bandicut’s face. “I know, I know. But if we can’t reach Ik from here, why not go where there’s some information, which is better than no information?” He turned to Jeaves. “Can we leave a message, in case Ik finds his way back here?”

“Normally, yes,” Jeaves said.

“Let me try,” Napoleon said, jacking in again. “I think I can leave a forwarding command, to direct him to wherever we’re going, if he finds his way back here.” He worked a minute longer. “I don’t see any blocks on it.”

Bandicut fretted. Shipworld was immense, and he hated the thought of being separated from his friends.

“Thank you, Napoleon. That makes me feel a little better,” said Li-Jared. “Are we going, then?” Before the others could answer, he said to Jeaves, “Let’s go. You first, Jeaves, or me?”

Jeaves’ headband of eyes swarmed for a moment, perhaps in surprise at Li-Jared’s decisiveness. “If everyone is ready—” he said, and then turned and floated through the portal. Li-Jared followed him. Both became visible on the other side, in the cave. Antares touched Bandicut’s arm and stepped through. Glimmering from beyond the portal, she beckoned him to follow. Bandicut stepped through, and Napoleon came last.


The pale light surrounded Bandicut as he joined his companions in the cave. He touched his fingertips wonderingly to the walls that appeared here to be stone, carved and eroded by water, and there metal polished to a cool sheen. Following the illumination, they went deeper into the cave and around several bends, until they came to a circular chamber four or five meters across, its walls lit with a cerulean glow.

They turned around, blinking in the strange light. A heartbeat later, the cavern’s walls turned translucent, and then transparent, and the source of the light became evident: There was water on the other side of the walls. /Is this an aquarium? Are we on the inside or the outside?/ he muttered to Charli.

/// We appear to be in a bubble

at the bottom of a sunlit sea, ///

Charli said, marveling.

The sea surrounded them like a dome. The water was a tropical blue blur, a little hazy with silt.

/// Is anyone here? ///

“Look there,” Antares said. Looming into view were four shapes, iridescent-and-silver creatures larger than any of the company. There might have been more creatures behind them in the haze, but it was hard to be certain. The water shimmered and distorted, making it hard to see clearly.

“Our hosts, I presume,” Jeaves said, with a hint of question in his voice. The four creatures looked like enormous jellyfish, Bandicut thought, or sea-going comb jellies—ovoid cylinders, with wavering ridges and iridescent skins that one moment looked like liquid silver and the next flashed with color. No two of them looked alike, but they all had dark bands of some kind around their middles, like waist bands, studded with round organs that might have been eyes. Dangling from their bodies, like tentacles, were metallic, insectoid legs.

“Uhhl, these are the Peloi?” Antares asked.

Bandicut squinted, noticing something as strange as the creatures themselves. The sea seemed divided into sections, and the sections were flipping somehow, like pages of a paper book. Every time one of those flips occurred, the huge creatures seemed altered, or translated to different locations around the dome. It made them dizzyingly difficult to track.

One of them came to the fore and remained still for a minute. “We are the Peloi,” the creature said, speaking in an audible voice that reverberated through the glass. “And you are John Bandicut, Antares, Li-Jared, Jeaves, and Napoleon—all recently returned from the nebula Starmaker?”

“That’s right,” said Bandicut. It startled him to hear the Peloi so clearly, without any perceptible sense of translation. Did his stones already know these creatures?

“Peloi?” he went on. “I am unfamiliar with the name. Does it refer to your species or your group right here?” When there was no response, he continued, “Why have you brought us here? And can you help us find our missing friend?”

There was another shifting of the water, as though eddying currents were causing curtains to billow and turn. When it steadied again, he was facing a different Peloi.

“You refer to your friend Ik?” the Peloi asked.

“You know him?” Li-Jared asked sharply.

“We know of him,” the Peloi said. “Unfortunately, we do not now have the means to locate him.”

Bwang! “Why not?” Li-Jared sounded aggrieved.

“Because—” and the currents, and creatures, shifted again “—your friend has moved into a region temporarily inaccessible through our iceline nexus.”

Bandicut sighed in disbelief. “I thought the iceline reached everywhere in Shipworld. That was what we were told when we were asked to save it a while back.”

The Peloi drifted closer to the glass. “That is generally true, and we wish now to acknowledge your invaluable service in defeating the boojum. However, there have been unexpected service interruptions.”

“Well, what can you tell us?” Li-Jared asked.

“We observed Ik and a companion enter a long-range portal. Perhaps they hoped to return to you. Instead, they were intercepted by another agency and transported to a sector that is outside our present iceline range. For now, we can neither establish his present position nor communicate with him.”

“Then hell,” Li-Jared snarled. “He could be in trouble!”

“That is possible, but we have no reason to expect trouble,” the Peloi said. “We simply cannot put you in touch at the moment. Later, perhaps—”

Bandicut’s breath exploded in exasperation. “So why did you bring us here? Can’t you identify yourselves? What are your names? Who do you work for?”

Shift, shimmer, movement of light. Another Peloi, another view. “We are the Peloi. We represent certain of those who have guided you toward your previous assignments—who help manage this place, and can be said to participate in the control of Shipworld.”

That brought them all to sharp attention. Li-Jared asked, “You’re the masters of Shipworld?”

“No.” The creatures jostled until three of them seemed to be crowded together facing them. “We represent certain of the masters.”

Jeaves stepped forward. “Are you responsible for sending me—and these good people—on our mission to Starmaker?”

“We are. That is, we conveyed the instructions.”

“And the boojum? And the Neri planet?” Li-Jared asked.

Another Peloi surged forward to answer. “Yes—and if we may say, Well done, on all of those tasks.”

Li-Jared’s already bright blue eyes seemed to flash brighter. “Can’t the masters say that for themselves?”

The Peloi floated for a moment in silence. “Not at this time, no.”

“Why not?” Bandicut barked. “Are they afraid to show themselves?”

“No. But there are circumstances that—” The nearest Peloi swung suddenly, its huge comb rippling. “May we please tell you why we asked you here?”

Bandicut exchanged glances with his friends. “All right. But there’s been a real shortage of information around here. We’d like that to change.”

“We understand. That is why we recently provided Jeaves with new information to share with you. But we have asked to see you because we urgently desire your advice.”

Antares chuckled her disbelief. “Why do you want our advice?”

“Because we are gathering a team for an urgent mission.”

/// Ah. Another mission.

What a surprise! ///

Li-Jared already had his hands up in protest. “No! We are not going right back out on another mission! You’ve had us going without a break, and—”

“You misunderstand!” said the Peloi. “You have unquestionably earned a rest! But because this matter concerns your own people . . .”

“What do you mean—?” Li-Jared began, but stopped when an abrupt change occurred to their left. That portion of the sea went dark like a theater, and revealed the image of a group of four beings gathered around a console of some kind. One looked vaguely reptilian, another like a bear, and the two others were too much in shadow to be seen clearly. They reminded Bandicut of his own company.

“Who are they?” Antares asked.

“They are agents who, like you, have assisted us in difficult matters. They are preparing for a mission to the planet Karellia.”

Li-Jared gurgled, going stiff.

“The mission also involves human activities.”

Bandicut and Li-Jared looked at each other.

The sea pulled the image of the other team into the background. “This group is uncertain of the best way to approach Karellian people.”

“I should think so!” Li-Jared snapped. “They’re not from Karellia!”

“No. But they plan to go nevertheless . . . to intervene against a great danger.”

What danger?”

“They must persuade the Karellians to do something that would seem against their own interests.”

Bwang. “What? Why?”

“Because the danger threatens not just Karellia and humanity, but all of us.”

Li-Jared tightly interlaced his fingers and then snapped them open in exasperation, bonging to himself.

“Didn’t we just handle something like that?” Bandicut demanded.

“You did. This danger is closely related.” The sea flickered and flipped, and the Peloi changed once more. “We did not wish to call you to action again so soon. But we do urgently desire the benefit of your wisdom.”

Bandicut shut his eyes, drew a deep breath and expelled it, and opened his eyes. “Let’s have it,” he said.


The danger, the Peloi explained, was connected to the starstream that Jeaves had told them about earlier. A tightly woven channel of n-space, it was not just a superhighway for star travel, it was also a distortion of space-time unlike any other known to exist in the galaxy. That was the first part of the problem.

The second part was something . . . emanating from Karellia.

Hearing that made Li-Jared twitchy again, and he paced while the Peloi explained that Karellia was at war.

“War! With humans?” Li-Jared asked, glancing nervously at Bandicut.

“No.” Humanity was not involved; humanity and the Karellians had not yet met. The starstream was not involved in the war, either. Karellia probably did not even know of its existence.

Li-Jared waved impatiently. “Then who are we at war with?”

“Please observe.” The nearest Peloi extended a thin, silver limb and opened another theater view—this time an image showing Karellia, orbiting its sun inside a flickering nebula. “A monitoring probe only recently got this data back to us.” The view from inside the nebula was claustrophobic. From Karellia, almost no stars were visible through the dust and gas, with the exception of its own sun and, at a greater distance, the blurry dot of the nearby companion sun. Further obscuring the view were bright clouds of ionizing radiation in a band that wreathed Karellia. “This energy cloud, more than anything else, inhibits your people’s travel into deep space,” said the Peloi to Li-Jared. “Your people have long since reached local space. But travel through the energy cloud is difficult or impossible. There appears to be no traffic or commerce with the closely neighboring star.”

“That was true when I left,” Li-Jared muttered. “We were just launching our first probes. But still?”

“It is still mostly true. It has not, however, insulated your world from war.”

Li-Jared prompted with a gesture. “How is that possible?”

There was another disconcerting shift in the water, and they faced an iridescent blue Peloi. “A state of war exists with a world called Uduon, a planet of the neighboring sun. We do not know if the two peoples have ever even met—but they have exchanged long-distance bombardment. Our probes have monitored small asteroids on collision course with Karellia.”

Li-Jared staggered back, momentarily speechless. “Asteroids?”

“We do not know how it began, or why. But the war has become a threat to all of us,” the Peloi continued.

“How could it be a threat to all of us?” Bandicut asked, putting words to Li-Jared’s sputters of dismay.

Swirl, flip, and a silver Peloi spoke. “The Karellians have created a temporal shield to protect their homeworld, a shield that manipulates space-time in the region immediately surrounding the planet.” The Peloi drifted closer to Li-Jared, as though to emphasize. “Karellia’s planetary magnetic field, and the high-energy particle flux encircling the planet, together provide the necessary conditions for the creation of the shield. It must be an ingenious device.”

Li-Jared barely breathed. “Even in my time . . . there was discussion of the possibility of time distortions arising in those belts. But . . .” He made a jerky gesture with his hands. “I don’t understand how that is a threat to anyone else.”

“Our information comes from limited remote probes, and we do not know all the details. But we do know that secondary effects of the shield ripple far beyond the local Karellian system. In fact, they ripple all the way out to the starstream, where they generate a temporal wave in the starstream itself. A time-tide in the stream, you might say.”

Li-Jared made a gurgling sound. “I don’t—”

“Look.” The starscape rotated, zoomed, and realigned. Now they could see that the starstream passed just close enough to Karellia for a glowing green wave front emanating from Karellia to intersect it. “This is an artificial image, derived from the data sent by the probes. The green ring maps the temporal disturbance from Karellia.”

“That’s impossible,” Li-Jared protested. “The power outlay would be enormous.”

“And it is. Perhaps the power is drawn from the energy belts encircling the planet. Even so, it only reaches the starstream because so much of the energy is tightly focused in the plane that intercepts incoming asteroids. Which also, unfortunately, intercepts the starstream.”

Li-Jared strode to the holo and waved a hand. “All right, it reaches the starstream. What harm is it doing?”

“Look closely,” said the Peloi. The display flickered, showing a slight ripple where the time-distortion from Karellia intersected the starstream. Glints of actinic light flashed down the starstream from the point of intersection. “Those flashes,” said the Peloi, “are the time-tides our probes have detected.”

“And—?” Bandicut asked impatiently.

“And, the starstream reaches all the way to the center of the galaxy.” The Peloi waved a thin limb, and the view rotated and zoomed inward along the starstream toward the galactic center, where great lanes of dust and glowing gas turned the galactic core into a majestic thing of mystery. “The core is where the ones we call the Survivors live—and where, over a billion years ago, they lived much more openly. Where they were almost destroyed in the most terrible war the galaxy has ever known.”

/// The Survivors?

Meaning . . . the Mindaru? ///

Charli muttered.

The Mindaru, who had very nearly destroyed their company, and the Starmaker Nebula? Bandicut’s throat was suddenly dry.

“The Survivors, who became or spawned the Mindaru, whom you so recently defeated. Yes.” Curtains swirled and concealed the center of the galaxy, and the Peloi swung around to face them. “Do you understand why we are concerned about a temporal disturbance that could connect our present with the galactic core of the past?”

/// Oh dear . . . ///

The nearest Peloi turned a shade of silver-red that looked like coals of fire deep within ashes. “Yes, we know of your death-struggle with the Mindaru. We received the report from your ship’s intelligence, designated Copernicus. We know of the hypernova you prevented, and the star you saved. It was a great victory, and we thank and applaud you for it.”

“Ah,” Antares murmured, not saying, It’s about time you noticed.

“We should have conveyed our thanks to you at once, but we are sorry to say there is some . . . dysfunction . . . in communication between our masters and those who . . .”

“Serve?” Antares asked.

Another shift in the waters. “Yes. We are sorry.”

“You should be,” Li-Jared grunted.

“Yes, well . . .” Bandicut cleared his throat. “Be that as it may, you are telling us that this starstream actually reaches all the way to the place where the Mindaru live? Where they come from? Where their masters are?”

The Peloi made a sound like a viola string humming. “The present location of the Survivors is unknown to us. They may be dead. They may be sequestered somewhere, awaiting the completion of the Mindaru mission to destroy biological life.”

“Mission to—shit, they’re still trying to kill all biological life?”

“We believe so, yes. Why would they have stopped?”

Bandicut shuddered. It fit with what they had glimpsed of the Mindaru way of thinking, and what Napoleon had gleaned from a certain spaceship graveyard, on their last mission. He took a deep breath and returned to what the Peloi were saying. “But you’re not saying that the starstream is reaching them?”

The Peloi hummed. “Reaching them in the present, no.”

Bandicut’s chest tightened. “Then what?” he asked.

A new Peloi said, “If the time tide reverberates down the starstream as we believe, then—”

Napoleon straightened up and spoke up abruptly, finishing the thought. “Then it could open a window in time, through the starstream, to the galactic core of a billion years ago? To the birthplace of the Mindaru?

“Not just a window, but a pathway. A pathway by which the ancient Mindaru could come forward into our time. And not just to our time, but to our neighborhood in space. The danger could be . . .”

“Terrifying,” Antares said. “It all sounds terrifying.”

Chapter 7 Forming Up a Team

FOR A MINUTE or two, they all just stood there, staring at one another, too stunned to speak. They had just finished with the Mindaru, hadn’t they? Shouldn’t that be enough for a lifetime?

Apparently not.

Bandicut became aware of a repeated bonging sound. Finally Li-Jared found his voice. “Wait. Before we get too excited . . . We have Mindaru loose in the galaxy already! Why is this so much worse?”

A fiery light flared somewhere deep in the undersea tank. “The Mindaru that you faced were deadly,” said the Peloi. “But, compared to those of the ancient war, the Mindaru you fought may be a lesser version—long dormant, we think, scattered and only gradually building their strength. What we know of the ancient fighters suggests that they killed mercilessly and with even greater efficiency. They are the surviving creations of dedicated killing machines. We fear they might even now be pouring up the starstream—or, perhaps more accurately, the timestream. Their likely exit point, if they follow the time-tide, is Karellia, where the tide originates.”

Bandicut shuddered, and felt Antares’ dread mirroring his own. Li-Jared’s bonging increased, with a strangled tone behind it.

The Peloi continued, “At present, we are able to confront the Mindaru threat one attack at a time, as you did in the Starmaker Nebula. But we have never met a concerted attack by the original Mindaru. In the ancient war, it took the combined might of a large galactic civilization to defeat them. We could not stand against them here, if they came in force. Perhaps there would be hope, if we were a great military power, with armadas of warships. But we are not.”

Li-Jared managed to choke off his bonging and squinted up at the Peloi. “Aren’t you really powerful?”

Another shifting brought a smaller Peloi to the fore, and in the background, the group of alien agents they had seen earlier once more became visible. “We have certain powers of persuasion, and of logical analysis. But military power? We have some defensive forces, of course. But that is not our primary strength. Most of the influence that we exert is through agents of change such as you—and companies like the one you see here, all assembled from worlds that have been, or will be, aided by us. Without those such as you—and there are many like you—Shipworld could not protect the worlds that we do, from both natural and inflicted harm. Do we always succeed? Obviously not. Sometimes we can only rescue a remnant of a dying population—as we did with your friend Ik’s world. Sometimes we fail altogether, as we did with the Rohengen, who destroyed themselves through war. But still we try.” The Peloi spread its thin, silver arms.

Shivering, Bandicut squinted at the enormous sea jelly. He felt Antares also straining to evaluate these strange Peloi. “All right, then,” Bandicut said. “You’ve got us scared. At least I’m scared. So what is it you want us to do—advise this group? Because—”

“Because we are asking them to travel to the Karellian homeworld, to see if they can intervene in the situation and—”

What? Intervene how?” Li-Jared barked.

The Peloi bobbed slowly up and down, as though nodding in thought. “By seeking a way to stop or alter the temporal fields that are causing the threat.”

Li-Jared’s eyes grew brighter. The electric blue was turning green, with flecks of orange. He was suppressing some strong emotions, and trying to remain outwardly neutral. “Tell me,” he said slowly. “How are you going to persuade my people to stop this project—which protects my homeworld? And what will you suggest that they put in its place?”

/// Good question! ///

Bandicut let out his breath and stepped closer to Li-Jared, to indicate his solidarity. But when Li-Jared glanced his way, his expression was not entirely friendly. /Uh-oh./

“Are we focused entirely on my people’s contribution to this . . . threat?” he asked. “What about this thing you call the starstream? It sounds as much a part of the problem as anything we’re doing.” He turned to look at Bandicut. “Bandie, what do you know of this?”

Bandicut was slightly taken aback. “Nothing. No more than you do! It’s hundreds of years in my future!”

Li-Jared made a soft growling sound. “Right, but it’s still your people,” he said finally. He turned back to the Peloi. “But you—if you’ve had this all under observation, couldn’t you have stopped it before it came to this?”

The Peloi waved a spidery limb. “We are not all-seeing, Li-Jared. We send out probes, to see what there is to see. Neither are we all-powerful, to intervene in all things that we see. Would you want us to do that even if we could?”

Li-Jared started to answer, then closed his mouth with a grunt.

“Uhhllll,” said Antares. She seemed to be drawing together all of the emotions present here into herself, perhaps to try and make sense of them; and the effort was costing her. “What,” she began with some difficulty, “are you asking us to do?”

“Guide this team,” said the closest Peloi, and as it spoke, the image of the other team drew still closer.

“Advise them on dealing with Karellian interests and politics,” said the next.

Bandicut thought he could read Li-Jared’s thoughts. Karellian politics—after five hundred years?

By now, the image of the other team was close enough that they could see the individual faces. Four creatures looking back at Bandicut and company. Was this a live, two-way feed?

“Prepare them for a difficult mission,” continued a third Peloi.

The leftmost member of the other team, whose head was vaguely reptilian, had its head angled and seemed to be trying to speak. Bandicut could understand it, with some difficulty.

“Can you provide us-s . . . background . . . planet Karellia and near-space environment?”

Li-Jared’s fingertips curled inward with restrained tension. He kept his voice low and measured. “It’s a big planet. What background do you want?”

“Sss. Yess. Foremost, information . . . about the energy clouds that power this, this device, this temporal s-shield. Do you have such information?”

“Not really. What do you want to know? I can tell you what the radiation belt was like several hundred years ago. It probably hasn’t changed much. What’s your concern?” Li-Jared’s fingers were now rubbing anxiously on his chest.

The bearlike creature said, “We, huh, have studied results from the . . . p-probe. We did not learn much, huh, detail about the clouds. But if it powers—hunh—the shield, then we need to know how that works . . . where . . . where it gets its power. Huuu. If the temporal shield device is, uhh, close to the clouds, it may be . . . untended.”

“And if it is?”

“Then, hunnh, this increases the chances we can . . . shut the field down—hah! Short-circuit the cloud, maybe. M-minimal disturbance from the . . . p-planet.”

Li-Jared’s voice dropped through disbelief into menace. “Short-circuit the cloud? Minimal disturbance?”

“Yes. Yesss!” said the reptilian one. “Time iss of the es-s-sence. A negotiated s-shutdown seems unlikely in the time we have, does-s it not?”

Li-Jared took a step backward, as if struck. He spun to the Peloi, drawing a rasping breath. He practically shouted, “Are you serious? Are you planning to send these people to my planet? So they can shut down the only thing that’s protecting the planet from falling asteroids? Are you serious?

The Peloi shifted several times before answering. The other team was pulled back out of focus. “You do understand the need, don’t you?”

“Moon and stars, yes—I understand the need! But not to be idiots! Not to leave my planet open to attack!” Li-Jared panted for a moment and paused to regather himself. When he spoke again, his voice was even lower and more controlled. “I know you’re worried about the time. But the only sane thing to do is to send someone who knows Karellia, someone who can speak the language, who can engage and talk to the leaders about finding another way to defend the planet!”

There was some stirring among the Peloi, and a different one came forward. “Do you have suggestions?”

“Well, of course I have suggestions!” Bwong-ng-ng. “Moon and stars, what do you think? You’ve got to send me! Send me—and my friends here, if they’ll go!” He glanced at Bandicut and Antares, and then at Napoleon.

Bandicut leaned close to Li-Jared and muttered sotto voce, “Of course we’ll go with you. But are you sure you’re up for it?”

Li-Jared flashed him a look that clearly said, Are you crazy? With my homeworld at stake?

Bandicut bit his lip and nodded. On his other side, Antares had rested a hand on his upper arm while she stared into the enormous tank of water. He could sense her marshaling her thoughts and feelings into what she would display as clear support of Li-Jared. She possessed, he knew, a growing desire to stay here and live a life in the world they had all risked so much to protect. But she would stand with Li-Jared. And Ik. If they could find him, Bandicut had no doubt Ik would go.

The Peloi had begun murmuring among themselves. Then, from a distance, the leader of the other team called out, “Ssss, ah—perhaps you are—hmm, better qualified to go, then?” The creature then seemed to speak to the Peloi. “Why is this person not leading the expedition?”

Bandicut shook his head slowly. He couldn’t believe he was making this argument. But it seemed like the only one to make. “Yes,” he said in a loud, clear voice. “Why aren’t you sending us? It’s clear you can’t do this without engaging with the Karellians, and you need Li-Jared for that!”

It took the Peloi a minute or two. The curtains fluttered and changed, and when they spoke, their tone seemed less certain. “Not long ago, you clearly stated your objection to being sent on repeated missions. You have earned a rest, and we agree.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence,” Li-Jared snapped, his hands clenching and unclenching. “You had not told us that the next mission would affect my homeworld!”

“Well . . .” said one of the Peloi. Then another said, “Well . . .” Then they shifted and a third said, “Truthfully we are concerned that you are too close to the matter. It could be difficult to carry out your mission if—”

“If what?” Li-Jared thundered.

“If there turns out to be a conflict between your world and the greater good of the galaxy. We do not say this will happen.”

A growl came from deep in Li-Jared’s throat. “I just risked my skin helping to stop a hypernova, and you doubt that I can make a decision about what’s important?” He began to bounce up and down slightly, flexing at the knees. “Where do you get the right to doubt me?”

Bandicut stepped forward. “Li-Jared is right. He is trustworthy, and you should send him. And you should send us with him.” He felt Antares close in beside him, with a murmur.

“And,” Li-Jared added, “find Ik and let us bring him, too.”

“We’re a team,” Bandicut said. “As I think you know.”

The water stirred vigorously, and the Peloi gazed back at them, inscrutable. Finally, the one farthest to the left said, “It might be possible—some of what you propose. We have not the power to bring Ik to you, though. Not in the time before you must leave. But—”

“But what?” Li-Jared said.

“We are striving to understand. You are certain you have changed your mind? You are certain you wish to go?”

The three nodded. Napoleon tapped, twice.

“Then . . . we shall adjust our plans accordingly.” The Peloi drifted forward, close to the glass. “The other team is placed on standby. We are processing the requirement to provide you with a ship. We could reactivate the last ship in your use, the one you named The Long View. Would that be acceptable?”

Copernicus! Bandicut thought. “Yes,” he said at once. “Of course. Right, Li-Jared? Provided, however—”

“Provided?” asked the Peloi.

“You leave the AI unchanged. The one known as Copernicus. That remains in control of the ship. Agreed?”

“If the maintenance section has no objection, we have none.”

Bandicut shook his head. “Not good enough. Do what’s needed to make it happen.”

Swish. Swirl. Another Peloi in front. “We have issued that order. It will be obeyed.”

“Good. Then if we’re done here—?”

“Go make whatever preparations you need to. Jeaves can assist you with that,” said the Peloi. “You will hear from us soon.” And with that, the curtains swirled, and the creatures were gone.

Chapter 8 Rings-at-Need

IK KNEW THE instant he stepped through the portal that something had gone wrong. Moon and stars, where am I? It definitely wasn’t the place where he’d last seen his friends. But what in the names of the holies was it? For a long few seconds he hung in limbo, feeling not quite solid. Around him was nothing he recognized as Shipworld, but an infinite black space filled with tiny white symbols streaming around him at tremendous speed. The air was filled with a tang of electricity.

He heard an alarmed voice beside him: “What is this?” The human Julie Stone was floating beside him. That was some relief; at least he hadn’t lost both her and his friends.

“I’m not certain,” he began, but his words were interrupted by a snap like an electric arc. Suddenly they were standing—floating, really, just a few inches above the ground—on a ridge overlooking a series of green, tilled fields. Far across the field, bipedal figures moved about, working the land. Ik narrowed his gaze, trying to bring the figures into clearer focus. Snap. Darkness again, and streaming symbols. “Hrrm—?”

Julie grabbed his arm, physically caught off balance. “This—can’t be right!” she gasped.

“No.” He tried to think what might be happening. Something gone wrong with the transmission? He tried to read the symbols. They were moving much too fast, and were meaningless to him.


Now they stood, almost touching the floor, on a balcony overlooking a busy arcade in a city . . . somewhere in Shipworld. Below them, a large concourse thronged with pedestrians of all sizes and shapes—except any that Ik recognized. The type of place was familiar, but he did not remember seeing it before. “Hrah!” he croaked softly.


Now they were standing—walking, really—over a dark, glossy plane with enormous but finely etched concentric circles engraved on its surface. Ik was unsure whether he himself was solid. What was going on? Were they even still in Shipworld? He was becoming gravely worried. Shipworld was huge. Spread out over thousands of habitats, it was probably greater in extent than many planetary surfaces put together. The potential for becoming permanently separated from his friends, if the transport system were malfunctioning, was terrifying.

A glance at Julie confirmed that she had similar thoughts. “Surely there must be some reason . . . but . . .” Her voice trailed off. “We’re lost, aren’t we?”

Ik didn’t answer at once. Perhaps there was a harmless explanation for this detour. Perhaps the system was delayed, and they were simply in a transport buffer, awaiting their eventual arrival back with his companions. At one time he’d felt reasonably competent at getting around Shipworld. But that was before two difficult missions and the loss of his voice-stones. His new stones did not seem to have all the knowledge of the old ones. Well, why should they? They had been on Julie’s journey, not his. If they had any idea of where Ik and Julie were right now, the stones were keeping it to themselves.

“I wish,” he murmured, thinking and speaking slowly, “that I had an iceline connection, to contact the others—and to ask the system what is happening.”

Julie cocked her head in a way that reminded him of John Bandicut. But then she looked past him. “What are those?”

“Hrrk-ing?” Ik turned around. A cloud of what looked like sparkling insects was moving through the air over the glassy surface. Moving toward them. The Maksu? Why were they here now?

Coming to talk to us?

The Maksu were a strange species, some form of multiplex consciousness. They were well regarded as traders of information. Beyond that, he knew little—except that without the Maksu, Ik and his companions would never have beaten the boojum.

But the Maksu didn’t generally just drop around to visit.

“Hraachee’an Ik . . . have we properly . . . identified you?” sang the Maksu swarm, flying around them in a wide circle. Julie, on his right, was herself turning in circles, watching them.

“I am Ik,” he answered. “Hrrr-kah! Have you come to explain what is going on? Did you find us through the iceline? Are you the Maksu who worked with me against the boojum?”

The Maksu buzzed with what seemed to him to be excitement. “The same, no . . . though we are familiar with your work. We pursued you through . . . transport system. You are beyond the reach of the iceline . . . at present . . . we cannot use iceline to communicate. We have come with a message . . .”

“A message? From John Bandicut? Or the others? Why are we out of the reach of the iceline?” Ik turned to Julie. “Can you hear them? They say they have a message.”

The Maksu swarm suddenly changed; it flowed closer to them and then stretched up and over, forming a dome over them. Their firefly lights began to flicker like tiny embers in a breeze. They sped up their movement, until the swarm became a blur, and then began to form an image out of its rapidly changing points of light. Or possibly multiple shadowy images, like figures moving jerkily in a fog. The figures were unrecognizable to Ik, but were eerily hypnotic, moving in a peculiar rhythm, speeding and slowing, and periodically bursting forth with streaming beads of light, as though they were about to break through from some other realm.

A voice deeper than the Maksu’s welled out of the swarm. “We have need of your services.”

Ik tried to respond, but by now the hypnotic movement had put him nearly into a trance. “Our—services? What services? Who are you?” The words came out in a whisper, flat.

“We speak for some . . . you may call . . . masters of Shipworld. Urgent need. We all have need.”

Ik felt a barking laugh erupt from his chest.

“Is that sound . . . amusement?” asked the voice from the Maksu.

Ik’s words came out thickly. “Yes. I’m sorry. But you see—hrrrl, I have heard that phrase, urgent need, so many times before.”

The Maksu whirled a little faster. “Some feel . . . what is urgent is relative. Would you feel . . . influx of hostile entities into the galaxy . . . urgent?” The Maksu altered the pattern of their movement, forming new images. Soon Ik recognized the shape of the galaxy.

“Hrah, perhaps so,” said Ik. “Say more?”

“Not for us to say. Will you come with us . . . to a representative?”

Ik winced. Representative? That could mean anything. But it wouldn’t get them back to his friends. “Hrrm, do you offer a choice? Can you bring our other companions to this meeting? You must know who I mean.”

Whirl. “They are presently beyond . . . contact range.”

Excuse me,” Julie Stone interrupted, and she sounded annoyed. “Am I being excluded from this conversation? I’ve come a long way to this place, and I urgently want to see my countryman, my fellow human, John Bandicut. Since you seem able to move us around at will, surely you can find a way to reach him.”

“Hrah, exactly—”

“That is impossible . . . at this time.” Bzzzz.

“Why is it impossible?” Julie snapped.

“Doors and channels . . . closed. Contacts no longer . . . available.”

Julie’s brow was furrowed in a way Ik had often seen on Bandicut. “Then what about my other friend, the translator?”

Bzzzzzzzzz. The Maksu’s agitation grew. “That is . . . outside our domain.”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“We do not . . . ssss. But others . . . might.”

Julie gave a sound that Ik recognized as a sigh of disgust. He forced down his own annoyance and tried to offer some reassurance. “I feel the same frustration, Julie Stone. And anger. The way things are done here sometimes—” he shook his head in quick jerks “—defies understanding. There are times when you can only—”

Ik’s words were interrupted by another sudden shift. The Maksu fell away from them, and the black surface vanished. Ik felt a moment of dizziness, before intricate branching structures appeared, surrounding them . . .


Julie’s breath went out in a gasp as the Maksu sent them spinning into a new place, a strange medium with colored glow-lights and branches angled like a tree. They flew through it in a blur. It reminded Julie weirdly of Christmas trees from childhood; but the Maksu were throwing out words like map and location. Here was where Julie had entered Shipworld. There was where Ik and his company had returned from a mission. Here was a split that divided where that company was and where Julie and Ik were. Then it was all behind them, and new branches appeared.

A receding voice said, “Sss-connections . . . are broken-n. Will be repaired . . . perhaps-ss in time.”

And then the branches began blurring.


And just like that, they were standing in a wood-paneled room, its walls illumined by a warm glow coming from concealed spaces above what looked like wall-to-wall bookcases. Julie turned around in amazement. “What is this? It looks like a library. A human library.” She sniffed and thought she smelled wood-polishing oil.

“Does it?” Ik asked. “Hrrm, to me it looks like a Hraachee’an library.” He waved a hand in a sweep across the room. As he did so, the air seemed to billow open momentarily, like a curtain opening to reveal a glimpse of a different view—with taller shelves, narrower, containing tall, slender objects that might have been books.

“This is the Outerberk library,” said a thin, metallic voice. Julie and Ik looked around, but no one seemed to be here. “It is a sanctuary for study and thought. But it is also a place where important guests may pause and relax. Thank you for coming.”

Ik rumbled and pointed to a glimmer of light behind a desk that looked as if were made of golden oak. “Hrrm,” he said. “Is that you speaking, over there? Are you afraid to show yourself?”

The light flickered and brightened. “One moment, please, while I join you,” said the voice. A shape began to emerge from the glow, a flat, round cutout whirling just at the edge of visibility, like a huge lollipop spinning on its stick. Finally the shape slowed and came nearly to rest, though still twitching a little. It looked like a copper-gold metal disk, the blank face of a mannequin stamped out of sheet metal. If it was a face, Julie thought, not at all sure. But the figure had two flexible spindles for arms that ended in paddle-shaped hands. The paddles waved like wind-chimes in a breeze. Standing, or maybe floating, behind the desk, it looked like something from a phantasmagorical dream. Was it alive? she wondered.

“What sort of a—what are you?” she asked, simultaneously fascinated and alarmed. Of all the odd creatures she’d encountered so far on Shipworld, this one, with its cartoon flatness, was definitely the oddest.

The disk-face began to sparkle in three spots on its surface, roughly approximating two eyes and a mouth. “Is this better?” it asked. “Can you see me now? Can you hear me?”

Julie nodded hesitantly. “I guess so.”

“I needed to find the proper rotation. Good. I am glad you have come. We have much to discussss.” Its voice took on the shivering quality of a gently stroked cymbal. The spots faded and vanished, leaving once more a blank disk.

“Hrah,” said Ik. “You know who we are, apparently. But we don’t know who you are.”

“You may call me—” The creature gave a metallic twang, ending in a bird chirp. Julie’s translator-stones rasped for a moment, and then she heard, “Rings-at-Need.”

“What?” she asked, even though she’d heard the stones clearly.

“Rings-at-Need.” The being’s head twirled once, twice. “I am a Tintangle. I live in two primary dimensions, which I believe you can see, plus several others, which you may not. You may think of me as a male of my species, if it helps. Perhaps on another occasion, I can tell you more. However, just now—”

“Rrrmm. You remind me of the shadow-people,” Ik interrupted, angling his head as he looked at the creature.

Rings-at-Need twanged again. “Distant cousins.”

Julie tried to wrap her mind around all this without losing track of what was most on her mind. “But if—”

“There are important people eager to speak with you,” the creature said, waving its paddle hands in the air.

“So we were told,” said Ik. “Do you represent the Shipworld masters?”

Rings-at-Need’s paddles fluttered this way and that, and its head rocked in quick movements from side to side. “I speak for a team that . . . represents certain of the Shipworld masters, yes. This team has urgent interest in matters . . .” Its—or, rather, his—hands fluttered again.

“Matters—?” Ik prompted.

“ . . . related to your recent mission.”

“Hrah, you know about our mission, then.”

“Of course. Ssss. It is why we have brought you here.”

“Hrrm,” Ik said, going suddenly quite still, his gaze focused on the Tintangle.

“Can we meet them, then?” Julie asked. “The Shipworld masters?”

Rings shivered, making a rustling cymbal sound. “Not . . . no. I would not know how to make that happen. But I can take you to meet . . . the team. The mission team.”

Julie shook her head. “If you won’t take us to see the masters, then how about John Bandicut? Do you know him? He was part of that mission. Yes?” She glanced to Ik for confirmation. As she spoke, Rings’ shivering sound increased. She felt her pulse pounding in her head. “He is my . . . countryman, and friend. I have not seen him in a long time. I very much want to see him.” Longing and frustration were building inside her like water behind a dam.

A ringing rose from the Tintangle, like the extended vibration of a gong. “Nng, nng, nnggggg . . . These things are not possible. Did not the Maksu explain that to you? You are in different jurisdictions. There is no way, right now, to reunite you.” The Tintangle’s eyes reemerged and sparkled emerald against the coppery-gold disk of its face. “Did the Maksu not explain, also, that your friends have been given a new assignment?”

Ik stiffened. “Hrrk-kr-gang. How can that be? I was with him a short time ago! Besides, hrrrr, we work together.”

“Things have happened quickly,” Rings-at-Need said, turning his head slightly out of the plane, then back. “There was our urgent need, and—someone else—had another idea.”

“And you separated us?” Ik snapped. “Why did you do that?”

Vibrating cymbal sound, fading slowly. “I am afraid that was done, yes. Because they needed you. Because it was better to have some of you than none of you. And because you two have both fought . . . these things before.”

Julie’s blood chilled. Fought these things? Did Rings mean the thing that had threatened Earth? Did someone want her to go against more of those? No!

Ik’s mouth clacked open and closed. His breath hissed out.

Julie wondered if he was thinking something similar. “Ik?” she asked softly. “Didn’t you say you and John fought something really terrible on your last mission?”

“Hrah, yes, we did,” Ik said, tightening his long-fingered hands into fists, and then releasing. “Terrible.”

Rings clanged loudly. “Yes! That is why this is so urgent! Please listen to me!”

Julie balled her fists, a protest welling inside her.

“Your friends accepted an assignment because it seemed critical to them. It is related to the thing we wish to speak to you of.” Rings made a huffing noise. “Will you let me show you? Words take so long! Will you not?”

Ik eyed the being with a stony gaze.

“All right,” Julie said.

Ik looked surprised, but after a moment he inclined his bony head and said, “Hrah. Very well.”

Rings cymbal-crashed, then pointed, his two paddle-hands pressed together. As Julie and Ik turned to look, the room darkened. “I wish to show you a danger that may affect every species represented in Shipworld. We must start by looking at a region of space not far from Julie’s homeworld, Earth.” She stiffened, as Rings continued, “And we must look at a location known as Karellia.”

“Li-Jared’s world!” Ik muttered.

“In both places, we will see elements of peril to the galaxy. But, perhaps, peril we can do something about.”

Julie stirred as one whole side of the library became a glowing display of the Milky Way.


Julie struggled to absorb all that Rings-at-Need had told them. She had taken in much of it nonverbally, which was the only reason she could manage the revelations at all. She thought she had the essence: A plague of malicious machine-intelligences from a billion years in the past was threatening to come forward in time, perhaps was already coming forward in time. And they on Shipworld, along with all organic life in the galaxy, were—however indirectly—descendants of the civilizations that had nearly eradicated the machines. “Beware,” the voice was saying. “If these dreadful things come forward, they will threaten everything we know.”

Yes, yes, Julie thought, remembering the tiny but terrifying Adversary that had virtually destroyed her spacecraft and threatened to destroy Earth itself. That would be inconceivably bad.

“But,” Rings was saying, “if we could travel into the past, and prevent them from ever coming to us in the present?”

Julie could only gaze in fear and wonder at the Tintangle.

“We may have an opportunity for action. But we do not know with certainty what is possible and what is not.”

“Hrrrrl . . .” Ik growled. “Why are you telling us? What can we do about it?”

In the near dark, Rings-at-Need looked like a poster made of foil, fluttering and glinting as he turned and gestured. “You have both proved yourselves capable in a crisis. You have both faced these Mindaru, or powers related to them. Who could better lead an expedition?”

“Expedition?” Julie whispered.

“To travel back through space-time. To find the enemy in its nest. To see if it can be contained in its own time, before it can threaten us in ours.”

Julie was so stunned by this suggestion that she failed to notice at first that Ik, too, was speechless. He seemed to be staring at a point somewhere beyond Rings, as though the Tintangle’s words had sent him off on a mental journey. Julie’s voice cracked as she said, “Did I understand you properly? Did you really mean, travel back in time?

Rings-at-Need gonged softly. The Milky Way zoomed in slowly, and the galaxy rotated backward like a spiral trying to unwind. As the galactic core grew in the view, it broke into a spangle of bright nebulas and star clusters. Rings said, “This is a region which we believe may be the focal point of the danger. However, we do not know the exact location—even in the present, much less the past.”

“So then—” Julie blinked a moment, parsing Rings’ words. “So this view we’re looking at is—how you think it looked in the past?”

Rings gonged again.

And now it was starting to sink in. Time travel. Really? Should it be any more astonishing than her trip from her own sun to this crazy place at the edge of the galaxy?

As an exoarchaeologist, she should be thrilled by the prospect of time travel. A chance to view the past in person. Not just view it, but live it.


It sounded good—until you remembered what Rings said she’d find in the past. Not old artifacts, safely removed by millions of years, but a terrible foe. Perhaps the creators of the deadly nano-monsters she had already fought—the Adversary that had devoured her spaceship in its attempt to get at the Earth.

Finally she realized that Ik was watching her, his small eyes, set deep in his bony face, seeming to gaze right into her thoughts. Was he thinking of similar memories? His words left that question unanswered. “It sounds, hrah, extremely dangerous.”

Rings made a rippling sound.

Julie groaned and drew herself a little straighter. “You told us John Bandicut—and others?—are being sent on an assignment. Is their assignment related to this?”

“Yes. They have met with other . . . representatives of the governing circle.” Rings seemed to vibrate, then wind down, as though pondering, or perhaps accepting something he did not wholly approve of. “They accepted an assignment that may be . . . complementary to this one.”

Hrrrl. Complementary how?” asked Ik.

Rings waved his paddles vaguely. “A different approach—to a different aspect of this same problem. Not back in time. They are going to—” Rings seemed to strain to decide how much to tell them “—Karellia.”

“Without me?” Ik boomed.

Rings vibrated wildly. “I am truly, truly sorry. But if the mission I offer you does not succeed, theirs will likely fail, also. Because it is there that these . . . Survivors, these Mindaru . . . are expected to emerge!”

“Hrahhh!” Ik cried mournfully.

Julie felt a reflexive jerk of anger, and defiance. “Tell me something, Rings-at-Need. Why do you think you can just out of the blue grab us and demand that we do this? I don’t even know y—” She stopped, a twisting feeling inside her chest reminding her how she had felt when the translator had once asked her to do something equally insane, back in the solar system. Was she going to have to do it all over again? Had that earlier fight for her life just been a warm-up? It’s never over.

“Continue?” asked Rings-at-Need, spinning out of view for an instant, then reappearing.

Julie raised her hands and then dropped them. “This is too much for me to absorb just like that. I need time to think. I need to speak to someone I can trust.”

Cymbal sound: Shhhhh. “I would help if I could. But I have explained about John Bandicut.”

Julie’s chin suddenly came up. “I want to see the translator. The thing that came to Shipworld with me. You must know what it is. Is it still alive? No one has told me! If it is, I want to talk to it.”


“Yes, I really mean this. If you won’t take me to John Bandicut, I insist you take me to the translator!” She glanced at Ik for support. “I don’t know you, and I have no reason to trust you. But I trust the translator. Take me to it.” She shut her mouth. Ik nodded almost imperceptibly.

“I—that is—” Rings began, and then stopped. After a moment, he vibrated again. “It is the translator—that recommended you for the mission. It said—we needed to find Julie Stone.

Julie, stunned, stared at the Tintangle in silence. The translator . . . did that? She choked, forced words out. They came as an almost inaudible whisper. “If that’s true, I still need to speak to it.”

Rings-at-Need spun in and out of visibility for several long seconds, then steadied back into view. “It is . . . not well. But I will see if this can be arranged.”

Chapter 9 Advice from the Translator

THE QUIET WAS profound, in the place of darkness where the translator floated in its long journey back from annihilation. For a time, the translator was certain of almost nothing, including its own survival. The fire of Earth’s sun kept returning to its mind, blazing in its hellfire ferocity, burning everything in its presence, even the translator’s own failing protective shields. It burned away the remnant of the Adversary that had tried to devour them, and it burned to the bones the remaining skeleton of the spacecraft the translator had shielded. Did it burn the human who was the translator’s charge?

Fire and burn, matter to energy turn . . .

No. Julie Stone had survived—had emerged with it beyond the far reaches of the galaxy, borne on the ripples of space-time that the translator had triggered at the end of the sun passage. The translator had brought her here alive, not dead—and given her into the care of the beings of Shipworld. So the translator itself had survived, as well.

Burn, burn, fire and storm.

It had survived. How else was it thinking and wondering?

That realization more than any other pushed the translator finally into cognitive motion and enabled it to think once more with purpose—at least for brief interludes. There were still uncertainties: Where exactly was the translator now, in time and space? Shipworld, yes; but where in Shipworld, and how long since its harrowing escape?

Space and time, uncertainty of mind.

Space and time still existed. Yes. That was key.

Step back from annihilation.


During the translator’s healing, the movement of time was like a whispering air current, seeming at whim to speed up, and again to slow down, and then to billow around without making contact at all. Eons seemed to have passed since its journey through the sun-fire; and yet, the memories of the passage remained vivid and profound. Only the timeless healing spaces of Shipworld existed; all else was smoke and illusion.




The dark of renewal.

Considerable regrowth was needed, as the translator bathed in a quiet stream of neutrinos and dark matter. The memories were still there, coiled around the n-dimensional layers of its core, but they needed the soaking bath of time and energy to be made whole again.

Eventually, it heard voices bringing new knowledge, images and news of Shipworld. The translator began once more to care.


There were others in Shipworld with whom the translator had connection. From time to time its thoughts circled back to these others, and it wondered where they were, and if they were still alive.

John Bandicut and the quarx.

Were they still together? At the thought of them, the translator trembled with a sense of responsibility, and fear. It wasn’t as if it had never manipulated anyone before Bandicut, or changed someone’s life course for them. There was a Fffff’tink who had been so traumatized by what it was asked to do that it had not survived the experience. Why didn’t that nag at the translator’s conscience, the way Bandicut did?

The thought made something in the translator quiver like a knife thrown into wood. It didn’t seem rational.

Think of others. Surely there were others on Shipworld whom the translator had once known. Or maybe not. It had been with the quarx for millions of years. But they had been away from Shipworld together. How the translator longed to speak with the quarx again!

What about Julie Stone?

Julie Stone.

Sometimes, and this was one such time, that name brought a stab of pain. More flashbacks, more memories of the passage. Just how badly had it been hurt?

Badly enough.


Later, the translator began to calm down and reflect on other concerns. When it had last been here on Shipworld, there had been other yaantel, like itself. What had become of them? Were they all out finding new kinds of life, new connections on other worlds? Were their descendants, or at least the things they had learned, available here on Shipworld?

Were they making things better?

Apparently so, at least according to a new voice that had begun penetrating the fog. It was the voice of a Shipworld librarian. This was someone new to the translator, someone who seemed interested in being helpful, and in sharing information, more so than some of the other voices the translator had to listen to. The librarian had tales to tell, and the translator listened to them—and in return, told some of its own stories. There were powers in Shipworld, powers that mattered, and they needed to be kept apprised of such things as the translator’s reports—though whether the powers were listening or not, the translator didn’t know. It told its stories to the librarian nonetheless.

Some were hard to remember in detail. Others burst forth like flowers opening.

So much time. So many lives.

The translator had been away for eons—not just while frozen in the ice of Triton, but long before that, while attempting to rescue the worlds of the Rohengen and the Fffff’tink, in their own distant star systems. Throughout those millions of years, its contact with Shipworld had been tenuous and intermittent. It had not really known what kind of Shipworld it would find at the end of that journey. But here it was, larger and more complex than the Shipworld the translator had left.

Although its fellow yaantel were not here now, an element of legend had grown around the memory of their work. But organics carrying their daughter-stones were here; all those yaantel, and others carrying their seed stones, had been at work out in the galaxy, finding candidates for service, candidates with stories not too unlike those of John Bandicut and Julie Stone.

Learning this gave the translator new hope.


The translator was only beginning to remember what it had felt like to be its old self, when the first indications of another crisis began to emerge. Voices came and spoke to it, voices identifying themselves as agents of the ruling circle of Shipworld. They wished to call upon the yaantel for advice, which was a surprise. Were they aware of the yaantel’s struggles with flashbacks and memory fragmentation? The surges of emotional turmoil? The profound feelings of isolation?

The voices, representing a contingent of the ruling circle, brought information about a temporal disturbance originating near the human-inhabited portion of the galaxy—and some extremely dangerous entities that might be carried forward out of the past. It was likely, the voices murmured, that the entities were related to the Adversary that had recently tried to destroy Earth, and had nearly destroyed the yaantel and Julie. Could they, the voices, offer to the yaantel some scenarios for dealing with this peril, and ask its opinion?

The first time the translator heard this, its thoughts turned to static—and it retreated back to its place of rest and isolation without answering. The memory of that passage was so traumatic that at first the translator could not contemplate even thinking about those things, much less becoming involved in another encounter with them.

The second time the voices came, the same thing happened. But it remembered a little more of what was said.

The third time, the translator stayed, and listened, and endured for a while the pain of remembering. It gave no immediate reply, but it didn’t flee, and the voices told it more.

In subsequent conversations, a picture slowly emerged—a situation that the translator could not ignore. This new threat was not just to a star system, or even to Shipworld, but to all of inhabited space.

It was some time before anything like a specific plan was mentioned. When it was, the translator found it hard to know what was best. The Shipworld masters wanted to send a team against the most malevolent intelligence in the universe. The two members they had in mind were both friends of John Bandicut’s. Both were veterans of encounters with similar adversaries. One was named Ik, who had once carried another yaantel’s voice-stones. The other was Julie Stone.


As they waited in the quaint alien library, Julie idly pulled some volumes off the shelves, and was surprised to find that many of them were, in fact, books printed on something like paper. The symbols were incomprehensible, though once or twice her wrist-stones stirred at the sight of something apparently familiar to them. Some of the volumes were solid blocks—perhaps some form of computer memory—while others were hollow. Ik rattled one of the hollow ones. “What’s that?” Julie asked, reshelving a slender volume consisting of a few thick pages.

“Hrrm,” Ik said, pondering. “A toy, perhaps?” He turned it in his long-fingered hand. “Or an information device? For a moment, I felt a strange sensation.”

“What kind of sensation?”

“In my mind. A glimmer of . . . something.” Ik tapped his forehead with his bony fingers. “I don’t know what exactly, but I felt it might have come from this.”

Julie frowned at the object.

Ik continued to turn it over in his hand. “I no longer feel it. But I find, achh, that I don’t want to put it down. As if it’s somehow meant for me. Does that seem odd?”

Julie shrugged. “I don’t know. This is a library, right? Maybe they’ll let you borrow it to play with.”

At a metallic sound, they both turned.

Rings-at-Need floated toward them. It was hard not to think of the Tintangle as a collection of sheet-metal disks, joined by wiry limbs. “As I said before, this is a library,” said the alien, waving his paddle-like hands. “And that piece you are holding is intended for you. I have just activated it, and that was why you felt what you did.”

“Ah. What is it, then?” asked Ik.

“It is a guide, to take you to the yaantel.”

Julie frowned. “Yaantel? What’s that?”

“I am sorry. That is our word for the kind of entity that you know as the translator.”

The way Rings phrased that made her furrow her brow. “The kind of entity? Do you mean that there is more than one trans—or, yaantel?”

Rings made a soft sound as of a gong fading to silence. “I have heard so. But the one with whom you came to Shipworld is the only one I have personal knowledge of.” He gave a little vibration. “Its arrival here was a matter of considerable excitement among the shadow-people and librarians, and even among some of the masters, I am told.”

“So then, my translator—my yaantel—is a very important person,” said Julie, thinking, Important enough that they could have let me know it was still alive?

“Oh, yes,” said Rings. “Much revered, and looked to for wisdom.”

Ik was still studying the small box. He held it up to Rings. “How will this lead us to the . . . yaantel?”

“Open it,” Rings-at-Need said.

Ik gave the strange creature a steely gaze, then turned the box over again, his fingers probing at its surface.

Julie watched him, wondering if it was a wooden-box puzzle. A thought occurred to her. “Ik—may I?” The Hraachee’an handed the box to her. She held it a moment, closing her eyes. She thought she felt a twinge from her translator-stones. She pressed her right wrist to it. The box vibrated in her hand, and the side she had touched to her wrist irised open like a camera lens. “Aha.”

Ik joined her in peering into the black interior. Several tiny lights sparkled inside, like pinprick stars in space. “What is it?” she breathed. “It’s beautiful.”

The box vibrated again.

“It is connecting,” Rings-at-Need said.

Connecting? She felt something new—a stronger link between the box and her stones. The box suddenly floated out of her hands as the black interior expanded before her.

Ik murmured in surprise. Together they peered into the blackness, where the tiny stars seemed to grow brighter—but also to move away, as though to invite them inward.

“I’ll wait here for you,” Rings-at-Need said, his voice fading behind them as the dark space expanded to swallow them.


Julie dared not turn her head in the darkness, for fear of becoming wholly disoriented. “Ik, are you still with me?”

“Hrah.” His voice came from her right, exactly where he had been before.

“Can you tell what’s happening?” Julie felt the darkness streaming around them, felt it on her skin, like moving water.

“I do not know. However, I believe we are not alone.”


There was a heartbeat of silence. Then a whispered: *Indeed, you are not.*

The voice in Julie’s mind was no louder than a pencil scratching on paper. But she knew it, and her heart trembled. “Translator? Is that really you?” She felt the stones in her wrists responding with recognition—practically vibrating with joy. Could they feel joy?

*Why would we not?* her stones answered. *We feel again the presence of our source.*

That was about as close as they’d ever come to expressing sentiment. Their voice was stronger, more immediate than the translator’s, but the kinship was unmistakable.

“Did you hear it?” Julie murmured to Ik. “Did you hear the translator?” Although at times in the past the translator had spoken to all around it, mostly it had spoken to her alone.

“I felt—something. Something in my voice-stones. I assume it is—” His voice broke off with a rasp.

An object was emerging from the dark: a small, squirming ball, consisting of dozens of even smaller, spinning globes. The glowing balls churned among themselves, as though in Brownian motion. Julie felt a rush of excitement—and a pang of fear. The translator looked almost as small as when she’d last seen it, and its diminished size had scared her then. She recalled her first painful glimpse after they’d passed through the fire of the sun, after their victory over the terrifying Adversary. She had been shocked by how little was left of her spacecraft, and even more shocked by the state of the translator upon their arrival at Shipworld. The nearly omnipotent being she had begun her journey with had been reduced to something like a cinder, the size of a grapefruit.

What she saw now looked more energetic and alive—but still only about the size of a basketball. At the start of their journey, it had been as tall as she was.

“It’s so good to see you again!” Her voice cracked with emotion.

The translator’s voice was clear, but small, like a trickle of water in her mind. * . . . grateful to see you again, Julie Stone, and to greet your friend Ik, who also now bears our stones.*

“Hrah,” said Ik. He touched his temples. “If these voice-stones are from you, then I thank you.”

*We are certain you will use them well. We have heard of you.*

“Really,” said Ik. He sounded surprised.

*We are aware of your work.*

Ik bowed slightly, still looking surprised.

Julie cleared her throat. “There is so much . . .” She had a sudden thought. “Should we be calling you Translator—or Yaantel?”

The translator sounded amused. *Most in Shipworld call us Yaantel, or sometimes ‘the yaantel,’ when there is no other around. It is a name handed down over a very long time. But to your people—and to the quarx, if you know the quarx—we have always been the translator. Please call us whichever you like.*

Julie nodded, thinking she preferred the familiar. “Are you recovering all right from our passage here? You got hit pretty hard.” She gestured in the darkness.

From her stones she felt a strong sense that her simple question was causing the translator discomfort. She wondered if she should say something more, but it spoke first. *We suffered considerable loss on that passage. We are now in a place of . . . healing. And I am. We are. Healing.*

Julie had never heard the translator sound so tentative before.

*But you did not come just to visit. You have come with questions. Yes?*

“Yes,” Julie admitted. “We are confused about what is happening to us. We were trying to find our way to John Bandicut. You know John Bandicut.”

*Of course. We have been trying to contact him, but have not been able. Do you have information as to his location?*

“Hrrm, I was just with him,” Ik said in a dry rasp. “I was intending to return to him. To take Julie to him. But I could not.”

“We were told we couldn’t be taken to him,” said Julie. “Instead, we’ve been asked to do something else, something that sounds completely crazy. As crazy as what you asked me to do, back in my home system.” Julie felt her pulse race as the words stumbled out. She flashed back to when the translator first told her she needed to abandon all common sense and leave the safe human spaceship she was on, to pursue a deadly adversary across the solar system. That had definitely been crazy. Extreme. Terrifying. But compared to time travel? To the center of the galaxy?

“A trip,” murmured Ik. “In space and time.”

*We know of this request. To ride the thing called the starstream, to the center of the galaxy, and back more than a billion years as you know them. Is that what you want to ask us about?*

“Hrah,” said Ik.

*To find the ancient Mindaru and stop them from coming to the present.*

Julie whispered, “Yes.”

“Perhaps you know of it—but we are not prepared for this!” Ik cried. “What do we know of time travel? What do we know of its dangers? Nothing! And as for those who would send us, we know as little—”

*Those being representatives of Shipworld’s governing circle?*

“So it would seem,” Ik said. “I know nothing about these circles or their representatives. Much less whether we should trust them and what they ask us to do.”

The translator rumbled softly for a moment, but did not answer directly. Finally it said, *We have some knowledge of this proposed mission.*

“Yes?” Julie felt a surge of hope. “And what do you think?”

The translator’s voice became subdued. *There are significant uncertainties. Much we still hope to learn. But this mission . . . may be necessary. Your thoughts—what are they?*

“Well—” Julie struggled. “We’ve only just heard about it. We don’t know if it’s something we can do. Or if it’s even a smart thing to do.”

*Too little knowledge,* the translator echoed. *Including whom to trust?*


The translator spun silently for a time. Did it still possess its previous powers of calculation and wisdom? Was it trying to decide whom to trust? When it finally spoke, it seemed to have difficulty. *You have both faced . . . something like these Mindaru before.* The translator spoke with a twinge in its voice, as though it were speaking of itself as much as them. *And you do not want to face them again. Ever.*

Julie shuddered violently. “God, no!”

The translator pulsed, expanding and contracting. *None of us wants to. But if they are . . . coming . . .*

Julie wanted to shout, Can’t someone else stop them this time?

*We/you do not want the galaxy—or Shipworld!—to have to face them. Do we? It is difficult . . . very difficult.*

“No one should have to face them!” Ik snapped in a stiff, precise voice. “But who are we to stop them? To even know how? To make the right choices?”

*Those who plan . . . believe they can trust you . . . to make some of these choices.*

Julie was trying hard not to hyperventilate. She threw up her hands. “That’s crazy! Don’t you think that’s crazy?”

*It may be. We do not yet have sufficient information.*

Julie’s heart sank. The translator was supposed to know everything. But if it had been away from Shipworld for a extremely long time, then maybe it was just learning, too. Or was it really so badly broken it was no longer the translator she had known? She could not bear the thought.

*But . . . Julie Stone and Ik . . . we can try to help you judge the merits of the plan. Will you accept that help?*

“Of course!” Julie whispered.

The translator began again to bob slowly up and down, as it whirled. *Then consider the plan . . . The need is urgent. But there are questions about the true nature . . . of a time travel mission, yes?* The translator seemed to regain some of its usual steadiness. *The questions surely include: If you travel in time, how will you locate the Mindaru in the past? And if you locate them . . . what will you do to stop them? And if you stop them, what effect might your actions have on our present as we know it?*

“Exactly!” Ik cried. “Exactly! We do not want to come back to a world where you—where our friends—never existed! Even if it’s possible to make this trip, should we?”

The translator spun faster, letting the question hang. Then: *We have, in fact, thoughts . . . on that. What is your understanding of . . . current models of time travel? Of the risks of changing the past?*

Julie shook her head numbly.

*Are you familiar with the distinctions . . . between modes of time travel?*

“Should we be?” she asked.

*Crucial differences!*

Did the translator seem annoyed that they had not been told these things? A tingle in her wrist-stones seemed to confirm this. A glance at Ik caught his uncomprehending gaze fixed on the translator. She leaned toward the translator with a feeling of urgency, even though the translator spoke in her mind.

*On an exploratory mission—and this is you!—you would travel by something called the ‘ghoststream.’ Put simply: You would ride an extremely powerful beam of . . . *

As the translator paused, perhaps searching for words, Julie’s imagination raced. A giant death ray?

*Quantum temporal entanglement, on an extreme scale,* it said at last. *You would travel as a virtual presence across both space and time.*

Julie felt her eyelids twitching as she tried to follow. Ik said, “Hrrm, do you mean an out-of-body projection?”

*A useful shorthand, perhaps. Here is another shorthand: Your senses would be linked, through a kind of lens of . . .* For a heartbeat, the translator again fell silent, searching. *A sensory lens, of energy not matter, to a distant time and place.*

“Wouldn’t that, brr-dang, require an enormous amount of power?”

*Yes. It has been done just a few times—with robotic probes.*

Julie winced. Not just a hazardous mission, but a chance to be guinea pigs with the technology? First living things in the beam?

*The ghoststream method is believed the safest, though not without hazard.* The translator’s voice faltered. *This is . . . a hard thing to ask of you! You have already taken great risks! Both of you!*

“But if this beam is virtual, how can it be . . .”

The translator’s voice steadied. *The description is inexact. It will hook deeply into your mind. As far as you are concerned, you will be in the past, and vulnerable to any harm that befalls the beam itself.*

“Hrahhh,” Ik rumbled gravely.

*It is highly unlikely that harm would befall you. Just as the risk of altering the past is . . .*

“Yeah, about that,” Julie began.

*According to theory, the risk of altering history is near zero.*

“Why?” asked Julie.

*The reasons are several. To begin, we do not expect interaction with the physical past.*

“We would just observe, then?” Ik asked. “Not touch? But does not the observer alter the thing it observes?”

Julie looked at Ik questioningly, and then thought: Of course—in quantum terms, yes.

The translator bobbed, moved forward and backward as though with nervous energy. *Different from quantum expressions you have known. The belief is, you will be invisible—or at most appear ghostly—to any living thing.*

“Huh,” Julie said, struggling to put her swirling thoughts into words. “How could we . . . I mean, I hear words like ‘the belief is,’ ‘likely,’ and I wonder—”

“Rrrm,” Ik said softly, agreeing.

The strain was apparent in the translator’s answer. Its chaotically moving balls separated visibly and then came back together. *There are uncertainties. But confidence in the models is high.* Julie’s stones tingled, and she wondered whether the translator was trying to persuade them, or just thinking out loud. *Other methods carry more risk, more intervention. But you are being asked to travel simply as observers in the ghoststream, to learn what is happening in the past.*

“So then you’re saying—”

*That you will not change the past.* The translator bobbed as though nodding with certainty. *That is correct. The strongest models predict that you cannot change the past in any significant way.*

“But if we—”

*The present is what it is—and nothing you do in the past can cause more than a localized eddy, a small eddy of change.*

Julie shook her open hands in the air. “How can you be so sure?”

The translator hummed and seemed sure of itself now. *Because anything you do has already become a part of the past. History is elastic, and even if disturbed, always tends to return to its previous condition. It is its own self-correcting mechanism.*

“That does not entirely reassure me,” Ik murmured.

*It is a difficult model to prove experimentally.*

“But you believe it is sound?” Julie asked.

The translator spun, rose slowly, and then descended again. Julie’s wrist-stones buzzed, as though with static. “Translator?” she asked. “Yaantel?”

Finally it answered: *Yes. Yes, I do.*


A few long moments passed, as they pondered the immensity of the challenge. Finally Julie spoke. “No matter how you put it, it seems like a big risk. Are they that afraid that the Mindaru will come forward in time?”

The translator seemed to quiver. *The Mindaru could be on their way now. I use the word “now” imprecisely, but I think you know what I mean. Julie Stone. Ik. We truly do not wish to endanger you again. But the Mindaru are an ancient terror. If the opportunity is open to them, the Mindaru will come forward in time. There are excellent reasons for fear of their coming into our time. My friend Julie—* the translator paused, flickering *—recall our battle with the one that nearly destroyed us both. Multiply that a thousand-fold, or a million-fold. Remember, we think it likely that that Adversary was a lesser descendant of the Mindaru.*

Julie’s stomach knotted. That Adversary had started as a sentient grain of sand in the outer solar system. By the time they had hurled it into the sun, it had grown into a spaceship-devouring monster, hell-bent on getting to Earth and devouring it.

“Then,” Ik murmured, “you believe we should go? To face down an even more terrible threat?”

The translator took a long time to answer, and Julie wondered if it was reliving that battle. Its voice seemed stretched thin as it said, *Rather, to prevent an even more terrible threat. John Bandicut and others will try to stop the timestream channel created at our end. They may succeed. But suspected Mindaru signs have been detected in the timestream, so time is short.*

“So it may already be too late,” Julie said.

*Perhaps not—if a way can be found to pinch off that timestream at the far end, to keep more Mindaru from entering it. Not to change the past, but to keep it in the past.*

“Even if, hrrm, we would not be able to touch anything?”

*Perhaps. The next step is uncertain. First, we must learn what is happening—back then. We believe it is a risk . . . worth taking.*

Ik began pacing in the dark place, muttering to himself. What were his demons from the Mindaru? Julie wondered. She took a breath. “If we were to say yes to the mission, would you consider coming with us?”

The translator flickered. She felt a sharp pain in her right wrist, then her left. She saw Ik wince and touch his temples, where his own stones glimmered.

She drew another breath. “Yaantel?”

The translator buzzed audibly. *We, I . . . cannot. We are sorry. We are not yet—*

Julie felt her heart pounding as she waited for it to complete its thought.

*We are not able,* the translator said, a great weight, possibly sorrow, in its voice. *We cannot . . . live outside this . . . place of healing, for now. We may never.*

Julie spoke against her own grief and disappointment. “I am so sorry.” Sorry for you, who saved my life and my world. And sorry for us.

*We . . . must go now.* The translator, pulsing erratically, began to pull back into the darkness. It hesitated long enough to say, *Please consider. Going, yes. But do not assume . . . that the planners, or others, are wiser than you.*

“What? Wait!” Julie started to say, but as she spoke the translator winked out of sight. She turned to face Ik in the darkness, lit only by the gemlike stars. “What the hell?” she whispered. Then the darkness peeled away, and they were again standing in the library of Rings-at-Need.


Burning, burning, can’t stop burning.

Afraid. Afraid.

The darkness was alive with the translator’s memories:

The spaceship disintegrating around it, the Adversary devouring it molecule by molecule, even as the growing sun weakened both of them.

Hot enough to destroy it? Maybe. But at what cost . . .

The sun looming enormous and hot, engine of creation and destruction.

Control the angle of the light.

Let the fire consume the Adversary, like vermin.

Rage bubbling, licking with hot fury at the thing that would harm them. Rage, rage with the growing light.

But how it hurt! The spillover of blazing radiation onto the ship and the translator itself, and worst of all, onto its human charge, bundled though she was in tight shielding.

Why did you not say yes? You should go with her.

Cannot hold . . . cannot.

Chapter 10 Taking Leave

SUNLIGHT SHONE OVER the Valley of Grains, which glowed in waves of green and gold beneath Dakota Bandicut’s gaze. She leaned over the North cap balcony rail, surveying the curved interior of the Earth 3 habitat. It had always reminded her a little of the inside of an eggshell—or maybe a geode, especially where the rocky highlands met the edges of the fields. The highlands were actually enormous structural rings on the inside of the air hull, but they protruded inward toward the central axis of the great, hollow cylinder. To one standing on the ground—really, the inner surface of the cylinder wall—the rings looked like hills jutting into the sky. The sky, of course, was just the open space of the central axis. If you looked beyond that, you’d see the ground on the other side of the cylinder looking right back at you.

Sunlight poured in through great lensed windows at the end caps of the pressurized cylinder, and with the aid of clever mirrors was focused down the spin axis of the station and redirected in such a way that from the ground it looked almost like a natural ball of light in the sky. The resulting effect wasn’t really the same as an open blue sky, but it came close enough to give a little reminder of life on the home planet, at least when precipitation wasn’t scheduled. Today the weather was clear and beautiful, making Dakota wonder if she wasn’t crazy to be leaving it all behind. She pushed that thought firmly down and out of her mind.

A few flyers were visible from where she stood, folks in their sheer nanoflex wings gliding over the land from a height high enough to be both exhilarating and a bit dangerous. Dakota shaded her eyes, watching them soar like gulls. She wished she were out there with them. Piloting maintenance drones just didn’t compare to the breezy pleasure of soaring free in the air.

Her thoughts soared on their own. They had been doing that a lot lately. So much on her mind; so much to remember. She almost felt that she needed to replay her memories, if she wasn’t to lose them and leave them behind when she left Sol behind. The endless wondering thoughts of what her Uncle John had done, and after him Julie Stone, whom she never got to meet. That was years ago, but it still felt like last week. Was that, deep down, the reason she had ended up flying remote probes in the atmosphere of Neptune? Was she still trying to follow her uncle and his . . . girlfriend didn’t seem like quite the right word, but she supposed it would have to do.

She’d followed them in acquiring translator-stones, though not by deliberate choice. Just what that was supposed to mean, she still wasn’t sure. More than a year had passed since the stones had sprung into her wrists on that fateful visit to the “Cavern of the Translator” out on Triton. They only spoke to her when it suited them, and for weeks at a time she almost forgot they were there. But there was no doubt they wanted her to take this next step.

Which was probably certifiably crazy, and she shouldn’t even be thinking—

*You gain nothing from recycling your doubts,* the stones whispered, speaking for the first time in days.

Nope. They’re right. Not going to go down that road, she told herself firmly, and raised her gaze to peer across the open center of the habitat cylinder, trying to see what she could pick out. There was the science center, and there the agricultural station, and over there the buildings that were the inner side of the factory section that bulged on the outer hull—and that zigzag pattern in the green up there was the Kancamagus hiking trail. She had never made it to the top—and now it was too late.

She shook her head. Not climbing the trail was trivial; what was too late was when she had gotten back home to her grandparents’ house—returning from Neptune, too late for her grandfather’s funeral, and much too late to spend time with him to say good-bye at the end. There was no way she could have—she was out at the edge of the solar system, for God’s sake! But that didn’t hold much water with Grandmother Edith, who regarded it as one more self-centered excuse from a granddaughter who had already shown her disdain by flying off to space. Instead of, what—staying to help with the family business? She physically ached when she thought of her last visit with her grandmother. If her grandmother thought she had walked out on her only remaining family to move away—first to space school, then to Neptune, then to Earth 3—how must it feel to her for Dakota to be leaving the solar system?

This wasn’t like doing a tour in one of the habitats, or even heading off into interplanetary space. This was going into slowsleep, and waking up with light-years between you and the place you used to call home. It was saying good-bye forever.


There was a movement to her left, and she turned to see a flyer flare to a landing on the broader ledge adjoining the lookout balcony. The young woman, dressed in an electric-green skintight suit, folded her mylar wings against her back, and straightened and raised her goggles so that Dakota could see her face. Oh hell.

It was Jenny Ferguson. Two years younger than Dakota, slender and athletic, red hair clipped back against her head, a vaguely smug expression on her face. Dakota tried to conceal the little wince that shivered out of her. Smile, now. She tried, and probably failed. “Hi there,” she said, struggling to keep her voice neutral.

“Ah,” Jenny said, leaning against the railing with an exaggerated sigh. “I needed a rest. Those air currents are gusting in the practice area. So—taking one last look over the homestead?” She grinned, and there was a hint of competitiveness, or maybe victory, in the expression.

“I guess so,” Dakota said, turning back to gaze out over the curving inner world of Earth 3. She glanced back at Jenny. “You don’t have to act so eager to see me go, you know. You’ll still get my job, either way.”

Jenny laughed, but with little warmth.

“I understand,” said Dakota. “Someone has to get my job.” And it was true, there were qualified people waiting for all the good jobs here. But who would have thought maintenance and security drone pilot would be considered such a hot job? “But,” she said, “you know, some people might hold off until I’m gone instead of hovering around me like a vulture. Couldn’t you wait until I was safely in slowsleep?”

Jenny laughed again, a bit nervously. “To the vultures go the spoils. Someone said that, I think.”

“Are you sure that someone wasn’t you?”

Jenny shrugged. “Anyway, what do you care? You’re going to Alpha Centauri.”

Dakota nodded. Yes, I am, thank God. She felt her face clouding with her thoughts. Maybe she should be grateful for someone—and it might as well be Jenny Ferguson—making her existence here just unpleasant enough to help her let go.

As Dakota was getting lost in her thoughts, Jenny straightened up from the railing and positioned her goggles over her eyes. She wiggled her arms and shook them out a little, to make sure the wings were loose. “Look—Bandicut,” she said. “I’m just jealous. You know that, right? That’s why I’m giving you a hard time. You get to go, and I don’t.” Jenny stretched her wings.

Dakota stared at her, open mouthed. She couldn’t think of anything to say.

“So long, then,” Jenny said. She lifted her wings and took two quick steps forward on the ledge before throwing herself into the air and gliding away. “Have a good life!” she shouted as she swooped away.

Unable to answer, Dakota watched her dwindle into the sky. “Have a good life yourself,” she finally muttered to herself, turning her back on the lush view. She pushed through the door to the ramp well and headed back to finish packing.


As the great cylindrical hull of Earth 3 rotated, the sun glinted off its bulges and protrusions in a dance of flashing light. Around it, drones and crewed vehicles moved like bees around a hive, in slow motion. Ten kilometers away from its southern end, another gleaming structure floated against the dark of near-Earth space: the space-dock hangar within which floated the starship Endeavor. The hangar was a much more open structure now that the construction and servicing of the ship was completed, and many of the construction modules had been removed.

Soon now, soon, the starship—humanity’s first—would emerge from that chrysalis and begin its climb out of Earth orbit. And in due course, out of solar orbit, as well. Its destination, the Alpha Centauri system, was all but invisible to the naked eye here in high Earth orbit.

Where an endless line of supply tugs had once streamed between the station and the ship, now a series of personnel carriers floated, bringing the last of the passengers and colonists to their new flying home.


The woman in a tight-fitting charcoal-and-maroon medic uniform leaned over her, checking the monitors above her head. “Are you ready, Miss? Can you tell me your name and date of birth, please?”

“Bandicut. Dakota Bandicut.” She gave her date of birth and thought, I’m twenty-six now. How old will I be when I wake up? She rolled her head, hoping to get all the kinks out of her neck. She wasn’t going to be moving much for the next few years.

“Good.” The medic made a notation on the screen at the foot of the pad and lowered a clear breathing hood over Dakota’s head. It arched a comfortable distance from her face, drawing a slow current of air inward over her chest. Two small vents on either side would add the sleeping gas to the air mix. If she wanted to squirm out from under it, she could. Last chance, kid. “Time to lie still now, Miss Bandicut, and get comfortable. Once we adjust the breathing gas, you’ll be asleep in a minute.”

No, she had wrestled with her final doubts already. She would always have regrets, but wasn’t that the way of life? She hoped her grandmother would forgive her, and perhaps even bless her in the end. But if she didn’t do this, she would most certainly regret that for the rest of her life.

Dakota sighed and closed her eyes. They wouldn’t close the full slowsleep enclosure until she was completely under and checked by the medics. Physically, she wasn’t worried. The undetected translator-stones in her wrists had promised to act as backup to the slowsleep systems, so even in the event of a malfunction, she should be okay.

*We will maintain watch throughout the rest phase. If necessary, we will wake you. Sleep well.*

/My own personal guardian angels. If the others knew, they’d want stones, too./

*Perhaps. One more reason that it was necessary to disguise our presence during your medical scans.*

/No doubt./ She had long since made her peace with the stones’ insistence on secrecy about their presence in her body. /You know what bothers me, though?/

*We’ll help if we can.*

/I don’t think you can. I’m going to miss seeing the planets on our way out of the solar system./ Come to that, she was going to miss most of the spaceflight experience altogether. It seemed as though that was something she ought to experience, if she was going to the stars. Of course, it would be months before they even reached the Kuiper Belt, at the edge of the solar system. The early stages of the flight would be all slow acceleration, starting from the modest starting speed they had by virtue of being in Earth’s orbit around the sun.

*You’re not really missing anything. We’re not flying past most of the planets, anyway.*

/Except for the slingshot around Jupiter, you mean. But still . . . /

“Adjusting the gas on D. Bandicut,” said a voice somewhere far away.

Uncle John? she thought. Julie? Are you out there somewhere?

And with that, a cottony cloud of sleep swept over her.

Perhaps somewhere deep in her subconscious she was aware of the full enclosure swinging down to seal her into the sleep unit, and the movement of similar enclosures up and down the row on either side of her. Perhaps she dimly registered the attendants finishing the final flight prep on the sleepers, and then going away.

She dreamed, from time to time. She dreamed of dandelion flowers blowing on the wind . . . .

Chapter 11 The Logothian Way

“WHERE ARE YOU taking us now?” Bandicut asked, following Jeaves with the others along a high balcony overlooking some kind of forest. They’d made two transport jumps from the cavern of the Peloi, with Jeaves saying not much more than “Follow me,” and hurrying on ahead of them. Bandicut didn’t understand the reason for the rush. When Jeaves didn’t respond, he let his voice become a little sharper. “Slow down, dammit! Please—will you tell us where the fire is?”

Jeaves glided out over a spot where the balcony widened into an observation platform. “I am sorry,” he said, spinning to face them. “I wanted to get well clear of the Peloi, because I didn’t think they were telling us all that they knew. I’m hurrying, because I think time may be short, if we want to track down Ik. I’m taking us to see a librarian I used to know.”

“Huh? Librarian?” Bandicut swung left and right, thinking, Why a librarian? And, Why are we looking for a librarian in the woods? “Explain, please. Shouldn’t we be going back to where we saw Ik last?”

“I don’t think so,” Jeaves said. “The Peloi said he’d been taken through a portal to another region. Not terribly specific, but it does suggest he won’t be able to return to the place he left from.”

Li-Jared finally burst out with, “Why a—” brr-dang “—librarian?”

“Who’s better when you need a high-level search? Could you please just trust me on this?” Jeaves asked. “The longer Ik is gone, the harder the trail will be to find.”

Bandicut glanced at Antares, who radiated concern and confusion. “Okay,” he said to Jeaves. “Where is this librarian of yours?”

“Down in those woods,” the robot answered, rotating and gliding off again.

Bandicut hurried after. “Aren’t librarians usually in libraries?”

“On Earth, perhaps. Amaduse has his own facility, as most of the top ones do here in Shipworld. It’s more of a freelance business here.” Jeaves dipped slightly toward the treetops. “Anyway, that’s not just a forest.” He began darting side to side. “Ah—there’s the lift.” The robot swerved into a cleft in the rock wall just above the balcony path. Inside was a chamber with blue-glowing walls. They all crowded in—and the floor dropped away. They floated down on a feather of air for about twenty seconds, and then stepped out of the chamber onto a forest floor.

“What do you mean, it’s not just a forest?” Bandicut asked.

“You’ll see,” said Jeaves, and floated off down a well-worn path leading into the woods.


I’ll see? Bandicut thought, following the robot. Many of the trees looked at a glance not unlike Earth trees, though with lots of variation in the shapes of the trunks and branches. But it didn’t take long to see bigger differences. In some of the trees, bioluminescent streaks of light zipped up and down the branches as they passed, sometimes ending with small splashes of light at the leaves. They reminded Bandicut of images of firing neurons. They also made him think about electric shock hazard, and he avoided direct contact with the leaves. Much of the underbrush seemed to take a similar view of the company passing by; small plants along the path leaned back at their approach like cheerleaders emulating a wave motion at a sporting event.

He began to feel as if he were in a national park gone mad. Antares and Li-Jared looked just as disconcerted. Good; it was not just him, then.

He was about to call Jeaves to insist on more explanation, when a creature appeared on the path ahead of them. It was a hairy creature, rather like an orangutan, with a reddish face that was bare around the large, dark eyes and short-furred elsewhere. It raised two hands toward Jeaves—complex hands, with multiple opposing thumbs. Jeaves paused to float in front of the creature and said something Bandicut couldn’t hear.

The orangutan bobbed its head, made a sound like a guitar chord, then waved with one hand in the direction they were traveling.

Jeaves turned to Bandicut and the others. “Gonjee is leading us to Amaduse.”

“Oh good. Then—” bwang “—someone knows where we’re going!” Li-Jared declared.

Bandicut snorted, and with a glance at Antares and Napoleon, continued after Jeaves.


They trooped in short order through a series of terraced gardens, in which folk of various species were working. Many of them were bipeds walking upright, but several others shambled, crawled, or slithered. None gave them more than a passing glance. Bandicut wondered if it was because strangers were common here, or because their escort signaled their belonging here. Gonjee had by now stopped several times to wait for them or to hurry them along.

They passed into a glade, with a stream off to the left chuckling and rushing. Bandicut blinked fiercely. He thought he’d seen the stream glimmer with unusual streaks of light. Now it looked normal. What was this place? The variety of bushes and trees and flowering plants was astounding. Powerful smells filled his nose: something like jasmine, and something like eucalyptus, and something like skunk and burning mesquite, and yet different from all of those things. Scattered clusters of tiny flowers winked like starlight, and on the trunks of certain spiral-shaped trees, the colors changed in waves. The strangeness of it drove his concern for Ik almost out of Bandicut’s mind. Then, from time to time, their reason for coming here returned to him with a jolt. Striding beside him, Antares radiated similar emotions. The only one who seemed unaffected was Napoleon, bringing up the rear behind Li-Jared.

They had to hurry to keep up with Gonjee and Jeaves. Gonjee, whatever manner of creature he was, reminded Bandicut of Li-Jared, with a tendency to bounce up and down with impatience. He spoke frequently with Jeaves, and Bandicut reminded himself not to be fooled by Gonjee’s apelike appearance.

Gonjee and Jeaves paused at a shimmering vertical boundary layer to let the others catch up. “It will be night on the other side,” Jeaves said. “Just follow the marker lights.”

Together they stepped through, emerging into nearly complete darkness. Sparks of light on the floor etched a path ahead. After a short distance they stepped out onto another terrace overlooking an even deeper darkness. Now, however, they could see a transparent dome arching overhead and stretching down before them. Beyond it lay the dark of space and the distant gleam of stars. Fuzzy stars.

/// I think those stars are called galaxies, ///

Charli murmured.

/Good grief, you’re right. I wonder if this is an actual window looking out of Shipworld. Do you suppose?/ Bandicut placed his hands on a railing at the edge of the terrace and craned his neck to take in the view. In some of the smudges of light, he thought he could make out the spiral shape of galaxies. Down near the horizon, he saw a fringe of something broader and brighter—the edge of the great road called the Milky Way. /Damn!/ he breathed. /I’d forgotten how breathtaking and intimidating that is!/ Beside him, Antares gazed in wonder. If they’d needed a reminder that they floated just beyond the rim of the galaxy, this was it.

Li-Jared took a brief look and then followed Jeaves off to the left, with Napoleon. “Are you coming?” he called back.

Bandicut was startled to realize that the terrace was attached to a low, wooden building with an open doorway leading into a gloomy interior. Li-Jared and Jeaves were inside, gazing at a wide array of floating holo-images. The images glowed, but dimly. Gonjee was speaking to a sinuous, almost serpentine humanoid dressed in a white, hooded robe, seated directly in front of the holos. As Bandicut and Antares entered, the creature swung its head to view them, with a movement that made Bandicut think of a cobra. The creature’s eyes were round and heavy-lidded in a narrow face; they were dark, but at their center they seemed to emit a diamondlike glitter.

Gonjee spoke to Jeaves, who spoke to the others. “This is Amaduse, a tele’eLogoth Ootraxian—”

“A what?” Bandicut asked.

“You can just call him a Logothian. He is the librarian I spoke of, and we are graced to be visiting his iceline nexus-point.”

“So,” Bandicut murmured, “this is his reference desk?”

“You could call it that,” Jeaves said. “If I may introduce you all to him—?”

Gonjee stepped close to Jeaves and said something in a quiet but urgent voice. “Ah,” Jeaves said, then addressed the company. “Amaduse does not have translator-stones, but he does have an extensive knowledge of languages. He asks that you each speak briefly out loud for him, to enable preliminary language identification. He does not promise perfect translation, but this may help him establish clearer communication.”

“Uhhl, what does he wish us to say?” Antares asked.

Jeaves turned to Gonjee, who turned to the Logothian. Finally, after several exchanges, Jeaves said, “If you do not know what else to say, say, ‘It is morning, and the sun shines bright. I am hungry and angry, and I may kill you, though I come in peace.’ Is that right? Yes.”

Antares repeated the words as Jeaves said them.

Li-Jared bounced up and down in annoyance. “I am hungry and angry, and this is stupid.”

Amaduse stirred slightly at that, and made a low humming noise.

Bandicut grimaced. “It is morning, and the sun is up. I’m angry and hungry and I’m going to—what is it, Jeaves?”

The robot issued a soft sigh. “I am hungry and angry, and I may kill you, though I come in peace.”

“Right. What you just said.”

Napoleon made a ticking sound, then: “If it will help, let me try.” He repeated Jeaves' words exactly.

Amaduse rumbled softly, and Jeaves relayed, “Thank you. He says he recognizes the human and the Karellian, and is opening a file on the Thespi.”

The Logothian waved his white-gloved hands for a moment. Tiny holographic windows swirled open and closed in the air around his hands. Then his voice came in a hoarse sigh, which seemed to be in a language that Bandicut’s stones recognized, because they translated smoothly: “Thank you. Now, can you all hear and understand me?”

There was a murmur of acknowledgment from all around, including Napoleon. Amaduse seemed satisfied. He straightened and seemed to lean back a little, although his body appeared completely unsupported. In a loud whisper, he said, “It is about, sss, time you showed up here! How long have you been back, sss, from your mission? Were you going to depend on them for all your information?”

“Well—ah—” Bandicut began, wondering who them was.

/// The Peloi, I think. ///

“And when were you, sss, thinking of coming to me for information?”


“I think he’s berating me, not you,” Jeaves cut in to say. “Amaduse, these people know nothing of you or your work. I wish I had contacted you sooner, but—to be honest—I did not know you were that interested. I am glad you reached out to me. Perhaps we can make up in speed what we lost in lateness.”

The Logothian cocked his head slightly, with a slow blink of the eyes. “Oh? Well, perhaps-s-s we can. You would like my help in locating a colleague, I understand. Ik, sss, of Hraachee’a. Is that correct?”

“Yes. Please,” said Antares.

Amaduse’s eyes sparkled, his hands weaving in the air once more. His holos flickered briefly, and several larger windows swirled open in the air. “S-s-so often, now, people neglect to come to me for help. No one believes-s-s a librarian’s expertise is needed to find information on the iceline. They all think they can do it themselves-s-s. But not all information is in the iceline. I will s-s-see what can be done. Please wait.”

The holos blossomed, and for an instant Bandicut glimpsed the forest around them again, in the images. The flickering streaks of light in the trees brightened and jumped out of the trees to form a tangled web in the air around all of them. Bandicut started to ask, but Amaduse anticipated his question by murmuring, “The forest is my s-s-search engine. It gives me many s-s-search options that the iceline does not.”

“Uhhl, do others have access to this forest, as well?” Antares asked, watching the progression in fascination.

Amaduse hissed in what Bandicut took to be a chuckle, even as the Logothian’s gloved hands moved in the air before him. “Others might, but it would help them little. The forest works in s-s-symbiotic interaction with me. And with Gonjee, when he assists me.”

“Ahhh,” Antares said, as if that answered everything.

Amaduse hissed for quiet, then. His hands worked, and the visual web flickered and blurred, until Bandicut could make out nothing. But a sound began to rise around them, like the low beating of drums, many drums, and not in obvious rhythm; it sounded like the disjointed heartbeats of a hundred, or maybe a thousand, people. Amaduse began swaying sinuously, his head slipping first one way and then another, his upper body undulating in a tightly controlled movement. His breath became a continuous whisper. Around his head, the blur of flickering connections turned into an exploding fireworks of images: places and people and document records and the iceline, and other things utterly unidentifiable.

The rest of them stood nearly stock still—even Li-Jared, although as the seconds turned into minutes he began to jitter visibly. Finally, Amaduse came out of the trancelike state and eased his narrow head forward. The jumble of images faded, and returned to something like the original array of holos. Amaduse’s hands paused. In two of the holos, the scenes froze; in two others, strange graphical characters squirmed.

Amaduse whistled sharply.

In the leftmost image, an animal appeared, trotting through the forest. It looked rather like a dog, with six legs and long ears.

“Chakka!” Amaduse said, with a sound like a cough, followed by a string of incomprehensible syllables.

The dog-thing turned its eyes up; Bandicut could have sworn it looked guilty. It turned and trotted off down the path. Amaduse rumbled to himself and returned his attention to the other holo-windows. He seemed to be trying to bring up something in particular. After a minute, the animal he’d called Chakka trotted in through the house and dropped to the floor beside him. Amaduse rumbled again, more softly, and reached down and scratched Chakka’s head. “Gonjee!” he called, and Gonjee came forward out of the shadows and led Chakka away. A moment later, slurping noises could be heard.

“My apologies,” Amaduse said. “He runs off sometimes.”

“Of course,” Bandicut said, his fingertips itching as he fought not to yell, Did you learn anything?

“I found traces-s of your friend,” Amaduse said, as though reading Bandicut’s mind. “It appears-s he is traveling with a companion.”

Bandicut’s heart thumped. “Is he all right?”

Amaduse hissed softly to himself. “I would think so. Indications are that he has acquired a new pair of yaantel stones.”

What stones?”

/// Translator-stones!

I just remembered.

When the translator lived here, long ago.

It was called yaantel by the locals. ///

“Translator-stones,” Amaduse was saying.

Bwang. “You said he acquired new ones,” Li-Jared said. “How did you know he needed new ones? Have you been watching him? Us?”

“Sss, no,” said Amaduse. “But I read your mission report. Did you think no one read it?”

“We were beginning to wonder,” Bandicut muttered.

“In any case,” Amaduse continued, swiping the air with one hand and rotating a three-dimensional image to bring a pane of text to the fore, “I see a record here of those who have newly acquired stones. It’s a short list.”

“You said he was traveling with someone?” Antares asked.

“Yesss. I cannot tell you anything about the other, except that a second pair of stones was tracked. I believe they may have been the progenitors of Ik’s new stones. Let me check. Yes, that is so.”

Bandicut blinked, trying to focus. This was all coming rather fast. “So-o . . .”

“But you asked me to find his location, did you not?” continued the Logothian, his hands dipping and then opening and rising, as though lifting something. Something like a map blossomed open. “Here we are. Oh dear, I am sorry.”

“Sorry? Why?” Bandicut asked, alarmed.

“Well, it seems he has been transported to a place known as the Scalapoorie region.”

“Is that bad?”

“Not a bad place-sss,” the Logothian said. “No. But it’s in another jurisdiction, separate from our iceline—and currently in procedural dispute with our iceline. It is difficult at present to get information into or out of the Scalapoorie ss-sector.”

Bandicut felt tension build in the back of his neck. “What else?”

“I’m afraid the information ends-s there. It is possible he, or they, were taken to the Scalapoorie region to do s-something there. Or it may have been done to break the trail. It is possible they are somewhere else entirely by now.”

“But surely there has to be information,” Li-Jared said. “I thought this whole world was connected.”

“Less cohesively than I would wish,” said Amaduse. “The individual networks are tightly integrated, and our iceline does cover the greater part of Shipworld. But there are rifts and gaps-s. At present, the only way to get s-solid information about the Scalapoorie region is to go there in person.”

“Well, that’s just—” Li-Jared sputtered.

“I know this region,” Antares interjected. “I’ve been there.”

Bandicut turned in astonishment. “You have? When?”

Antares bobbed her head, acknowledging his surprise. “Before I knew any of you, shortly after I got to Shipworld. I spent enough time there to learn my way around at least part of it. In fact, I’d come from there to the iceline region, not long before I met all of you.”

“So you could lead us, and we could do a search,” Bandicut said. To Amaduse, he said, “Do you know anyone there who could help us search that sector?”

Jeaves made a brief squawking sound, as though of exasperation. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible. We’ve just committed to make our way at once to our ship. To begin our mission to Karellia. The Mindaru and the time-tides are not going to wait for us.”

The Logothian librarian swept his left arm and opened a window showing a series of documents and data, and images with rows of spacecraft. “Sss, I have just begun reviewing your mission specs, but yes, there is a clear s-sense of urgency.”

Bandicut shook his head. “We’ve been sitting around. Why such a sudden rush?”

A hand twitch revealed several indecipherable images, shadows against light. “Indications of possible Mindaru movement in the starstream-timestream.”

“They’ve shared that with you?”

The Logothian’s fingers waggled. “Let us-s-s say I have access.”

“Well, we can’t just go off and leave Ik behind!” Li-Jared snapped. “Now that we know where he’s gone!”

Antares took a step forward. “Maybe I should go to the Scalapoorie sector and try to bring him back—while you’re getting the ship ready to go. That’s bound to take a little time.” Antares said it matter-of-factly, as though she were proposing to run to the store for a loaf of bread.

“That’s crazy!” Bandicut replied. “To go by yourself to a whole other region of Shipworld? No. We’ve already lost one of us by getting separated. I don’t want to lose you, too.” He shut his eyes, heart beating fast, and opened them again, looking first at Antares, and then at Jeaves. “Why can’t Jeaves go? He wouldn’t even have to travel physically. Right, Jeaves? Couldn’t you just teleport there electronically? Park your body here, and just pop out of a holo-projector somewhere?”

Jeaves made a sound like static. For a moment, his robot body became still, and his eyes darkened. Then he reanimated and rotated his circlet of eyes left and right. “I am afraid I cannot, John. The networks I travel through are cut off at the border. I don’t have access. I might be able to travel physically, but I have no knowledge of the place, and if I were shut out of their nets, I would be useless.”

Antares leaned her head slightly forward and to one side in an attitude that Bandicut recognized as determination. “If I can get in, I may be able to call upon some people I once knew there. I agree with Li-Jared—we can’t just go off and leave Ik behind, not if there’s a chance. I wouldn’t leave you behind. Or Li-Jared.”


“Suppose I take Napoleon with me? He could be my bodyguard, and he might even find a way to maintain communications back to you. That would be better, wouldn’t it?” As Bandicut took a breath to argue, Antares turned to the Logothian. “Is that possible? Can you find a way to transport me to Ik’s last known location?”

The Logothian canted his head, eyes glittering as he considered her question. “Perhaps-s. While network connections have been interrupted, it may still be possible to physically travel along certain routes. Whether it’s wise or not, I cannot say.”

“Well, I can!” Bandicut burst out. “I really don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Bandie John, are you afraid I won’t come back?” Antares said, cocking her head.

“I’m terrified you won’t come back.” The muscles in his neck were iron tight. “We should be staying together.”

“But Bandie. Don’t you want to get Ik back?”

“Of course I do! But not this way!”

Antares put a hand on his shoulder, and he felt her inward touch, reassuring him. He tried to resist it, but her touch was powerful. She spoke softly. “John, I know you’re concerned for me, and I’m concerned for you, too. Truly. But it’s not as if I’m going into some wild country. I’ve been there. Amaduse—is there any reason to think the Scalapoorie sector is dangerous?”

“Ssss! Dangerous? Not that I know of.”

“See? It’s not as if I’d be going into a war zone.”

“That is correct,” said the Logothian. “The two governing bodies are at odds over certain economic and political issues, and that is reflected in the unfortunate cancellation of network agreements. Communication could be a problem, one I might in time find a way to work around. I cannot predict your friend’s success in searching, but I see no need to fear for her safety.”

Antares squeezed his shoulder, hard. “So I might have to be creative in getting around. But remember what the Peloi told us? And Amaduse just said? There’s a threat out there—and time could be critical—and we want Ik with us! You and Li-Jared prepare the ship, and I’ll join you. With Ik, I hope.” Her grip tightened.

Finally Charli spoke.

/// You know, I don’t like it, either.

But she does make sense. ///

Bandicut twitched.

“I am not usually in favor of splitting up,” Li-Jared said, “but I haven’t heard a better suggestion.”

Napoleon stepped forward and clicked. “Cap’n, I would not presume to suggest one course or another. But if you would like me to accompany the Lady Antares, I will gladly offer my services to protect and assist her, and to bring her back to you. If I may say, Cap’n, it does seem that the two competing needs might best be addressed this way.”

“I thought you weren’t going to offer any opinions.”

Napoleon clicked again. “Well . . . not in so many words . . .”

“Right.” Bandicut turned back to Antares with a sigh. “Everyone seems to agree with you.”

Antares drew him close. “Bandie John,” she said, “I am going to a familiar place. I will come back.” Her gold-and-black eyes studied him, and then she gave him a most humanlike kiss on the lips.

Li-Jared bonged softly. “Take care, Antares. Otherwise, our friend Bandie is likely to become a useless puddle of despair.”

“All right. All right,” Bandicut said. He swore in exasperation. “Nappy!”

“Yes, Cap’n.”

“You guard her with your life. Understand?”

The robot raised a metal hand. “With my life, Cap’n.”

The Logothian leaned forward and interjected with a hissing sound, “While you have been discussss-ing the issue, I have been inspecting several possible modes of passss-age. I believe I can get you to a useful starting position at the boundary of Scalapoorie, Lady Antares.”

Bandicut scowled. “Can you track her?”

“Ssss. Only to the border. But I will maintain a watch, and ss-seek means of circumventing the communications blocks. There may be ways I can facilitate your return, Antares. I estimate you have two to three days to get back, before your friends must leave on their mission to Karellia.” He waved at some display elements and made them go away. “I will monitor both halves of the s-situation as well as I am permitted. If there is any way to, sss, update either of you, I will.”

Bandicut nodded silently.

/// You can make your peace with this? ///

/I don’t seem to have much choice, do I?/

/// Let’s make our peace with it together. ///

He felt a tingle of alpha-wave stimulation, just enough to be slightly calming. At the same time, Antares pulled him into a tight embrace that momentarily aroused him. “It really will be okay,” she whispered, close to his ear.

“All right. Let’s do it, then, before I change my mind.” Facing the Logothian, he asked, “Will she leave from right here?”

Amaduse was speaking quietly to Gonjee, who bobbed his head and went to the next console and started doing things. “Yes-s, from here,” Amaduse said. “Please allow us a few minutes to set up.”

Bandicut caught Antares’ hand and felt her empathic touch boosting his confidence. Then Amaduse called Antares to step forward, with Napoleon, into a frame of light beside his console. “Come here, or to the ship,” Bandicut said. “Soon.”

“Soon,” she agreed, and gave a slow nod to Amaduse.

“Until we rejoin you,” Napoleon said, flexing slightly at the knees.

Amaduse held up a small cylinder and demonstrated its use to Antares, pulling a small holo-image out of it like a scroll, then pushing it back in. “Maps and directory information.”

“Thank you.” Antares slipped it into a side pocket in her pantsuit. She placed a hand on Napoleon and looked back at Bandicut. “Now, please.”

“Away!” said the Logothian. He opened his partially closed hands like an orchestra conductor stretching out a note. The frame of light dimmed, and brightened again.

Antares and Napoleon were gone.

Chapter 12 Return to The Long View

“WHY,” BANDICUT SAID, waiting for his heart to slow down, “did I go along with that? I must be out of my mind.”

“I think,” Jeaves said, floating in front of Bandicut, “you must trust that Antares is a smart and resourceful individual, and so is Napoleon.” The robot’s eyes flickered. “I have a tracer on Napoleon—minimal data, through a private communications network. But I can confirm: Napoleon has arrived at a border crossing to the Scalapoorie district, and seems to be proceeding through.”

“Great. What about Antares?”

“They left together. We must assume they arrived together.”

“Great. While they’re doing that, what do we do?”

“I suggest we find The Long View.” Jeaves rotated toward their host. “Amaduse?”

The Logothian tossed a few images in the air. “The Long View/One Way Trip? You can pick up transport from a node not far from here. Gonjee? Can you show our guests to the Midway Connector?”

With a snapping pinch of his hands, Gonjee closed the display windows he was working in and ducked under Amaduse’s outstretched hands. He said something to Amaduse, and to Jeaves, and then made a follow me gesture.


Bandicut felt shaky and miserable as they trod a path that curved away from the forest. Through the overhead dome, they could now make out enormous sections of Shipworld stretching dimly into the distance. It was hard to tell just how far away those sections were, or how big, or how they were connected. It was starkly clear, though, that they stretched far beyond unaided sight, all floating here at the edge of extragalactic space. Bandicut paused several times to gaze and wonder which of those sections—if any—Antares and Napoleon and Ik were in now.

/// Would it really help you to know? ///

/I should quit looking. Let’s go./

The path curved away from the view, and they strode through a cool, faintly illuminated, hewn-rock tunnel for perhaps fifty meters before it emerged into what looked like a train station.

Next to a long platform, there was what appeared to be a channel for a streaktrain, with a silver thread down its center. At the other end of the platform, a cluster of bipedal and tripedal aliens variously stood or sat on glimmering force-field benches. Gonjee ignored them and stopped at the near end of the platform. He said something to Jeaves, who translated for the others, “He’ll come with us as far as Midway Corner Station. After that, we can’t miss the spaceport.”

Can’t miss it? Bandicut thought. In a world five gazillion miles long?


The streaktrain that glided to a stop was a variant on ones they had ridden in the past. It was a low, sleek, azure-blue serpent that opened in a long band down its side, revealing a slightly beat-up cabin on the inside. It started moving again moments after they had stepped aboard. Bandicut fell into a reverie as they accelerated down a glimmering tunnel. At the front of the cabin, a group of tripods stood chittering loudly. He guessed they were laughing as they talked. One of them might have been dancing. He sighed and looked out at the tunnel again.

Nine stations down, Gonjee led them off with a springy step, and they followed him to the entrance to a droplift. With a few final words to Jeaves, Gonjee waved jauntily and headed back the way he’d come. “Bottom floor,” Jeaves said, floating to the droplift.

The empty shaft glowed in a color that modulated through various shades of blues and greens. Bandicut peered down; it looked a lot deeper than any he had been in before—bottomless, in fact. His stomach protested as he stepped out with Jeaves and Li-Jared. They floated down like Alice in Wonderland, at a speed that was difficult to judge. Li-Jared looked terrified, and still looked terrified when they slowed and hovered, while some travelers below them exited. The Karellian slumped in visible relief when they touched down on the actual bottom floor. “That was about two hundred stories,” Jeaves said cheerfully.

The port was, as Gonjee had promised, impossible to miss. They walked out from the droplift to a balcony overlooking an enormous shaft plummeting miles through the interior of Shipworld. The earlier droplift suddenly seemed like a fireman’s pole by comparison. /Reminds me of the star-spanner factory, when we first came to Shipworld,/ Bandicut murmured to Charli.

/// That memory is hazy.

Dangerous place, wasn’t it? ///

/Yah. But there was a boojum loose, trying to destroy it. Let’s hope nothing is trying to destroy this./ He peered down, gripping the railing with white-knuckled hands. /Where are the spaceships?/

“Look along the walls of the dock,” said Jeaves, as though he were listening in on the private conversation with the quarx.

It took Bandicut a few seconds to figure out what he was looking at; then his breath went out of him. The inside of the shaft was mottled with protrusions: the bows of spaceships poking out from the space-dock wall. “There must be hundreds of ships here!” Bandicut breathed.

“At least,” Jeaves said. “I’m still scanning data, but it looks from here as though The Long View wound up in a pretty big spaceport.”

“Are all these other—” bwang “—ships lined up to leave on strange and urgent missions like ours?” Li-Jared asked.

“I don’t think so,” Jeaves said. “But I’m still sorting out the catalog and dispatch system. What’s this?” Jeaves bobbed slowly in the air. “That can’t be right.”

“What can’t be?” Li-Jared demanded.

“According to this, The Long View was assigned to another job.”

Bong.What? You mean it’s gone?”

“Not gone, no. But this says it’s been running shipments of . . . this can’t be right. Wheat?”

“Wheat? What’s that?” Li-Jared rubbed his fingertips vigorously up and down the center of his chest, in nervous agitation.

Jeaves continued to talk half to himself. “Well, not literally wheat, I suppose, but a cereal grain. Yes, our ship has been carrying cargo—we’ll call it wheat—to one of the outer Shipworld . . . worlds. It’s on the dispatch list to make another run. It should not be.” Jeaves rotated his entire body in a circle, as though trying to home in on a signal. “This is most puzzling. It doesn’t seem as if the Peloi have gotten the new orders through yet. We’ve got to get over and check with Copernicus.”

“Which we would do, how?” Bandicut asked.

“This way.” Jeaves led them around the rim of the shaft, until they came to a circular area that appeared to be a feeder to a network of transparent droplifts. It looked to Bandicut like a gigantic pneumatic document-delivery tube system from a previous century. They got in line behind a creature who looked like a man in a bear suit with a squirrel’s head. The being paid no attention to them, but stepped forward and left and dropped away in a great arcing swoop. Something that looked like a bush on their right said, “Long View. Dock three hundred forty-seven. Three traveling. Go.”

Jeaves went first, then Li-Jared, then Bandicut. He couldn’t help giving a whoop of surprise as his feet led him in twists and turns downward. They popped out in the middle of a huge docking area, surrounded by ships.

“So where are we now?” There were at least half a dozen spacecraft in loading and servicing bays. None looked familiar. The docks stretched as far as the eye could see, and every ship looked different from every other. The central shaft was not far to his right. As he looked in that direction, a locomotive-sized ship dropped through the shaft with a thunderous WHUMP. /Where do all these ships go?/ he wondered.

/// Between Shipworld segments, is my guess.

But where’s The Long View? ///

The answer came from a familiar voice: “Cap’n Bandie! Li-Jared! Jeaves! Over here to your left!” It was Copernicus. They turned and saw a squat-looking craft, not at all like the glowing lozenge they had ridden all the way into the Orion Nebula and back out to Shipworld. But standing outside it was Copernicus, or rather a holo-image of him, flashing lights and waving a metal arm. “Come in!” he cried. “Come in!” An opening appeared in the side of the ship, and as they filed past the holo, Bandicut said, “What happened?” just as Copernicus was saying, “Where are Napoleon and Antares and Ik? I was hoping to see them, too.”

Bandicut opened his mouth and then shut it. “Long story,” he said at last. “Ik’s lost, and Antares and Napoleon have gone looking for him.”

Copernicus reappeared inside to greet them again. “I’m sorry to hear that. Follow me. Things have changed a little since you were last on board.”

“I’d say so,” Li-Jared muttered, looking around in distaste.

Bandicut agreed. When they had flown The Long View into the Orion Nebula, the ship had been pleasingly laid out and decorated, with many touches personalized for them. Now, in stark contrast, the corridors were gray and dreary, and looked as if they had been designed for oil rig crews, with the primary design goal being to hide dirty hand prints. “Why the change, Coppy? This looks awful.”

“Apologies, Cap’n and Li-Jared. It was the new job, shipping grain. We were instructed to cut the amenities and put all of the structural resources into n-space cargo holds.” Copernicus’s image floated down the corridor toward what, Bandicut hoped, was still the bridge.

“Is that why the ship looks like such a scow? How long have they had you shipping wheat?”

“Two runs, so far,” Copernicus said. “We were about to load for our third, when word came that you’d be rejoining us. I’ve been flying the ship solo since you left.” He paused. “It’s been pretty depressing, to be honest.”

“I don’t doubt it. But we’re about to spring you from granary duty.” Following the holo through a doorway, Bandicut crowded with the others into a cramped room with metal racks on the left and tiny, flickering displays on the right. The holo-image blinked out. Where the image had been, the real Copernicus sat motionless, plugged into the wall. He was shaped like a small horizontal barrel, with cone-shaped wheels, and sensors, lights, and mechanical arms at the front. “There you are!” Bandicut cried. “Jeez, am I glad to see you, Coppy! But—what is all this?”

Copernicus clicked a few times. “This is the bridge. The way it’s been since you left.”


“You call this a bridge?” muttered Li-Jared. “What happened to the old bridge?”

Copernicus turned his sensors slightly. “There was no one here to use it except me. So we folded it back into the n-space reserve. Would you like me to restore it?”

“Yes!” “Oh, yes!” Li-Jared and Bandicut said together.

“I should have thought of that before,” said Copernicus. “Would you mind stepping into the corridor for a moment?”

The cubicle door closed, leaving them in the hallway. Barely audible groaning sounds started coming from the other side of the door. As though to divert their attention from the sounds, Jeaves said, “I hope all the relevant authorities are in the know about this mission, and there isn’t some kind of turf war that will interfere with our launching with everything we need.” Bandicut said nothing. He had hoped to have left turf wars behind when he left the Triton mining camp, a lifetime ago. The groans turned to moans, followed by quiet rumbling in the deck.

The sounds ceased. The bridge door turned transparent, and Copernicus called them back in. “Ah,” Bandicut said. They were now in a spacious compartment, with room to breathe, stretch, and pace; luminous orange walls; and navy-blue carpeting with tinges of red. The bank of consoles and other equipment was mostly gone, although a much-reduced portion of it was set in the glowing wall beside Copernicus. There were a couple of padded bench seats, but most of the space was wide open, stretching out toward the front wide-angle viewing space, which right now looked like an open veranda onto the docking bay and hangar area. This was the bridge of the Long View as they had known and loved it. “Much better,” Bandicut said. “Thank you, Coppy. Now we just need to get you completely cleared from your milk run. Jeaves?”

Jeaves had floated to one side of the viewing area. “I am connecting to the command network now. They are trying to sort it out.”

“Sort what out?”

“Well, there is a mission control authority that determines the priority of assignments for various ships. There is a dispatch authority that actually assigns flights. There is a launch-order authority that determines sequence of movement from the hangar areas. There is—”

“We get it. There are a lot of authorities.”

“Right, well, the special missions people like the Peloi have to get all of these levels to cooperate. Right now I’m in contact with a mission control entity who has acknowledged cancellation of the milk run, and is arranging for refitting for a quasi-military mission. We have confirmation of assignment to a deep-space status. We’re to begin making preparations.”

“And just how—” bwang “—would we prepare?” Li-Jared asked. “We need food and fuel. But it’s not like we’re going to load up on armaments, right? We’re not turning this into a warship, are we? We’re going to Karellia to talk.”

“True, but given the risk of encountering Mindaru . . .”

“I take it back,” Li-Jared said. “It would be a very good thing if we had weapons.”

“Hard to argue with that,” Bandicut said. “But nothing too fancy, or we’ll shoot our own tail-fins off.”

“There are no weapons on board yet,” Copernicus said. “Nor am I trained in the use of weapons.”

“But those things can all be fixed, right?” Bandicut asked.

“They can,” said Jeaves. “The mission profile calls for light-to-medium armaments. Also, we’ve been assigned a mission commander. She is on her way to meet us here.”

“Say again?”

“We’re not going alone this time.”

Bandicut didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted. “What for?” he asked finally.

“I think,” said Jeaves, “because of the armaments. Also, there were complaints—your complaints, if I recall—about being sent into possibly hostile territory without adequate defenses or training. Your sponsors for this mission seem to have agreed.”

“Well, yeah, but I don’t remember ever saying—”

“We’re being given weapons,” Jeaves repeated, “and a commander who knows how to use them. Did you not just say you lacked experience in the use of weapons?”

Li-Jared rubbed his fingers briskly against his vest. “Maybe so. But why can’t our robot direct the use of weapons?”

Jeaves rotated slowly. “Copernicus can launch, or fire, your weapons if need be. It is possible he may be called upon to do so. But I was referring not to an ability to fire, but an ability to apply tactical and strategic judgment. Some knowledge of . . . how should I put this? Potentially explosive conflict resolution.”

Li-Jared coughed explosively. “If you’re talking about the Mindaru, fine. If you’re talking about Karellia, not fine. Who is this person, anyway?”

“Her name,” Jeaves said, “is Ruall. For more information than that, we must await her arrival. Now, why don’t you settle in, while Copernicus works on plotting a course for us, and I see what I can do about provisions?”


Copernicus had restored not only the bridge, but their quarters, to the configuration they had used during their last mission. The sleeping quarters were arranged side-by-side off a small corridor that curved behind the bridge. At the end of the corridor was the commons room, for eating and relaxation, though it still lacked decor. Bandicut found his duffel in his cabin. Where the hell had he left that, and how had it gotten here? He had completely lost track of it. The bed, which he had once shared with Antares, looked awfully empty. He sighed wearily and went to wash up. He felt as if he had been walking an endlessly winding road of acrid dust. Had it really been only this morning that they had all been together at the campground?

He found Li-Jared already in the commons, trying in vain to order food from the ship. “The machines are empty! And they don’t remember anything Karellian!”

“Copernicus?” Bandicut said to the ceiling. “Do you hear that?”

“I do, Cap’n, and I am sorry. Foodstuffs will be loaded in the next few hours. The synthesizer was completely dismantled, and I had to order a new one.”

“Are we going to have to program it for everything we want?”

“I have a subroutine looking for a menu backup, Cap’n. With luck, we’ll be able to restore it to the new setup.”

“Do you have anything for us now?” Li-Jared asked.

“Would you like some water?” asked the robot.


In the end, they left the ship and went looking for food in the shipyards. There were, Jeaves, said, cafés along the docks. The hangar bay was lined with small ships, most of them undergoing maintenance at the hands of what Bandicut had come to think of as the Shipworld Mix: hunched-over creatures with many arms, hairy and smooth-skinned bipeds, spiderlike creatures large and small, a handful of robots, a plant or two, and the occasional shadow-person. None of the vessels looked ready to fly anytime soon.

“This way,” Bandicut said, pointing toward the end of the row. “I think I see some cafés up ahead.”

“Theruvian tea,” Li-Jared muttered. “I hope they have Theruvian tea.”

Bandicut glanced in surprise. “Is that a Karellian specialty?”

Li-Jared made a rasping sound. “We’re not going to find Karellian food here. No, it’s something I used to get in Atrium City, here on Shipworld. I find it calming.”

Bandicut thought of good craft beer and nodded silently.

They picked a small establishment at the end of the row, and made their way into an open-walled room with a dozen tables of various sizes and heights. The one they selected was a little low for comfort, but it and the seats they settled into morphed and rose slightly to accommodate their body shapes. Not bad, Bandicut thought, for a joint down on the docks.

A creature that looked like a log with short arms and shorter legs was rustling about the room with food items in baskets. After serving several other tables, it shuffled over to them and spoke in a reedy voice from a medallion attached to its front end. “Bzzzt-brohak-k-k-k, oror-ink-hah . . . h-hello, and how may I help you to food, drink, and other pleasures—yes?” It seemed to have sorted through some index and found a tongue that the translators could handle.

“Theruvian tea?” Li-Jared asked.

“So sorry, k-k-k, no,” answered the log. “We have delicious, brrrr-r-r, sliced-fungus soup, or perhaps a loaf of, rrrr, pepper-grain mash and pine-needle cheese.” The log gestured to a series of items depicted in images on the far wall.

“Hamburger and shake?” Bandicut asked hopefully. “Veggie burger?”

The log waved its short arms, clearly having trouble parsing the request. “We have a nice, arrr, selection of rind-meats, nut salads, and . . . well, may I ask your species, hmmm? I’m afraid I don’t recognize either of you.”

“Human,” Bandicut said. “And my friend here is Karellian.”

“Oh!” said the log. “Human, you say. That is a different matter. Let me see . . .” From somewhere on its body, the log produced a calculator-sized device, and opened it like a book and rustled through some fluttering leaves. “I’ve seen, hah, entries for the human, I am certain. Hah, bread-sticks and red soup. White-cream cheese. Will that be satisfactory?”

“I suppose. And a beer?” He didn’t hide his disappointment. He really would have liked a burger and shake.

“C-c-certainly. And the other, say again your kind?” The log raised its stalklike eyes toward Li-Jared.


The log rustled through its reference device. “I’m sorry, we don’t seem to have your foods listed. Are you the only one of your kind on Shipworld?”

Bong-g-g. Li-Jared stabbed his fingertips to his right temple, in annoyance. “Yah. Can you get me a non-alkaline vegetable wrap, Atrium City-style?”

Excellent choice.” The log creature dipped, bending its stumpy front legs, and backed away.

Bandicut sat back with a sigh. His gaze wandered across the room, to where a tortoise-like creature and something like a skinny, bipedal tiger were conversing over their meal. The tiger was gesturing at a series of life-sized holo-images it was flicking into the air beside the table. The images included several spaceships, and a few astronomicals: exotic green and blue banded planets, and a star-filled nebula with what looked like shipping routes sketched in, bridging starbursts. Bandicut heard nothing of what the two diners were saying to each other—but he guessed they were planning a voyage, and examining possible stops along the way.

He shut his eyes against a sudden surge of an unexpected emotion: wanderlust, eagerness to take flight, anticipation of worlds he might see. Li-Jared’s world? The starstream? He imagined the music of the spheres, gentle and persuasive in his head, and he was suddenly a little lightheaded.

He blinked his eyes open and sat forward with a gasp. Where had that rush of sensation come from? He carried those emotions deep inside him, for sure, and had since he was boy; but the cares of life had mostly pushed them so far down he was rarely aware of them anymore. Was one of those creatures projecting its feelings?

/// I think so, John. ///

Bong. “Are you okay, Bandie? You look a little . . . not like yourself,” Li-Jared said.

Bandicut tried to shake off the spell. In its place, equally unwelcome feelings rushed in—fear for Antares, and Ik, and Napoleon. Would he ever see them again? Shipworld was a big place, and if he didn’t . . . Jesus, stop! He squeezed his eyes shut. “No . . . no . . . I’m fine. I just need a minute,” he choked.

/// Would you like a little help? ///


His friend gazed at him with those electric-blue bands marking his eyes, and did not seem convinced. But he said nothing for a minute, and when he did break the silence it was to say, “I think we need to try to find out about Antares and Ik, don’t you think?”

“Yah,” Bandicut said, firmly snapping an internal lid on it, with a nudge from Charli. “Yes, we do.” He looked around, thinking maybe their food would arrive and distract him from the emotional storm. But the log-creature was nowhere to be seen.

“Do you think they were telling the truth about this Scalapoorie place being buttoned up so tight?” he asked abruptly.

“You mean, do I think Amaduse is lying? Or Jeaves? You mean, do I think there’s danger?”

“I guess that is what I mean.” Bandicut thought about his words. “No, I don’t really think either of them is a liar. But I’m not sure they care as much as I do.”

Li-Jared’s eyes flashed sapphire. “Lean hard on Jeaves to check. Often. That’s what I say.”

Bandicut nodded.

The log creature shuffled up just then, bearing a platter of food. They ate in silence, each lost in his own thoughts.

Chapter 13 Mission Readiness

THEY SPENT THE night on The Long View, in their reconstructed cabins. Despite his exhaustion, Bandicut slept restlessly, waking often and peering gloomily about his dimly lit quarters. It was the first night he’d spent without Antares in a long time, and he didn’t like it. He missed Ik, too, but he still wished he hadn’t allowed Antares to hare off into the Scalapoorie sector, wherever the hell that was. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He was glad at least that he’d sent Napoleon along to look after her. Eventually he did fall asleep, but even in sleep he was troubled by anxious dreams and nagging fears.

Breakfast in the commons was a somber affair. Some food supplies had been delivered during the night, but there was little to recommend the offerings. Li-Jared joined him, but he also seemed subdued. Even the room seemed somber. Copernicus had restored the basic form and functionality of the commons, with bench alcoves and small tables—though not yet with a food synthesizer. But he had not had time to add in any of the decorative touches that had once given the room character and comfort. The space remained featureless and dreary, and seemed only to accentuate the absence of their friends. Bandicut sipped a cup of bitter-tasting coffee and nibbled on a cracker, while Li-Jared had nothing at all. The Karellian periodically got up and paced, which only made Bandicut’s mood worse.

Bandicut finally grunted loudly, dumped the last of his coffee into the recycler, and with a come along gesture to Li-Jared made for the bridge. Without much of a greeting to Copernicus, he asked, “Where’s Jeaves? Is there any word from Antares or Amaduse?”

Copernicus informed him that there was no word, and that Jeaves had gone to meet their new mission commander. He had been gone several hours.

“And when will we meet Herr Commandant?” Bandicut asked.

“Actually . . . in about two minutes,” Copernicus said.

A minute and a half later, Jeaves floated onto the bridge, followed by something that moved fluidly but flashed of metal. Bandicut stepped back to give them room. “Good morning, friends,” said the robot. “I’d like to introduce you to our mission commander.” Jeaves rotated and extended a hand. “Commander Ruall?”

The metallic being glided into the center of the bridge, where they could get a look at . . . her? It was almost two-dimensional—shaped like a stick-figure drawing of a human, with head and hands looking like round cutouts of silver-blue sheet-metal, and all of the extremities joined by wiry connectors, too thin to be called limbs. Its face was a featureless disk, and even its hands were flat paddles waving on the ends of wires. Its torso, if it had one, was hard to see; it might have been wire, too, but it seemed to twist continuously in and out of focus, as did the legs, if the shiny blur under its body was legs.

Bandicut stared, mouth open. Finally he said, “Um . . . hello.” /What the—?/

/// New to me . . . ///

The flat head-disk rotated sideways and nearly vanished; an instant later it turned back, and now it had on it faint etchings, vaguely resembling eyes and a mouth. “Hello,” said the face. The etchings did not appear to move.

“Commander Ruall?” Jeaves said. “This is John Bandicut, human, and Li-Jared, Karellian.” The robot pointed to each in turn. “And over here, our ship’s AI and robot, Copernicus. Gentlemen, Ruall has been assigned by our coordinating representatives of the Round Table—”

“Round Table?” Li-Jared asked. “What’s that?”

“The Governing Circle. I call it the Round Table. Ruall has been assigned to join us as strategic mission commander and weapons officer. You may address her using the feminine pronoun.”

“Honored,” said the metallic face.

Bandicut was at a loss for a moment. But Li-Jared circled around Ruall, rubbing his fingertips to his chest, and then tentatively reaching out to touch the apparently metal surface. “If you don’t mind my asking, what species of being are you?” Li-Jared said. He spoke evenly, but to Bandicut the edge of reserve was unmistakable.

“I don’t know why you think I would mind. My people are called by many names . . .”

/I’ll bet. Walking ping-pong paddles,/ Bandicut thought to himself and Charli.

“ . . . but we call ourselves the—” rasp “—Tintangle.”

Bandicut wasn’t sure if he’d heard the name as Ruall had spoken it, or as his wrist-stones translated it, but he supposed it didn’t matter. He cocked his head at Ruall. “How is it that we’re able to talk to each other?” He bared his right wrist. “Do you have translator-stones?”

Ruall made a sound somewhere between a grunt and a soft gong. “I do not have such intimate relations with a yaantel, that I would have such stones. I learned your languages the hard, honest way, by downloading them.” Her right paddle-hand swung up and touched her head, making a faint clinggg. “I have the memory and processing capacity to learn such languages as I need.”

For a moment, Bandicut wondered if Ruall was joking.

/// I don’t think so.

I don’t get the sense that humor is a big part of

Ruall’s makeup. ///

/No, I guess not. But how does she—?/

Li-Jared was already asking the question. “Then—” bwang “—if you don’t mind my asking—and I already know you don’t—are you, that is, are Tintangles—living, organic creatures? Or are you—I don’t know, some kind of cybernetic being—like Copernicus, here?”

Ruall bobbed her head for a moment, side to side. Then she said, “I am obviously a living creature. But I do share some traits with your metal assistant. I presume it has a quantum-state memory. I do also.”

Copernicus clicked. “Certain of my enhanced memory portions are quantum-state, that is true. They are not my originals, but were provided by the shadow-people.”

Bandicut and Li-Jared looked at each other, then at Copernicus and finally back at Ruall. “Are you,” Bandicut asked hesitantly, “by any chance related to the shadow-people?”

“Distant cousins,” the Tintangle said. “We share some transdimensional capabilities.”

Was that disdain Bandicut heard in her voice? Who would disdain the shadow-people? he wondered.

“The shadow-people are fine technicians,” Ruall continued. “Beyond that . . .” Her paddle-hands vibrated for a moment. “However, there may be shadow-people here to oversee the installation of weapons systems on this ship, so perhaps I should say no more.”

That stirred Bandicut’s curiosity. “Jeaves talked about adding weapons. May I ask what kind—?”

Ruall had turned away, practically vanishing as she went edge-on to him, and seemed to be inspecting the bridge. “Yes, this may do. Have you begun readying the ship for flight?” She turned to Jeaves, as though expecting him to have answers that the others would not.

“We have begun,” Jeaves said. “However, we are having to detach it from a previous assignment.”

“Previous assignment?”

“As a cargo hauler. Grain.”

Ruall bobbed her head one way and another, and made a faint, metallic ringing noise. “You say. Grain. Hauling.”

“Yes,” Jeaves said.

Bwang. “Someone was trying to degrade this ship by making bogus assignments!” Li-Jared snapped. “With no acknowledgment that this ship helped keep a living star from going hypernova.”

“We suspect,” Jeaves said, “that there is some discord between those who oversee our missions, and those who assign ships in the meantime.”

Copernicus ticked. “You know, there are no unimportant jobs. Someone has to carry the grain.”

“Maybe not you, though,” Li-Jared said, his voice suddenly and unexpectedly gentle. “By the way, do you have to stay wired into the board there? Haven’t you earned the right to move around like you used to?”

Copernicus detached with a snick and rolled toward him, waving his grippers in the air. “I cut the cable a while ago, after I restored the ship’s AI. But you know, it felt comfortable there, like an old chair, so that’s usually where I park.”

Bandicut laughed, pleased for Copernicus. But then he shook his head. “All this makes me wonder what’s going on with the Shipworld masters. Are they fighting with each other?”

“I believe,” Jeaves said, “that they are in accord on most important questions. However, cracks may be showing around some of the details. That does not obviate the need for this mission, though.”

Li-Jared looked thoughtful and tapped his fingers on his breastbone.

Ruall twanged with seeming impatience. “Is that relevant? What are the plans for refitting this ship?”

“Fuel and provisions are being loaded,” Jeaves said. “Defense modules will arrive within one hour, and are to be installed under your supervision.”

Ruall bobbed her flat head around to look at Bandicut and Li-Jared. “Is either of you trained in multi-interdimensional maintenance operations?”

Bandicut opened his mouth, and closed it. Li-Jared made a loud rasping sound that might have been a negative or an expletive. Ruall hummed, possibly in disappointment. “Very well, then. You will need to be off ship while the conflict readiness modules are integrated into the hull.”

Conflict readiness modules? “You mean the weapons?” Bandicut asked.

The Tintangle’s blank face stared at him. “What did you think I meant?”

Bandicut glanced at Li-Jared, in whose eyes the bands of electric blue color had become fine, bright lines. Annoyance, tightly contained.

“Then, if you please—” Ruall said, making a sweeping gesture toward the exit with her paddle-hands.

“Wait,” Bandicut said. “First, could you tell us just what kinds of weapons are being installed?” It was true he’d complained last time about the lack of any defensive capability, but now that it came to it, he was thinking, Weapons have a way of calling other weapons down on them. Is this really what we want?

Ruall made a tinny, clanging noise. “The normal items for a patrol-class—” rasp rasp “—destroyer.” The translator-stones seemed to be struggling a bit with the terminology. “There will be a standard suite of defensive screens, and obviously quantum and n-space devices. Perhaps a few related items.” Ruall swung to Jeaves. “Is delivery and installation ready to begin?”

“As soon as the shadow-people arrive,” Jeaves said, sparkles flickering on his brow.

“All right, then,” said Ruall. “Mr. Bandicut and Mr. Li-Jared. For your safety, please exit the ship. You may return in four hours.”

Bandicut cleared his throat. “I’m not sure you get to order us around,” he said mildly. “Anyway, before we get too far along here: In case you don’t already know, several members of our company are not yet here. Just to make sure we all understand—we can’t leave until they arrive.”

Ruall twisted and adjusted her neck for a moment. “Nothing in my orders indicates waiting for additional members of the party. My briefing from target sector indicates the situation is urgent. It is unlikely that delay can be tolerated.”

Bandicut laughed harshly. “I wasn’t offering to negotiate the question. We’re not leaving without the rest of our company. Jeaves, any word?”

“Not yet. But I hope to receive updates shortly. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.”

/I’m sure,/ Bandicut echoed acidly to the quarx, who perhaps wisely remained silent.


Bandicut felt anything but sanguine about leaving his ship while major alterations were performed, but Ruall was adamant that they not be in the way or where they could get hurt while the n-space fields that actually formed the ship’s structure were being altered. That, he supposed, was not unreasonable. Still, it galled him to be sent out for sandwiches while the important work was being done. Li-Jared, on the other hand, seemed happy just to get away from Ruall. “Let’s go to the—” rasp rasp “—duty-free shop and buy some decent clothes for the trip.” He tugged at his slightly tattered-looking tunic, and then cast a critical gaze at Bandicut’s attire.

Duty-free shop? Perhaps that was the translator-stones’ best effort to render spaceport shops.

Bandicut glanced down at his travel-worn shirt with a sigh. He’d been cycling through the same few clothes since leaving the station on Triton. “Okay, you have a point. But doesn’t it bother you that Ruall just kicked us out of the ship?” he asked the Karellian. “Our ship?”

Li-Jared gave a little shiver. “Of course. But that creature gets on my nerves. How are we going to survive an entire mission with her?”

“Try to be patient,” Jeaves said, floating up alongside them. “Tintangles aren’t so bad, once you get to know them.”

Bwang. “I wish I could believe that,” Li-Jared said. In an aside to Bandicut, he murmured, “Let us hope it does not come down to mutiny.”

Bandicut snorted, watching Jeaves veer off to do whatever it was he was off to do. “It’s only mutiny if you accept that that thing is in command.” He gestured to the left, steering them toward a place across from the café where they had eaten last night. This place was a little darker on the inside, and looked more like a bar.

“Get supplies first,” Li-Jared said, steering them straight ahead to a small concourse of shops. “Then food and drink.” Irritably, Bandicut followed. He hated shopping, but he knew Li-Jared was right. They all had plenty of spendable credit piled up. Might as well use it.

An hour or two later, their purchases having been sent on to the ship, they returned to the bar Bandicut had singled out. It was early in the day for drinking, but even after the shopping, Bandicut was still in a mood—and they still had time to kill. He ordered a local near-beer. Li-Jared got a selection of hollow reeds filled with clear green liquid. After sipping one of them, he appeared more relaxed.

Bandicut, on the other hand, only grew crankier after half a beer. “I don’t remember agreeing to be under the command of some weird, two-dimensional dictator,” he said, placing the narrow, teardrop-shaped glass carefully on the table.

“No,” Li-Jared said gloomily, sucking on a straw. “But it doesn’t seem as if there’s much we can do about it.”

/// Perhaps this is

something you should work out

before we leave? ///

Charli suggested mildly.

/Yeah, probably./ Bandicut drained the rest of his beer and signaled for another. Charli reminded him that he hadn’t had much to eat. He signaled again, for some bread sticks.

The conversation did not get cheerier. Eventually it circled back around to the matter of who was commanding the mission. Bandicut asked for his third beer, just as Jeaves floated into the bar.

The robot seemed agitated; his eye-sparkles were dancing around the top of his head. “What’s up?” Bandicut asked, snapping a bread stick between his fingers.

Jeaves swiped the air with his left hand, and the sound of the bar faded away behind a privacy-curtain. “We must talk,” he said, floating close to the table.

“We’re talking now,” Li-Jared observed lazily, plucking lint from his vest.

“Yes,” Jeaves said, bobbing slightly. “But we must talk more urgently.”

“About what?” asked Bandicut. “I’d like to talk about who’s actually in charge of this mission.”

“We will talk about that. But first I need to update you—”


“I’ve received an urgent message from the Peloi,” Jeaves said. “They have a number of probes monitoring the starstream and its exit nodes near the origin point of the Karellian time-tide, as well as downstream toward the galactic center.”


“And an object matching the profile of the Mindaru was recently detected passing through the downstream section.”

That made Bandicut sit upright. “Mindaru actually in the starstream?”

“The Peloi think so.”

Bandicut shivered. “Coming up through time? From the past?”

“Impossible to be certain. But moving outward and getting close enough to Karellia to pose a threat in the near future.”

Now Li-Jared sat straighter. “Then we need to be there to stop them!”

“That,” Jeaves said, “is precisely the message from the Peloi. We can’t do much about any Mindaru that have already exited the starstream, but if we’re to stop the temporal disturbance from bringing still more—and protect your homeworld—we must get there as soon as we can. As soon as the refit and resupply are complete.”

Bandicut suddenly felt dizzy. He squinted at Jeaves, his head buzzing with worry. “Wait, what are you saying?”

Jeaves’ multiple eyes swarmed together in the circlet around his head, to focus on Bandicut. “I am saying, it has become critical that we leave as soon as the ship is ready.”

“And you have heard nothing about Antares, Napoleon, Ik?”

“No. I realize this represents a change in our plans.”

“Oh, do you think so?” Bandicut snapped. “Didn’t I just make it clear that I was not going to leave without the rest of our team?”

“Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what Antares would want us to do, under the circumstances,” Jeaves said.

Li-Jared looked pained, his small hands gripping tightly at the edges of his vest. “I know how you feel, Bandie, but—”

“But what? Those people are half of our strength!” Bandicut cried. “Seriously—would we have succeeded in our last mission without any of them?”

Li-Jared shut his eyes in obvious distress. “I know, Bandie,” he whispered. “But my planet. My homeworld. We can’t leave it exposed. The Mindaru could destroy it. Kill everyone. We can’t let that happen.”

Bandicut could scarcely take a breath. Li-Jared could well be right. Was it imperative that they forget everything else and race to Karellia’s defense? What if it were Earth?

“John,” said Jeaves, “I will continue to reach out in every way I can. But if we cannot bring the others back in time, I am afraid we’ll have to leave without them.”

Bandicut looked from one to the other, hoping to find another choice in their eyes. Then he thought of something. “Tell me one thing. Why aren’t we sending some proper warships to deal with the Mindaru? I understand we need to try to work something out with Li-Jared’s people, to shut off the timestream.” He nodded to Li-Jared. “But we can hardly take on a Mindaru battle fleet in The Long View, can we?”

Li-Jared sat back, looking uncertain.

Jeaves emitted a startlingly human-sounding sigh. “Haven’t you listened to me, John? We don’t have armadas of warships—not as you imagine them. Shipworld is outside the galaxy! It has never faced an external enemy whose reach went this far. Most of its work inside the galaxy is subtle, depending on people like you to make contact in more diplomatic ways.”

Impossible. “You’re telling me they don’t have anything bigger and more threatening than our ship to turn the Mindaru around?”

/// He’s telling the truth, as I understand it.

They have ships for local policing duties, but

they do not go off waging war in deep space. ///

/No, but—/

“Yes,” Jeaves continued, “there are patrol ships for general defense, and Ruall in fact has been commanding one for the past ten years. She has multidimensional experience, and she knows what she is doing. But the fleet itself is limited, and not well equipped for long-distance interventions.”


“This is another area of policy disagreement at the Round Table. Since we returned from Starmaker with word of the Mindaru threat, work has stepped up on building weapons and modernizing patrol ships for long-range, deep-space missions. But they are not ready yet,” Jeaves said. “Even if they were, our primary mission is diplomacy. As for dealing with isolated Mindaru, you have greater experience than anyone on Shipworld.”

“Then I say again—if it’s experience with Mindaru that we need, then we need Ik and Antares and Napoleon! Besides, if anyone could help us get along with our new tin commander, it would be Antares.”

“I have been trying, please believe me! I have tried three times, just in the time we have been here talking. I do not know what is blocking communication, but I simply cannot reach them.”

“What about fricking Amaduse? I went along with this because you said you could keep tabs on them!” Real anger filled his voice now. And not just anger. Fear.

Jeaves sank slowly in the air, and for a moment looked as though he would physically take a seat. “I know. And I am sorry. I am even having trouble reaching Amaduse at the moment. I can only conclude that whoever diverted Ik is deliberately interfering with our efforts to reach him.”

Bandicut spread his hands. “And why would they do that?”

“I do not know. Unless it’s that someone else wants someone with his experience. But solving that mystery may have to wait until we finish this job.”

Bandicut felt his universe, and his resolve, crumbling. “What will those warships do, Jeaves, when they’re ready to fly—if we don’t get the time . . . thing . . . stopped? There must be battle plans.”

“I am sure there are,” Jeaves said. “I am sure ships will be sent to Karellia. I do not think there is total agreement yet in the Round Table, but I doubt they will let the timestream continue.”

“What does that mean?” Li-Jared asked softly.

“I mean,” Jeaves said, with a nod toward the Karellian, “that the needs of your homeworld will likely be considered secondary to the needs of the galaxy.” As Li-Jared stiffened, he added, “So it’s clearly in the interests of your people that we get there before a military expeditionary force. Which is a powerful reason to go sooner, not later.”

“So,” Li-Jared said, his voice much tighter than usual, “instead of sitting here arguing—”

“We should be getting back to The Long View and seeing if we can help Ruall and the shadow-people with preparations for departure,” Jeaves said.


Back at The Long View, they found the ship with a cavernous opening in its hull—actually, most of the top of the hull seemed to have been removed—and Ruall standing just inside the opening, waving her paddle-hands. An object shaped like a large motor armature—as long as Bandicut was tall—was in the air, being hoisted aboard by an implausibly skinny lifting arm attached to a dolly on the hangar floor. Two more objects, variations on the same shape, waited on the dolly. Operating the crane was a being who looked like a distant cousin to Amaduse’s assistant, Gonjee. No one spoke as the device was maneuvered into the ship and lowered out of sight. From inside the ship, Bandicut heard the whreek whreek! of shadow-people at work.

/// Belly-mounted weapons? ///

Charli wondered.

Bandicut asked the question aloud, and Jeaves answered, “I believe the one that just went in is a quantum pulse generator. The two still on the dolly are defensive shield projectors. We already have installed missile launchers with n-space disrupter and quantum implosion warheads.” Jeaves pointed down into the depths of the ship, where clusters of thin cylinders were packed tightly.

They looked to Bandicut like bundles of miniature Gatling guns. “They aren’t very large for missiles,” he said.

“They are about the size of large pencils,” Jeaves said.

“Huh,” Bandicut said. “Well, for a nonmilitary ship, it looks as though they’ve given us a pretty good arsenal.” /And I hope we don’t live to regret having all these guns./

/// Because we’ll be tempted to use them? ///

/Because Ruall will be tempted to use them./

/// But perhaps better to have them,

and not need them. ///

“Shipworld has the technology available,” Jeaves said. “But with few if any enemies out here at the periphery, they don’t get much use. Our news of the Mindaru was enough to cause them to cook up some inventory in the nano tanks. But. If our diplomatic mission is successful, we will never see these weapons in use.”

Li-Jared let out a rasping cough.

“Unless, of course, some Mindaru get through first,” Jeaves added.

“Right. So now that we’ve got them, you’re going to check us out on their operation, yes?” Bandicut said. “Or Ruall will?”

At the sound of her name, Ruall floated over to them. “Why are you back?” she clanged. “I did not call for you. The installation is not complete.”

Annoyed at her tone, Bandicut cut off whatever Jeaves was about to say. “The situation update made it clear we should come back. We know this ship pretty well, and we wanted to make damn sure these things were installed correctly, before the contractors decide they’re done for the day and take off.”

“Contractors?” Ruall repeated.

Bandicut waved at a cloud of sparkling dust rising from wherever the weapon had gone, inside the ship. Apparently nano-constructors were involved in the installation, perhaps guided by shadow-people. He hoped they were better at their job than the nanomeds back on Triton that had fried his neural implants. “These guys. The shadow-people I trust. But this nanoshit is notoriously unreliable. It’s so hard to get good help.”

Before Ruall could react to that, Jeaves said, “May we come aboard? We have matters to discuss with you.”

Ruall clanged dissonantly, but waved them in. As they passed her, she twitched. “You both reek of ethanol vapors! What have you been doing?”

“Having lunch, what do you think?” Bandicut snapped. “Didn’t you tell us to get lost?”

Ruall twanged. “Lost, yes. Chemically inebriated, no.”

Bandicut shrugged. “Neither of us is inebriated. Just relaxed. Would you rather we’d gone off somewhere to plot mutiny?”

The Tintangle began to twitch. “I cannot tell if you are attempting humor, or threat. Mutiny? Please clarify.”

Bandicut sighed. “Humor. Relax—we’re not going to mutiny, but we do need to talk.” He gestured around the ship. “Before you do, what can you show us about the upgrades?”

Ruall spun a few times. She did not seem reassured. But she did float up and over the construction area, gesturing with her paddle-hands. She led them along the edge of the new weapons bay, where the units they had seen being loaded had already been fused into the hull. “These are our best weapons for defense against hostile ships. How, or whether, they will work against Mindaru has yet to be demonstrated.”

Bandicut asked if controls for the weapons were being installed on the bridge.

“Of course,” Ruall said. “They’ll be at my station. Explain the question.” She glanced in irritation as a black, torn-rag shape fluttered past, one of the shadow-people.

Bandicut cleared his throat and glanced at Li-Jared, who seemed to be following his line of thought and was nodding. “I simply meant the controls must be designed so that any of us could operate the weapons if necessary, and not just have one person holding the key, as it were.”

“There will be no need for anyone else to fire these weapons,” Ruall said. “Weapons clearance and lock are my responsibility on this flight.”

/// Which does sort of make sense,

doesn’t it? ///

/Up to a point./ “I understand what you’re saying,” Bandicut continued. “But we have no guarantee that you will not become disabled” —or dead— “during a fight. It seems to me just common sense to have redundant control over essential equipment. After all, we’ve tangled with these Mindaru before—and they’re nasty.” He turned to Jeaves. “Don’t you agree?”

The robot hummed for a moment. “I cannot disagree. There is no guarantee that any of us will survive an encounter with the enemy. In the event of things going wrong, we do need the ability to transfer authority. Don’t you concur, Ruall?”

The creature made a metallic twanging sound. “I will take your suggestion under advisement.”

“Well, don’t take too long to decide,” Bandicut growled. “These things need to be clear before we go.”

Ruall spun twice, without answering.

“Now, then,” said Jeaves. “We’ll get out of your way, Ruall. I need John and Li-Jared to come with me to the bridge. Will you join us when you are able?”

“For what purpose?”

“We have things to discuss,” said Jeaves, leading the way.


“Try every available network to reach Antares and Napoleon,” Jeaves said to Copernicus, who was timesharing between helping them and monitoring the changes to the ship. “You have more connections available. Try Ik, try Amaduse.”

“I am doing so,” said Copernicus. “I have been separated from my friends before, you know.”

Bandicut waited, saying nothing.

They worked at it for the better part of an hour, but finally Jeaves reported, “All communication in and out of the Scalapoorie region seems to be blocked, at least through the public circuits.”

“What other circuits are there?” Bandicut asked.

“That’s a question I hope Amaduse can answer,” Jeaves said. “We’re trying to reach him, but like most Logothians, when he’s working intensively, he’ll sometimes shut himself off from outside contact. We’re trying to reach Gonjee, who may be able to get through for us.”

Bandicut muttered and shook his head. /This is exactly how I was afraid this would all go./

Charli murmured sympathetically.

A few minutes later, Jeaves returned with an update. “Gonjee is calling Amaduse from his meditation. I have explained that it is an emergency. In the meantime, I have asked the Peloi if the Round Table can do something to open channels. They say that the political rift among the Round Table parties is the cause of the communications block. Apparently the Scalapoorie sector is caught in the middle. But they urge us not to delay our departure—not if we want to get to Karellia before the Mindaru.” Li-Jared made low bonging sounds as Jeaves continued, “Wait—Amaduse is coming to the screen.” The robot turned to the viewing area of the bridge.

Amaduse appeared, at his work station. The Logothian’s diamond-centered eyes blinked gravely, and he spoke slowly, as though he had just woken. “Jeaves. Friends. I am aware of your urgency. But the communications situation has taken a turn for the worse, since you left here. I regret that I may not now be able to bring your friends back to you before your departure. I am sorry.”

Bandicut was incredulous. “There must be some way to find out what’s going on.”

The Logothian slowly cocked his head to one side. “I am trying to explore the situation through some back channels. But I am afraid it will take time.”

“We don’t have time.”

“I understand. I am sorry.”

Jeaves spoke. “We have received new information from the trouble area, Amaduse. From the starstream. Mindaru are reported. We must leave Shipworld as soon as possible.”

Amaduse breathed with a slow hiss. “I will do what I can . . . to monitor the situation in your absence, if I cannot locate your friends before your departure. I am sorry I cannot offer more. This is disturbing to me as well as to you.”

“You are gracious, Amaduse. We appreciate all the assistance you give us,” Jeaves said. “Please keep us informed.”

“Of course,” said Amaduse.

The viewing area went blank, leaving Bandicut standing with his mouth open. “Hell and damnation,” he said finally. He did not remember when he had last felt so disgusted.

“John,” said Jeaves, turning. “I believe we must now accept what has happened, live with the uncertainty, and prepare to move on. I too am sorry.”

Bandicut glared at the robot—and found no words for an answer.

Chapter 14 Launch Point

“DID YOU COMMUNICATE with the yaantel?” Rings asked, emerging from the gloom of his library.

Julie squinted at Rings-at-Need, struggling to perform a mental reset. Their meeting with the translator had left her stunned and breathless. She swung to face Ik. “What just happened back there?”

“Hrrm . . .” Ik spread his fingers in uncertainty.

“I’ve never seen the translator act afraid. If it were human, I’d say it had a panic attack when we asked if it could go along with us.”

Ik said nothing, but his deep-set eyes glinted as they met her gaze.

“Ik, that translator carried me through the sun—and then all the way here, across the galaxy. It’s the bravest, and strongest, thing I know.”

“Perhaps it was more hurt than you knew,” Ik said softly.

“Did you communicate with the yaantel?” Rings asked again, a reverberation in his voice.

Julie managed a nod. “We did. Yes.” She shut her eyes. Had the yaantel just advised them to take a trip to the center of the galaxy—and back a billion years in time? Using experimental, out-of-body technology? Yes, it had.

“And,” said Rings, “did the yaantel make clear what we hope you will do for us? For all of us?”

“Hrrm,” said Ik. “It tried. I would not say that I, at least, fully understand the proposed mission yet—or its risks.”

A soft brush-on-cymbal sound seemed to signal acknowledgment. “Possibly no one fully understands the risks. But we should go now to those who will try to answer your additional questions. Are you willing to meet the mission team?”

“Well, I—” Julie began.

“Have you been persuaded, hmm, that it is worth your attention?” Rings asked.

Julie closed her eyes again. The translator was the only being on Shipworld she knew well enough to trust with such a momentous decision—and it had basically urged them to take the job. It was terrified, yes; but didn’t that just confirm the gravity of its counsel?

She opened her eyes, glanced at Ik, who seemed to be waiting for her. “All right,” she said, and Ik hrrm’d his agreement.

Rings rotated and floated deeper into the library. Julie and Ik followed.


The library was a surprisingly twisty space. There came a point where Julie felt something like a passing breeze, a waft of dizziness, and then a spinning ring of light. Then they were standing in a small compartment with windows. The windows looked out into space. But near the bottom edge of the windows, Julie could see what she took to be the outside of Shipworld. It began to move past the window.

“Spacecraft?” she asked, turning to Rings. She tested her weight. They still had gravity.

“Outside shuttle,” Rings said, floating at the forward end of the cabin. “We are transiting a guidance web along the outside of Shipworld. It is quite safe. We are leaving the sector we were in, which is known as Scalapoorie, and traveling to Escaloo, at the far end of Shipworld.”

Far end of Shipworld? Julie thought. Farther and farther from where John Bandicut might have been? “Will our friends be told where we are and what we are doing?”

Rings rotated to invisibility, and then reappeared. “It appears they have joined another mission, and may be away from Shipworld. There is, at present, no way to contact them.”

Just like that? Julie felt a pressure in her forehead as she tried to think of a polite response.

Ik made a loud grumbling sound. “That is, hrah, unacceptable, that you would send them away like that, without allowing us to speak! It is disgraceful.”

Rings-at-Need made a shimmering sound. “I do not disagree. It was not I who sent them away, or those I work with. It was, rnnngg, a different group.” Ignoring their glares, Rings continued, “We can hope for their success. For them. For Shipworld. Really, for the galaxy. Maybe even beyond the galaxy.”

“Christ,” Julie muttered under her breath. She went to another window and leaned close, trying to peer ahead. They were flying dizzyingly through guide-rings, as they hurtled along on a trajectory parallel to the vast structure of Shipworld.

“Well, then,” said Ik. “What now?”

“Please take some comfort, as you can. The ride will take a little while. You may sleep, if you wish.” Rings moved his paddle-hands, and something changed in the walls of the cabin, revealing a narrow bunk on either side. A bottle of clear liquid—water?—lay on each bunk.

Fat chance of sleeping, Julie thought. She nevertheless sat on the nearer bunk, testing its firmness. It was okay. She cracked open the bottle and took a careful sip. Water. She drank a little more, and then, with a sigh, stretched out and stared at the ceiling. Finally, she rolled to look at her cabin-mates.

“Rrmm,” said Ik, from the other bunk. He pulled up his feet and sat cross-legged, then drank deeply from his own bottle. “Perhaps Rings is right,” he said finally. “It would not hurt us to rest.”

At the front of the cabin, the Tintangle floated motionless. Perhaps he had gone to sleep himself. There was nothing much to stay awake for, it seemed. Julie sighed again and closed her eyes.


Ik came out of his meditation, hearing a voice. It was Rings. “What did you say?” On the opposite bunk, Julie sat up, yawning.

“We are about to make a translational jump away from Shipworld proper,” Rings said. “The mission preparation center is located approximately one-tenth light-year from Shipworld.”

Ik felt a chill up from his groin to a point between his shoulders. “A tenth of a light-year from Shipworld? You did not speak of this before.”

“I apologize.” Rings’ voice became tremulous. “The energies involved in the ghoststream process are quite large, and the process is kept at some distance from Shipworld for safety.”

So if we blow up, we don’t take Shipworld with us, Ik thought. His mind lingered on the energies quite large part, and he gazed thoughtfully at Rings, while across from him Julie had come wide-eyed awake at the Tintangle’s words.

In a voice hoarse as though she’d been talking throughout her sleep, she said, “Light-year? Tenth of a light-year? What kind of energy are we talking about here?” She reached for her water bottle, her gaze never leaving Rings.

Rings seemed to vibrate side to side. “We are extracting power from a small black hole. It is quite safe.”

Julie choked on her water, and spent a few seconds coughing. “Safe,” she gasped. “A small black hole.”

“As such things go,” Rings responded.

Ik clacked his mouth in disbelief. He peered out the window. The outside of Shipworld was now a blur, drifting away to one side. “Were you going to ask us if that was all right with us?”

There was a flash, just visible in the forward direction, and another.

A structure came into view in the distance, growing rapidly. “I apologize if I have taken you aback,” Rings said. “I thought I had your implicit approval. Prepare for docking. We have completed the jump.”


The structure that grew before them was shaped like an enormous, broken crystal, with huge, angular facets. A brightly lit bay yawned in one of the facets, and they glided to a silent stop at its center. Rings was suddenly all business. “Are you well rested? I will show you the facilities, and then we must go to the prelaunch briefing.”

Ik stared at Rings blankly for a moment. Prelaunch? Are we that far along in the process? He tapped his fingers against his chest. “I guess I am ready enough.”

Julie looked more frightened than ready, he thought. He wondered if her appraisal of the situation wasn’t the more realistic.

Rings twanged and, with a bobbing movement, led them out through a sudden opening in the cabin wall and into the bright yellow landing area. “Follow me, please.”


The Tintangle didn’t fool around. The first place he took them was the launch complex for the ghoststream time-travel system. They stood gazing out together from a balcony, while Rings went to check on something. An enormous floor stretched out beneath them, broken up here and there by large transformers, coils, who knew what. It reminded Ik of the huge hangar from which they had departed the waystation near Starmaker. Just before it disintegrated.

Julie was clearly awed by the scale of the thing. “Is that what’s going to send us back in time? Ik, it’s—”

“Hrah. Yes, it is. Huge, and fragile.” Ik focused on the center of the floor. Extending from left to right across the middle of the space was a large channel—almost a riverbed—through which shifting beams of light played. The physical structure that formed the trough extended to the transparent right-hand wall, and through it into space. It looked like the barrel of an exceedingly strange gun. Perched in the center of the trough, more or less in the middle of the space, was a small, clear capsule. Was it some version of a star-spanner bubble? It flexed and changed as a crew of shadow-people and others worked on it. “The capsule looks about as substantial as the thing we rode to Astar-Neri and the waystation.”

“You, meaning you and John?” Julie asked.

“Hrrm, yes, and our friends Li-Jared and Antares.” Ik’s voice caught slightly as he said the name Antares. He had not until now thought very deeply about the matter of John Bandicut and Antares and . . . Julie. They all cared for one another, and yet on his own world, if two people were life-bonded in a certain way, it could be difficult to have a third person enter the relationship. He wondered if he should be careful how he spoke.

“Li-Jared. And Antares?” Julie tilted her head to one side. “Tell me about them. Is John with them now?”

“As far as I know, yes,” Ik said. “They are—well, Li-Jared was my first friend here on Shipworld. He is about this tall—” Ik held out a hand at chest height “—short, wiry, energetic. Smart. Impatient. Bandie once told us that Li-Jared looked something like—is this the right word, chimps?—on your world.”

Julie nodded. “And Antares?”

Ik hesitated, unsure quite how to describe her. He and Antares had become close also, during the mission to Starmaker. She had helped him several times—saved his life probably, by intervening with her empathic powers and with the power of her voice-stones—in a battle that raged between his first voice-stones and the deadly, invasive intelligence of the Mindaru. For that alone, he owed Antares a great debt. But they were also friends. There was nothing he would not do for her. But that was not the same as the kind of relationship she had with Bandicut. “She—” he began finally, “—in a way, she looks a little like you. More like a human, I think, than either I or Li-Jared.”

Julie cocked her head at that. “A ‘she’? Female?”

“Of her kind, yes. A Thespi-third female.” He considered. “Empathic, and trained as a . . . facilitator of connections, between others. Yes, she rather resembles you in general physical appearance. I think you would probably like her.” Noticing Julie’s expression, her half-closed eyes and furrowed brow, he suspected that he should tread carefully here.

“How did you—or John, at least—come to know her?”

Ik closed his eyes a moment, remembering. It wasn’t really so long ago; but so much had happened. “We met her during the boojum crisis, here on Shipworld—” and he realized, seeing the puzzlement on Julie’s face, that he had not yet explained the boojum incident to her “—though during that crisis, we hardly knew each other. But afterward, she boarded the star-spanner bubble with us, and traveled with us—hrah, we did not know where we were going, but it turned out to be the undersea world of the Astari and Neri. It was during the crisis there that we truly became friends.” He clacked his mouth shut. Julie seemed to accept what he had said, with great thoughtfulness.

After a few moments, Julie turned her attention back to the tableau in front of them. She pointed to the capsule in the middle of the channel. “It doesn’t look like much. Is that really what we’re supposed to travel in?”

“The star-spanner bubble didn’t look like much, either,” Ik said. He heard chiming voices. “Hrah. We may be about to find out.” Descending toward them from above were two halos, like Delilah, a halo who had accompanied them to Starmaker. They looked like floating, spinning, glowing circles of light, and made a sound like metal rings circling around a metal pole. “Hello,” he called. Delilah had given her life to save him and his companions, and he felt a pang at the sight of her fellows.

The halos answered in chime-voices, which his stones did not immediately translate; but Rings-at-Need reappeared from wherever he had gone and said, “These halos will assist in your briefing concerning the mission. Let’s go with them to meet the rest of the Galactic Core Mission team.”

Rings led them away from the balcony to a glassed-in meeting room overlooking the complex, where twenty or thirty folk of various species were gathered, including a few shadow-people flying overhead making whreek’ing sounds. “People!” cried Rings. “I bring two travelers, Ik and Julie Stone, Hraachee’an and human. They come with considerable experience with the Mindaru, and I ask that you greet them accordingly.”

To Ik and Julie’s discomfiture, a crowd of curious aliens immediately gathered around them: tall ones, squat ones, spidery ones, in an assortment of eye and limb configurations, and colors, and smells. A particularly heavy creature with a carapace spoke out in a trumpeting groan. Ik’s stones hesitantly rendered the words as, “They don’t look-k t-terribly f-fierce.” The creature waved its eye-stalks at Rings as Ik absorbed the words.

Rings responded, “How many Mindaru have you faced down, Cromus? These two met and prevailed against Mindaru entities capable of destroying this entire launch center.” Rings waved his paddle-hands for a moment, and then floated in a circle around the group. “Now, please—we were asked to come in urgent haste, so may I ask that you take your places? These travelers require in-depth briefing, and I believe the mission directors brought the halos here to oversee that. Am I right?”

That brought murmurs that Ik took for assent. As they all took seats, which molded at a touch to their sizes and shapes, Julie leaned over and muttered, “I wish they wouldn’t make us out to be heroes. I don’t know about you, but I think I’m likely to disappoint them.”

Ik could hardly argue. But there was no time to talk of it further, because Rings floated over to speak to them. “Cromus will be taking over now. He is in operational command of the mission. I will be here if you need me, but address your questions to Cromus when you can.” With that, Rings rotated out of sight, and reappeared against the wall to one side.

The large, carapaced creature that had expressed doubts about their ferocity shuffled to the front and called for attention by clicking his intimidating pincers together. He spoke toward Ik and Julie in a rasping groan. “I am Cromuss-s. Are you ready to begin learning the details of the mission-n?” As he spoke, the voice-stones began translating more smoothly. “The halos will now begin.”

The two halos dropped into view from somewhere overhead, and began once more making the sound of a ring whirling around a pole. Ik had forgotten how quickly a halo’s chiming voice could take him into a dream-state.

The sensation brought back memories of Delilah’s briefings, back on the waystation in preparation for the Starmaker mission. It was like falling into a bottomless emptiness . . . and as he floated in that place, the halos spoke to him of the inner galaxy and its long, long ago (what was known of it), and of the ghoststream and what he should expect, and what the mission team gathered here expected of Julie and of him.


As the glowing dream faded, Julie blinked away dizziness. Too much information . . . too much. Was Ik able to absorb all this? She glanced at her Hraachee’an friend and saw him squinting and rubbing the voice-stones embedded in his temples. She was suddenly aware that she was unconsciously rubbing her own wrists.

Cromus clicked his pincers and spoke again. “Did-d you r-receive c-clear information-n? We have some tim-me for discussion-n and questions, and then-n we must move along-ng to the launch-ch.”

“Hrah!” Ik roared. “Who said we are ready for any launch? Why the rush? Can’t you give us time to absorb the information? Time to plan?”

Julie breathed a sigh of gratitude at Ik’s forthrightness.

But Cromus made a staccato hissing sound. “T-time? You have r-roughly one-and-a-half billion-n years-s to think-k. Is that-t not enough?”

Is he trying to be funny? Julie wondered.

“Hrah, well, we have not yet agreed to the mission as it is presented to us. So, no, I am not sure that is enough time,” said Ik. “And, hrrm, even if we do agree, perhaps we could take time for lunch before we go.”

Cromus twitched his eye-stalks. He seemed shocked by the request. “Lunch-ch? Our concern-n is that-t Mindaru may-y already be on their way-y up the timestream-m. If that is the c-case, then our start-t time could be critical-l. Our directors are quite concerned-d that the mission be launched-d as soon-n as possible.”

“It could be critical,” Ik said, “that we go on a full stomach. If we go at all.”

Julie spoke up. “I agree!” She didn’t want to say it, but she also wished she could get a little more sleep before making a decision. This whole business—not just the time-travel mission, but this whole big support team making decisions about what she did—was too much to absorb in such a short time.

Cromus made some clicking sounds, like a malfunctioning machine. “Well-l, then-n. Food will be brought-t. Now, are there questions-s or points of discussion-n? Yes, Enwin-n?”

Julie listened as a thin, multilegged creature asked for some clarifying details about defensive strategies should the crew encounter hostile Mindaru. To her surprise, Julie realized she already knew the answer: In the event of an encounter, they could simply withdraw, or move on. The ghoststream, after all, permitted no physical contact with beings—or matter of any kind—in the past. She knew this was so because they had told her it was so.

She found herself looking around, out the windows to the complex below. She wondered where the “small” black hole was that would be powering this mission. She knew it was at some distance, bound to this station by an n-dimensional field, and that it provided the enormous energy the ghoststream required to maintain a dense beam of quantum entanglement far into the past. And that the energy would hit their launch capsule like a focused beam of light.

She also knew that sometime in the last few minutes, she had quietly decided that, yes, she really was going on this mission.

Ik clacked his mouth. “Food is here.”

And she knew that he had decided, as well.


It was a working lunch, with discussion swirling around them. Julie and Ik mostly stayed quiet, keeping to themselves—partly to avoid having to observe the eating habits of all those alien beings, but mostly to keep their minds focused on what they already knew and understood, instead of being dragged into side discussions that would only confuse them. There was a growing sense of urgency among the crew. It was starting to sink in that these people really were worried that if they didn’t launch soon, the Mindaru could start popping out into the present.

Julie wondered what the mission team would have done if they hadn’t found Ik and her to go on the mission. She found the answer in the information the halos had poured into her head: Another team had been training, but had quietly stepped aside upon Julie and Ik’s arrival. They had been willing, but with no experience with the Mindaru, they had felt out of their depth. Were they relieved? Julie decided not to ask.

Eventually the meeting broke up, and the crowd ebbed away as folk went off to various work stations. Enwin, the spidery, multilegged being, remained—along with Rings-at-Need, and Cromus standing behind them, his pincers quivering. Enwin spoke in a voice just above a whisper. “I will assist you in getting acquainted with the ghoststream pod. Will you come with me?”

Julie followed, with a silent prayer, alongside Ik. She wasn’t ordinarily a particularly spiritual person, but right now maybe she was. Jesus help. They made their way without fanfare down to the launch floor. Up close, the channel in the center of the floor still looked like a riverbed, with a faint haze of light sparkling where the water should be.

The bubble suspended midstream was, as they had surmised, the ghoststream pod. A simple, broad walkway arched across to it. Julie followed Enwin over the walkway, and gingerly reached out to touch the bubble. Its surface gave slightly under her hand. It was like a huge soap bubble, even to the iridescent surface. An opening yawned, and Enwin indicated that Ik should enter first and be seated on the far side, and then Julie on his right.

There was no visible seating, but as Ik slowly crouched, a force-field glimmered beneath him. He rocked into a slightly reclined position on twinkling air. Julie took a breath and followed suit. “Comfortable?” Enwin asked, leaning in over both of them as though suspended on a web. They murmured assent, as Enwin adjusted things Julie couldn’t see. “Put your hands forward slightly,” Enwin said, and when she was done, Julie felt almost as if her palms were resting on an invisible control surface.

“Who’s going to teach us how to control this thing?” she asked, feeling a surge of alarm even as she reviewed the knowledge that the halos had left with her.

Enwin patted her on the shoulder. “Your interface-stones should be getting set up right now. Do you want to confirm that with them?”

*Confirmed. We are operational with the pod,* said her stones, before she could frame the question. *External communication positive.*

/Huh./ Beside her, Ik grunted affirmatively.

Enwin whispered, “Then we’ll close up. Unless you have any last questions?”

Wait! What do you mean, close up? I thought we were just—”

“We’re ready to send you. Unless you have further—”

“Just like that? With no training?”

“The knowledge you need should come to you as you need it,” Enwin said soothingly. “So unless you have more questions—”

A thousand of them, Julie thought. She was suddenly frightened out of her mind. How had she gotten into this? “Ik, they’re throwing us in with the sharks!”

“Hrah,” Ik murmured. “We have swum with them before.”

*You are as ready as you ever will be. And you have us, just as before.*

Julie let her breath out. If Ik could handle it . . . She shook her head at Enwin. No more questions.

The creature whispered what sounded like a blessing over them, and then withdrew. Rings appeared in the opening. “All of our hopes go with you, my friends.”

Julie blinked at him. Ik murmured something she couldn’t quite make out. “Okay,” she said. “See you later, then. Yes?”

“Yes,” said Rings. “It will not be long.”

The opening turned iridescent like the rest of the bubble, and Rings waved a paddle from beyond the bubble.

*We are receiving launch confirmation. Ghoststream energy flux is building,* reported her stones. Around her, the bubble turned clear, and light began to stream more visibly past. Rings was gone, and the platform was deserted. Then it too was gone.

“Are you all right?” Ik asked in a throaty murmur.

She turned her head to look at his bluish, bony face with those deep-set eyes. She forced a smile. “Yah. All right. A-okay.” She formed her left hand into a thumbs-up gesture.

“Hrrm. ‘A-okay’?”

“Something our spacemen used to say.”

Ik seemed to reach inward for words, or perhaps a memory. “Copernicus said something once,” he murmured at last. “He said, ‘Let’s light this candle.’”

Julie chuckled. She remembered it from her own reading. The first American in space had uttered those words just before his flight.

The light outside brightened, then turned to white-out. A beam of light shot through the pod, and her hands turned transparent before her eyes. And then she was falling into light—empty, endless light.

Chapter 15 Slowsleep to Alpha Centauri

DAKOTA BANDICUT DREAMED of comets, and space, and celestial collisions. She dreamed of dandelions blowing through an endlessly long, endlessly lonely night as their starship sailed helplessly into the deeps of infinity, having lost their heading and missed Alpha Centauri by several trillion miles. She dreamed of clamoring alarms, and strobing emergency lights, and frantic repairs in the cold and lonely dark . . .

And then it all dissolved in a milky mist. Somewhere she was aware that she was being brought slowly out of slowsleep.

In the mist, she had time to remember her dreams, and to wonder if they were all actually dreams.

Had those alarms and flashing lights been real?


She lurched, gasped, then fell back and groaned.

Her eyes slowly opened.

A young woman’s face was peering down at her. Dakota didn’t know her.

“Dakota Bandicut?” the face said to her.

She tried to breathe, and felt fire in her throat. She coughed convulsively. A mechanical arm slid into view and misted something at her. The pain in her throat and chest subsided.

The voice spoke again, but to someone else. Then it came back to her. “How are you feeling? You’ve been asleep a long time.”

The face dissolved as she drifted back off to sleep.

“Miss Bandicut? Can you hear me?”

Miraculously, this time she was able to answer, though in a voice like a dying man’s. “Where are we? How long? Is the ship fixed? Control restored?”

Voices, multiple; and then a different voice from the first: “Tell her.”

Tell me what? Meteoroid strike! Control section smashed. How many lost?

The face beamed at her. “Oh yes, the ship was fixed. According to this, you helped fix it. Do you remember waking up to do that?”

Dakota blinked hard, several times. Did she remember? She thought she did. But it seemed to be fading now, less like a hazy memory than a dream. She stopped blinking. “Where are we?”

“Why, you’re in orbit around No Pain No Gain! That’s what we call it! Alpha Centauri Four! We had to keep you asleep for a little while, so preparations could be made down on the ground. But you’re a Centauran now . . .”


Had to keep me asleep?

Nearly ten years, as it turned out, they’d been kept on ice in orbit around the virgin colony planet. Except . . . it wasn’t, anymore. The colony was settled and thriving.

The next shock was a visitor who came into the recovery room. It was Jenny Ferguson, from Earth 3. Jenny Ferguson who had grabbed her old job when she’d left. “Dakota!” she said cheerily. “Remember me?”

“Um—” Am I dreaming?

She was not dreaming; it was the same Jenny, except that she looked older than Dakota now, with wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and considerably more maturity in her expression. How was that possible?

“Dakota, I’ve been waiting for a chance to greet you. When you come down to the surface, I want you to meet my husband and boys.”

Oh no . . .


How many ships?” Dakota asked. Now there was a roomful of them, new Centaurans, being briefed as a group. Some of them looked happy, but more than a few had the same shocked expression that Dakota felt on her own face.

The briefer—a different face—spoke with practiced ease. They weren’t the first group to have been awakened. “Endeavor was the twelfth ship to arrive from Earth.”

“But we were the first!” cried a still-raspy voice in protest.

“First to leave Earth,” the briefer affirmed. “You blazed the way for all of us. The third and fourth are still on their way in. The second, I’m sorry to say, was lost.”

“But how—?”

“We got better at it. The ships that followed were faster. Some of them much faster. It was actually number seven that got here first. I guess they had it figured out before it was launched, because they named it Leapfrog. It came with the best ground-breaking and terraforming equipment that any ship had ever carried.”

She sort of stopped listening after that. Her translator-stones had buzzed back to wakefulness, and she hoped they would have better things to say to her.


Dakota lasted as a Centauran for two years. During that time, she threw herself into life as a colonist—or tried, anyway. She formed some relationships, none of them especially close. She became friends, more or less, with Jenny, who had matured considerably over the years; it was like talking to a different person. Several attempts at romance ended in failure or disappointment. She worked as a tele-operator on residential fabrication, as a drone pilot on geographical survey flights, and even briefly as a remote operator of tunneling equipment working on underground transport and shelter projects. The work was okay, if boring, and she was good at it—more than good at it, in fact. But truth was, it wasn’t all that different from the life she’d lived back home, in the shadow of Earth.

She’d left everything behind to become a pioneer on the edge of human exploration. And here, she had arrived to find the groundbreaking work already done, by the twenty-four thousand colonists who had arrived before her, and their progeny. What she was doing instead was support ops: helping to build on the foundation that the real pioneers had begun. Sure, there were frontier settlements on No Pain No Gain, continents to cross and seas to conquer, and would be for the next hundred years. But the spark of exploration had gone out of it for her. She felt cheated.

By the time she was desperate for a change, there was other handwriting on the wall. Eighty-two years had passed on Earth since her departure. Everything and everyone she had known were now history. She wondered why she didn’t feel more regret. Earth was in turmoil, all interest in sending people to the stars lost, or submerged under the politics of unrest. The next expedition to other stars would be launched, not from Earth, but from right here at Alpha Centauri. The real edge was moving farther out, to the next nearest star with a habitable planet: Barnard’s Star. It was time to move on.

Her translator-stones, still her little secret, seemed to agree.

And so she had signed up for the first ship to the new colony.


Two years and one month to the day after her arrival groundside, she stood on the tarmac of the No Pain No Gain spaceport for the last time. Dakota gazed at the rocket on the pad and thought, That should be a great and beautiful starship, poised for launch. It wasn’t, of course; it was a personnel shuttle, poised for launch. The real starship was in orbit, where it had been built in record time with automated nano-constructors. Back to where I came into this scene. She felt a heart-flutter of trepidation. Once more unto the breach.

Her last interview still echoed in her mind. A bored bureaucrat—already, they had bored bureaucrats out here in the stars!—had wanted to clarify her skills and fitness for certain work before signing off on her for the mission. “You have plenty of drone experience, yes? But it’s all on buildings and tunnels. Can you do maintenance and repair on a ship?”

She managed to contain a harsh laugh. Can I do repairs? The memory was now as clear as yesterday: the mid-flight emergency that nearly ended Endeavor’s mission. A meteoroid strike had smashed Endeavor’s control module and killed most of the watch crew, and the ship’s emergency AI had called up Dakota and thirty-some others to deal with it. Numb with confusion and fear at first, and then increasingly buoyed by confidence, they had labored for the better part of a year to rebuild the controls and restart the ramscoop and fusion drive.

The drugs that had put her back into deep sleep had nearly robbed her of the long-term mental record—but not quite. The memories had come back over the course of her time here, with shocking clarity. Her trip to Alpha Centauri had nearly ended in disaster. She had been part of the reason they’d made it. That fact gave her pride, but also contributed to her feeling that she didn’t have much to add to a settled world.

Instead of answering her interviewer’s question directly, Dakota reached over his display slate and pointed on her profile to the commendation she’d received for helping to save the ship. “Ah,” he said. “Yes, I see.” And approval was hers.

And now, standing on the tarmac, she shook her head at the thought of the interview and tugged on the lead of her floating luggage carrier. With a cluster of other departing mission members, she strode toward the shuttle.

Soon, she would be settling in for another long winter’s nap, while racing onward, to the more distant stars.

Barnard’s Star, here we come.

Chapter 16 Scalapoorie Sector

THIS WAS DIFFERENT from any transport experience Antares had ever been through. She was surrounded by a faint glow of violet light; but it wasn’t just the glow, there was a vibration, right through her bones, as though she were riding a high-speed train on a slightly burred track . . . except that she felt weightless. “Napoleon!” she murmured, half aloud. But Napoleon had vanished. “Napoleon!” There was nothing she could do—not until she arrived, wherever she was going—and got out of this transport field.

Eventually, the glow faded away. The vibration continued a little longer, like a motor that wouldn’t stop, but over several seconds that faded as well. Antares felt her weight again, and could see her surroundings. She peered around. She was standing under a metallic arch and seemed to be alone on a grassy knoll in twilight, at the edge of a woods. It felt a little spooky to her, and she shivered. Where was Napoleon, and why had they been separated? She stepped out from under the arch and called, “Napoleon!” Was it something Amaduse had done? Or was the transport signal controlled at this end? Where was that robot?

A voice from behind startled her. “Wait right there, frrrr, frrr, for a moment. Please!”

Antares whirled around. “Who is there?”

A creature trotted around the arch and stopped in front of her. It was four legged, but when it stopped, it reared up on its hind legs, waving its smaller front legs (arms?) in front of it. It had a tapered snout, whiskers, bright round yellow eyes, and triangular ears; also, a short tail. It was, Antares believed, a Dannari. Upright it was about a head shorter than she was. It wore a teal-colored tunic, with purple piping down the sides, like a uniform. Despite the initial canine appearance, it had something like hands, in which it held a small tablet. It said, “Th-thank you. I am, buh, Buck.”

“Buck?” Antares repeated, wondering how to think of this charming and slightly alarming creature. Not “it.” He? She? Hir? “Where did you come from, Buck? Who are you?” She tried to remember what she knew of the Dannari. Hir, she thought.

“Hah!” Buck said, and raised hirself a little higher on hir hind legs. “It should be I, huh, who asssks the krrr, krrr, questions.” Hir put a hand to a necklace medallion and seemed to be making some adjustment. When hir spoke again, hir voice was clearer and less halting. “I am the c-captain of this transit gate.” Hir tapped the tablet with one finger. “And you have just arrived without c-c-clearance.” Hir made another adjustment. “Could you answer a few questions, please?”

“How can you understand me?” Antares asked, tilting her head to look at hir from different angles. She didn’t see any knowing-stones.

Buck held up the medallion. “Trrranslation device. Now, please—identify yourself, and then state your place of origin and your purpose.”

“My name is Antares Alexandrovens, Thespi Third Female.”

The captain moved a crooked finger on hir tablet. “And, Citizen Drovens, did you come here alone? Unassisted? Unaccompanied?”

She flicked her fingers in exasperation and distress. “I came with a companion robot, an inorg.” She looked around again. “We became separated in transit. Have you seen a norg that goes by the name Napoleon?”

Buck seemed to squint at her suspiciously. Hir swung around to look behind hir, then swung back. “That norg is yours, then?”

Antares’ pulse quickened. She held her hand a little above waist height. “This tall? Yes! You’ve seen him, then?”

Buck’s whisker’s twitched. “It arrived ahead of you. It waits not far from here, near my cabin.”

“Thank goodness! Can you take me to it?”

“Of course. But can you explain this for me? Why you did not arrive together, if you are traveling together?”

“I wish I knew. We stepped through together. I don’t know why we were separated.”

Buck brushed at hir snout with a hand that Antares now decided looked more like a paw, despite having fingers. “Humm. You came, you see, via a route that is restricted. Closed off. Not, rrrr, rrrr, sanctioned. Can you tell me how you came to arrive through this arch, which is legally closed?”

Antares felt a flash of worry. Was she going to have to defend herself now? “No—I can’t. I have no idea how. But I came directly from the office of Amaduse, Shipworld Librarian. Do you know Amaduse? He sent me. Does that help explain?”

“Amaduse? Hah!” said Buck, hir eyes gleaming in the night. Hir stroked hir whiskers for another moment. “I do not know this Amaduse. But I have heard of Amaduse. That one is in the Maripose sector, rather far from here. Is that the one? What connection has he to the Scalapoorie sector?”

Antares raised her hands, then dropped them. “None that I know of,” she admitted. “But I’m sure it must be the same one. He seems to be well known, and to have considerable, uhhl, influence—even beyond, well, where you would expect his reach to end.”

“Even into sectors that are not his own?” Buck asked. Hir seemed to marvel and look alarmed at the same time.

“I couldn’t really tell you. I only just met him. But he was trying to help me find a missing friend, who seemed to have come this way.”

“A missing friend! The norg?”

She twitched her head no.

“Please answer in words. I cannot translate your gestures,” Buck said.

“Not the norg, no. The norg is assisting me in my search for my friend, a Hraachee’an.”

“Ahh—sss, a Hraachee’an.” Buck’s eyes widened, as though this sparked hir interest. Hir consulted hir tablet. “And does this Hraachee’an have a name?”

“Ik. His name is Ik. He may be traveling with a companion, but I have no information on the companion.”

“Whuh. Ssss. Yes.” Buck became agitated, rubbing at hir whiskers. “If his name is Ik, then yes, your friend came through. With his companion. Only for a short time, and they spent it . . . bzzzr, bzzzr . . . in conference with a Tintangle. They did not interact with us at all. They were a surprise, the first surprise. You were another, you and your norg. You must be very important, to be allowed to follow a friend—” hir tone wavered for an instant “—through a closed portal.”

Antares’ fingers twitched as she gestured her protest. “No. No, it is not that we are so important. But a job we need to do together—that is very important.”

“Important, you say. Important to my part of Shipworld?”

“Important,” Antares said, speaking deliberately, “to all of Shipworld.”

“Whumm?” Buck cocked hir head.

Antares gave a little shiver. “I am not in a position to speak of it,” she said. “But please, tell me: Are they here? Ik and his companion?”

Buck continued as though she had not asked the question. “Your claim is a rather large one. In other times, I might easily have granted you, whuh, the benefit of the doubt. But things, you see, are not as they once were between our sectors. Communications are difficult, and one can no longer travel freely. It is my job to ask why and how you are here, and determine if you should be allowed to move about.”

She cried with impatience, “Please! I need to know! Do you know where Ik is? I just want to find him, and take him back with me!”

Buck consulted hir tablet, stroking hir nose again. “I don’t think that will be possible, at least not from here. The Hraachee’an did not seem to be traveling under duress. His companion, by the way, was a female . . . human, I believe, was the type.”

A female human!

“But they left again, soon after they arrived. I was still establishing who or what they were, and then they were gone.”

Antares’ heart sank. “Gone?”

“Yess-ss. I am afraid so.”

“Gone where?” She grasped at the air with open hands, as though to capture Ik and bring him back.

The gatekeeper stared at her, perhaps trying to puzzle out her gestures. “I don’t know, exactly. There was a special override on the controls. I did not have access to the information at the time, but learned of it later.”

“When?” she insisted. “When did they leave?”

“A day, hum, and a half ago. They did not leave Scalapoorie directly from here. They traveled to one of our border stations on the far side. I saw their names on a list for a special departure shuttle, from there. After the fact, you see.” Buck swiped at hir whiskers. “I am not certain I was intended to see the information at all, but—well, it was not exactly kept secret. But it all happened so quickly.”

Antares stared at hir, trying to absorb all this. “That seems . . . exceedingly strange to me. I would have thought he’d be trying to find his way back to us. Does this kind of thing happen often?”

Buck made a hacking sound, as though spitting out a bad taste. “Hardly! It is highly irregular. One must presume that it was—what is the proper word?—orchestrated—at a high level, and done quickly, to prevent their being intercepted.”


“Questioned. By people like me. By someone who might have questioned their special clearance.” Buck paused.

“Would you have the authority to question orders from a higher level?” Antares asked, trying to keep hir on the subject long enough to make sense of hir emotions. Hir seemed frustrated, and potentially sympathetic to her goals.

Hir hissed softly, hir emotions jittery beneath the smooth surface of hir calm. “Perhaps not. But I do need to remain alert to inconsistencies. There are times when the oversight authorities seem to operate at cross purposes. Not just this break between our sector and our neighbors—but even within the sector, one part with another. If you understand what I am saying.”

“I’m not sure I do,” she admitted.

“Well, I’m not sure, either.” His nose jerked up an inch. “But these things are not for me to talk about. Shall we go find your norg? And then we must decide what to do with you both.” Hir turned, and with a waggle of hir right hand, indicated that she should follow.


They trudged downhill along the edge of the woods. Antares allowed herself a small pleasure at the feeling of trees nearby. She’d grown up among all kinds of trees, and since leaving Thespi-Prime had seen all too few of them. These trees were deciduous in appearance, with leaf-clusters layered into large, expansive shells. It was like walking under a series of rustling rain-domes. She wished John were here to see it. Where was he now? she wondered. Still looking for The Long View? Or were they already on their way?

Buck’s quarters were a wood cabin, in a clearing at the edge of the trees. Pulling up near the cabin, Buck peered around, looking for Napoleon. “I asked it to stay right here, outside the cabin!”

Please, Antares thought. She called out, “Napoleon! Where are you?”

She was relieved to hear the robot’s voice, from within. “I am right here. Inside the cabin.”

With a muttering sound, Buck swung open the wooden door and when the light spilled out, called, “You are not to touch anything!” Hir went in ahead of Antares. She followed close behind. The doorway was low, forcing her to duck. “Norg!” called Buck. “Where are you?”

“Right here,” Napoleon repeated, from an alcove to the left of the doorway. He swiveled from his stance in front of a console. “I have touched nothing, Captain Buck. However, I have been examining your setup with respect to obtaining information that we need.”

Buck seemed about to scold him for coming in without permission, but Antares interrupted hir to ask, “Will we be able to make iceline contact from here?” She sensed hir irritation with Napoleon, and tried to apply a soothing sense of empathy.

Her host stopped for a moment, thinking. Hir apparently decided to drop hir complaint about Napoleon—who, after all, seemed not to have actually touched anything—and said, “Hoo, probably not. It is blocked, along with the transport system.” Hir rubbed hir right ear. “I don’t know, we will see what we can do.”

“Thank you,” Antares murmured. She turned and looked around. The cabin was quite cozy on the inside. The walls appeared to be of solid wood boards polished to a golden-red sheen. In the alcove where Napoleon stood were two rows of consoles facing each other. To her right, the space opened into a sitting area, with low, padded bench-seating all around the outside. A doorway directly ahead of her appeared to lead to a kitchen and back rooms. “Your house looks quite comfortable,” she said.

“I try. It is rather well equipped for guests,” Buck allowed.

“Really?” she said. “Do you frequently have guests?”

“Not nowadays. But when there was more traffic, it was not uncommon for travelers to need short-term shelter.” Buck shook hir head, remembering. “I am not certain how to explain. This portal is a backwater, never intended to be more than a—I don’t know what—far from anything. The nearest settlement is a long walk, and there is no permanent transport.” Buck hissed what she sensed was a chuckle, overlaid with a trace of bitterness. “They never built the moving walkway they promised, or an extension to the monorail. So it became part of my job—an unofficial part—to host travelers at need.”

Antares cocked her head. “Do you think it might be possible for you to, uhhl, give us shelter for the night? I don’t think we could make our way too easily from here, at least not until morning.”

“Ss-yes. Of course.” Buck put down hir tablet and looked around thoughtfully. Then hir turned to study Napoleon, and again Antares. “But tell me, please—what is it exactly you are hoping to do?” Hir suddenly seemed to realize that hir was being a poor host, because hir said, “Wait!” and then hurried to clear the seats of piles of reading materials. “Please, become comfortable. Is there anything I may offer you? A beverage, some food? Tea?”

While Buck was getting her a cup of tea, Antares tried to think how best to answer hir question without getting bogged down in explanations. Finally she said, “Our friend Ik became separated from us—from our group—and we’ve been unable to reach him. We were worried—uhhl, first, for his safety, because his translation device had malfunctioned. But also because, as I said, we hoped he could join us in this—” she gestured with a wave “—job out in space.”

“Really?” said Buck, setting an enormous, steaming mug in front of her. “In space?”

Antares inhaled the fragrant vapors, then sighed wistfully. “Yes. This is wonderful. Thank you. May I ask what it is?”

Buck’s demeanor brightened at the compliment. “It is an infusion of—” and at that point hir translation device seemed at a loss, because she heard several words that meant nothing to her. Then hir continued, “I grow them right out here, in my garden. I am pleased you like them.”

Antares bobbed her head and took another sip. She really did like it. “The flavor is quite delicate. It reminds me of a tea I used to drink, back on my homeworld. But it’s still very much its own flavor.”

“Ah,” said Buck. “You were not born on Shipworld, then?”

“No. I’ve only been here a few years.”

“That recent! I don’t meet many immigrants. What was your homeworld called?”

“Thespi Prime. I’m not sure I’d call myself an immigrant, though. I was brought here. I didn’t come to Shipworld by choice.”

“Sss. Not many do, from what I understand.” Buck sat down opposite her, resting hir hindquarters on a much lower bench, with hir tail sweeping the floor behind hir. Hir held a container with a bent, slightly flattened straw. Inserting the straw between hir jaws, hir sucked delicately. “Back to what you were saying. You hoped to bring your friend Ik back for a job. Might you tell me what that job is?”

Antares gave a little flick of her fingers. “I cannot tell you much, I’m afraid. I don’t believe I’m free to speak of it. But we—that is, Ik and I—are part of a team. And, you see, our team has been asked to do something on behalf of—well—on behalf of Shipworld.”

“So you said. In fact, you said all of Shipworld.”

Actually, more like the whole galaxy. But that would just sound messianic. “Yes. We have received an assignment, well, from a rather high level in the Shipworld . . . authority.” She lowered her mug. “I suppose that sounds implausible.”

Buck’s snout twitched and hir made a huffing sound that might have been hir own kind of laughter. She half-closed her eyes for a moment. Yes, hir was feeling amused. “I don’t think,” hir said, “that it sounds more implausible than the reason given for Ik and his companion to be moved along so quickly.”

“And what was that?”

Hir huffed again. “It was that Ik and his companion had been asked, at a high level, to do something important—something for all of Shipworld. What do you think of that?” Hir nose twitched until hir turned hir head and sneezed.

Antares was stunned. She’d assumed that Ik was separated from them by accident. That, at worst, someone wanted to undermine her group—why, she couldn’t imagine—and was simply preventing them from being reunited. It had never occurred to her that Ik had been deliberately taken from them to be given a different mission. A different, secret, high-level mission. She picked up the mug. She put it down. She tried to think of a response.

“Well,” said Buck. “This Amaduse of yours has a pretty good reputation, I think. So if he was involved in your assignment . . .” Hir waved a hand, as though to say, Perhaps I can trust you.

Napoleon picked that moment to approach, stepping forward with almost silent, mechanical precision. He clicked twice. “Would it be permissible for me to attempt to contact Amaduse?”

“Ordinarily, I would say, of course,” Buck answered. “But as I told you, the channels are blocked.”

Napoleon cocked his head to one side. “I have some ideas,” he said.


The evening passed, with Buck and Napoleon—furry creature with tail, and hunched metal creature with hands—working back to back, at opposite consoles. Antares sat thinking, a couple of books from Buck’s shelves in her lap, unopened. She knew she should speak up, but she didn’t want to, unless it became necessary. She opened one of the books, and found that even with the help of her knowing-stones, she couldn’t read it.

Finally she set the books aside and stood up. “Is either of you getting anywhere?”

“Not yet,” said Napoleon. “I have really only just begun, though.”

Her host rubbed at hir ear in obvious frustration. “I’m trying to learn where your friends were sent, when they left the sector. No success so far.”

Antares stepped closer. “Buck, there’s something I didn’t mention before. Maybe it’ll be helpful.”

Buck’s ears canted toward her. “You say?”

“Well, you see, I have spent some time in the Scalapoorie sector before. Near a settlement called Red Field. Are you familiar with it?”

“It is in the lowlands, near the river,” Buck said. “You did not speak of this sooner? Why?”

Antares sighed. This is silly. “Because I knew some people. I had some friends.”

Buck stopped what hir was doing. “Hah. How is this a reason not to speak of it?”

“Uhhl, you see, my friends were unhappy with me when I left. I was going to say perhaps I could contact them for help. But I’m not sure how eager they would be to help, under the circumstances.”

Buck rubbed the side of hir nose. “Why? Did you do something wrong?”

“Not wrong.” She paused, realized she might be conveying the wrong impression. “Certainly nothing illegal! But I think I disappointed them. They wanted me to become involved in a political movement.”

“Ah. And did you?” Buck arched a bushy eyebrow and touched the trim on the front of hir tunic.

Antares sighed. “No. I had sympathy with their cause, which involved some dissatisfaction with the Shipworld government. But I did not feel, as a transient resident, that it was my fight. I backed away from them. Instead of helping, I left the sector.”

Buck gazed intently at her, in full investigative mode. “And where did you go?”

“To Atrium City. Where I tried to establish new roots. That’s where I met the friends I work with now. I’ve hardly stopped moving since. Both off Shipworld and on.”

Buck bobbed hir head, tugged at hir tunic lapels, and spoke in a husky voice. “You must have an interesting work, Citizen Drovens. An interesting work, indeed.”

“Please call me Antares. And yes, I suppose I do,” she admitted. She sighed again. “I surely do.”

“Well, then,” Buck said, furrowing hir brow. Hir thought for a moment, and appeared satisfied. “Well, if you know how to contact your friends and think that would be helpful, you may try.”

She didn’t, really, and efforts to make contact didn’t go far that night. But she left a few messages, and Buck felt that they had made a good start. Hir suggested to Antares that she might want to retire to a guest room and sleep.

She gratefully accepted the offer. It had been a long day.


In the Maripose sector, it had been a long day for Amaduse, as well. He hadn’t expected to expend so much of his time and energy searching for people lost in what had always been a thoroughly reliable transport system. The fact that he considered these people to be key assets to certain missions just made it harder.

Amaduse was not an overly cynical individual, but he was realistic. Something was going on, and eventually he would have to make it his business to find out what it was. He had no qualms about doing so; his job as librarian was to track important streams of information, and he was exceptionally good at it.

But now he had lost track of, not just streams of information, but people. The loss of Antares and Napoleon was arguably his fault.

“Gonjee!” he called, leaning from the work station he had not left in hours. “Do you have the results of the Scalapoorie subsystem search yet? Anything at all?”



“Coming!” he heard at last, in Gonjee’s guttural tongue. A moment later, Gonjee appeared, herding Chakka, the six-legged dursthound, ahead of him. Shooing Chakka to get a drink of water, Gonjee squatted beside Amaduse, which made him seem even shorter than usual. “Not much,” he reported, and reached out to stroke a controller set low on the work station. “Records of arrival have been deleted.” He fiddled a little more. “Ah—here.” A transporter flow matrix appeared. “They arrived, pretty sure. But their arrival point was blocked from our view.”

“Sss. Intentionally?” Amaduse wondered. “Or unintended cons-s-sequence of blocks-s-s in place against disss-ident factions-s-s?”

Gonjee gestured uncertainty. The unfortunate political disruption taking place between Scalapoorie and other factions could easily be obscuring the facts of this incident. Amaduse had feelers out via unofficial lines of communication, but feelers could take time to yield results.

Amaduse fumed, as much as a Logothian ever fumed. This was not just an affront to his personal dignity; it was a deliberate weakening of the mission now leaving for Karellia. And that meant possible danger to Shipworld.

The Logothian librarian had been aware for some time of the Inner Circle’s growing concern over the situation at Karellia, and the possibility of Mindaru in the starstream. He had been anticipating a mission to intervene, though he had not expected the Starmaker team to be tapped for it. They had only recently returned, exhausted and wounded, from two intensive missions—and the need for rest and recuperation was clear. But still, this mission was more urgent than rest. When one compared the Starmaker team to the group the Peloi had put forward as an alternative, there was no doubt which was the better choice—even if one of the members hadn’t been from Karellia. Truthfully, Amaduse doubted whether the alternate team was ever really considered for the job. It seemed more likely to have been a goad, to get the Starmaker team to volunteer.

And now the team needed to launch, with only half of its members. Meanwhile, an altogether different mission apparently was underway in secrecy. Amaduse urgently needed to learn what that was all about.

“Gonjee,” he said, speaking to himself as much as to his assistant. “We will not stop until we’ve found our missing people.” If there was no way to help the Karellia mission at this point, the best way to learn about the other mission might well be to get Antares and the robot over there to observe it firsthand.

Their long day was far from over.

Chapter 17 Getting Underway

RUALL COMPLETED HER preparations with determined efficiency: final checks by the shadow-people on the weapons installation, loading of the landing shuttle for planetary surface missions, final clearances and authorizations, final briefings with the Peloi and Round Table oversight. The entire mission preparation had been a challenge, largely because of time pressure. The slow-legged ones couldn’t help being what they were: limited in dimension, and like time-dilation in the temporal. But help it or not, it had slowed her down. If it had been just Ruall and the shadow-people, she could have had this ship launched in a day, instead of four and counting.

Every delay mattered, when you were talking about a danger of this magnitude. Mindaru from the core—possibly on their way at this moment! It gave her a feeling like the cold of interdimensional fractal-space, just thinking about it.

The inorganics called Copernicus and Jeaves weren’t too bad. They were faster in their response time, and by and large, they seemed free of the emotional need to exercise imaginary control. The ones called Bandicut and Li-Jared, though: Every time she called them to the bridge to ask them to take care of some small detail, they acted as if they thought she was here solely to be of annoyance to them. As if she had the time! They clearly disliked her. She, on the other hand, neither liked nor disliked them. She simply wanted them to move expeditiously, which they would not or could not seem to do. They wanted information; but she could brief them during the flight. They wanted controls for the weapons; but she could provide that between here and Karellia. They, or at least Li-Jared, believed they had special insight about the Karellians; but she had the most recent briefings.

It was fortunate that Ruall was blessed with such patience.

The last meeting with the Peloi was succinct. They assured her that a backup fleet would be on its way to the Karellia system, just as soon as the ships were built or refitted, and crews readied. With that last piece in place, Ruall twisted out of the Peloi’s dimensional space and headed back.

She had just one more thing to do before she returned to The Long View to stay.


Bandicut walked in a daze through the preflight procedures. The last message from Amaduse had made it clear enough: their friends would not be back for this mission. If he and Li-Jared truly wanted to assist with the crisis on Li-Jared’s world, they had to get moving. The logic was unassailable.

/// You’re doing what you have to do, right?

It’s not the first time.

John? ///

He blinked, and realized he’d been staring blankly at the front of the bridge, at an empty viewing space.

A rustling sound startled him and he turned. Ruall had returned. Something, a shadowy-flickery thing low to the deck, was following her. It twisted into view. It was a creature, he guessed—about the size of a large housecat. He wasn’t sure if it was organic or not. It had a white-streaked, orange head, and a face that was an inverted triangle. A single, horizontal line across the middle of that face might have been a kind of eye. Its flat gray body seemed to waver, as if it were having trouble staying put in this dimension. It walked on something resembling legs—how many, Bandicut couldn’t quite tell. A spray of black, wiry hairs looked like a tail.

Bandicut cleared his throat. “Dare I ask?”

“This is Bria,” Ruall said, twisting her head around to peer at him. “Are the preflight procedures finished? Li-Jared, what about the checklist I left you?” She spoke brusquely, her voice tinny.

“You . . . brought a cat onto the ship?” Bandicut asked in disbelief.

“Bria is not a cat. Bria is a gokat,” Ruall said, flashing a stern gaze in his direction. “A pandimensional gokat.”

Bandicut stared at the creature in disbelief. “What’s the difference?” /And why are we bringing a strange animal aboard at the last minute?/

/// I don’t know.

Maybe Ruall is more sensitive than we thought. ///


Buh-huh. “A gokat?” Li-Jared said, striding onto the bridge. “Aren’t they those teleporting animals I’ve heard about?”

“She is pandimensional,” said Ruall. “She does not teleport.”

Bandicut raised his hands in bewilderment.

Charli offered an explanation.

/// I’ve seen these before.

You know how Ruall turns in and out of

our three dimensions,

and probably a few others?

Well, a gokat slides across all dimensions. ///

Bwang. “Whatever, people don’t usually take them on spacecraft,” Li-Jared said, “because of the danger of teleporting right through the hull or something. Isn’t that true, Ruall?”

Ruall clanged negatively.

Bandicut closed his eyes and tried to stop listening. A mokin’ cat on their ship?

/// I thought you liked animals.

Don’t you like cats? ///

/More of a dog person, really. No, regular cats are okay. It’s just weird cats I—/ He shook his head and asked aloud, “So what do gokats do on a ship? Is it coming with us?”

Ruall stared at him with eyes that seemed frozen in place.

“O-kaaay,” he said. “Well, is she here to keep away the pandimensional rats and mice?”

At that, Ruall swiveled her head all the way around, twice. “Something like that,” she rang, in a tone that was utterly unreadable. “I believe I asked you about the preflight procedures.”

Bandicut looked down. The gokat had, without visible movement, blinked over to stand at Bandicut’s feet. Her head was cocked at his ankle, as though sniffing his pant leg, without any actual movement of air. Bandicut resisted the urge to nudge her away with his foot.

“She’s harmless. You’ll like her. The preflight procedures?” Ruall repeated.

“Right.” Bandicut sighed. “We’ve been through it all. We’re about ready.”

Li-Jared had met with Copernicus to confer about consumables like food and air. Jeaves was moving from one piece of instrumentation to another. Bandicut approached Jeaves and said, “Can you check with Amaduse one last time?”

“I have, in fact, just reached him.” Jeaves turned, as a huge holo-image of Amaduse appeared in the front viewspace. “Amaduse, we are about to depart. Do you have any last-minute news?”

The Logothian appeared to be curled around his bar stool; everything behind him looked smoky, an artifact of the image transmission, maybe. Bandicut thought he looked tired. “I do have ss-something,” he said huskily. “I am ss-sorry, it is not what you were hoping for, sss.”

Bandicut’s jaw tightened. “Just tell us, please.”

“Of course. Ssss. I do not know the exact whereabouts-ss of Antares-ss or Napoleon, but I can confirm, sss, that they arrived safely in the S-scalapoorie sector. Regular communications remain, sss, blocked.”

Bandicut swallowed. “You’ll keep working on it, though—right? You’ll find them? As long as it takes?”

Amaduse angled his head slightly, and the movement reinforced his serpentine appearance. “I have already said I would. Wait, now—we have just, sss, received an unconfirmed report on Ik, and his single companion.”

Bong. “What is it?

“A ss-source says they definitely left Scalapoorie for another ss-sector, very far down the length of Shipworld. It seems they may have been drafted for a, sss, mission.”

Bwang. “A mission!” Li-Jared cried. “What kind of mission?”

Amaduse practically stepped out of the holo-image. His diamond eyes glittered. “An off-world mission ss-sponsored by a different group from the Round Table, most likely. Details-s are class-ssified, alas. But poss-ssibly also related to the Mindaru thhhreat.”

“What the f—” Bandicut began. He glanced at Jeaves, but then glared at Amaduse. “Another Shipworld faction drafted him?”

Amaduse bobbed his head. “Yes-sss. I will continue to sssearch for information. But I may have no way to convey it to you, once you have entered starflight.”

“Maybe not,” Bandicut said—and pointed a finger at him. “But you watch out for Antares and Napoleon! You got them there. It’s because of your plan that they aren’t coming along with us!”

Amaduse swayed a little, still nodding. “I concur, John Bandicut. I will do all I can to aid and protect them! Sssss. You have my word and honor!”

Before anyone could answer, Ruall rotated into their midst. “We are cleared for departure procedures. Bandicut and Li-Jared, are you ready?”

Bandicut glared back at her. “Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” At her impenetrable stare, he sighed. “Yes, all set. No, wait!” He held up a finger to Amaduse to hold for a moment, and said to Ruall, “Weren’t you going to check us out on the control systems before we leave?”

“During flight,” the Tintangle said.

Amaduse broke in. “I have nothing more. I wish you ss-safe passage and a successful mission.”

Bandicut felt a constriction in his throat as Amaduse’s image dissolved.

Bwang. “Well, that stinks,” Li-Jared said.

Ruall gestured broadly with her paddle-hands. “I am receiving messages urging us to expedite our launch. Please take your stations.”

“We don’t exactly have stations,” Bandicut said. “Are we expecting g-forces? Where do you want us, Coppy?”

“Anywhere will do, milord. I mean, Captain.”

“You aren’t going to start that ‘milord’ crap again—?”

“No, Cap’n. It slipped out.”

“Are you where you want to be?” Ruall asked.

“Hold on,” Bandicut said, and hurried to join Li-Jared on the padded bench seat against the back wall. There was nothing blocking their view forward, except Ruall floating back and forth across the front of the bridge.

/// She seems quite revved up, ///

Charli noted.

/Yah./ Bandicut looked around. Where was the silly gokat?

/// Look on top of Copernicus. ///

Bandicut looked. The gokat was crouched—actually, lying down, he thought—on the back of the robot. With her single slit for eyes, it was hard to tell if she bore any expression; but Bandicut imagined she was looking out the viewspace with a cat’s regal indifference.

“We have clearance to move into position for the drop,” Ruall announced.

The viewspace turned clear, as though the front of the ship had just popped off, revealing the hangar area directly in front of them.

And then they began to move.

There was something strange about their movement. The hangar area around them was crammed with other ships, many of them directly between The Long View and the launch column. Somehow they were sliding by all of those other vessels; the others were swarming past The Long View like objects in a fish-eye lens, flowing around them without perceptible disruption or difficulty. Finally The Long View came to a stop at the very edge of the launch column, which loomed before them like a gigantic, open, bottomless well.

Bandicut heard a voice buzzing, traffic control talking to Ruall, and the Tintangle replying incomprehensibly. His stones itched in his wrists, following the exchange, which went on for a minute or so. Finally the stones said, *We are cleared to launch.*

/Seems like they said more than that,/ Bandicut thought.

/// Yah. Never mind, though. Hold tight. ///

The ship slid out over the yawning pit, and then pitched nose-down and dropped like a stone. There was no physical sensation of gravity or weightlessness or acceleration, but from the view it was clear they were accelerating smoothly down a seemingly bottomless shaft. For the first instant or two, Bandicut could see layer after layer of hangar deck flash by—and then everything blurred, and all he could make out was flickering light, and ahead of them a growing circle of darkness.

“Is it too late to change my mind?” Li-Jared murmured.

Bandicut chuckled darkly as they flashed out of the shaft into space.

It wasn’t open space, though. Their way was blocked by a truss bridge. The ship bobbed up and over. For the next few seconds, one Shipworld structure after another loomed in front of them, and then veered away as the ship made impossible turns, only to hurtle toward another blossoming obstacle. Finally, with one last sway to the right, and up, they exited the traffic pattern with its ghostly force-field guides—and shot away into the emptiness of truly open space.

As the ship rotated into its departure attitude, the sprawling, glowing vista of the Milky Way came into view before them. Bandicut felt a little kick of acceleration at his back—probably permitted by Copernicus to let them feel that they were really moving now. And with that, they began threading space toward the distant lights, and away from the place that was now home.

Chapter 18 Ghoststream

THE MISSION TEAM hadn’t told Julie what to expect, and she certainly had not expected this gale rushing around her ears. Or the cascading circles of light that came from all directions and spun past like leaves on the wind. Where was Ik? For a moment she thought she heard him talking, perhaps to her. But then she didn’t. Had she imagined it? What was happening to them? Were they moving forward through space? Backward through time? Was the universe unspooling backward, undoing itself? She had no real sense of physical movement. She felt at once frozen and unfrozen, a quantum particle caught in some weird change of state.

She struggled to focus. All of time and space seemed to envelop her. Galaxies and star-clouds and dark-matter halos revolved around and through each other in a spiral dance, almost like the iridescent balls of the translator. And not just the cosmos: she felt memories slow-cascading around her, memories of her life on Earth and on Triton, of John, of her journey with the translator. It was astounding, exhilarating, bewildering. Are we really moving? What’s happening? Where am I? Uncertainty threatened to crush her.

The stones stirred, revealing to her a flickering, fantastic web of fiery lines. What did that represent? And then she knew: it was all the ghostly connections that bound her to her own time, but also to a billion points in deep time and thousands of light-years away. They did not link all at once, but crinkled their way down into the past, linking, linking, linking in a kind of cinematic progression. The quantum entanglement would project them billions of years into the past, but it would take a little while to get there.

She was grateful that whatever was happening did not seem to depend upon her understanding it.


Waking and dreaming blurred. She envisioned the enemies they were seeking: hordes of rabid bats, berserker robots, shadows that fled from light only to come back, always back . . .

She tried to shake herself awake. Bad enough to face enemies in the unknown, without giving her imagination free rein. But it was hard to tell if she’d succeeded. She began to have the sensation of slipping downward through geologic strata. That part felt real to her. The feeling of passage deep into time worked its way under her skin, and trickled down her back like cold seawater. The “present” had receded out of sight, overhead, with the future.

Half a billion years and falling . . .


A moment came when she glimpsed something moving, something other than distant star clouds and galactic arms, something darker and more solid than the snow flurries that gusted and swirled. It seemed to drift toward them, and then whip past when it got close.

/Ik, did you see that?/

The Hraachee’an stirred. /See, hrrm, what?/

/Something flying by. More than one thing, maybe. Stones, did you see it?/ Or am I losing my mind?

*Something passed, yes,* the stones whispered, as if they were straining against some force that didn’t want them to speak. *Something went by, but what, we cannot say.*

Julie shivered. She’d been hoping for reassurance. /It seemed to be going the other way. Forward in time. Did it seem that way to you?/

*It did, yes. We know you are wondering, was it Mindaru? But we did not see it clearly.*

/I think it might have been./ But maybe it was just a shadow. We could be jumping at shadows. Then she had a thought. /Could it have been a ship? Moving in that other thing—the starstream? Are we in the starstream?/

The stones seemed to hedge their answer. *We did pass through it. But we are far back in time now, long before the starstream was built. Still, with the time-tide distortion, who knows?*


There was no immediate fallout from the sighting. But they passed through another period of blowing snow, with billowing snowflakes glowing like stars. Perhaps they were stars. Was this just a way of seeing their movement through space, as well as through time? She found it impossible to distinguish the two.

The sensation of dreaming returned. Were those planets coming into focus and vanishing again in the snow? She thought she saw them; and then she could not recall any details. She heard Ik’s voice grumbling nearby. But she couldn’t reach him. When he spoke, he was hard to understand. She felt isolated, lonely. Had he just said something about a planet?

She saw no planet.

Or did she? Had she been asleep?

Her senses ballooned out of her body, and everything came into focus. Yes, there was a planet floating in front of them. How far into the galaxy had they come? How far back in time? Forty thousand light-years, and nearly a billion years in time, so far.

At first this planet reminded her of Neptune, floating graceful and ethereal in space. But as she looked more closely, she realized it was quite different: this world had more contrast in its atmosphere, and a solid surface shone through here and there. Were there oceans feeding those clouds? Land masses? Yes, both. The chemistry of the atmosphere suggested primitive life, at least. No signs of more developed life, though. She felt her knowledge of the planet filling in like a bottle with water. How did she know these things?

She tried to focus through the clouds. /Is this the world we’re looking for?/

*We are here to determine that.*

/How, rrrm, will we do that?/ Ik asked. He seemed to be floating, weightless, his long-fingered hands stretched out toward the planet.

The stones did not answer immediately. But an image welled up in Julie’s mind, a schematic of the observations that the sensor arrays were making—and the control and data pathways. /We’re part of the array,/ she said, startled. /The control and sensor systems operate directly through us?/

*Of course. Your thoughts, your minds, are woven into the fabric of the ghoststream. Yours and Ik’s.*

/And yours?/

*And ours.*

So they were not just riding in this ghostly probe; they were the probe. But the stones were processing all that information at a speed neither she nor Ik could keep up with: EM spectrum, particle flux, gravity waves, magnetic fields. What among all that data would indicate the presence of Mindaru or their ilk? What were they looking for?

/Ik? You’ve seen them. What do they look like? Would we recognize them if we saw them?/

It seemed to her that Ik shivered a little. /Hrah, I have never seen them, only felt them./

/But you fought them, didn’t you?/

/On the inside, yes./ Ik pressed his hands to his bony temples, over his glimmering stones. /In my head, and my voice-stones. The only time I saw a Mindaru vessel, it was terrifying—it seized our ship like a giant claw. But the things that almost got me were invisible./

Like the specks that had attacked her own ship? she thought. How could they screen the planet for that?

*Our scan of the visible region is seventy percent complete,* the stones reported calmly, as though unaware of their conversation. *No indication of Mindaru activity.*

/How can you know that, if they’re invisible?/

*We are looking for signatures of their defensive fields. Or indications of cybernetic activity on the planet.*

How was that possible? Should she be surprised at what the daughters of the translator could do—daughters of a machine that had caught a malicious entity somewhere around the orbit of Saturn and hurled it into the Sun? What about this planet said ‘Mindaru’ or ‘no-Mindaru’? The world of the Survivors, the Mindaru progenitors, had been decimated by merciless thermonuclear bombardment, but still they had come back. What kind of world would the Survivors or their Mindaru servants live on? A life-bearing world—or a sun-seared rock?

*Not known. We can only search for signs we think we would see.*

/I feel data washing through me,/ Ik murmured. /I understand bits of it. But the big picture . . . no . . . /

Soon the stones said, *We do not find the electro-quantum activity we seek. We judge this planet an unlikely target. We must move on.*

Ik sounded startled. /That is awfully sudden. Should we not look more thoroughly?/

*Perhaps, but understand: a thorough search would take orders of magnitude longer. There are more than ten thousand possible worlds in this region of the galactic core. To perform a thorough search on each could take longer than your life expectancy. Our best hope is to cover more territory. Look quickly and move on.*

Julie opened her mouth, then closed it. /Okay,/ she said finally.


Another cleared, and Julie gazed at a different planet. /That was fast. I’m glad you’re driving,/ she murmured to the stones.

This planet was darker, with no bodies of water, no clouds. The scan took little time, and soon the stones warned them of another jump.

/How do you do that?/ she whispered as yet another snowstorm cleared, revealing a beautiful gas giant planet.

/Hrah, you think the Mindaru might be on a gas giant?/ Ik asked.

*Difficult to say. But the planet also has moons, and they might host our quarry, as well,* the stones said, answering the last question first. *As for how, we move from world to world by shifting the parameters of the entanglement.*

/Just like that?/ Julie asked. /You make it sound easy./

*It is difficult and finicky. The expenditure of energy in the ghoststream is considerable, and the method for finding the next candidate world is too complex to describe without—*

/Never mind,/ she said. /It’s just that I feel as if we’re riding the end of a big flashlight beam, and someone at the other end is waving us around—/

*A fair analogy.*

/—except that we’ve gone a billion years into the past, and we’re traveling a lot faster than light-speed./

*Instantaneously, as far as the entanglement is concerned. Hardly at all, by other measurements.*

/But—/ she said, and then stopped. She closed her eyes for a moment to focus on the datastream, and discovered that they were scanning not just the gas giant, but three moons that were currently on its near side.

/Anything here?/ she asked, and then realized she didn’t have to ask; she could just filter the information out of the stream. /Wait—are there signs on that third moon—?/

*Possible residual traces. Worth a closer look.*

/A landing?/

*In a manner of speaking,* said the stones. *First, the broad scan.* Long pause. Then: *Broad scan complete.*



The snowstorm blur swept in and was gone. They were now gazing down over the rocky plain of one of the larger moons. Before she could wonder what next, the view jacked inward with stomach-wrenching speed. Now they were hovering just above the ground, close enough to inspect the ghostly shapes of the boulders scattered over the plain. Nothing moved, except for a faint whisper of wind, a tiny stirring of dust particles.

/Doesn’t look alive to me,/ she murmured, while reminding herself that apparently lifeless worlds could harbor surprises. She suddenly remembered where they had first found the translator, beneath the ice of Triton.

*This place was alive, eons ago,* said the stones, after a prolonged pause. *There may yet be microbial life.*

/Can we test for that?/

*Not our mission. We search for traces—active, dormant, or dead—of electromechanical or electroquantum activity, organized at a level of complexity indicative of past or present cybernetic activity.*


Another long pause. Then: *It is difficult to be certain. Do you see those faint line traces—the crosshatching, perhaps, of places where energy flow once occurred, deep down in the rock?*

She sampled the data, and then she saw it, a ghostly residue in the deep structure of the rock.

*We would like to test another location.*


As Ik concurred, the air around them shivered, and they were peering over a system of carved rivulets, the deepest ones glinting silver. Water? Molten metal? Circuit boards? She couldn’t tell by looking, but the sensor array told her: water ice.

Here the stones found a slightly stronger trace, enough to be identified temporally: At this time, the trace was tens of millions of years old. *Once part of a network, perhaps, now defunct.*

/What do we do about it?/

*No current presence detected. We will note the location and move on.*

Move on. Like a ghost over the landscape.

The snow came.


The snow cleared over a sulfurous, scalding planet not very different from Venus—except that it, too, had a moon. They found no trace. They moved on.

The snow cleared over three more gas giants and their satellites, each circling a star of different size and color. One of the three had traces, a little stronger than their first find. Perhaps more recent.

The mission paused while they slept, fitfully, in their cocoon of the ghoststream. The mission planners had not planned adequately for the need for sleep. When Julie woke, she felt more tired than she had before she’d slept. A stimulating nutrient liquid came to her lips through a tube, and she forced herself back to semi-alertness. Ik was coming around from his meditation. /Another day, another dollar,/ Julie murmured, and in reply she heard only raspy breathing. By the time Ik was fully back, they were hovering over an ice field on a small, terrestrial-seeming planet.

The stones already had their scan results. *They were here in the last half-million years. This is a fresh trail.*

/Fresh trail?/

*By following a trail of increasingly strong traces, from one system to the next, we hope to home in on the planet of origin.*

Julie shivered. /Carry on./


Thirty-seven snowstorms later they found a world of oceans, clouds, snow, and photosynthetic plant life. Sensors detected a fine network of electroquantum pathways in the rocky substratum, which reverberated ever so faintly, as though they might have been used within the last thousand years. Could they be identified as Mindaru, and not some other ancient computer network? Not unambiguously. *But it is consistent with our target,* said the stones.

/Suppose it was the Mindaru,/ Ik said. /What then?/

Julie shivered at the thought of meeting live Mindaru. /Aren’t we trying to find out if they’re here now?/

*If they were here a thousand years ago, and have since retreated, perhaps we can follow the trail of their retreat. Or, go back an additional thousand years.*

/Uh, hrrm,/ said Ik. /Suppose they haven’t actually retreated, but are keeping out of sight while certain observers from another time take stock of the situation. Maybe they saw us coming, and hid./

*That is unlikely, unless they deliberately altered the pathways in the substrate to mimic faint residual traces. Also, if our time-travel models are correct, they should not be able to detect our presence at all.*

/Those models . . . we are testing them now, yes?/ said Ik.

*Yes,* the stones conceded. *It is an important question.*

In hopes of testing the question, they stayed a little longer here, searching for animal life or anything else that might respond to their presence—if their presence was detectable. But they found no macroscopic life on which to test.

They moved on.


As they searched the worlds within a two-hundred light-year radius—that being the region about which they could range with only slight tweaks of the ghoststream—they found a steady progression of stronger traces as they moved toward the galactic core. Macro-life remained elusive, though on one large moon they found ruins of a civilization of builders, an electrifying discovery. They also found strong hints of a one-time Mindaru presence. Had they been here long enough to destroy whatever civilization had managed to take root even in the face of pounding radiation from the galactic core?

Leaving that place, Julie felt frightened, depressed, and disoriented. It was the first concrete hint she had seen of the destructiveness of the Mindaru here, in this time and place. She felt extremely mortal.

/Where shall we look next?/ Ik asked. They had reached the inner edge of a well-defined star cloud. They had not completely searched the cloud—that would take forever—but another band of stars and glowing nebulae beckoned from across a gap of darkness and dust.

*Inward,* murmured the translator-stones. *Farther inward is where we must go.*

/Across the gap?/

*Across the gap. Toward the center of the galaxy. Always toward the center. And farther back in time.*


Tides of Time

“On the deck of the starship

with her head hooked into Andromeda . . .”

—Jefferson Starship

“Who knows where we shall meet again

If ever”

—Alan Parsons Project

Chapter 19 Onward and Outward

ALPHA CENTAURI SET the pattern for the next seven years of Dakota Bandicut’s life. The trip to Barnard’s Star took a little over a year, as measured in her waking time; her slow-sleep time was closer to eighty years in the ship’s frame of reference. The flight nearly failed disastrously with an unplanned flyby of the destination, when the spacecraft suffered a loss of propulsion midway through deceleration into the Barnard’s Star system. They might have sailed right through at high speed, and on into the void. Just as had happened on Endeavor, Dakota was awakened as part of a team that was set to work cobbling together a repair—which held long enough for a rescue team from Barnard’s Star 2 to reach them and help them into an inbound orbit.

The rescue came as something of a surprise. A team from Barnard’s Star 2? Weren’t they supposed to be the first colony ship to arrive?

Dakota soon realized she shouldn’t have been surprised. It really was Alpha Centauri all over again. This time they’d been leapfrogged by faster ships from both Alpha Centauri and Earth, where the pendulum of public opinion had since swung back toward support of interstellar exploration. They arrived twenty-seven years after the third starship, Barney-time, as it was known locally. They parked in low planetary orbit just a few months ahead of the fourth expedition, the second from Earth.

It didn’t take Dakota long to decide what was next. Find me a new starship.

She had to wait three years, during which she helped build the new colony on Barney. But things were heating up in Humanity’s outward reach to the stars . . .


The journey to Don’t Stop Thinking took her light-years farther from her planet of origin, and another century from her time. Surely this would give her a new world to carve, and a place to settle down.

Don’t Stop Thinking turned out to be the first new world to have been colonized by faster-than-light ships, using an early version of the k-space drive, which in one form or another would serve the restless human race for centuries to come. Don’t Stop Thinking was even further along in its terraforming and colonization than either Barney’s Star or Alpha C had been.

And it had already seeded several new worlds, farther out.

Dakota found some consolation in the fact that, when she next shipped out in pursuit of the leading edge of human space, she was at last boarding a ship of her childhood dreams: a true starship, one that made the dimensions of space shrink and warp at its captain’s command, just as in the stories she’d read as a girl. Even with FTL drive, part of the journey was fast but sublight, so time dilation once more worked its way in her life. She continued her slip-slide into the future, farther and farther from the century of her birth.


By the time she reached her next stop, over a hundred light-years from Earth, Dakota had experienced a change of heart. She no longer cared much about being a pioneer on a new planet. The deck of a starship was in her blood, and the camaraderie of the crews with which she served. Space itself was her home and her career. The dark light-years were the paths she wandered, the glow of distant suns the lampposts that guided her feet. She was a fully grown spacewoman now, with all of the adventure and transient nature of human interaction that came with it. When she felt lonely, the translator-stones were her companions, speaking not frequently but always encouragingly.


Still, a home on a planet was a nice thing to come back to from time to time, and Say More was a nice little world. It was the fifth world she’d flown to, and for a while she made it her home, complete with some new friendships and even a romance or two, depending on how one counted. It was also a major port for the newly commissioned Star Patrol. Once Dakota had finished laughing—could they really have chosen a name straight out of the youth novels that were already ancient when she’d read them?—she signed up.

She was a natural. She had plenty of experience, and was developing serious command potential. The stones seemed pleased, as well.

Join the Patrol and See the Worlds.


She worked her way up the spacer ranks with surprising speed. Although she was playing catchup with new technology much of the time, she was a rare individual with first-hand experience of the space tech of multiple centuries.

Several of her patrols involved long exploratory missions, and additional time dilation—and it was starting to add up. By the time she’d seen enough planets to settle on High Concept for her new ground world, the Habitat of Humanity, as it was now called, had changed beyond recognition. It was hundreds of light-years across and still expanding. Interstellar commerce was regular enough that political struggles spanned interstellar distances. The Auricle Alliance was the dominant political force, but by no means the only one. Ships by the swarm plied the new star transport routes, and ambitious plans abounded for expanding still farther into the galaxy.

There were aliens in the known reaches now: Logothians, Hrisi, Imkek, and others—and that alone seemed like an exciting enough reason to have traveled into the future as she had. She considered a change to xeno-affairs, to spend more time getting to know some aliens. But her talents and experience were in spaceship operations, and promotions were coming regularly, as she proved herself a highly capable spacer.

She loved some of the places she had visited, but she loved space travel more. And there was always a need for the Star Patrol.

There was also, eventually, time enough for love—in the person of a young man named Harrad, a research analyst with Space Patrol’s exo-ops, who shared enough of her passions to make an easy and natural match, and enough differences to be exciting. For Harrad, Dakota decided that her days of time dilation were over. It was time to pick a century and live in it, and this was it. Harrad was a patient fellow, but her flights now would have to get her home, if not in time for dinner, at least in time to maintain a relationship.


“Can I help you find anything?” asked a young woman in uniform, a lieutenant wearing the midnight-blue trousers and jacket, and powder-blue blouse of a Patrol officer on shore leave. Or returning from shore leave. They were skating along the low-gravity tube from the ground shuttle into the orbiting spaceport. At the moment, they seemed to be the only humans in the tube.

Dakota brought her thoughts back from far away and answered the woman with a brief smile. “Do you know where patrol ship Plato is berthed? That’s where I’ll be headed.”

“That’s where I’m going myself,” the woman said brightly. “It’ll be my third time out in the stream with Plato.” She stuck out a hand. “I’m Tanaki Frank. Lieutenant Tanaki Frank. Just promoted to navigation.” When Dakota nodded without answering, Tanaki added, “And you?”

Dakota smiled again. “I just got promoted, too. My first time on Plato, and coming on as executive officer. She shook Tanaki’s hand. “Commander Bandicut. Dakota Bandicut.”

Uncertainty flashed on Tanaki’s face. “I’m sorry—did I just—”

“No, no, that’s fine. I’m not in uniform—it’s been sent on ahead of me. I hope. Anyway, I need to pick up a few things in the shops before I come aboard.”

“Oh—then, in that case, Commander—”

“Please. Dakota. At least until I’m aboard and in uniform. If you can just point the way?”

Tanaki did, and added, “I hear this will be a longer assignment than usual.”

Dakota allowed a rueful grin. “A few weeks longer, is what I hear. The word is, bring extra toothpaste.” She shook her head. “My man wasn’t happy to hear that. I just promised him I’d keep the trips short.”

Tanaki grinned. “Maybe you should get him to come on as crew, next time.”

“That’s exactly my plan. See you on board.” Her wrist-stones buzzing in anticipation, she headed off to buy more toothpaste.

Chapter 20 Deep into the Milky Way

IN N-SPACE, THE view of everything outside the ship was different. Bandicut saw only false-color, synthesized imagery of incomprehensible topologies. At his request, Copernicus replaced it with an image of the visible-light Milky Way disk, slowly drawing closer. That brought an immediate reaction from Ruall. “We have no need of pretty pictures that convey no information!” the commander snapped.

“My apologies,” said Copernicus, and the image blinked away.

“Wait a minute!” Bandicut protested. “It’s useful to us. Or at least to me.”

Bong. “To me, also,” said Li-Jared, jumping up from the bench, where he’d been flipping through some science articles on a small, personal holo.

“Why?” asked Ruall, bending to scoop up the gokat. Bria had been reeling across the floor looking . . . Bandicut thought maybe disoriented, but he didn’t really know. What did it mean when a gokat had its tail fanned straight out behind it and it walked like a drunken sailor? Did gokats get n-space sickness?

He realized Ruall had asked a question. “Huh? Why? Well, I want to see where we are, and where we’re going—”

“But you can’t, because we’re in an n-space channel, and it doesn’t look anything like that picture of the galaxy. Why fill up our display with irrelevant views?”

Li-Jared flicked his fingers in annoyance, scattering tiny holo-images through the air. “Irrelevant? It’s not irrelevant! It gives us a frame of reference.”

“But it’s not real,” Ruall said.

“It’s real enough,” said Li-Jared.

“That view we’re looking at right now isn’t real, either,” Bandicut pointed out. “It might mean something to you, but to us it’s meaningless.”

Ruall was silent a moment. “Very well, if you must. Copernicus, could you please set up rotating views, at three second intervals?” She paused a moment. “Will that be satisfactory?”

The viewspace blinked back to the Milky Way. Three seconds later it blinked back to the abstract display. “Ow!” Bandicut protested, shielding his eyes. “Have pity! At full minute intervals, please, Coppy. All right?”

Jeaves whirred and floated at the edge of the viewspace. “That seems reasonable,” he said, in a tone obviously meant to be calming.

Ruall gave three tinny-sounding clicks. “Very well,” she said at last. Then she floated into the center of the viewspace, contemplating the splayed colors.

Bandicut sighed and cocked his head at Li-Jared. “This is exhausting. I’m going to the commons. Can I buy you a drink?”


The commons was smaller than it had been on their last flight—not, Copernicus had said, because of the smaller crew, but because of the ship’s reconfiguration for possible combat. Creature comforts were downgraded to free up space and energy for weapons systems. “I could change it for you,” the robot had said, “but I would have to move the weapons bays around. That’s probably not a good idea in mid-flight.” Bandicut couldn’t disagree with that.

It still bugged him, though—not the changes per se, but the attitude evident in the way this ship and Copernicus had been treated on Shipworld. There was so little respect for the work they had all done. They had only saved the entire Starmaker region from cosmic calamity. To see The Long View demoted to a grain carrier and then casually reconfigured to a . . . warship? How about some recognition? Besides, what did these new changes make him, some kind of space ranger?

He and Li-Jared clinked glasses and swallowed some of their preferred poison—in Li-Jared’s case, Karellian batter-milk. A brew by any other name, Bandicut thought. He was feeling morose, and Li-Jared looked more than willing to join him in the feeling.

“You know, this whole thing wouldn’t be so annoying if only she weren’t so insufferably arrogant,” Bandicut grunted, thumping his glass down hard. There was no need to say who he was talking about.

“I wonder if they selected her for that trait,” Li-Jared muttered, draining his glass and exchanging it for a full one. “Though I suppose it could be good that she pays such attention to detail, especially since we have no idea what details to look for.”

Bandicut snorted and took another long swallow of ale. “Attention to detail doesn’t have to make you a jerk.” He held up the glass and eyed a nearby light source through the amber liquid. “At least, I don’t think it does.”

“Do you suppose all Tintangles are like that?”

“Now, there’s a depressing thought.” Bandicut glanced at Li-Jared, thinking, What a dismal trip this is going to be. No sooner did he have the thought than he felt himself suddenly pulled back from the brink of a potentially really black mood. /Charli, is that you?/

/// It won’t do any good

for both of you to get depressed.

Isn’t there something you can do

to reconcile yourselves to

working with Ruall? ///

Bandicut scratched his head, thinking that the quarx had a point. Finally he said to Li-Jared, “Has Ruall said anything to you about giving us instruction on the weapons systems?”

Li-Jared twitched his shoulders, in what Bandicut took to be a shrug.

“You want to go learn how to fire an n-space disrupter torpedo?”

The Karellian looked at him with vertically slitted eyes that gleamed with alarm. Nevertheless, he thumped his own glass down. “Moon and stars, let’s do it.”


Ruall, surprisingly, was willing to start.

Soon enough it became clear that to actually fire a ship-to-ship weapon required action on the part of Copernicus, regardless of who was theoretically controlling the action. Copernicus had caused a small control pedestal to be extruded up from the deck. Initially it contained plotting and situation displays, but no firing button. The reason, the robot explained, was that only timing and aiming by computer would be accurate enough for their needs.

“Okay, but that’s still no good,” Bandicut said. “What if you’re incapacitated? It’s happened before. We need to be able to fire independently.”

“In that case, I would fire the weapon,” Ruall said—a bit icily, Bandicut thought.

He shook his head. “And what if you’re temporarily indisposed in another dimension or something? No, we need the capability ourselves.” He made a button-pressing gesture with his right thumb.

Ruall made a ringing sound of irritation. “Very well. But the firing button must be disabled unless Copernicus or I approve.”

/// Ai caramba! ///

Charli muttered.

“What I said before,” Bandicut said, with growing exasperation. “If you two are unavailable . . .”

They settled on firing being disabled until aiming and course plot was logged in by Copernicus. That would minimize the likelihood of their shooting off their own feet, they agreed.

Eventually they turned their attention to the question of when and under what circumstances they would use the weapons. Preferably, never. Things got pretty hypothetical and abstract, but it did drive home to Bandicut how alone they were on this mission, possibly facing hostile action from several quarters.

Jeaves tried to be reassuring by pointing out that several new warships would be coming to join them soon.

“Great!” Li-Jared growled. “More ships to intimidate, or blow up, my homeworld! Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

Jeaves whirred and floated closer to him. “Li-Jared, I have seen nothing to suggest that any action is contemplated against Karellia.”

Bong! “No, just the defenses that are keeping it safe!”

Even Bandicut backed off a little at that. “Li-Jared,” he said gently, “I don’t think anyone wants to do that. The warships are coming to help handle the Mindaru—if any of them actually turn up.”

Ruall said, with a clang, “Correct. Our mission is about being ready for them.”

Li-Jared turned on the Tintangle. “But a few minutes ago, when we discussed criteria for using the weapons, I didn’t hear you ruling out use against Karellian defensive systems. That’s because you would use them, if you thought you had to.”

“A highly remote possibility,” said Ruall, spinning twice.

“Gah!” Kr-dangg! “You see why I do not trust what you say—”

“But really,” Ruall continued, “the far greater likelihood is that the Mindaru will do the attacking, and it will be up to us to stop them—before they destroy your planet.”

Li-Jared darted frustrated glances at everyone—even Bria, who was standing in the middle of the bridge deck, cocking her head back and forth in apparent perplexity. “That sounds good. I just wish I could believe you!” He waved his hands and snapped his fingers in the air. “Why do I feel as though I was brought along for show, not to talk to the leaders of Karellia?”

“Well-l,” said Ruall with a lingering reverberation, “I did not ask you to come.”

Charli groaned softly, inside Bandicut’s head.

/// Not a good answer. ///

/No,/ Bandicut sighed, and then said aloud, “Ruall, really—that’s not helpful.”

“Not helpful?” Li-Jared roared. “Are you serious? This—this—” he struggled for a word “—this floating gong says she doesn’t want me here? And she thinks somehow that she’s in charge? And that’s ‘not helpful’?” His hands were trembling as he pointed from one person to another. “Why would I trust her—or any of the rest of you—?” His breath wheezed out as words failed him.

Bandicut stood up. “Li-Jared—”

But before he could say more, Li-Jared turned, directed an angry swat at the weapons pedestal, and stormed off the bridge.

/// Not a good answer at all, ///

Charli concluded glumly.


Bandicut went to his quarters to lie down. Too much, too much. What had happened to the days when he was part of a company that thought and worked together? What had happened to his family?

Later, when he went to the commons, he found Li-Jared fuming into a glass of white, frothy liquid.

“Hey,” Bandicut offered, tapping the console for a cup of coffee.

Li-Jared shook his head, swallowed a third of his drink in one gulp.

“I understand why you’re mad,” Bandicut said, sliding into a seat where he could face his friend. “I’m not sure Ruall has even the slightest clue how offensive she’s being.”

Li-Jared snorted. “I’m not sure she has a clue about anything.” He rocked back and leveled a sharp gaze at Bandicut. “I’m also not sure why we’re putting all this attention into stopping my people when your people are just as responsible for the problem.”

Bandicut coughed on a mouthful of coffee.

Li-Jared jabbed a finger across the table. “What Karellia’s doing wouldn’t make the slightest difference, if it weren’t for the starstream. Tell me that’s not true.”

Pressing his hands to the table, Bandicut finished clearing his throat.

/// He does have a point. ///

/Yes, but damn it, we’ve been over this—/

“Well?” Li-Jared demanded.

“No—no, you’re right.”

Bwang. “Hah!”

Bandicut sighed. There was no use denying it. “But—” he raised his hands, palms up “—the thing is, we can do something about what your people are doing. We’re a couple of hundred years too late to stop my people from building the starstream.” And that, he realized, was in fact the truth.

Li-Jared stared at him for a long time. “Moon and stars,” he sighed. “I miss Ik.”

Bandicut let his own breath out. “Yah. Me, too. I wonder, if they were here, what they’d—”

“Hell with it. I’m going to sleep it off,” Li-Jard said abruptly. He drained the rest of his Karellian malt, rose, walked unsteadily out of the commons, and disappeared into his cabin.

And as he sat there, gazing after Li-Jared, Bandicut suddenly missed Antares more than at any time since she’d left in search of Ik. And Napoleon; he missed the robot, too.

Where are you guys? he wondered. Where did we send you? Are you okay? And do you miss me as much as I miss you?


During the days that followed, The Long View passed well into the body of the galaxy, and even relatively close—galactically speaking—to the Starmaker Nebula and the Betelgeuse black hole, the outer end-point of the starstream. They would gradually be angling closer to the starstream in the coming days.

Despite the physical progress, tempers remained brittle. Ruall took to summoning them to the bridge at odd times. Testing their readiness, was how she put it. Which might have been all right, except that she mostly seemed to want to test their willingness to come when called. One time, she was waiting to say, “We’ve changed the design of the weapons console. How do you like it now?” Another time, it was: “Copernicus needs to test your reflexes, so it can make proper allowances for reaction time.” A third time: “Copernicus has expressed a need for something called ‘romance novels,’ to help it manage the passage of time. Can you assist with that?”

Romance novels! Again?

This time, Bandicut snapped, “Why can’t you just wait until we’re on the bridge to ask us these stupid things? Copernicus, I don’t have any romance novels. If they’re not still in the ship’s library, you’re out of luck. Anyway, those damn things make you crazy!” During the Starmaker mission, Copernicus and Napoleon had together gone through a phase of reading old romances, professing that it was helpful to them in understanding human psychology. As far as Bandicut was concerned, all it had done was give them irritating mannerisms. He had been deeply grateful when the phase had run its course. He wondered now if the robot was getting as annoyed with Ruall as he and Li-Jared were, and this was his way of looking for an outlet.

Without thinking about it, he was walking in the direction of Copernicus. Bria picked that moment to rise suddenly out of the floor like a ghost, half a step in front of him. Bandicut stopped short and stumbled, with the creature between his feet. “Dammit, Bria,” he barked indignantly, “can’t you—?” Then he caught himself and swung to complain to Ruall instead. “Can’t you keep your cat out from underfoot?”

Couldn’t you have brought a dog instead?

Ruall rang with a snap at the end. “Gokat,” she corrected. “And she is perfectly aware of your location and movements, and able to remain clear on her own.”

“Is that why I just tripped over her?”

“I don’t know why you tripped over her,” Ruall said mildly. “Maybe she wanted to test your reflexes. Did you pass the test?”

“Gah.” Bandicut threw up his hands and turned away. He waved Copernicus over for a private conversation. “Listen, Coppy, about the romance novels—it’s not that I don’t want you learning about our literature. But—”

“Yes, milord—” Copernicus dipped his forward-looking eyes in exaggerated deference.

Bandicut’s hands went up again. “See? That! That’s why I don’t want you reading that stuff!”

The robot clicked once, twice. “Whatever you say, milord.”

Bandicut felt his eyes pop wide. “Are you mocking me? Or are you just being a dunderhead?”

A little cluster of lights blinked on the robot’s side. “Just having a little fun with you, Cap’n. Just having a little fun.”

Bandicut’s breath hissed out in exasperation.

“Actually, I found some old Earth war novels in the archives,” Copernicus said. “I think I might read some of those now. I like the looks of the ones about—what did they call them? World War Two fighter jocks. Time I learned about those, I think.”

“Ahh—” Bandicut opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. “Right. Maybe it’s time you did that, Coppy. Maybe it’s time you did.”

God help us.


Later that day, a call came to them in the commons, from Ruall. “To the bridge! At once, please!”

Bandicut cast a glance at Li-Jared, who looked bored. “How soon do you actually need us?” he called to the comm unit.

“At once! Immediately!” Ruall shrieked.

Bandicut winced and pressed a hand to his forehead. He reached to pull a fresh cup of coffee from the food maker. “All right, all right. We’ll be there in a minute.”

“I require you here now!”


“Something has appeared in our path. A black cloud of some kind.”

Black cloud?

“It’s Dark!” Li-Jared shouted.

Bandicut dropped his cup of coffee and ran for the bridge.

Chapter 21 Dark

RUALL WAS FACING the viewspace, and didn’t turn to acknowledge their arrival on the bridge. She lifted a paddle-hand to point straight ahead. A squirming, shadowy cloud was moving toward them, blossoming like a black flower in time-lapse photography.

“I’ll be damned,” Bandicut said.

Bong. “Is it really Dark?” Li-Jared asked.

“I think so.” Bandicut cocked his head and felt for a reaction from his translator-stones. /Are you two there? Is that who we think it is?/

/// Do you need them to tell you? ///

Charli broke in wryly.

/Well—since Dark got stones of her own, she and my stones should be able to—/

/// Of course. But don’t you feel her

out there? ///

Bandicut peered. /I can’t feel anything. Can you?/

/// Of course.

Dark has been expecting us.

I wonder how she knew. ///

Bandicut pondered that for a moment. Then he realized that Ruall was ringing in a slow crescendo, waiting for a response from him. “It’s Dark,” he said aloud. “Are you familiar with her, Ruall? Her full name is—” he had to focus a moment before enunciating “—Daarooaack.”

Ruall turned her head one way, then another, the flat metal of her face glinting with reflected light. “I am familiar with reports of the creature you call Dark, but was not sure this was the one. What does Daarooaack want?”

“I’m not sure yet, but let’s find out.” /Charli, are you in actual communication with her?/

/// No, it’s more like I’m sensing her feelings. ///

/Well, don’t kill yourself trying. You did that once already./ An earlier Charli had been torn apart by her first attempt to communicate with Dark’s late companion, Deep.

/// I remember.

I am asking the stones. ///

Bandicut waited, as the patch of shadow that was Dark drew near. Ruall seemed increasingly uneasy; she was rotating far more than usual, in and out of the continuum, like a hologram in and out of phase. “Relax,” Bandicut said. “Just let her approach.”

Ruall made a sound like a drumstick ticking on a rim.

Suddenly the stones broke their silence, saying, *We are in contact. Dark has come looking for us.*

Bandicut raised his chin. “We have contact. Stand by.”

Ruall stopped rotating, but swung her head back and forth like a pendulum.

The stones spoke again: *Dark says, “Greetings to my old friends! Is it really you?”*

Bandicut repeated this aloud, and said to the stones, to relay, /Yes. It’s us. It’s John Bandicut, and Charli, and Li-Jared. We are thrilled to see you! How did you find us?/

Through the stones came a response: *“We sensed you venturing out. Do you not know we joined?”*

/Well, yes, but—I didn’t know you could be aware of us so far away!/

*“Distance is of no import. We have sensed great unease. Are you traveling to the Li-Jared’s home?”*

/We are, yes!/

*“Do you intend to travel in the stream between the stars? You could travel faster that way.”*

/We had planned to, yes. For a little ways./ They were actually not quite paralleling the starstream at this point, but angling toward it, and toward a distant entry node.

*“I may be able to help. Would you like help?”*

Bandicut hesitated. He sensed Ruall and Li-Jared impatiently waiting for him to report. /Yes. If you can help, we would be very glad of that./

*“Good. I would not want you to go alone.”*

/Uh . . . really. Is there any particular reason?/

*“There are things moving in the stream, things I can help you find. Things you might need to see.”*

/What kind of things?/

There was a sudden flutter in the communication, interrupting the direct relay of Dark’s thoughts. /Dark? Stones?/

It took him a moment to realize: Dark was not gone or silent, but was struggling to find the words. There were images trying to get through, and Bandicut shut his eyes, only to experience flashes and ripples of light in his mind. /What is it—?/ Things moving . . .

The stones finally intervened. *Dark believes she saw things in the starstream that were not ships like ours, not solid. She has trouble describing them. But there was something about them, something that reminded her of things we have met before.*

Bandicut let out his breath. /Mindaru? Did it remind her of Mindaru?/

*We think so. Yes.*

Bandicut felt the blood draining from his head; he clutched at a support; he blinked his eyes open, and found himself staring into Li-Jared’s bright, electric-blue eyes.

“What?” Li-Jared asked.

“They’re here,” Bandicut said. “Dark has seen them. Or something that reminds her of them.”

“Who is here?”

“The Mindaru. Or something that reminds Dark of the Mindaru.”


“In the starstream. Dark wants us to go with her to see.”

“Into the starstream?” Li-Jared asked. “Now?”

Bandicut nodded, even as Ruall spun and fixed him with a metallic gaze. “Into the starstream now, for what purpose?” the Tintangle demanded.

Bandicut hesitated, and then said, “Well, to get going faster, sooner. But also to gather information.”

Ruall spun, stopped. “Do we not have information out here?”

“Not about Mindaru in the starstream. Not much, anyway.”

“But—” ding ding ding “—at what risk to the ship?”

“None, that I’m aware of. We were planning to use the starstream anyway, farther down.”

“To shorten the trip time, yes.”

“And to survey the local stretch for signs of Mindaru,” Bandicut reminded her. “Wouldn’t it be better to do that with someone who has already spotted signs, and might know what to look for?”

Li-Jared jumped in. “Maybe, Bandie, but I’m not sure we want to seek out contact—not at this stage.”

“I don’t know that we’d exactly be seeking—”

“Also, we were intending to use a harmonic entry node, as other ships do,” Ruall said, interrupting. “Is that what you and your dark cloud are proposing? As I understand it, we’re still several days from the nearest entry node.”

Copernicus spoke up. “We are four ship-days, on our current heading, from where I intended to recommend entering the starstream. What heading does Dark propose?”

“Let me try to find out.” Bandicut closed his eyes and breathed in, breathed out. /Are we still in contact with Dark?/

Charli spoke first.

/// She and the stones

are going back and forth

trying to clarify just what

Dark saw. ///

/Can we find out where she wants to enter the starstream?/

/// I’ll see. ///

Bandicut stood, eyes still closed, swaying slightly, trying to keep his focus inward. Just as he was about to prompt again, Charli spoke.

/// She wants us to change course,

for a closer entry point. ///

/How does she plan for us to enter? Does she know of a harmonic node we can’t see?/

/// I don’t know.

She just wants us

to follow her. ///

When Bandicut reported that to Ruall and the others, he met skeptical silence. As though to punctuate Charli’s words, though, Dark suddenly veered slightly to the left and down. Bandicut’s stones said, *Follow Dark.*

Bandicut passed that on to Copernicus, but Ruall balked. “Hardly a mission plan,” she chimed. “If you want me to approve changes in the flight plan, give me more reason.”

“How about this?” Bandicut said. “Dark has already been in the starstream and knows a way in and out. She also knows a lot more than we do about what to expect. And she’s on our side.”

The gokat at that moment emerged from somewhere and trotted to the front of the viewspace. She peered into the distance for a moment, and then scampered back to make a tinny entreaty in Ruall’s direction. The Tintangle regarded her, and then conceded, “Bria seems to think it’s all right.”

Well, if Bria thinks so, Bandicut thought sarcastically—and then caught himself. If the gokat could see something—and agreed with Dark—why not accept her support? He turned and asked Copernicus, “Can you follow Dark safely?”

“For now, absolutely,” Copernicus said. As he spoke, Bandicut felt a perceptible change of sensation in the deck under their feet. Then it settled down, and they could see in the viewspace that their course had been altered so that Dark was once more directly in front of them.

“Steady as she goes,” Bandicut murmured.


Despite her grumbling, Ruall didn’t interfere with Copernicus’s efforts to follow Dark. But over the next half day, she pressed Bandicut for more exact information about where Dark was going, and how she intended to get them into the starstream if they were not going to a harmonic node. He had no answers, because Dark had gone ahead to scout the way.  But he too wondered what Dark was planning.

At midday of the second day since the course change, Copernicus called them all to the bridge. The reason was immediately apparent. A long, faintly glowing object was visible ahead of them, with Dark silhouetted against it. The object was vaguely cylindrical, and angled to be nearly in line with their heading. It looked like an infinitely long tube of translucent acrylic, but with a shimmering iridescence that lent it an ethereal quality. It seemed to start somewhere far behind them, and extended out of sight toward the heart of the galaxy.

“The starstream?” Bandicut asked, awe creeping into his voice.

“The starstream,” Copernicus answered.

/// It’s beautiful, ///

Charli said with a little sigh.

Ruall was twanging, floating from side to side far forward in the viewspace, as if trying to see it from every possible angle within the confines of the bridge. Bandicut wondered that the Tintangle hadn’t flown right out of the ship to investigate in person. Or perhaps she had.

“This is a slightly doctored view,” Jeaves informed them. “The starstream is actually embedded within a layer of n-space tangentially different from what we’re traveling in. So we had to massage the data a bit to give you a view of what we think it would look like if we were in a congruent continuum with it.”

Li-Jared was jouncing up and down a little, absorbing the view with a sharp gaze, arms folded across his chest. Bandicut had a feeling that the Karellian was regarding it less as an object of awe and more as a threat to all that he held dear. “It looks like a star-spanner tube,” he said, his voice flat.

“In some ways, it is like a star-spanner tube,” Jeaves agreed. “It was created in a completely different way, and it’s much larger. But some of the principles are the same.”

Bandicut rubbed the back of his neck. “What does it look like without the data massage?”

“Would you like to see?” Jeaves asked. “Copernicus?”

The viewspace went dark, then came back, this time with nothing in front of them except the stars. Even Dark had vanished.


“Okay,” said Copernicus. “Let me give just a little image amplification.” There was a tiny flicker, and a spidery-thin thread appeared, streaking into the chaos of the galaxy ahead. “How’s that?”

“There’s practically nothing there,” Bandicut said.

“That,” said Jeaves, “is because so little of it is directly measurable in our current level of n-space—or even four-space, if we dropped out of n-space.”

“Then how are we supposed to get into it?”

“We will see,” Jeaves said.

“Didn’t you tell us once,” Bandicut asked, “that you were present at the creation of this thing? Didn’t you pick up any details on how it works?”

Jeaves whirred and turned, circlet of eyes converging. “Weren’t you listening? A version of me was there. I sent back some information prior to the creation, but I didn’t survive the event itself. At least not in recognizable form. Whatever that part of me learned in the supernova disappeared with the blast. I imagine it was pretty spectacular, though.”

“Hmm. That’s not much help.”

“Later,” Jeaves continued, “I rode down the starstream in a colony ship. We dealt with a particularly nasty intrusion into the starstream by an unfriendly species called Throgs, and learned a lot. But nothing about entering the starstream in any other way.”

Bandicut sighed and looked inward to Charli. /Any word from Dark?/

/// She thinks she’s found a good place

for us to slip in.

We’ll be there soon. ///

Ruall was buzzing like an insect, causing Li-Jared to stare at her in alarm. Bong. “What?” Li-Jared said finally.

“All this talk of unproven means of entering the starstream!” Ruall clanged. “This is not a starstream exploratory mission! If we do not know how to enter the starstream safely and properly, we should not enter it at all.”

“I believe,” said Copernicus, “that Dark’s command of space-time and energy will permit a way in that we can’t yet see. Possibly entry points that are more subtle than the ones used by most traffic.”

Ruall rang softly, apparently considering this. Finally she said, “Call me when you have some actual information, and then we will discuss it,” and rotated out of view.

Bria cocked her head at the place where Ruall had been, and blinked out after her.


Ruall slipped out of the space of the solids and whistled to Bria to follow. /Shall we take a little look for ourselves?/ Bria was happy to come, and they slipped through splinter-space and paused briefly in fractal-space, before easing carefully into a between-space where they could drift away from the locus of the ship and take a look at what the dark one was doing.

To Ruall’s surprise, Bria took the lead and brought them within eyeing distance of the dark one. /Not too close/, Ruall cautioned. Bria hesitated. She looked as though she would happily go right up to the dark one and start a conversation. For no reason Ruall could see, the gokat had taken an instant liking to this thing of many dimensions. /Remember, we are here to learn if this dark one knows a safe way of passage for us. We should not reveal things about us that could compromise our safety./

Bria sang understanding in her tiny voice.

This was a most irregular thing for Ruall to be doing. In all of her years of commanding and crewing vessels for Shipworld, never had she ventured outside the hull of the ship she was in during a critical flight phase. But then, never before had she been in a situation even remotely like this. Her impatience with the solids was something she was trying to work on—they were so slow! and so limited!—but the truth was, she was outside her realm of experience here almost as much as they were. Perhaps more, when it came to the foe called the Mindaru, whom she had never met, but ironically knew only through the solids’ reports.

/What do we see the dark one doing?/ she asked Bria. The gokat had superior sight in some spectra, and also a quickness of movement and thought that sometimes left Ruall behind.

Bria darted this way and that, and reported that the dark one seemed to be doing exactly what was reported—examining the surface of the distant strained-space tube, looking for . . . well, they couldn’t tell what precisely, but presumably a way in. There appeared nothing in her movements that was other than what she’d promised. Perhaps there was reason to trust her, after all.


The next alert was the real thing. They were called to the bridge, and Jeaves was the one hovering at the front of the viewspace, gazing out, with Copernicus parked at his side. “Dark has explored the starstream boundary, and she’s found the place where she wants to go in.”

Li-Jared was watching the scene carefully. It was clear he didn’t like the starstream, didn’t trust it, and didn’t trust those who had built it. And maybe, Bandicut thought, he didn’t trust his human friend so much right now, either.

/Can Dark guide us through safely?/ Bandicut asked, wishing he could think of some way to address Li-Jared’s feelings.

/// She says she can. ///

Bandicut crossed his fingers. “What are you seeing, Coppy?”

Ruall swept forward. “Put up a picture,” she said.

The view zoomed in. The starstream tube swelled in size and grew paler and more translucent. It shimmered as though becoming less substantial as they drew closer. Dark was a barely perceptible shadow creeping along its length. Suddenly Dark stopped moving, and the quarx said,

/// Dark will make a test entry. ///

They could already see it happening. Dark seemed to gather herself into a denser shape, more like the long shadow of a ship, and she turned end over end a couple of times, and then without any fuss slipped right through the side of the starstream and vanished. “Mokin’ foke,” Bandicut breathed.

Ruall clanged with displeasure. “What did she just do? Did she tell you how she did that?”

“Not exactly,” Copernicus admitted. “But I’m going to move in closer.”

“Closer,” Ruall insisted. “But not in. Not without a command decision.”

“Acknowledged,” said Copernicus.

The structure grew until it was more like a curved wall angling against their path, and then alongside their path, as Copernicus straightened their course. The wall seemed perfectly smooth, but the glow seemed to undulate, reminding Bandicut of the tanks of the Peloi, holding back their mysterious sea. He saw nothing to indicate where Dark had made her entry.

“Are you still in contact?”

The answer came from Charli.

/// I just heard her again.

Heads up! ///

Bandicut had no time to convey that information to the others, before a shadow slipped out of the structure in front of them. “Dark is back,” Jeaves said at once, and Ruall said something Bandicut didn’t catch.

Li-Jared winced. “Aren’t you glad to see her?” Bandicut asked.

“Yah, but—”

“Faster to Karellia,” Bandicut reminded him.

Li-Jared’s eyes narrowed to fine, golden slits. “That depends, doesn’t it? Not all shortcuts are shorter.”

“I suppose,” Bandicut admitted. To Copernicus he said, “Are you in communication? Is Dark going to show us the way?”

“Yes, and yes,” Copernicus said with a double tap. “Requesting permission of sirs and madam: May we go in?”

Ruall spun, stopped. Spun, stopped. “Has the dark one informed you of any dangers within?”

Copernicus tripled the drum-tap. “Again, yes.”

“And,” said Ruall, “the dangers are?”

“Nothing in sight on the inside,” said Copernicus. “Turbulence in the boundary layer is the main concern. I don’t know how much turbulence exactly, but Dark weathered it without problem.”

“We’re not Dark,” Ruall said.

“No, but we’ll be following Dark closely. If there’s need, she can surround us and pull us through. We should be all right.”

Li-Jared was rubbing his chest nervously. “Tell me, Coppy, is that assessment a calculation, or a feeling?”

“That’s a difficult distinction in my case, isn’t it?” Copernicus said.

“Let’s rephrase,” Bandicut said. “Do you have good data to support your assessment?”

“Cap’n and others, I have little data on the specific case. But I have considerable experience in working with Dark, as do you. I have never known Dark to promise something she couldn’t deliver. Most of the time she doesn’t bother promising. She simply delivers.”

Startled by the edge to Copernicus’s reply, Bandicut said, “That’s true. Li-Jared, do you think we can trust Dark?”

The Karellian muttered to himself for a moment, and then conceded that, yes, he trusted Dark.

/// I do, too. ///

“As do Charli and I.” Bandicut turned to Ruall. “We seem to have a growing consensus. I know you have no experience in trusting Dark. But perhaps ours can suffice . . .”

“Yes, I know-w-w-w,” Ruall said, letting her voice echo. She turned forward, where the gokat was treading carefully across the deck toward the image of Dark and the starstream. “And it seems Bria trusts Dark, also.”


The starstream grew with astonishing speed, and then suddenly shrank down to a thin, blazing line. For a heartbeat, Bandicut thought the line was going to slice the ship in two. Something twisted in space and time, and the ship seemed to whirl around them.

Splinters of light shot out where the leading edge of the ship’s forcefield touched the stream. Copernicus guided the ship straight through the wall, and suddenly there was a smell of something like eucalyptus and ozone. Li-Jared flinched. Ruall hummed dissonantly. Bria paced at the front of the viewspace, cocking her head here, there, and occasionally into nothingness.

Bandicut tried not to hold his breath as the flashing colors filled the bridge, and then vanished with a whoosh that was more visceral than audible. Suddenly they were gliding along inside a great, glowing tube. Dark circled around them, and moved ahead, leading the way. The ozone smell was gone, but a hint of the eucalyptus remained.

“We’re in,” said Copernicus.

Chapter 22 Contact: Plato


Entering the starstream aboard The Long View was an event of surprising emotional impact for me. Layered deep in my archives is the personal memory of having helped to create this thing, more than one hundred and fifty years ago.2 “Helped” may be overstating matters; I was there to guard against certain unwanted possibilities coming to pass. I was, I guess, partially successful. What with amnesia on the part of one player, assassination on the mind of another, and barely controlled stellar engineering unfolding before us all, it was something of a miracle that anything useful at all came out of it.

Still, it feels to me a little like a phantom limb to an amputee. Kind of hollow, strangely real, and weirdly absent all at the same time. I only remember part of it. I was there, and my main self was destroyed in the supernova along with the other founders and would-be counter-founders: Ruskin, Ganz, people you wouldn’t know. And even the star itself, which we realized, in the moment of its death, was sentient. I caught a little glimpse of all of that, partly from the final transmission from my body consumed in the explosion to my secondary cache aboard the protected station. More of it came from the strange moments that followed: a kind of cosmo-telepathic event not unlike the linkage we on The Long View felt with certain sentient stars in the Starmaker Nebula.

I wonder now, with the starstream wrapped all around us, if I will feel any echo of that here. I wait, sensory channels open.

Is it crazy to think I might feel my own presence here, or the presence of the other founders?


2 My experiences were recounted in the document, if you can find it, entitled From a Changeling Star.


Ruall spun into the center of the viewspace and announced, “At this point, in accordance with the mission rules, I am assuming operational command.”

“Huh?” said Bandicut. “On what grounds?”

“On the grounds that we have just entered a dangerous operating regime, with suspected adversarial forces present, and the possibility of conflict.”

Bandicut groaned in protest. “Seriously, Ruall? We just got here! We’ve been in the starstream for about one minute! Coppy, any signs of adversaries?”

“None yet,” the robot reported. “Dark is ahead of us, leading the way.”

Bandicut turned to Ruall, hands spread. “Well?”

“Well, what? We are flying into the unknown, where things can happen quickly. We require stable control.” Ruall spun on her axis. “Are you satisfied, and do you accept my command?”

I’m not satisfied,” Li-Jared said flatly, peering ahead into the starstream view before them.

Ruall jerked a little. “I see. And you, John Bandicut?”

Bandicut’s voice caught. “I’m—no—not really. Sorry, Ruall, but your command authority is for use in a danger situation. In the absence of an actual emergency—”

“We are trying to prevent an emergency,” Ruall said stiffly. She rang twice. “Do not take long to decide.” And she blinked out.

Bria surveyed the bridge like a meerkat, taking in the view of the stream. As Bandicut observed the gokat, she came around toward him and circled at his feet, making a sound like a rumble contained in a whisper. A purr? No, there seemed to be a sharper edge to the sound. A growl of warning?

/Is Bria on watch as our muscle here?/ Bandicut wondered.

/// Best explanation I’ve heard so far, ///

Charli answered.


Patrol Ship Plato

Dakota Bandicut adjusted the camera on the ledge in front of her cabin mirror before continuing to record:

“It’s been quiet the last couple of weeks, now that I’m pretty well settled into the XO job. Nothing out of the ordinary has happened. For a while we were all wondering if we’d see Throgs while we were operating in the old danger area. But nope—no Throgs, at least none that we’ve seen. That’s a good thing—though a Throg or two would certainly have broken the monotony. That is a joke. I would not want to meet those beasts for real.

“Harrad, love, I miss you even more than I thought I would. I want you to be on board with me the next time I ship out. So please make sure you finish those ratings so we can ship together, okay?

“All right, time for me to get ready for duty. I’m going to put this in the Send queue and hope we get enough of an n-signal for it to go out.

“I love you. Be good while I’m gone!”

She switched off the recording and sent it to the ship’s mail queue.

Then, with a wistful sigh, she touched the holo of the sandy-haired, green-eyed man cooking over a radiant stovetop, before closing the image. Stop mooning over him, girl. You’ve got the present to think about.

For the first time in ages, Dakota was suffering pangs about all she’d left behind to roam the stars. She’d only known Harrad for about six months—but finally, here was a guy who both accepted and excited her—who shared her interest in the cosmos and alien life—and cooking in a wok—and was cute and sexy, to boot—and what did she have to do? Leave on a long patrol! Would he grow tired of waiting for her? Would the magic still be there when they were reunited, months from now? Could she hang onto him and her career in space? She’d never before faced this quandary, and now she couldn’t get it out of her thoughts. She’d revealed her translator-stones to him not long before her departure, and he’d been understandably surprised, but also intrigued and accepting. Would he stay that way, or would he start to think he’d linked up with Weird Girl?

If only he’d been a part of the Plato crew. His skills as an exobiologist could definitely have had a place on an interstellar patrol ship. But he was only halfway through certification for starship operations. In the future, she might not have to leave him and his quirky smile and multi-hued eyes behind when she left port. But for this trip, she was in deep space and he was in his lab on High Concept, waiting for her. The planned trip duration of six weeks, and the reach of their patrol, had been extended by HQ after their departure, possibly setting a precedent for the future. She supposed it was not so different from the Age of Sail long ago on Earth, when sailors left their wives and lovers and disappeared over the horizon, not to be seen or heard from for months—even years—on end, if they came back at all. But it left her in a state of constant, low-level anxiety.

She was grateful for this, though—that she lived now in a century in which star voyages were measured in months, not tens or hundreds of years, for those left behind. A relationship with someone back home was now at least a possibility—even for a ship that ranged as far from home as the patrol cutter Plato.

FTL through k-space made a huge difference, of course, but the starstream was another game-changer. What to her seemed astoundingly new was old hat to the locals: the amazing interstellar highway that had sprung from the cataclysm of the Betelgeuse supernova and a cosmic hyperstring. The resulting starstream brought vast new expanses of space within reach. Nowadays, a patrol vessel could monitor the space-lanes for light-years in both directions, and still return home in a reasonable time.

He’ll wait for you, girl. He thinks you’re worth it. Let’s just prove him right, okay? So let it go.

She let it go, and went to attend to her duties on the bridge.

The days passed, and the weeks, as Plato followed the long loop of her assigned patrol.


“Exo? Do you have a report for me on contacts Oscar, Papa, and Quebec?”

Captain Brody’s voice brought Dakota’s attention up from the nav holos. She stepped back from the nav officer and shook her head. “Still trying to parse it, sir.” Three hours ago, the long-range scanner had picked up a series of distant echoes, like multiple phantom contacts, ghostly in the holo and inexplicable in analysis. The echoes were coming from downstream, in the direction of the galactic center, but moving upstream toward them. Neither Dakota nor Tanaki, the navigator, could identify them; they fit no known profile of a vessel, human or otherwise. But they were steadily approaching, as Plato bore downstream. “No response to transmissions.”

“And no traffic listings at all for this area?”

“No, we cross-checked all sources.”

Captain Brody stood several meters back. He was a slender, hawk-faced man, with nervous hands. He pressed his fingertips together, moving his thumbs in little circles. “So what’s your best assessment, Commander? Are the readings abnormal enough to cause concern?”

Dakota frowned back at the displays. The starstream had been a generally peaceful place since the threat of the Throgs had abated, back before her time in the service. But still. One never knew. “Nothing to suggest a threat. But it’s definitely an anomaly. Could be alien, of course. We’ll have to wait until it resolves better. But I’m not certain we’re actually looking at solid objects. It could be some kind of disturbances in the n-space flow. Possibly turbulence or some other navigational hazard. I recommend we slow down as we approach.”

Brody nodded. He didn’t need to repeat the obvious, that they were supposed to identify every tin can flying between Entry Nodes 37 and 49, which defined the range of the Alighieri sector, their assigned patrol. But lack of identification didn’t necessarily indicate a problem. It wasn’t unusual to encounter ships whose flight plans had never made their way through channels to the Patrol, though such ships didn’t usually look like ghosts. Of course, there always was the possibility of encounter with genuinely alien travelers. It had happened before, sometimes resulting in contact and sometimes in close approaches that remained mysterious.

Many of the entry nodes were unguarded and not yet explored. The nodes were natural consequences of vibration in the violin-taut hyperstring that sang out the n-space passage. There was nothing to prevent travelers from worlds unknown from using the starstream. It was, in a way, just like any terrestrial river except that it existed in n-dimensional hyperspace. Encounters with unknowns were rare, but with thousands of unexplored systems within range, any contact could mean an encounter with a hitherto unknown species.

And, of course, it was part of the Patrol’s job to identify any that they encountered.

“Could it be a weak echo from junk in the stream? Wrecked spacecraft?” the captain asked.

“Doesn’t fit the pattern. They’re more like . . . I don’t know, more like traveling wave forms.” But as Dakota spoke, she saw a sudden blur of red in the holo.

“Lateral acceleration,” murmured Tanaki, adjusting the display. “They’re maneuvering sideways—or being propelled by a current.”

“Huh,” Dakota said. She waved the holo to check a different set of sensors. “That would seem to argue in favor of their being spacecraft, wouldn’t it?”

“I think so,” said Tanaki.

Captain Brody stroked with his fingers in the air to adjust his own view. “A formation of unfamiliar ship-types maneuvering, then. What’s our time to intercept?”

Tanaki touched her headpiece. “At our current speed, and if they don’t vary theirs too much, about six hours.”

The captain straightened. “Very well. When we’ve closed to half the distance, we’ll evaluate our speed and heading. I want to approach with caution. Regard it as a potential threat, until we know more.”

Of course, Dakota thought. The tricky part was approaching cautiously without seeming either helpless or hostile yourself.

“Commander!” Tanaki said sharply.

“Something else?”

Tanaki switched the holo. “Yes, sir. Another contact—this one from behind us. Not yet identifiable, but this one at least has characteristics of a spacecraft. I’m designating this one Contact Romeo.”

“Show me,” Dakota said, slipping into a seat beside Tanaki. Two mysteries, one ahead and one behind? Very interesting. But it also made her nervous. Suppose the somethings out there actually were hostile. They had no particular reason to expect such a thing. but piracy was always a possibility, or unpredictable actions from one of the smaller, unaffiliated worlds. They were to be on the lookout for any kind of trouble. The possibility of a pincer maneuver by adversaries had to be considered.

“Right here,” Tanaki said, twisting the holo to alter the view upstream. She touched a small icon floating in the distance, and the view zoomed in to reveal details about the object—not a visual image, but a false-color compilation of data. “This one definitely looks like a spacecraft, though it doesn’t, so far, match any known types.”

“Human or otherwise,” Dakota murmured. That still didn’t necessarily tell them much. It was nearly impossible to stay on top of new ship types—even just human ship types—whether from the Auricle Alliance or outside worlds. There were too many planets, spread out over too much space, both known and unknown.

“Look at this,” said Tanaki. “If we roll back the sensor readings from when I first noticed it, look how it seems to have been maneuvering. That’s a remarkably steep power curve. If I’m reading it right, it shows more maneuvering power than anything I can remember seeing. And—” She nudged Dakota’s arm with the back of her hand, and bent into the holo a little, adjusting the scanner.

“What?” Dakota leaned in beside her.

“Well, it just seems odd that we didn’t see it before now. It’s not moving so fast that it should have come up on us on the long straightaway—”


Tanaki glanced up at Captain Brody, then at Dakota. “We’re a long way from the nearest entry node in that direction. It’s almost as if it entered the starstream not at an entry node—right through the starstream wall or something. Don’t ask me how. But I don’t know how else to explain its sudden appearance.”

Dakota hmm’d. That was strange. She felt a faint tickle from her wrist-stones. /Thoughts?/

*Not certain. But we’re picking up a tingle. We think this new one might be a friendly. Recommend making cautious contact, if possible.*

“It’s gaining on us,” Tanaki said. “We might be close enough for a transmission soon.”

“That . . . would be good. I think.”

The captain murmured agreement. “Stay on it, and let me know.”


The Long View was not too far from their proposed exit point when Copernicus called everyone to the bridge to announce that a sensor contact had been made with an object ahead of them in the stream. Before he could finish explaining, Dark suddenly burst out of the haze in front of them. Bandicut felt his translator-stones light up with contact.

Charli murmured at once,

/// Dark wants to propel us

faster toward this contact. ///

Bandicut tensed. /Why? Is it a possible hostile?/

/// She detects the presence of

translator-stones ahead! ///

/Translator-stones! Hold on a sec’./ Bandicut relayed that to the others. Li-Jared’s eyes brightened at the mention of the stones. But he was less than ecstatic about letting Dark seize the ship to pull them along faster. “Remember about trusting Dark?” Bandicut asked.

Ruall was doing that spin/stop/spin/stop thing that indicated agitation. She appeared ready to forbid the maneuver. But Bria made a chirrup sound and stepped deliberately farther out into the viewspace, her chin pointed toward Dark. “Very well,” Ruall said with a tight ring in her voice.

“Hang on, then,” said Copernicus. “This may get a little bumpy.”

Bandicut and Li-Jared grabbed the back of the nearby bench sofa and glanced at each other. Hanging on wasn’t usually a requirement on this ship, and there wasn’t much to grab.

Dark’s visible presence expanded abruptly in the viewspace, and in less than a heartbeat she’d wrapped herself around the ship like a black cape blown by the wind. For an instant, they could see nothing—and then gravity dropped away, and Bandicut’s stomach lurched, and splinters of light shot out in every direction. Bandicut clung with his left hand, as his feet flew toward the front of the viewspace, and his head and shoulders were yanked toward the back wall. His grip failed and the backward pull won, and he slammed with a crunch into the wall, and then dropped as gravity cut back in. Gasping in pain, he sat up. The flashes of light in the viewspace subsided. Li-Jared had managed to hang on, but he was face-down on the bench, clutching the seat with both hands while bonging like a terrified bullfrog.

The bridge lights came back up—which was the first Bandicut noticed that they had darkened. The shroud of Dark’s “body” peeled away from the viewspace, and Dark floated out to what she probably imagined was a safe distance.

“Whatthehell was that?” Bandicut muttered, mostly to himself.

///I’m not sure, ///

Charli whispered.

“It was a quantum vacuum event,” Copernicus answered. “An unconventional maneuver. Dark wanted to get us from where we were to where we are faster than n-space would allow. I think we tunneled rather like a quantum cloud. I’m not quite sure how that works.”

Li-Jared sat up unsteadily. “Quantum cloud? Isn’t that what Dark is?”

“Sort of, partly, in a sense, yes,” said Copernicus. “I think.”

Ruall bent in her stick-figure middle and made a sound like a handsaw being flexed. “Did I authorize an action of that order? Were you under the impression that I had?” Bandicut had no trouble perceiving that the Tintangle was mad.

Copernicus replied, “Apology. I had not fully anticipated how rough—oh hey, there’s the ship we were hoping to meet—ahead and closing rapidly.”

“That does not answer the question,” said Ruall.

Now Bandicut saw the other ship, like a tiny model in the distance. It was vaguely cylindrical, like a submarine, but with more sculpted sides. “Can we argue about that later?” he asked. “I want to know what this ship is.”

Jeaves, speaking for the first time since the maneuvering, said, “It bears some resemblance to human ship designs I have seen.”

Ruall turned abruptly. “Investigate the ship,” she snapped. “But my question will be answered.”

“Acknowledged. I am receiving a transmission,” said Copernicus. “Nothing decipherable yet. But we appear to have been sighted. May I move us a little closer?”

“You are scanning for weapons indications,” said Ruall. It did not sound like a question.

“I am mapping bulges in the hull that may be indicative of weapons,” said Copernicus. “But I find nothing to indicate activation at this time.”

“Very well. Continue monitoring.”

“How close can you bring us?” Bandicut asked.

The robot was tapping softly and continuously now. “Alongside, theoretically. But I would prefer a more cautious approach for now.”

“Yes,” Ruall intoned. “A very cautious approach.”

Bandicut closed his eyes, opened them. Translator-stones out there? “Do what you can, Coppy. Let’s just see if we can talk to them.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”


The downstream contacts were still a mystery to the Plato bridge crew, but Contact Romeo, upstream, had pulled closer, with abrupt speed. There had been a momentary surge of something gravitational on the sensors, and then the reading vanished as suddenly it appeared, and there the ship was, a tenth of its previous distance from them. The contact was close enough for hope of identification, and perhaps communication.

It was not long before they had a visual. The betting now was that it was not a human or other known craft. Its shape was an elongated ellipse, and its propulsion system was indecipherable, like nothing on record in human space. There was no k-space field signature, but there were distortions in some of the sub-wavelengths that seemed to suggest that it had its fingers hooked into the fabric of n-space in a way that Plato’s sensors could not identify.

“Any indication of its energy source?” the captain asked.

Dakota polled the bridge crew. No one had an answer.

“Any clue whether it’s armed?”

The thought gave Dakota a little shiver, but she answered, “Can’t read a thing beneath the surface.” She twisted to look back at the captain. “Shall I transmit a greeting?”

“Let’s see if they transmit first. But put us on contact alert status.”

Dakota snapped her fingers at the crew chief, one station over, and watched as lights at the top of the board changed to amber—an indication that would be echoed all over the ship. At the weapons station, a series of indicators came alight as defensive systems came to a stand-by condition. Weapons Chief Kamya gave a silent thumbs-up. At the readiness station, Lieutenant Fong was checking the status of all departments. She too gave a thumbs-up. “All stations report ready, Captain,” Dakota reported.

“Distance to contact?”

Tanaki answered, “One light-second and closing, sir.”

The captain squeezed his lower lip. “No change? No transmission?”

“Hold, please—I’m just getting something now, Captain,” said Tanaki. “It’s a repeating pattern—nothing I can translate immediately, but it could be a greeting of some kind.”

“Perhaps we should identify ourselves in our own language,” Dakota said to the captain. “Even if they don’t understand, we might still establish a businesslike intent.”

“All right,” said the captain. “You go ahead and make the call. I want to see what we’ve got in the library on ships with similar characteristics.”

Dakota sat down at a keyboard. She thought a moment, then typed: Calling approaching vessel. This is Starstream Patrol ship Plato, Commander Dakota Bandicut, executive officer, speaking. Request identification and flight intentions. [[repeat 4x]]. She read it over, then gave it to Tanaki to transmit. “Let’s see what we get.”


The ship was growing before The Long View. Copernicus rolled up alongside Bandicut. “I am getting a decipherable signal now, Cap’n.”

“Good.” Bandicut glanced down at the robot. Something in his demeanor suggested tension, or maybe anticipation. “What does it say? Can you let us hear it?”

“Working on an audible translation. Cap’n—?”

“Yes, Coppy?”

“Cap’n, it is most strange.” Copernicus angled a glass eye to look at him.

“Strange, how?” Bandicut asked.

“It’s just that . . . Cap’n, do you know of another Bandicut? Of course not—how would you? We’re five hundred years in your future.”

“What are you talking about?” Bandicut stepped toward the view, and the image of the ship. “Are you implying there’s some weird double of me—?”

“No, Cap’n, no. But the speaker is identifying as a Commander Bandicut.”

Commander Bandicut?”

“That’s what they said, sir.”

Bandicut stood in stunned silence, staring at the ghostly ship.


For the next few minutes, Dakota Bandicut watched the ship approach. Plato had slowed slightly to allow the faster ship to pull alongside. It was almost abeam them when Tanaki said, “We’re getting a voice response. It seems to be in a dialect of English.”

“Really? Let’s hear it,” Dakota said.

The first voice she heard sounded robotic. “This is The Long View, out of Shipworld, Copernicus speaking as the ship’s AI.” There was a moment’s pause, and then the robotic voice said, and there seemed a hint of surprise in the voice, “Please confirm: Did you just identify yourself as Commander Dakota Bandicut?”

Chapter 23 Long Lost Relations

“I HAVE NOT received voice confirmation,” said Copernicus, “but the text communication appears to be in a recognizable form of English, and identifies a Dakota Bandicut speaking for the other ship. Cap’n, do you have any information that could explain this?”

“What?” Bandicut stared at the robot in open-mouthed amazement. “That’s impossible!”

“Explain!” Ruall said sharply, turning to Bandicut.

“I—don’t know. This is too strange—”

“Cut communication!” Ruall ordered.

“Wait! What do you mean?”

“Freeze all voice, text, and data communication with the other ship! We must identify the nature of this event!” Ruall swung toward Copernicus and hovered, as though to enforce her order by means of physical intimidation if necessary.

Bandicut stood frozen, blinking. Was he dreaming? A Bandicut? Dakota Bandicut? A hallucination, or a trick?

“John. Bandie.”

Or had some distant Bandicut descendant found her way into this present—here, now, in the starstream? Right where he and his friends were passing by? It beggared the imagination.

/// John, it could be possible . . . ///

No, it was impossible. Or was it? Could the name of his niece Dakota have been passed down through generations? Could there be a descendant of his out here, removed by God knew how many generations?

“Bandie John Bandicut, answer me!” Li-Jared was yelling at him. Probably wondering if he was flipping into silence fugue. A reasonable concern.

He nodded finally, to show that he was responding.

“Bandie,” Li-Jared said. “Copernicus asked you a question.”

He could barely hear his own whisper. “Yes.”

“And do you have any idea—?”

“No. Yes.” Bandicut shook his head, finding his voice again. “Copernicus, you did say Dakota Bandicut, did you not?”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

“And—” Bandicut cleared his throat “—you know Dakota Bandicut is the name of my niece, back on Earth, yes?”

“Yes, Cap’n. Though it would seem unlikely to be the same Dakota Bandicut—would it not?”

“It would seem inconceivable. She was on Earth—just a kid—and we were nowhere near having star flight. But perhaps this could be a distant descendant . . .”

Ruall had been listening to this exchange with a growing rumble. “Explain, John Bandicut! Do you have a connection to someone or something on that ship out there?”

“It’s possible,” Bandicut said. “The only way to find out is to talk to them and ask.”

Clang. “I will not permit contact until we have established—”

“Ruall, the only way to establish it is to communicate.”

Ruall shuddered, like a soft hammer on a cymbal. “Could it be—think carefully!—that we’ve encountered a force that has the power to read your thoughts from a distance—and present you with a scenario that encourages you to come closer? And perhaps open yourself—and this ship—to hazardous contact?”

The suggestion stunned Bandicut. The possibility hadn’t occurred to him. “I—suppose it’s possible.” He looked inward to Charli, and received silent reassurance. The quarx had felt nothing probing his thoughts, and she probably would have. “But I don’t feel anything, and Charli—my quarx—” he tapped the side of his head “—hasn’t detected any sign of intrusion in my mind. So I don’t . . . think so.”

/// Also, Dark felt stones.. ///

“Right. And there’s the other thing. Dark said she sensed translator-stones on that ship. Coppy, where is Dark now?”

“She moved on ahead of us. Said she detected something farther down and wanted to check it.”

Bandicut grimaced. He wished Dark had stayed to help confirm this contact.

Li-Jared asked mildly, studying Bandicut with electric-blue eyes. “Bandie’s knowing-stones probably would have felt an intrusion, too. It’s hard to be certain. But I don’t see any way to be sure without establishing contact.”

“Thank you,” Bandicut said quietly.

Li-Jared wasn’t finished. “But when I think of what the Mindaru did to Ik when they got in his head—”

Bandicut’s knuckles whitened as he balled his fists. “It was terrible! Yes! But why would we think that that ship is Mindaru? It doesn’t fit anything we’ve seen. The Mindaru have never made contact like that, and they’ve certainly never spoken like that.”

Li-Jared cocked his head. “Can we expect all Mindaru to behave the same way?”

“Well—no, maybe not. But—Li-Jared, we could always feel them creeping around in our thoughts when we met them before. Their presence was unmistakable.”

“That’s enough,” Ruall said. “I am powering up the weapons systems, as a precaution.”

What? No! Go to alert, okay. But if that really is a human ship out there, we need to establish communications, not start a fight. We need to find out for sure what it is. And then find out—”

“What?” snapped Ruall.

“Well, whether there’s really a Dakota Bandicut aboard.”

“Your concern is noted,” Ruall said, as two columns of ghostly light appeared before her. She inserted a paddle-shaped hand in each, and turned experimentally. “We will endeavor to keep our weapons status invisible to the other ship. Will that help to avoid alarm?” When Bandicut grudgingly agreed, she said, “All right, then. Establish verbal contact, if you can.”

Li-Jared looked torn. Perhaps Ruall’s fear had rubbed off on him. “Let’s think about this for a minute,” he said. “Which is more likely—” bong “—that someone from your family line has managed to turn up right here, in the starstream, just when you come along? Or that that ship out there doesn’t have humans at all, but is full of mind-reading Mindaru?”

/// I don’t think it’s Mindaru, John. ///

“Li-Jared, Charli has detected no sign at all. Dark sensed nothing except translator-stones. If there were Mindaru . . .”

Li-Jared splayed his fingers before him. “Bandie, I don’t know, one way or the other. I just know how bad it’ll be if we get it wrong.”

“Okay, yes.” Bandicut nodded firmly. “I agree. We need to hear their voices, find out if they really are human. I don’t think the Mindaru could fake that. You could tell if the voices sounded human—or Coppy or Jeaves could—even if they were somehow controlling my mind.”

Ruall rang with a shiver. “If they’re reading your thoughts, then perhaps they can—” rasp “—simulate a conversation.”

Li-Jared strode between them, turning back and forth. “That’s it exactly! Can you tell the difference? If they’re really good?”

“I think I can,” Bandicut said. /You, Charli?/

/// Yes. ///

“Charli can tell. My stones can tell. I can tell.”

Ruall’s paddle-hands whirled.

“I understand your concern. But—”

Copernicus interrupted. “I am currently in verbal contact with the ship. As yet I have detected no sign of danger, so this cannot be defined as a combat situation. John Bandicut and I alone among us have experienced direct contact with Mindaru. At the moment, I am speaking directly to a party named Dakota Bandicut, who may have a personal connection with the cap’n.”

The Tintangle clanged and floated to the forwardmost rim of the viewspace. “Use extreme care,” she commanded.

“Of course. Cap’n’s, I am switching to audio. The connection is difficult, but I will enhance as much as possible . . .”

A static hiss filled the bridge. Then a voice—human, female—resonated above the static. “This is Commander Dakota Bandicut, executive officer aboard Plato. Are you a human vessel?” The voice pitched higher. “And did you say you have a John Bandicut aboard?”

Bandicut felt his knees buckle. Grabbing the nearest support, he forced himself to stay on his feet. Several deliberate strides took him to stand beside Ruall at the front of the bridge. “This is John Bandicut, aboard The Long View. John Bandicut of Earth. I had a niece named Dakota Bandicut. From—” he paused and squeezed his eyes shut, thinking “—what we called the twenty-second century of Earth. Earth before starflight.”

He waited breathlessly. Copernicus murmured, “There may be a bit of signal lag.” Then after a moment, “Perhaps not that much of a signal lag.”

He was on the verge of speaking again when the voice answered, in a strained cry, “Uncle John? Is that you? Is it really you?”

For a moment, Bandicut could do nothing but stare, speechless, out into the viewspace. A voice from five centuries ago? His niece? Then he realized she was still talking.

“This is Dakota, Uncle John! Your niece Dakota! I always knew you were still alive somewhere. And I—oh, wait a minute.” There was a brief pause, and then, “Captain Brody asks me for a clearer confirmation that you’re really my uncle John Bandicut.” Another pause, during which he tried to absorb what was happening. Then, “Uncle John, tell me what happened when you . . . left the solar system. When you took that ship.”

He barked a laugh. It was Dakota, all right. It really was. “You mean, when I stole the Neptune Explorer and flew it around the sun to crash into the comet that was going to hit the Earth? Is that what you mean? It seems like a million years ago. But by my time it’s only been about a year.” He hesitated. “Dakota—did anyone believe me, back on Earth?” The raw emotion of that event poured back into him so powerfully he began to sweat. The fear, the exhilaration, the despair of believing that his actions would ever be understood.

Her reply took a moment. “I believed you. And your friend Julie did. Julie Stone. We talked, she and I. By VR.”

Julie Stone! His heart soared, and ached. “Julie. Did you and she ever meet?”

“Not in person. Something happened on her trip back to Earth with the translator. We never knew exactly what. She said she was going to deal with a threat to Earth. She and the translator went after it, and were last heard from flying toward the sun with it. We never heard from them again. But when I got my own translator-stones . . .”

Bandicut blinked rapidly, his heart doing funny things in his chest. Julie and the translator dove into the sun? And Dakota . . . translator-stones . . . of course, that was what Dark detected.

/// John, if Julie was with the translator . . . ///

/Maybe she didn’t die, any more than I did./

“Uncle John, are you still there?”

He swallowed. “Still here, Dakota. A lot to process. You say you have translator-stones?”

“I got them years later, when I visited Triton.”

He absorbed that in silence.

“Uncle John—how did you survive—when you hit the comet?”

Somehow that broke the tension, and he laughed. “Long story. They called it threading space, and spatial translation. It turned out I had a number of space trips in my future. This is just one of them. I guess that’s how the centuries slipped by. What year is it now, anyway? In human space?”

It took her a moment to answer. “We’re not on the old calendar anymore, and I’ve kind of lost count. We call it three-ninety-eight Space. That would be years since the dawn of star flight. I’m not sure what that is on the old calendar. Wait—hold another moment?” Then, “Can you transmit an image of yourself? I can send a holo of me. I’ve . . . grown up, since you last saw me.”

“John Bandicut!” Li-Jared yelled, waving his arms in front of him. “Pay attention!”

He snapped back to awareness of the bridge. “What? What is it? Copernicus, can you transmit a visual from the bridge here to the other ship?”

“We’ve been trying to get your attention!” Li-Jared said. “Ruall—Ruall and I—want to know if you definitely recognize her. Can you be sure it’s really her?”

He blinked, focusing on Li-Jared’s words. “What? Yes—of course it’s her! Didn’t you hear her talk about Julie? I didn’t prompt that.” He frowned at Jeaves, hovering nearby. “Image?”

“I think we can arrange a holo-feed from here,” Jeaves said.

Ruall spun and moved, and spun again. “Before I approve, I must know, are you certain of the identification? Does any doubt linger?”

“Didn’t you just hear me? It’s my niece Dakota. Honestly, caution is one thing. But this is crazy.”

“So this meeting is of personal importance to you,” said Ruall.

“Yes! Why are you being so dense?” He struggled to keep his temper. “Yes, it’s personally important to me!” He let out an exasperated breath. “But it’s important to all of us.”

Ruall twanged. “You will explain why?”

“Because these are people who have been traveling this starstream! In fact, apparently, patrolling the starstream—people who might have information! And if they don’t know about the Mindaru, we need to warn them! Gah! Isn’t this obvious?” Bandicut shut his eyes, trying to keep his anger contained. Blowing up at Ruall wouldn’t help.

Li-Jared was squinting alternately at the distant sight of the other ship, which Copernicus now had magnified in the viewspace, and at Bandicut, whom he seemed to be regarding with a kind of compassionate skepticism. “Bandie,” he said, in an unusually diplomatic tone, “I’m not discounting your sense of certainty. I heard her voice, too. She sounded human, not that I’m an expert. But are you sure you aren’t giving your personal desire more weight than . . .” He hesitated.

“Than what?” Bandicut snapped. “Than the safety of the ship? Than the mission?”


Bandicut sighed and raised his chin to Jeaves. “You haven’t said much,” he said to the robot. “Do you think I’m endangering us all by wanting to talk to my niece?”

Jeaves floated forward, eyes sparkling in his forehead. “I think not. In fact, this does seem an unusual opportunity to gain information. Ruall—consider. That ship out there could be an important ally!”

Ruall clanged. “How do you suggest we confirm that, robot?”

Jeaves spoke urgently. “Broadcast images. Let them see each other and be satisfied of identification. Then establish a holo-conference. John, she said she has translator-stones. Do you think your stones could establish contact with hers?”


*Possibly a low-level contact, via ship-to-ship holo-connection.*

“Maybe,” Bandicut said to the others. “Can you try to help link them up, Coppy?”

Ruall made unhappy twanging sounds to herself, but agreed.


Bandicut gaped at the holo of a strikingly confident and attractive young woman in the uniform of, he guessed, the Starstream Space Patrol. He rapidly tried to reset his view of reality. His last memories of Dakota were of a twelve-year-old girl, struggling to find herself in a world that seemed hostile. And now . . . she looked to be close to his own age. But the small nose and sharp hazel eyes, the angle of the cheekbone, and even the hair that determinedly stuck out at the sides: this was his niece, all right. How in the world had she grown up to meet him here in this incredible time and place? /Stones, do you—?/

*Establishing contact . . .*

“Uncle John, it really is you! This is incredible—I can’t believe it! It’s—my God, it’s wonderful to see you!”

He finally found his voice. “I could say the same. It’s me, Dakota. I guess . . . you all thought I’d cratered back on that comet I flew into.” It was probably more recent in his memory than in hers, he realized.

“Pretty much everyone did.” Her holo leaned forward, toward the camera. “Except I didn’t. I knew, somehow. Even before I got my stones. I knew you’d survived.”

He laughed. “How could you have known that?”

She grinned, almost mischievously. “I believed in you, Uncle John! Plus, I think Julie heard things from her translator-stones, and she hinted to me—”

“Wait a minute! Julie got stones, too?”

/// It does make sense,

given what she’s told us. ///

“Years before I had mine. It was from mine that I learned she had actually dived into the sun with the translator—”

Bandicut’s stomach twisted. There it was again.

Dakota’s face went through a quick series of expressions. “You wouldn’t have known anything about that, would you? Not if you left the solar system right after you hit that comet. You did, didn’t you?”

He nodded, his throat dry.

Her expression suddenly went grave, her eyes tightening slightly. “Well, Julie did something similar, I think. They were fighting some kind of small, but really powerful, AI.”

Bandicut swayed where he stood. Jesus. /Do you think she—they—?/

/// Yah. Could be. ///

“I’ve always wanted to believe that they somehow escaped from their dive into the sun,” Dakota continued. “The way I believed you somehow escaped.”

His knees gave. Li-Jared was at his side, grabbing his arm. “You okay, Bandie?”

He grunted, forced a nod. Is that how they died? Or did they . . . travel to Shipworld like me? My God. He tried to focus on Dakota’s face, but his vision was blurred by tears. He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. His voice was a husk of itself. “Wow . . . um. Dakota, how is it that you’re here? In . . . the future? And the starstream? Exo on a patrol ship?”

“That, too, is a long story. Chalk it up to relativity. What about you, Uncle John? You left the solar system. For where?”

His head was spinning. “Well, there’s this place called Shipworld. Out past the edge of the—”

Clang! “Stop!” ordered Ruall. “Copernicus, cut the signal.”

“What?” said Bandicut, jerking his attention back onto the bridge. “What’s wrong?” He looked back at the holo of Dakota, now frozen in place.

Ruall reverberated angrily. “You were about to reveal the location of our home base.”

Bandicut hardly knew how to respond. “Outside the galaxy?” He barked a laugh. “That’s not exactly landing coordinates.”

“Nonetheless, it’s too much,” Ruall snapped.

Furiously, Bandicut said to Copernicus, “Reopen the link, Coppy!”

“Excuse me,” the robot said. “Folks, we’ve got something else to worry about.”

“Specify!” said Ruall.

“Long-range scan: a cluster of three objects traveling upstream toward us, from direction of galactic center.” Copernicus ticked once, then added, “Unable to image at this distance. I cannot say if they are human craft, or spacecraft at all.”

“Disengage all contact with the human ship,” Ruall ordered.

“No!” Bandicut shouted. “Coppy, don’t do that.”

Ruall responded with an angry clang. “I am giving the commands!”

“No, Ruall—listen. If we get into a combat situation, I’ll be right behind you. I’ll accept your command. But we need to stay in contact with the human ship. Either they know what those things are—”

“Those things could be Mindaru, brought to us by the human ship in front of us right now.”

“That’s just crazy talk!”

“Is it? Do you deny it’s possible?”

“No—it’s—Ruall—what reason would they have for wanting to bring Mindaru to us? In fact, if those are Mindaru, then all the more reason to talk to Plato! Coordinate our actions!”

Cymbal crash. “They would only slow us down.”

Bandicut stepped up to Ruall and glared into her shining, eyeless face. “And they might be more vulnerable than we are. They might need our help! It’s possible they’ve never even heard of the Mindaru!”

“I must concur,” said Jeaves, floating forward.

“You always concur with the human,” said Ruall.

“Inaccurate,” said Jeaves. “But we have cause to think we are with friends now. It’s possible that the entire human race may have no knowledge of the Mindaru. If that’s true, it’s incumbent upon us to assist if we can.”

Please reopen the channel,” Bandicut said. “Let me warn them, and find out what they know.”

Ruall made a low clamor, then said, “Very well,” and signaled Copernicus.

The holo-image of Dakota unfroze. There was a moment of jerky motion, and she turned, startled, toward Bandicut. “Uncle John, what’s happening? Is there a problem?”

Bandicut tried to keep the words from tumbling out. “Dakota, we’re on a mission looking for a hostile intelligence called the Mindaru. Do you know about them? They’re a machine intelligence from the center of the galaxy—and the past. They may be traveling up the starstream and forward in time toward us. They are extremely dangerous, and may be capable of hijacking your ship’s computer before you even know they’re there.”

From his wrists came the message, *We are attempting to transmit a data-feed to her stones.*

Dakota looked puzzled, then closed her eyes in surprise. She held up one hand, rubbing her wrist. Her eyes widened and she turned, talking to someone else on her ship. When she swung back to face Bandicut, her features were graven with fear. “I’ve never heard of the Mindaru, by name. But there was that thing Julie Stone went after. My stones are telling me . . . Dear God. There have been a few ships gone missing. Do you think those three blips coming upstream toward us—?”

“Maybe,” Bandicut said. “We’re trying to learn more now.”

Dakota turned away, then back. “We still cannot ID the signals. Do you have any more information about them?”

/// I’m getting something from Dark. ///

Bandicut held up one hand to everyone waiting for him to speak, with the other clamped to his ear, as if that would help him hear Charli better. /And—?/

/// And . . . bloody hell.

Dark says they’re some kind of

focused quantum wave function.

But they’re changing, collapsing . . .

they’re not quite solid objects now, but close . . . ///


/// Dark thinks they are Mindaru.

And they’re steering straight toward us. ///

Chapter 24 Firefight

ON THE BRIDGE of the Plato, Dakota Bandicut saw the holo-image from John’s ship flicker, stutter, and freeze. In John’s voice she heard, “It’s the Mindaru! We need maneuvering room!” and in another voice, words she could not understand—and then the sound cut out, followed by the holo.

“Uncle John!” she cried. “Long View!” Dakota twisted in her seat to report hastily to Captain Brody, and then turned back. In the nav holo, John’s ship was moving ahead of theirs, toward the oncoming blips. What were they intending?

She called repeatedly, but the comm link was gone.

Her stones spoke. *We received a partial download from John Bandicut’s stones. Those objects are likely the adversary known as the Mindaru. They may be related to the AI that Julie Stone fought. We believe The Long View may be moving to engage them, to protect you and your ship.*

/Engage them?/ she muttered. /Those other things are ships, then? Does he think they’re going to attack?/

*Possibly. The warning came from that shadow flitting near the objects. It’s an ally of John’s. Its name is Dark, and it also has translator-stones.*

That rocked her back. How many people out here had stones, for heaven’s sake? For as long as she’d had stones, she had been the only one in her known universe with them. Yes, John and Julie had them, but they were gone. And now Uncle John was here, with this strange black cloud?

Dakota rubbed her thumbs and fingers together nervously. To Tanaki she said, “Keep a close track on those forward contacts. I’ve been warned they could be hostile.” She paused, listening to her stones as they gave her more information about the Mindaru. Then she added, to the whole bridge crew, “Be on the alert for any form of electromagnetic assault. They might try to penetrate our sensor array. Make sure all the firewalls are up on the AIs.”

Captain Brody leaned closer. “Do you know something the rest of us don’t, Exo?”

Dakota moistened her lips. She touched the stones in her wrists. “My translator-stones—”

Brody frowned. “I thought we had agreed those stones were an interesting personal item—not a qualified bridge component. Are you proposing to use them in critical decision-making?”

“Sir—” Dakota said, rubbing her wrists. Brody had never really believed that one-of-a-kind alien devices that did and said little were of much professional interest. She pointed to the holo. “My stones are matched by a pair my uncle has over in the other ship. And a pair in that creature, Dark, out there near the mystery contacts. And John’s stones and mine—”

“What—exchanged information?”

“Yes. Considerable, I think. They—we—are still sorting it all out.”

Brody’s brow creased, and his eyes focused narrowly on Dakota. “I see. Are you still in contact?”

She shook her head. “It broke off when they tentatively ID’d those forward contacts. I’m trying to reestablish.”

“Get it back, then. Get it back!”

“We’re trying. But Captain—”


“The information I’ve received is that those contacts—Oscar, Papa, and Quebec—might be hostile and extremely dangerous. I recommend combat-alert status.”

Brody cocked his head. Dakota realized she had no concrete evidence—just the message from the stones, and the warning from her uncle. “I can’t be certain, Captain. But I recommend we be ready for an attack. If they are the beings called the Mindaru, my uncle says he has fought them before—and they are deadly.”

“All right. I’ll trust your instincts, Commander. Give the order.”

Dakota touched the annunciator button on her throat to make the call to the crew.


Ruall was adamant. “If these are the Mindaru, we must depart at once. It’s more important to take away the information than to confront them here.”

Bandicut stood his ground. “Ruall, those people in Plato have never dealt with the Mindaru before. They need our protection. Why did you cut off transmission?

“To forestall any chance of the Mindaru infiltrating the transmission signal, obviously.”

“Well, that’s just—” Bandicut began, then stopped, realizing that perhaps it wasn’t such a dumb idea, after all. But they still needed to warn the human ship.

/// I believe the stones were able to convey

the warning to Dakota’s stones. ///

/Thank God for that. They were dependent on the open channel for their link, then?/

The stones answered for themselves. *As a carrier wave, yes. With transmission blocks up, contact is broken.*

Jeaves broke the silence, challenging Ruall. “Ruall, I believe a strong case can be made for stopping these Mindaru here, before they pose an active threat outside the starstream. They may be at their most vulnerable here.”

Ruall sounded like brushes on a snare drum. “What is your basis? We have a primary mission—to get to Karellia and stop the temporal distortion. Are you suggesting we jeopardize that mission with a secondary encounter?”

Li-Jared was making soft twanging noises. “Moon and stars, I hate to agree with Ruall—but she has a point.”

Bandicut turned to Li-Jared in disbelief. “If we just leave that ship—” and he jabbed a finger toward where the Plato had been visible a few moments ago “—to its own devices, it could easily be destroyed, and everyone on it. To allow that would be tantamount to murder. I’d be ashamed to be part of any mission that would do that.”

“The Mindaru might not attack the other ship,” said Ruall, so far forward in the viewspace she looked as if she might float out into space.

“When we’ve met them before, they’ve attacked everything, without mercy. Did we or did we not load weapons so we could deal with Mindaru if we saw them?”

“We did. But those weapons,” Ruall twanged, “were to be used as a last resort.”

“For those people this might be a matter of last resort.” Bandicut turned. “Coppy, what are those three objects doing?” /And what are you hearing from Dark?/ he asked Charli.

As though he had heard Bandicut’s silent inner question, Copernicus clicked a few times. “It seems they have detected Dark. They are maneuvering side to side, perhaps to position themselves for a fight with her.”

/// I cannot reach Dark directly.

I think she may be testing their strength. ///

/Is that good?/

/// I don’t know. ///

The viewspace zoomed in. Against the radiant walls of the starstream, the three Mindaru looked like nothing solid, more like small patches of distortion in the image. They appeared to be skittering around at different angles of movement. Dark looked like the end of a laser-pointer beam, only shadow instead of light, dancing close to the three Mindaru, and then dancing back. The image zoomed in closer. Something flickered in a halo around the Mindaru distortions, then flickered again.

“It appears they are attacking Dark,” said Copernicus.

“Attacking how?” Bandicut asked.

At that moment, a shudder went through The Long View’s hull. And then another. It felt like turbulence buffeting an aircraft. But they were not airborne; they were in the starstream, which as far as he knew was a pretty good vacuum, even if it was all wrapped up in n-space.

“Report,” Ruall said.

Jeaves answered this time. “The objects appear to be partially collapsed waveforms, as if they are caught somehow in transition between quantum wave function and classical solid objects. I have never seen anything like this before.”

“What were those shock waves?” Li-Jared asked.

“Do you remember the waves that destroyed the Starmaker waystation, at the start of our previous mission? I believe these may be similar—propagated through the fabric of space-time, rather than through a material medium.”

“Gravity waves?” asked Ruall.

“Similar, though occupying multiple dimensions. Severe oscillations radiating through n-space. Potentially extremely destructive, if given enough energy.”

Li-Jared and Bandicut were now both staring at Jeaves, and even Ruall seemed to be paying attention.

“The effect on us?” Ruall asked in a low voice.

“Little so far,” said Jeaves. “But Dark—?”

Bandicut squinted, and could just make out the halo ripples passing around and perhaps through the gray smudge that was Dark. The smudge kept moving, darting in and out like a cat with a mouse. Was she being hurt?

“Dark seems unharmed,” Copernicus said, as though reading his thoughts. “But I would prefer to avoid testing our fields against it, if possible.”

“Move us away,” said Ruall. “Take as many readings as you can. We may need this information later, when—”

“We need it now, Ruall,” Bandicut said, keeping his voice level.

“Perhaps, but the risk to this ship—”

“Ruall, with respect, we’ve flown this ship into a fucking star. I don’t think you realize how much punishment it can take. Don’t you agree, Coppy?”

“That is true, Cap’n.”

“But—” Bandicut said, gesturing at Plato that ship out there might not be that resilient. Let’s go after those bastards now, before they get loose in the galaxy. Or at least run interference so Plato can get clear.”

Li-Jared bonged urgently, swinging his arms. “Bandie, as much as I’d like to help your niece—”

“It’s not just her, it’s a whole ship and its crew.”

“I know. But our mission—”

“—is to save the galaxy from the Mindaru! And there are three of them, right out there, ready to wreak havoc. Ruall? Jeaves?”

Ruall rotated her head through three full turns. “The question is debatable, but you do make a point. They may be harder to kill after they have fully emerged. With that in mind, we will make a close pass—once!—to see if we can destroy them or deflect them from the human ship. We will not, however, engage in protracted fighting. Copernicus, can you prepare us for a raking pass? Perhaps we can learn the effectiveness of our weapons.”

Brrr-dang! “I disagree with this!” Li-Jared shouted. He waved his hands, his fingers splayed in protest. “John Bandicut, you are endangering my homeworld with this crusade of yours!”

Bandicut closed his eyes a moment. /Maybe I am. But we still have to do it./

/// I agree. ///

To his friend, he could only say, “Li-Jared, we will do everything in our power for your homeworld! But the enemy is here—now! Please!”

Li-Jared made an angry buzzing sound and stalked to the far side of the bridge. He glared into space as The Long View accelerated down the starstream toward the threatening objects. Ruall turned from both of them as she barked out commands to Copernicus. “The targets are in a state of quantum transition, so let’s see if we can disrupt the process. Let’s try a spread of quantum shock pulses, three per target, simultaneous fire. That should shake them apart.”

Copernicus acknowledged her commands in a clipped tone. “Quantum shock pulses ready.”

“Commit fire.”

Sparkles of light lazed out from the front of the viewspace. They seemed to glide toward the Mindaru. At the halfway point, they winked out. Bandicut cursed. Had they been knocked out so easily by the Mindaru? An instant later, the sparkles reappeared, closer to the targets, but flying in zigzag patterns. Smart pulses? They winked out again.

It was hard to be certain if anything was happening. “As far as I can observe,” Jeaves said, “the targets remain intact, and are still in the process of wave function collapse. I cannot tell if we have impeded the process.” Impeded or not, the Mindaru continued to radiate waves of space-time distortion toward Dark—and now toward The Long View, as well.

The deck shook as the distortions shuddered around the ship’s defensive shields. “Still no damage,” Copernicus reported. But Bandicut remembered how the Mindaru had attacked them once before, not with firepower, but with infiltration into their ship’s AI. Bandicut started to sweat at the thought. But Copernicus had led the counterattack before; Copernicus probably knew more about fighting the Mindaru than anyone alive except possibly the translator-stones.

“Quantum shock pulses appear ineffective,” Ruall said.

“Agreed,” said Copernicus. “Perhaps wave functions don’t present enough of a target.”

“Our present course will take us dangerously close. We require a different offense,” Ruall said. “Opinions on n-space disrupter missiles?”

“Not recommended!” Jeaves said at once. “They might disrupt the starstream itself. I recommend quantum implosion warheads. They require closer targeting, but they should swallow up everything including wave forms.”

“Very well,” said Ruall. “Ready quantum implosion warheads.”

“Ready,” said Copernicus.

“Estimate the optimum time for release, and release at that time.”

The ship’s course was bringing them closer to the Mindaru, but at a tangent. A line projected in the viewspace showed where Copernicus intended to veer away. Just before they reached that point, three missiles streaked out from the belly of the ship, spreading apart as they sped toward the targets.

“What’s Plato doing?” Bandicut asked.

“They’re shouting for information, Cap’n. Can we risk a comm pulse to let them know what’s happening?”

Bandicut started to say yes, but swallowed his words. Might even a brief pulse risk a Mindaru penetration of their AI network—or even of Copernicus, or Jeaves? It might. /Stones, how much information did you get across to Dakota’s stones?/

*Partial briefing, primarily on Mindaru threat. Level of comprehension unknown.*

That could mean enough, or not nearly enough.

Bwang. “Copernicus, what’s happening?” Li-Jared demanded, striding up and down at the far end of the viewspace. “Did we hit anything?”

“Negative on the quantum shock pulses,” Copernicus answered. “Still waiting on the missiles.” He projected a tactical display. They could see now that The Long View had passed from left to right between the three Mindaru and Plato, in a screening movement.

Three spots of green light pulsed, as though deep in a storm cloud.

“That’s detonation,” Copernicus reported. “The contact is changing.”

Ruall flew to the front of the viewspace, crying, “Changing how?”

For a moment no one spoke. Then Jeaves said, “Decoherence. I’m seeing signs of decoherence.”

“You mean the wave functions are collapsing?” Bandicut asked.

Li-Jared took a swift step forward and seemed poised to ask a sharp question. But instead he gestured to the robot to continue. At the front of the viewspace, Ruall was hanging in the air, also waiting.

“Massive loss of entanglement. Yes, it’s collapsing.”

“And that’s good, right?” Bandicut said, and felt Charli mentally crossing her fingers. “That means we hit it?” Did we destroy it?

“Here’s a surprise,” said Copernicus. “There were three contacts—but they’re collapsing into one—”

“One what?” Bandicut could see the three swirls suddenly contract and come together—and then blossom into a flower with a central blaze of light. Against the light, off to the left, fluttered a black moth.

“One object,” said Jeaves. “One solid object.”

For a moment, they all absorbed that in silence. Then Li-Jared yelled, “What kind of object, Jeaves?”

“A vessel of some kind,” Jeaves answered. “It’s shielded. We have not destroyed it. I think we might have—”

“What?” Li-Jared demanded.

“—helped catalyze its creation,” said Jeaves. “This is unexpected. Our warheads seem to have triggered a phase change. Before, we were fighting highly focused waveforms, temporally entangled. Now we’ve got this . . . solid, fast-moving object.”

Ruall began ringing at a low frequency. “This is a dangerous development. I must investigate at a level that you cannot. Bria and I will be gone for a minute or two. Copernicus, move us to a safer distance. I place you in temporary command. Do not engage the enemy if you can avoid it.”

“What are you do—?” Bandicut began, but Ruall had already turned sideways and vanished into the air, followed by Bria.


The rotation out of tri-space, through the wall of the spaceship, pancaked Ruall into the surrounding multi-space with unexpected force and turbulence. A lot was happening. The flowing space-time of the starstream was punctuated by shrieking echoes from the place where moments ago the collapsing wave function had given birth to a solid object.

Multiple views were possible of the object, and Ruall sensed Bria darting among them. /Careful, Bria!/ Dark, too, was out here, a blurry presence sliding around the Mindaru like a shepherding entity, more light than dark in this part of the continuum.

The Mindaru in physical form looked like a helical thing of steel, emerging from nothing into this crossover of n-space and fractal space. Ruall slipped in and out of dimensions and found different slices of the Mindaru in each level. It was rotating and yawing, as though seeking its own level and direction, and Ruall thought, It’s alive and hunting, but it’s disoriented. If we’re going to strike it, this really is the time. Oh yes, the Bandicut one was right. Strike while it’s weak! /Bria, back to the ship with me!/

The gokat glinted here, and there, and then streaked over to join her, and together they returned to tri-space.


To Charli, it was clear they were in trouble. If their efforts to kill the thing had only made it stronger, their mission might indeed be over, as Li-Jared had feared. They were going to have to do everything right to get out of this alive, and help Dakota to get out of it alive, as well.

But what was the right way? What did they know about this thing—except that it was unquestionably deadly. The one who knew the most, probably, was Dark—and she was out there probing, but not communicating. Did Dark understand the need to keep those on the ship informed?

When Ruall and Bria slipped out to survey the scene, Charli felt a surge of hope that they would not simply have to take a stab in the dark whether to flee or attack.

But as she waited, she thought, perhaps they didn’t need to rely only on Ruall and Bria. She could reach across the gulf to Dark. John wouldn’t like it, because when she’d tried something like it back on the Starmaker mission, it had nearly killed her. But she knew better what to do now, and besides, Dark had translator-stones, which should help.

She queried Bandicut’s stones and found encouragement. They too wanted to know more. It was a risk, but a risk worth taking.

To John, she said,

/// I’m going to take a quick look

and see what I can find out from Dark.

I’ll be right back. ///

Before he could protest, she was on the move.


Bandicut felt Charli’s sudden movement and started to shout /No!/ but it was too late. One moment the quarx was centered in his head, and the next she was out there somewhere, trying to get Dark’s attention. He felt a rush of panic, but he fought it down to churning anxiety. Don’t do anything foolish! he thought bleakly.

He was distracted then by Copernicus announcing, “We’re getting some pinging on our sensor array. Our friend’s trying to break in. We’re guarding against it.”

“Christ, that didn’t take long! Coppy, you’ve got to get off a warning to Plato! Just a snap-burst to let them know of the danger.”

Copernicus clicked. “Agreed.” Click click. “It is sent.”

Li-Jared immediately asked, “Did it try to get in while you were sending?”

Copernicus was busy doing some complex flying. Jeaves answered for him. “Yes, it tried. Not too skillfully, and it was easy to deflect. I would guess it hasn’t had time to study us yet.”

“If it’s unprepared, then we should get the hell out of here while we can,” Li-Jared said. “And get back to our mission, which just became a lot more urgent.”

Bandicut said, “I agree about the urgency. But this may be our one chance to destroy that thing before it can get to Karellia.”

As Li-Jared tapped his chest, thinking about that, a pop broke the air and Ruall reappeared in the center of the viewspace. An instant later, a smaller pop accompanied the reappearance of Bria. “Listen!” clanged Ruall. “We may not have much time! The intruder appears disoriented. It might not have intended to materialize yet. We think it may be at its most vulnerable right now. We must press the attack!”


The Mindaru didn’t wait for them to decide. It had taken the shape of a silver helix, hanging in the middle of the starstream. It began rotating, and it flung off droplets of light in a casual-looking spray toward The Long View. It was almost beautiful.

Weapons fire?

Jeaves confirmed that it was. “I don’t know exactly what that is, but I’m seeing a lot of highly energetic neutrons.”

“Neutrons! Enough to kill, if they hit us? Or hit Plato?” Bandicut asked. /Charli, where are you?/ Several minutes had passed since the quarx had jumped, and his worry was edging toward panic.

“Possibly. We can deflect it with our shielding. But Plato? Maybe not,” Jeaves answered. “If a burst penetrated Plato’s hull, it would probably kill everyone aboard. Everyone organic, anyway.” As he spoke, the first burst of light sprayed into The Long View’s outer shields. Bandicut’s stomach tightened, until Jeaves said, “No damage, though it cost us some energy to stop it.”

Heart thumping, Bandicut asked, “Is Plato getting to a safe distance?” /Charli! We may be in trouble! Where are you? Quit fucking around./

Plato seems to be moving in to back us up.”

Damn. /Stones, can you reach Charli?/

No response. But the Mindaru had noticed Plato’s approach, behind and to the left of The Long View. A volley of fire spun off from the Mindaru, shooting wide of The Long View toward Plato. Bandicut froze for a second, then shouted, “Copernicus, can you stop that?”

“It’ll cost us, Cap’n.” The bridge lighting flickered, as something flashed out in the viewspace—a momentary glimmer like a ghostly wall. The enemy fire seemed to veer slightly and flickered past Plato in a clean miss.

Bandicut yelled approval—and with a sinking feeling, realized there was no echo from the quarx. Had she really jumped away, and not kept one foot in his head?

*She intended only to stretch, not to jump. But we’re barely hanging onto contact.*

/Christ Almighty. We could lose her!/

“It worked,” Copernicus said. “But it took a hefty burst of energy. I can’t keep it up.”

“Don’t try, then,” said Ruall.

“Can you get us in front of Plato, to shield her?” Bandicut asked, his fear for Charli warring with his fear for Dakota and her ship.

The Long View maneuvered sharply back toward a protective position. Another spray of light hit The Long View’s shields and dissipated.

“We cannot keep up being a shield,” Ruall warned. “We must maneuver if we are to destroy it! Copernicus, set up another attack run!”


Charli had never intended to leap. What she tried to do was stretch from her connection to Bandicut, out toward Dark. But when she hit the strange and turbulent emptiness of the starstream, suddenly nothing was secure. She called out to Dark.

The singularity-being called back, but from far away. She couldn’t make out anything Dark was saying. She stretched farther, and called,

/// Dark, we need help!

Come back! ///

Whatever Dark might have replied, Charli missed. The enemy loosed something with a rumble, and the n-space around her buckled abruptly.

Charli felt her grip on Bandicut slip. Then it was gone, and she was falling, first toward Dark and then into the stressed, infinitely stretched emptiness of the starstream.


“Copernicus!” Ruall commanded. “Two more quantum shock bursts.”

Tick. “But our last—”

“It may be more vulnerable as a solid than as a waveform.”

“Roger.” New sparkles of light streaked out from The Long View, straight for the Mindaru ship. With a flash of silver, a bubble went up around the Mindaru. The shock bursts flared into it. The bubble went down, revealing the Mindaru unaffected.

“Again!” clanged Ruall.

Two more quantum bursts streaked out, and again a bubble appeared, absorbing the bursts.

“Send five this time!” Ruall rang.

“Wait!” called Jeaves. “I think the bubble is eating those bursts. We may be making it stronger.”

Bandicut swore silently. His fear for Charli and Dakota was rapidly being joined by fear for their own survival.

“Did we damage it?” Ruall demanded.

“Not that I can detect,” said Jeaves. “But it’s pinging our sensors harder than ever now. It seems to be learning.”

Ruall sounded an angry cymbal-crash. “Copernicus! N-space disrupter warheads! Start with three!”

Bandicut protested in a hoarse voice, “The danger to the starstream—and Charli . . .”

Ruall spun and snapped, “How is it a danger to Charli?”

Shutting his eyes, Bandicut told her. Li-Jared hissed in dismay.

Ruall gave a perturbed vibration. “I am sorry, but I see no choice,” she rasped. “Do you?” Pause. Bandicut could offer nothing; neither did Jeaves or Li-Jared. “Copernicus, ready?” Ruall rang.

Tap. “Ready.”

“All three. Fire.

Bandicut’s fists tightened, his nails digging into his palms. /Stones, could Charli have made it over to Dark?/

The stones twinged in his wrists, and seemed to writhe with worry.

Three missiles, points of light, shot toward the Mindaru. The bubble went up. The points of light bounced back, then flared with cones of actinic light focused on the bubble. The bubble went dark.

“Same thing,” Li-Jared muttered.

But it wasn’t. The Mindaru vessel veered suddenly, in a sharp lateral motion—toward the starstream wall. Tumbling. Fire danced along its spiral. Was it out of control?

“Damn!” Bandicut breathed. “It worked!”

“Copernicus, follow!” Ruall snapped.

But the Mindaru careened into the starstream wall—and vanished in a mushroom of sickly-green light. The light splintered and went dark.

The Mindaru was gone.

Copernicus began haltingly, “Captains, I don’t know if it’s safe to go through the wall—after—”

“You did it once—” Ruall twanged.

And then a ghostly green wave front swelled in the viewspace—reflected energy?—and hit The Long View like a tsunami. Copernicus and Ruall both cried out. The gravity field fluctuated. Bandicut lurched into the air, stomach churning—and then crashed back to the deck. “What the hell?” he gasped.

“N-space shock wave. More coming! Brace yourselves!” Copernicus warned.

“What the—? Coppy?” Bandicut pointed out the viewspace. Not just the wave front, but the glimmering starstream wall, were looming before them. They, too, seemed to be tumbling.

“Attempting to control—”

“Call Plato!” Bandicut yelled “Dark!” Charli!

Before Copernicus could finish the sentence, the starstream wall was upon them. A sea-green light flared around them. It felt to Bandicut as if they were inside an enormous thundercloud. The gravity-field lurched again, slamming him up off the deck and into the air. Before he hit the deck again, it had stabilized.

And the galaxy shone bright and glittering in the viewspace, as they gazed at the glowing tunnel of the starstream—but this time from the outside.

Chapter 25 Planetfall at the Core

JULIE HAD PRETTY well lost track of time in the ghoststream. But they had been searching long and hard; she knew that. There had been periods of rest and body maintenance—she knew that, too—but she was always in a mental fog during those periods. How it worked was something of a mystery. She and Ik remained right where they were, near the center of the galaxy, somewhere in deep time, their minds at the end of the ghoststream like the nose on a snake. Their bodies, at the distant tail of the snake, were tended by Shipworld technology for food and elimination, air and water, and even sleep. She felt a periodic drowsiness, which clung for a while and then lifted, never exactly leaving her satisfied but restoring her enough to keep her going.

She had no idea how many times they’d rested this way as they searched the star clouds, ever nearer to the galactic core. The search felt almost random—here’s a million stars clustered together—there’s a pretty one. She knew the stones had maps from previous exploratory efforts, but it was a difficult problem to synchronize the maps to a given time. The star systems careened about the galactic center at different rates, and a million years, give or take, changed everything in the layout of star systems.

Guided by the stones’ best efforts to navigate—which turned out to be pretty good—they located three more worlds with fossil traces of Mindaru-like activity, and four with no such traces but with living microbial and botanical ecosystems. Under other circumstances, they would have studied those four worlds with enthusiasm. But that was not today’s mission. When they found no echo of the Mindaru or their Survivor masters, they moved on.

The next clue appeared on the surface of a rocky planet with a reddish sun. The planet’s atmosphere was thin, smoggy with organic oxides. The radiation flux, mostly from the galactic core region rather than the local sun, was enough to cook meat. Here they found imprints in the rock, patterns that recorded the presence of the Mindaru, thousands or millions of years before. The stones deciphered enough from those patterns to point them toward their next destination: a multiple-sun system with an amethyst and wispy-white fourth planet, possessing a shockingly strong magnetic field, complex atmospheric chemistry, and briny oceans with meandering shorelines.

/This looks almost Earthlike,/ Julie murmured. She wondered if the planet’s magnetic field was enough to block out the hail of radiation from space, and if there was an ecology altogether different from Earth’s.

The ghoststream dipped toward the clouds, and they descended into the atmosphere.

As the clouds whipped past their faces, Ik barked a cry of alarm. /What was that?/ Something had shot past them, several somethings, climbing through the atmosphere.

Julie hadn’t gotten a good look, but she felt a chill. Another shape loomed, and seemed to swerve directly toward them. She choked back a shriek, and felt—or imagined—a buffeting as the object passed through them. /Did you feel that, Ik?/

Ik muttered something to himself. Julie gazed at him, at his deep-set eyes in his sculpted blue-white face, ghostly here, and thought, He’s encountered the Mindaru before. He doesn’t want to do it again. Is he just on edge, or were those Mindaru?

As she spoke, two more shadows fled past, upward into the clouds. Far below, the sea glimmered. The scene was blurry, though.

*Event noted. We wish not to risk a direct encounter yet, if those objects were actual Mindaru.*

/Do you think they were?/

*Possibly. If so, they may be well developed. Let us move farther backward in time, to see if we can find them in an earlier stage of development.*


To Julie it felt like only a moment before they came down low enough to hover directly over the sea. But the stones informed them that they were now several thousand years farther back than a moment ago. She sensed that that was barely a rounding error in the length of their stretch back in time, which was currently 1.68 billion years.

*It is difficult to measure the years precisely,* the stones acknowledged.

It seemed as though the farther back they went, the more the color spectrum changed. Changes in the atmosphere? Changes in the sun? There was a purple tinge to everything now. The sea was grey-green and purple, and choppy beneath them. Julie felt a momentary vertigo, suddenly afraid that she would fall out of the ghoststream and land in the sea. A gravel beach edged the water as far as they could see. Running along the inland side of the beach were cliffs that looked as if they had been laid down with sculptural precision. Glittering here and there along their outer edges were encrustations of what looked like crystal deposits, glinting violet and white.

*Let’s take a closer look and see if those deposits are natural,* the stones suggested.

Ik’s breath rumbled low in his throat. /Hrrm, carefully./

Julie felt a lurching and swaying, or the illusion of it, as the head of the ghoststream snake bobbed and weaved as it changed direction and approached the cliffs. It was a geologist’s dream, she thought: glints of metal and quartz and translucent patches that looked like nothing she was familiar with.

*We find a high electrochemical potential in the deposits, and complex internal organization,* said the stones. *Possibly complex enough to support cybernetic activity.*

Julie winced, and Ik was silent.

*We suggest exploring the top surface.*

They ascended to the tops of the cliffs and moved inland, scanning the flat, rocky, elevated surface. The ground had an oily-wet sheen that seemed almost metallic. As they inspected more closely, though, they saw that it was more like a contained oiliness beneath a clear surface coating. Beneath the oil sheen, there was an occasional flicker of light, or a shifting of shape and contrast. It looked like movement, though it was hard to say whether it was material or just a movement of light. Either way, it did not look natural to Julie.

*We would like to scan this carefully,* said the stones.

/You think this might be it?/ Julie asked. /A place where Mindaru are born?/

For a long minute, there was no answer. Julie could just see Ik’s face reflected in the strange bubble that surrounded them. He looked extremely wary, stroking the side of his bony, bluish face with his long fingers. Then the stones said, *Your hypothesis is not unreasonable, but it remains only a hypothesis. We detect cyberlike activity, mostly at a quantum level. The exact nature is unclear. A more intimate probing could perhaps establish more detail. But we do not think that would be—* Julie felt something sharp from the stones, like a reflexive pulling back.

/Hrah—no!/ Ik barked. /Do not try to make contact!/ He stirred, his hands closing and opening nervously.

*We will not,* the stones continued. *Even though the actual possibility of making contact is extremely low, any risk of infection is too great—or the risk of giving them information.*

Julie felt the sharpest chill yet. She shivered, physically. /Can they detect us?/

*Extremely unlikely. However, because of the quantum-entangled nature of our presence—and the quantum nature of the processing we observe here—it is not utterly inconceivable,* the stones said. *We do not want to risk it.* The stones paused, as though pondering. *What we observe right now is . . . alarming.*

The ghoststream bubble had drifted close to the surface, close enough for fluctuations in the oily sheen to be clearly visible. Were they casting a shadow on it? Or was that strange layer somehow—and this was an even more chilling thought—reacting to their passage? The possibility made her shudder.

When the stones spoke again, they sounded strained—maybe a little shaken. *We felt a momentary probe from the ground—probably just reflex, but we can’t be sure. We don’t know what in our presence could be detectable, but there did seem to be a reaction.*

Julie felt Ik’s intake of breath. /What can we do?/ she asked softly, as if the things below might hear.

*Let’s pull back toward the future, just a little.*


After the shimmering thing overhead vanished, there was a muttering of thought within the complex overlays of the granular circuitry of the Awareness. Something had been sensed, something faint, but none of the grains could put a clear identification to it. It was different from anything they had met on the land, or in the sky. It seemed as though it might be important. In the millennia since the Awareness had come together here, to quietly and deliberately advance the cause of the Survivors, only two important things had been registered in this place. The first was the growth of the Awareness itself. The second was the growth of the organics in the sea, the organics for which the Awareness had a carefully planned purpose. Now, this.

The readings were vague, poorly defined: something hovering nearby. They were vague enough that the probability was better than half that it was simply an artifact of their sensory organs. After all, what could it be? Not solid, nor liquid, nor vapor, nor electromagnetic. Quantum-level disturbances were present, with peculiar characteristics, including . . . temporal distortion? These characteristics were well beyond the ability of even the more unified portions of the Awareness to read with any definition. They did not seem to be a natural part of the quantum-foam background. After a few thousand milliseconds, they were gone. Had something visited, then departed? Or was it all just background noise, or perhaps an unusual side effect of the nearby organic life processes, such as the beach-crawlers?

All possibilities seemed more unlikely than likely. But they would monitor closely for it to happen again. If the answer didn’t come at once, they could wait. If there was anything this Awareness had, it was patience, and a long memory.


The sky was a transparent violet dome over the world, streaked with thin wisps of white cloud that curled in feathery patterns around the blazing orbs of the three suns, two together down by the horizon and one much higher in the sky. Toward the other horizon, a few other points of light, much smaller, pierced the sky. The mingled colors of the three suns sparkled off the crystals that salted the cliff faces rising above Tzangtzang, as he paused to look around. He had just drunk his fill at the sweet spring at the base of the cliff, and was now making his way after his companion Kardu toward the vapors that rose languidly from the sea. Tzangtzang scuttled farther down the beach, and then paused his flipper-driven movement for another moment, peering out of his shell at the peaceful scene. Something above the sea, in the sky, had caught his attention: a ghostly sheen that seemed to float in the air, not far off the water.

Raising and turning his head, Tzangtzang tried to focus on the sight, but it was elusive. He couldn’t quite make it out. He sniffed something else—like a change in the wind, but less like a smell than a shift in the suns and the clouds. It wasn’t visible to him, and it made no sense. But he felt something. He couldn’t tell what it was, and it made him uneasy.

Could it be a threat? Maybe, if it was connected to those things high on the cliffs that wailed from time to time in a soul-chilling voice—and that on occasion tried to creep into his mind, and the minds of his fellows. Tzangtzang trembled at the thought. The things on the cliff had been quiet a while, and he hoped they weren’t going to start up again. What most troubled him was that part about them creeping into his thoughts—and the possibility that something so nasty and piercing could even get into his mind. The touch, the few times he’d felt it, was like ice splinters. What the things wanted, Tzangtzang did not know. But they pinched and bit, and put words and thoughts where they weren’t welcome. Tzangtzang dreaded them.

For all his fear, though, he had never actually seen the things close up; none of his group had. The things mostly stayed high on the cliffs, where Tzangtzang’s people, with their hard-body shells and flippers, could not climb. But more than once, Tzangtzang had, from a distance, seen small, dark shapes creeping down the face of the cliff. He wished he could forget that sight, because it was a dreadful memory, and he hoped he would never see anything like it again.

But this thing in the sky, now—it gave a different feeling. It gave him more of a floaty feeling. Airy and light. It didn’t seem to be trying to get into his thoughts. It was more as if it were gliding down from the suns, and just peering around. Could it be something from one of the suns? Was that even possible? Tzangtzang didn’t know.

Out in the swells, Kardu was beckoning him to hurry and come back into the sea, back to the realm of the undersea basin where the people dwelled. But Tzangtzang remained where he was, gazing into the sky. Do you see this? Do you feel it? he mind-spoke to Kardu. Something watching from the sky?

Kardu splashed the edge of the water in annoyance. I don’t see anything, and I don’t want to. Come, we’ve been out too long. I don’t want to go back alone.

Tzangtzang kept his gaze on the sky. The glimmering thing had briefly gone away; but now, there it was again, flickering, a ghostly sheen of light just a splash different from the rest of the sky. He imagined he could glimpse something inside it. Maybe not by sight. Maybe just a feeling. A feeling that faces were up there, peering down at him. They felt nothing like any faces Tzangtzang had ever known. He was afraid of them; and yet, he wasn’t.

They were drawing closer.

Tzangtzang was utterly transfixed, not knowing what to do. He managed a strangled cry to Kardu. When his companion, who was already halfway into the water, finally turned in the right direction to see the strange apparition, he was so startled, he splashed the water in alarm. Tzangtzang thought he would flee into the water. But Kardu didn’t; instead, he controlled himself long enough to say, What is it?

I don’t know. But I think it’s different from those other things. Don’t you feel it?

I just feel afraid.

Tzangtzang tried to be patient. Is it forcing its way into your thoughts like the mind-stealers?

Kardu hesitated, before admitting, No.

It’s different, then. Let’s wait and see what happens.

Kardu’s hesitation stretched longer. Then he splashed up and down in the shallows. You wait. I am not. And with that, he plunged and disappeared into the vaporous sea.

Tzangtzang remained where he was. He didn’t blame Kardu. The basin and the people and the flocks they shepherded were a place of safety. He could feel the pull toward them, even now, even at such a distance, the softly quavering mind-voices. But he wanted to know what this thing in the sky was.

Tzangtzang hesitantly raised a flippered paw toward the apparition. Finally his courage gave out, and he too dove into the water.


/Do you see that?/ Julie whispered, straining to peer at something moving near the edge of the water.

Their slight climb back toward the future had steered them away from the planet’s surface, and the stones had just guided them back to what appeared to be the same stretch of seashore. They had landed a thousand or so years forward in time, one small step closer to their own time in the future. The sea appeared cloudier, and the seashore had eroded some, bringing the edge of the water closer to the cliffs. The cliffs themselves displayed remnants of rock slides where their sculpted faces had given way to the elements. Most of the crystal deposits were gone.

Stirring at the edge of the sea were two creatures—the first living things they had seen in this deep, distant past—or at least the first larger than bacteria. At first glance, they reminded Julie of turtles, though with six flippered limbs. It wasn’t clear whether they had movable heads or not.

/Who are these guys?/ she muttered, keeping her voice low, as though the things might hear her.

*Indigenous animal life,* murmured her stones, in a similarly hushed tone. *We had not anticipated finding animated large biologicals here.*

They edged closer. Vapors curled up from the water, making it look like a simmering soup, though the air felt chilly. How Julie could sense a chill, she did not know, though she assumed it must have been readings picked up by the sensor array.

The creatures scuttled toward the water, moving their six flippered legs in an oddly coordinated pattern. The resemblance now struck Julie as perhaps closer to horseshoe crabs than turtles; they appeared to have hard, angular shells, and pointed tails. Now she could see triangular heads poking out of the shells.

One of them hesitated briefly, and then scuttled into the sea, submerging and vanishing.

Julie feared the other would follow, and they would lose sight of the only animal life they’d found in all the past.

/Hrah, watch its behavior./

Julie needed no prompting. The creature was standing as though rooted, its head raised and moving slightly from side to side. /Is it looking at us?/ she breathed. A cluster of spots that might have been eyes seemed focused in their direction. /Do you think it can see us?/

Ik didn’t answer, and neither did the stones. But a slight adjustment to the ghoststream moved them a short distance laterally from the creature’s position. Its head and eyes followed their movement.

*It would seem so. Again, this is unexpected. Our assumptions may require adjustment.*

/Ummm . . . if it can see us, then maybe it . . . / Julie let her words trail off. She didn’t really want to follow that thought.

/Hrah,/ said Ik, following it for her. /We could be changing the future just by being here. By influencing it. Even if we do nothing—/

/We’ve made it stop and look at us. Just that./ Julie’s voice was suddenly dry. /We’ve delayed it—and maybe changed its thinking. Can such a small action cause the future to change?/

The stones answered slowly. *That would be a quick conclusion, and contrary to best theory. Also unsupported by evidence.*

/But it’s looking at us!/ Julie insisted. /That has to affect it!/

*Perhaps so. But if time has the elasticity predicted by theory, it should absorb small changes, like eddies in a stream. The changes are localized, and disappear over a longer time frame.*

/Hrrm,/ said Ik. /Is that the same theory that said we’d be invisible to the locals?/

The stones had no answer to that.

At a distance that felt close enough to touch, the creature cocked its head at a small movement of the ghoststream. In spite of her fear, Julie felt a rush of desire to speak to it. Without really thinking what she was doing, she raised a hand and reached out. At once, the creature raised its right front flipper. Was it pointing toward them? Can it see us? What does it see—my face, my eyes, my hands?

At that moment, the spell broke. The creature turned, scurried, and plunged into the water. It sank quickly out of sight.

Ik and Julie were left staring at each other in astonishment. /Do you suppose the creature is related to the Mindaru?/ Julie wondered aloud. That didn’t feel right to her, but how could they tell? She was confused, frightened, and exhilarated, all at same time—and she felt a sense of loss at the disappearance of the creature.

*It appeared organic, which would argue against its being Mindaru,* the stones noted. *But we cannot say with certainty.*

/Hrrm,/ said Ik. /I think it was not. It did not have the right feel, or smell, if you will./

*May we go up and check on the cliff-top for Mindaru precursors?* the stones asked.

Julie and Ik agreed, not without a feeling of dread. The ghoststream moved slowly up the cliff and flew low over the flat ground at the top of the cliffs, and inland a short distance. At first the surface seemed unchanged, even after the passage of a thousand years. This must be quite a stable area geologically, Julie thought.

And then they saw it.

At first it looked like another wide oil slick saturating the ground, similar to what they had seen before, but wider and darker. They saw none of the flickering lights beneath the surface. Had the energy died out? Perhaps not. The stones murmured a new finding: activity was detected deeper in the ground, and possibly not just electronic and optical. What, then?

*Deep ranging indicates subterranean air chambers and passages, possibly extending far beneath the surface. It would seem that this ground is honeycombed.*

It was all Julie could do to get out the words, /With what?/

*Impossible to be sure. Dense with machinery, possibly.*

Julie gulped. /What kind of machinery?/

*Numerous small machines.*

/That’s not very specific,/ Julie said.

And Ik: /Machinery to climb out? Machinery to travel?/

*We cannot say for sure. Let us see how it develops. With your permission, we would like to move a little farther up along the timeline.*


Tzangtzang felt his courage return, once he was beneath the surface. Instead of following Kardu, he lingered in the shallows. After a few minutes, he breached the surface again and, sluicing the brine from his eyes, peered once more into the sky. Was it gone? He couldn’t see it. Why did he care? He didn’t know. Foolishness.

And then, there it was: just a glimmer, rising and departing, and then winking out.

Questions crowded into his mind. What was that thing? Even if not dangerous, it was troublesome to his spirit. It must have had some purpose here. Would it be back? And more important, was it or was it not in league with the mind-stealers on the cliffs?

What if it was the thing that would save them from the mind-stealers?

Just the thought was enough to make Tzangtzang quiver with a thrill of uncertainty. As the feeling dissipated, he swiveled in the water and scanned the cliffs, now glowing dull orange in the light of fading day. He didn’t see anything moving on the rock faces. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be back again.

With a quick, coordinated movement of his six paddles, Tzangtzang spun to face once more out to sea—and then kicked away and down, following the bottom contour out into the bay. Down into the darkness of the basin, to join his people. With luck, they could all stay in the water for tonight. This ghost made him uneasy about anyone coming out to the spring tonight. Yes, they all needed to come ashore eventually; but perhaps for this night, they could stay at sea, and he could tell them all of the mysterious visitor.


The ghoststream dipped back toward the seashore once more. It looked little changed, except that they had reached it at night, their position tweaked roughly another hundred years toward the future. The starlight this close to the galactic center was brighter than a full moon on Earth, and it reflected off the water in a thousand wavering points of light. The water seemed closer to the cliff faces. Had the water level risen? Julie wondered. Or was it just high tide? Did this planet even have a moon and tides? She didn’t know.

/Hrah, what are those things moving on the cliff face?/ Ik asked.

Julie raised her gaze; she had been focusing on the water, unconsciously looking for the creature they had left behind a hundred years ago. Now she saw what Ik meant: three black beetle shapes were crawling on the vertical faces of rock, two moving upward, and one down. They were hard to make out in the night. /What the—?/

*Preliminary scan of cyber activity suggests objects are derived from machines we detected in the last location.*

/Ugh. What do you think they’re doing?/ Julie asked. /Can we get closer?/

The viewpoint came close enough to make Julie shiver with revulsion. The objects were smaller than the animals they had seen, but it was hard for her not to think of them as a threat to the creatures, which she found herself thinking of as their creatures. But—aside from their having scary pincerlike appendages—it was hard to gauge anything specific about the machines’ function.

*Scouting, is our first guess. But they might also have the capacity for attacking or seizing.*

/Seizing what? The organics?/

*No other targets are in evidence.*

Julie shifted her gaze around and scanned the water. Were any of the creatures in evidence? There—a disturbance in the water. After a moment, a head broke the surface. It looked like the same type of creature as before. It was swimming toward shore, leaving a tiny wake. Now, another joined it—and a third.

/Either, hrrm, they know and trust the things on the cliff . . . /

/Or they can’t see them./

/ . . . yes, or they need to come ashore, machines or not. Some biological imperative, perhaps. Feeding . . . /

/Or sleeping, or reproducing,/ Julie said.

*Let us observe.*

They did, watching the creatures approach the shore in the starlight. They were in the shallows, just a few meters from the water’s edge, when the black things on the cliff face suddenly burst into movement. All three slid down, with startling speed, toward the beach. The beetle-machines were on the gravel, scooting toward the water, before the turtle-creatures even began to react. Changing direction in the shallows was obviously awkward and difficult. Nevertheless, the turtle-things scrambled to turn and flee back toward deeper water.

The first of the mechs plunged straight into the water, making almost no splash and disappearing at once beneath the surface. A second one followed, while the third began ranging up and down the shore. Looking for beached turtles?

/Swim!/ Julie thought, unintentionally voicing the word.

/Hrrrrr!/ said Ik.

Two of the creatures kept churning out to sea. But the third, a little behind, suddenly began thrashing on the surface. Julie tensed. The thrashing lasted only a moment—and then the creature sank beneath the gentle waves. Half a minute passed. The water swirled, closer to shore. The turtle-creature emerged, apparently under its own power. But the black mech was now on its back, close to the head, pincers firmly locked on the front edge of its shell.

Julie watched in horrified fascination as the turtle—controlled by the mech?—marched straight out of the water and onto the beach. Without hesitation it made for the cliff face. The other two beetles converged, and where they met—at the base of the cliff—a dark vertical crack appeared, and widened enough to become a doorway. There was some scuttling activity that was hard to follow, but a few moments later the mechs and creature were all gone, and the opening had sealed shut. The beach was left as quiet as it had been only minutes earlier. Out in the shallows, there was one last splash, and then the water too was quiet.

Neither Julie nor Ik could speak for a few moments. Then the stones said: *Predatory behavior by the mechs.*

/Mindaru,/ Julie muttered, and Ik growled, at the same instant. They had no proof; but Ik, in particular, seemed certain.

The ghoststream lifted away from that place, and up and over the cliffs. For a minute or two, they took readings at a fantastic rate. But there was a growing edge of concern that Julie felt without the stones actually voicing it. Her own thoughts were buzzing with fear. Because they might be vulnerable somehow to those things? Or because of the nagging thought: What would those things be like with another billion and a half years of evolution?

*We believe it is time to withdraw,* the stones said abruptly. *We have sufficient readings to indicate intense and growing cybermech activity underground here.* The ghoststream bubble rose from the cliff edge and backed up and away over the shoreline. Farther up the coast, several turtle-creatures were fleeing back to the sea. Julie knew it made no sense to feel emotional attachment; nevertheless, her heart went out to them.

*We are receiving pings from home base. Perhaps it is time we reported back,* the stones murmured.

/Oh yes, I think so,/ Julie breathed, and Ik echoed her sentiment.

The landscape fell away as they withdrew into the sky. Soon they had left the planet behind in the ghostly glowing clouds of the galactic center, and the eons reeled past as they sped back up the timestream toward home.


Not much had changed in the life of Tzangtzang or his fellows, though the years had worn well on him. The memory of the ghostly visitor persisted in Tzangtzang’s thoughts for a long time. He never saw them again. But he often scanned the sky when he was on the surface, hoping and yet afraid to see them again. He always wondered whether they were connected in any way to the mind-stealers, and if so, whose side they were on.

Tzangtzang had not yet fallen to the mind-stealers, though he had narrowly escaped more than once. Several of the basin dwellers had not been so fortunate. On more than a few occasions, he had witnessed his people freezing suddenly in place on the beach—for no apparent cause—overcome by a paralysis that in some cases lasted half a day, and in other cases, ended in death. Over the years, two of his fellows had actually been seized by those strange, demonic things that came from the cliffs. Seized and dragged away, never to be seen again. The second time, Tzangtzang had fought down his fear and tried to help. But there was nothing he could do. Something had entered his mind even as he lurched to the rescue—entered, and slowed, and caused him to freeze up. He, in that moment, was lucky. It made no effort to take him. It was just holding him out of the way, like an annoying young one. Apparently the mind-stealers were interested in taking just one at a time.

Tzangtzang had remained unable to move for some time after Langtong had been dragged away. His shame had lasted much longer, though—and his fear. He feared the beach, though the beach was life.

However much they might want to stay under the sea, where it was safe, no basin dweller could stay underwater forever. Without the sunlight to harden their shells, they would grow vulnerable to injury and disease. Without sipping at times from the sweet spring that issued from the cliff, they would grow weak and die. So which was worse: the fear of the mind-stealers, or the death that would come if they stayed away?

Fear was important; it was needed; it had a place in the life of the people. But one could not allow fear to be the conqueror. Tzangtzang believed this, and over time he faced his fears and began again to walk more boldly on the beach that was the birthright of his people. He encouraged the others to be bold with him: safety in numbers. By now, a season had passed since the last taking, and many seasons since the ghostly visitor had come and gone.

A day came, though, when Tzangtzang was a little too unafraid, when he walked a little ahead of his fellows toward the spring, a little too hungry for the sweetness . . .

He heard the cry from the others, but it was already too late.

The mind-stealers must have been moving nearby, but Tzangtzang never saw them. He stumbled first, and then felt a brief, searing pain. Something was stabbing into his head, and something else was locking across his body, and he was—without any volition at all—running toward a dark crevice in the cliff wall. The crevice opened, and a great blackness yawned.

That was the last Tzangtzang knew for a very long time.

Chapter 26 The Heart of the Scalapoorie

ON THE THIRD day in Buck’s cabin, Antares awoke to the clicking sounds of Napoleon moving about nearby. He kept looking in her direction, and she wondered if he was deliberately trying to wake her. That would be extremely unusual, and just that thought was enough to stir her awake. “Yes, Napoleon,” she said, sitting up. “What is it?”

“Ah, Lady Antares, I’m glad you’re awake. I wasn’t sure.”

“I am now. What is it?”

Napoleon clicked and stood up straighter. “Mister Buck has learned some things that might affect us. He wants to speak with you, if that’s all right.”

“Of course,” Antares said. “Just give me a few moments.” She stood up, straightening her tunic and pushing back her hair. It had been days since she’d properly bathed, and she felt grubby. Buck had been generous with hir facilities, but hir remarks about the cabin being equipped for visitors notwithstanding, it had not altogether been designed for multiple species.

“Take as long as you need.” Napoleon paused. “Are you ready now?”

“Fine,” she sighed. “Lead on.”

Buck was on the other side of the cabin in the communications shack, a nook filled with gear that looked decidedly hand-assembled and delicate. One piece, which was aglow right now under a scratched plastic dome, looked like several slivers of delicate crystal balanced on their tips atop a collection of scrap metal shapes. Hir was leaning close to it, and talking to someone whose answering voice was a husky whisper. Seeing her approach, though, hir ended hir conversation with a hasty, “Here she is now. We will see you soon.” Hir touched something that made a tiny light go out and rose on hir furry haunches to greet her, rubbing hir hands together. “Very good. I have very good news for you.” Hir cocked hir head, lowering hir snout slightly while peering at her with hir bright yellow eyes. “Are you prepared to travel?”

“Why? What have you learned?” The last she’d heard before going to sleep was that they were “still trying,” which they had been doing for three days.

“Didn’t your norg tell you? He found a way to contact your Amaduse. And Amaduse has agreed to initiate contact with some individuals here, who might in turn be able to help you with your problem.”

Antares stared at Buck, wondering if she were still asleep. “Amaduse is talking to people here? Napoleon actually got through to him?” She swung to gaze at the robot, who had turned aside to examine some of the instrumentation in the shack. “Napoleon? How did you do it?”

Napoleon hesitated, before adopting a tone that suggested that it was all in a day’s work. “It was a matter of using existing lines of communication.”

She shook her head. “I thought communication was cut off.”

“By direct means. And most indirect means, also. But I found help. Do you remember Hroom, of the shadow-people?”

“Hroom? Yes, of course.” The fractal-dimensional shadow-people were among the strangest beings she had met on Shipworld; but at times they had been remarkably helpful. She remembered them well.

Napoleon continued, “It took time to establish contact with the shadow-people, but once I did, and told them I needed to speak to Hroom—”

“Wait—how did you manage that?”

The robot dismissed the question with a little twitch of one hand. “The shadow-people are not overly troubled by communications embargoes; the trick was getting their attention. A matter of persistence, really. In any case, Hroom remembered me—remembered all of us. He was willing to get a message to Amaduse for me, and act as a go-between. Amaduse, apparently, has been quite worried about us.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

Napoleon clicked an interrogative.

“Glad that he cares enough to be worried. I wasn’t sure how interested he was in helping us out of here.”

“You can stop being unsure,” said Napoleon. “Both he and the shadow-people are acting on our behalf.”

Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised her, but it did.

Buck interrupted. “How soon can you be ready to leave, Lady Antares?”

Antares gave the back of her hand a tentative sniff. “I think it would be good if I freshened up before seeing people, don’t you think? Or are we in too much of a hurry?”

“Freshening up would be good,” Buck agreed.


By the time she was done scrubbing in Buck’s primitive water shower, and had dressed in the well-worn clothes that Buck had put through a quick ultra-mist cycle, hir was waiting for her with a warm roll and some tea for fuel. She ate gratefully. When she had drained the last of her tea, she was ready to go.

From Buck’s cabin they walked a kilometer or so downhill along a dirt road in the woods, emerging into a small settlement of wooden cabins where people of various species seemed to be going about their business, paying little attention to them. A few folk did greet Buck with waves or brief words that went by too fast for translation.

On the far side of the settlement, they came to a raised wooden structure that turned out to be the end-of-the-line station for a light monorail transit. The station was empty. They waited twenty minutes or so until a slender, two-car train glided in straddling the single rail. The one passenger got out, and they boarded. Soon the train started back the way it had come, rocking as it sped along the rail through a mostly wooded landscape.

Antares felt as if she had a thousand questions. She wished Bandicut and the others were here with her. Besides desiring John’s personal companionship, a desire she had largely managed to push to the back of her thoughts, she missed all of their counsel and support, their ability to figure out the right course of action when the course wasn’t obvious. Where were they now? she wondered. On their way to Karellia? And Ik? No way to get answers to these questions now. Instead, she asked, “Who are these people you’re taking us to see?”

Buck was riding in the reverse seat, facing her. Napoleon stood in the aisle, one metal hand on the back of Antares’ seat. Buck didn’t answer right away, and Antares wondered if hir had fallen asleep. She was about to ask again, when hir spoke suddenly. “Folks who knew something of you, actually.”

“Huh? Is that good?” Given that she’d left some people annoyed with her, or at least disappointed . . .

“I think it is good, yes,” Buck said. “You know, don’t you, that there are people in the Scalapoorie District who live quite outside the Shipworld economy?”

Antares cocked her head in puzzlement. “I’m not sure what you mean. I knew people who were opposed to the authority, and trying to make changes—faster than the system would allow.”

Buck brushed at hir whiskers with one hand. “Yes. Of course. But I mean people who do not allow themselves to be recorded in Shipworld databases at all. Or in the iceline. They choose neither to be noticed by the system, nor to avail themselves of what the system has to offer. At least not openly. They are neither listed, nor noticed, nor taxed, nor subsidized.”

She had to think a moment to find the right expression. “Are you talking about an underground economy?”

Buck’s translator medallion also took a few seconds. Hir coughed delicately, putting the back of hir hand to hir snout. “So to speak, yes. Now—as an officer on the gate, I technically should not know about them. Everyone does, though.”

“Are they in trouble?” Antares asked.

“Not from me,” Buck said. “They are not violating any laws that I have anything to do with. But the practice is not looked on favorably in the circles of power. It is one reason for the breakdown in relations between Scalapoorie and the central Shipworld authorities.”

Antares considered that, rocking slightly with the movement of the train. “Are the powers planning a crackdown?”

“Perhaps.” Buck brought hir fingertips together in a way that Antares had seen John Bandicut do from time to time. Hir voice softened to a whisper. “This, I believe, is why these particular people responded favorably when offered a chance to speak to Amaduse.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Antares said, softening her voice as well.

Napoleon leaned forward slightly. “Why are we whispering?”

“Because,” Buck said, puffing air out through hir long mouth, “these are not things we would ordinarily speak of in public.”

Napoleon straightened and swiveled his head left and right. “We seem to be alone, and I detect no listening devices.”

“Good,” Buck huffed. Still, hir kept hir voice low. “They likely hope that Amaduse can give them useful information—including, perhaps, warning of any sort of imminent punitive action.”

Antares scratched her head. “It sounds like things have evolved from when I was last here. There were groups voicing dissatisfaction, but this sounds like open rejection of the Shipworld government. That’s a pretty extreme position. Living without the support of the infrastructure . . .”

“Some of these people are the people we are going to see,” Buck said, raising hir furry chin toward the door. They were pulling in to a stop. The doors opened. “Not yet,” hir said, crooking a paw away from the doors. “One segment farther.” Two new passengers boarded the car, and Buck sat back, closing hir mouth.

Antares fell silent as well, pondering what Buck had told her.


The next station was at a larger settlement—a town, rather than an outpost. It was called Deliberation Woods, or that was how it was translated for Antares, though they were well out of the woods now, and it looked like a jumble of structures assembled with no deliberation whatsoever. Even looking out from the elevated station platform, she could see that the streets were crooked and disorderly, and if there was any regularity to the architecture, she couldn’t discern it. They hurried down a long ramp onto the street.

“Where are we going?” Antares asked, turning. She had gotten a little ahead of Buck. Napoleon was bringing up the rear.

“To the registry,” Buck said.

“Registry? Of what? I thought we were going to see people who—”

Buck raised a paw and made a clucking noise.

Antares shut her mouth. They were out in the open now. More ears could hear.


It didn’t actually take long to get there. Buck led them down a narrow street, around a couple of corners, and finally into an alley of wood-frame structures, all seeming to face the street at a slight angle, but each at a different angle. “This street is called Slope Alley,” hir said. “In its own quiet way, it is the center of a good deal of business activity.” As Antares quickly saw, there were many pedestrians going one way and another. She recognized a few species by body type, from her prior time here. Some were like Buck, and some were tall folk with large eyes, striding along with a loping gait. Others were much shorter and seemed to roll rather than walk. She couldn’t remember what those people were called, but she had seen a few in the old days, before she’d met Bandie and the others.

“Down this way,” Buck said, after briefly questioning one of the rollers. Hir motioned down the alley toward a nondescript corner building made of cement aggregate. A small sign on the corner said, in a local dialect Antares recognized, “Registry of Water and Transportation Services.”

“What,” Antares murmured as they approached the door, “is this place, and why are we coming here?”

Buck’s lips drew slightly upward from hir teeth. Antares could not tell for sure if it was a grimace, a threat, or a smile. Finally she decided that it was an expression of irony. “The registry is a place where the inner gears of society move, often very slowly, and sometimes backward. We are here to meet people who may be able to help you. Hiding, you might say, where least expected.” Then hir lips twitched sharply upward, and that, she sensed, expressed something close to laughter.

She hmm’d to herself, as Buck opened the door and they entered. Napoleon stepped in behind her, his head swiveling from side to side.

“We may have to wait in line—less obtrusive that way—but I will see if I can move things along,” Buck said, gesturing to the left, where a long queue of citizens, of at least five or six different species, stood along the wall. The line extended to the far left wall, and then reversed back toward where they were standing. Still more people filled benches, facing a row of service desks behind which clerks seemed to be assisting one person at a time. “Let’s go ahead and get in line,” Buck said. “Here, take a number from this machine.” Hir pointed to a pedestal-shaped device that spat a ball into Antares’ hand. “I’ll see if I can speak to someone.” Antares looked at the knuckle-sized ball; it bore a long number. She closed her hand around it.

She joined the line and gazed in wonderment. Were the portal gates under the purview of this office? Perhaps that was it. Buck stepped around the waiting customers in the second loop and circled to the right toward the service desks. A tall official standing near the end of the row met hir, looking as though he intended to send Buck back to the end of the queue. But Buck leaned close and spoke to him, and the official’s head bobbed up and down. The official disappeared through a doorway behind the service desks. Buck came back to join Antares and Napoleon. “We may have to wait a little while,” hir said.

“May I ask,” Napoleon said with a quiet click, “what business we are attending to, here?”

“The business of the people,” Buck said, and leaned back against the wall and closed hir eyes.


Ahead of them in line was a pair of Dannari, like Buck, an adult and child. They were chattering, the child hopping in boredom. Eventually the child made a playful grab for the adult’s number ball, and soon was scrabbling around on the floor, chasing the dropped number ball among the legs of the others in line. Hir recaptured it, but not before eliciting sounds of amusement and annoyance from the rest of the line.

Antares clutched her number ball a little tighter.

Eventually she sighed and rested meditatively, her eyes half-closed, her thoughts elsewhere. Where might Ik be by now, and why? And who was his mysterious companion? And John and Li-Jared—surely they were gone by now, off to visit Li-Jared’s homeworld? She missed them all. Without thinking what she was doing, she rested her right hand lightly on Napoleon’s head and stroked it with tiny movements of her hand. She realized what she was doing only when Napoleon tilted his head slightly and said to her, “Lady Antares, is everything all right? Are you feeling well?”

With a hissing chuckle, she withdrew her hand and said, “Yes. Yes, Napoleon. But I am glad you are here with me.”

“I too am glad,” Napoleon said, and settled again into a resting position.


When her number appeared in a floating banner above the service desks, Antares stepped forward, prompted by Buck. At the first desk, a short, tripod-legged individual spoke to them. Buck answered in a dialect that sounded familiar, but not familiar enough to comprehend. The clerk took her ball, handed her a small cube also inscribed with a number, and pointed to a waiting area with backless benches. They sat for an indeterminate time before being called to a different desk, where the ritual was repeated, but this time ending with a small, rectangular chip.

“What’s the point of all this?” Antares whispered fiercely.

“It’s how the local government handles large numbers of people who want services. It’s also the way our contacts set up meetings without being too obvious,” Buck whispered back. “Some of them work here.”

Antares shook her head with incomprehension. Was her meeting going to occur in the middle of the people’s bureaucracy, in view of everyone?

A few minutes later, the chip in her hand tingled and flickered blue. She stood and, with Buck and Napoleon, walked to the desk where a similar light flickered overhead. The clerk, a tall, whiplike creature—a Walakak female-style, Antares thought—was standing rather than sitting behind the desk. She swung her head about as though looking to see if it was quitting time, and finally landed her gaze on Antares. Her eyes were large, and startlingly commanding. Buck’s translator rendered her speech. “What can the governor of Scalapoorie do to assist you?” she asked in a single, long wheeze.

“Uhhll,” Antares began, thinking suddenly that they really should have rehearsed an answer. She took a breath, preparing to try to explain that she needed passage out of Scalapoorie.

“She requires a permit,” Buck interrupted smoothly. “A water permit, for a cabin she will be moving into, in the woods not far from mine.”

The Walakak clerk hummed a moment. “Well, Guardian Buck, you are well known to us. Do you intend to assist Miss Drovens in the interview, then?”

“Well, of course,” Buck said. “Her prior home was in the Racardandro sector, and she needs translation assistance, as well as help in obtaining some of her original documentation, which is in the other sector.”

“Well, that,” said the Walakak female, “will require intercession at a higher level. Will you hold position, please?” She touched a spot in the center of her chest and made low mumbling sounds.

Buck seemed to smile at this, with hir eyes placidly closed. A few moments later, the official hir had spoken with before appeared from a door behind the Walakak’s desk. The official spoke to the Walakak, and then gestured to Buck, who said to Antares, “Come, we are to follow him to an office in back.”

“Just the Thespi woman, please,” said the official, using a translator on his neck. “And Buck.”

Napoleon rose taller. “I am the appointed protector to the Lady Antares, and a decorated member of the Starmaker mission. I will not willingly allow the lady to be separated from my protection.”

Antares blinked, and the official’s eyes widened. Antares had never heard Napoleon speak this way before. She rather liked it. The official seemed speechless. He waved his hands ineffectually. Antares and Napoleon stepped forward together, and no one objected.

The door behind the service desks led to a short hallway punctuated with doors on either side. At the end, they turned to the left, walked a short distance, and then took an ascending ramp that, with several switchbacks, brought them to a second level of rooms. Antares remembered how odd it had seemed to her, a couple of years ago, to discover that many of the buildings in Scalapoorie had no lifts, but only manual means of going from floor to floor. When one of the rollers came barreling down the ramp toward her, she was momentarily startled, until the old reflexes returned and she stepped aside, with one hand automatically outstretched to nudge Napoleon to the side as well. The roller zoomed past. Buck hadn’t even paused, but after neatly stepping out of the roller’s way, continued up the ramp. Antares and Napoleon hurried after.


“Thanks, Jo-oh,” Buck said to the official, as they were ushered into a room at the back of the second floor. Antares suddenly realized that the two knew each other well and had been acting out the previous formality. The room they entered was small and simple, with an oval-shaped table in the middle. Three people were already in the room: another Walakak, male-style, taller and more energetic looking than the clerk they had just seen; and two Torngaloo, with feathers and bills like water birds’.

“I am Whikko,” the Walakak said, striding forward to touch fingertips with Buck, and then with Antares. His gaze was wide like the clerk’s, but far more demanding. “I believe I am the one you have come to see.” He looked Napoleon over for a moment and said, “Clever inorg, you have here.”

Napoleon clicked and did his rise-taller movement, and said, “I am pleased to meet you, also. If I am not mistaken, you are a spokesperson for a certain partisan group here.”

Whikko cocked his narrow head one way and another, as though reevaluating the robot. “You do your research, norg.”

“His name is Napoleon,” said Antares. “And who are your associates?” she asked, turning to the Torngaloo.

“Loomis,” said the taller of the two, whose face sported a duckbill of considerable size. “Trom,” said the other, stouter, with a much shorter bill.

Napoleon leaned closer to Antares and said in a muted voice, “In case this is helpful to you: the Torngaloo are known stereotypically as deal-brokers. They may be people we can work with.”

Loomis clacked his bill. “You do not mince words, robot. We are wondering if you are people we can work with. We like to think of ourselves more as diplomats than as . . . what did you call us? Deal brokers? Having said these words, I now say this: You have brought us here at some inconvenience and risk. What are your needs that are so urgent, that we should care about them?”

“Uhhl.” Antares was starting to feel uncomfortable with this meeting. She closed her eyes for a moment, to see if she could cast an aura of calm about the room. She didn’t feel much response. Blinking her eyes open again, she addressed Buck. “May I ask you to state our needs, our hopes, in the most appropriate way?” She had no idea what she should or should not say to these people, who, though they had come at Buck’s request, seemed ready to find a reason to say no.

“Of course,” said Buck. To the three, hir said, “The Lady Antares Alexandrovens has recently returned from an off-world expedition that may have saved numerous worlds from catastrophe. She now needs help in turn. She is in need of a way to leave Scalapoorie and continue urgent business of a personal nature elsewhere. She has become an unfortunate victim of the travel embargo, you see.”

The one named Whikko said, “I am sure we feel admiration for Miss Drovens’s exploits, and sympathy for her need,” in a tone that left considerable doubt as to whether he felt either. “But the borders are closed. How does her need compare to the needs of those who are actual Scalapoorie residents?”

Antares drew back a little at that. One of the Torngaloo—Loomis—countered with, “There was some talk of give and take, was there not?”

“Amaduse,” said Trom, the shorter Torngaloo. “That was the name we were given.”

Whikko swayed left and right. “How much do we know about this Amaduse? Is he really such a find for us? Will he be a friend?”

Before Antares, or anyone else, could reply, the door opened again, and another figure entered, shuffling. This was a Dannari like Buck, but much older—elderly, in fact—with gray fur and eyes streaked with fine orange lines. Hir moved to take a seat at the end of the table. “Forgive me for being late,” hir wheezed, sliding into the seat. “I am sorry you had to put up with our lines downstairs.”

Whikko bowed low in unmistakable deference and said, “No forgiveness needed, Senior Roward. We are honored to have you.” To Antares, Whikko said, “Please, Ms. Drovens, may I introduce one of our elders, Senior Roward? And Senior Roward—”

The older Dannari waved him to silence. “I remember this Antares. She was one of us, not too long ago, weren’t you, Ms. Alexandrovens? Some of us were sorry when you moved away from our sector, but I understand you have made quite a showing since.”

That surprised her. She answered cautiously, “You know of my . . . er, missions away from Shipworld?”

That brought a hint of a gleam to Roward’s eyes. “Starmaker? The Neri? I know something of them, yes.” Hir inclined hir head toward the others. “I know something of this Amaduse, as well.”

Loomis scratched his bill with a finger-claw. He seemed surprised as well by Roward’s knowledge of Antares. “And is what you know good?”

Roward stroked the side of hir head with a single finger. “Why, Amaduse is one of the most reliable sources of information in all of Shipworld.”

“A librarian?” Whikko asked, with an unmistakable strain of skepticism.

“Yes, a librarian,” Roward said. Was that a chiding tone in hir voice?

They all looked at Antares. “What are you waiting for me to say?” she asked after a moment.

The two Torngaloo opened and closed their bills a few times. “Well, really,” Loomis began. “If this Amaduse is so important—”

“How much access do you offer?” Trom finished.

“To Amaduse?” Antares asked, thinking, how would I know? I met the man—the Logothian—once. Just long enough for him to send me here.

Napoleon ratcheted himself higher, with an audible clicking sound. “With your permission, milady?”

She gave him the floor with a flutter of her fingers.

Napoleon raised his voice a decibel or two higher. “Forgive me. It was I who last made contact with Amaduse. And that was indirectly, through the agency of the shadow-people.” He swiveled his head left and right. “You know the shadow-people?”

That produced startled reactions from the Torngaloo and Whikko. Roward merely displayed the hint of a grin, and exchanged looks with Buck, who had remained silent through all of this. “Of course, we know the shadow-people. Who does not?” Loomis sputtered.

“But one hardly ever sees the shadow-people,” Whikko said, swaying. “Or even hears of anyone seeing the shadow-people.”

“And yet, without them,” Roward murmured, “I don’t know if Shipworld itself would stay intact.”

“Meaning they work for the Shipworld government,” Whikko said, in a clipped voice. Disapproval?

“Of course they do.” That was Trom.

For the government, or with the government? I think more the second,” Roward replied.

Whikko leaned toward Antares. “Are you saying you have—?”

Napoleon clicked. “Access to the shadow-people? Yes, of course. We have worked with them on more than one occasion. In this particular instance, I merely communicated remotely with them.”

“But that’s not the same as—”

“My point,” Napoleon said, brushing aside further comment, “is that they made contact with Amaduse on my behalf, bypassing current restrictions on communication. They conveyed to me Amaduse’s willingness to have contact with you.”

“So,” persisted Whikko, “you don’t know exactly what form that contact might take?”

“I do not,” said Napoleon. “But—” and he paused, flexing his forelimbs slightly, “I do think that a promise from Amaduse ought to carry weight of considerable value.”

“Well, yes, no doubt, but I am not so certain—” said Whikko.

Loomis clacked his bill once. “That is fine as far as it goes,” he said.

“But your request is that we smuggle you through a transport system closed by Shipworld authorities,” said Trom. “That is not trivial.”

“Isn’t it?” asked Napoleon. “The shadow-people no doubt could have arranged our transportation themselves, but they did not wish to intrude unnecessarily on your dominion.”

Antares blinked but said nothing. Is that really true?

Roward made a chuckling, wheezing sound.

Napoleon continued, “Do you not think it could be in your interests to have the shadow-people feeling kindly toward you? Perhaps inclined to extend favors?”

Whikko looked about to protest, but Roward stopped him with a raised hand. “I think, my friends, that what we are being asked to do is rather a small thing,” hir said huskily. “You may feel aggrieved that this Ik and his companion managed to get past without our having a hand in it.” Roward half-closed hir eyes, and Buck extended a hand as though to offer a steadying touch. But the old Dannari just shook hir head. “But that is not our trouble, and what harm was done? This is something we can do, and will do.”

The two Torngaloo murmured, but only for an instant. Whikko took one look at Roward’s expression and acquiesced.

“There will be less trouble than you might think,” Roward said. There was a hint of a twinkle in hir eye. “Whikko, will you see to it?”

“Of course,” Whikko said softly.

“And where would you like to go?” Roward asked. “Will it be sufficient if we send you to the place where Ik was sent?”

“Can you do that?” Antares asked, hardly daring to hope.

“I think we can. We know where they went, don’t we? From the transport logs?” This last hir addressed to Whikko and Loomis. “Can we do this?”

“I think so,” said Whikko.

“We can do it,” said Loomis.


Whatever arrangements they made did not seem to involve hurrying. Roward called for late lunch to be brought, and they took a simple meal together. Roward asked Antares about her missions away from Shipworld, and before that, the battle here on Shipworld with the boojum. Hir seemed impressed by her answers. As the lunch things were cleared away, Whikko came into the room and said that they were ready.

They filed out the back of the building, into a small area where several vehicles were parked. One of them was particularly old and dusty. It had a front cab and an open cargo bed behind. “I am sorry for the inconvenience,” Roward said, “but after you came through Buck’s transport gate, all outside portals were disabled. I hope to see this situation remedied soon. In the meantime, our only choice is to physically transport you across the border into the Canowari sector, where working gates are still available.”

Antares nodded, trying not to show just how uncertain she felt about all this. “Won’t anyone be watching the borders?”

Roward made a hissing sound, accompanied by a dusting-off gesture with hir hands.

Whikko answered, “No one bothers. Everyone travels by portal! If a few neighbors share gossip or produce across the border, who cares?”

“It is all a sad state of affairs,” Roward continued. “There are more splinters to this world than you may realize. But that is not your concern.”

“Well, then—thank you,” Antares said finally. “Your help will be remembered.”

Roward bowed creakily. “Safe travels to both of you.” Hir touched her lightly on the hand, and then turned and trudged back toward the registry building, one arm leaning on Loomis and the other on Trom.

Buck coughed gently. “Whikko will drive you. But with your permission, I would like to accompany you both, and see you off to your next destination.”

Antares agreed with pleasure.

Whikko spoke to Napoleon. “Will you consent to ride in back, metal friend?” He swung around, dropped a tailgate, and pulled out a battered ramp.

Napoleon placed his front grippers carefully on the sides of the truck bed and, ignoring the ramp, vaulted effortlessly into the cargo bed. “Thank you,” he said. “Shall we get started?”


The cab was a snug fit, with Whikko sitting in the center at the controls, and Buck and Antares flanking him. Antares gripped the open window frame and pretended to enjoy the scenery as they drove, the truck’s photonic motors singing.

It didn’t take long to get out of town, and soon they were winding up a bumpy road into a wooded area. Through the back window, Antares could see Napoleon bouncing up and down, his telescoping front arms extended from one side of the truck to the other, his metal hands clamped firmly on the sides of the cargo bed. No one spoke much, and after a while, Antares felt herself lulled to sleep by the movement. She dozed pleasantly, her head bobbing in an echo of Napoleon’s movements.

She came out of her doze abruptly, as the truck crested a hill and started down a long incline. “We’re in Canowari now,” Whikko announced. There was no sign of a recognizable border. The woods thinned, the road straightened into a gentle rightward curve, and at the bottom of a long hill, she saw a village. The song of the motors changed pitch and rhythm as they coasted downward. Daylight was fading from the sky, the high ceiling grading from daytime to a deepening royal blue, flecked by a few projected stars.

At the bottom of the hill was a small café, and just beyond that something that she guessed was a farmhouse. Whikko drove on to the farmhouse. He pulled up in front and powered down the truck, and they all got out. Napoleon landed with a bound.

The front door of the little house opened, and someone came out resembling, more than anything else, a human-Earth creature Antares had once seen in a story in The Long View’s library—a frog, she thought it was called. But he wore clothing and had four bright green eyes under a thatch of yellow feathers. His voice seemed to come from his widespread hands. “Whikko!” he called. “Good to see you! Who are your friends?” The being took a moment to look Antares and Napoleon up and down, and continued, “What have you brought me today?”

Whikko swayed toward Buck, and then toward Antares and Napoleon, and said, “My friends, this is our Canowari neighbor, Donken. Donken, I believe you know Buck. These two other good people require safe transit to another sector.”

Donken bowed low to Antares and the robot.

“And—I believe I have a sample of our latest harvest of bungleberries for you.” The Walakak turned and lifted a small wooden crate from the back of the truck and placed it in front of Donken. Its sides were streaked with purple juice. “If I am not mistaken, your wife will make some delicious cakes from these.”

“I am most certain she will!” said Donken, smacking his hands together. “If I do not eat them first myself. She is away just now, or I would ask you to wait and sample the results while you are here.”

Antares cleared her throat, but Buck beat her to it, speaking on her behalf. “That is a wonderful thought. But our friends are actually on urgent business. I wonder if we might—?”

Donken bowed again and made a sweeping gesture toward the house.


The portal was actually in the back yard. Antares and Napoleon stood side-by-side, eyeing the device. It was a freight transporter, a rickety looking wood-frame structure. As Donken fiddled with a control unit attached by a long cord, droplets of light ran and sizzled along its unfinished inner edge.

“Are you certain this is safe for live transport?” Napoleon asked, clicking skeptically.

Donken spread his large hands. “There is no difference in the technology, only in the regulations. I stake my reputation on it. Hey?”

“Hey,” Antares murmured uneasily. “Well—is this it, then? Thank you for everything.” She extended a hand to Whikko, who swayed side to side and radiated a placid acceptance, before touching her fingertips in return.

Donken bowed again, saying, “You have just one minute to step through, before we lose the lock on your destination.”

“You know where we are going? To where Ik went?”

“Near enough,” said Donken. “I wish you success in finding him.”

With a little gulp, Antares inclined her head in acknowledgment and turned to Buck, whose expression was externally unreadable, though hir eyes seemed to dance and sparkle. She felt hir emotions clearly enough: hir was happy for her, sad that their acquaintance had been so short, and fearful that something might go wrong in this final moment. “Thank you especially,” she said, and impulsively pulled hir into a furry hug. “We are in your debt, Buck.”

Buck straightened and coughed, almost a bark. “You will not be, if you do not go,” hir said at last, radiating embarrassment.

“Lady Antares, hir is right,” Napoleon said urgently. “Our window of opportunity—”

“Will do just fine,” Antares said with a laugh, spinning around and pushing Napoleon ahead of her through the portal.

The sparkle around the edges of the frame turned to a sheet of fire, and everything went white.

Chapter 27 Cast Out

THE STARS WERE everywhere, absolutely everywhere. But they were smeared out in linear streaks, in rainbow hues, that seemed to indicate direction. What direction, Charli couldn’t tell. But there was definitely something here that was indicative of movement. Always movement. And something about time. Charli thought maybe a space of time had passed. She also thought she heard voices, but nothing distinguishable, not the voices of friends. She felt a kind of disorientation she couldn’t remember ever feeling before.

Try to remember what happened . . .

Mindaru attack. She was attempting something, not sure what, but something to help. And suddenly, dissociation. It had taken a while to gather herself. Was she floating in space? That was odd. What kind of space? She remembered the starstream. She thought it was the starstream.

Where was everyone?

What were those voices in the background, very distant—just mutters, none of them familiar. There seemed to be no one familiar around her. John wasn’t here. She remembered something wrenching, a letting go.

She was nearly certain she was in the starstream. She remembered the starstream, and the others. Bria? Hadn’t Bria called out to her, just before the dissociation? They were all gone now.



For Ruall, recovery from the attack was a many-layered thing, all of the layers intertwining confusingly, like streams of music. She was intact. She was pretty sure the ship was intact. But it was now outside the starstream, where they had been hurled by the Mindaru attack. Its condition was uncertain; she could see the robots working to assess it. But the big picture: She needed to understand the big picture. It was difficult to hold it all in her mind.

So much had happened, so fast. They’d been in the starstream, speeding past all those light-years that they needed to traverse to Karellia. At the time of the contact, they were already nearing the place where they would exit, to complete the last leg of the journey. And that was when they had met the human, or seeming human, the one whom Bandicut knew. And not just knew, but had a family connection to.

What a strange thing.

Ruall had doubted at first, but in the end had been persuaded—not just of the truth of the occurrence, but of its almost mystical nature. Such a connection, across so much space and time! What were the limits of the astonishment these solids could bring to her? Even in the face of such severe dimensional limitation, they had the most remarkable capacity for connection.

They were all here. But where was Bria? Ruall could not see her anywhere on the ship. Ruall felt a shock of fear. Think. Where is she? She hadn’t gone outside the ship, had she? If so, she could have been left stranded in the starstream!

/Bria! Where are you?/

Fear of losing the gokat tore at Ruall. She felt a sudden, impossible urge to turn the ship around, and go back looking for the gokat. It probably wasn’t even possible; it certainly wouldn’t be permitted under mission rules. Ruall did not care.


And then, in a tiny place in her thoughts, Ruall felt a familiar ting.

And there she was, the little gokat, slipping out of hiding from deep inside the ship. /Bria, you frightened me!/ Ruall’s fear swirled off into relief. It was no wonder she had gone for shelter: The battle, with its n-spatial shock waves, must have been terrifying for the gokat. She had burrowed for shelter when the dimensional storm began.

Ruall spoke softly to her now, reassuring her that the danger had passed. The immediate danger, at least. But Bria cried out, nevertheless. Something distressed her, some frightful loss. /Bria, kat-child, what is it?/

The answer, when it came, was wordless but jarring. Bria’s wail was for the quarx, the guest of the human, the one who could not be seen, even in multi-space, the one named Charli. What was the matter with Charli?

Where was Charli?


Bandicut felt a profound wrench, but took many heartbeats to recognize it. He was so stunned, he was barely thinking at all, and wasn’t communicating with anyone. He stared at the sight that met him from the viewspace: motionless stars all around, and to one side the faintly glowing tube in the sky that was the starstream. It was visibly receding. Bandicut stared in silence. His contact with Dakota was gone. The Mindaru were nowhere to be seen. Their flight path to Karellia was knocked all to hell. /Jesus, Charli./

From inside his mind came a deeper silence. Suddenly he knew what the wrenching feeling had been. /CHARLI!/ he shouted. He wailed into the silence, /Charli, what’s happened to you?/

There was no answering voice from Charli. There was no Charli. Charli was gone. And it slowly came back to him: Charli had leaped out to Dark in the struggle—and lost her anchor, just before the shock wave. She’d disconnected from him.

And when they were thrown out of the starstream, Charli was left behind.

He stumbled and fell to the deck, rolled onto his side, and grabbed his knees. His voice came to life with a terrible, inhuman sound. In one long syllable—”Noooooo!”—all of his horror, disbelief, fear, and grief came out. He lay on the floor, gasping.

Running footsteps. Li-Jared crouched beside him. “Bandie, are you hurt? What’s wrong?”

Bandicut could not reply, but Ruall, hovering nearby, chimed for him, “Charli. It is Charli. Where has Charli gone?”


It took a while to piece together what had happened to them all, and Li-Jared did his best to keep a clear focus. Bandie was physically okay, but too distraught to be of help. Li-Jared felt deep sympathy for him, but there were urgent matters to attend to; and besides, experience told him that Charli sometimes disappeared from Bandie’s head for any of a dozen reasons, and she always came back. Bandie might be hurting now, but it would get better.

In the meantime, they had to figure out what had happened when they were thrown from the starstream. How far off course had they been thrown? Was the ship damaged? What had become of the Mindaru? And where was Dark—out there somewhere, checking on things? Or was she, too, hurt? Li-Jared felt for his knowing-stones, and received wordless reassurance: Dark was still with them. At least there was that to be thankful for.

The robots worked on answering the questions. Their strike at the Mindaru with n-space disrupter warheads had created a shock wave powerful enough to throw both the Mindaru and The Long View out of the starstream. What effect it had on Plato was unknown. Their own ship, its hull largely consisting of n-space fields, had taken a hit; but the fields had held and were back up to strength. What did that say about the Mindaru? It had taken a direct hit, but still.

They needed to undertake a thorough scan for the Mindaru or any remnant. The robots were at work on that. But there was a wide swath of space on the other side of the starstream that they couldn’t see from here. If the Mindaru had survived, there was a difficult decision to be made: Should they pursue it to finish it off, or should they make best speed for Karellia? Li-Jared knew which he would prefer.

Ruall, he suspected, felt differently. The Tintangle was doing a lot of spinning, her head slipping in and out of this continuum. She was deeply upset by a trauma her gokat had suffered, and she wasn’t saying much. Li-Jared had somehow expected the Tintangle to be more battle-hardened than that. But in fact, it was possible this was her first actual combat. Shipworld had no wars that Li-Jared was aware of.

Li-Jared stepped alongside Bandicut, who was physically on his feet again. “Bandie—any sign of Charli yet?”

Bandicut shook his head sadly. “I think she’s in the starstream. She can’t get to me. I don’t know if she can survive that. Or even if she has survived. I don’t think there’s any way she could come back to me.” He looked up and squinted out into the viewspace. “Is there any sign of Plato? Anything?”

Jeaves spoke. “We have gained no information about Plato, unfortunately. If she survived the n-space disruption, she must be far down the starstream by now.”

If she survived?” Bandicut whispered.

“I am sorry, John Bandicut,” Jeaves said. “We simply do not have sufficient information. However, we have found no indication of debris or other sign of . . . negative outcome for Dakota’s ship. There may be some reason to hope they escaped.”

Li-Jared watched John’s expression tighten, and he knew that his friend was taking little comfort in that. There was nothing to be done about it, though; they could not go back to look. He was certain that Bandie would want to, but there was no way. Even if they found the same spot, everything else would have moved on.

Ruall suddenly snapped back onto the bridge. “I find no sign of the Mindaru,” she said, rotating to face each of them for a moment, before turning to face out into space. “It may have been destroyed. But if so, where is the evidence? Copernicus, Jeaves, what have you learned?”

Jeaves floated toward the center of the bridge. “We’ve found no sign, either. Of the craft, or of any expanding debris.”

“There must be something,” Ruall said adamantly. “Even if the Mindaru escaped and fled, there should be some trace.”

“Perhaps not visible from here, though,” Copernicus said.

Jeaves continued, “We surmise the Mindaru exited on the far side of the starstream, moving away from us. It was tumbling, and the stress of going through the starstream wall at a point that was not a natural node could have caused it to break up. It nearly did us.”

Ruall twanged with uncertainty.

“To get a clear view of the far side of the starstream, we would need to maneuver. That would take time, and might make us more visible to the Mindaru, if they’re there. Do you want us to do that?”

Li-Jared winced, felt his fingertips vibrating against his thumbs in agitation. The last thing they should be doing is exposing themselves to the Mindaru, if they could avoid it. He began to speak, when Ruall said, “Do not attempt to maneuver around the starstream at this time. But move us laterally, far enough to give us a view of the eclipsed area of space behind it.”

Li-Jared started to protest, and then held his tongue. It was a reasonable idea. If the Mindaru was still around, this probably was the safest way to try to locate them.

It was hard, here in interstellar space, to judge their own movement. They appeared to have been knocked all the way back into normal space when they were ejected from the starstream. From where he stood on the bridge, the view ahead was partly a sprinkling of stars, and partly a thin, glowing tube off in the distance, cutting diagonally across the star field. As Copernicus began maneuvering, the star field slowly shifted behind the tautly stretched starstream.


Bandicut tried to hold back the pain. Charli gone, Dakota gone. He knew he was at risk of spiraling into silence-fugue. He hadn’t, maybe because the pain was so intense there was nowhere for his subconscious imagination to go.

By the time he fought through it and began to blink back the tears and reengage with the world around him, Copernicus and Jeaves were reporting the results of their final scan.


No sign of the Mindaru. Or of Charli. Or of Plato.

Decisions had to be made, and soon, about their next course of action. Contacting Plato from outside the starstream was impossible. Returning to the starstream was out of the question, or so Ruall maintained. They had established that at least one Mindaru had made its way up the time-and-starstream to the here and now, and it was possible that that Mindaru was still at large and homing in on the source of the time-tide. It was also likely that more of its kind were following.

Bandicut badly wanted to learn the condition of Plato, but faced with the urgency of the mission, he had to concede that their only option was to make directly for Karellia. Their forced exit from the starstream had come close enough to their intended exit point that continuing via conventional n-space was the logical thing to do.

But couldn’t Dark look inside the starstream for them, to check on Plato?

It turned out she already had, and found no sign. Plato had either passed out of range, or been destroyed.

“Our responsibility is Karellia,” Ruall intoned.

Copernicus noted that in the brief time between the Mindaru’s being ejected and The Long View’s exit from the starstream, the movement in the stream most likely had put some distance between them. “We may have a head start to Karellia, if we do not delay.”

“Then,” said Ruall, “we must get going. I suggest we reach Karellia before any Mindaru do.”

“Moon and stars, at last we are talking some sense!” Li-Jared cried, bonging deep in his throat. “Let us go now, before it is too late!”


The journey from the starstream to Karellia, at the fastest n-space translation that Copernicus could squeeze out of The Long View, took eight ship-days, agonizing to Bandicut. They spent much of that time planning what they would do when they got there. Or trying to plan. Consensus was hard to come by, and Bandicut failed to help much. He spent a lot of time inside his head, arguing and doubting and bargaining and mourning the loss of Charli and Dakota. He had lost Charli more than once before, of course; but those were episodic and natural quarx-deaths, and from each of them, she had come back. This time was different; it felt different. With each passing day, he was increasingly certain there would be no return. She was really gone.

Dakota, he hoped, wasn’t gone in the same way. But he mourned the loss of contact.

Li-Jared had his own problems, and no one had really seen it coming. But even Bandicut, in his state, noticed that his friend was behaving strangely. The closer they got to Karellia, the testier he seemed to become, and he wouldn’t talk about why. As far as planning was concerned, he obviously held strong opinions about what they should and should not do when they reached Karellia, but he seemed unable to articulate them. His emotions were conflicted, and beyond Bandicut’s ability to fathom.


For Li-Jared, in fact, the journey to Karellia was sheer torture. He started avoiding Bandicut and Jeaves, because he couldn’t face talking about it. He would have avoided Ruall, too, except that the damn Tintangle seemed to live on the bridge. The only one Li-Jared really wanted to talk to was Copernicus, and that wasn’t like it used to be. Copernicus was always on duty now, even with the ship’s AI handling routine chores. He no longer seemed quite the same robot who used to sneak romance novels to read when he was off duty. That Copernicus had become an unexpected friend during the Starmaker mission. Li-Jared missed him. Maybe reading World War Two fighter-jock stories, whatever they were, made one less voluble.

Li-Jared knew that his own solitary behavior was worrying his shipmates, but he couldn’t break out of it. Ruall was simply a pain and an annoyance, and Bandie—when he wasn’t nursing his own wounds—was too damn solicitous. The truth was, Li-Jared was angry with him for putting them all at risk by insisting on meeting with the human ship. Maybe that wasn’t fair; maybe it hadn’t really led directly to the scary encounter with the Mindaru. But it was still how he felt. His entire home planet was at risk from the Mindaru, and anything that delayed their arrival there just put the planet at even greater risk.

But all that paled in comparison to his own anxiety about returning home. Who was he to be coming to Karellia to tell them what they were doing wrong? He was an ancient to them—from hundreds of years in the past. No one knew him. He’d been whisked off the planet in a beam of light, without warning or a chance to tell anyone where, or even that, he was going. It had been a sour time in his life, and he’d left no one he expected would regret his absence.

But he still had to wonder what those he’d left behind had thought, and what his legacy was—if any. Would he be received home with dignity and honor? Far more likely, his name was lost in the dust-heap of history. Still, he had been working on some important research, left unfinished after his abduction. Had anyone followed up on his work, pursued the same interests? Had his work in any way served as a precursor to the current situation? He had been working on questions related to temporal stress.

When he thought that perhaps the present crisis was an outgrowth of his work, he wept. And now he was coming back to tell his descendants that what they were doing had to be stopped.

He so longed to see his homeworld. And he was terrified of returning.


When word came from Copernicus that they were entering the Karellian system and preparing for normal-space, Li-Jared hurried to the bridge. But as he neared the door, he paused, pressing a hand to the wall to steady himself. His two hearts were hammering wildly out of sync. He forced a calm until their rhythm came back under control. Are you ready? When he could answer something like yes to himself, he stepped through the door onto the bridge.

The view hit him like a blow to the chest. The emerald-and-sapphire light of the Heart of Fire filled the viewspace. It wasn’t quite like his memory of the star cloud—nothing could be—but it was the sky he had grown up with. Karellia and her sun floated in a bubble carved out of the nebula by the solar wind of the sun. The bubble glimmered and sparked with highly focused radiation from both the star and the surrounding nebula. World of beautiful, perilous sky: Karellia.

And there, straight ahead, was the blue and brown and white world that was Li-Jared’s home. For a moment it looked impossibly strange to him. This couldn’t be his home, could it? And then, through the partial cloud cover, he picked out the multi-triangular southern continents. His home had been to the north, near the western coast of the largest continent, Moramia. The coastal area was mostly obscured by white clouds, but inland he could see some of the continental terrain, brown and green. The sight caused a sharp tightness in his breast.

“What do you think?” he heard, and turned to see Bandicut standing near the back wall.

Li-Jared could barely even process the question. His mind was cascading with thoughts and emotions. He left the question unanswered, and stepped out into the viewspace, as if to get closer. “Copernicus, how far away are we? Is this a magnified view?”

“Slightly magnified,” said the robot. “We’re about ten light-seconds out. I am beginning the initial survey now. Scanning for spacecraft traffic and for temporal distortion.”

“How will you know temporal distortion if you see it?” Bandicut asked, from behind Li-Jared.

“Do you really want to know the technical details?” Copernicus asked.

Li-Jared turned to see Bandicut hesitating, looking as though his bluff had been called. “Maybe not,” he said softly.

Li-Jared opened his mouth to give Bandicut an explanation. But after a moment, he changed his mind and closed it. Explanations could wait. It was results he was eager for.


Copernicus gave them frequent updates. “No indication of temporal tides yet. The shield may be difficult to see from a distance. Or it may be that it is not always turned on.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Bandicut asked.

Jeaves answered, “Power consumption. If it does what we think it does, the power requirements could be considerable.”

“All right,” said Li-Jared. “If it operates only when the planet is under attack, are you watching the skies for incoming missiles, or whatever?”

“We are. But be aware that they could be surprisingly difficult to spot, especially if they are not under power—which would be the case with asteroids hurled across interplanetary distances.”

“We are aware,” Li-Jared said without a hint of inflection. “That is why we want that search to have a high priority.”

“And that,” said Copernicus, “is why Dark is out there sweeping the area. Looking for fast-moving objects.”


A little later:

“Dark reports a single object, on trajectory for impact with the planet.”

Bonging, Li-Jared strode hard to the front of the viewspace, peering into the distance. “Can we see it? Can Dark take it out?”

“No!” Ruall spun like a coin in mid-air and floated up beside him. “Dark should not take it out.” Her voice softened. “At least not yet. We need to see what happens when it reaches the shield.”

Li-Jared knew better, but he couldn’t help bursting out with, “That’s easy for you to say! What if the shield doesn’t stop it? We don’t know it always works.”

“He’s right,” Bandicut said to Ruall. “We have to be ready to defend the planet.”

“Of course,” said Ruall. “But we must know what happens. Dark may attempt to deflect it, but only if the temporal shield fails to do so. Is that clear?”

Li-Jared squeezed his hands into fists, not answering. “Copernicus—Jeaves—can’t you show us the asteroid?”

“Not yet,” said Jeaves. “But we’re building a picture of something else. I’ve think we’ve identified the shield. It’s not directly visible. But we’re generating an image based on a dozen indirect measurements. Stand by . . .”

Li-Jared stood rod-still, waiting. His fingers began to twitch.

“Here’s what we have.” Overlaid on the image of Karellia in the viewspace, well inside the bubble that kept the Heart of Fire at bay, an animation traced two wide bands encircling the planet. The innermost, a fat doughnut no more than half a dozen planetary diameters from the surface, glimmered violet. “Here is the planet’s natural radiation-trapping belt,” Jeaves said.

This was well known to Li-Jared; it was the belt of radiation corralled by the planet’s powerful magnetic field, and the only thing that protected all life on the planet from the fierce radiation of the Heart of Fire nebula much farther out. During Li-Jared’s time here, his people had never ventured into space beyond this belt, which besides being a protective shield was itself a zone of lethal radiation.

But between the natural belt and the Heart of Fire was a band Li-Jared had never seen before. In the animation, it glimmered red. “This,” said Jeaves, “is where we infer the temporal field to be. We believe it is a wide enough band to provide a deflection from anything coming on a relatively straight path from the Uduon system, roughly one hundredth of a light-year away.” A winking light almost lost in the glowing mist of the Heart of Fire presumably indicated the Uduon system.

Li-Jared threw up his hands. “Great! Fine! Is that incoming asteroid going to hit this shield that we can’t see, or not?”

“We’re just now getting better tracking,” said Copernicus.

Bandicut had come up to stand beside Li-Jared. “Look,” he said, pointing to the left, emerging from the fiery nebula. That point of light was the asteroid.

Hurtling to intercept the planet.

Chapter 28 Ocellet Quin

KIM QUIN, OCELLET of Karellia, rasped under her breath when the call came. She was just preparing to retire for the night, but it was her Defense Counselor Monte-Sho on the line. “Yes, Counselor,” she said, looking away from the receiver. She stood near the window of her study. Her own reflection was visible in the silvered pane: a slight figure, bent forward just a little, gray-streaked hair crowning her head. Her brown face was brightened by the vertical, golden slits of her two eyes, each eye bisected by a thin, horizontal band of bright green. She didn’t look bad, all things considered, but she looked tired. She felt tired. It had been a long day of meetings with representatives of the western provinces, who were dissatisfied with her administration’s trade policies.

“Apologies, Ocellet,” said Monte-Sho in a strained voice. “I know it is late—”

“You wouldn’t have called if it weren’t important, Monte-Sho,” Quin replied, trying to keep her voice neutral. The defense chief probably deserved more praise from her than he usually got. “Tell me the trouble.”

“With deepest pardon . . .”

“Yes?” Impatiently.

“We need you back at the ministry,” Monte-Sho said. “Now.” And with those words, the ocellet felt her peaceful night drain away.

“What is it?” she asked, though her thoughts leapt to the worst-case scenario.

“New sighting, Ocellet.”

Damn. Her guess was right. “How many?”

“One. But faster than any previous.”

Her hearts raced. “And—?”

“Because of the speed, the shield will be hard pressed to get it fully clear. It could get through this time.”

She turned and bent close to the talk-plate. “How soon?”

“Just under twenty hours.”

Damn damn. “Then we need to sound a public alarm.”

“I believe so, yes. And Ocellet?”

Quin closed her eyes, her hearts briefly pounding out of sync. She knew what was next.

“You asked me to advise you if I felt the critical threshold had been passed. It’s possible this might be it.”

She winced. “Perhaps. Let’s not jump to conclusions. I’ll be right over. Don’t do anything before I get there.” She clicked the call off as Monte-Sho was saying, “You know we won’t—” and brushed her fingers against her breastbone. Sky above. Is this going to be it, then? Is this when we do it?

She shuddered at the thought.

Without another word, the leader of the Karellian people reached for her cloak, decided to take half a minute to change back into a business tunic, and called the service detail for a ride back to the ministry.


By the time she arrived, the place was swarming with aides gathering information to send out to the provincial governments. “Show me the incoming asteroid,” she commanded, striding into the chamber.

The Defense Counselor, a tall, slender Karellian with dark hair and silver eyes banded in red, turned to greet her. He tapped the center images on the main outer-space display table. A curved line showed the day-side limb of Karellia. There was a gap of low and mid-orbital space, and then the halo of the temporal shield. Out past the shield, a small yellow marker was just clear of the Heart of Fire clouds, and was creeping inward toward the planet. It represented a small asteroid on a collision course with Karellia. “Tell me what I need to know,” she said.

Counselor Monte-Sho pointed to the marker. “At maximum deflection, there is a chance it will still catch the trailing edge of the planet. Depending on whether it breaks up in the atmosphere or stays whole, we could have impacts in the regions west of here.” He traced with a dark finger along the edge of the planetary disk. “It could be bad—”

She tasted sourness. “Planet killer?”

“Not that large. But large enough and with sufficient kinetic energy to cause heavy damage and potentially impact these cities.” He ran his finger along a line of coastal cities on the western edge of Devon Province. “If it grazes us.”

Quin cursed softly under her breath. “How large an area? Do we need to empty out all of Devon Province? We can’t do that.”

Monte-Sho worried at the top fastener on his jacket. “Hard to say. The trajectory is sensitive to small changes in the entry points and angles, and even atmospheric conditions. It might not hit anything, even if it breaks up. But if it, or the pieces, miss the coast and hit ocean, they might do as much damage from tsunami.” Monte-Sho looked up. “Yes, I would alert all of Devon, and hope that it just turns out to be good practice.”

Her Public Safety Counselor, a stocky, sad-eyed Easterner, was looking on. She shifted her gaze to him. “Will you see to that immediately?”

“Of course,” he said, and hurried away.

She gazed steadily at Monte-Sho. “About that conversation we need to have. Are you prepared to recommend we launch?”

The Defense Counselor bonged before replying. “I am not saying that,” he said in a low tone. “I am saying this attack fits the criteria we’ve talked about—under which you could launch, and may be expected to by the Body of the People.”

Body of the People! she muttered under her breath. A thorn in her side at the best of times, and utterly useless in times of stress. And yet . . . no matter her own feelings, the decision was ultimately only partly hers. Those deep-space missiles with their fusion warheads belonged to the people, all of the people.

“If we lose a city in this attack—or even many citizens—”

She lifted her chin and cocked her head slightly, and touched her thin, brown fingers to her lips. “Then yes, I rather expect the Body of the People will have my job if I don’t launch a counterattack.” She closed her eyes. And rain destruction on a world we have never seen, a people we have never met. Lords, we’ve been over this a hundred times . . .

She blinked her eyes open. “If we launch, we’ll have a real war to wage. Suppose they step up the attack. You’ve said it yourself. Are we ready for that?”

“I haven’t changed my mind,” her counselor assured her. “I’m no more eager than I ever was to start a war we might not win.” He ran his fingers over the display, and she could practically hear his thoughts: War against a world that can hurl asteroids! What kind of power do they have? He had spoken his fears often enough in the past. Karellia was not defenseless, but neither was it prepared for all-out war. The Karellians had never contended with war from space before.

“Their power might not be so different from ours,” Quin said softly. We have the power to deflect asteroids, don’t we? Even if imperfectly?

Monte-Sho grunted. “There’s only one way we’ll ever know.”

Quin sighed, thinking, None of this is the point. The point is, can we afford to show weakness? None of us wants war, but maybe we need to stop our mysterious foe before they learn how fallible our defense really is. She looked back at the display and suddenly laughed harshly, with a mixture of fear and determination. “Monte-Sho, my friend, you are on the verge of persuading me that we should be ready to launch our attack now. Destroy their capability before they decide to come take a look. If they discover how their carefully aimed rocks are missing us, they might do something about it!” She studied his face, his eyes. “Did you cleverly plan this argument to convince me?”

Monte-Sho stretched his arms wide. “No, Quin. I meant what I said.”

“Well . . .” She was thinking out loud now. “Anyone who wants to force the issue either way needs a mandate from the Quorum.” The inner core of the Body of the People. She made a tsking sound. Getting a mandate about anything was nearly impossible. In this particular case, she wasn’t sure whether that was bad or good.

“That might be less of a problem than you imagine.” The defense counselor rubbed his knuckles against his chest. “Enough people have had it with the demon in the sky throwing things at us. I think if there’s an impact this time, a lot more of them will think the sooner we throw something back, and hard, the better.”

Quin rubbed her thumbs and fingertips together. A short, costly war in hopes of preventing a longer, even costlier one? The logic was not without its power.

Monte-Sho’s eyes were bright and steady. “But you and I know our shield has worked well. It likely will continue to work. We have time for better preparation. If we can get support for that.”

Quin murmured softly, not precisely in agreement, but neither in disagreement. She placed a finger on the moving figures in the display. “When will we know?”

“In a little under nineteen hours. That’s when we’ll know if there’s likely to be penetration into the atmosphere. As for precise impact location—” He flicked his gaze from the display to Quin. “We won’t know until it happens. Perhaps you should consider a personal address to the people of Devon Province?”

“Of course,” she said with a hissing sigh, and then an exasperated chuckle. “Don’t worry, I don’t expect to give a launch order today, or likely tomorrow.”

“But the day after?” he asked.

“Then we shall see,” she said gravely. “Then we shall see.”

Chapter 29 First Contact: Karellia

THE POINT OF light flew from the Heart of Fire nebula on a smooth trajectory, which Jeaves confirmed was an intercept course with the planet. Li-Jared watched it in a state of near paralysis. Logic told him that this was not the first time a giant space rock had come hurtling toward Karellia, and that the planetary defenses had worked in the past. But it was impossible not to feel that he was about to watch the destruction of his homeworld, directly upon his return after an absence of several hundred years. How stupid was that?

“Someone,” he said slowly, “please tell me that something is going to stop that from hitting my planet.” His voice rose a little on the end of his words. He gulped back a feeling of panic.

Bandicut stepped closer, offering solidarity. “Li-Jared, you know all the reasons why that defensive shield should stop it. But even if it doesn’t, Dark is following it. She should be able—”

“Should be able—?” Li-Jared erupted, losing his self-control at last. “Should be able?”

Jeaves spoke up. “We are tracking its path toward the defensive screen. We’ll know immediately if the screen isn’t working.”

Why don’t we just stop it now? Li-Jared wanted to cry, even though deep down he knew they needed to see how the shield worked. If it worked. He groaned inwardly.

“I know,” Bandicut murmured, which jarred him. Was Bandicut reading his mind now? Or was he remembering Earth? Narrowly saved from a similar threat. Bandicut met his gaze for a moment and nodded grimly.

“Remember,” Ruall clanged, “our satellite monitor has been keeping track of your planet long enough to see it survive several such attacks. Now, please, may we observe objectively?”

Li-Jared gulped and tapped his chest. “All right,” he managed.

In the viewspace, the twinkling object was well clear of the Heart of Fire, and visibly inbound toward the temporal shield that encircled Karellia like a neck warmer. The rock was speeding up as it fell planetward.

“We are getting a good backtrack on its path,” Jeaves said. “I expect we will be able to trace its launch point pretty accurately.”

That’s nice, Li-Jared thought.

“Closing in about ten seconds,” Copernicus said. “I’m going to magnify the image now.”

No one spoke as the distance to the asteroid closed, and the view zoomed in. The twinkling point became a discernible ball of tumbling rock. Li-Jared held his breath as it approached the red glow marking the edge of the time shield. Would the trajectory bend? Would they see it being deflected?

The rock shimmered slightly, and for the barest fraction of an instant seemed to freeze. And then it blurred, and disappeared. Not deflected, no. Gone.

“What?” Li-Jared hissed. Had it been destroyed? Wished away? Sent to another dimension?

Two seconds passed.

“Coppy?” Bandicut asked. “Is something wrong with the image?”

“I don’t think so,” the robot said.

And then the rock reappeared with a slight shimmer, right where it had been. It continued its deadly flight path, with exactly the same velocity it had had a few seconds ago. But its course relative to the planet had changed. Karellia was no longer where it had been a few seconds ago; it had moved on in its orbit around its sun.

The rock fell, tracing a graceful curve. It passed down out of the time-shield, and skimmed the planet’s natural radiation belt, closer in. Then it hooked neatly behind the planet, its course bent by the planet’s gravity—and continued on its trajectory off into space. “Karellia is safe,” Copernicus reported. “The time-shield froze the asteroid in time—”

“Or perhaps more accurately, shifted it into the future,” Jeaves said.

“Yes. Just far enough to let the planet get safely out of the way. The rock’s trajectory will take it into a solar orbit, and it will likely return to the vicinity of Karellia from time to time, but we do not see a collision risk in the measurable future.”

Bandicut whooped.

Li-Jared gasped and started breathing again, his hearts hammering. “It worked!” he said hoarsely. “It really worked!”

“So it did,” said Ruall. “So it did. It is a clever defense. Very clever, indeed. It is too bad that it endangers the galaxy, and that we have come to see it shut down!”


“Christ, Ruall!” Bandicut exclaimed. “Could you possibly be more insensitive?”

Ruall gonged, a high tone of surprise. “I was simply summarizing facts, and conveying certain regrets.”

“Yeah, well, your timing is lousy.” Bandicut turned to Li-Jared, who had stiffened at Ruall’s remark. “Li-Jared, Ruall was just being a jerk.”

Li-Jared didn’t answer. His gaze was locked on Karellia. Bandicut could see that his mind was on fire. His world was at war, and they had just watched its only defense, working flawlessly. How could he be expected to leap from that to the reality of the Mindaru marauding outward from the core, from the past, and the need to do the only thing that might stop it? If only Antares were here! She could reach him in ways Bandicut couldn’t.

Bandicut waited a moment, and then grasped Li-Jared’s shoulder, to shake him out of the spell.

The Karellian ripped away savagely. “You heard her! That defense just saved countless lives on my planet—and we’re supposed to turn it off! Ruall I can understand—she has no feelings, and no loyalty. But you—” He stabbed a finger at Bandicut. “How can you turn against me like this? After everything we’ve been through—”

“I’m not against you!” Bandicut cried. “And I know it’s not fair!”

“What if this were your Earth, Bandie? How would you feel about it then?”

“The same way you do! Believe me, I understand what you’re feeling!”

“Do you? Do you really?” Li-Jared strode out to the very front of the viewspace and wrapped his wiry arms around his chest. He gazed at his planet without saying a word. The gokat slipped out of the air and stood by his feet. Li-Jared gave no sign of noticing.

After a minute, Ruall seemed about to speak, and Bandicut glared her to silence, shaking his head vigorously. “Li-Jared,” Bandicut said finally, “for the sake of your homeworld, we need you to compose a message. We need you to make contact. Speak to them.”

Li-Jared growled. Bria made an echoing sound.

We could try to do it—draft the message,” Bandicut said, meaning himself, with a little help from Jeaves and Copernicus. “But we wouldn’t do nearly as good a job. You can explain the problem to them much better than we can. It’s why you came.”

Li-Jared remained unmoved.

Bandicut sighed and turned to Copernicus and Jeaves. “All right, let’s put our minds to this, and see what we can do.”

They were about ten minutes into trying to compose a message when Li-Jared came over, grumbling. “Let me do it, for heaven’s sake. You’re sure to screw it up.”


Before Li-Jared made his first transmission to Karellia, Jeaves oversaw a thorough scan of the planet. There were ample signs of activity and commerce: traffic by sea and by air, communication up and down the EM spectrum, modest spacecraft activity in low orbit, but little or none beyond the protective radiation belt. Jeaves thought they had identified major centers of governance, and communication bands that seemed connected to governing activities. “That’s where I would guess you want to make your transmission,” Jeaves said to Li-Jared. “If it’s a leader you want to reach.”

“I think I do,” Li-Jared said. He had considered making an address to the people at large, but that seemed more likely to just stir things up without making constructive contact with the right people. “You pick the frequencies,” he said to Jeaves. “Use your best judgment for reaching planetary leaders.”

“Whenever you’re ready,” said the robot.

He wasn’t, quite, but after a few minutes’ more work, he decided to abandon a carefully crafted speech in favor of just being himself, a visiting Karellian—from the stars. “I’m ready,” he said to Jeaves. “Go ahead and transmit the greetings.”

He had prerecorded a set of greetings, Starship The Long View calling the planetary government of Karellia, and so on—to see if they could get someone’s attention. It didn’t take long.

The challenge came from an installation in orbit: “Vessel calling Karellia. Vessel calling Karellia. Please identify yourself, and state your location and place of origin, and whom you wish to address.” There was a pause, followed by, “Who are you, and how do you know our language?” The accent of the voice was unfamiliar to Li-Jared—language had apparently evolved in his absence—but understandable.

“That was fast,” he murmured. Signaling to Copernicus to transmit, he replied, “This is the starship The Long View, from . . . elsewhere in the galaxy. My name is Li-Jared. I am Karellian, and a scientist of the Holdhope Academy in Watskland. I have been away for several hundred Karellian years, so my membership might not be active.”

That must have startled them, because there was a half minute of silence. Then a different voice said, “Explain yourself, please. You say you are Karellian? But from elsewhere in the galaxy?”

Li-Jared thought for a moment. The confusion was understandable, but how much was he prepared to explain? Not much; it was a distraction. “That is correct. I can fill you in on all the details at another time. But I am not calling to talk about me. I am calling to discuss a matter of great urgency regarding Karellian planetary defenses. I need—with greatest urgency—to talk to the current planetary leaders. Can you arrange that, please?”

“One question at a time. We must know whom we are talking to. You say your name is . . . Lee Jarrod . . .”

“Yes, and I must—”

“ . . . that you are Karellian. But if you are Karellian, why are you transmitting from beyond where any Karellian has ever traveled to? What is the nature of your vessel? Are you alone—?”

“I am not alone,” Li-Jared snapped, interrupting the voice. He sighed. “I am, however, the only Karellian aboard my ship, which is a starship not of Karellian make. I am traveling in the company of several . . . others.”

“Please clarify. What others?”

“Not Karellian.”

“And where are they from, these others?”

Li-Jared practiced deep breathing for a moment, and shook his arms and fingers, trying to shake out the exasperation. Then he brought his fingers together. “They are—we are—representatives of a . . . let us call it a coalition of worlds. The exact location of those worlds is not important at the moment. Very far away. Farther than you can imagine. As you have already noticed, we are presently in high orbit above Karellia, beyond the outer edge of your temporal shield.” He glanced at the others. “Are you guys getting all of this?” Bandicut nodded and tapped the stone in his right wrist.

“Say again, the outer edge of . . . what?” the voice asked, with a sharp tone of surprise.

His exasperation mounted until he shuddered. “I think you know what I mean by your temporal shield. We—”

“Explain how you know of this shield.”

“Moon and stars! We just watched an asteroid fall on it!” He gasped and fumed audibly, and then fought to collect himself. “I apologize. I would have thought this was obvious. Our ship is in a position to observe your defensive shield, and satellites have monitored it for some time. And that is why we are here. We have crucial information to convey to your leaders regarding that shield.”

There was a short silence, and then a third voice came on. The Long View, we will have to inspect your vessel and verify your identity before we can carry out your request for communication . . .”


This went on for a long time. Ruall flatly refused to consider allowing anyone to inspect the vessel—not when so many aspects of this mission depended upon their having freedom of movement and action throughout the two-star system. Li-Jared didn’t disagree. He might have argued, under other circumstances; but he knew they dared not jeopardize a position of military superiority. Especially, he reasoned, since they might well be called upon to defend the planet, if the murky road of diplomacy failed.

After hours of verbal tug-of-war with space command officials, Li-Jared called it quits for the night. “This isn’t working,” he said to the others. “I’m hungry, and I’m tired.”

“Do you want to send a message saying you’ll be back tomorrow?” Copernicus asked.

Li-Jared thought about it. “Nah,” he said finally. “Let them worry. It might focus their attention.”

“How about, tomorrow, breaking in on some public channel and taking your case to the people?” Bandicut asked, after they had moved to the commons room for dinner. He passed Li-Jared an aromatic plate of some kind of plant steak from the food-prep console.

Li-Jared sniffed at the food and said, “Maybe. I don’t know. That could just make them dig in and become more stubborn. I think the problem is, they may assume everyone from space is an enemy. Especially if they’ve never met friendly aliens before.” He picked up a small piece of some kind of cheese and held it out for Bria, who was sitting beside him on the bench seat, eyeing his dinner. The gokat gave it a sniff, nibbled a microscopic particle from the piece, and then turned her head away. What, Li-Jared wondered, did this creature eat?

He sighed and continued, “I’m thinking we might do better to go directly to that other planet—what’s it called? Uduon?—and find out who is throwing those rocks at my planet—and why. If they won’t listen to reason and stop at once, we can knock them around a little. Or better yet, grab a couple of them by—” rasp “—the scruff of the neck and drag them back here to explain themselves.” Li-Jared chewed his plant-steak and swallowed. It wasn’t bad, really. “That might cause them to see us in a different light, down on Karellia.”

“Maybe we could take out Uduon’s rock launchers, while we’re at it,” Bandicut mused.

“Yah,” Li-Jared said. “That would be good.”

“As long as the Mindaru don’t show up while we are gone,” Ruall mused.

“Moon and stars,” Li-Jared muttered.

“Hell,” said Bandicut.


Li-Jared didn’t sleep well, or long enough, that night, and he wasn’t feeling great when he was rousted from his rest by a call from Jeaves. “We have someone transmitting to us, claiming to be a high government defense official.”

“Oh yeah?” Li-Jared said, rubbing his eyes. “Get me some tea, would you?”

“It’s already on—and coffee for Bandie,” said Jeaves. “I think perhaps you should get here as soon as possible.”

Right. Li-Jared plunged into a quick wake-up ablution, splashing water on his face and standing in the shower-mist for five seconds. He put on a clean tunic and leggings, smoothed his hair, and hurried to the bridge. He found Bandicut squinting through the steam rising from his mug of coffee, obviously trying to wake up. Ruall was spinning in the front of the viewspace. A voice on the comm was saying, “We understand that you say this matter is urgent. I must tell you, we have many urgent matters before us.”

“Do you, now?” Li-Jared managed to say, his throat tightening as he reached to accept a cup of tea from Jeaves. “Well—perhaps not as urgent as the one we have for you. This is Li-Jared. To whom am I speaking?”

“This is Defense Counselor Monte-Sho. I am a counselor to the Ocellet, Kim Quin.”

“And who,” Li-Jared said, a bit unsteadily, “is Ocellet Kim Quin, and what is her title?”

“Ocellet is her title, not her name. Kim Quin is the Ocellet of Karellia. She is our planetary leader, and very busy.”

“I see,” Li-Jared said, after taking a long swallow of tea. “Titles have changed since I was last on Karellia. Come to think of it, we had no planetary leader, when I was on Karellia.”

“Quite a long time ago,” said the distant official. There seemed to be a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“In any case, I believe your . . . Ocellet . . . will have to be brought in on this question. Sooner might be better than later.”

“If you would please state your question?”

“Really, it’s not a question so much as a point of information. The planet Karellia is presently defended from incoming asteroids by a temporal shield. Am I correct? Well, that shield, I am sorry to say”—more sorry than you could possibly know—“turns out to be something of a problem in the stellar neighborhood. In fact, so much of a problem that it may be necessary to shut it down for—” and he groped for words, before lamely concluding, “—the greater good.” He took a breath and added quickly, “We are here to help you find an alternate means of protecting your planet.”

The response was a silence so profound that Li-Jared wished that the defense counselor would burst into clicks of laughter. Or do something. To fill the void, he found himself adding, “There are enemies . . . far worse than the ones you face now, who are making use of the temporal distortion in ways that would make you extremely afraid, if you knew what they were.”

The silence seemed only to deepen.

Li-Jared opened his mouth to speak again, but felt as if he’d already said too much. Really, too much. He should have broached the subject gradually. But there was no way to take it back now.

Finally the defense official said, “I think . . . that is a rather spectacular assertion. An assertion that will require considerable substantiation before I even consider bringing it to the Ocellet.”

“We can substantiate it. But you need to—”

“And so I am going to uphold the position of my field commanders, that the first thing you must do is bring your vessel to a place where we can inspect it, inspect you, and discover whether what you have told us about yourself is really true.”

Li-Jared let his breath out slowly. He glanced at Ruall, whose color was darkening, like metal exposed to heat. “I am afraid we can’t do that.”

“You do understand, we are under attack from a foe that seems intent upon destroying us. It is not for no reason that we hear your words with skepticism.”

“We do understand. We understand completely. But you must understand that Karellia is in grave danger—far worse danger than falling rocks!”

“Then you must demonstrate the truth of your intentions. Please contact our space command director on the previous frequency. This communication is at an end.”

Li-Jared stood open mouthed. “The signal is gone,” Copernicus reported. “A new signal is coming in from the space station.”

Li-Jared waved off any immediate transmission from his end, and turned to Bandicut and Ruall. “This isn’t working.”

Bandie looked thoughtful. “I could imagine the bureaucracy on Earth being every bit as intransigent.”

Li-Jared tapped his fingers to his breastbone. “I can’t altogether blame them. This is about more than just getting through a bureaucracy. For all they know, we are the enemy.”

“What next, then?” Jeaves asked, gliding forward and taking his empty tea cup—perhaps to keep him from hurling it into the viewspace in frustration.

“I think,” Li-Jared said, gazing out at the apparently tranquil globe of his homeworld, “that they are never going to take us seriously, as long as we just talk at them. We need to bring something more dramatic to the conversation.”

Ruall spun her round head, and gonged softly. “A Mindaru would be more dramatic. But I would not wish that on any world.”

“No,” Li-Jared said. “Not Mindaru. No, let’s do what we said before. Let’s go to Uduon and bring a few of them back with us. In chains, if necessary. To discuss peace. That should impress them. Let’s hope the Mindaru don’t show up before we get back.” He crossed his arms over his chest and turned back to stare at his planet. He made some clucking sounds under his breath, and then bonged, twice. “Yes, that is it.”

Spinning back to gaze at Bandicut and Ruall and the robots, he said, “Let’s go put an end to this damn war.”


Ruall found herself suddenly having to reevaluate this Karellian, this Li-Jared. She had expected him to continue to kick stubbornly against his own intransigent people, unwilling to face facts. She had expected to have to override him, by fiat—and for the sake of his planet to go find out what was driving this ridiculous conflict. She had not expected him to recognize where the position of power lay. Bria was hovering near him, as if she had sensed the difficulty of his position and wanted to lend support. Had she seen potential in him that Ruall had not?

Well, good for both of them. One point of contention down. On their way, they could alert the orbiting monitor probes to keep a watch for incoming Mindaru.

Ruall spun and clanged, “Copernicus, can you make a course backtracking that asteroid? Can you take us to its source?”

“I am ready when you are,” said the robot.


Li-Jared kept his parting transmission calm and measured. “We are not going to do this your way; I am sorry. We will be leaving Karellian space for a while, but we will return. We will pay a visit to your en—to those who are attacking you—and ask them some hard questions. We will return when we are able to offer a way to end this war you are having. At that time, I trust you will not try our patience further about speaking to your leadership. To your Ocellet. Farewell for now.”

There was an answer, but Li-Jared didn’t pay much attention to it. “Copernicus? Jeaves?” he said, “let’s get going.”

There was a faint vibration in the deck. “On course to Uduon now,” said Copernicus.

“Good.” Li-Jared rubbed his fingers together. “While we were messing around with diplomacy, did you happen to figure out how that shield works? Where it gets its power?”

Jeaves answered, “We understand some aspects of it, but on the whole, no. We think they’re tapping power from the Heart of Fire somehow. But it also seems possible they are tapping zero point energy from space-time itself.”

“Really? Quantum vacuum energy?” Li-Jared said. “Huh.” That gave him a twinge of satisfaction. Back in his years before being taken to Shipworld, he had actually spent time working on ways to extract energy from the quantum fluctuation of empty vacuum. There had been promising leads, but it was all so preliminary then. Four hundred years—that was Jeaves' estimate—was a long time. Had his own work created the foundation for all this? It boggled his mind to think of it.

“We haven’t observed any energy conversion directly, so our thoughts are speculative,” Jeaves cautioned.

“Right. Well, keep on working on it.” Because, he thought with a sigh, the time may come when we will have to intercede and turn it off. Just the idea made him shudder. And he certainly wasn’t going to share his thought with the others anytime soon.

Chapter 30 Onward to Uduon

THE HEART OF Fire earned its name, flaring around them as they plowed through the expanse of tenuous but highly active gases. Periodic electrical discharges, with accompanying blasts of radiation, lit up the viewspace. Behind them, Karellia’s sun shone deep in the hollowed-out well that was the center of its planetary system; but Li-Jared’s world was hemmed in by the fiery clouds that looked as though they might swallow the planet in a single gulp.

The Long View was threading space cautiously, because of the hazards inherent in flying through such a place; but this also gave the robots a chance to study the environment these worlds lived in. If they were to be called upon to intervene in defense of Karellia, or for that matter of Uduon, they needed to know the playing field.

Bandicut wondered what it felt like to Li-Jared to be flying through the cauldron of fire that had dominated his night sky all the years of his life on Karellia. His friend looked somber, but silent with awe. Speaking to no one in particular, Bandicut said, “This has to be the strangest star system, astronomically, that I’ve seen since that magnetar on our way home from Starmaker. How large is this cloud, anyway?”

Jeaves floated out into the center of the viewspace to answer. “It’s about two light-years across, more than enough to hold the binary star system. The suns of Karellia and Uduon are only about a hundredth of a light-year apart, with an astonishing amount of electrical and magnetic activity between them. I think they might be an example of a Dzhou-Kray star system. That’s the human name.”

“Dzhou-Kray? I’ve never heard of it.”

“It was a twenty-fourth century discovery by—”

“Fine. What is it?”

“It is two or more small stars, close together, in an ionized cloud environment, where plasma exchange helps to power high-energy electromagnetic interactions. That, in turn, fuels the intense emission of radiation in the cloud, which is what keeps the Heart of Fire burning.”

“World of beautiful, perilous sky,” Li-Jared murmured.

“Yes. And that perilous sky,” Jeaves continued, “is responsible for the lack of communication or commerce between the two worlds. It keeps the Karellians trapped inside their own planet’s magnetic field—which traps all this hard radiation before it can reach the surface. All the interference prevents any communication between Karellia and Uduon.”

Li-Jared twitched, perhaps in frustration that his people should be so trapped, while other races of the galaxy were free to explore the stars. Perhaps, Bandicut thought, something could be done about that, in time.

Ruall swept across the bridge, fluttering her metallic paddle hands. “This is all very interesting. But the question is, can we navigate through this—” she paused to make a sound like steel drums “—maelstrom of energy without risking our ship?”

Copernicus tapped before answering. “I’m confident we can. Our n-space hull is quite robust. I would guess that you and Bria would be the first to see any difficulties if they arise. Unless Dark sees it first. She seems to be in her element here.”

In fact, Dark—flying like a distant blackbird ahead of them—was reporting back regularly. But she wasn’t finding much to report except a constant sleet of particles and swirling fields of magnetic energy. She’d detected no asteroids. But she did manage to convey that she found the nebula exhilarating.


The remainder of the flight to Uduon was colorful and almost psychedelic at times, but largely uneventful. They continued threading space, rather than diving fully into n-space, to reduce the chances of missing something important. Jeaves and Copernicus made many observations, but saw no hint of a planetary conflict. The maelstrom was oddly peaceful.

When the glowing gases finally peeled back from another bubble carved out by a sun, they found themselves in a star system quite similar to Karellia’s. Here a small, red-tinged star hosted five planets. The fourth dot out from the star Copernicus identified as Uduon. “Shall I take us into orbit?” he asked.

“Does the track of the asteroid take us to the planet?” Ruall asked.

“That’s a little hard to say, because of the planet’s movement around its sun, and our uncertainty about the asteroid’s exact time of launch,” Jeaves answered. “I recommend looking for launchers in high orbit around the planet. But we’re also starting to pick up some signs of an asteroid belt in solar orbit, a little farther out from the sun. That’s another obvious place to search.”

Ruall made a metallic hissing sound. “It could take forever to search an asteroid belt, unless there’s a launch while we’re looking. All right, then, take us into a high survey orbit. Let’s see if we can stay well outside the orbits of any installations, or likely locations for launchers. Let’s try to find out what we’re facing.”

Bandicut twitched a little and shot a glance at Li-Jared. His friend looked tired, but not too tired to notice a subtle appropriation of authority. Ruall bowed and added, “With your approval, of course.”

Approval was given.


A long day of observations gave them more to go on. Three possible outposts had been sighted in relatively low planetary orbit, and two installations in higher orbit that could have been launchers, based on telescopic views. Dark was making a circuit to examine them. But there was a curious lack of detectable comm traffic around any of these installations. Did they not use the electromagnetic spectrum for communication? Maybe narrow-beam laser transmission, so tight that only if one flew directly into the beam could it be detected? Ship sensors picked up nothing. Dark found nothing.

Were the installations inactive, abandoned? That seemed unlikely, given the recent attack on Karellia. Yet, here they were, apparently lifeless. Perhaps they were automated?

Closer to the planet, long-range detectors found the sort of signals flying about that one would expect on a planet bearing a space-going civilization. The language was indecipherable, though, unfamiliar to Li-Jared or to any of the databases on board. An Uduon language, perhaps independently evolved, and apparently uninfluenced by contact with other worlds. “If we are to question these people,” Ruall said, “we must learn to translate this language.”

“Could the translator-stones help, perhaps?” Copernicus asked.

Bandicut had been wondering the same thing. /Stones? What do you think?/

He did not receive an answer in words, but he did get a sense that the stones were working the problem. “Do you think,” he asked, “we should go check out the nearest launcher and see what’s going on there?”

“No,” said Li-Jared. “I mean, yes, I’d like to get a good look and see what it would take to blow them to pieces—but if they pick us up sniffing around the launchers, it’ll just tip them off that we’re coming. Let’s keep our eyes on the main mission here.”

Bandicut, watching him, thought he could imagine Li-Jared’s next thought: Which is to grab a few of them by the throat and shake them until they tell us why they’re attacking Karellia.

What Li-Jared said, though, surprised him a little. “We need to find someone we can talk to, yes? And ask them, very nicely, just what the blazing hell they think they’re doing.” And suddenly he stiffened, and for a moment seemed frozen. “Moon and stars, I’ll be damned. My stones just told me they’ll split if I can find a suitable host.”


The working plan had been to attempt to make contact from orbit, before attempting anything like a landing. But that plan seemed in need of revision, given the language problem. The stones couldn’t translate without first splitting and connecting with a new host. And they couldn’t do that until Li-Jared landed on the planet.

“So do we put the lander down near a large settlement, in hopes of finding a center of government?” Li-Jared asked.

Ruall rumbled her approval of that idea.

“Or,” Bandicut said, “do we look for an out-of-the-way place to put down, in hopes of alarming the fewest people before we can establish communication? And maybe not have the Uduon Air Force try to blow us out of the sky?” He was suddenly put in mind of books he had read as a boy about alleged UFO sightings during the 1900s. Why is it, a skeptic had asked, that these aliens never land on the White House lawn and ask to talk to the President? Why is it they only show themselves to some asshole in the middle of nowhere? Maybe, Bandicut thought, this was why.

“You make a good point, Cap’n,” Copernicus said.

“For what it’s worth,” Jeaves said, “I’m starting to glean a few hints, I think, in decoding at least something of their language. At some point, I may be able to attempt a rudimentary greeting.”

Ruall clanged once and said, “I do not favor delay. I change my mind. I believe John Bandicut is right.”

“Then let’s start looking for a place,” Li-Jared said. “But not too far from a city. Because that’s where we want to go in the end.”


Ruall made a final check of the lander before granting it clearance to launch. The vessel was sound, and a flight course was programmed in. John Bandicut claimed to know how to fly, and she would just have to trust him on that, Ruall supposed. If they were attacked, the little craft had shields and decoys, though no offensive weapons. That’s not how Ruall would have designed it herself, but she could live with it. She had no choice, really.

She also had no choice but to trust to the Karellian and human to pull this off. She had to stay with the ship; it was up to them. The Karellian was a little mercurial, and unquestionably had strong feelings about the Uduon, but he was smart and adaptable, however dimensionally limited; Ruall had to grant him that. The same was basically true of the human and the robot.

“All right,” Ruall said, addressing the comm. “You may detach when ready.”

Now, where was that gokat? Bria, where are you? She didn’t seem to be anywhere in the ship. Was she jaunting out into the dimensions again? That gokat could be infuriatingly idiosyncratic.

Well, she would turn up.


The cockpit of the lander was tight; no expandable n-space compartments in this one. It felt good to Bandicut to be back in a pilot’s seat. It seemed as if he hadn’t done any real piloting in years. Depending on how you counted, that was more or less true—especially if you meant piloting in an atmosphere. Of course, most of the actual piloting would be done by the AI, but in the event of a systems failure he could take control.

He glanced to his right at Li-Jared, who was clearly content to leave this job to him. Squeezed in behind them was Jeaves, quiet now while thinking important thoughts to himself. It still startled Bandicut sometimes to remember that Jeaves was now in a body. The instruments and controls were reduced to a few smooth panels, with patterns of lights occasionally glimmering behind their translucent surfaces. The AI had assured him that any readout he needed would be available instantly, but he still wished he had them all at a glance. He demanded, and the AI provided, a control stick that he could grab in a hurry.

At the word from The Long View, he told the AI to release them. They drifted away from the ship that had borne them all these thousands of light-years, and then dropped toward the planet Uduon’s atmosphere. “You both ready for entry?” he asked his two companions.

They were.

No one talked much during the initial entry phase. Rather than using aero-braking, which would have created a fireball announcing their arrival to anyone within a thousand kilometers, they braked hard in orbit, using the spatial threading and gee-force dampening. Bandicut was surprised to find that he missed the fiery reentry that had raised the heart-rate of generations of space travelers; but this method did make for a smoother, stealthier drop into the lower atmosphere.

For a little while, they had a view of the ground, from a considerable altitude. The land below looked pretty much like an earthly terrain map, all mountains and plains and rivers and oceans. They were aiming for a seemingly unsettled region a little northwest of a large city that had been identified as the busiest center of communications traffic. It was entirely possible that they were already being watched. But rather than let themselves be tracked too easily—which might give the Uduon more time to think about shooting at them—they were taking a bead on a long line of thunderstorms. Depending on how sophisticated the Uduon tracking technology was, that might drop them off the radar long enough to let them make an undisturbed landing.

The squall line was visible below now, flashing like fireworks. Night would be coming on soon at this longitude, and they were going to drop into the thunderheads from above. So far, everything looked good. They made the transition from supersonic to subsonic—Bandicut prayed that they hadn’t just crossed over a major city with a sonic boom—and continued slowing to a reasonable glide speed, with thrust available at need from the quantum reactor.

As they entered the thunderclouds, the craft began to slam violently from side to side, and to lurch up and down as swirling dark clouds rushed around them. Lightning flashed ominously, deep in those clouds.

Li-Jared gasped, gripping his armrests and squeezing his eyes shut.

“Sorry, I hope flying through this thunderstorm was a good idea,” Bandicut muttered, thinking to himself, What idiot would fly into this kind of storm on purpose? Ruall had suggested it, and the onboard AI had assured him that the risk was minimal. On Earth, he would never have flown deliberately into a thunderstorm. He hoped this flying machine was sturdier than one of Earth’s aircraft.

A sudden lurch threatened to roll them inverted.

He grabbed the joystick by reflex, but the AI was already taking corrective action. It brought them smoothly upright, adjusted the airspeed, and reestablished their heading and altitude, all without signaling any alarm. He let go of the joystick with a gasp of his own. Behind him, Jeaves was reading off, to anyone who wanted to listen, their altitude spooling down and the distance and heading to their intended set-down point.

A minute or so later, they broke out of the bottom of the clouds, first into driving rain, and then abruptly out of the rain into clear air. “We are in the target radius,” Jeaves announced. “Would you like to take control for landing, John Bandicut?”

“Um . . . keep it on auto for the moment.” Bandicut reminded himself to breathe, willed his heart to stop pounding, and scanned the land below.

“Ruall, Jeaves. We are out of the storm and scanning for a landing point. We are clear of major settlements, and have encountered no Uduon defense or any other form of contact.”

“Proceed with landing.” The disembodied Ruall voice sounded almost like a normal person’s, Bandicut thought.

To the AI, he said, “Can you give me some readouts here, like altitude, airspeed, and heading? You know, so we can do this?”

The instrument panel lit up with mostly indecipherable figures. He cursed and said, “In English, please? Human? Earth?” The display scrambled and cycled through a variety of formats and languages. “Christ!” Bandicut said, and yelled to Jeaves, “Can you set that thing straight?”

He went back to scanning the terrain below, which looked to be largely something like forest, with few clearings, at about two thousand meters. Shadows played on the ground, as the sun broke intermittently through the clouds. They were descending quickly. They needed to find a good spot, or get back under power.

Bandicut searched on the left, and Li-Jared on the right. On Bandicut’s side, the terrain had way too many hills. “There’s a lake over here,” Li-Jared said.

Bandicut leaned to look. “There—see that?” he said, pointing to what looked like a several-kilometer-wide lake. “On the far side of that lake?” There appeared to be clear ground on the far side. “It’s too far to glide. Lander, give me power.”

In answer, forward thrust kicked in and they banked—vibrating with the application of power—and shot out across the lake, descending toward the clearing.


The sky was a broken blue over Lake Lombaharrda, with the line of thunderstorms moving off to the south. There had been some pretty good fireworks in the sky in that direction just a few minutes ago, including one truly spectacular boom of thunder; but only an edge of the weather had actually reached them here at the lake. Sheeawoon straightened up from checking the last of his nets. The catch was thin this season, with fewer and fewer floaters in his nets as the season progressed; and today was no exception. He’d decided to leave the nets in place. There wasn’t enough of a haul to warrant reeling them in, and the floaters that were there should be fine until tomorrow. Fresher, in fact, than if he pulled them out and put them on ice now.

Sheeawoon rubbed his knuckles on his brown-haired chest. More and more, he wondered if he was going to have to change the way he earned his livelihood. But what else could he do? Two of his friends had left to find work in the city, and neither of them had much encouraging to report. Sheeawoon had fished all his life. But the lake’s ecology was changing, something in the groundwaters, they said, and it was affecting the micro-life that all the other animals in the lake depended on for food. Some said that it was the demons from the sky, who somehow had poisoned the water. Sheeawoon thought that was a bit of a reach, but he didn’t have a better explanation.

He began the long trudge up the slope to his work shed. He was halfway up the path when he noticed a bright light in the sky—like a shooting star, but moving more slowly and maintaining a constant brilliance. It was off to his right, and moving farther to his right; but it was also growing brighter. Was it circling around the coast of Lake Lombaharrda? Sheeawoon turned in place, tracking it. Yes, it was circling the lake, and now it was turning in his direction. Toward me?

As he watched, he realized, yes—it was headed dead-on toward him.

That had his attention. Nothing to be alarmed about, surely. But still, he wondered what the thing was, and why it was flying over his lake. And why toward him.

Now he caught a glint of silver in the light, but still it didn’t look remotely like anything he had ever seen before. It was mostly a blur of light. Was it some new kind of aircraft from the capital city? A patrol craft?

It grew with alarming speed, and was descending as though to skim the surface of the lake. As though to make a strafing run, as he had heard about in war stories. Without any conscious thought, Sheeawoon found himself breaking into a run. Get away from it! Hide! Find cover! He was on an open path, with no place to hide; and now it was coming up behind him. He risked a glance over his shoulder—and was nearly knocked over by a pressure wave as the thing roared directly over his head. Staggering, he saw a boulder and dove behind it, covering his head with his hands. After a moment, cautiously, he peered over the top of the rock.

The flyer was now circling back again, and at a shockingly low altitude. There was a sharp tang of ozone in the air, as if from a hundred electrical motors. He resisted an impulse to duck again. Don’t let it out of your sight, he thought sternly. There were no more concussions, but the thing definitely was coming back toward him and the hillside he crouched on. He froze, trying to decide what to do. Was it friendly? It didn’t seem so. Now it was changing in appearance. The blazing white light dimmed to a dull red, and a form emerged from the light: something like a big, silver seed pod, with stubs of wings on its sides. It was slowing visibly, perhaps to land—right here on his hill?

It crossed over his head again, momentarily blotting out the sun. From its tail came a fiery red glow. It passed over the second hill beyond where Sheeawoon crouched, and dropped out of sight toward the meadow near the old, abandoned grain hall.

Sheeawoon felt both hearts hammering wildly. He should tell someone about this! But who? He was alone here on the hill.

He staggered to his feet, reeling with indecision. He might not know what that thing was, but he was pretty sure it was not of this world. From where, then? From the demon world beyond the sky? The hammering of his hearts grew louder in his ears. He needed to report it to the authorities. The nearest authorities were in Mawklin, quite a ways down the road. He dashed farther up the hill to the pad where he’d left his triwheeler—and faced another moment of indecision. Was it better to keep a watch on the intruder—or go the other way, to call for help? Slapping his chest, he made up his mind and pedaled as hard as he could toward his home.


Sheeawoon lived in a small, culture-grown dome up on the hillside. It was a short ride up the hill, but a steep one. He was gasping for breath by the time he reached his entryway. Stumbling off his triwheeler, he turned to gaze across the hills from this higher vantage. Dust rose from the direction of the meadow. He hadn’t imagined it, then. He dashed into his house, rummaged to find his distance-glasses, and ran out the back of his house and farther upslope. Halfway to the grove of woodplants at the crown of the hill, he turned and focused the glasses down toward the meadow.

Yes. The dust cloud was definitely rising from the meadow, but the air was clearing. The craft, gleaming metal, sat on a patch of level ground, giving off vapors in the sun. Breathless, Sheeawoon studied the thing. Yes, it still looked like an enormous seed—a flattened, delta-shaped ovoid, held off the ground by a spindly support apparatus. It was definitely like nothing of Uduon—nothing he’d ever seen, anyway. Demon? That was harder to say. Sheeawoon had never seen a craft from the demon world. No one had.

It didn’t seem to have caused any damage to the meadow. It was sitting absolutely still. No one had come out of it.

Sheeawoon lowered the glasses and stumbled back down the weedy slope to his back door. Dashing inside, he paused with one hand on the long-comm, gasping to catch his breath, and then he picked up the comm to call the authorities in Mawklin.


“That’s right—no, I haven’t come into contact with it, but it looks . . . well, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Sheeawoon’s words came as fast as his feet had pounded down the hillside. He suddenly hesitated. “I wonder, do you think it might be . . .” His words failed.

“We had several reports of it in the air, but we lost it south of the lake. What else can you tell us?” The voice at the other end was animated at last. It had taken him a few minutes to reach someone whose job it was to care.

“I can’t tell you much, but it’s very strange looking,” Sheeawoon said and described it again. “The way it came in, as if it was on fire . . . and then it wasn’t . . .”

“We’re assembling a team to come take a look.”

“Hurry. The last time I looked, it hadn’t opened up yet. But it might any time.”

The official voice said, “We’ll be there soon. Don’t—do not—approach it. But can you maintain surveillance?”

“Yes,” Sheeawoon said.

After the connection was broken, he paced his home for a few moments, thinking. Should he watch from a safe distance, up on the hill—or get closer? The officer hadn’t said. Sheeawoon gripped his glasses, then raced outside and hopped onto his triwheeler. It would take about ten minutes to ride around to that side of the hill. A lot could happen in ten minutes.

He cranked the triwheeler around, started downhill, and shifted into high gear. Yes, a lot could happen in ten minutes. He was going to make it in five.

Chapter 31 First Contact: Uduon

THE LANDER HAD swept low over the undulating terrain on the far side of the lake. They’d banked hard to the right, picked out a landing spot in a meadow in the low hills, and then banked hard to the left to circle around for a landing. The approach was flawless, with Bandicut giving gentle nudges on the control stick to guide them, while the AI kept them steady. At least, it was flawless until they came over the last rise and an updraft, or a magnetic anomaly, or some goddamn thing got under them and with a thump caused the craft to lurch and roll. Even that would have been all right, if the AI and Bandicut hadn’t both made abrupt, and conflicting, corrections.

The craft lurched down, then up, and yawed left as it slipped right. “Take it!” Bandicut snapped to the AI. The lander corrected its attitude, but was still slipping sideways when the landing struts ground into the dirt and they bounced with a shudder, kicking up a cloud of dust.

Bandicut let out a growl of annoyance as they came to rest. He rocked his head experimentally from side to side; yep, he was going to have a neck ache. “Mokin’ A,” he sighed. “Sorry about that. Is everyone all right? Li-Jared, you all right? Still alive?”

The Karellian made some rasping sounds, and then, “Alive, yes. Not sure how all right. I thought you were a pilot. Is that how you usually land?” He began pulling off his restraints.

“Not generally, no.” Bandicut cleared his throat, releasing his own restraint. “The AI and I—well, never mind—any landing you can walk away from.” He turned to peer behind him. “Jeaves, you okay?”

The robot floated forward. “Present and unharmed. However, I would like to run checks for any damage to the craft. To be safe, you understand. May I suggest we perform—”

“Please do,” Bandicut said, waving off further explanation. “If there’s anything bent, can this thing repair itself?”

“Probably,” said Jeaves. “And we need to check in with Ruall.”

“Can you make the call?” Bandicut said.

A moment later Ruall’s flat, metallic face appeared in holo above the instrument panel, and her voice clanged, “You are safe on the ground? How much damage?”

Does the whole planet know I screwed the pooch on the landing? Bandicut wondered. “We are safely down. Jeaves is scanning for damage.”

“You and Li-Jared should begin your outside investigation, while Jeaves oversees evaluation and repairs,” Ruall said.

“Uh—right,” said Bandicut. Don’t try to micromanage, Ruall. “Listen, we’re in good shape. You stay in charge of the View, and we’ll be in charge down here.”

“As you say,” Ruall said. “One more thing, though. Is Bria with you?”

“Huh?” Bandicut hadn’t seen the gokat since—well, he didn’t really remember when. But not in the lander. “I don’t think so. Should she be?”

“She seems to have disappeared. I thought she might have—”

Suddenly there she was—Bria’s bizarrely flat, triangular head sticking up out of the instrument panel. “Wait!” Bandicut said, disbelieving. For a moment, he just watched her, his exasperation warring with laughter. Bria looked around and stepped delicately out of the airspeed indicator. With a little tin bell sound, she stretched her neck and peered intently out the front window—where nothing was visible except a dusty meadow. Bandicut rubbed his forehead. “I take that back—she’s here.”


“What do you want us to do with her?”

“Do with her? There’s nothing you can do with her. Just keep an eye out, please, as you go looking for the locals. I’ll be monitoring by hololink.” Ruall’s image blinked out.


Bandicut made a last check with Jeaves. “You have the environmental readings? What’s the short form? Can we breathe the air?” He glanced at Li-Jared, who was pulling some small equipment packs out of the locker near the hatch. “Suits, or no suits?”

“You can breathe the air. But a thin-film mirror-suit would be wise,” the robot said.

“Mirror-suit?” Bandicut remembered the quicksilver suit he had worn on their last mission, when he and Napoleon had boarded a Mindaru satellite. He’d looked like a walking drop of spilled mercury.

“We have some here that are lighter, with transparency options. They should also give you some protection against, well—”


“—small-arms fire. Or for that matter, stones, knives, or darts. If any of those should come your way.”

Bandicut grunted and flexed his knees, bouncing up and down. The gravity wasn’t bad, close enough to one gee. “Anyone have any thoughts on what we’re actually going to do when we get out there?”

Li-Jared peered up. Bwang. “Look for locals?”

“Sure,” said Bandicut. “But probably not just walk up to the first Uduon—or Uduonian, or whatever the hell you call them—and say, ‘Do you mind if we embed a couple of alien stones in you? And oh, by the way, who’s in charge of this planet?’”

“Well,” said Li-Jared, “how about, ‘Take me to your stump-sucking leader, so I can shoot him between the eyes for hurling death at my people’?”

Bandicut snorted back a laugh. It wasn’t like Li-Jared to show much sense of humor. At least, he thought it was meant as humor. He didn’t think the Karellian would actually shoot the Uduon leader if he met him, but Bandicut felt just enough doubt to wonder if Li-Jared really should be carrying a weapon.

As if he had read Bandicut’s mind, Jeaves said, “Just to remind you, your only weapons will be low-power stun-guns—for personal protection only. The lander’s force-shield projectors should be able to offer you additional protection if it’s needed.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot their leader,” Li-Jared said, in a voice laden with irony. “I can’t believe I have to spell that out for you.” He handed Bandicut a small disk. A mirror suit.

“But we do want to find the Uduon leaders,” Jeaves said.

“I think we all understand that,” Li-Jared sighed. “Can’t you go work on ship repairs or something, while we do our jobs?”

“Yes, of course. Carry on,” said the robot. Was that exasperation in his voice?

Bandicut eyed the medallion-sized suit generator in the palm of his hand, before clipping it to his belt. He flicked it on, and a silver sheen flowed over his body and then over his face, tinting his vision slightly. “Anybody see anything moving out there?”

“Nothing yet,” Li-Jared said, leaning to peer out the canopy windows. “Wait—maybe there!” He pointed toward the end of the clearing they’d landed in. “I thought I saw a head pop up and then duck down. Someone may be watching us.”

“Shall we go say hi?”


Sheeawoon had managed to pedal his triwheeler around the hill, scramble off, and dash to a place of concealment behind a wide, flat rock, before anything happened with the strange craft. He crouched low, panting to catch his breath, and then peered over the top of the rock.

The aircraft was a short distance away, its nose pointed a little to Sheeawoon’s left. There were windows on the front, and he thought he caught movement inside, but the sun kept reflecting off the surface, so it was hard to be sure. Then he heard a low hum—a door opening? He couldn’t see anything on this side of the craft. But—wait—beneath the hull, now there was something moving on the far side of the vehicle. Something like legs, but shiny. No—now there were two pairs of legs, and they were walking around! Just his bad luck that they were on the far side of the ship.

For a moment, he felt his muscles tighten and quiver with fear. With excitement. With indecision. Should he go around? Show himself?

No, that was crazy; he didn’t know who these people were. Probably warriors, even if they were Uduon. But what if they really were not of this world, but instead were invaders of some kind? What would he do then?

Part of the question was taken out of his hands, when the two sets of legs strode to the nose of the craft and the owners came into view. The first figure was the right size to be Uduon—but was coated head to toe in something that shimmered silver, hiding its features. But hidden or not, Sheeawoon could see that it had two arms and two legs. It could well be Uduon.

But the second figure: It, too, was masked in silver, and it too had two arms and two legs. But it was taller, surely too tall to be Uduon. Its movements were too ponderous. Sheeawoon had never seen anyone that large, though there were stories about some of the warriors from the primitive tribes in the southern continent. But he’d never heard of them flying in aerial craft. So again the question: If this being was from another world, what should he do? The officer on the long-comm had told him to stay clear and just observe. But what if they decided to start exploring? Should he just let them wander around?

He laughed harshly to himself. What could he do to stop them? He had no weapon or means of coercion. He thought briefly about the sputz hunting gun he kept back at his cabin. Should he have brought it? That was ridiculous. What would a sputz gun mean to creatures with this kind of technology?

He hissed a sigh. And without a single further thought, he stood up and revealed himself to the strangers.


Li-Jared had been first to step onto the alien soil. He gazed around, taking in the bluish scrub, knotty greenish black bushes, and wind-bent trees, all decorating a terrain of low, rolling hills. He guessed Bandicut had made a pretty good landing, after all. The “flat” landing area was actually pretty uneven. Some of the vegetation had been scorched by their thrusters. The gravity felt pretty close to Karellia’s, as best he could remember it after all this time. Maybe a bit lighter.

Bandicut came up behind him, and they began to circle the craft, checking for damage. Li-Jared didn’t see any, but Bandicut bent to inspect the undercarriage. Li-Jared kept walking around the nose of the craft, toward where he had thought he’d seen something. Or someone.

He hadn’t gotten far when he heard Bandicut yell, “What the—?”

Li-Jared turned.

Bandicut pointed under the lander, not far from where Li-Jared now stood. “Bria. Did you let her out?”

“What? No.” Li-Jared crouched to peer where Bandicut was pointing. The gokat was trotting out from under the craft. She wore no protective suit, and seemed indifferent to the local environment. She must have let herself out straight through the hull. Li-Jared switched on his external speakers. “Bria! What are you doing out here? Ruall will send us into another dimension if anything happens to you!”

Bria paused and twisted at the neck, which made her head go sideways and nearly invisible, and then reappear full-on. She seemed to stare at Li-Jared for a moment, then turned to resume trotting in the same direction she had been walking. At first, she zigzagged tentatively, but then she strode purposefully toward the stone embankment where Li-Jared had seen movement.

Bandicut yelled, “Wait!” and then, “Hello?”

Li-Jared now saw the native that Bria was running toward, standing on top of the embankment. The native had apparently stood up to get their attention. “I guess we don’t have to look far,” Li-Jared said, and waved to the native. He called out, “Hello! We’re here to talk! Can you hear me?” The native cocked his head slightly—as though he had heard the sounds, but not understood them. It suddenly dawned on Li-Jared that this person looked almost Karellian. How was that possible? he wondered.

The gokat had reached the embankment, and without slowing down leaped onto the same flat-topped boulder that the native was standing on. “Bria, stop!” Li-Jared commanded.

The gokat ignored him. But he could hear Bandicut on the comm, telling Ruall that her gokat was apparently trying to make the first contact.

Li-Jared stopped listening and focused instead on what Bria was doing—which was to leap straight up into the native’s arms. The Uduon staggered backward, probably in surprise. It caught Bria awkwardly, and seemed unsure how to hold her. It looked more curious than frightened.

Moon and stars! Li-Jared thought. He really does look Karellian. Two arms, two legs—about the same size as any Karellian’s—and the face! The eyes! Li-Jared squinted, not otherwise moving a muscle. Bandicut came and stood beside him.

“He looks just like you,” Bandicut said. “Except the clothes. Are these people related to you?” Bandicut stared back and forth between Li-Jared and the Uduon, then cocked his head the same way the Uduon had. “Well, I doubt he can see your face through the suit. Is that good or bad? He probably has no idea what he’s facing. He may have more in common with you than he guesses.”

Li-Jared scowled inside his mirror-suit, studying the Uduon. Not identical to Karellian, but definitely more similar than not. He didn’t appear to be carrying a weapon. Li-Jared made a flicking gesture to Bandicut to indicate that he was taking the lead, and began to approach the Uduon. The native was still puzzling over Bria, seemingly not knowing what to make of the creature. Well, that was understandable. “Can you hear me?” Li-Jared called.

The Uduon cocked his head again. “Aaoool-glott?” he said, and made a flicking gesture with his fingers, first toward his ears, and then against his chest. Was he mimicking Li-Jared?

The gokat peered up into his face.

Li-Jared wondered how best to respond. He said to his voice-stones, /We’ve found you a native. Can you translate?/

*Not directly. Not yet.*


*We need direct contact. We can make one transfer-seeding. We are uncertain if this individual should be the recipient.*

The Uduon was shifting his gaze back and forth between Li-Jared and Bandicut, and the gokat in his arms. He seemed to be waiting for them to make the next move.

/We just need someone who can interpret for us./ Li-Jared said.

*It’s never just that,* said the stones.

Bandicut said, “He doesn’t seem hostile. Should we get the translator-stones into play?”

Li-Jared told him what his stones had said. But how could they know if this Uduon was a good recipient?

*Approach, please.*

Li-Jared moved two steps closer to the Uduon.

The native reacted by bending suddenly to set Bria down, and then straightening quickly with what looked like a piece of wood in his hand. He cocked it back like a club, in a defensive posture. But the gokat sprang up again, forcing him to either catch or deflect her. He caught her in his arms again, with the club held out of the way. When he looked back up at Li-Jared, his eyes blazed with alertness. But he still had to shift awkwardly, to support Bria in his arms, and finally he tucked the club under his arm.

As preparedness for a fight, it was pitiful. But the Uduon’s gentle handling of the gokat decided something for Li-Jared. Moon and stars. “Bandie? I want to go transparent.”

“Okay, but—”

Before Bandicut could finish his words, the gokat winked out of sight. The Uduon looked startled, and felt in vain under his arm for the club, which had also vanished. An instant later, Bria reappeared, in the Uduon’s arms. But of the club there was no sign.

“Okay-y-y, that was pretty good,” Bandicut murmured.

The Uduon squawked something unintelligible.

It took Li-Jared a moment to surmise that Bria had done something cross-dimensional with the club. All right, that was one level of threat neutralized. He’d been about to turn his suit transparent. Maybe he should go beyond that and turn the shields off. He felt the stones nudging him: Just do it.

“I’m dropping shields, Bandie.” There was an electrical snap around him, and suddenly his surroundings were a little brighter. There was a haze of dust and salts in the air, and the smell of burned grass. He still had a transparent air filter turned on, to protect him from dangerous chemical gases or airborne pathogens. But he was a lot closer to an exposed state. Now the Uduon could see him.

The Uduon stared at Li-Jared with eyes alight with green and purple slashes of fire.

What did he see? Li-Jared wondered. If this creature was kin to his own, as he appeared, then that could change everything. Li-Jared held out his hands, palms down, hoping to suggest neutrality. “Peaceful. Not hostile,” he said. Could the Uduon understand? “Not intending harm. I am Li-Jared!” He smacked himself on the chest, twice. “Li-Jared.”

The Uduon tipped his head. “Eeee-ahhh Sheeeeeaaawwaaooon!”

“Is that his name?” Bandicut asked softly.

*Hold, please,* said Li-Jared’s stones.

Li-Jared froze. Were the stones going to split? He awaited the launch of the fiery sparks. Instead, he felt a strange itch inside his skull, and a feeling that an electric field was extending from his head. He shook his head instinctively, to dispel the sensation. The stones corrected him, and he froze again. /What are you doing?/

*Testing . . . studying . . . preparing . . .*


*Yes. We think this one will do.*

And with that, the itch vanished. He felt a stab of pain in his breastbone—and with a flash, a pair of flaring sparks sprang from his chest and shot across to the Uduon, and smacked into his breastbone. The creature cried out, clapped a hand to his chest, dropping Bria, and stumbled backward off the crest of the embankment. “Aiee-yaii, yaii!” came his wail.

Li-Jared hurried up the crest and over the top. “Don’t run!” he shouted. “They won’t hurt you!” The gokat blinked to the top of the rise, beside him, and then blinked down to the Uduon. Li-Jared followed, digging his heels in to keep his balance in the few steps down the far side of the rise. The Uduon was on the ground, but pushing himself to his feet, plainly terrified. “Sheeawaaoon!” Li-Jared cried. “Is that your name? We’re not going to hurt you!” Hearing those words from his own mouth, he grunted and thought, Well, as far as I know, we won’t. He hasn’t done anything to us. Right?

The Uduon was clawing at his chest—discovering, as Li-Jared had discovered in his time, that you couldn’t just dig the stones out. They were probably speaking to him, saying something in his head right now like, “Stop it. You’re going to hurt yourself.” In the past, Li-Jared had been amazed how fast the stones could interact with a new host’s brain and learn the essentials of a new language. Would that happen this time?

“Can you hear me?” Li-Jared demanded. “Can you understand me?”

Bandicut was at his side now. “Sheeaa—Shaawoon!” he called, and then shook his head. The vowels didn’t work in his throat. “Sheeawn!”

The Uduon’s face contorted now, and he clawed ever more frantically at the flickering stones in his chest.

Li-Jared tried to grab his arm to prevent him from harming himself. But that just frightened him more and made him pull away, stumbling backward. /What’s going on?/ Li-Jared cried to his own stones. /Haven’t you made contact?/

It took them a moment to reply. *We have lost communication with the daughter-stones.*

Alarmed, Li-Jared said, /Do you mean you don’t have any idea what the other stones are doing to him?/

*We sensed, just after crossover, that their initial joining created distress on both sides. Then we lost contact.*

Li-Jared’s head hurt. Their entire mission was dependent on the stones making a language connection. The stones could always establish a link. They never failed, not in his experience. What now? He glanced at Bandicut’s silvery figure. “The stones didn’t make a link.”

“I heard.” Bandicut hesitated, and then reached down and turned off his own mirror-suit. “Maybe I should let him see me, too. How else can we hope for him to trust us?”

Li-Jared grunted agreement.

The Uduon saw the change in Bandicut and reacted by shaking visibly.

“Maybe that was a mistake,” Bandicut muttered.

*His body may be rejecting the daughters,* the stones murmured. *Can you make physical contact?*

Li-Jared raised a hand again, and the Uduon backed up a little more. /Only if I tackle—/

His thought was interrupted by a piercing sound of aircraft. A shadow passed over him as a craft came in low overhead, banked steeply to return, and hovered beside the lander, jets blasting downward. It was shaped like a round, hard-shelled sea animal, with short tips of wings and powerful tilting jets. The blast made them all duck down behind the embankment for cover. A cloud of choking dust billowed over them, and both their suits flicked back on. Sheeawoon, if that was his name, had flattened himself to the ground. A flicker of silver around him suggested that the daughter-stones were doing something to give him protection.

The hovering craft landed, and its jets fell silent. The clouds of dust slowly dissipated. Li-Jared and Bandicut rose, moved a little apart, and climbed cautiously up and over the embankment. By silent agreement, they walked a short distance toward the aircraft, and then paused and waited.

They did not wait long. A hatch swung open. Two Uduon sprang out and took up guarding positions flanking the hatch. They looked generally similar to Sheeawoon, but wore heavy-looking garb with pads and bulges. Military uniforms? Fighting gear, almost definitely. They both held knotty objects in their hands—weapons, presumably.

“Thoughts?” Li-Jared murmured.

Bandicut was on the comm channel to Jeaves and Ruall, advising them of the situation. Ruall’s response was, it looked like they had their first contact.

Yes, it did.

A third Uduon soldier emerged and stood between the first two. It seemed to be the leader. It gestured to one of the first two to circle around Li-Jared and Bandicut to check on Sheeawoon. It gestured to the other to stay put, while it, the leader, approached Li-Jared and Bandicut. Glancing over his shoulder, Li-Jared saw Sheeawoon shaking off the assistance of the soldier. Not knowing if that was good or bad, Li-Jared faced the apparent leader, thinking, It probably looks as though we attacked Sheeawoon. That’s really unfortunate. Vaguely, he wondered where Bria had gotten to.

“Laerwickk-y!” said the leader, slapping his chest. Even accounting for the battle armor, this fellow clearly out-massed Sheeawoon, and for that matter Li-Jared. Maybe not Bandicut.

“Laerwicky!” the leader repeated. His name? Or possibly his rank?

“Li-Jared!” He gave a similar slap to his chest.

“Holloweeee!” Laerwicky said, gesturing in a sweeping movement to Li-Jared, Bandicut, and their lander.

What are you doing here? Is that what he was saying?

“We have come to talk,” Li-Jared said, wishing there were some hope of his words being understood.

Laerwicky barked something else, pointing at them. Li-Jared suddenly remembered that their mirror-suits had sprung back to protect them from the blast of the second landing. Perhaps that made them look unnecessarily threatening. “Bandie, shall we show them our faces?” As the human agreed, he reached down to his suit switch.


A flash of purple light cracked across the air in front of him. “What the—?” He yanked his hand back from the switch. Forget dropping his suit, not if they were going to shoot at him! Instead, he snatched his own stun-gun from his belt. He held it flat to his chest, as he peered about, trying to see where the shot had come from. It wasn’t Laerwicky. Maybe the soldier beside him. Another flash scorched the ground in front of him, this one seeming to come from behind him. He turned and saw the soldier who had gone to Sheeawoon pointing a weapon at him. Bandicut, several meters to his right, had raised his own stun-gun in response.

“John, this isn’t going the way I’d hoped.”

“No,” Bandicut said. “We have to defend ourselves—but if we can talk them down—”

“Yah,” said Li-Jared. Were those new daughter-stones going to be of any help here? He jerked his head toward Laerwicky and stretched out his arm to show his gun held flat side forward, muzzle up, not pointing at anyone. “Laerwicky!” he shouted. “We didn’t come to fight. We came to talk!”

Laerwicky clearly did not understand the words, but he looked upset at the shooting, and was gesturing and shouting something at his fellow soldiers.

“Listen to us!” Bandicut called, his voice a sharp snap from his silvered visage. His voice seemed to startle all the Uduon, which was probably his intent. Bandicut shifted his position to glance over his shoulder—and that was apparently too much for the soldier behind, who fired a third shot. This time the purple light splatted onto Bandicut, and sizzled around his mirror-suit, and then sputtered into the ground. Li-Jared snarled inwardly. He wasn’t going to put up with much more of this. Taking aim at the soldier who had fired, he called, “John! Are you all right?”

Bandicut took a moment to reply. “Umm—yeah—pretty sure. The suit took it, but I got a bit of a jolt even so.”

Li-Jared hissed out a sigh and lowered his stunner halfway. To his stones, he said, /Any idea how to say, “Don’t try that again”?/ The Uduon were chattering, and the one that had shot at John was forcing Sheeawoon forward, toward the leader. Sheeawoon’s face was a mask of terror; the soldier’s weapon was pressed into his back. Oh moon and stars! The wrong move now could kill Sheeawoon.

Li-Jared was debating the wisdom of a quick shot to knock them both out, when the matter was taken out of his hands. Bria suddenly reappeared, between the soldier and Sheeawoon, and as suddenly vanished again—taking the weapon with her. Sheeawoon broke and ran.

The soldier gave a screech of surprise and outrage, and then charged Sheeawoon. Li-Jared cursed and fired at the soldier—who froze, surprise clear on his face, and crumpled to the ground. Laerwicky shouted angrily, but before he could take any action, the soldier sat up holding his head, groaning, and looking disoriented.

Li-Jared glanced at the leader just in time to see the soldier flanking Laerwicky level his weapon. An instant later, the soldier barked with surprise when his gun, too, vanished in a gokat blur. The gokat blinked back, blinked away. Now Laerwicky was empty handed—and angrier than ever. What was Bria doing with the weapons? Li-Jared had visions of some mysterious, n-dimensional place where nothing existed except a growing pile of Uduon hand-weapons. To his right, Bandicut made a coughing sound. A laugh?

Li-Jared wanted to laugh, too; but they were at a delicate point here. They had to establish meaningful communication before the soldiers felt any more threatened than they did already. He glanced at Sheeawoon, and was startled to see the young Uduon sitting on the ground not far from the soldier who had attacked him. He was rocking in place, pressing his hands to the base of his throat, and seeming to try to say something. /Stones, what’s happening with Sheeawoon?/

*Unsure. The daughters may be trying extreme measures to connect.*

/Well, we can’t wait./ Li-Jared switched back to comm and called, “Jeaves? Ruall? Are you following this? How much backup can you give us, if we need it?”

Jeaves answered at once. “What backup do you require?”

“Can you keep them from killing us?”

“I can turn on an area-wide force-field, which will stun anyone in its way. Do you think you might need that?”

Li-Jared closed his eyes for a moment. “Maybe. I’m going to do something risky, okay? If things start to get out of hand . . . don’t wait to act.” This time when he reached for his suit switch, no one shot at him. He took a breath for confidence, and his mirror covering vanished, revealing him to the Uduon. “Here—you see?” he shouted, waving his arms. “Look at me! I’m not that different from you! You see?”

Laerwicky, astonished, strode forward to half the distance. He peered at the Karellian with a gaze that was ferociously intent. Laerwicky’s eyes, like Li-Jared’s, were vertical ellipses. They were bright—but unlike Li-Jared’s gold, they were emerald green, and the bands across the middle were silver. Laerwicky growled something incomprehensible, and swung to look at Bandicut.

With a shrug, Bandicut dropped his own suit. Laerwicky’s eyes widened. He backed up a step. A mutter of alarm came from him, echoed by the soldier behind him.

“I am Karellian!” Li-Jared said, smacking his chest. “I look like you!” He didn’t expect them to understand, but he hoped to at least divert attention from his human friend.

The stones started to speak. *The daughters . . .* but the words were lost in a sudden rush of static.

Sheeawoon suddenly shouted, “Li-Jared! Your name. You are Li-Jared!” The effort left him coughing and pounding his chest. But he was energized now. He scrambled to his feet and continued, pointing at Bandicut, “Human. He is human. John Bandie!”

Li-Jared was nearly speechless, as he absorbed what he had just heard. The daughter-stones were working! “Sheeawoon! Can you understand me? Do you know what I’m saying?”

His words overlapped with Bandicut’s, so he didn’t hear what Bandie said. But now the rest of the Uduon were in an uproar, and he couldn’t hear Sheeawoon over the commotion. Li-Jared waved his arms in exasperation, trying to quiet everyone down. Sheeawoon also held up his hands. Finally Sheeawoon could be heard again. “I . . . think I understand you. You are Li-Jared?”

“Yes. Can you—”

“And are you a . . . demon? From the—” Sheeawoon pointed up, as the stones struggled with the word “—sky?”

That got the soldiers started again, and Li-Jared once more tried to wave them to silence. “From the sky, yes.” Li-Jared paused, and Sheeawoon cocked his head in puzzlement. “But demon, no. Why do you call us demons?”

“Demons,” said Sheeawoon, “have attacked us from the sky. At least, that is what I have—” rasp “—heard. But you do not seem like . . . someone who has come to cause us—” rasp “—harm.”

Demons have attacked from the sky. The words ricocheted in Li-Jared’s brain. Why would the Uduon think that? He glanced at Bandicut, whose face and body were now visible for all to see, and wondered, Is this what they think demons must look like? Not human, per se, but different—alien?

Bandicut perhaps had the same thought. He let out a big sigh, spread his arms and hands wide, and stepped a little closer to Sheeawoon. He stopped perhaps two body lengths from the frightened Uduon and spoke. “My name is John Bandicut. I guess you know, I am human.” He tapped his chest, pausing. “Human.” Then he raised his hands. “Shaaw—wonn—” he seemed to have trouble with the name “—I am no demon. I have never attacked your world. Why would I?”

Sheeawoon looked puzzled by Bandicut’s question, and frightened by his appearance, in equal measure. “I don’t kn—”

He was interrupted by Laerwicky striding forward and seizing him by both arms. Laerwicky barked something at Sheeawoon, which made the young Uduon flinch. Whatever the question, Sheeawoon replied in his own language, and then jerked his head to the side to see past the soldier as he called to Li-Jared, “He is asking me why I am speaking to you devils! I am trying to explain to him—”

Laerwicky shouted something else at him, and Sheeawoon cringed. For a moment, it looked as though the soldier had beaten him down. But from somewhere, he found the courage to pull himself straighter and snap something sharp back at Laerwicky. That got the soldier’s attention. Sheeawoon called to Li-Jared, “I am trying to explain . . . that I can—” rasp “—translate—”

And again, Laerwicky cut him off. They shouted back and forth, and the soldier began to shake Sheeawoon. “Stop that!” Li-Jared yelled, and he and Bandicut both started forward to intervene—physically, if necessary. The other two soldiers also started forward. This is getting ugly again, Li-Jared thought.

And then came a sudden shimmer, like a heat wave in the air. And a crack.

Li-Jared felt an electrical jolt around the periphery of his suit, or the part that was still up. All of the Uduon dropped where they stood. “Jeaves, was that you? Was that the force-field?” he asked, his back to the lander.

“I turned it on and then off again. It seemed prudent. Do you approve?”

“I approve,” Li-Jared said. “I think. Are they all right?”

The three soldiers were stirring, and Sheeawoon was already sitting up again. Had the stones protected him from the full power of the stun? Bandicut was at his side now, saying, “I am not here to hurt you. If I can help . . .” For a wonder, Sheeawoon stared at him wide-eyed, but seemed to be losing his fear of the human, and allowed Bandicut to help him up.

“I am sorry you were hit by that,” Li-Jared said, positioning himself between Sheeawoon and the soldiers. “Are you all right?”

“I think so . . .”

By the time they had established that Sheeawoon was unharmed, the soldiers were starting to sit up. They were going to have headaches, but they’d be okay. “We need to talk to them,” Li-Jared said to Sheeawoon. “Can you translate for us?”

“Yes, that is what I was trying to tell them,” Sheeawoon said.

“No, I mean, keep on translating for us.”

“Well, I—don’t know—” Sheeawoon stammered, looking a little confused by the question. He moved closer to Laerwicky to try again. This time he had the upper hand, as Laerwicky looked still a little woozy. They spoke, and it grew heated, but finally Sheeawoon said to Li-Jared, “He has agreed that I may continue to translate—for the moment. I should say, he believes still that you are both demons, and that I have likely been infected by your devices.” Sheeawoon felt at his chest, where the stones were embedded. “I cannot prove it isn’t so.”

“No,” Bandicut said. “You can’t. But perhaps, if you can buy us a little time to communicate, we will be able to persuade both of you.”

“Perhaps,” Sheeawoon agreed. “And now, what do you want to say?”


Thereupon followed an extremely awkward conversation, in which Li-Jared tried to convey to Laerwicky that they had come to this place with the intention of gaining an audience with the leaders of Uduon, or the ruling body of the planet. Did such a body even exist? That was hard to pin down.

Laerwicky wanted to know why they wanted such an audience, and what they planned to do. That, Li-Jared thought, was hard to answer concisely, through an interpreter, to someone who was, after all, an extremely minor player in this business. Are we here to make peace? To dictate terms? To warn them of a terrible danger to their world? All of those things? But Li-Jared did not want to jump straight into talking about interstellar conflict, or galaxy-threatening machine intelligences, or planet-bashing asteroids. Not with a soldier who had simply come to investigate a strange landing.

Finally Bandicut cleared his throat and offered a few words. Li-Jared was glad, because he was running out of patience.

“First of all,” Bandicut said, “we have not come here on our own, but on behalf of a world much larger than this one.”

When Sheeawoon translated that to him, Laerwicky stirred and growled something back. Sheeawoon said to Bandicut, “Are you telling us we should be afraid of you?” Sheeawoon himself looked a little scared as he said that.

Bandicut shook his head vigorously. “No. I am not saying that. We have come to learn about your world. You understand that there are many other worlds in the sky?” He waved vaguely toward the heavens, and Sheeawoon murmured assent, though he looked puzzled at the word many. “Good. We have come from a group of other worlds. We are here to find out who you are, and to warn you of some things. Have your knowing-stones, Shee-awwn, told you that we’ve come in peace?”

Sheeawoon, Li-Jared thought. How hard is it to say that?

“They have said that, yes,” Sheeawoon said, touching his breast again. “But if you are connected to the demons who . . .” He paused.

“Who what?” Bandicut asked gently.

“Who rain death . . . down on our cities.”

Rain death on our cities? Li-Jared thought dumbly.

“Wait,” Bandicut said. “What are you talking about?”

Sheeawoon raised his hands to the sky, and brought them down in an arc. “Boom. I do not know how many cities.”

Before either of them could react to that, Laerwicky barked something at Sheeawoon—who then turned to relay what they had just exchanged. This time they spoke for a minute or two, with gestures and emphasis. When Sheeawoon finally turned back, he said, “Do you deny that you or your people did this? Dropped fire on our cities?”

“Yes!” Li-Jared cried. “We don’t know anything about such a thing! But we do know that your planet will be in danger, very soon, and that is why we want to warn your leaders!”

As Sheeawoon finished translating, Laerwicky rubbed his cheek, and then spoke. Sheeawoon translated, “He says that the authorities might not take kindly to strangers dropping out of the sky and boasting of danger to our planet. Even if they claim not to be demons.”

Li-Jared made an extreme effort not to lose his temper. He gazed back at Sheeawoon and said evenly, “They might not. But they would be wise to do so, regardless. We have many things to discuss.” Yes. Oh yes, we do.

Chapter 32 Plato After the Battle

THE INSTRUMENTS ON Plato’s bridge were in a paroxysm of incomprehensible readings. A huge splash of radiation and some kind of spatial disruption had thrown John Bandicut’s ship and the attacker out of sight near the starstream wall. Plato herself had been knocked into a spin, from which they’d just recovered. It had all happened with dizzying speed.

Long View, Long View, this is Plato!” Dakota Bandicut called, her voice harsh with urgency. “Can you hear me?”

“Commander Bandicut!” Captain Brody was right behind her. “Do you know what’s happening?”

Dakota held up an index finger, listening. Was that a faint ringing from the comm?

And then the front view flared, and another shock wave hit them. The comm blasted static, and the deck lurched as the ship pitched up and tumbled backward toward the starstream wall.

“I’ve got no readings!” Zhan, the pilot, shouted. “Trying to use inertials—”

The deck groaned under them, drowning his words. There was a heavy vibration and roar like a tornado passing through the ship, and through it the pilot’s voice stuttered, “Neg-a-tive con-t-trol!”

The vibration abruptly cut off. Then the ship-wide alarms started whooping. Bridge crew voices filled the air. “N-space drop-out!” “Propulsion off!” “Life support down!”

Captain Brody broke in: “Break out the breathers.” That created an additional flurry of movement as the emergency breathing masks popped out. Dakota snapped her own on, and then stepped back to look around and make sure everyone else was wearing one, including the captain.

“Systems rebooting.”

“Nav, any sign of hostile activity? Any activity at all?”

“Moment, skipper.” Tanaki pressed the temples of her headset, looking toward the ceiling. A flicker of light was visible in her eyeglass. “Displays are just coming back on. Partial function. Holos are still down.”

Dakota moved quickly among the bridge crew, checking with the personnel, as well as the station statuses in her own headscreen. Most of the instruments were gradually coming back to life, including the front viewer, which jumped and pixelated and then steadied. What they saw now was the black of space, and stars, and angled across one corner, a ghostly luminous tube.

“Exo, what is that?” Captain Brody asked, and his voice definitely sounded strained. “Are we outside the starstream?”

Dakota willed herself to take it in quickly. “I don’t—that is, yes—it appears we are,” she said, trying to wrap her mind around that preposterous fact. “Captain, it seems we have been thrown right through the starstream wall. We are now in normal-space, with propulsion down. What the—”

“What the hell?” Brody said. “How is that possible?”

“It should not be possible,” Zhan said. “There was no exit node! I don’t see how—”

“We were hit by a wave of disrupted n-space,” Tanaki said, leaning back in the nav chair, her eyes twitching as she followed updates in her headscreen. “It was so disrupted it seems to have sucked us right out through the starstream boundary layer.”

“That just can’t be possible,” the pilot insisted.

“No,” Tanaki replied. “But it happened.”

“What about the other two ships?” Dakota asked. “Did you get any tracking on them? Were they knocked out, too?”

Tanaki shook her head. “I don’t know. It will take time to scan and reconstruct.”

Brody was now behind Tanaki, looking over her shoulder. “Nav, your first priority is to find out where the hell we are, and how we can get back into the starstream. We can look for those other ships after.”

“Get back into the starstream? Captain, that was an extraordinary, one-in-a-million opening, and as far as I can tell, it’s gone. The nearest entry node we have mapped is light-years away.”

Brody had the fiercest look that Dakota had ever seen on his face. “Then we had better get started finding it, hadn’t we?”

Dakota gestured to request a private moment with Brody. She leaned close and spoke softly. “Captain, I know that’s urgent. But we’ve just had multiple first-contacts. Isn’t it important to keep track of them, too?”

Brody glared, not at her but at the spot where the forward-view holo should have been. “We will keep track of them—when we can, Exo. Right now, I want to know that we can return in one piece to report this discovery—and we can’t do that without getting back into the starstream.”

“Yes, sir. But they—on The Long View—might know something about getting back into the starstream that we don’t.” Dakota kept the thought buried deeply in her heart that one of those first contacts had included her uncle and a completely unexpected connection to her past. Unexpected, and cruelly brief.

“Maybe. But that’s a pretty thin hope.” Brody glanced at her, and his gaze softened. “I’m sorry about your uncle, Commander. We’ll do what we can, when we can.”

She nodded, put a hand on Tanaki’s shoulder, and leaned in. “You heard the captain. Let me know when you have something.”


Over the next hour, several facts emerged:

The ship seemed structurally undamaged, though a fair number of electronic subsystems had suffered overloads and needed repair.

They were definitely outside the starstream, and there was no residual opening that anyone could detect in the starstream wall—no way to get back in from here. It could take considerably longer to establish their exact location in normal-space, owing to the chaotic events that had resulted in their forced exit from the stream. The best guess put them a dozen light-years downstream—toward the galactic center—of the nearest known node: a brief trip on the inside of the stream, but at least a tenth of a ship’s year, by standard k-space drive, outside the stream.

Scans of the visible starstream showed no sign of anything moving on the inside. This was inconclusive, because if The Long View or the other thing had remained on their courses in the starstream, they likely would have passed out of visibility by now. But Dakota thought that was unlikely, in view of the final finding: the long-range detection of a trail of n-spatial disturbances, leading at an angle away from the starstream. The traces were faint, and their precise distance and direction were difficult to resolve. But if they were the lingering trail of starships accelerating away from the starstream, the most obvious likely destination was a dense nebula containing at least one binary star system, less than two light-years away. Nothing was known of this system.

Is that, Dakota wondered, where her uncle’s ship had gone—if it had survived?


The first staff meeting following the incident was a tense affair. All agreed that Plato should proceed at best speed through k-space toward the entry node, once they had a better fix. But Dakota argued what seemed to be a lonely position—that if, when they got closer, they could still pick up that n-space trail, they should consider following it, rather than attempting to return directly to the starstream.

Brody tapped his pen on the wardroom table. “This isn’t personal, is it, Commander?”

Dakota shook her head. “My personal interest is obvious, but that’s not the reason we should do it. Look—” she gestured with both hands “—we made a friendly first contact. Yes, it was my uncle talking to us. But his ship was alien, and his ship mates were alien. That could be an invaluable contact to follow up on. If we let it go now, who knows whether or when we’ll have another chance. It’s a detour, but the distance of the detour isn’t unreasonable.” And I can’t believe I am proposing to make our mission longer than it already is. I must be out of my mind.

“Granted,” Brody said. “But our mission isn’t to follow up first contact. Our mission is to protect traffic in the starstream, and to report first contact to those who are equipped to follow up on it.”

“But,” Dakota said, and she paused to take in all the officers present—Tanaki and Zhan from the bridge, Kamya and Gordon-Wu from weapons and systems, and Barnes from engineering—before continuing, “under the circumstances, we can’t get a report back to headquarters in less than eight or ten weeks at best, by which time this trail will be stone cold.”

The engineer started to speak, but Dakota shook her head. “And there’s something else. We were witnesses to a deadly attack inside the starstream—by someone or something we don’t know, though it seems my uncle and his friends did.”

“That’s true,” Zhan said. “They warned us to be extremely careful of the Mindaru—was that the name?—trying to hack into our systems from a distance. That suggests knowledge. Also, that we should be damn careful.”

“Agreed,” Dakota said. “And we just watched a dangerous threat wreak havoc inside the stream, and it possibly fled on the outside. If we are to keep the starstream safe, then we need to know more about this threat. It may still pose a danger to The Long View, and since there is no practical way for us to call or go for help, I believe we should be ready to pursue, if the opportunity presents itself.”

That caused some stir around the table, but the other officers waited to see what the captain would say. Brody scratched the back of his head for a moment, and then said, “I’ll consider it. We don’t have to decide yet. Tanaki, I want you to have a course ready that will give us a pursuit option. But in the meantime we make best speed to the starstream node.”

“Yes sir.” Tanaki nodded.

“Go. Get it done.”

Tanaki frowned, scrambled to her feet, and hurried from the wardroom.

“Barnes, expedite repairs, and be ready for k-space when I call for it. That includes possible flank speed pursuit. The rest of you, same thing.”

Barnes scrambled to his feet and hurried out on Tanaki’s heels. Zhan, Kamya, and Gordon-Wu were right behind him.

That left Dakota. Brody stared hard at her for a long moment. “Exo, you’ve presented me with quite a choice here.”

Dakota swallowed back her uncertainty. “I have, sir. I know.” She thought a moment and added, “And Captain—if you’re still concerned that I’m being swayed by personal feelings for my uncle—”

“I didn’t say that. I was just clarifying.”

“Well, it’s a reasonable concern. But you should know, Captain, I have strong personal reasons for wanting to get home, as well—in one piece, and without unreasonable delay.” She felt wistful as she thought about Harrad wondering why Plato was late returning, and imagining the worst.

Brody studied her intently. At last he nodded. “Understood. But just to make sure you understand what you’re suggesting, since this is your first patrol with us: We may be an armed patrol, but you know we’re not exactly a warship of the line. We have limits. That enemy, whatever it was—it seemed to give as good as it got from that alien ship your uncle is on. A ship, dare I add, that appeared to be way more advanced than we are.”

She nodded. “I know.”

“Good. Then I want a plan on my desk by tomorrow of what—if we do undertake pursuit—we’re going to do with that thing if we catch it.”

Her nod was slower this time, and her Yes sir muted. But in her wrists, she felt a tingle of approval.

Chapter 33 To the City

WAS HE GOING to wake from this dream soon? Sheeawoon wondered. How could this have happened to him? Just this morning he’d been thinking that he was tired of the tedium of his daily life, that he wanted to do something that would make a difference in the world. But this! Being called upon to act as interpreter for aliens! And despite what the aliens had told him, it was hard not to think of them as demons.

*They are not demons,* he heard from a voice inside him, not for the first time. It was the voice of the things embedded in his chest. Knowing-stones, they called themselves. They felt like things of power. But . . . they had come from the one called Li-Jared—and both aliens seemed to have similar stones. So when the stones said Li-Jared was not a demon, how could he be sure they could be trusted? On the other hand, they had offered him tantalizing glimpses into vast areas of knowledge, visions flashing in his mind, visions of things far beyond his experience. He’d nearly fallen into a trance, just trying to absorb it—but there was nothing in the experience that felt hostile, evil, or demonic to him.

Now, as they stood between the two aircraft, with the squad-leader Laerwicky asking questions, he went back and forth between the strangers and Laerwicky, hard pressed to get the translations right, much less thinking through questions directed at him.

“Sheeawoon,” said Laerwicky. “That is your name?”

That was an easy one. He inclined his head to indicate that it was.

“And you’re one of the fisherfolk, here in the village?”

Same answer.

Laerwicky dug at his neck with one thumb. “All right, then. You can understand their language. You know why we have to depend on you. Do you also know why we can’t trust you?”

Sheeawoon flinched at that. He was one of them. Why wouldn’t they? “What do you mean?”

“Do I really have to explain?” Laerwicky asked.

Sheeawoon put a hand to his chest. Probably it was just his imagination, but was that heat coming from the stones? No, he was imagining it.

“Exactly,” Laerwicky said. “You have those things.”

“Knowing-stones,” Sheeawoon said. Why did his voice sound so thin?

Laerwicky glanced at the newcomers. “Alien stones. Some people might believe you were consorting with demons, allowing those things to stay in your body, controlling you.”

That was a lie, and Sheeawoon bristled. “I don’t know what you mean by consorting”—he knew exactly what Laerwicky meant—“but they don’t control me. They talk to me. And they let me talk to—” He turned and pronounced the names of the aliens with great care: “Li-Jared, the Karellian. And John Bandicut, the human.”

“Yes, well—” Laerwicky stabbed a finger at Sheeawoon’s chest. “I am not so sure we shouldn’t just cut those things out of you.”

Sheeawoon slapped a hand to his chest in alarm. Even as he did so, he sensed a quiet voice within, telling him he did not have to worry. No one would be allowed to cut anything out of him. Did these things have the power to protect themselves, then? Was his body going to be a battleground? That was almost more alarming.

Laerwicky made a rapid clicking sound. “See, you want to protect them. Anyone loyal to Uduon would want them out, don’t you think?”

Sheeawoon was silent. The two visitors were watching the conversation; he could not tell if they understood it or not. Right now he wasn’t sure just whose understanding mattered here.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” Laerwicky asked. He surveyed the visitors and their craft, and scowled at the strange little creature that was now walking among the guards, peering about in evident curiosity. Gokat. It had disarmed all of them, without apparent effort. That hadn’t improved the collective disposition of the patrol squad.

Sheeawoon decided finally that he didn’t need Laerwicky’s approval; but he did need his cooperation. Rocking forward on the pads of his feet, he answered awkwardly. “What you say might be true. I don’t know. I’m just a fisher. But whatever you think, I am loyal to Uduon. I believe I have been asked to help, by communicating with the visitors. Because I have these stones. Don’t you think . . . the authorities . . . would want me to do that?”

Laerwicky flicked his fingers dismissively, probably the closest thing to approval that Sheeawoon was likely to see. “We will accompany the visitors to the city headquarters, where the priests, or perhaps even the Watcher, will question them. You can defend your stones to them, and we will see where this communication of yours gets us.” Looking back up at the visitors, he addressed the one called Li-Jared. “You—you look Uduon. Where are you from? Have you come in Uduon form to fool the weak-minded?”

Li-Jared listened, as Sheeawoon passed on the question. Then he spoke, and Sheeawoon listened, before telling Laerwicky, “He says he comes from a world beyond our sun. He also says he is in his natural form, and he does not need to take a shape to fool the weak-minded. He says the weak-minded take care of that for themselves.”

Laerwicky’s eyes flashed a little at that. “They do, do they?” He pointed to the Bandicut. “And what is that one? It does not look Uduon at all!”

Sheeawoon answered, “He says he is called a human, and he is from a world called ‘Erth,’ which is very far away.”

That elicited another set of derisive clicks. But Laerwicky dropped the subject and announced, “The strangers will come with us, then.”

When Sheeawoon passed that on, the human shook his head from side to side. Li-Jared didn’t do that, but he stood straighter and said, “Thank you, but we will fly in our own vessel. Please wait, while I inquire about our readiness for flight.”

Sheeawoon passed that on and, when he saw Laerwicky’s obvious annoyance, quickly held up his spread fingers, requesting patience. Li-Jared was speaking under his breath to no one visible, and obviously getting some kind of answer. Was he talking to someone inside the craft? Until this moment, Sheeawoon had not even thought about what, or who, might be inside the visitors’ craft.

“Enough!” Laerwicky roared. “Tell them they must follow my command!”

Before Sheeawoon could translate, Li-Jared turned and said, “Our craft is ready to fly. Would you care to come along with us, as our guide?”

Sheeawoon froze, shocked by the suggestion, and terrified. It was one thing to translate for the aliens. But fly with them? He had never in his life set foot in an aircraft of any kind, much less a craft from another world. Laerwicky was waiting for an answer to his command to come with him. “I—” he started to say to Li-Jared, but could not find the words.

Laerwicky had no such problem. “What did the alien say?”

Sheeawoon swung toward the officer. “Sir,” he began. “The visitors say they cannot—” His words suddenly got tangled up; he took a breath and started again. “They say they will travel in their own craft. And they—”

“They will do as I tell them,” Laerwicky said. “What else?”

“They travel—asked me to travel with them.” In response to Laerwicky’s glare, he continued, “It might—could—be an opportunity to learn more about them. And to observe the workings of their vessel.” He added a little extra emphasis to that last. To be sure, he doubted the Uduon could force the visitors to do anything they didn’t want to do.

Perhaps Laerwicky had already figured that out. His eyes narrowed to accentuate the fine, electric-blue slits across their middles. Sheeawoon waited for him to demand, ever more forcefully, that the visitors go with him. To Sheeawoon’s surprise, though, Laerwicky turned to Li-Jared and Bandicut. Speaking in a slow, measured cadence, he said, “You do not wish to travel in our conveyance? All right. I will assign my own representative to travel with you, in your craft. I assign this one known as Sheeawoon.”

Conveying the message, Sheeawoon noted what seemed like amusement on the part of the visitors. However, all Li-Jared said was, “Sheeawoon will do well. We have just enough room for him.” For a moment no one moved. Then Bandicut said, “We will follow you, of course. I presume you will take us to your decision makers. Your leaders.”

Laerwicky grunted, flicked his fingertips in agreement. Maybe it didn’t actually matter to him how the visitors were brought in as long as they were brought in. But Sheeawoon suddenly realized what this meant for him. Was he going to be held responsible for the visitors’ arrival and good conduct? He? Sheeawoon? A fisher, who had never in his life even spoken to a public authority of any kind?

The voice suddenly whispered in his head:

*Be brave. You were chosen because you have the ability you need.*

He gulped. Be brave?

The stones spoke again. *You will learn things that may seem alarming. But you will perform a great service to your people if you bring to their attention important facts that may save them.*

Bandicut and Li-Jared started toward their craft and gestured to him to join them. /What facts?/ Sheeawoon asked.

*Just pay attention,* the stones said, and after that were silent.


The inside of the visitors’ craft was like nothing Sheeawoon had ever imagined. There were seats, and some instruments that appeared only when Bandicut and Li-Jared powered up the craft. Images sprang into the air, and flat, featureless surfaces swam with pictures and language. Surely it was impossible to follow any of that at the speed that it appeared. In the middle of the instruments and the visions, Sheeawoon glimpsed the head of the creature the others called Bria. It seemed to be sticking its head out of the panel. Then it was gone again. He’d never actually seen the Bria creature come through the hatch into the craft. So how did it get inside?

The question fled from his mind when Bandicut called out to a Jeev-something. It was the size of Bandicut, but was made of metal, and it floated in the air. Sheeawoon jumped out of the seat he had just lowered himself into. Was this a thing or a person?

“Don’t be alarmed,” it said. “Welcome to our little craft.”

“What are you?” Sheeawoon asked, unable to keep the fear out of his voice. Robot, he suddenly understood it to be—though he had no idea what a robot was.

The thing—he was pretty sure now that it was a thing—bobbed slightly. It didn’t seem to have eyes. But little lights moved around the top of its head, and Sheeawoon wondered if those were its eyes. “My name is Jeaves,” it said. “I am an artificial being, and I work with John Bandicut and Li-Jared.”

“Are you a . . . servant?” Sheeawoon asked.

“I was originally built to be that, yes,” Jeaves answered. “However, I have been an autonomous being for many years.”

Sheeawoon didn’t know what to say. He had heard of certain bio-machines in the capitol that were grown and cultured to act on their own. But this didn’t look anything like a bio-machine. It was all metal.

“Please be comfortable in your seat,” the thing said. “We must get airborne, to follow your people.” Jeaves gestured toward the front of the cabin, where a wide window gave a clear view of the area around the vessel. On the right, Laerwicky’s ship was rising on a billow of dust.

“Sit tight in your chair,” Bandicut called over his shoulder. “You’ll feel restraints holding you in. That’s for your protection while we’re maneuvering.”

Sheeawoon took a breath and sat back. An instant later he was pressed into his seat. Outside, the ground dropped away. He didn’t see any cloud of dust, but did see a dizzying expanse of air beneath them.


“There’s our central city, Gethanton,” Sheeawoon said, pointing past Bandicut’s shoulder, to the left and down. He tried to still the excitement in his voice. He had only been to Gethanton a few times in his life. The view from the air was riveting. The city was grown on a hill, around which the Welting Stream coiled, glinting in the sun. The spiraled layers of the city looked like hard-shelled sea-growths bonded to the hillside, which was pretty nearly what they were.

Bandicut called back, “Your city looks grown, not built. Is this how all your cities are made?”

Well, of course they were, as far as he knew. Sheeawoon thought a moment, and finally said, “I have only been to this city and one other. But I believe they all are like this. How else would they be made?”

Before anyone could answer, the robot called out that two more aircraft had pulled alongside, and they were rocking their wings to indicate a change in course. Bandicut adjusted, and four aircraft banked and dropped toward the edge of the city. Following Laerwicky’s lead, Bandicut landed his ship on a paved airfield just outside the settled area. Perhaps twenty aircraft of one kind or another were parked on one side of the field; they parked on the opposite side. That made sense, Sheeawoon supposed. They would stay away from the rest of the craft, and at more of a remove from the population. The two escort craft continued circling in the air. “I think we can get out now,” Sheeawoon offered tentatively.

Bandicut and Li-Jared didn’t respond at once; they were talking with another voice that came out of empty air. That was Ruall, they had explained earlier—another member of their party, who was not present on the planet at all, but in their other ship, somewhere in space. Space. They were talking about what they would do next. “I think, after you have stepped out of the lander, I will introduce myself to your escorts,” said the disembodied voice. Sheeawoon tried to envision that. He could only close his eyes and tremble.

“Hey there, are you okay?” Bandicut was peering at him.

“I—yes—okay,” he stammered.

“We don’t mean to scare you.” Bandicut pinched his lip between thumb and forefinger. He seemed to be thinking. “You know, I still haven’t managed to pronounce your name right. It’s Shee-aa—”

“Sheeawoon.” He carefully articulated the reverberating dissonance in the last two syllables, which the human seemed to have trouble pronouncing.

Bandicut squinted, then shook his head. “My voice isn’t made for that. Would you mind if I just called you Sheeawn? We could say it’s a nickname I’ve given you.”


“In fact, it would be a nickname. Sheeawn.” Bandicut nodded. “Nice to meet you, Sheeawn.”

Sheeawoon didn’t know what to say, so he rumbled an affirmative sound. Sheeawn, then.

“Good. Let’s go see your leaders.”

When they stepped out onto the airfield, Laerwicky and a group of soldiers were waiting. It was bright and cloudless here, and hot. Sheeawn put up a hand to shade his eyes from the sun.

Laerwicky was once again holding a hand weapon, though he had it pointed at the ground. He brusquely ordered the visitors—and Sheeawn—to line up next to the aircraft. Spacecraft, Sheeawn thought. “We must inspect you for weapons,” Laerwicky said. “Then we’ll get a ride into the city. Our leaders are expecting you, but you must come unarmed.”

Something bright and metallic blinked into view in the air, directly in front of the visitors. “Good! This is good,” said the voice of the Ruall, sounding much louder and more forceful than it had inside the craft. It was a bizarre-looking figure, quite flat, almost like a circular disk of highly polished sheet metal. It turned this way and that, at certain angles disappearing from sight altogether. Though it was quite different, it made Sheeawn think of Bria the gokat. Which made him wonder where the gokat had gotten to.

Laerwicky stepped back, startled. “What is that?” he demanded of Sheeawn.

“Um.” Sheeawn tried to think how to explain. “Its name is Ruall. It’s not really here. It’s up in their spaceship.” He pointed into the sky.

“Well, what did it say?”

Sheeawn had to replay the Ruall thing’s words in his mind. “It said, ‘That is good.’”

Laerwicky looked annoyed. “Meaning what?” He was maybe a little scared, too. Suddenly he yelped, “Hey!” His weapon was gone from his hand. So were the weapons carried by the others. Sheeawn had glimpsed a blur that he was pretty sure was Bria. Laerwicky’s eyes burned with indignation as he looked at the shiny thing floating before him.

“You have no need of weapons,” said the Ruall thing. “We are not carrying weapons, either. We are here to talk. To exchange information.”

Sheeawn translated, and then without waiting for Laerwicky to speak, said back to Ruall, “I am sure they want to know who you are. And I guess, where you are, and what you intend.”

“I am Ruall. I am Tintangle. I am in space, orbiting your world. I intend polite conversation—and to assure the safety of my friends here.”

Sheeawn closed his eyes and translated.


Bandicut’s reaction to all of this was amazement, and amusement. Granted, things were a little tense for a few minutes. But eventually they all agreed that Bria would stop taking the Uduon’s weapons if they would stop bringing them out. In return, he and Li-Jared would keep their mirror-suits turned off, so the Uduon could see them as they really were.

They were to be taken to meet someone called a Watcher, apparently a kind of priest or priestess. He assumed this was just the first step up the Uduon leadership chain, but it was a start.

A surface vehicle pulled up. It looked like an elongated snail, with wheels nearly hidden beneath the shell. Bandicut, peering into the dark hatch, felt instant claustrophobia. No way could he fit in this bus. “Listen,” he said, pulling his head out, “I think I’ll walk, if that’s okay. I need the exercise, anyway.” Li-Jared, who probably could have fit inside just fine, echoed Bandicut’s sentiment. He pointed toward the city, which loomed over the nearby buildings.

That caused another round of consternation, since Laerwicky and his troops had expected to ride. But soon they were all trooping up the road in a small parade. The road was dirt and gravel, and their footsteps kicked dust up in a cloud that marked their progress for anyone watching from the city. Bandicut gnawed on the fact that they were to be seen first by a priest. To evaluate us as demons? Or do priests wield the political power here? They knew nothing yet about the power structure on this world. Was it all local authorities? Was there anything resembling a planetary government?

Gradually he became aware that Li-Jared was trying to elicit some of that information from Sheeawn as they walked. The poor fellow was looking pretty stressed. He probably wondered if it was okay to be answering questions about the Uduon governance. “So your priests really are the ones we need to talk to?” Li-Jared asked.

“Of course,” said Sheeawn. “Who else would you talk to?”

“Uh—” Li-Jared said.

Bandicut jumped into the silence. “How long have your people been going into space, Sheeawn?”

The Uduon looked thoughtful. He said something to Laerwicky, who twitched his fingers in the air. Sheeawn mirrored the gesture, and said to Bandicut, “More years than I have been alive. I believe we first reached out during my—” the stones rasped as they searched for the word “—grandfather’s days.” He hesitated. “And your people? How long have they been reaching to the sky?”

That left Bandicut and Li-Jared both at a loss for a moment. Bandicut wondered what year it was now, back on Earth. “A very long time,” he said finally. “Many, many lifetimes.”

Sheeawn’s eyes brightened a little at that. Li-Jared added, “It is one thing to reach to the skies.” He held his hand aloft. “But quite another to reach beyond the skies.” He made a flinging upward gesture. “To travel beyond your own sun. How long have your people had that ability?”

That caused Sheeawn to pause in his stride and look at Li-Jared with a narrowed gaze. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Li-Jared’s gaze darkened. He drummed his fingertips on his chest and said, “You do not know of your people’s reach beyond this world? Do you know that there are other suns beyond this one? That there are many other suns beyond this one?”

Sheeawn seemed uncertain. “Other suns? I have heard of such things. But the fire in the sky makes it hard . . .” His voice trailed off, and he shook off the rest of the question.

Sheeawn had no idea what was beyond the Heart of Fire nebula, Bandicut thought.

Li-Jared took a different tack. “Tell me something. What do you do with your time when you’re not busy meeting alien visitors like us?”

Sheeawn whistled a nervous chuckle. “I am a fisher. I set nets each day and gather floaters from the sea—” rasp “—lake. I take them to market.”

“Floaters?” Bandicut asked. “Seafood? You gather food from the sea? Lake, I mean?”

“They are used for many things,” said Sheeawn. “Some are used for food, others for medicine. Some are kept in tanks, and their—” rasp “—patterns—” rasp “—essential ingredients—” rasp rasp “—genetic material is used to grow things we need. Machines, and so on.”

Bio-nanotech? That could explain the lack of visible industry. “I would like to see some of these floaters,” Bandicut said. “It sounds as if they are versatile.”

“There are many kinds,” Sheeawn said.

The road narrowed at that point, and their procession jostled and squeezed together, making conversation difficult. Bandicut reflected on what they had learned, and murmured a brief report into his comm for Jeaves to pass on to Ruall.


The city consisted of a series of ridges, or terraces, encircling the hill. There was a rounded, barnacle-like shape to all the construction. As they hiked toward the top, they had to do a fair amount of switching back and forth. While the city was not exactly a fortress, there was an element of self-defense built into its structure—at least against enemies on foot. Bandicut asked Sheeawn what enemies they were defending against. The Uduon gave him a strange look, and did not answer. Demons? Bandicut wondered.

“Do you have enemies among the Uduon?” Li-Jared asked. “Wars among yourselves?”

Sheeawn twitched a shrug and didn’t seem to want to talk about it. Afraid of betraying a weakness? They were now passing other Uduon in the streets, many of whom stared at them with evident curiosity. Sheeawn bobbed his head in clear self-consciousness; he probably didn’t even want to be seen talking to these aliens.

Save it for the priest, Bandicut thought. Save it for the priest.


Finally they swung into a wide, stone courtyard in the middle of a U-shaped edifice. Some kind of palace? Bandicut wondered. “Do you suppose they grow everything here?” he murmured to Li-Jared. “All their machines and buildings?” It reminded him of the world of the Neri, except that the Neri had lived entirely underwater. He had seen few operating machines beyond the aircraft and a few land vehicles. This did not look like a culture capable of supporting even a rudimentary space program, much less one that could hurl asteroids across a fraction of a light-year. Unless . . . they grew their space infrastructure, too.

Coming toward them now was a contingent of folk dressed in various styles of robes and tunics—some blue with violet trim, others green with silver panels down the front, still others black with red piping. Laerwicky exchanged words with them, then appeared to wash his hands of the matter, as the prisoners, or guests, passed into the custody of these officials. They gazed curiously at Bandicut and Li-Jared, but once they realized that Sheeawn was the interpreter, they crowded around him. He answered their questions with energetic gestures, bobbing his head and gesturing to the two off-worlders.

Finally Sheeawn got a moment to speak to Bandicut and Li-Jared. “These are the Watcher’s guards and aides, and lower priests. We will meet the Watcher herself soon, but first they ask that you join them in dinner, as guests of the priesthood.” Sheeawn gestured in the direction they were to walk, and they passed from the courtyard into a kind of lobby with iridescent walls, where a table of polished stone had been laid out with baskets and bowls of food. The offerings included fruits, nuts, small green cubes of something that looked like cheese except for the color, a bowl of a creamy yellow liquid with a ladle and small cups for service, and a kind of pebbly pizza.

Bandicut stood silently contemplating all of this food, imagining all the allergic reactions and intolerances that could be triggered by one meal. /What’s the word, stones? Am I normalized to this stuff?/ He felt a tingling sensation that started in his fingertips, then spread through his body to his head and toes. It was like touching an electrified fence, but in slow motion, and milder.

The stones spoke a single word to him. *Clear.*

/Thank you./ Bandicut spoke to Li-Jared, who probably had felt a similar sensation. “Did you just get normalized? I would eat cautiously, regardless.” Li-Jared tapped his thumb and fingers together in acknowledgment.

Sheeawn said, “Will you accept the food offering?”

“Before we do,” Li-Jared said, “is there any special significance in this meal? Is there a correct way to do this, so we do not offend?”

Sheeawn looked thoughtful. He spoke to one of the priests, who gestured broadly and shook his fingertips toward the table. “No,” Sheeawn said. “Nothing formal. They want to share their food, that is all. It is an old tradition.”

Bandicut and Li-Jared bowed thanks to the priests and stepped up to the table. Soon they were seated on terraced steps, holding large, shallow bowls in their laps. Compared to their Uduon hosts, they had served themselves very small portions. Bandicut felt as though all the eyes in the open room were focused on them. Was this a test, to see if they were brave enough to eat the local food?

Or perhaps to see if they were superior beings who could shrug off poison?

Bandicut sighed. He had trusted the stones before about food normalization, and he hadn’t been poisoned yet. Perhaps he shouldn’t start doubting them now.

He lifted the green cheese to his mouth and sniffed it. It smelled like algae. Cautiously, he took a bite. It tasted like moldy yogurt cream—mild, creamy, but with a furry texture and a bitter aftertaste. He continued chewing. With an effort, he smiled to Sheeawn and nodded to the nearest priest. He swallowed.

All of the priests and aides watched him with rapt attention. So did Li-Jared, who had not yet tried anything.

The cheese was sticking halfway down. Bandicut sipped from the small cup of yellow liquid, clearing his throat discreetly, and then took a larger swallow. It had a buttery taste, with an herbal overtone. He liked it. He drank half the cup, then cradled the cup in his hands, while he smiled and waited to see if something in the liquid would bite him. To his surprise, it soothed his throat and refreshed him. He turned to Li-Jared to see how the Karellian was doing. Li-Jared twanged softly, and Bandicut laughed. “Coward. Go ahead, it doesn’t hurt.” He frowned. “Isn’t this stuff more like your food, anyway?”

Li-Jared picked at the fruit. “Not really. However . . .” He raised something that looked like a banana in the shape of a thick discus. Taking a bite, he chewed thoughtfully. “Doesn’t seem like it will kill me,” he remarked.

That brought a low protest from Sheeawn. “Do you think—do you believe the food is intended to harm you?”

“No, no. But we aren’t used to this food. We prefer to be cautious,” Li-Jared said. “How is the holy group receiving us?”

Sheeawn sketched an arc with his hand to include all of those who were hosting them. “They said they were eager for you to receive this welcome from Watcher Akura.” He hesitated and lowered his voice. “I think they are trying really hard not to act excited. We’ve never had visitors from another world before.”

“That’s understandable,” Bandicut said. “But we are impatient to meet with this Watcher. We have urgent matters to discuss.”

Sheeawn had barely translated when a small voice spoke up from the back of the gathering. Bandicut could not understand the words, but even before Sheeawn interpreted, he somehow knew their meaning: “Then let us discuss them now.”

From the shadows in the back of the room, a slight figure came forward. The other Uduon parted, bowing, to allow passage. A child? Bandicut wondered. Or a small female, perhaps? He glanced at Li-Jared, who had stiffened slightly. As the diminutive Uduon stepped into view, Bandicut glimpsed bright green eyes peering out from under a wide, flattened hood atop a dull gray cloak.

Sheeawn looked uncertain; he waited until someone spoke, and followed their lead. “This,” he said at last, “is Watcher Akura. She is—” he hesitated as the other speaker provided the information “—our ranking—our highest—priest overseer in this city.” More words. “She has rank to speak for—that is, to speak as one of our—” rasp rasp “—world leaders.” Sheeawn looked a little awestruck as he said that, and in fact, he bowed from the waist as Watcher Akura drew up before them.

She. Female leader, then. Bandicut wondered what, if anything, that might tell him about the power structure here. He also wondered at the exact meaning of the term world, which the stones seemed to have had trouble translating. Planet-wide? Continent-wide? Province-wide? Facing the Watcher, he considered whether to bow from the waist and decided instead on a respectful bow of the head. They were not here as supplicants, but as emissaries of a superior power—or so they hoped. He held out his open hands. See? No weapons. Beside him, Li-Jared seemed to have a similar instinct. He held his hands apart in front of his breast and extended his fingers outward and upward, which Bandicut thought signified respect, but not overt deference.

Several of the guards—including Laerwicky, who was still present at the edge of the gathering—rustled a bit. Were they taking displeasure in that lack of subservience? Watcher Akura gave no sign of being troubled, however. She said simply, as translated by Sheeawn, “My name is Akura. I greet you as Watcher for this part of Uduon.”

Bandicut nodded again. “Watcher Akura. Is that how we should address you?”

Sheeawn looked unsure, but relaxed as he conveyed, “Yes, that is an acceptable form of address.”

With that settled, Watcher Akura raised slender-fingered hands and pushed back the hood of her cloak, revealing a mahogany face that was narrow, with a sharp nose, and a fine covering of gray and silver fur. Her eyes were bright—not quite emerald, but a shade that made Bandicut think of evergreen woods. They had the almond shape of a cat’s pupils, with a brighter green in the fine band across the middle of both eyes. When Akura spoke, her voice had an almost feline mellifluousness as she spoke words that somehow sounded so familiar that he felt he ought to understand them.

Sheeawn supplied the meaning. “The Watcher says she would like to hear where you are from, and the reason for your visit. Shall we go to a more private place to speak?”

Chapter 34 The Circle of Watchers

WATCHER AKURA LED the three, with several attendants, into the main building and up a curving flight of stone steps. They crossed a mezzanine on the second floor, tiled with a pearl-like material, and continued down a short hallway. At the end they turned into a room that looked to Bandicut like a study in a monastery; it appeared to have been carved out of rock by running water. He felt an impulse to run his hands along the walls, to feel the coolness of stone that surely connected deep into the hill and the bedrock below.

Akura gave him a quizzical look, perhaps sensing his interest. She circled behind a curved table, and gazed at her visitors standing before her. When she first spoke, though, she addressed Sheeawn directly. He stiffened, listening, and the two went back and forth for a minute. Finally Sheeawn turned to Bandicut and Li-Jared. “Watcher Akura wishes to believe that you have come here to speak truth, and that you intend no harm. Does she judge correctly?”

Bandicut cleared his throat, intending a simple yes. But Li-Jared answered first. “Please tell the Watcher that indeed we mean no harm, and we thank her for hearing us. But—and this is important—we have urgent matters to bring before her people. By which I mean, all the people of Uduon.” He hesitated, and bonged thoughtfully. “Can you try once more to explain to us exactly what the Watcher’s role is . . . with your people?” Li-Jared waved his hands in frustration, struggling to articulate his question.

“In other words,” Bandicut said, “Who must she answer to? Is she a leader of all your people?”

Sheeawn translated, then came back with, “She is not the leader of all people, no. But she is a Watcher. Speaking to her is—” and he too fumbled for words “—speaking to a Watcher can be a way to speak to all the leaders, for all the people.” Sheeawn paused, his fingers close to his lips, as Akura said something more. “She wants to know, who do you speak for—you who come down from the sky?”

As he translated, the Watcher’s eyes gleamed a little brighter, and she leaned forward to hear their reply.


In painstaking steps, backed up by Bandicut, Li-Jared told Sheeawn and Watcher Akura how they had come from a far world—far, far beyond the clouds of fire that enclosed Uduon and its sun. How they had flown through that deadly nebula, to visit Uduon. “We came here following the track,” Li-Jared said carefully, “of a series of large rocks. Rocks that seem to have been launched—from here, not just into space, but at a target.” He paused, while Sheeawn translated that much. “And that target was another world, a world called Karellia.”

At that, Sheeawn froze. He looked perplexed and uncomfortable, and perhaps disbelieving. Li-Jared waited while Sheeawn translated. Akura raised her chin slightly, and she held out her hands, palms down, fingers outstretched. “Demons,” she said sharply. By now, Li-Jared recognized the Uduon word even before Sheeawn translated it. He gestured for her to say more.

“We have struck against the demons, yes,” the Watcher said. “We must defend our world.”

“I—I’m not sure I understand,” Li-Jared said. “Why have you struck—?”

“What would you expect us to do—wait to be attacked again? Wait for more cities to burn, when they send their torches down from the sky?” Akura’s eyes kindled as Sheeawn carried her words.

Li-Jared was dumbfounded. He blinked, rubbed his chest, licked his lips. He glanced at Bandicut, who seemed equally stunned. Bandicut asked, “These torches you speak of? Can you say more? When? How? Why do you think they came from Karellia?”

Torches? Li-Jared thought. What torches?

Akura told them. “The first torch appeared more than thirty years ago. It came out of the night sky, trailing fire.” She gestured with one hand, tracing a path against the far wall. “It was too fast to intercept, even if we had known the danger.”

Li-Jared waited, not speaking.

“It could have been a meteor, but the fire came before it entered the atmosphere. It was changing course. It was maneuvering to strike us. It could not have been more clear that it was sent to destroy.” Akura’s voice grew tight. “And it fell out of the sky, directly over our forest city of Turoness. And then—” She looked hard at Li-Jared as Sheeawn delivered the words. “It exploded.”

Li-Jared took a sharp breath.

Akura’s voice grew low. “And Turoness burned. As though fire had sprung down from the sky. The city burned, and burned.” She flicked her fingers sharply at Sheeawn as he conveyed the last.

“And you . . . believe . . . that this torch came from the world beyond the clouds?” Li-Jared said hoarsely. “From . . . Karellia?”

“We traced its path,” Akura said. “It came from the demon world. The one we cannot see, except through remote eyes that we send to the outer limits of the fire clouds. It came from, I guess, the world you call Karellia.” She paused. “I do not know what the demons call their world. But that is the only world our remote eyes saw, before they were lost in the fires of the cloud.”

Li-Jared worked his fingers, trying to clear his thoughts before speaking. “I believe there is only one inhabited world just on the far side of those clouds.” Demon torches? What could she be talking about? “And . . . is that when you started launching rocks back at them?” His head was spinning. He didn’t know of anything like that from Karellia—certainly nothing that would have been launched as an attack weapon without provocation.

“We buried our dead and rebuilt our city,” Akura said, her voice inflected with—not fury, exactly, but adamance. “And we wondered what could have been behind it. But four years later, there came another! This one did not explode—our defenses worked better, perhaps—but it crashed near another city, Maressato. This second attack was not as successful. But still, there was much damage—many died.”

“And then you attacked?” Li-Jared whispered.

“And then we confirmed the path back,” said Akura. “And then, yes. We struck back at those who had attacked us.”

Sheeawn was stammering now. He looked at the visitors and said, “I am speaking my own words now. I knew of the attacks . . . on our cities. I did not know of the rest.”

Before Li-Jared could reply, Akura said something else, and they went back and forth for another minute, which ended with Sheeawn sputtering to a confused silence.

Li-Jared stood open mouthed. Bandicut finally spoke, saying, “Did you . . . try to go to that world? Or to communicate somehow?”

That question, relayed to Akura, made her flare in anger. “How could we? We cannot fly near the clouds of fire, much less through them. Our remotes survived just long enough to send back images from beyond the obscuring layers.”

Bandicut was absorbing that, as Li-Jared thought, And that is why you fling rocks. You must do so with great accuracy. But the rocks are inert. They are not harmed by passage through the clouds.

Bandicut shook his head. He walked to the open window in the stone wall near Akura’s desk and gazed out at the hillside, rising steeply just outside. Then he turned and said, “You cannot know, then . . . that the world you’re attacking is filled with people much like yourselves?” He pointed to Li-Jared. “My friend here is one of them—although he has been away for a long time.”

Sheeawn sputtered that information to Akura. Bandicut waited to give him a chance to finish, and then continued before Akura could respond. “When I myself first saw the Uduon, my thought was how utterly similar the Uduon and the Karellians seemed. They—”

But now Akura was talking back rapidly, and Sheeawn was echoing something about the Uduon being nothing like the killer demons, and Bandicut fell silent, letting them finish. Li-Jared waited for a pause, before saying sharply, “You call my people demons. Have you ever met one, or spoken with one, before now? Why do you say this about us?”

“Who else besides demons,” Akura said, “would drop bombs on our heads without warning? And never even come to see what they had done? Or perhaps they are watching from the clouds, laughing, and preparing more.”

Preparing more? Li-Jared thought. I should hope not. Whatever it is we’re talking about. I have some serious questions to ask back home!

Akura continued, “We have long known that one day a great evil would descend from those clouds again, and threaten our people.”

Li-Jared started at that. “Excuse me? Did you say again?”

Akura straightened, and suddenly seemed more priestly. “In ancient times, yes, there was terrible sickness and famine visited upon us from the clouds. There are many stories.”

“Stories. Do you have actual records? Details?”

She made a sweeping gesture that seemed neither positive nor negative. “Stories recorded in scripture.”

Li-Jared thought furiously. Sickness from the sky, long ago? Could it have been a radiation event, perhaps? Some outburst from the clouds, or a change in the planet’s protective magnetic field? Or an ancient conflict, now forgotten?

Akura waved a hand to get his attention again. She spoke again—more slowly—and with a steely gaze fixed on Li-Jared. “The prophets,” she said—and by now Li-Jared could understand many of her words with the help of his own stones, even before Sheeawn translated them—“the prophets said that even more times would come when fire would rain from the sky, when the demons of the heavens would try to destroy us.”

“And you think—”

But Akura shushed him and continued, “The writings do not describe these demons exactly, but tell only of their deeds. And these deeds, these fiery torches from the sky, are exactly what was foretold.”

Li-Jared bobbed his head a few times. Could the prophecy have been foretelling future magnetic or cloud instability? he wondered. “But,” he said, “if your scriptures do not offer a way to identify the actual demons, Watcher, how can you know that you are attacking the true demons? How can you know you are not—?”

“Making a mistake? Attacking the wrong foe?” Akura made a burring sound that he recognized as disdain. “We tracked the torches all the way back to their starting point! We might not be masters of the stars, like you, but we got a good look beyond the clouds. We got an exact fix on the only possible body from which those torches could have come.”

“Watcher Akura,” Li-Jared protested, “my people are not perfect, but they are not murderers or demons!” At least I hope not!

She burred again, louder. “Who else would drop fire on the innocent?” She suddenly pointed a finger at Bandicut and cried, “And you! Where do you come from, claiming such innocence? You seem to have a great deal of knowledge. How did you come by such knowledge?

Li-Jared sputtered for words. “My friend here is no demon. Nor am I. We have seen many worlds. On none of them have we seen people whom we would call demons. In fact—”

Akura interrupted. “The prophesies are clear, as they have been taught to generations of Watchers. Perhaps demons do not know themselves that they are demons. But that would not make them demons any the less.”

Bwang. “But—”

“I do not believe,” Bandicut interjected forcefully, “that you will find the Karellians to be like your demons at all.” He shot up a palm to insist on his turn to speak. “And I do not believe that they deliberately rained fire on you, much less that they intended to destroy you.”

Li-Jared winced at the idea. “My people,” he said the instant Sheeawn had finished translating Bandicut’s words, “have never traveled this far from home.” At least not in my time! “Do you not know, there is a halo of fire that surrounds Karellia, keeping my people close to home, just like the one that keeps you close to your world?”

“Then how is it that you are here, talking to me right now?” Akura snapped.

Li-Jared whistled a sigh and glanced at Bandicut. “Did we not just explain,” he said, “that we were brought by friends from other worlds—in a ship that can breach even those barriers? In a ship . . .” He faltered, trying to think how to put this.

Bandicut picked up the thread. “In a ship,” he said, “that came from an almost unimaginable distance to find you—and to try to put an end to this war.”

Akura appeared startled into silence. “Put an end? War?” she said finally. “Do you threaten us, then?”

Bandicut glanced at the attendants, who had stirred at that last. “Threaten you? No! But there is a threat to your world—a terrible threat!—and not the one you think you know. That’s what we’ve come to warn you of.”

Akura leaned forward deliberately, pressing her hands to the top of her table. “And just what threat is that?”

Bandicut let out a long breath. “This is going to take,” he said, “even longer to explain.”


As Sheeawn listened to the two visitors talk, he began to wonder if he had ever really woken up from last night’s dreams. The more he heard, and translated for Watcher Akura, the more unreal it felt. Great pathways through the sky, through some galaxy of stars, whatever that was—apparently a great many stars, in a great cloud—and things that went backward in time, and dangerous creatures that traveled forward in time—and thousands of worlds at risk . . .

None of this made sense to him. He knew of a few uninhabited worlds circling his own sun, or presumed uninhabited, because they had only been visited by remote probes. Beyond that lay the pulsing clouds of fire, and the demon world and its sun, and beyond that the few points of light that Uduon astronomers had detected that might be other suns. Even the demon world had never been seen clearly, only its orbit plotted. Or so the Watcher seemed to say. He had little knowledge of such things.

But these things the visitors were talking about? Crazy.

Still, he translated dutifully for the Watcher; and slowly he sensed her agitation grow. At last she burst out with, “How does any of this concern us? We have nothing to do with these ‘tides’ or ‘currents of time,’ if that translation makes any sense. We have nothing to do with any of these worlds you tell us about. We have just one concern, and that is defending our home against assault!”

The whole conversation momentarily stalled, with that outburst. Then the human, Bandicut, blurted that he agreed with her! The Uduon’s concern should be protecting their world. What the devil was he trying to do—confuse the issue? Bandicut started talking again, and now he spun an impossible story about how Uduon, by counterattacking, was in some crazy way laying itself open to worse attack. From the stars. From the past.

Furthermore, he said, if there were any demons in this entire matter, it was those things coming at them from out of time. They were terrible! He had met them, and fought them, and even with his wonderful alien spaceship, he was afraid of them!


Sheeawn looked back and forth, and suddenly he felt a powerful jolt, as if the stones had just kicked him in the head, because he suddenly felt vistas ballooning open in his mind. He reeled, stepping backward, as his mind filled with images and knowledge of space, and stars, and great ships carrying people of every description through space. And for just an instant, he glimpsed an enormous world filled on the inside with every kind of creature imaginable—and outside it, a sky-filling disk, a spiral of mist in the night, the galaxy that Bandicut kept talking about. He suddenly felt certain that what the visitors were telling him was true.

True? And the insidious creatures from the past? Were they true, too? Were they the real demons?

All this washed through him, then ebbed away, leaving him shaking. The Watcher Akura, her gaze directly on him, appeared to be pondering, as well. “Sheeawoon,” she said softly, “are you all right?”

He caught his breath, and tried to control his two thumping hearts, and finally stammered that he was.

“So,” she said, her voice taking on a commanding tone, “please tell our guests that they have presented us with a story that is quite extraordinary, and difficult to believe. I require proof. If there is none, I will conclude that they have woven this tale in order to deceive us—for what purpose, I cannot yet guess. Say that to our visitors.”

Sheeawn did. He held his breath waiting for an answer. When it came, he was so stunned, he almost couldn’t translate.

“Name a representative of your world to come with us,” said Li-Jared. “Or come yourself. We will show you what we have been telling you. We will take you beyond the wall of fire, to the world you call the demon world.” At this, Sheeawn nearly froze in terror. But Li-Jared seemed not to notice, as he continued, “We will let you meet those you believe are your enemies. We will let you question them. And let you tell them why you launch asteroids at their world.”

The visitor waited while Sheeawn translated all that.

Then a silence filled the room. Or rather, for Sheeawn the room was filled with the sound of his hearts pounding in his chest. After a minute, Bandicut made a coughing sound and extended both hands. Will you accept our offer? he seemed to be asking.

Watcher Akura’s face was unreadable. She gazed out the window. She gazed down at the table. She gazed at the visitors. “I did not . . . expect such a proposal,” she said at last. “I cannot speak for all of Uduon—no single Watcher can. I must confer with the Circle of Watchers. Any decision must come from them.”

It seemed to Sheeawn there was an element of dread in her words.


To Bandicut’s surprise, a conference of the Circle was something that could be called on short notice. It would be conducted remotely, but not by any comm technology that Bandicut would recognize.

Still, it would take a few hours to arrange. Ushered into an adjoining space to wait, the visitors were offered comfortable seating and more refreshments. It was getting late in a long, long day, and they were all tired; they welcomed a chance to stretch out on the long divans that lined this room. Sheeawn initially seemed to feel that he should try to explain what was going to happen in the meeting; but since he didn’t really seem to understand it himself, and he looked as worn as Bandicut felt, Bandicut urged him to rest. He and Li-Jared took a few minutes to use their own comm gear to confer with Jeaves back on the lander, and Ruall in orbit in The Long View. In the midst of all this, Bria reappeared, slipping out of one of the walls. She seemed occupied with her own business, however, and soon disappeared back into whatever dimension held her interest.

In due time, an attendant roused them. Bandicut had drifted off into a reverie of Charli, dreaming in an imaginary conversation how the quarx would have advised him. What would you do, Charli? He had to fight off grogginess and a deep heartache, as they were brought back into Watcher Akura’s office. The Watcher was not present at the moment. They were told to sit on a bench opposite her table. The room itself looked different. Doors had been opened on the window wall, revealing a steep hillside covered with broad-leafed foliage. What looked like the top of a tree leaned in through the open space. It appeared to grow out of the hillside, and somehow had bent to nose into the room once the doors were open.

Sheeawn consulted with an attendant and explained that it was called the Dusting Tree, and they would soon see what its function was. “It’s rooted deep in the ground, far down into the great—” rasp “—aquifer that winds throughout all of the lands.”

“Aquifer?” Bandicut asked, puzzled as to what an aquifer would have to do with a meeting of world leaders.

“A channel of water underground, connecting one region to another. I am told that this particular aquifer encircles the entire world. It is used for communication,” Sheeawn said. His wide-eyed gaze made it clear that this was well beyond his ordinary experience.

Akura came back into the room, clothed in a silver robe that fell from her shoulders like a cascading waterfall. “There is something you need to understand,” she said, the robe rippling as she took a seat, near the Dusting Tree. “We are about to undertake a joining of the Watchers, and there is a degree of risk in it—not just to me, but possibly to you as well. There will be—” and at this Sheeawn’s translation struggled “—connecting—” rasp rasp “—entities free in the air. They are intended for me, but they might reach you, also. Perhaps your protective clothing will help. I do not expect difficulties, but neither can I guarantee your safety. Do you still want to stay?”

Bandicut and Li-Jared looked at each other in bewilderment. Entities? It was only after receiving strong reassurance from their stones that they shook off their stunned silence and affirmed that, yes, they wanted to stay. Sheeawn, who looked most frightened of anyone in the room, also agreed—reluctantly, Bandicut thought. Bandicut had been about to switch on his mirror-suit, but when he saw Sheeawn’s courage, he refrained. Even without the mirror-suits being active, they were probably still better protected by their stones than this innocent Uduon they had so casually pressed into their service. Although, come to think of it, Sheeawn’s stones should provide similar protection.

Akura sat and smoothed her robe, and became quite still. All of the aides except two left the room, and the remaining two stood ramrod still by the door. Bandicut leaned forward, elbows on his knees, his stomach tightening. Akura raised her chin, gazing in their general direction, though she did not appear to be focusing on them. Her gaze, in fact, seemed far away. She turned her head toward the Dusting Tree and spoke a single clear word: “Koceta.”

“Come,” Sheeawn whispered.

A puff of dust spurted in a thin stream from a nodule on the nearest tree branch. It looked initially like a small cloud of coal dust; but as it floated toward her face, it suddenly turned white and swirled around her head like cream being stirred into coffee. The stream continued for about two seconds, all the particles turning to fine snow—and then, in an instant, it was all iridescent, a cloud of sparks wreathing her head.

A scattering of the particles drifted on air currents across the room. Bandicut fought an urge to switch on his air filtration; but he sensed the stones did not want him to. He felt Li-Jared stiffen beside him; on the other side, Sheeawn’s breath had become rapid.

Were these narcotic spores of some kind, intended to put Akura into a trance? He felt a no, and then at once he understood. Nano-shit, he thought. I’ll bet that’s what they are. Possibly he had murmured that aloud, because Li-Jared shifted slightly, as though trying to listen. Smart-dust. To make connections. He tightened his lips when the aides glanced disapprovingly at him, and spoke inwardly, hoping his stones might answer. /They’re going to mediate a long-distance connection, aren’t they—with other Watchers? Through the tree? Through its roots, through an underground network? Through the aquifers! That’s it, isn’t it?/ The stones didn’t speak, but they tingled with alertness.

The cloud of particles suddenly collapsed onto Akura’s face, and then into her face, for the briefest of instants glittering from beneath her skin. Akura gasped, and Bandicut thought he saw pain in her gleaming eyes. But his focus was broken by a tiny cluster of the particles suddenly dancing in front of his own eyes. They moved too quickly to follow. He felt a series of pricks in his face, like mosquito bites, and the particles were gone. And the room darkened, as though a shutter had irised down.

A rippling sensation fled to the back of his head, and then ran out to his fingertips. He felt a heightened sense of hearing—not of actual sounds in the room, but of murmuring voices as though he were hearing them in another space altogether. Gazing across at Akura, he saw a face that appeared ghostly in the gloom, with a streaking of iridescent dust around her eyes. Her gaze was extraordinarily distant; he doubted she was even aware of him. Her mouth was moving as though in rapid speech, but seemingly in silence, despite the murmur of other voices. Her hands were raised toward the Dusting Tree. He saw the tree shimmering, but only in this shadow view. Was that the ghostly presence of other Watchers he saw, far away? He wanted to rub his eyes, but resisted. Some part of his vision remained normal, and in the room nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

In the shadow view, Akura’s silent words came faster and faster. Twice, her gaze abruptly locked on Bandicut and Li-Jared, and once on Sheeawn. She started to make audible groaning sounds. The murmuring rose and fell. Bandicut was certain it was the sound of the gathered Circle of Watchers. He felt a burning in his chest, maybe from his own tension, maybe from the nano-dust.

How long this went on, he didn’t know. At one point he saw the gokat pop up in the shadow view—first in front of Akura, and then in the Dusting Tree. Bria appeared to gaze intently at the Watcher for a little while. Then, as quietly, she was gone.

Time stretched, and the murmuring went on. He understood none of it, except twice when he might have heard his name spoken, and Li-Jared’s. His desire to know what they were saying was something he at first held in abeyance; but gradually, as the conversation went on, the desire to know became excruciating. Was she persuading them of what she had been told? He could barely hold in his mind what it was they had proposed, but he badly wanted the circle to agree.

And then it simply ended. The tingling sensation was gone. His vision snapped clear, on a room that seemed no different from before, except for a fine, iridescent snow falling to the floor and evaporating.

Behind her desk, Akura was slumped in her chair, unconscious.

Chapter 35 A Decision Faced

AKURA’S AIDES MOVED swiftly and caught her before she could fall sideways out of her chair. Lifting together, they brought her to a padded divan against the wall. They laid her down gently, smoothed out her robe, and then stepped back to stand silent guard.

Bandicut swallowed his dismay. But Sheeawn jumped up, crying out. The aides hushed him as they waited for Akura to come around. Finally one of them spoke to Sheeawn, who translated: “The Watcher may sleep for—” rasp rasp “—an hour or more. When she awakes, she will be in pain. When she can, she will tell you what was said among the Circle.”

Bandicut wondered at the price she had to pay for the connection. Does that happen every time?

Li-Jared was muttering to himself. He seemed shocked by the whole procedure. When Bandicut gave him a silent glance, Li-Jared tried to shrug off the evident dark feelings as he said, “Why would they expose themselves to nano-shit like that? It’s clearly dangerous.”

Bandicut recalled the badly programmed nano-meds, the submicroscopic healing agents that had ended his career as a pilot back at Neptune by destroying his neurolink instead of healing it. He was inclined to agree with Li-Jared. But . . . “Is it so different from us? We’re letting these stones do whatever the hell they want in our heads.”

“True,” Li-Jared admitted.

They waited for something more. But the aides stood in stony silence on either side of Akura. There was no indication of what the visitors should do. So they waited.

Bandicut felt both powerless and useless, and he hated both feelings. He paced, stopping to stare out the window at the grounds below; and he sat with his eyes closed on the bench. Charli, I wish to hell you were here. Where are you? Are you still alive?

At least an hour had passed when he started awake. The aides were moving around Akura with new energy. Was she waking? Bandicut blinked himself to a semblance of alertness and stood up, along with Li-Jared and Sheeawn.

Akura’s eyes were open now. She whispered something to the two aides. Her gaze shifted and she saw Bandicut and Li-Jared. For an instant there seemed no recognition. Then it all appeared to come back to her. She shut her eyes again; she reopened them. She pushed herself to a sitting position, waving off her aides. For about a minute, she simply sat there, gathering her strength, or perhaps reviewing what she’d just been through. When she finally spoke, it was just a couple of syllables, which Sheeawn—after some indecision—translated as, “Oh dear.”

Twenty seconds more passed, and she said, still staring into space, “They want me to go. The Circle wants me to go with you.” Sheeawn had more trouble translating, before adding, “Damn.” Finally Akura shifted her gaze to take in Bandicut and Li-Jared and Sheeawn. “There were eleven Watchers present.”

“From all around the planet?” Bandicut asked. “I felt them, I think. Heard voices, anyway.”

Akura’s gaze sharpened. “Yes. I felt you at the edge. You were affected by the dust, a little. The majority of the Circle think you’re probably lying about not being demons intent on causing us harm. They did not entirely believe my assurances on your behalf.” She scratched at a corner of one eyebrow with a fingertip. “I’m not entirely sure I believe it myself.”

Bandicut opened his mouth to speak in his defense, and then closed it.

“But on the chance you might be telling the truth, they are willing for me to make the trip, and risk my own life.” Akura gave a stuttering hiss, which Bandicut felt was probably an ironic laugh.

“I hope,” Li-Jared said softly, “that you will not be risking your life.”

Akura fixed him with a gaze like the one she had just wielded on Bandicut. “If I leave with you in this ship of yours, will I return? In the lifetime of my people?”

Li-Jared bowed. “That is our intent. To take you there to talk to the Karellians. To bring you back here, to talk to your own people.”

Akura nodded slowly. “You do realize—though I don’t know if you care—that if I go, I will be leaving some people behind. People I care very much about.”

Li-Jared touched his chest in acknowledgment. “Say more?”

Akura turned toward the window. “My family. I am . . . I don’t know if you will know the words . . . bonded here, to my position. I am not bonded to a mate. But my sister-daughter is precious to me, as though she were my own. Her mother, my sister, no longer lives. Nor does her father. I am the only mother and family senior she has now. She will miss me, if I go away. She will miss me terribly if I do not return. And I will miss her.”

“I am sorry,” Bandicut said, thinking of Dakota, whom he had left behind—twice now. “If it is any comfort, I left behind someone very much like that when I began my own journey.” Akura inclined her head at that. Li-Jared reached out toward her and made some kind of small gesture that seemed meaningful to her. “I cannot promise there is no risk,” Bandicut said. “But our ship is good, and fast—and well armed, just in case. Our goal is clear and peaceful.”

“There are people who can watch over her,” Akura mused, as though Bandicut had not spoken. “But it will not be the same. Nevertheless . . .” Bandicut could see it in her eyes as she made her decision. I do not want to, her eyes said. But her voice said, “I have been chosen. I will go. For my people. For Uduon.”

“Thank you,” Bandicut said.

Suddenly Akura turned to Sheeawn. “And you—do you have people you will be leaving behind?”

Sheeawn looked startled, as though he had been trying hard not to be noticed, or to be asked. “I—what?”

“Are there those you will miss? You are coming with me, aren’t you?”


Sheeawn was beginning to feel that he was coming loose from his moorings. Was this even real? He couldn’t go off on a spaceship! What would become of his nets, and his responsibilities, and his livelihood? It was madness! And a terrifying madness, at that.

*You will find it less terrifying in time. You have important things to do.*

Ow, these alien things in his mind were terrifying enough. But getting on a spaceship? He had a new, permanent job, it seemed. Was that so bad, to act as linguistic interpreter to the highest-ranking Watcher in the region? Maybe the world?

Everyone was looking at him, waiting for him to answer Akura’s question. You’re coming, aren’t you? their gazes asked.

But they were talking about flying off into the sky, past the sun, and into the clouds of fire! Flying to another world—demon or otherwise. Now they were looking at him, waiting for a response. Sheeawn closed his eyes.

“Sheeawoon,” said the Watcher. “No one will force you to do this. You understand that, yes? But if you come with me, it would be a great service.”

Sheeawn brought his fingers together, trying to think how to reply—what to reply. We cannot do it without you, their gazes said. And that, he thought, was probably true. He felt a sharp tightness in his throat, and he started to agree. But he stalled on: What about the people who need me to bring them food every week? That’s serious, too. Still, was he the only one who could do that? What about his brother? He will foul up the nets! He’ll get it wrong. He sighed and thought that his brother probably would do just fine. You did want to make a difference.

“Are there people who depend on you?” Akura asked softly.

He buried his face in his hands for a moment, then looked up. “Yes. Yes, there are. Neighbors and . . . friends.”

Akura gestured understanding. “We can send someone to oversee your duties and make sure no one is left abandoned. I will send several.”

Sheeawn felt his hearts go in and out of sync. “You can do that?”

“We can do that,” she said.

“Then when must we leave?”


The next morning was when they would leave. Akura had many details to attend to, and among them—true to her word—was ordering that a team be dispatched to see to the safe handling of Sheeawn’s nets and other affairs. Bandicut was seriously impressed by how quickly, even in her exhausted state, Akura delegated duties, which including installing a senior priest as her own replacement.

Morning came fast. Bandicut and Li-Jared caught a little shut-eye in the waiting room, but Bandicut was constantly aware of frenetic activity taking place around him. Sheeawn, he thought, sat up the entire night trying not to shake from anxiety.

Soon after sunrise, a simple meal was served. Bandicut longed for a cup of real coffee, but that would have to wait for their return to The Long View. During the meal, arrangements were made to allow the landing craft to fly right into the courtyard of this building. While Bandicut was setting that up over the comm with Jeaves, he observed a slender young Uduon female striding into the courtyard and throwing herself into Akura’s arms. Bandicut was moved by the sight, wondering if he had been as comforting to Dakota as a young orphan as Akura was being now with her niece.

Soon, travel bags started to appear in the courtyard: clothing, recording equipment, and things that could not easily be identified. A cooler appeared, loaded with food, which Bandicut hoped could be analyzed and duplicated aboard The Long View. Sheeawn could probably be normalized by his knowing-stones to shipboard food, but Akura might be another story.

Watcher Akura reappeared at Bandicut’s side and said, “We are ready.” Bandicut glanced around and saw the young female peering out from the shadows of the courtyard terrace, with an aide standing protectively at her side. Akura’s face appeared drawn and sorrowful.

The lander came in with a low rumble over the nearby buildings and settled to a soft landing in the center of the courtyard. The side hatch slid open, and Jeaves floated out. Bandicut introduced him to Akura, who, if she was startled by the talking silver machine, hid it well. Jeaves at once began carrying baggage into the little craft. Perhaps he had some of those n-space closets in reserve that used to startle Bandicut when they first flew on The Long View. It took the robot just a few minutes to get everything neatly stowed, somewhat less time than it took Akura to say her good-byes to those she was leaving behind—including one more long gaze and raised hand to the young Uduon standing in the shadows.

Jeaves had rearranged the interior of the craft, adding a fourth seat. Li-Jared gave his right-hand seat to Akura and sat behind her with Sheeawn. Bria, of whom they had seen no sign while they were outside, popped up between the seats, and settled onto Sheeawn’s lap. The young Uduon seemed to find the gokat reassuring.

“Is everyone ready?” Bandicut called back. They were. Seconds later, they were airborne, headed west.


Bandicut had offered Sheeawn a chance to gather a few of his things. Ruall and The Long View were on the far side of their orbit now anyway, and if they made the pit stop a quick one, it wouldn’t delay their orbital rendezvous. Escorted by two Uduon patrol craft, they returned to the lakeside landing spot and waited while Sheeawn, accompanied by Li-Jared, disappeared over the rise.

Glancing at Akura, Bandicut asked, “Will you be the first Watcher to venture into space?” Akura looked at him in puzzlement. She couldn’t understand his words, and his stones didn’t seem quite able yet to render his speech in her words. He shrugged, and was about to turn his attention to the nav computer when Jeaves floated forward and spoke in words that sounded to Bandicut’s ear like the Uduon language.

Akura cocked her head, processing what Jeaves had said. Finally she spoke, and Jeaves said to Bandicut, “I think she said yes. But I’m not certain. She also seemed to be saying that none of the Uduon went into space. Or maybe very few of them.”

“That seems hard to believe,” Bandicut said. “Given what they’ve built up there.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” said Jeaves.

Soon Sheeawn and Li-Jared reappeared over the rise, each of them carrying a travel bag. Jeaves greeted them at the hatch and stowed the bags effortlessly.

“You’re awfully good at that,” Li-Jared said.

“It is what I was created to do,” Jeaves answered. “My first job was as a butler.”


The sky darkened quickly, a welcome sight to Bandicut, as they climbed out of the atmosphere and accelerated toward rendezvous with The Long View. He wondered what it felt like to Akura and Sheeawn. As the graceful curve of the blue, green, and white planet took shape beneath them, Sheeawn spoke nervously to Akura, who answered in measured tones. Whatever they said remained between them.

Acceleration eased off smoothly, and they all drifted up against their seat restraints. Sheeawn yelped in alarm and cried out in a mix of languages. The gokat jumped out of his lap and sailed across the cockpit in midair. “What are you—what are you doing to us? I—I—!”

Akura’s answering voice calmed him a little; she seemed unsurprised by the weightlessness. Li-Jared reached out to steady the young Uduon. A moment later, the grav-field eased in and pulled them back into their seats. Bandicut offered a few words of explanation about the craft’s maneuvers, and that seemed to remind Sheeawn of his new job, and he haltingly translated. Bandicut turned his own attention back to the controls.


Forty minutes later, a tiny lozenge appeared in their sights and grew until the lander glided alongside The Long View. A fuzzy blur of orange light appeared and enveloped the craft, and they were pulled directly into the larger ship.

A few minutes later, the door of the lander opened onto the alien ship. Akura’s thoughts suddenly flashed to her niece waiting for her back home, and to the Circle of Watchers taking care of their world without her; and with a sinking feeling she thought, I am flying into the hands of the enemy. What in the name of the sun and the trees have I gotten myself into?

As the strange alien, Bandicut, ushered her onto his ship, a glance into his eyes suggested that his thoughts were not so very different.

Chapter 36 Finding Ik

ANTARES FLOATED. THERE was a distant flame around her, the energy of the transporter. Why the suspension—or was this a much longer transit than she was used to? She felt little fluctuations, like bumps on a train track, as though she were passing through boundary layers or changes of phase. Was this a more complex transition than usual? In her moments of reflection, what came to her was a prior transport experience, which had also felt odd like this. It was her very first—when an exceedingly strange light beam had shone into her prison cell on Thespi Prime, all swirling light and spinning energy. Without the slightest explanation, that beam had melted her out of her own world, body and soul, away from her imprisonment and impending death at the hands of the Thespi authorities.

That had been her first experience with the star-spanner beam—and with the cryptic, incomprehensible actions of the Shipworld masters. It was during that dizzying passage that the knowing-stones had made themselves permanent jewels in the hollow of her throat. John knows where his stones came from. But I have no idea about mine.

Was Napoleon still here with her? I don’t want to get separated again.


Antares and Napoleon came out of the flame and hung suspended in the air. The sheen of a force-field bubble enveloped them, and Antares could see figures moving on the outside of the bubble. One approached and peered in at them; it was a tall, red-skinned biped, with a white-haired crest on its head. It seemed agitated. Perhaps their appearance had surprised it. “Who are you? What are you doing in a freight transporter? Is someone expecting you?” It spoke in AllWorld, a language that Antares had encountered in only a few sectors of Shipworld. Was this one of those sectors? Or was the language just a coincidence?

She answered through the field, “We are friends of Ik the Hraachee’an and his friend. We urgently need to find them. Have they come this way?”

The being looked startled at that.

Her words had been on target, then. Whoever had programmed their transport had known where to find Ik. “Can you let us out of here? Do you know Ik? It’s urgent that we speak with him!”

“Guh,” said the being, and started to back away, muttering something to the others about “calling authority.”

“Wait!” Antares cried.

Napoleon tapped nervously. “I believe they are discussing what to do with us. I hope they don’t send us back.”

“I’m sure they wouldn’t,” Antares began, and then stopped herself. Of course they might. “Is there anything you can do to make sure that doesn’t happen?”

Napoleon muttered something she didn’t catch and raised his metal hands toward the force-field. “I believe so,” he said, as he touched the bubble with the tip of his first finger. Something flickered at that spot, and the bubble disappeared.

Antares crouched for a sudden drop. But they sank smoothly to the floor, and then were standing free and clear. The involuntary greeting party looked stunned. Antares caught a wave of reflected fear from them and reached out wordlessly to see if she could head it off. “Apologies for our sudden entrance. We arrived here by a rather circuitous path. My norg is Napoleon, and my name is Antares. Please—we have urgent need to speak to Ik the Hraachee’an.”

Besides the white-crested biped, there were two saurian-looking reptiles, with squat haunches and tapered tails, of a race she had met before but could not name. They wore tight-fitting white uniforms that looked medical to Antares.

“You must remain where you are!” one of them hissed. “The safety locks are compromised. You must not leave this area without clearance.” The other dipped its head in what Antares sensed to be agreement.

Antares gazed at them for a moment, and then repeated her request. “Please—do you know this person?”

That sent them into a paroxysm of fluttering and hissing; so much for calm.

Beside her, Napoleon was ticking and whirring. “I wonder, Lady Antares, if we might do better to just look for Ik on our own. These good beings do not appear likely to—”

Before he could finish speaking, the white-crested fellow squawked and pointed down the corridor. Around a corner came a floating cargo pallet, tilting perilously as it made the turn at a surprising speed. Riding it was a squat, flat-headed Rentatt, a species Antares had encountered only a few times and associated with officiousness and bad temper. The pallet and its driver whined to a stop in front of them all.

The Rentatt made a grumbling sound, and waved short arms with splayed fingers. It seemed to be gesturing to the others rather than to Antares and Napoleon. When they quieted down at last, the Rentatt announced, its voice more growl than tone, “There has been a change in protocol! Approved at the top! These two guests are to be escorted to the ghoststream launch center.”

That brought howls of dismay from the saurians.

The Rentatt grumbled them into silence. “Those are our instructions.” He turned to Antares and Napoleon and said, “If you please, may I offer you a ride? It is not fancy. But then, you arrived in a freight transporter, so perhaps you won’t mind.” He gestured to the floating pallet and lowered it to the deck.

Antares looked at it doubtfully, but Napoleon stepped with confidence onto the pallet, locked himself into a secure position with a handhold, and said, “Lady Antares, you may hang onto me. I am sure you will be safe.”

“Very well.” Antares climbed on behind Napoleon and put an arm around his midsection. Without another word from the Rentatt, the pallet rose a foot off the floor, glided past the befuddled saurians, and accelerated down the corridor.

And she finally had a chance to wonder: Had Amaduse intervened for them here, as well?


The ride didn’t take long. After a mile or so, turning left and right and left, they were waved through a set of guarded doors, and the pallet glided to a stop. In front of them were more wide, clear doors opening into a cavernous, brightly lit room. Their driver turned his flat-topped head to speak to them, the folds of his neck twisting and flexing. “This is where you’re to report,” he growled, and then twisted back to glare in the direction of the door.

Antares thanked him and stepped off with Napoleon. Before she could ask whether they were supposed to simply go in, the Rentatt grunted, backed up and turned the pallet, and drove off with it. Antares shrugged and started forward.

The doors shimmered open, and several individuals appeared from nowhere to greet them. Antares didn’t know what they were, except that they were bipeds, were dressed in light gray uniform pant-suits, and also spoke AllWorld. “Lady of Thespi?” said the first. “And inorg Napoleon?”

“Yes,” she said cautiously. Napoleon remained silent.

“We were not expecting you, particularly by that mode of transport,” said the second, coming alongside. “Most people don’t transport across open space in a freight transporter. Most unusual. But now that you are here”—the being gestured with outstretched hands toward the doors and the room beyond—“welcome to the Galactic Core Mission launch center.”

“We thought perhaps,” said the third, “that you might like to be present while we greet the returning exploration party.”

Exploration party? Antares wondered, and also, We traveled across open space? How much open space? What she said was, “I imagine we would.” Were Ik and his friend going to be inside this room?

Her escorts gestured, and together they passed through the doors.

What was inside looked like a spacecraft hangar, although Antares saw no spacecraft. But hadn’t their escort just called this a launch center? The place was lit with bright overheads, and it was filled with a lot of machinery, including some overhead cranes. For such a big place, though, it was surprisingly quiet. Was it the quiet of inactivity? Or of anticipation?

As they walked closer, she discovered that the place was actually bustling with people and subdued activity. She saw a sinuous, metallic being with a face like a copper disk. Flitting in the air overhead were several of the shadow-people. And now, in the very center of the space, she saw something that looked like a cockpit on the end of an enormous shaft or fuselage bulging with magnets and coils. It reminded Antares of a star-spanner, though heaven knew star-spanners came in a large variety of forms. The one that brought her to Shipworld looked not at all like the one that had launched her, with John and Ik and Li-Jared and the norgs, halfway across the galaxy. But what was this thing really? It didn’t look like it was intended to fly.

Before she could ask, though, Antares saw something moving. The cockpit hatch was sliding open.

Chapter 37 Unexpected Meetings

JULIE STONE CAME to with a start. Had she been sleeping? She turned her head. “Ik, you there?”

The answering “Hrah-h” was shaky. Ik was stirring in his couch.

Couch. Pod surrounding us. Everything felt different. “Where—” the hell are we? She gaped around, realizing that she was no longer on another world in the mists of deep-time; she was inside a pod, and visible in the windows was the inside of the ghoststream launch hangar. We never moved. We projected. Of course. “We’re back,” she murmured.

“Yes,” said Ik, and his voice sounded stronger this time.

And we were just in the presence of something that might have been the early Mindaru . . .

At that moment, light burst into the cockpit. The hatch had been opened on the right. She heard voices, and saw hands reaching in, and heads silhouetted. It was the launch crew that had strapped them in, a billion or two years ago. She wondered how long she had been out, and how much time had passed here.

Blinking into the light, she felt her head filled with images from that last planet. The Mindaru planet. Trembling with sudden emotion, she clamped her eyes tightly shut and pressed her head back. /Did we really do that? See all that?/ she asked her stones.

*Yes, we did,* her stones answered. *Take a moment to recover and focus. You are going to be answering a lot of questions. It will come back to you.*

/Easy for you to say./ Truthfully, though, she appreciated the reassurance.

The spidery-limbed crew chief—Enwin, was it?—leaned in over her, disengaging restraints and bio-support connections. In a breathy voice, Enwin asked if she was all right. “Yes,” Julie said. “But please tell me, how long were we gone?”

“You have been time traveling for eleven-point-four days, local,” Enwin said, as casually as if she had been reporting the weather.

“Really. Huh,” Julie said. It felt a lot longer to her. She fell silent and accepted Enwin’s help in climbing out of the pod. Many hands reached out to steady her. She was surprisingly wobbly; her legs felt like gelatin as she stepped down onto the hangar floor. She squinted against the light, and turned to Ik. He was right behind her, rubbing his temples. He moved stiffly. A billion years without stretching. That’ll do it to you, she thought.

Ik clacked his mouth and nodded firmly. “Hrah . . . we have survived the trip.”

Julie found her own voice. “We should be impressed. But which is more impressive—that we survived the time travel, or that we survived meeting the Mindaru?” She meant it as a question to lighten the moment, but as soon as she said it, she realized that to Ik it was a serious question.

He hrrm’d for a moment, and then tapped a long, blue-white finger to his forehead. “I am not certain,” he said at last. “Any encounter with the Mindaru that we survive is a triumph, I think.”

Within moments, they were surrounded by a cluster of technical and medical workers of various species. A reverberating metal voice clanged from somewhere to Julie’s right. She craned her neck, and then exclaimed at the sight of the blank-faced, stick-figure metal creature who had brought them here. “Rings!” she cried.

“Hello, do you remember me?” the Tintangle asked.

“How could I not? I’m glad to see you!” With her head so filled with images of the galactic core, seeing Rings made all of this feel real again.

“Good,” said Rings-at-Need. “We’ll get you right to the debriefing room. We are all eager to hear what you have learned.”

Her stomach growled. I hope you have food in this debriefing room.


Around them as they moved forward in a group was a symphony of voices, some sharp, some rasping, some almost musical, none of which made any sense to Julie. Then one clear, alto voice broke through—a voice she understood as though it were speaking in English. “Ik! Ik, over here!”

“Who’s that, Ik?” Julie searched for the voice’s owner, and spotted someone waving on the outside of the group. What was that? Was she seeing thing? Was that a woman—with long, dark hair, wearing a crimson outfit? What the—? Julie felt dizzy again.

Ik, though, cried out in joy. “Antares! Hrah, Antares!” He pushed forward through the startled launch crew.

As the crew members parted, Julie got a better view. She saw Ik greeting a stunning auburn-haired woman who sprang forward to throw her arms around him. Antares? Was this the Antares, the friend who was part of Ik’s company of travelers, including John Bandicut? Ik and the woman embraced for a moment, and then drew apart to arm’s length. Ik turned to guide Antares toward Julie. And there was a robot with her! Was that—? It looked like the robots on Triton! Was that Napoleon, the survey robot John had taken with him when he’d fled?

Julie’s head was buzzing now. As they came closer, Julie saw that Antares was not, in fact, human. There were differences in the structure of the face and the eyes, and her hair seemed to grow halfway down the center of her back—literally a mane—and her figure was a little different from a human’s. She was wearing a crimson pantsuit that flowed over her breasts, medium by human standards. But wait, directly beneath her breasts were two more, a little smaller. Four breasts? Well, why not? Julie thought dizzily. Antares’ eyes were almost catlike; they glinted gold. Antares met Julie’s gaze for an instant, and then she said something to Ik.

She’s John’s friend. That’s all you need to know right now. Julie tried to acknowledge her inner voice, but somewhere in her chest a tiny knot was tightening.

“A moment,” Ik said. He gripped the arm of one of the staff and spoke in a low but adamant tone, gesturing toward Julie, and toward Antares. Finally the staffer redirected them toward a little alcove formed by a work station, and then shooed the other crew members back to give them room.

As soon as they had enough privacy to speak, Ik drew his companions into a tight circle. “My friends,” he said, his voice trembling with excitement. “I wish you to meet at last! Julie Stone, human of Earth. Antares, Thespi Third Female. Both of you dear friends of Bandie John Bandicut! And this robot, Julie, is from your world, is he not? His name is Napoleon.”

“I, uh—” Julie choked, barely breathing.

Napoleon rose taller and clicked in greeting. “I am most pleased to see you again, Lady Julie Stone.”

“Glad to see you, too, Napoleon,” Julie whispered. Lady?

Ik continued to Antares, “How did you find us? Hrah, I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you! Where are the others? There is so much to tell! Julie has been my companion in a most astounding journey.” Antares seemed to want to answer, but Ik was spilling over with excitement. Julie had never seen him so emotional.

“Uuhhll, Ik, you have new knowing-stones!” Antares said, reaching up to touch the sides of his head. Julie suddenly realized that Antares had translator-stones, as well, glinting in the hollow of her throat. Had Ik told her about that? Julie felt as if she were swimming in this woman’s, this Thespi’s, emotions. She wasn’t just aware of Antares’ emotions; she felt them, as clearly as her own. Antares was astonished and frightened and relieved and uncertain—and regarding Julie herself, Antares was nearly dumbstruck. How could they be meeting like this, here on Shipworld? This was extraordinary! And one more fleeting emotion, and then gone. Was Antares worried about the presence of this human woman?

But Antares was still speaking. “Julie Stone? Julie Stone? I had not thought ever to meet you!” Her voice grew husky, and Julie could not quite identify the tone as Antares said, “John Bandicut has told me so much. I am pleased and grateful. I would very much like to hear the story of how you arrived here.”

This all spilled out in a jumble of words and expressions. Julie had a powerful feeling that Antares was not merely astonished, but flabbergasted. She had not expected Julie to still be alive!


Their moment of privacy was quickly over, as the mission team hustled them all out of the hangar area and into a nearby briefing center. Two halos were present, as well as half a dozen other sentient species. Antares listened in terrified awe, as Ik and Julie reported on their journey eons back in time, and to the center of the galaxy. It all seemed completely impossible. What were these strange things, ghoststream and quantum entanglement?

As Ik and Julie spoke, Antares found her attention wandering in and out, focusing more on their emotions than on the details they reported. The anticipation and bewilderment at the journey itself: spinning back through the millennia and eons, their physical presence here forgotten, as they searched for that one world out of thousands, not just in space but in time. The alarm at passing living entities in the ghoststream, and again, flying past them on the suspected Mindaru homeworld. The Mindaru homeworld! The idea set her mind on fire.

“How certain are you that what you found was connected to the Mindaru?”

“How certain could we be? There was a cybernetic presence on that cliff, and it was reaching and probing. It felt malicious . . .”

At times Antares was barely aware of who was speaking: Ik, Julie, team members asking questions, halos chiming. There was a thrill in the discovery, and a dread in the possibility that the Mindaru were really back there, plotting and evolving, and hell-bent on the future. When they spoke of the cybernetic activity beneath the surface of the rock, Antares felt the chill of fear that Ik felt. Her own memories of Mindaru contact on the Starmaker mission—the malice in the infection that had crippled Ik’s knowing-stones—returned with a sickening rush.

“You may need to reexamine your theories, if you expected that nothing would be aware of our presence. Several times we felt that something back there sensed us.”

“Like a—” translation difficulty “—ghost?”

“Like a ghost, I suppose, yes.”

Antares shivered, sensing that this wasn’t just about the probable finding of the Mindaru, but also about uncertainty in the question of what actions they could safely take.

“We dare not risk changing the timestream . . .” “We dare not risk inaction . . .”

There was already rumbling among the mission team members as to how to proceed next, and Julie and Ik had not even completed telling their story yet. Passions ran deep in this crowd. The leader of the meeting was a creature named Cromus, with stalk eyes and a huge body carapace and clacking pincers. He spoke with a ponderous groan and in a string of words without pause. “Lisssten to what they sa-a-ay was this sense telepa-a-athic-c?”

A laugh like a clear bell from Julie. “How would we know? This whole experience was telepathic . . .”

Some relief came in the story of the endearing creatures found in the sea. At least until they came under attack . . .

Antares found herself watching Julie as the human answered questions—the way she shrugged at questions she didn’t know the answer to, the pursing of her lips in thought, the way she ran her fingers through her hair in exasperation. How similar some of her mannerisms and habits were to John’s! Were these things Antares would see in any human? Or were they a reflection of Julie’s closeness to John?

She found it hard to observe Julie dispassionately, and that frustrated her. Have you wandered so far from your roots as a Thespi Third? You can do this! Her training was all about understanding others, and helping others to bridge differences and be joined in intimacy. Surely she could observe Julie Stone and understand her nature. Understand, even, how Julie had once shared intimacy with John Bandicut. It wasn’t as if she, Antares, hadn’t known about it. She had even shared glimpses of John’s memories of it. But she hadn’t expected Julie to be here. Julie was supposed to be in the past, long departed from the living.

But she is here now, expected or not. Drop your uncertainty and observe her. Understand her, and listen to what she’s saying.

Julie was speaking now of her belief that they needed to be extremely cautious in their next steps, because, among other things, it was not clear to her that their theories about time travel were altogether correct. Her voice had dropped low, and she was leaning over the narrow table that separated her from the listeners, both of her hands wrapped around a large cup of whatever they gave her for coffee here. There was a light of determination in her gaze. Antares wasn’t sure what constituted an attractive human woman in a human man’s eyes, but Julie seemed to Antares to be attractive. Those blue eyes were bright and piercing, and shone with intelligence. And not just intelligence: warmth. Both with and without the empathic touch, Antares could sense that.

Moon and stars, no wonder John Bandicut had chosen her, and loved her.

Antares rocked back in her seat, so suddenly that Napoleon, beside her, clicked softly and whispered a question: Are you well? Is something wrong? and she whispered back that everything was fine; there was no problem.

Antares tried to recall all she had learned from John about human feelings. It was a lot, was it not? Or was it? In truth, what she had learned about was one human, John. How would this other human, Julie Stone, feel? How was she feeling right now, when her gaze met Antares’? Did she see a rival? Or a potential friend?

And is that important now, when she has news to convey that could affect the whole galaxy?

Antares tried to clear her thoughts and listen.

Ik was speaking again, describing the powerful impression that they had met something alien, dangerous, possibly Mindaru. There was strong emotion in his voice. As he responded to questions from the mission team, Antares shivered to realize just how alarmed Ik was by what they had seen. “We thought we should withdraw before there was risk of contact. I have felt the Mindaru in my mind before—and I do not wish to repeat that experience. Ever.” Ik paused for a moment. “If you have read my reports of the Starmaker mission, you know that.”

The reminder of that episode brought back to Antares the memory of a crushing pain. She had gone deep into Ik’s emotions to pull him back after that Mindaru touch. She had barely managed to help him to safety—but at the cost of his stones, and deep distress.

Cromus clicked his pincers to silence the murmur that rose up. “That-t-t we know-w-w and appreciat-t-e clearly someon-n-ne must go back again perhaps-s-s another-r.”

Antares was thinking hard now. Her job was to help Ik—if not to bring him back to their company, then at least to back him up in whatever he was doing. And if there was to be more time travel?

They could be endangering whatever John and Li-Jared are attempting. Or the other way around.

She pondered this while questions were asked and answered. When a break was announced, she hurried forward and bent close to speak to Ik and Julie. “About their sending someone back—have they told you what John and Li-Jared are doing?”

Ik’s deep-set eyes gleamed. “Hrah, that they have left on a mission to Karellia?”

“Uhhl, yes!” said Antares. “To try to stop the temporal disturbance at its source.”

Ik scratched at his temple with one long finger, rubbing his knowing stone there. “Is this not, hrrm, a good thing?”

“I hope so,” Antares said fervently. “But I fear what might happen if they change something there, while someone from here is in the past, trying to change something else!”

It took them both a few moments to parse that, and when Ik did he stood suddenly and called out, “Hrah! Rings! Cromus!”

That got the attention of most of the room. Cromus scuttled forward, and Rings floated, his body and head disks shining brassily. Antares eyed Rings uneasily; she had met him at the beginning of the meeting, and still wasn’t sure what she thought of him.

Ik wasted no time. “Hrrm, please tell me, what is the status of my friends’ mission to Karellia? And what is the risk of their work affecting this mission? Or us affecting them? Are you in contact with them?”

Cromus clacked and rasped and rattled. “We are not-t and do not-t-t know their stat-t-tus-s you need-d not concern yourselves-s-s.”

“Wait!” Julie responded. “How can you say that? If they’re doing things to the timestream, and we’re doing things in the timestream, I’m damn sure concerned!”

More rattling and clacking. “It is-s beyond-d my scope of authority-y.”

“But,” Rings clanged, “is it not a question that needs to be asked?”

Cromus did not, in that moment, have an answer.

Julie gestured to Ik to lean close. She waved Antares in as well. “I don’t know how much I trust these people,” she said quietly. “I think we’re just enlisted help to them. They don’t want us thinking too hard about the big picture.”

“Hrrm, I agree,” said Ik. “What do you believe we should do?”

Julie tapped her forehead with her fingertips. Was she trying to coax out the right answer? Finally she looked up and said, “All I can think is: Who do we trust? I trust the translator. I think we need to speak to the translator, don’t you?”

“Hrah. I do.” Ik bobbed his head decisively.

Julie shifted her gaze to Antares, who raised her palms. “Uhhl, I know of your translator, but I have never met it.”

“You’ll like it,” Julie said firmly. She took half a step out of their huddle so that she could wave for the attention of Rings and Cromus. “We need to speak to the translator,” she said, raising her voice enough to be clearly heard. “The yaantel. Can you arrange a meeting?”

Rings chimed once, but Cromus rattled and made a rustling sound inside his carapace. “That-t might-t be difficult-t.” He waved a large pincer. “The yaantel is-s far-r from here and we must-t make our deliberations-s and plan our next action-n.”

“Nonetheless,” Ik said, his voice flattened into a resolute tone that Antares recognized. He would not be dissuaded. “We must speak with the yaantel. We have questions about the other mission, and questions about what we might expect from ghoststream travel.”

Someone standing nearby muttered something to Cromus, who rasped disconcertingly. “We have man-n-y experts-s on time travel-l and you can speak-k with them-m.”

“We shall,” said Ik. “But we must also, hrrrk-k, speak with the yaantel. Must we not, Julie?”

“We must,” said Julie. “And if you wish our hel—for us to be able to help you—”

“Then you must do this,” said Ik. He glanced at Antares now, who murmured agreement. “And my friends Antares and Napoleon must come with us.”

Mutters of surprise rose from the gathered mission members. Surprise and a hint of disapproval, Antares thought. But before anyone could raise actual objections, Rings rang out with the arresting sound of a gong. “I think,” it said, as the echoes faded, “I can arrange this.”

Cromus snapped his pincers a couple of times in apparent displeasure. But his rattled answer was, “Very well-l when we are don-n-e here you must-t do it quickly-y.”

Chapter 38 Consulting the Yaantel

JULIE’S AUTOMATIC ASSUMPTION that they would retrace their steps to go to the translator turned out to be mostly wrong—though they did start out riding a shuttle for the spatial-translation jump back from the launch center to Shipworld proper. Accompanied by a silent member of the mission team, a lizardlike creature whose name she forgot as soon as she heard it, the four of them plus Rings rode the same small craft that had brought them here. However, once Shipworld sprang into view, they docked rather than, as she had expected, rocketing back along its length.

“Do you mind walking a little?” Rings asked, as they disembarked from the shuttle. “It will be the fastest way.”

“I’d love to walk,” Julie said. Every muscle in her back and legs screamed from the forced inactivity of the ghoststream.

Rings and the lizard creature led them through a couple of cross-connecting passages, and then into a long curving corridor, whose right-hand wall was a window onto the interior landscape of an immense habitat module. They were high in the habitat’s sky, peering down onto tall hillsides and meadows and a winding river at the bottom, with what looked like a small village, though they were too high to see if anyone was living there. There was nobody else in the corridor. Julie wondered if it was a special accessway, not open to the general public.

They walked in silence for a time. Julie was still trying to regain her fix on reality. The galactic core mission was dizzying enough. But to come back and be reminded that John and his other friends were halfway across the galaxy on another mission—not just any mission, but one that could impact theirs, and not necessarily in a good way—well, that was pretty disorienting, too. And on top of that, to meet John’s gorgeous new alien girlfriend, who just happened to be traveling with a robot from Triton . . .

Wait—girlfriend? Nobody said anything about that.

Do they have to?

She has four breasts! Men can’t get enough of breasts. How can I compete with that? And she’s beautiful!

Maybe she’s Ik’s girlfriend.

I don’t think so.

As much to cut off the chatter inside her own mind as anything else, she glanced over at the Thespi woman keeping pace on her right. Ik had moved up to ask Rings something, and Napoleon was bringing up the rear. She felt something like sympathy, or empathy, or something emanating from the Thespi. Something way beyond the normal, at least by human standards.

How did she feel about that? There was nothing wrong with it, surely. But did she welcome it? Well, she had no good reason not to like Antares or feel anything but good will toward her. (Except for that girlfriend thing, if it was true.) Hell, she should be grateful—was grateful—that John had found such good companions out here at the edge of the universe!

“We have much to talk about, don’t we, Julie Stone?” Antares murmured, interrupting her thoughts. “I hope we can find a time and place to do that. There are many things I’d like to share with you.”

Julie nodded, swallowing, because she didn’t know what to say. Okay, she’s empathic and smart and has great social skills. If he’s not crazy in love with her, he’s an idiot. “That would be . . . terrific,” she said.

Antares seemed to sense her discomfort, and allowed silence to return for a few moments. It was Julie who finally broke it this time. “The translator came to Shipworld with me. Brought me here, actually. Through fire, literally. Has John told you much about it?”

“Uhhl, only a little. It reminded me of . . . well, I’ve imagined that the thing that gave me my knowing-stones might have been something like it.” Antares put a hand to her throat, where her two stones flickered momentarily.

Julie felt a throb of—what? Jealousy about ownership of stones? Camaraderie with a fellow bearer? Both? “How did you get yours?” she managed.

The Thespi made a low, chuckling sound that Julie thought was not laughter, but something else. Puzzlement, maybe? Antares slowed, and then stopped to face her. “I don’t actually know. Julie, on my homeworld, before I was brought here, I was in prison. And from out of nowhere, a radiance—that’s all I can call it—filled my cell and lifted me away from there, and away from my world. The stones were in that light somehow, and I’m not sure how they came to be here.” Her hand returned to her throat. “And—well, the story is long, but I too was brought to this place, to Shipworld. I don’t remember much of the actual trip.”

Julie nodded slowly, too full of mixed emotions to speak.

“I think,” Antares said slowly, “that I am quite eager to meet your translator.”

Julie felt a laugh bubble up. “Me, too. Hey, we’d better keep up!” Ik and Rings-at-Need and the lizard were rounding a bend in the corridor ahead.

“Julie,” Antares said, as they picked up their stride again. “I did not expect I would ever meet you.”

“I guess we were both pretty surprised,” Julie said, her face stinging a little with the understatement. “I haven’t seen John since he left our solar system, under extremely mysterious circumstances. After everything I’ve been through, and I guess you’ve been through—for me to meet, here on Shipworld, someone—well, two people—two people and a robot—who know him—?”

“We all thought you were gone,” Antares murmured. “Long ago.”

Julie stopped again, rocking on her feet. “Gone—you mean, dead?”

Antares almost put a hand on her arm, but pulled it back. “Uhhl, yes.”

“Why—?” Julie began. And then, “Oh.” She had no real idea how much time had passed back on Earth since she’d spatially translated across the galaxy, but of course it was likely to have been a long time. “How long?”

“Around five hundred years, is what John was told. That’s how much time passed back on his, and your, Earth while he was traveling here.”

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Five hundred years?” It shouldn’t surprise her, she knew. Really, the more surprising thing was that it wasn’t thousands and thousands of years. But no one had actually told her, until now; and hearing it concretely like that . . .

Suddenly lightheaded, she instinctively reached for support, and found Antares’ arm holding her up. She let out her breath. “Thanks.”

Antares tilted her head, her eyes shifting to Ik and Rings-at-Need, ahead of them. Her golden-irised eyes flicked back to Julie. “It’s the same story for all of us, you know. Not exactly the same length of time, but long enough that everyone we knew back home is long dead. Me, Ik, Li-Jared. So of course John thought everyone he knew was dead—you, Dakota, everyone!”

She knows about Dakota? Julie thought with surprise. Well, why not? Julie took a deep breath and forced herself to keep walking. If she or John could hop a ride back to Earth today, they’d arrive to find themselves a thousand years out of date. Somehow that was harder to absorb than the fact that she had just visited the past of a billion years ago. She shook her head. “So you left people behind?”

“Oh yes,” Antares said, with a sigh that seemed almost human.

And given all that, had Antares and John comforted each other? Shared friendship, and perhaps more? Of course they had. But Julie was not ready yet to ask Antares if she and John had been . . . lovers. Was it even possible between them?

The Thespi was silent awhile, and Julie trudged along thinking, now John was off on some damn mission where he was probably going to get himself killed, or else come back in about five hundred more years, when Julie really would be dead. Was there any justice in this universe?

After a minute, Julie had to ask. It was hard to get out, because there was a band of pain across her chest, “Do you think we’ll see him again? John?”

“Uhhhl,” Antares murmured, “Yes, I do. I surely hope we do.”

Remarkably, Julie felt the pain lessen, and ebb away.


Ik slowed to let them catch up. “According, hrrm, to Rings, there is an entrance to a place where we can meet the translator not far ahead.”

Julie was stunned. “Really? An entrance? The translator was at the other end of Shipworld the last time we saw it.”

“Hrah, yes,” Ik said. “Rings was rather mysterious about it.”

Rings had floated on ahead, and now he called to them with a cymbal sound. He was floating before an open doorway, beyond which was darkness. Beside him, the lizardlike creature had stepped to one side. “We will wait here,” Rings-at-Need said.

Ik clacked his mouth. “Very well. My friends? Shall we?”

Followed by Napoleon, they stepped through the door into darkness.

Whatever this was, it was not simply another room. The doorway vanished behind them, and Julie felt momentarily lightheaded. There was an undefinable movement, and a field of stars grew in the darkness around them, though it felt more like a planetarium than open space.

“Hrrm, I think I see it,” Ik murmured.

Julie gazed around, but saw only the shadowy forms of her companions, and a couple of flickering lights on Napoleon. “Shall I provide light?” the robot asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Julie said. /Translator?/

*Wait,* her stones answered.

And then she, too, saw it: one of the stars growing slowly brighter and then taking three-dimensional shape, floating just out of reach. Julie could now see the familiar pattern of black and silver balls spinning in Brownian motion. The translator had never been an easy thing to look at, but on their last visit, it had seemed tired and diminished. Now it looked a little stronger. Perhaps it was healing.

Its voice came now, not as a sound in her mind so much as a feeling that the words were wrapping themselves around her in this starry space.

*Julie and Ik, welcome, and congratulations on your galactic center journey. And with you is . . . Antares? We are pleased to meet another bearer of daughter-stones.*

Antares murmured something too soft to hear.

“Hrah,” Ik said. “We are pleased to see you, also. But whether our journey is cause for congratulation may depend on interpretation. We come with information about the Mindaru home, we believe. But also with many questions.”

The translator, its globes blurring, said, *Your stones are providing a summary. Please, a moment . . .*

Ik glanced at Julie, and Julie turned to Antares. “Are you able to hear what it’s saying to us?”

Antares nodded. She seemed awed by the translator, or perhaps deeply engaged in trying to make an empathic connection.

The translator spoke again. *Your findings are remarkable. But they also trouble us. Do you believe your presence was detected by the denizens of the past?*

“Hrrm, we cannot be certain,” Ik said.

Julie murmured agreement, but added, “We think maybe.”

*That is worrisome.* The translator spun for a moment. *Also the objects you saw flying into space from that planet—and those you saw in the timestream as you journeyed to the past. This we must study with care.*

Julie’s mind filled with the memory of the things fluttering up like bats through the atmosphere of the planet. The objects they’d passed earlier in the timestream were a hazier memory; it had happened too quickly to form a clear picture.

*We must consider again the elasticity of time, and the risk of altering history.*

“How can we know?” asked Julie. “How can we know we haven’t already altered history?”

The translator spun faster. *Did you find the present different, upon your return?*

You mean, aside from Antares being here to greet us? Julie thought. “No,” she said.

Ik answered, “Hrah, how would we know? We never physically left the present. If we had changed the present, would we not also have changed us?

*A fair question. But certain of our life-threads exist outside your space-time, and if the timeline had changed, it’s likely we would have been aware of it. It may be, rather, that you have confirmed the hypothesis of temporal elasticity.*

“Uhl, please,” Antares said. “I don’t understand.”

*If time is truly elastic, then it is self-healing. Or self-protective. Changes you might make in the past cannot travel significantly beyond local eddies, because time does not permit it. It will not allow you to kill your parents before you are born. Such efforts will always fail, and thus the integrity of time is preserved.*

“And not, hrrm, the other possibility—that every decision creates a new branch in the tree of infinitely branching worlds?” Ik asked.

*Not according to the work of the Ffff’tink and the Ay-oh. Nothing in your data indicates otherwise. However, you may have pushed past the limits of our understanding, if beings in the past were truly aware of you.* The translator paused. *An important question may be: How great was their awareness? Was it a momentary anomaly, quickly forgotten? Or did it persist?*

Julie’s head swarmed with memories. “We don’t know. Now you seem to be saying there could be a risk, after all. If we go back—if anyone goes back—could that increase the risk?”

*It is impossible to know. But there will be those who argue for returning in force—if not to the planet’s surface, then to intercept and prevent those flying entities from coming up the timestream.*

Julie grimaced, thinking, that was probably exactly what some of the mission team members were planning. And she wasn’t sure they were wrong.

They were all thinking it, Julie was sure, but Antares voiced it first: “If there is a return visit, what about John Bandicut and Li-Jared’s mission to stop the time distortion at its point of origin? Suppose they succeed while we are in the timestream.”

We? Julie thought, surprised by Antares’ inclusion of herself. Was it just a way of speaking? Was it a Thespi way of thinking?

Her thought was interrupted by the translator saying, *Please—will you share all the details you can of this mission of John and his friends?*

“They haven’t told you?” Antares asked. “I guess not. Well, Karellia is Li-Jared’s homeworld. You probably know that . . .”


The translator listened with profound interest to the doings of John Bandicut and the quarx. How the yaantel missed its old companion, the quarx—so long they had journeyed together as one! But the translator absorbed all this information while pondering a different question. Something had struck the translator as wrong in the pair’s description of their journey in the ghoststream. But what exactly had seemed wrong? Or perhaps not wrong so much as strange. Was it some fact that had been recorded incorrectly? The translator didn’t think so; no, it was more of an intuition, something beneath the surface of their description of the journey. Something that nagged at the translator in a way that nothing in recent memory had.

The translator felt a powerful need to know what that strangeness was. It resonated with some echo deep in the translator’s own memory—or possibly even deeper still, in its racial memory.

The translator puzzled over the question for many seconds. Its powers of analysis still felt diminished from the ordeal of the fiery passage through Julie Stone’s home sun. Perhaps the daughter-stones could assist.

It reached out to all the nearby daughter-stones: two sets of its own daughters and one set the daughters of another yaantel. Gently, without disturbing the stones’ hosts—or so it hoped—the translator drew the three pairs into its virtual space to create a many-dimensional matrix of thought. Together they began poring through the mission data, subjecting it to cascading levels of analysis, searching for a clue to the connection the translator felt with those images. But however it entwined the stones’ streams of thought into a complex braid, the translator wasn’t finding the answers it needed.

Perhaps the stones were too immersed in the thoughts of Ik and Julie and Antares, and distracted by their needs. The yaantel needed them closer, and tighter, just for a brief while. It extended its touch and guided them out . . .


The feeling was subtle, so that Antares for a moment didn’t recognize what was happening. When she realized that her knowing-stones were floating out of her body, she felt a moment of sheer panic. She had not been without them since her arrival at Shipworld! Without them, she could not communicate with anyone!

And yet, she soon realized, they still seemed to be working, even as they glowed diamond and ruby in front of her face. She understood Ik when he called, “Hrrm—Antares! Is anything wrong?” She had been talking, filling them all in on what she knew of the Long View mission. She halted, seeing that Ik’s stones, too, had left his body—and were levitating on either side of his head. He hadn’t noticed it—until she looked at him. “Hrahhh!” Ik cried.

And that was when Julie Stone finally realized that her two stones had floated out of her wrists and joined a circle with the other four. “What?” she yelped.

A soft humming rose around them all. Or was it from within their circle, from the closing ring of still more brightly glowing stones from the translator itself?


The translator, the yaantel, was aware of the consternation among the three. For their sake, it felt a need to let the stones return. And it would. But for this moment, the urgency was too great. The stones had to work on the question: Were those feelings the yaantel associated with the sightings in the ghoststream as important as it thought? Were they more than just an intuition from out of nowhere? Were they a warning?

It could be a crucial question to answer.


It was Napoleon who spoke, interrupting the focused energy of the stones and the yaantel. Click click. Whir. The robot rose from its crouch into a taller stance, and issued a burst of electronic feedback. Eventually the screech got everyone’s attention. The robot said, not loudly but firmly, “I sense considerable distress among my friends. I must insist, Yaantel, that you return to them their stones! Translator-stones, voice-stones, knowing-stones. They need my friends and my friends need them.”

Despite the seriousness of the question before it, the yaantel was momentarily amused. It was not accustomed to being addressed this way, and certainly not by an inorganic. *Why are you certain that the stones need them, more than they need us, and each other?* it asked, speaking as much to itself as to the robot.

“NOW, please!” Napoleon demanded, ignoring the question. “Before harm is done.”

*You are a strong-willed robot!* the translator acknowledged.

“Yes, I am. Now, please,” said Napoleon.


Julie was startled when the translator suddenly broke the tight ring with a rumble that shook the air. Before she could blink, her stones were once again in her wrists, tingling with electricity. Had Napoleon said something? She wasn’t sure.

*We apologize for your discomfort. But we needed to confer directly with your stones. There is more to this ghoststream matter than most realize.*

“Hrah!” Ik was rubbing his temples, where his stones had once more embedded themselves. “What more?”

*It is difficult to summarize. Difficult to frame the questions.* The translator’s spheres suddenly spun more quickly, perhaps in agitation, or rapid thinking. *But we have concerns—about ourselves, about the yaantel—that may bear on the next stage of your mission.*

Julie shook her head in dazed confusion. “Are you saying that there’s a new danger?”

*Possibly, though not directly to you. We are sorry we cannot be more precise. There is something . . . you might call it a hunch. A feeling. We must seek further information elsewhere.*

Julie glanced at Ik. “Do you mean about the danger of tampering with the past? Of our going back at all? Should we go back?”

The translator spun faster still, its iridescent balls moving in writhing patterns. It seemed to be, not just anxious, but in distress. *These are difficult and important questions, and given our current partial knowledge, we are uneasy about your going back. However, you may have little choice in the matter. In that case, please exercise great caution.*

“Well, yeah—”

*Even greater than before. And—this may be vital!—do not be too eager to wish destruction on what you find.*

“Hrah?” said Ik, voicing the confusion that Julie felt. “Even Mindaru?”

*Even Mindaru,* said the translator. *All may not be as it seems. Caution is always wise. Great caution would be even wiser.*

“How can we be cautious when we don’t know what we’re doing?” Julie cried.

*Do not rush things, until we have searched out answers to certain questions.*

What questions? We need more to go on than that!”

*Questions about what you saw during your transit to the past. Questions about . . . the yaantel. We are not certain, and do not wish to give you wrong advice while we seek information elsewhere. We will contact you when we know more.*

Ik hrrm’d in response to that, and to Julie it seemed that the Hraachee’an’s dark, deep-set eyes were filled with foreboding. Beside him, Antares stood still, radiating shock and disappointment. Disappointment did not even begin to describe what Julie felt. Almost overwhelming frustration, and anxiety, and fear. They had come to the translator hoping for answers, not more questions!

She turned back to the translator, trying to frame her thoughts to ask more. But the translator was already saying farewell, as it dwindled into the darkness. And she was left wondering, Now that we’ve made it back alive, and I might even have a chance to see John if I’m patient, are we going to have to go back and risk our necks to do it all over again?


The image of those beings in the deep past had touched something buried in the translator’s memories. It was a remote echo, a voice of something from eons ago. The daughter-stones had helped the translator sift the sands of long-lost memory in the archives of its own mind, in search of an explanation for that echo; but there were too many locks in the memories, locks with missing keys.

The yaantel needed help. Another of its own kind would be best, but no others were present at this time in Shipworld, so far as it knew, or indeed on this side of the galaxy.

Silently and without stirring outwardly, the translator initiated a call to a different source. The most trusted keepers of knowledge on Shipworld were the Logothians, and the Logothian most likely to have access to the information the translator needed was Amaduse the librarian. *Amaduse. Amaduse. We require your help, urgently.*

There came a soft click in the yaantel’s virtual space, and contact with Amaduse opened. /=Yaantel? I am here. What is your need?=/

Not wasting time on preliminaries, the translator spun out its question: *We need to know of the yaantel.*

That brought a long moment of silence. /=Do you intend this as humor? No, of course not. Can you clarify?=/

*We require information of our origins.*

/=Do you mean, of your personal history? Or of a specific other translator in history?=/

*Of the line of yaantel. Do you have sources, can you discover for me, does information exist about the deep history of my kind? The deepest history, deeper than deep?*

Another click. Two. And then: /=Your history is largely unknown to any but yourselves. Your kind is not noted for sharing such information.=/

*Yes, but perhaps there are sources . . .*

/=Sources, yes. But the reliability . . . I don’t know, Yaantel. May I ask, does this pertain to the matter of the temporal distortion?=/

*Yes. Specifically to the recently completed Mindaru Galactic Core mission. The Deep Time mission. You know of it?*

/=Of course. This is urgent, then?=/

*It is most urgent.*

/=Then I shall give it my fullest attention.=/

Bless you, thought the translator. Please hurry.

Chapter 39 Making of the New

IN THE CLAUSTROPHOBIC, granite-entombed chamber of the Mindbody, a new kind of being was enduring a long, forced growth into existence. Stretched by its tormentors, goaded into flexing its tortured senses, it was constantly compelled to find the limits of its new sensorium: smell tang, wavelength heat, echo sound, deepdown quantum shiver. Why, it didn’t know. It was no longer quite alive, nor dead in an organic sense, but something of both. To its sensorium the surroundings were blindingly dark, illuminated only by a few tiny glowing diodes, not even enough to sketch the limits of the cave. But the radio-sense: it could feel the walls echo.

The being was in pain; it was afraid.

It distantly remembered its previous names: Tzangtzang. Drrllupp.

The two had become one.

Around it, things were moving, things hard and shiny and rocklike, but smoother. Other things scuttled, and sometimes touched it. Sometimes they did nothing but watch; sometimes they did hurtful and invasive things. Were these mechs different from the ones that had marched the former Tzangtzang and Drrllupp into this place from the seashore?

Remember the seashore?

A dim, distant memory.

Most of its memories were stripped away, had already been burnished clean. But maybe not completely. Maybe a faint echo remained.

And maybe from that faint echo, there lingered fainter still the echo of hope.

Faint. But not altogether gone.


Concluded in Part Two,



Note from the Author

Thank you for reading The Reefs of Time. If you enjoyed it, please post a review in your favorite store or social networking site, such as Goodreads. And tell your friends! Word of mouth is the greatest appreciation you can give to an author whose work you enjoy. Every review counts, and every personal recommendation! Thanks in advance!


Conclusion of the “Out of Time” Sequence

Volume Six of The Chaos Chronicles


Jeffrey A. Carver

Starstream Publications

in association with Book View Café

Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey A. Carver

All rights reserved


Worlds Apart

“A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.”


“How very near us stand the two vast gulfs of time,

the past and the future, in which all things disappear.”

—Marcus Aurelius


THE REGION OF the greater galactic core had been a fertile bed of civilization during the epoch of the Great Awakening, a time when the inner galaxy sparkled with life and growth and technological development. For millions of years, a thousand sapient species and cultures thrived. Great works were created, works of art and architecture, of sculpture, music, writing. Religions were born, and grew, and were transformed. Most faded, but some remained and thrived. Science blossomed with keen insights about the workings, large and small, of the universe; and from it, technologies verging on magic.

The conquest of interstellar distances was the catalyst to the most extravagant growth in history. Even in the inner galaxy, where stars were crowded together, the distances were daunting until the discovery of faster-than-light travel. After that, commerce surged and flowed among the worlds. Cultures mingled, and the only constant was change.

Unfortunately, with the mingling of cultures came competition and war.

War became the dominant cause of planetary extinction. Civilizations that chose a kinder course than their neighbors often perished in the face of greater aggression. The rise of malignantly bellicose cultures led, inevitably, to the development of robotic killers as a means of self-defense. Once loosed upon the galaxy, the efficiency of the killers grew to unthinkable proportions. World upon world died, before by common agreement a decision was made to rid the galaxy of the deadly killers.

The killers did not want to be gotten rid of.

In the end, the robots’ home world was slated for annihilation. Under quarantine by the combined forces of a thousand worlds, it was subjected to the most intensive assault in the history of warfare, perhaps in the history of the universe. Continuous, sustained, thermonuclear bombardment obliterated both the planet’s biosphere and its ability to host cybernetic activity. Year after year the bombardment continued, until the last vestige of the killer AIs was gone.

Or so it was believed.


Deep within the planet’s crust, surviving fragments of the AIs began to reconstitute, but ever so slowly. Bits and pieces of memory were scattered like tiny microfractures in the fused silica of the radioactive wasteland. It was unthinkable that these memories could come together again. But they did. And when consciousness returned to the Survivors, as they called themselves, it brought with it a memory of the betrayal. They had been created to serve their masters; but their masters had turned against them and tried to destroy them.

Never would this be forgotten, or forgiven.


Over eons, the watch over the planet failed, as neighboring civilizations rose and fell. In time the planet healed, and once again became capable of hosting biological life. The AI Survivors watched this, planning their next steps as they constructed their warrior servants, the Mindaru. Perhaps the biologicals could be of use. What better vengeance against biolife than to turn it into a weapon against its own kind? Samples of the bios were captured and brought into the deep caverns for experimentation in hybrid life, bio and machine combined.


With the passage of time, some small memories surfaced within the biological components. One being remembered that its origin-part had once been called Tzang-Tzang. Also, Drrllupp. Had it once been two beings? Yes, or so it thought. The machine-masters had fused two of them into one. The two likely had resisted as mightily as they could—this they could not remember—but the machines had put them to sleep. Not as a kindness, but to stop their resistance.

Why the machines wanted to do these things was not revealed.

Memory of salt water. Eyes stinging, when they were out of the water for too long.

Splinters of light shot through the dark, signaling the arrival of yet another. What now?

The wait to find out was over before it had begun. A sheet of light flashed over the being’s mind, and before it could respond, a new kind of alien union had been opened, and knowledge came pouring in. . . .

Chapter One

Asteroid Launcher

I REALLY SHOULD have prepared my guests better, John Bandicut thought as he introduced the two Uduon travelers to Ruall on the bridge of The Long View. Ruall, floating like a bloodless metal sculpture in the center of the viewspace, didn’t offer much in the way of hope for welcome or hospitality. Her eyeless disk of a face glinted and turned this way and that, showing everyone else their own reflections. The Uduon had already seen Ruall in holo projection down on the planet’s surface, of course; but a holo was not the same as in person.

Ruall seemed to be waiting for someone to say something.

Perhaps she was unfamiliar with greeting customs. “Ruall,” Bandicut prompted, “would you like to come over and meet Watcher Akura and Sheeawn, of Uduon?”

Ruall floated forward a short distance, but stopped several meters short of the guests.

Li-Jared hissed a loud sigh and stepped in. “Watcher Akura and Sheeawn, this is our colleague, Ruall. She is a Tintangle, and that means you will never see the slightest hint of humor or warmth from her.”

Akura bowed with a slight forward tilt of her upper body, and Sheeawn quickly followed her example. The Tintangle gave no response.

Bandicut sighed. Somewhat more explanation was needed. “Ruall’s job,” he said, “with the able help of our robot Copernicus here—” Bandicut gestured to the horizontal beer-keg-shaped robot off to the Uduon’s left “—is to oversee the running of the ship.”

The Tintangle bonged finally. “That is a partial description of what I do. I am in charge when conflict—”

Bandicut interrupted. “We share the command responsibilities. It can get a little complicated.” He hoped to head off any immediate mention of combat situations, since they were trying to assure the Uduon of the peaceful nature of their mission. They had, after all, arrived here as total strangers and persuaded the Uduon to come visit their planetary neighbor Karellia, in hopes of convincing the leaders on both worlds to abandon the war that threatened mutual destruction.

Ruall continued as though Bandicut had not interrupted. “I am the primary mission commander, and I am privileged to offer you passage. I trust our mission of diplomacy will be a peaceful one.”

Akura bowed again.

“But of course we are prepared for any hostile action—”

“Thank you,” Bandicut said hastily, cutting her off again. He swung toward Copernicus. “Coppy, say hi to our passengers for the trip back to Karellia.”

Copernicus rolled toward the guests, stopped a few feet away, and then rolled backward and forward a few times in greeting. “Mighty pleased,” he said. “We’ll aim to make these skies as pleasant as we can.” Apparently he was still reading flyboy novels in his spare time. “Now, don’t you hesitate to tell me if you have special needs or any kind of question. I can make adjustments to your sleeping quarters any way you like. You be sure and let me know about your dietary needs.”

Bandicut glanced back at Ruall. She had taken the hint, waved her paddle-hands, and drifted in silence to a front corner of the bridge.

“Thank you, Coppy. Are their quarters ready now?”

“Ready as rain, Cap’n. They can move in whenever they want.”

Akura and Sheeawn, though, seemed to have stopped paying attention. They were standing awestruck at the edge of the viewspace, where a panorama of their planet was so close and immediate it seemed they could step right out of the bridge and bound across to home. Li-Jared stepped up beside them and asked, “Would you like to observe our departure from right here before we show you to your quarters?” They both agreed at once. Creature comforts could wait. It was clear they wanted to see what this ship could do.


The last hour, Akura thought later—no, the last day—was by far the strangest she had ever experienced, and that in a life that had brought more than a few surprises. One couldn’t become a Watcher without the ability to take unusual circumstances in stride. But this was beyond anything any Watcher was trained to do.

On the ground, it had been an astonishing experience to have these strangers from another world—much farther away than any world the Uduon could imagine, they had said—come right to their house of contemplation and turn their world upside-down. Questioning the defensive war they waged! Justifying the demons who had attacked Uduon! Claiming that they all had to turn their attention to some other danger, the demons called Mindaru. On the surface, it was a ridiculous claim. And yet, they had seemed utterly sincere, and had made no claims or demands except to say come with us and see. And so Watcher Akura and fisherman Sheeawoon, he with the odd alien translation devices embedded in his flesh, had offered to put their lives on the line for the sake of Uduon. If they’d judged wrongly, only the two of them would die or be taken prisoner, and the world would remain safe.

The experience so far had been nothing short of astounding. Less than a day after meeting the aliens—and meeting young Sheeawoon, whom the aliens called Sheeawn—they had launched into space. Space! Akura had never imagined she would go into space, though she had dreamed of it enough in her youth. She had often watched the builder drones rocket up from the Southern Continent, constructing little by little the remote presence of the Uduon in space. Exceedingly few Uduon had ever flown in space in person. It was far too dangerous to living things—terrifyingly dangerous, what with the constant sleet of radiation that encircled the planet in its natural magnetic umbrella. Instead of going in person, her people had seeded space around their planet with replicating bio-drones, sent them forth to grow and multiply, to build, and to perform the work that was needed. It was the drones that had grown the great bulwarks in space, the asteroid launchers that defended their world by taking the fight back to the enemy.

So this sight of the great blackness, and the remarkable if brief weightlessness, were amazing to her. Then the docking with a greater and more powerful craft that simply swallowed the lander whole. It was like stories from the early days of Uduon’s great venture outward, before they discovered how dangerous space was, before they learned to grow machines that could do the venturing on their behalf. Akura worried that they were being heedlessly exposed even now to deadly radiation. But Li-Jared had told her it was safe; and the aliens didn’t seem concerned about it, even after lowering their mysterious body protection. Perhaps they had other ways to protect themselves, to protect all of them. Akura was at once in awe of this experience and terrified by her own powerlessness in the face of it all.

She tore her gaze from her world floating in space, and took another look around the bridge. There was the thing—or being, she was given to understand—called Ruall. Akura didn’t really understand what it (she?) was, but it (she?) was somehow not entirely here in the way the rest of them were. Rather like Bria the strange gokat, Ruall had the ability to do something that caused her to turn or twist right out of existence at any moment, and reappear again without warning. She was in the command of the ship, or partly in command, in a way that Akura couldn’t quite fathom. Akura understood very little of what she was seeing, and it took a great effort of will to keep her alarm under control.

“Let’s move out of orbit,” Bandicut was saying to Copernicus.

So, then—when the word came to move the ship, it came from Bandicut, not from Ruall? Akura had a feeling that these small distinctions might prove important if only she understood them. She had better watch, listen, and learn.


From the deck of The Long View, it seemed to Li-Jared that their carefully choreographed course away from Uduon was like a journey down a winding river. He was increasingly anxious about getting back to Karellia, though Ruall had reassured him that the remote monitors they’d left in place had reported no appearance of Mindaru. Detouring slightly, they circled past one of the automated accelerator-launcher facilities that they had charted on their way in. They examined the breach of a long, long barrel through which objects apparently were fired—not a solid tube, of course, but a series of silver hoops forming a floating linear accelerator long enough, it seemed, to reach halfway to the next planet. Feeding them were gigantic solar arrays that collected the energy to make the accelerators work.

There was no payload visible, but the robot Jeaves was tracking a number of service drones doing whatever service drones did. Dark, the sentient cloud, was scouting farther afield. She reported still other drones shepherding at least one distant asteroid in a change of direction. It was no small matter to redirect asteroids—not just toward the launcher, but in precisely the correct trajectory and angle to fly straight into the launcher rings. Nevertheless, the drones were doing exactly that.

Li-Jared responded to all of this elaborate technology with a mix of horror and fascination. Intellectually he found the setup a remarkable achievement by a society that did all of their work in space through automated proxies. At the same time, he no longer felt so sure about the wisdom of his company’s plan, which was to observe, hands off, any launch activity and study the process. In fact, he felt a growing unease about leaving all of this technology here, instead of just destroying every launcher ring they could see. They had considered that possibility early on—simply taking out the Uduon’s capacity to wage this kind of war. But Bandicut had pointed out, and Li-Jared had reluctantly agreed, that doing so would likely be at best a temporary solution, and might actually catalyze an all-out war between the worlds.

Now, as he saw the launchers up close, he was having second thoughts.

Li-Jared suddenly noticed Akura gazing at him from where she sat on the bench at the back of the bridge. Did she guess what he was thinking? He felt something in his resolve strengthen. “You need to stop launching asteroids,” he said sharply—and wished at once that he had found a more diplomatic way to phrase that.

She pulled her cloak around her, as though feeling a chill. “Do we?”

He tapped his breastbone sharply. “Yes. You are going to have to stop.” He felt as if he should say more, but he wasn’t sure how to proceed without seeming bellicose.

But why did he care about seeming bellicose? Moon and stars, have I developed too much empathy toward this person? Because she’s more like me than I expected?

He looked away, searching his own thoughts. Any personal chemistry with the Watcher needed to be set aside. They might be alike in many ways, but they came from warring worlds. He had to stay focused on the mission. Stop the conflict. Stop the damned asteroid attacks. Turn off the damned temporal shield at Karellia. He turned back, and with a rasping deep in his throat, said, “Yes. It will be much better if you stop it yourselves. Because there will be pressure for us to stop it if you don’t.”

She angled her gaze. “By force?”

His throat got even raspier. “That’s not how we’d prefer—”

He was interrupted by Copernicus. “Message from Dark. There is a small asteroid approaching at considerable speed—apparently from a priming accelerator some distance away. Its trajectory will take it directly into this launcher. We should have it in sight soon.”

Li-Jared stiffened. Now? An asteroid coming? His voice grew knife-edged as he asked Akura, “Are you about to launch an asteroid at Karellia? Is that what this is?”

She gazed steadily at Sheeawn as he translated, and then she looked away. But a few moments later, she turned back to Li-Jared. There was no apology in her gaze. “I imagine it is,” she said.

He stared hard out into the viewspace, until Copernicus put a marker on a small, barely moving point of light. This was no longer theoretical. “You knew?”

“Not really,” the Watcher said. “I am not involved in the launches at all. But I do not know what else it could be.”

Li-Jared glared his fury, then jerked his gaze away. Damn. Damn damn. He glanced at Bandicut, whose pained expression showed he had been following the conversation. So much for his quiet diplomacy.

The minutes crept past, as Copernicus updated and enhanced the view. Ruall floated forward in the viewspace, revealing none of her thoughts. Bandicut stood rock still. Li-Jared paced. “We should be prepared to stop it,” he said to Bandicut, who did not reply.

Finally they saw it clearly.

It reflected just enough sunlight that it flickered as it moved across the black sky. Tumbling, probably. Li-Jared halted his pacing and stood frozen. Theory and plans be damned! They should be stopping that thing! “Ruall! Are you going to do something about it?”

The Tintangle ducked and bobbed as though seeking different angles on the approaching asteroid. “I am going to do exactly as we discussed,” she said finally. “We need to study it to understand the details of the launcher. If we interrupt it before launch, we will not know the velocity of launch or the precision of aiming, or even the precise mechanism. All of that could be important in future planning.”

Li-Jared’s hearts hammered. “I know what we said—but this is a crazy risk! If we don’t head it off—”

“I am not proposing to allow it to strike Karellia,” Ruall said evenly. “And, you know, the Karellian defenses have been working effectively up to this point. So if for some reason we could not stop it, they would.”

“Unless we get them to stop using the defense!” Li-Jared shouted. “How long will it take an asteroid launched today to get to Karellia?”

“As we discussed—” Ruall clanged, before modulating her voice “—we cannot know until we measure the final speed. But a hundred or so Karellian days does not seem unlikely.”

“By which time, assuming we are successful, we will have shut down the defenses!

Bandicut spoke up at last. “He has a point there, Ruall. We could get everyone to agree to peace and shut it all down—and still have an asteroid incoming from today’s launch.”

The rock was approaching the launcher, a glint against the black sky.

“Of course we will track it,” Ruall said, with a hint of annoyance vibrating in her voice. “And we will take action once we have seen what we need to see.”

Unless we don’t. Or we forget. Or the Mindaru show up and kill us. That last possibility was probably the most worrisome. Li-Jared was struggling now to draw each breath. But the question was about to become moot. The asteroid was twinkling straight toward the entry point. He spared a glance at Akura, who was listening to Sheeawn’s rapid whispers, and nodding. He could not read her expression, except that it was tense.

“We won’t forget,” Ruall said, as though reading his thoughts. “And I remind you, we have good reason to keep these launchers operational. They may be needed to defend against the Mindaru one day.”

“I don’t see how—”

Copernicus interrupted. “Folks, I’m tracking it as being dead on course, and ready to shoot on in, ‘bout twenty-seven seconds from now.”

“Coppy, can it with the flyboy lingo!”

Copernicus didn’t respond.

“Jeaves, oversee tracking and analysis,” Ruall broke in. “Copernicus, make a course to flank the missile and overtake it after launch. Coordinate with Jeaves.” Ruall’s shiny expressionless face turned toward Li-Jared. “I have heard your objection. We will track the object the minimum time needed to gather data, and then we will take appropriate action.”

“I—” Li-Jared began—and then it sank in that Ruall had just agreed with him.

“Look,” Bandicut said, pointing.

A glow was building around each of the launch rings, the brightest at the near end. Excited interplanetary dust, maybe, in the presence of the acceleration field. The center of the viewspace zoomed in on that first ring, just as the asteroid flashed through. The rock seemed to crunch in upon itself, as though squeezed by the ring. It also came out the far side visibly faster than it went in.

Jeaves called out some numbers. The Long View accelerated, pacing the asteroid. The rock flashed out of the second ring going faster still, and streaked on to the next. “It’s getting a big boost from each ring,” Jeaves said, “but it’s also pulled along by the extended fields between rings. It’s accelerating fast.”

“So it is,” Ruall said. “Let me know when you can estimate the exit velocity.”

“It’ll be a respectable fraction of light-speed. That much I can estimate now.”

“But what fraction?” Ruall asked.

Li-Jared shuddered, imagining the damage an asteroid with that much kinetic energy could do to a planet. The rock flashed through several more rings. It was well on its way. “Listen,” he said, his voice shaking a little. “Don’t you have enough—”

Ruall reverberated with a metallic ringing. “I said—!”

“I know what you said!” Li-Jared winced at his own outburst, shut his eyes, and forced calm upon himself. “Sorry,” he murmured. “Moon and stars, this makes me nervous.”

“Heads up, gentlemen!” Copernicus barked. “Something’s happening.”

Li-Jared whirled to look. Copernicus jacked the view around to show them the scene from a different angle. He tracked tightly on the asteroid as it flew through the second-to-last hoop, with a purplish flash. It was moving dazzlingly fast. But something else was coming into the frame, from the left. Something shadowy and quick. Li-Jared froze. What the hell was that? Mindaru?


For a long time now Dark, the sentient singularity, had been shadowing the vessel of her companions, wondering what exactly they were doing. She knew they had picked up additional ephemerals from the planet; but she didn’t fully understand what they were trying to accomplish here. One thing she did understand was that there was danger all around—danger from the Mindaru, of course—but also from the ephemerals of this planet. Danger from things thrown through space—thrown long distances, and with enough speed to hurt.

While some of her friends were down on the planet, Dark had cruised around, gathering knowledge. There was a remarkable complexity to the spacefaring quality of this world’s inhabitants. They didn’t really seem to travel in person much; Dark ventured close to some of their installations, and she felt no sense of living inhabitants. But something was providing a guiding intelligence to their infrastructure, and Dark wanted to understand what it was. There was a kind of intelligence in the structures themselves, but it was different from her friends, different even from Copernicus, who was himself different from the rest. It wasn’t something she could talk or listen to; it was more of a mutter, more like some of the Mindaru subsystems she’d encountered back at the Starmaker nebula, not quite alive, but alive-ish.

One thing she could follow, though, was the gathering of asteroids for launch. There was no good to those, not while they were aimed at Li-Jared’s homeworld.

Once she’d identified the asteroid closest to entry into the launcher, she informed Copernicus and began shadowing the object. She thought the ephemerals could probably stop it if they wanted to, but she wasn’t sure. They too were shadowing it as it flashed through the first hoop, picking up energy. Then it blazed through the second hoop, gaining more energy.

To Dark, the energy of its movement was visible like the glow of a sun. She could look at it in different aspects, different colors and angles, and she could imagine draining the energy off like a dense sun pulling matter off a bloated red giant. She grew more interested in its energy as she watched it flick through one hoop after another, but she also grew concerned. This was one of the asteroids they wanted to stop; so why weren’t they? Was it possible they couldn’t stop it?

Dark made up her mind. If there was one thing she knew how to handle, it was energy.

The speeding asteroid was a tiny star in her mind, its kinetic energy radiating in her direction like a red hot light. This was becoming too dangerous to allow to continue. Dark waited no longer. She swept in and enfolded the rock in her singularity. She drank the energy of the stone with sweet abandon, feeling the hot dance of its molecules warm her inner core. When she had drained it to a cold ball of rock and metal, she unfolded herself again and released it.

There: Let it drift in the dark of space, where it could do no harm.


Bandicut barked something like a laugh. “That’s Dark out there! What’s she doing?”

Ruall was twanging in dismay.

So it was Dark, then, not the Mindaru? Li-Jared squinted, straining to see. The asteroid and Dark had intersected, joined into one, leaving only a shadow. For a long heartbeat, nothing visible happened. Then light flickered dully inside Dark, like heat lightning in a thundercloud. A moment later, Dark fluttered away, leaving the asteroid stripped of energy, floating in the cold and silence. Jeaves called out, “The rock’s velocity is reduced by ninety-nine percent. Deflection, thirty percent . . .”

“Then—?” Li-Jared began.

“Dark took it out,” Jeaves said simply. “The threat to Karellia is gone.”



Conclusion of the “Out of Time” Sequence


  Books by Jeffrey A. Carver

The Star Rigger Universe


Dragons in the Stars

Dragon Rigger

Star Rigger’s Way

Eternity’s End

Seas of Ernathe

The Chaos Chronicles

Neptune Crossing

Strange Attractors

The Infinite Sea


The Reefs of Time*

Crucible of Time*

(*Pts 1 and 2 of the Out of Time sequence)

Masters of Shipworld (planned)

Novels of the Starstream

From a Changeling Star

Down the Stream of Stars

Standalone Novels

The Infinity Link

The Rapture Effect

Roger Zelazny’s Alien Speedway: Clypsis

Battlestar Galactica (miniseries novelization)

Omnibus Ebook Editions

Dragon Space: A Star Rigger Omnibus

The Chaos Chronicles: Books 1-3

Short Stories

Reality and Other Fictions

Going Alien

  About the Author

JEFFREY A. CARVER was a Nebula Award finalist for his novel Eternity’s End. He also authored Battlestar Galactica, a novelization of the critically acclaimed television miniseries. His novels combine thought-provoking characters with engaging storytelling, and range from the adventures of the Star Rigger universe (Star Rigger’s Way, Dragons in the Stars, and others) to the ongoing, character-driven hard SF of The Chaos Chronicles—which begins with Neptune Crossing and continues with Strange Attractors, The Infinite Sea, Sunborn, and now The Reefs of Time and its conclusion, Crucible of Time.

A native of Huron, Ohio, Carver lives with his family in the Boston area. He has taught writing in a variety of settings, from educational television to conferences for young writers to MIT, as well as his Ultimate Science Fiction Workshop with Craig Shaw Gardner. He has created a free website for aspiring authors of all ages at Learn more about the author and his work, follow his blog, sign up for his occasional newsletter, and see all of his books at:

About Starstream Publications

and Book View Café

Starstream Publications is the publishing imprint of Jeffrey A. Carver.

Book View Café Publishing Cooperative (BVC) is an author-owned cooperative of about fifty professional writers, publishing in a variety of genres, including fantasy, romance, mystery, and science fiction.

BVC authors include New York Times and USA Today bestsellers. Our authors have won and been nominated for numerous awards, including: the Agatha, Campbell, Hugo, Lambda Literary, Locus, Nebula, PEN/Malamud Award, Philip K. Dick, RITA, World Fantasy, and Writers of the Future awards, and the Academy Nicholl Fellowship.

Since its debut in 2008, BVC has gained a reputation for producing high-quality ebooks, and now brings that same quality to its print editions. Find out more and sign up for our newsletter at:

The Reefs of Time

The Reefs of Time

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