Translator's note: This history contains many terricentric references; for the ease of Earthly readers, Galactic concepts, and terms have been translated into American English. The galaxy uses base twelve, rather than base ten, but numbers used here are in base ten. A ftarbolet is about 33 feet, and a ftar is 1,728 ftarbolets. Apostrophes mostly stand for glottal stops, but they are not uniformly the same.

The main characters in this story are Trobe and Kilyawa, heirs apparent to the Impirical throne; Jed, an Earthling; Tenxis Gree, an engineerin student; Owaiiiwah, an Evangelist, also known as Laura and Kohnchankwah in different stages of her life..

Chapter One - Trobe ^^Day 1

Trobe shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Arrayed around him were the Emperor Fark'ai, the Empress Primol, the court executive Tie Dzriff, and his tutor, A'Khor. The questions were coming fast and inevitably.

"What are the principles of Empire?" This came from the Emperor. "As if you were informing a citizen."

Trobe wriggled back into his seat more securely as he started.

"One," he said. "Number one is the common defense. This is the strongest unifying principle. Disunited, we are easily devoured as bites, but united, we are impregnable.

"Two is the Pax Impirica. The presence and unity of Empire assures that worlds within the Empire remain at peace with each other, so that worlds prosper.

"Three is the provision of an effective transport system, enabling timely movement of people, information and goods. This transport system is the only way in which movement of these things can be accomplished within a manageable timeframe. Else, travelers would die before their destinations.

"Fourth is the coordination of communications, linked with the transport system.

"Fifth is the centralized banking and financial standards. This assures that economies remain stable and that wealth distribution remains within manageable limits. The management of this system requires intensive and permanent scrutiny and much oversight.

"Sixth is the sharing of technology. Empire is supported by the flow of technology to its worlds. The technology originates within the properties of the Empire itself, and its flow is regulated, so that economies remain stable and so that all worlds within the Empire can remain technologically stable and on a par with each other. This also deserves intensive and permanent scrutiny.

"Seventh is the minimal tribute. This means that only the most minimal possible taxes are exacted from the member worlds of the Empire, to avert resentment and to engender a sense that they are receiving their money's worth."

He paused.

"And eighth is the guarantee of certain personal liberties to Empire citizens, regardless of where they are within the Empire, creating equitable justice."

"And if you were teaching one such as yourself, who needs to properly understand the workings of Empire?" the Empress added.

"First, the common defense is maintained as a powerful uniting factor of fear, although we have seen no trace of the hive races for over two centuries. Having a common enemy is an effective means of reducing internal conflict. In fact, perpetuating a certain level of xenophobic fear is a potent means of promoting unity so long as that fear is appropriately directed. And it directs negative emotions outwards towards an unknown enemy rather than inward, towards other races within the Empire. However, the hive races are presumed to be still alive and a threat, while our scientific incursion into Dexor's Galaxy has prompted us to maintain an entire world devoted to monitoring threats from that galaxy and to develop potent new weapons. And the inclusion of a wide assortment of peoples and species within the army helps to bridge their differences, even after they return home after service.

"Second, the Pax Impirica allows the Empire to maintain a well-distributed presence throughout while maintaining good will rather than resentment. Of course, the most rigidly-applied standards of conduct on the parts of Imperial soldiers and officials are necessary to maintain this.

"Third, the quantum-phase transportation system is the exclusive domain of the Empire, totally under its control, with the technology configured to be secure from piracy, so that all in the Empire depend on it. There is no timely alternative means. There is, or at least so far has been, no way that the worlds can penetrate this technology to subvert it for their own purposes, and numerous safeguards are required to ensure that this remains so. It also enables us to closely monitor the movements of goods and people.

"Fourth, the communications are not only similarly controlled, but the Empire is enabled to monitor much of the communications stream.

"Fifth, the financial system allows the Empire to control and stabilize the economies of the system and prevent overly large disparities in wealth. Most significantly, this also limits the power that any one individual can assume across the Empire, and to a lesser extent on each world.

"Sixth, the control of technological resources keeps the Empire in a position of power. The central technology system feeds out technologies at a rigidly controlled rate in order that it both stays well ahead of public technology and so that it creates a steady obligation and dependency. Individual worlds cannot compete on their own terms with this origination of technology, and so cannot disrupt Empire by overwhelming technological superiority. The brightest individuals from the worlds are absorbed by the Empire's own technology programs. Again, this prevents technological disruption.

"Seventh, the tax rate is kept low only by gaining income through overt fees and several hidden channels in commerce and transport. Member worlds and subject businesses and peoples are actually paying more than they think in order to cover the true cost of Empire.

"Eighth, the guarantee of rights creates an atmosphere of loyalty among citizens that is difficult for enemies within to overcome."

"And what about information control?" the executive asked.

"Only highly specific information sectors are controlled or can be effectively controlled. It would be impossible to effectively control more than that, but what is controlled can be effectively controlled."

This time it was the tutor's turn. "Very well, Trobe," he said. "Now please give me an example of what happened in cases of violation of these principles."

"When the Lemorrin left the empirical federation, the Lorgat lost no time in overrunning and annihilating them. The Lemorrin, in fact, mostly wound up being food for the Lorgat. Today the only Lemorrin left are the descendants of individuals who were elsewhere in the empire at the time, and they have only one world, DreeLemorrag, which was given to them by Empirical fiat. It is now a member of the federation for its own protection."


"Five centuries ago, the Hollonogh nation of Ahrih'Hollo'ngh decided to withhold taxes to the Empire. The Empire simply made a new energy technology available to all member worlds except Ahrih'Hollo'ngh, a technology which could not be duplicated in the field, and Ahrih'Hollo'ngh floundered economically within a galactic year because they could no longer compete in trade. It took them seven galactic years to recover economically once they came to their senses."

"Good example. Go on."

"The fSislat nation of Mrorra engaged in the smuggling of grain crop genotypes thirteen hundred and fifty years ago. They were caught in the act within a month, and an embargo set up around their world. This was done using a radiation shell that voided their spaceship drives, a technology which the Empire had previously kept secret. When they capitulated, the United Worlds of the Socorran System sued for damages for stolen genotype trade, and the penalty was severe."

"Yes, yes. . ."

"A cabal from the Ieog'eeh nation two centuries ago infiltrated the technological research facilities around the planet Holart in this system and stole what they thought to be a new starship drive technology. When they attempted to test it on their home planet, the conspirators destroyed themselves, the second largest city on the planet, and about a quarter of the largest continent."

"All right. One more."

"Some conspirators from the Hammala nation of Krola recently tried to counterfeit currency. The false currency was quickly discovered, and the conspirators narrowly escaped, only to try it again under government fiat of the Krolan government. The government gave it up quickly when they realized that it would cost them more to successfully counterfeit the currency than the face value of the currency. The government and the counterfeiters were nonetheless caught and punished. Several attempts at manipulating computer records have been made, only to result in the discovery of the perpetrators."

"How many species of intelligent beings do we know of in the Universe?" A'Khor asked.

"It depends on how you define intelligent beings. There are seventeen known species which have achieved space travel technology sufficient for interplanetary travel, of which three are the known hive races and another two are not part of Empire. The other twelve are called the Prime races of Empire. There are another eleven species which have not achieved such space travel on their own, but which participate fully in Empire. These species meet other technology standards. There are another forty-three such species which are not part of Empire, but which may be one day. Thirty- nine of these species are completely unaware of Empire. There are another three hundred twenty-one species which have definable levels of technology and explicit communication. Twenty-nine of these participate in Empire out of necessity. The rest are unaware of Empire. This is a total of three hundred ninety-two species which can be defined as intelligent, and fifty-six species that knowingly participate in Empire, not counting the two races which sometimes interact with Empire but are not of it, while the hive races who knows what they think? The strangest species seem to come from the third level, but there are some fairly strange ones from the seventh as well. We know of no species from the first or second level."*

"And how many inhabited worlds are there?" It had come back around to the emperor.

"Nine hundred and twenty. Of these, seven hundred and ninety-eight are carbon-oxygen-water based worlds that can be freely inhabited by most species. Another eighty-one are methane-ammonia worlds suited to methane breathers. There are twenty-seven worlds which are not suitable for any life form, but on which protected colonies operate. The remaining fourteen are a diverse mix of other types."

The Emporer then asked, "And what are the twelve prime races of Empire?"

"First, the Nerrung. We are the Nerrung, fair-minded, intelligent, and very fast. We provide the rulers for Empire.

"Second, the Khar'/ai, such as you, A'khor. They are extremely objective, with long lives and memories and great strength. They have long been the companians of the ruling Nerrung. There have long been unfounded rumors that they are actually robots.

"Third, the Dorrup. They are often Imperial administrators due to their ability to organize and prioritize.

"Fourth, the Dargawilagewana. They are sharp businesspeople, being the closest thing to a business class in the Empire.

"Fifth, the R'Urr. They are long-lived, stolid and eminently logical. They are heavily represented in the Imperial judiciary.

"Sixth, the Nrangijwa. They are fierce fighters and quick to anger. They also have a great sense of drama and presentation. Naturally, they are substantially represented in the armed forces.

"Seventh, the Azzsarra. They are well-represented in the artists of the Empire and are also often great musicians.

"Eighth, the Ghek. They seem to have no particular outstanding characteristics other than seeming to be the representation of normalcy and moderacy.

"Ninth, the Ossbonals. They tend to represent the extremes of intelligence, and have provided many of the greatest minds of the Empire.

"Tenth, the Kzzg. They are strongly non-individualistic, although they are definitely individuals, unlike the Hive races. They are often found as workers in routine jobs. They also occasionally produce great mystics.

"Eleventh, the Harneii. They are the one race which is strongly telepathic. They are also, and perhaps fortunately, peace-loving and shy.

"And twelfth, the Grain. They could possibly be best described as a combination of the Nrangijwa and Dargawilagewana. They are sometimes humorously called the Dargawinrangijwana for this reason. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to produce the more dangerous criminals, but also the greatest humorists. They are known for dangerous practical jokes, much to the dismay of some of the planets not yet aware of Empire"

This had been going on for hours. The last questions asked were also some of the first asked, and some were asked repeatedly in between. But Trobe passed his regency exam with flying colors.

"Very well, young Prince Trobe," his tutor, A'khor said. "You have shown yourself in admirable command of the information."

"The only weakness I see," added the executive, Tie, "Is a slight need to learn some history in more depth."

These two were a study in contrasts. A'khor, a Khar'/ai, was tall and insect-like in appearance, with a hard, ebon, chitinous shell. However, the shell was not continuous but functioned more like fitted armor, and his face displayed deep, deep, black eyes, a large and sharp nose, and no discernible mouth. He wore a black rope-like harness with abundant storage pouches, and little else.

Tie, a Dorrup, was short and rotund. She stood upon four widely-spaced legs which defined a square patch of floor under her. Her color was a pallid mottling of green and tan, and no nose was visible on her face, while her head was virtually continuous with her body. She was swathed in bright cloth. Her arms were in contrast with her body, being long and spider-like.

But three species were represented in the room, with the emperor, the empress, and the prince all being of the Nerrung race. They were generally humanoid in appearance, with long, linear crests of silky, hairlike "feathers" running from just between the eyes, over the top of the head, and to the tip of their short but graceful tails. They wore backless robes which closed on but displayed the feather crests. The robes were richly embroidered.

Trobe returned to his quarters with A'khor. This tall and dark individual had been Trobe's tutor since Trobe could remember. The Khar'/ai were a mysterious race, the most ancient of any known galactic race. A Khar'/ai lived a dozen times longer than the most long-lived of the R'urr, which were otherwise the longest-live species. Unlike any other species except for the Nerrung, they had voluntarily remained in control of only one star system, with only one inhabited world. Khar'/ai had functioned as tutors for Imperial heirs since there had been Empire.

They were immensely strong and intelligent, but also quiet and reserved. It was impossible to know what they were thinking. They assiduously avoided conflict, but cornering one of them with violent intent inevitably resulted in the deaths of the attackers. What some called their greatest virtue others called their greatest flaw: they seemed devoid of ambition.

Some had slyly suggested that perhaps they were robots, or at least cyborgs or androids--but nobody knew, and the Khar'/ai weren't telling. Since the last attempted invasion of their world seventeen thousand years previously, no one dared trying to repeat the act. Some events are so horrific that it seems they will live forever in infamous legend; let it simply be said that not one Khar'/ai had died in the attack--and not one of the attackers had survived. There was, of course, an Imperial presence on their world, but it was tightly constrained in its location and movement.

The Nerrung, on the other hand, had always functioned as the Emperor class. This was a curious fact of history; the Nerrung dynasty had lasted for twenty thousand years, almost as long as the Empire had existed. Again, some things were best left alone. But the Nerrung were a tolerant, intelligent and wise people, and the education and screening process for the high positions was incredibly rigorous conducted and enforced by the Khar'/ai. Not only was it extremely difficult to physically attack the average Nerrung because of their speed, their ability to sense presence and movement, and their ability to disrupt the personal electrical fields of their attackers, but if one got to a Nerrung, a Khar'/ai would then have to be dealt with. Few would-be attackers were that stupid. The stupid ones, without exception so far as Trobe knew, were all dead.

Trobe knew that he was not the child of the emperor and empress; he knew that he was the result of a selection process that canvassed the entire Nerrung race. But those two individuals had been as parents to him, over and above A'khor, since he could remember, although they were able to spend only a half-hour or so per day together. Trobe knew that he had been chosen for his intelligence and temperament. A'khor was his true parental figure.

But there was much that Trobe didn't know--yet.

Chapter Two - Jed ^^Day1

The Fleeting Floor of Flotsam (in Galactic Standard, Fubrikneehe', with a slightly different connotation), a small itinerant craft for hire, Empirical registration designation Btorpvangg GXN 43962482, finally cleared all the perimeter checkpoints of the Empirical system and hove into the outer shell spaceport designated Northnorthwest 47. It settled onto the steel surface next to an airlock ductway, which promptly attached to its hull around the portal.

"Wretched valet service," the grizzled old captain, Minyeha, who was a Zhuhazhutht, growled. "I'd rather park this thing myself. But no, we've got to go in for yet another screening, and they'll park this thing themselves so they can go over it with a fine-tooth comb."

"Haven't they already done that three times?" a young passenger called Tenxis Gree asked puzzledly.

"Of course," the captain admitted, "but they got extra-rigid requirements for coming to the Empire center. That is one reason why I avoid it when I can."

To Jed, who was from Earth but in disguise, the captain looked rather like a cross between a "minion" from a movie he'd seen years ago, and a Mr. Potatohead. The captain, whose name was Moria, had no apparent neck, a bulging torso, skinny arms and legs, and a mottled yellow skin. His eyes werre large and could turn far to the side. His body could turn quite well as well. He thought it hilarious that the captain's name was so close to "Minion." But he kept it to himself.

"Of course I have read about this place before," Tenxis said, "but I never realized it was so mind-boggling until I saw it for the first time."

"Yep," the captain said. He reeled off the figures: "Twenty-seven trillion people living on an outer shell built over a period of nine thousand years around an inner shell built over two thousand years around the planet Ngorro of the Empirical system. Only three hundred billion people live on the inner shell, all involved in government or support services. The outer shell is one hundred ninety-eight ftars in diameter, the inner shell one hundred eighty ftars in diameter, and the small planet is one hundred sixty-six ftars in diameter. The Emporer and the inner circle all live on floating stations within the inner shell, with a total population of some twenty thousand. You practically have to be one of the gods themselves to get in that far. The planet is uninhabitable. This spaceport is one of over one thousand on the planet system. It is one of the small ones."

The airlock door cycled open and Tenxis took up his grip. He filed out with the crew and other passengers into the tube. There were seventeen passengers of mixed species, including Jed, who did not really look like an Earth man at the moment.

"The rest of your luggage will be delivered to your room shortly," a disembodied voice informed them. "Please be seated in the waiting area inside while we arrange clearance."

Tenxis went to the waiting area and sat. Another passenger from the Fleeting Floor of Flotsam was sitting in the chair next to him. While Tenxis was a Helegite, one of a short, squat race, the other was a B"enk, neither one belonging to one of the prime races. She was a small, slender individual. Tenxis and she had exchanged a few pleasantries on the trip in, but had not really spoken.

"Hello," the B"enk said in Galactic Universal language and smiling, "My name is Kir'don."

Tenxis smiled back. "I'm Tenxis Gree," he said. He assessed Kir'don more fully. From what he knew of the B"enk, Kir'don appeared to be a female of the race; an uninformed person couldn't tell. "I'm here for the Galactic University."

"Ah, one of the lucky few," Kir'don said. "I live here on the Eggshell, as we call it. Just came back from visiting friends off-system."

"This is called the biggest city in the Universe, is it not?" Tenxis asked.

Kir'don smiled. "Yes, but it isn't. It is only the largest city in the known non-hive galaxy. The hive races are reputed to have larger cities."

"Larger cities?" Tenxis asked. "How could you have larger cities than twenty-seven trillion? How would they even feed everybody?"

"You must understand that the hive races are very different," Kir'don said. "For one thing, some of them have morphs that are very, very small and can live in a very small space. For instance, the Lehsticcian race has queens about half the size of you, warriors almost as big, but food processor morphs that are about as big as your thumb--and they come from the same queens as the warrior morphs."

A look of revulsion crossed Tenxis's face. "I do not even want to think about it," he said. "I just hope that we can continue to keep them beaten back for our own survival."

"I hope so, too," Kir'don replied. "Actually, I do not know why we do not just wipe them out and eliminate the threat."

"Eliminate?" Tenxis looked surprised. If he had had eyebrows, they would have been raised. "But they are far too powerful!"

"That is really only a myth," Kir'don said with a slight smile.

"Really? Please tell me more."

"Perhaps some day if we get to know one another," Kir'don said. "You seem like the kind of person that I might like to call a friend. I overheard you talking with the fSislat on the ship, so I already know a little about you."

Tenxis was a little embarrassed. "So you heard about my family's history?"

"Well, yes, I'm sorry, but I really couldn't help it. There really wasn't anyplace else comfortable to sit."

"Oh, that is all right," Tenxis said. "I just hope I didn't bore you."

"No, you didn't. I, too, had a family that was forced to migrate because of the hive race wars. We had position and power and wealth on our home planet, only to be made migrants existing at the whims of provisional empire governments. Fortunately, that only lasted for about twelve years until a new world could be made ready for us, but it certainly made an impression on me."

"That was during your lifetime?" Tenxis asked, surprised.

Kir'don laughed. "Yes, young one; I'm much older than you seem to think. I'm actually some three hundred and fifty-three galactic years old, old enough to remember active hive war campaigns."

"Oh, well, I didn't mean to imply anything," Tenxis said. "I'm sorry. I have just heard about the relocations from my grandparents, although we're still living on the Helegite planet we were moved to. It is a very crowded place; I guess they just thought that Helegites would have no trouble living with other Helegites even when terribly crowded. The big problem is that we're red Helegites living on a blue Helegite planet."

"And the blue Helegites, are not they some of the strongest supporters of empire?"

"No stronger than the red Helegites," Tenxis said. "It is just that the blues support the Loomanna emporer line, and the red Helegites want elected emperors."

"Elected emperors," Kir'don mused. "Isn't that something of a contradiction in terms?"

"Not the way you think," Tenxis said. "You see, I have studied our proposed system extensively, and here is the way it would work. . ."

For the next hour he explained to her a system with which she was already thoroughly familiar. But she knew that the system was neither of the ones of which he spoke.

The Arrana Spaceport complex was immense, complex, and crowded. A slow day saw a thousand craft of various types and sizes coming or going, or both. It was more or less spherical, a veritable planetoid composed of metal and plastics. There were nodes built for receiving immense freighters and spaceliners, and between were smaller nodes for smaller craft, down to individual docks for personal craft.

Inside, the most casual observer could see, within an hour, almost every space-traveling race in the galaxy. Few people were familiar with all species, and so it happened now and again that an individual of questionable origins passed through without even a raised eyebrow. And certainly some questionable craft inevitably docked there.

This tendency worked well for Jed. He was definitely not one of the known spacefaring species. He was, being from Earth, from an almost unknown world, a minor place of a minor species that had not yet achieved true spaceflight. He was, unquestionably to another of his race, a human being, Homo sapiens. It was rather odd that he should be here at the galactic center of power.

Humans sufficiently enough resembled the Vorg, a minor species inhabiting a minor planet in the R'Urr sector, to be easily mistaken for them, and even more easily disguised as them. A slight coloration of the face, patches of false hair strategically placed, and enough covering clothing, and a disguise was effected. And so Jed was disguised.

How Jed had come to arrive here was a most interesting story. He had no particular business here other than that it was a place to be, and Jed had to exist somewhere in order to maintain obedience to the laws of nature.

Jed had been an ordinary citizen of Earth, minding his ordinary business, when he was abducted by aliens. This had become something of a joke among most of the denizens of Earth, but an article of faith for others. Jed had previously been in the first, majority, group, but quickly found himself among the latter, decidedly minority, group when he became a victim. The reason that he was abducted had no more cause than a twisted sense of humor among some of the renegade practical jokers among the Grain.

Rather than being returned, Jed had awakened, alone, and had immediately hidden aboard the rather large starship. Since there were a number of abductees and the Grain abductors had not been paying careful attention to how many they had grabbed, they frankly hadn't noticed that they were returning one less than they had taken. The Grain weren't the usual abductors of humans, fortunately.

Since a characteristic of the Grain were that they tended to be somewhat disorganized and cluttered, Jed had been able to remain hidden through the next leg of the Grain ship voyage.

Since then, he had found work on an agricultural planet when he jumped ship during a Grain resupply stop, and although he couldn't speak the language, he could at least do much of the work. Over the next year, he became fluent in Galactic Standard, which fortunately was configured to eliminate many of the impossible-for-anyone-but-a-native-to- pronounce sounds that abounded in planetary languages. However, he learned it with a Dindor accent an accent that he was very quick to suppress once he had saved enough to buy off-planet passage and went to Blarf, a regional center of learning. There, he worked for an immense university and soaked up all that he could about life, the universe, and everything. By the end of three years there, he had eliminated every trace of Dindor from his way of speaking and sounded like a more properly educated galactic citizen. From there, he went on for the next four years doing a variety of jobs, saving from one job to do some more traveling, seeing as much of the galaxy as he could.

But his immediate mission now was to find something to eat before his stomach consumed him.

There were thirty-seven restaurants on the commercial concourse outside the docking station, and Jed was ready to inhabit one of them long enough to inhale a meal. The quandary of the moment was to the question of which one could serve him edible food. He was disguised as a Vorg, but he found native Vorg food next to inedible. Fortunately, the Vorg were known as being gourmands, to those who did know them, eating a wide variety of alien food when it was available. Even more fortunately, the Vorg were such a minor race that most people had no idea what they ate.

It was, also fortunately, not a problem for Jed to pay for the meal. He had just worked for a year aboard a mining ship and had a year's wages stashed away on his person.

He finally settled on an establishment that proclaimed that it could serve anything, and wandered inside. He pulled out his zfor'tinla to entertain himselv, then looked up. Tenxis Gree and Kir'don were already seated at a table nearby.

"Jed!" Tenxis called. "Come sit with us. Tell us stories of your home."

Jed made his way to their table and sat. It would have seem rude to have rejected Tenxis's invitation.

"So," Kir'don said, "You are a Vorg?"

"You are not familiar with the Vorgs?" Jed asked innocently.

"I have seen a few over the years. Not a common species out in the spaceways. You seem a little different from the others I have run into. But then I can't base any generalizations on maybe five individuals."

"I have only ever seen one other Vorg," Tenxis said. "It was old and fat and ugly. I couldn't tell what gender it was."

Tenxis did not, of course, really say "it". The word he used was closer to the French "on", meaning a person that was otherwise unspecified. Most people would have been highly insulted to have another member of their species called an "it" in the English sense. Much more insulting than another species using the description "old and fat and ugly."

"I have seen many that were old and fat and ugly," Jed said. "My Aunt Gerta, for instance." And, of course, the word was not precisely the English word "aunt", but a word, blik'o, that meant "my mother's brother's wife." Standard Galactic used highly specific pronouns and nouns. There were sixteen different basic pronouns corresponding to the English word "you" in all its forms. Three of these were used only to scold or insult. Actually, one of the three was regarded as one of the worst insults that one person could make towards another, and it carried the connotation of "you and the rest of your species, who are low animals."

"So what is it like on your world?" Tenxis asked.

Jed thought for a moment. Usually, in answer to this question, he would describe his brother's farm in Kansas, which was close enough to many parts of the Vorg'olt world. But he was tired of that. He had been fortunate enough to spend three weeks on Vorg'olt, so he described another one.

"One of my favorite places is the Ergreeth forest. It is a place of moving plants. The trees groom themselves and some of the smaller plants shift around during the day to get better spots for light. You have to be careful about one kind of vine, though, which would love to strangle you and feed on you. Fortunately, they are not terribly strong, mostly picking on smaller animals, but they are too stupid to realize that someone like me is too big for them to deal with. So I often left behind a broken vine or two."

"Yes," Kir'don said. "There are plants that move around on a number of planets. On some planets they move mostly to catch animal prey, and those places can be very dangerous. On my own planet, there are small plants that travel miles to take advantage of better moisture, temperature and sun conditions. Many of these look like children's balls, and it is easy to trip over them."

Their food arrived. Fortunately, all three of these individuals were of species that regarded food consumption as a public activity. There were several restaurants on the concourse that catered to species that regarded the act as something to be performed in extreme privacy.

Of the three items Jed had ordered, one smelled delicious, one smelled acceptable, and the third smelled somewhat foul. Par for the course, he thought. He knew from experience that smell did not guarantee edibility or lack of it, but was a good general guide. Nonetheless, the third dish he found inedible but was able to well fill himself from the other two.

"So what is your planet like, Tenxis?" Jed asked, to divert the conversation.

"Densely forested, for the most part, except for the cities themselves and the mountains. My species evolved in the mountains, where there was a lot of non-forested area, so we're mostly more comfortable in the open. Our cities tend to be open but very tall. We do not have the fear of heights that many species have. Many of our cities are in the mountains, as well. We're also adapted to a much lower oxygen level in the air than most species. When I first boarded the transport coming here, I felt like I was suddenly very powerful, from the extra oxygen."


"Yes, about nine major oceans, with a lot of water circulation around the continents and islands. My species evolved on the second-largest continent, and it was many years before we crossed the waters to other places. We were already in the bronze age before we did so. We are not fond of large, open expanses of water."

"And your planet, Kir'don?" Jed asked.

"Very pastoral. Large for a rocky planet, with higher gravity. Like Tenxis, I too feel powerful when boarding transport from my home planet, but for me, it is the lesser gravity, not higher oxygen. But, then, I believe that your planet has more oxygen than this, doesn't it?"

"In parts. At least, near sea level. It took me a couple of weeks to really get used to the air on the transport."

Tenxis rose and excused himself. "Pardon me, there are things I must do," he said. Since they were waiting for approval to exit the deck, that obviously meant using the facilities.

After he left, Kir'don leaned in closer to Jed and asked, "Jed, you're not Vorg. I know that. You're doing a good job of pretending to be one, but you do not look quite right. Besides, even relatively high elevations on Vorg have higher oxygen than this. Where are you really from?"

Chapter Three - Owani'i'i'ia

Owani'i'i'ia stood on the surface of Dvornika. Those miserable Grain had unceremoniously dumped her when she had proven short of resources. Now she was in one of the most backwater worlds of the galaxy, looking very different from the native inhabitants.

For one thing, Owani'i'i'ia's skin was rather blue since she was Ieog'eeh. If she bulked up with clothing and put on a wig, she could pass for human reasonably well except that she was a rather striking blue color. However, the spectrum of the Earth sun was much more yellow than her own sun, and enough exposure would bleach out most of the blue. If she had no clothing on, she was obviously alien. She didn't have different body parts from a human, but their arrangement was obviously enough different that she would be seen as alien, if not AN alien, if seen without her clothing.

Fortunately, she was in a rural area in a meadow. The weather was quite warm. Indeed, it was rather sweat- inducing for humans, but she was quite comfortable. She could see no sign of civilization from where she was, and she could eat a wide variety of native plant foods with no damage; she already knew that from other sources. But now she either had to hide or disguise herself to await any chance of rescue.

What chance was there? Nobody knew she was here except for those self-serving Grain, who weren't about to tell anyone. She knew that if he could make it to one of three locations, she could send a signal out into Empire and hope. She suspected that all three of those locations were far away, and they were places surrounded by humans. If she wanted to get off this planet, she'd have to pass as a human.

For starters, her clothing was entirely unsuitable for Earth. She would have to find some human clothing, and she could arrange to be seen only at night. Although much more slender than almost any human, that could be covered up fairly easily. Her voice was reasonably in the range of humans, although a bit high-pitched.

But she still had to deal with her skin. She knew that exposing it to the sun, while carrying some risk of irritation and long-term damage, would lighten the color significantly and make if much less obvious. She was also aware that various people used skin makeups to improve the color of their skin; perhaps such a thing was available here.

Fortunately, she had an English-learning program on her zfor'tinla, and she had been studying it on the ship. She was an amateur student of linguistics and found the Earthly language fascinating, especially since it had so many irregular verb tenses; many of the forms obviously originated from a variety of other languages. Plurals, too, were seated by the throne of irregularity.

There was nothing to do but to start out. It was late in the day, so she could move reasonably well without fear of capture, and as a Ieog'eeh, she could see quite well in darkness that would blind a human. She slung her small bag over her shoulder began walking down the gentle slope of the meadow, betting that she'd find a road sooner or later.

She walked for several hours. It was quite dark now, and the meadow had run out long ago. She was in a dense and dark coniferous forest where even she had difficulty seeing. She decided to bed down for the night.

Then she heard a rustle. Owani'i'i'ia knew there were live and dangerous animals on this planet. The sound intensified and it sounded as if it were made by something loud. She lost no time in climbing a nearby tree. This was easy work for her, as slender and agile as she was. And it seemed none too soon. She heard a huffing shortly below her, but she was still climbing. She heard the animal climbing as well, and she kept on up. She was outdistancing the animal. She eventually came to a place where the tree's stem was quite slender, and bet that the animal could not climb this far. It was lighter and brighter up here, and she could see better enough to look down and see a very large, very hairy but black animal with enormous claws coming up slowly. It was having more difficulty as the tree began swaying beneath its grip. The swaying did not bother Owani'i'i'ia much. Her ancestors were arboreal, like Human ancestors, but they had retained more of their tree-climbing skills. And tree-sitting skills, for that matter. The bear eventually gave up and climbed down, but she stayed sitting up there until dawn. It was not comfortable enough to sleep, so she listened to the English language program on her zfor'tinla.

At earliest daybreak, she cautiously climbed down and continued on her path. She nibbled spruce boughs as she walked. They tasted mildly spicy to her, but pleasant. She kept her head uncovered and her hair pulled back for maximum skin exposure. Fortunately, the weather was sunny.

She had crossed several small streams, or perhaps one small stream several times, She could hear a roaring of water ahead. Water worried her. Her species was not well-adapted to dealing with water.

She emerged from the forest into a broad meadow-like strip next to a small river. She had seen no sign of civilization yet, and here her way was barred by water she could not cross. She heard a distinctive fwit-fwit-fwit of some kind of machinery, and faded back into the trees as a helicopter flew over. It descended on the far side of the river, the noise gradually dying down. Obviously there was a clearing over there. Obviously, there was a destination. Perhaps she could check it out. But how was she going to cross the river?

She gazed upriver. Maybe there was a place up there. And then she heard behind her:

"Oh, shit!"

Chapter Four - Kilyawa ^^Day 1

Kilyawa crept down the street in the shadows. She knew that her Khar'/ai, Deka, was observing her though Deka was unseen herself. She made it almost a half-ftarbolet before being spotted by any other being. But it was only a passerby who took little notice of her. She continued to her destination, another quarter-ftarbolet down the way. She ducked into a doorway and passed through into the room beyond.

"Well done, Kilyawa," Deka said. "Even the one person who noticed you thought nothing of it."

"Shall I try again?" Kilyawa asked.

"No, not now. But we will do it again. Come, let us return to the palace."

They walked in silence through an underground passageway from this place, a safehouse.

Kilyawa was training for the role of empress, Trobe's female counterpart. Many aspects of her training were similar to those of Trobe, but they were not identical.

They arrived at Kilyawa's chambers.

"Kilyawa, it is time for culture studies. Today we will look at the Ieog'eeh. What can you tell me about them?"

"They are a bipedal, two-gendered species, as are the Nerrung. Their skin is rather blue. Their prinicipal population is confined to only one planet, which is a very poor planet with few natural resources."

"Correct. Of course, that barely scratches the surface. They are a fairly old race, with a long history of tradition. Their planet originally had much more in the way of resources, but war eliminated much of them. They have been struggling to recover for centuries."

"Yes, weren't they conquered by the Lorgat?"

"Yes, but centuries earlier they were hard-hit by the Hive race known as Lehsticcian. The Lehsticcian apparently were not interested in colonizing Ieog'een, but took much of its resources. The later destruction by the Lorgat did not take resources, only eliminated them. "

"Why didn't the Lehsticcian want to colonize Ieog'een?"

"We think it is because the planet has the most extremes of temperature of any of the inhabited planets of the Empire where life originated while at the same time it receives much less direct sunlight than most inhabited planets. As a result, the Ieog'eeh have a great tolerance for temperatures. This has made them useful in certain off-planet industries, and workers in those industries are an important part of support for their people back home."

"Why hasn't the Empire done more to rebuild their planet and its economy?"

"First, the Empire has made considerable investment there. Second, theirs is an economic, political, and geographic backwater. Third, for many years, the Ieog'eeh refused assistance based on religious beliefs."

"Yes, you've mentioned this religion thing before, Deka. I do not understand it."

"I'm not sure anybody really does. The essence of religion is that people decide to believe in a mythical being who has great powers and who tells them how to live. And that being usually demands regular tribute in the form of worship and sacrifices."

"So why did the Ieog'eeh believe such a thing?"

"Because they sought an explanation for the unexplainable, why certain things happened. That is the principal cause of religion. Here, let us view some images."

Deka barked a few commands. The room's wall showed an ancient Ieog'eeh temple.

"This is one of their houses of worship. It is now a museum. Religion has been mostly gone from Ieog'eeh society now for about two centuries. Their contact with Empire is probably the main reason. The power of rational thinking often overrides religious belief and practice."

"Here is a statue of their principal god, O'o'olu. It is neither female nor male, and at the same time, both. And here are the four lesser gods: Ayewala, Din'a'a'a'la, Dibee'wala, and Ben'eh'ehla. The first two have more female attributes, and the last two more male, although they are not officially male or female. Notice that they are all dark blue."

"Why is that?"

"Because the darker the shade of blue of an Ieog'eeh, the more status, and there does appear to be a correlation with level of intelligence. However, the blue color will fade considerably with exposure to sunlight. Notice the -lu and -la endings of the names. For most of Ieog'eeh history, it was forbidden to name a child or to coin a word with those endings."

Chapter Five - Jed

^^Day 1

"So where are you from?" Kir'don repeated. "I won't tell."

"Why do you ask this?" Jed asked.

She shrugged. "I'm just curious. I mean you no harm. Your secret will be my secret."

Jed felt surprised that he felt enough trust in her to tell her. Of course, since he had told no other one previously, this fact weighed heavily on him, and like the average human, he felt a need to tell someone. Human beings are well- known in some sectors for having difficulty keeping secrets.

"I'm from a planet we call Earth. Or Terra. I do not know how to reference it for you, but it is not an Imperial planet. I can tell you it is pretty far out on one of the galactic arms, I believe Arm 2. We have space travel, but only in the immediate vicinity of the planet. Nobody else from my planet even knows about the existence of the Empire, so far as I know."

She looked astonished. "I knew I couldn't place you, but I had no idea you were from such a backwater. How did you ever get out here?"

"I was abducted by the Grain."

"Oh, of course," Kir'don said. "The Grain. I should have known. If you find out that someone has done something really stupid, suspect the Grain."

"So, since I have no convenient way to get back to Earth, I decided to experience the Universe."

"Or at least the galaxy."

"Well, the galaxy. I have been to some thirty worlds now."

"Are there any worlds you want to particularly explore now?"

"Well, yes, a whole list of them. I hope to get to at least fifty worlds."

"Do you not ever want to go home?"

"Oh, yes. Someday. Not quite yet."

Kir'don sighed. "I'll drop the pretense. I knew you were from Earth. Which Empire knows as Dvornika. I know something about every known intelligent species, including yours. It is my job. And that is why I wanted to spend time with you and talk with you."

Suddenly, she began speaking English. She had been talking sotto voce, but now she could speak at a normal volume, as it was guaranteed that there was no person within a great distance who understood the language except for her and Jed. "You are the fifth Terran I have ever talked to, but the first who knew about Empire. Yes, I have been to your planet, and spent some time with other persons, in disguise of course it is easy to disguise one such as myself as a Terran and came to understand some of your culture and your people."

Jed was astonished. He asked, in English, "How many people from Empire have spent time on Earth?"

"More than you would think. Probably hundreds. Possibly thousands. Of course, only certain species have openly spent time there, ones such as myself who could assume a disguise that would allow us to blend in. A few haven't bothered to disguise themselves, so do not think that tales of alien encounters on Earth are all fabrications."

"Where did you go when you were on Earth?"

"I spent much of my time in two of your capital cities London and Beijing. Very different places. China has exceptional beauty in places, although large areas are badly despoiled by incompetent industrial growth and management. It was very difficult to travel to see many of these places. The United Kingdom, too, has its beauty, and it was a relieve to be able to travel freely. I greatly enjoyed some of the China food."

"Um, Chinese food. And the English food, in London?"

"It was edible . . I think - more or less."

"I'm neither British that is English, plus some nor Chinese. I'm American."

Tenxis Ghree came back to the table.

"I suppose we should go out to the lounge," said Kir'don, now again in Galactic. "There are people waiting for tables."

"All right," Jed said, at first inadvertently in English, and he repeated it in Galactic.

Tenxis just shrugged. They strolled out together.

"Jed, you haven't said what you're here for," Tenxis said. "Why would a Vorg come to Galactic Central?"

"Mostly just looking for interesting work," Jed said. "I finished up my time on my last job, so I'm looking around and shopping around for a new opportunity."

"What kind of work have you done?"

They sat in plush chairs in a grouping made for medium-sized humanoids.

"All kinds of things. A little mining work, spaceship crew, some arboriculture."

"On Minga, perchance?"

"The arboriculture? Yes. Beautiful planet, beautiful trees. Biggest trees in the known galaxy. The record is thirty- one ftarbolets tall. That tree was three and a half ftarbolets in diameter at the main trunk, with twenty-three auxiliary trunks."

"I want to go so many places, including Minga. Have you been there, Kir'don?"

"I have been to many worlds, including Minga. What I can tell you from the experience is that there is a wide variety of beauty in our galaxy, and I have been fortunate enough to see it in many of its aspects. Of course, whatever planetary beauty may be, the supreme beauty of all is to be found in the vastnesses of space. Deep inside the Greater Magellanic Cloud there is a particular view of surpassing beauty, but it can only be seen properly from one area. Well, an area some million ftars in diameter."

"She was just telling me that she is three hundred fifty-three years old," Tenxis said in explanation.

"Galactic years?" Jed asked.


"Hmm, in galactic years, I'm a mere sixteen and a half."

"A real youngster," Tenxis said. "I'm twenty-six. And here I thought I was the youngest of us."

"Different races age so differently," Kir'don said. "Do you know what the longest-lived known race is?"

"No idea," said Jed.

"The Khar'/ai?" asked Tenxis. "Are not they the oldest?"

"Possibly," said Kir'don. "But nobody really knows how long they live. We know that some have lived for at least twelve hundred years. We do know that the Dormo, a little-known race off on an isolated planet, who do not even know what Empire is, live to be at least three thousand years old, possibly much older. But they' live a semi-aquatic existence, and have little technology, although they have a very highly developed language and mythology. This is the sort of thing that I study, different species and cultures. It is a fascinating field."

"I'm here to study engineering," Tenxis explained.

"Oh, so that explains your fumblemouth?" Kir'don asked, playfully.

Tenxis looked deeply aggrieved, and even more so when Jed burst out laughing.

"I didn't think it was that funny," Kir'don said.

"It is on my planet," Jed said. "Or, maybe I should say, the same idea is a real joke on my planet. We call them nerds, and it is a standing joke that they can be very, ah, socially inappropriate."

As Tenxis started stalking off in mortification, Kir'don whispered in Jed's ear, "That is not what a Vorg sounds like when laughing. Be careful that you do not attract attention." Then, she strode after Tenxis, his species being rather slow walkers, and urged him, "I apologize, Tenxis, for having a bit of fun at your discomfiture. I meant you no disrespect."

Tenxis, hanging his head, replied, "No, I apologize. You are not the first to point that out. I know that I speak more directly than is the cultural norm, and I am mortified if I have insulted you or Jed."

"Neither, I'm sure!" Kir'don assured him, and Jed, who had come up to them, added, "No, Tenxis, you have not insulted me. When my people feel that we can make a playful insult towards someone, it means we see them as our friend."

"But that is how Vorgs are?"

"No," Jed's voice dropped to a whisper. "I'll tell you something as a friends, something confidential. I am not a Vorg, but from a non-Empire planet that you never heard of. I am just avoiding questions by posing as a Vorg."

Tenxis looked confused. "Who would care?"

"Because we're not members of the Empire. In fact, I'm possibly the only person from my planet who even knows the Empire exists. And almost certainly the only one who has ever roamed it. So it is just easier not to have to constantly explain."

"So what is your planet like?"

"Fairly boring compared to many I have been to. Plants do not move much, for one things. And the tallest tree is a puny twelve or so ftarbolets tall. But there is still beauty there unlike anything else I have ever seen. It is worth a visit."

"Are you the only intelligent species there?"

"The only one with a fully-developed symbolic language, or with more than very primitive tool usage. There are several others species that might be able to evolve into what we would call intelligent species if my species were to die off. But we're the only species that has the ability to speak symbolic language as well as using it in an abstract sense. There are several species that can mimic human speech, but they have at best limited understanding of it."

Kir'don was looking bemused. But Tenxis plowed on. "And you have some space travel ability but are not part of Empire? How is this?"

Kir'don interjected, "Because Jed's species, as a whole, has proven themselves incapable of acting responsibly. Yes, Jed, I actually know something about your world, your species, and its place in the galaxy. It is a formal decision that humans are not suitable Empire citizens because too many of your species refuse to take proper responsibility for their actions."

"You're kidding." Jed looked astonished. "I- I guess you're right, at that, but we're not all like that."

"But it is an unfortunate human trait. However, if your people ever develop space flight and/or other technologies to the point that contact is inevitable, they will be made Galactic citizens in order to assure everyone's well-being, but you can understand that a close eye and even closer regulations will be placed on them."

"So how are they not responsible?" asked Tenxis.

Kir'don looked at Jed. "You want to answer that?"

"Well, I know how I'd answer it, but I'd like to hear your take on it."

"First, humans will foul their own environment, even when they can obviously see that they are fouling it. I'm talking on a personal, local level. Second, humans will foul other peoples' environments, usually for a profit, even when they are fully informed that they are causing illness, starvation and even death. Third, humans will do anything, and I mean anything, for money, regardless of how much harm they are causing. Fourth, humans will do anything, and I mean anything, for power, regardless of how much harm they are causing. Fifth, humans will buy products even when they know that the production of the product has highly negative consequences. Sixth, humans will vote for completely inappropriate and irresponsible people as leaders, despite an abundance of evidence of their unfitness. The Galactic Empire has enumeerated eighteen of these points, these are just the first six."

"But humans are not all like that."

"Humans are one of the most highly variable known species in the galaxy in terms of disposition, traits, attitudes and behaviors. There are humans that rank with the best known galactic citizens, but the dangers posed by the worst humans make them poison to civilization. One of the key bizarre features of the human species is that the worst humans often become the most influential and the most directly powerful. That is why the Empire is so wary of them."

Jed sighed. "I probably could not have said it better myself. I was not aware, though, that we were so much more variable than other species."

"That is both your species' strength and your greatest weakness."

Tenxis chimed in. "You seem to know an awfully lot about humans and their culture."

"That, in fact, is my job."

"What about you, Tenxis? What engineering are you studying? Have you studied it before?"

Tenxis looked mildly surprised. "But of course. I have degrees in general engineering, structural engineering, space engineering, environmental engineering, electrical engineering, and computational engineering. I am here to study atomic engineering so that I may become a master engineer."

It was Jed's turn to be surprised. "That is a lot of schooling. How many years did that take?"

"Three years for each degree, although I was doing two at once time for some of the time a total of fifteen years."

"My god, that is almost as long as I have lived!" Jed said. "That is around twenty-five years in Earth terms!"

"But I only have been considered to be an adult for three years," Tenxis said. "Your species must be short-lived."

"Usually around forty to fifty galactic years," Jed said. "I know, we're at a disadvantage there."

"That is still considered a young adult in my culture," Tenxis said.

"And barely an adult in mine," Kir'don added.

"I'm so glad I have gotten to know you two," Tenxis said. "It makes me feel less alone."

"It is always delightful to meet new people," Kir'don said. "Let us stay in touch. In fact, I'll invite you two over for dinner."

They exchanged contact data.

"They are taking a long time to process us," Jed said. "We haven't been paged yet for our release."

"Yes, they do seem to be," Kir'don replied. "Perhaps I can speed it up a little." She left them.

"Please excuse me for having spent so much time with you," Tenxis said. "You and Kir'don are the only people I know here, except for the f'Sislat I was talking to on the ship. But I haven't seen him since we docked. I'm supposed to meet a professor Grlog, but I haven't heard from him yet."

Jed eyed a speckled Ghek wandering up behind Tenxis.

"Tenxis Gree?" the Ghek said, eyeing an electronic pad.

Tenxis twisted towards him. "Yes, that is me," he said. "How did you know it was me?"

The Ghek roamed the room with his eyes. "You're the only Helegite here, I believe."

"Oh. Well, yes."

"Please come with me. We'll finish getting you processed."

Jed continued sitting at his table, nibbling on the remains of his meal and observing the traffic of people around him. Seldom had he seen such a diverse assortment of species in one place. Of course, considering where he was sitting, he was mostly only seeing a) the oxygen breathers, b) the ones who considered eating to be a public activity, c) those who needed to eat on a frequent basis (such as daily), and d) those who could eat the particular food served at that restaurant. Jed mused, well, the people back in the kitchen must have a time of it, trying to keep this all straight and the food separate. After all, some of the dishes he'd eaten would be poisonous to even some of the patrons of the restaurant.

He always enjoyed watching the various species: what they looked like, how they moved, what they did, how they communicated. He had been mostly exposed to the more humanoid species, but had had a brief conversation with two methane-breathing Beeera while journeying between stars. They mostly flew on spaceships occupied only by methane- breathers, but they had been forced to get on an oxygen ship to return home urgently. They were, of course, wearing full suits and headpieces, so Jed couldn't get a perfect picture of them, but they appeared to have six tentacles. They told Jed about their home planet, Beeeara, and about the beauty of their home territory. They were able to communicate that the predominant color was blue, with a deep blue sky and medium-blue plant foliage.

Jed thought it was curious that a messenger had been sent to fetch Tenxis Gree. However, on reflection, given that Tenxis was expected by someone here, it perhaps was not so odd. After another half-hour wait, during which the restaurant staff was hinting that perhaps his table would be better unoccupied for the nonce, he was paged on his zfor'tinla and he followed the directions to the processing center.

The processing center was some distance away, a good fifteen-minute walk. Jed was surprised it was so far, but even a small port like this one handled large volumes of traffic. Most of the hallways he passed through were capacious, some even thirty Earth-feet wide (actually, about 0.9 ftard) just for the passage of people, and there were plenty of people passing. Jed felt impressed that they had computer systems that could keep it all sorted out.

Jed finally reached the center. He checked in on a computer console and sat in a waiting room featuring a strange variety of chairs or other things on which to settle one's body. Fortunately, there were several well-fitted to his configuration and size.

After another quarter-hour, he was called into the center. He was guided to a room inhabited by a R'Urr individual. The being was rather large and vaguely slug-like, although with two arms and two legs. Its skin was mottled. green and blue. Its lips protruded and were more or less prehensile. It was quite covered up by clothing except for the neck and head.

"So you are Vorg?" the person, whom Jed surmised might be female, asked. She or he was one of the ugliest creatures Jed had ever seen. But he'd seen them before, and every encounter enforced that opinion.

"Yes," Jed said, "So far."

The person did not appear amused. But then, who could tell with a R'Urr? He/she said, "I am Turrip Cotr Zeep- Hgao, Orrup. I am here to assess you. Even with customs, even with passports, even with previous searches, we cannot be too careful here at the galactic hub. We must be absolutely certain that every person is here with honorable intent."

"Is there any problem?" Jed asked.

"Not so far. If you do not make one. What is your name?" Jed could see that he/she was looking directly at it on their desk screen.

"Jed Gloorigaboxifla." Fortunate that given names on Vorg'olt were short and varied, in contrast to family names He had even met two other Jeds there, although it was pronounced Zhed, and that's how he pronounced it now..

"Let us see, you have been to how many worlds?"

"Thirty so far."

"Is this the thirtieth?"

"No, this will be the thirty-first. Although I'm not sure if I could call it a world."

"Oh, it is a world within the definition of Galactic Standard. Just not exactly a planet. And what is your purpose in coming here?"

"A combination of curiosity, tourism, and need to earn a living. I'm curious about all the worlds of the Galaxy. I'd visit them all if I could. I work until I can afford to go to the next one."

"So, no fixed base?"

"No, there is the family compound on Vorg'olt. I have been back there several times. I keep in touch."

"With the Gloorigaboxifla clan?"

"Yes, one of them. There are forty-seven defined Gloorigaboxifla clans on Vorg'olt."

"You came in on an itinerant ship. Because of that, we will watch you closely for your initial time here. We cannot be too careful."

"No problem."

"And you do not have a job awaiting you? I can deport you for that."

"I have enough money to live on for a year," Jed said. "So you could consider me a tourist."

"Very well. I will confirm that. We are careful. Do you have a place to live yet?"

"No, and I need to know where the residential sectors for people like me are."

"There are plenty of housing options for a humanoid (the actual word was argik-nerrunda, or like the Nerrung) race such as yourself. And most apartments have built in conversion utilities to adapt to various races. Neighborhoods vary greatly in price range. However, all accommodations must meet adequate basic standards, so even the cheapest is clean, free of vermin, and with everything working. They are always inspected between tenants."

"I'm looking forward to looking around at what is available."

"I will transmit to you the necessary information. I have your number. You've done fine - so far. Good luck and enjoy your visit!"

Chapter Six - Tenxis

Tenxis was processed without any difficulty. It took perhaps a half-hour from beginning to end, which is practically light speed in such a bureaucracy. After processing, he was given permission to call his sponsor, Dobrono. Tenxis did so and sat to await Dobrono's arrival.

Dobrono arrived. "You are an Azzsarra, are you not?" Tenxis asked when they met.

"Yes, I am."

"Isn't it unusual for an Azzsarra to be an engineer?"

"Unusual? Is it? Just because many of our species have artistic ability, you think we cannot have intellectual ability as well?"

Tenxis colored. "I am sorry. I did not mean to insult you."

"You have much to learn of diplomacy, young Tenxis. Let us hope that your engineering aptitude makes up for this lack. Come with me."

They walked down the corridor to the nearest station and rode XXX to another station, where they boarded a transport to the second shell. It took them to a port there, where they went through a brief security screening.

"Oh, new to our world?" asked the screening guard.

"I am indeed," said Tenxis, "and am looking forward to being at the university." From there they took another XXX to the university.

The university, although it could not be seen from ground level, was sprawling, occupying some seventy-two square ftarbolets of surface. However, it was located under an open area of the outer shell, and the university had a second level that was almost entirely greenhouse.

"This is one of four main gates," Dobrono told Tenxis. "This is the largest and busiest of the gates. Here, take this badge and wear it at all times on university ground." Tenxis did as he was told.

And, indeed, there were immense swarms of people passing in and out. Visitors were required to stop for a security screening and to get a visitors pass.

"I did not know they would be so security conscious," commented Tenxis.

"It is mostly because we are on the second shell. If we were on the outer shell, security would be much more relaxed."

They walked for several minutes down a grand causeway to the embellished main entrance to a building and went in. They walked down a bewildering maze of corridors and stopped at a door, where Dobrono looked into a bioscan that then opened the door.

"Now, before we go in, we must key the door to your scan as well," Dobrono said. "Stand here. Wait a moment." Dobrono keyed in a code to a touchpad. "Now, look into the scanner." Tenxis did so and the scanner read him. "Done," said Dobrono. They entered the office.

"This is my office?" Tenxis said, asking the office.

"Indeed," said Dobrono.

"Much larger than I expected."

"The university has more allotted space than most functions," Dobrono said. "However, do not expect your living quarters to be as spacious."

"How do I find my apartment, and how do I find my way back here?"

"We will go to your apartment as soon as you deposit whatever you want to leave in your office. Your office number is 2mnf32212 (The letters, of course, were actually equivalent to the letters in the order of the Galactic alphabet.). The route has been sent to your zfor'tinla, and you can use it to guide you. Your apartment number is 2mnr43991. Your personal belongings should already be there."

Tenxis deposited his school bag and they continued, he being relieved at not having to carry it still."

"When leaving the office, Tenxis, turn right, no left. Your journey would be much longer if you turned left."

And they did so. Then ensued another bewildering maze of corridors and atria until they reached the apartment door.

"I'll never find my way back," Tenxis said.

"No worries. Just pay attention to your zfor'tinla. I will leave you now to settle in."

Dobrono left, and the door closed. Tenxis looked around him. Yes, it was small, but efficient, well-maintained and scrupulously clean. He found the bed and other furniture was configured for Helegites. He wondered if different apartments for different species were interspersed or distributed in blocks. Well, he could ask Dobrono later.

Chapter Seven - Owani'i'i'ia

Owani'i'i'ia whirled around as she realized that a human had seen her, startled at her appearance. He was two ftards away, standing with mouth agape. She realized that her appearance was surprising to an unaware human, not only because of her blue skin and body shape, but also because her clothing provided little in the way of covering.

She quickly sprinted into the woods and ran upriver. She ran for a long time. She ran the entire remainder of the morning, leaping over small side streams, in two cases having to ascend streams to find a place to cross, but she could handle the dense vegetation, downed trees and tangled branches quite easily. At last, after three hours, she stopped, panting.

She looked around. The stream was much smaller now, and there was a large tree fallen across it. She felt brightened. She could cross on a tree with no problem. She could have crossed on a very small tree, and this one was large enough to seem like a highway.

She casually loped across on the tree, then started working her way downriver, staying well in the woods. She kept going the rest of the afternoon until, at dusk, she heard human voices at the periphery of her hearing. She quietly moved towards the sounds until she was close enough to hear them.

Which brought on another problem. The humans spoke neither Galactic Standard nor Ieogdethe'eeh, her native language. She could make human sounds but could neither understand them nor make them understand her, except possibly by sign language.

She watched from behind a dense thicket. There were three men in a camp. Two of the men were laughing at the third, who seemed rather annoyed. She recognized the third man he was the one that had been surprised to see her. She could guess what was going on here. They probably didn't believe his story of seeing a blue dryad flitting through the forest. Just as well.

Unfortunately, she could see that the clearing was on no road, only trails. But she was able to skirt the encampment and find a well-traveled trail going downstream.

She walked that for several more hours, keeping to an edge, close to the trees should she need to climb one. The path was rough but she could follow it, and after some time, it became more well-worn. Then a few other paths joined it, and it became broader. Although the moon was not up yet, she could see reasonably well in this cleared strip in the forest.

Suddenly she realized that the path was no longer a path. It was most definitely a road. A dirt road, but unmistakenly able to bear motor vehicles. She strained her hearing but heard nothing coming. This is both good and bad, she thought. Good because the going is easy, but bad because I do not have much cover and it is harder to get to a tree to climb. But there was only one way to go: forward. The moon eventually came up late into the night, and it was then bright enough for her that she could clearly see colors out in the open, but it was getting late, and she had walked far.

Eventually she was too exhausted to continue and found a likely tree and climbed into its branches and slept for a few hours. She was not disturbed until she was awakened by the sound of a vehicle careening up the roadway. She was not worried about being seen. Her coloring blended in fairly well, she was well-screened by the foliage, and she was willing to bet that people did not look upwards very much.

It was a pickup truck and it disappeared up the road behind her. A few minutes later, she heard a dull, raucous, unpleasant sound. It was ebbing and flowing, and seemed to be some kind of machinery that periodically was under a strain. After about another two hours, the pickup came back down the track, now laden with pieces of wood. Must be for building a fire, she reasoned. With all this wood, they probably heated with it around here.

After the truck passed, she slipped down from the tree and started walking through the woods parallel with the road. Walking on the road during the night was one thing, but she was not foolish enough to do so during broad daylight. She already knew that humans were diurnal, and was counting on that to help her as she traveled.

Several times she had to risk a quick dash into the road to make her way across streams that she could not jump and featured no fallen logs. Fortunately, the road by this time was drained by culverts and had a few rough bridges, so it provided the stream crossings. It was becoming more well-traveled, and showed signs of having once been graveled. Several small side roads had branched off from it, and during the rest of the morning, she had to hide from vehicles traversing the roadway.

By early afternoon, the day had warmed up quite well. She came to a place where many cars were parked in a field. She could hear someone shouting and a crowd roaring off beyond the cars.

Owani'i'i'ia crept through the woods slowly, carefully, paralleling the field. Up ahead was a large tent, and it was full of humans. She was not worried, as there was plenty of cover and she could creep extremely quietly not there was any need for silent moving, with this crowd.

She finally reached a tree well-situated, and climbed carefully. She reached a safe vantage point where she could barely see the action, but where she could not be seen.

She watched. What was going on down there? A man was shouting and wildly gesticulating in front of the crowd,. He seemed to have several helpers who prompted the crowd to respond. The crowd did not seem to need much prompting, though. They were making period noise of their own, repeating a word that Owani'i'i'ia could eventually make out as "Amen!"

She had stumbled upon a Christian evangelical tent revival.

Owani'i'i'ia sat there in the tree and watched the entire rest of the program. Several times, there was singing. Someone worked a small portable organ, and sometimes just a choir sang, and sometimes everyone sang. She was able to make out a few words after her admittedly sparse time spent with the English language program. "Brothers" and "sisters" were quite clearly, and used repeatedly. But the speaker kept using a phrase over and over again that she did not recognized: "Jesus," or "Our Lord Jesus." She wondered what it meant that it seemed so important.

Even though she could recognize few words, she was familiarizing herself with cadences, intonations, and accents. She knew that these were not necessarily the typical, everyday manifestations of speech, but it could prove useful. Obviously, they were doing something that was very important to them.

The revival service finally ended and the crowd filtered over to long tables set up between the tent and the cars, where a great deal of food had been set out. People served themselves and sat at the tables, eating. It was still too close for Owani'i'i'ia to risk moving, but she wished she had some of the food; some of it smelled delicious.

After some time, people starting packing up and drifting away. After a time, there was just one upper-middle-aged couple left. The man said, "Oh, look Elly, someone forgot their dish." He was looking at a glass serving dish on the table.

Elly said, "Barb Rosser said she'd be back for it, so I guess just leave it."

"Well, why would she leave it?"

"Because she had to run home for some domestic emergency. I would take it to her, but I already told here we'd leave it here for her."

Her husband shrugged her shoulders and they left. Owani'i'i'ia left no time in getting to the table and tasting the bizarre looking dish. It was like no other food she'd seen before, a bright, transparent shade of red that appeared to be a gel (liquid suspended in solid), with a number of foreign inclusions, some of which were brown and wrinkled, some of which were small, white and cylindrical, some of which resembled quarter-moons but bright orange, and some of which appeared to be shreds from something also bright orange but a bit more red than the crescents.

The taste was an experience she'd never expected. She couldn't quite define it, but it tasted like it was safe for her to eat. She suspected that it was quite high in protein, and, as well from the taste of it, sugar. She ate it, cleaning up all of what was left in the dish within a couple of minutes. She was a fast eater when necessary.

She quickly walked back to the woods. It was getting late in the day. She climbed into a spruce and worked on English lessons until nightfall.

When the full moon started to rise, it woke up Owani'i'i'ia. She looked around, coast clear, and climbed down and started walking along the edge of the road. At this point, the road was as likely to have a field beside it as woods, and there were always unpleasant thorny bushes at the edges of the fields.

She came to a place where the road joined with another fork, and it became a truly two-lane blacktop road. Another half-hour of walking, and she came to an intersection. The road she was on ended here, at a much larger road. There was a small river on the other side of the larger road. And there was a fair amount of traffic on the larger road. That spelled problem to her.

Owani'i'i'ia backtracked s short distance and sat behind a board fence and started thinking, when she noticed something flapping in the slight breeze, something over behind a house. She looked more closely, and she could see it was clothing,. As she was watching the clothing, a very slender young woman emerged from the house, letting out a small animal as she did so. She stepped off her front porch and called, "Roger! Roger!" several times, and a large four- legged animal came running up to her. She then gazed up at the moon for a minute or two, animal sitting by her. Then she and the beast went back into the house.

Owani'i'i'ia waited until the lights went out in the house, which was only within minutes, then waited another half- hour. She then ran across the road and shimmied over the fence into the back yard. She did not want to use the gate because it might squeak, and she could get over the fence almost as easily as getting through it.

She walked to the clothesline and started examining the cloth hanging there. It was still moist, which was apparently the reason it had been left out. She had observed how all the women were dressed, including the inhabitant of the house, and she accordingly and carefully selected an outfit. The clothing was a bit too large on her, but then, she knew that any human clothing would be large on her but, wait, there were some small, narrow shirts on the farther part of the line. She guessed that those shirts were for children, but they might fit her better. She slipped one on and it did, although a little short..

An aminal started barking in the house, and Owani'i'i'ia took the opportunity to go over the rear fence and run into the woods until the animal finally stopped. She carefully put on the clothing. She could see how it would fit her, and arranged it accordingly. She used her own clothing as padding to bulk it out. She had taken a skirt that had a built-in belt, so she was able to secure it around her midriff, and the blouse just hung from her shoulders. She had a pair of leggings from the line as well, though she had to cinch these in the skirt belt in make them stay up. The blouse and jacket were both long-sleeve, so all that was exposed were her hands and her face and neck.

One thing missing was human shoes. She had her own shoes, but she was aware that they looked very different from human shoes, although her foot shape was similar. But they would have to do. She felt she could risk walking out on the main road, now, since it was at night. And she'd been in the sun enough that her skin had bleached quite a bit, enough that it would take a careful look to see the blue. She mostly looked like a very pasty human by now.

She began walking. After some half-hour, a car slowed as it passed her. It was too dark to see the color of her skin, A man had rolled down the passenger-side window. "Need a ride?" he asked.

"No, I'm fine," she said. "I enjoy the walking." She had progressed enough on her language study to be able to say this and had prepared the phrasing ahead of time. She kept her head averted. Fortunate that her long hair covered her ears.

"On the highway? Oh, come on, let me give you a ride. Hey, and I can show you a good time."

She did not understand all of this. But she was reasonably certain of his intent. She just repeated "No thanks, I enjoy the walking." She knew she had an accent, but that could not be helped.

The man said some words that she could not understand but that were obviously angry, and he squealed his tires pulling out back onto the road. Owani'i'i'ia kept on walking until she came to the outskirts of a town. She could see a dim glow on the horizon that presaged dawn, so she climbed a hill overlooking the road, and found a hidden place to nap.

Chapter Eight - Jed

Jed spent several days taking in the local sights, such as they were. There was a small and rudimentary museum, and Jed had already seen most of the types of things it held. There were live performances that he sat in on, but a couple of them were absolutely incomprehensible to one such as himself. One in particular seemed to be pure chaos, and nothing but. Yet, the crowd applauded in their own ways enthusiastically afterwards. There were parks spaced out through the rim world, and they were frequent. After all, they helped maintain a breathable atmosphere (for the oxygen breathers). Some of the parks were just small places, large enough for a couple of families to have a picnic, but some were much larger, featuring exercise courses. Jed was favorably impressed by them.

He dropped by the hiring center on the third day to see what might be available. Extensive knowledge or experience for the job was often not necessary, as this could be implanted later on. But physical fitness and mental fitness for whatever job were critical. This was, of course, utterly unlike any job market Jed had known on Earth, where these parameters were largely reversed, especially in the area of mental fitness.

After undergoing testing for an hour or so, he was offered seven jobs. Three would start immediately, two would start in several days but within a week, one would start the next month, and the other was uncertain. He decided to take one starting in a few days, as he knew he would be bored if he waited a month or more to start.

The job would be monitoring environmental controls for a sector of the port. Jed had some idea of what it would be like. Of course, computers continually monitored everything, but a personal presence was still felt to be necessary, and he knew that he would wind up with enough to do to occupy his time. He would be working his shift with another monitor.

His next step was to move out of the hotel quarters into an apartment, so he went apartment-hunting. It turned out to be significantly more difficult than getting a job.

The first place he was shown was rather large in its dimensions. In fact, an elephant could have fit into the shower. "These large apartments are for several of the larger races," the agent, A Dargawilagewana, told him. "But few of them ever live on the shell, so we found we built too many of these. It is somewhat higher rent, but I'll make you a special deal so that it is not too much more expensive than a normal apartment." The Dargawilagewana, normally a mauve color, turned bright red whenever it spoke. Jed had no idea of the gender.

"That is all right," Jed said. "But I prefer quarters more sized to my species size."

"It is difficult," the agent said. "There are more people living on the Outer Shell than usual, and apartments are scarce within commuting distance from your job."

But they kept looking. The next day, the agent showed him an apartment that was nice enough, but it would mean a long commute from work and would be a bit more expensive than he'd planned on because it was closer to the high- cost neighborhood. Jed did not feel the need to spend more money than necessary.

The third time turned out to be the charm. It was only forty-six ftarbolets from Jed's work, and the price was very reasonable - and it was furnished. "But it is old quarters that have not been renovated in many years," the agent said. "The screen is old, the fixtures are old, the furniture is ancient, and there is wear and tear on the surfaces."

"That is all right," Jed said. "Appearances are not important. I doubt if I can do better. I'll take it."

So Jed moved into the apartment at 2mkf Foltro Way 3396.

He found the first night sleeping that there was a peculiar odor in the apartment, somewhere between oranges and motor oil. It seemed to pervade the air throughout rather than coming from any one spot. But it was very faint and he decided he could live with it.

In the meantime, when he hadn't been meeting the agent, Jed kept exploring. He went to the only significant park nearby, one of medium size, featuring a hodgepodge of plantings from all over the galaxy. He went to an amusement arcade that would have made any Earth-bound gaming teenager drool, especially with all the virtual reality games. But most of all, Jed learned the physical territory, and started learning it well. It would take months to really know it, but he had a good start.

On the day designated, Jed arrived at his jobsite a half-hour before he was scheduled. While he had to wait most of that time in a waiting room, he was able to talk with other people there.

"What are you in for?" asked a creature sitting next to him. The creature made a noise that might have been a chuckle. It obviously meant the same humorous implication as it meant in English. It was very humanoid, but very thick in the midsection with a large head and eyes wide-set in protruding pockets, similar to an Earth chameleon, but these were oriented mainly forward. It was wearing a dull purplish-brown one-piece covering that looked much like fake leather.

"I'm starting in environmental monitoring," Jed said.

"That is good. That is a much better job than I'm here for."

"Which is?"

"I'm to be a valve repair person, in the air distribution system. Not a preferred job for one of my race, but it will pay the bills. I hope. Air is not free, you know."

"What species are you?" Jed asked.

"I'm an Azzsarra."

"My name is Jed," he said, holding out his hand uncertainly. "You're the first Azzsarra I have met. But I know you're one of the prime races."

The Azzsarra took his hand. "I'm Ablaattu," it said. Jed still had no notion what gender Ablaattu might be. It was difficult to tell with Azzsarras, often even for other Azzsaras.

"How long have you been here on the Outer Shell?" Jed asked.

"Too long. I have lived here for seven years, trying to establish myself as a form artist. But I have failed to catch anyone's eye with my creations, so they are now requiring me to do this kind of work."

"Does that bother you much?"

The alien did something with its hands that Jed thought was a shrug. "No, it was time. I delayed it too much already. I'm willing to work. I just had hopes that weren't practical."

"We have a term where I come from for people who are unable to sell their creations," Jed said. "We call them starving artists."

"Well, I have done a little starving. It is a skill, you know. I have gotten quite good at it. I have decided to put such a skill on hold for a while"

The door opened and an Ossbonal came through. "Time for you two to start," he (it was obvious with Ossbonals) said. "I'm the personnel manager here. Sarok Fain is the name. And you are . . . Jed Gloorigaboxifla, a Vorg, here for environmental monitoring, and Ablaattu T'eh, an Azzsarras, here for valve repair."

"Right," they both said. Fain beckoned them. They arose and followed him.

Ablaattu said under his breath, "I guess I'm not the only one forced to take work I'm not really suited for."

They walked down several corridors. "Here is where you are working, Jed." He opened a door. "Ghugg, here, is responsible for your training." Jed entered and shook hands well, hand with pseudopod and the door closed behind him.

Ghugg was a Ghek; Jed had the impression that Gheks didn't make much of an impression, and Ghugg seemed to confirm that thought.

"Here is our control center," Ghugg said. He motioned at the sweep of display screens and controls. "As you can see, there are seventeen stations here. It takes almost that many controllers to do the job properly. This is your place here, next to my workstation. You have full access to displays and monitoring data, but your controls are disabled as yet until you learn the job well."

Jed had just completed his fifth day of work under the tutelage of Ghugg when, while walking home to his apartment, he received a message. It was from Kir'don, the B'enk, inviting him to supper the next day in her chambers. He smiled, glad to have an invitation.

He arrived at his own door and palmed the door plate to enter. Inside the tiny space, he stretched out to relax before his evening activities. He looked around. If he lay on the floor across the room with his arms stretched out beyond his head, he could almost touch both walls. The bed folded into the wall during the day. The kitchen area was rudimentary and tiny. The only brighter spot was the bathroom, which, while not lavish, was all any reasonable person could want.

He had glimpsed other such apartments while walking around, and had visited several when looking for his own. They were all tiny, making maximal use of minimal space. He wondered how B'enk could possibly serve a dinner in her apartment. He supposed it must be bigger. After all, with her great age she must be financially comfortable by now.

Jed got up and changed his clothing went to the small exercise park a little farther from his apartment than the exotics park. There he ran laps for an hour. Running through the hallways was frowned upon, so he had to walk there and back. But walking there at a brisk pace was a good warmup, while walking back became a cooldown. After his run, he returned home and showered and watched some ridiculous drama on the screen which, as usual, took up a significant part of the wall. It was almost too large to take in within his tiny space.

The next evening after work, however, he came home and showered immediately and put on his best clothing. And his best walking shoes. He would have to take the transporter line some distance, which was some distance from his apartment, and then walk some distance once he arrived there.

He had ridden the transporter a number of times before. The cars were small and windowless. Each one carried perhaps a dozen people. He supposed that the small size was a function of it beng in the boonies of the outer shell, as it were. Surely there were much larger transporters elsewhere on the shell. And he noticed that the individual cars were equipped to hold pressure in a vacuum. That worried him a little. But the transporter got him there, close to his target.

He arrived at the specified station and stepped out. Looking around, he realized that this location was substantially classier than where he lived. The areas he controlled came up somewhat short of this area, which was on another control system.

Walking through the halls, he observed that people here dressed much better and were generally cleaner than in his envfirons. Since his neighborhood was mostly working people, including many doing scut jobs, they were inevitably less than pristine returning home after work. It could make for an interesting assortment of smells wherever he was. However, here all he could smell was what seemed to be a very faint floral fragrance.

He arrived at Kir'don's door. She had a nameplate, from which Jed learned her family name: Tronch. He preseed the notif button and the door slid open.

"Welcome, come in," Kir'don beamed as she took him by the hand. He looked around. Now this was in fact a better way to live. It was as large as a moderate-sized flat on Earth, with an abundance of artwork on the walls. He could not see any screens anywhere, but there were draperies and wall hangings that were certainly covering them up, as they were as ubiquitous as anything could be in the Empire.

"Welcome to my place," she said as she guided him through the foyer into the living room. Already there were Tenxis Gree, whom Jed was glad to see again, and four other people including, curiously, the Rr'Urr who had interviewed him for entry. His eyes slightly widened in surprise (just like a human) when seeing Jed enter the room.

"Hello,"Tenxis, as he got up and grabbed Jed's hand and shook it. "It is so good to see you!"

"Now, dear, let me make introductions all around," said Kir'don.

"Oh," said Tenxis, turning a slight shade of orange. "Sorry." He sat.

"Everyone, this is Jed Gloorigaboxifla, a Vorg. Jed, you know Tenxis, and I believe that you've met Turrip Cotr Zeep- Hgao, Orrup. You can call him Turrip, Orrup. He works for immigration and entry. And this is Derrig Kloh, a Nerrung. She has a diplomatic job with the Empire.. You can call her just Derrig. Here is Rohah Yoorada Hoorwatha, a Lemorrin. Friends call her Royoho. She is a government courier. And Zwoothbayadinashimanyagoan, a Grain. He prefers to be called by his full name like other Grains but since few people can ever remember Grainog's full names and it takes too long in conversation, people generally just call him Zwoothbay. He coordinates imports to the second shell. And this is G"i" Hrrrf, a Kzzg. But you can call her "Kik." She is an analyst for the Empire's military and knows a great deal about weapons systems. She knows that most species have difficulty with the clicking sound."

Jed was astonished that she remembered his full assumed name so casually. And that she could rattle off the name of the Grain individual as if she were saying it all her life. But most of all, he was bemused that she had known that he had been intereviewed by Turrip, Orrup. There were surely at least dozens of interviewers even in that one location. The fact that it was a smaller spaceport did not make it small.

"Let me show you the rest of the place, Jed," Kir'don said. "Come with me."

She took him into the kitchen which was not large but well-equipped with adequate work space. With modern food synthesizers, this was an unusually well-configured kitchen. Once in there, she whispered to him "Turrip, Orrup is neither a he nor a she. Its race is fully hermaphroditic. Fascinating, really. When they meet to mate, neither one knows who will function as a male and a female. Once their reproductive parts touch, their bodies decide for them. Fascintating, isn't it?"

Jed raised his eyebrows. "First hermaphrotic race I have ever seen. And Derrig are not the Nerrungs the ruling race? She is the first one I have ever seen."

"Oh yes," Kir'don said, guiding him into the dining room. "Here is the dining room." It was well-set for six, ready for the meal. "But they are not all elite, many are just ordinary citizens doing ordinary citizen things.

"And this is the bedroom," she continued. "And here is a guest bedroom. That is a dear luxury!" She just opened their doors so that he could look in. Like the rest of the apartment, the bedrooms were as neat and orderly as any obsessive-compulsize Earthling could have made them.

"And of course, the bathroom facilities if you need them."

They returned to the living room. They interrupted a conversation apparently about Empirical succession when they entered.

"And what do you do, Jed?" asked G"i".

"I have done many different things," he said. "Right now I'm monitoring environmental controls. A boring job, but it must be done. I have also been a farmer, an arboricvulturist, a ship's maintenace crew member, a metal worker, and several other things."

"You must be multi-talented to do all those things," Tenxis said. "You should be able to get a much better job."

"And Kik, what do you do? I know that Turrip, Orrup is an interviewer and that Tenxis is an engineering student, since I have met both of them before."

"I am at the university, as is Tenxis," she said. "I am a professor of species studies there." She was substantially built, with wide hips but the rest of her body was narrower. Jed could see that her arms were somewhat muscular. Her skin tone was a delicate lilac that shaded into a purple-brown in some areas.

"And, Derrig, what do you do?"

"I am a field inspector for the Imperial court. I go to planets to monitor their compliance with rules of Empire for governing citizens."

"And while some people in such a role might put on airs, Derrig is as down-to-planet as they come. Are we ready to eat?" Kir'don asked.

They went into the dining room and sat. Kir'don had already filled the beverage glasses with a mild alcoholic beverage brewed on her home planet. Some things, it appears, are almost universal across the galaxy.

"Let us have a toast," she said, picking up her glass.

"Here is to a primitive backwater planet that most people have never heard of Earth!"

Chapter Nine - Trobe ^^D14-90

Trobe was entering a new phase of his training. This roughly coincided with his maturing sexually. Unlike many other species, the Nerrung appeared so asexual when young that it took a practiced eye to tell boy from girl and even then it was an educated guess. However, there came a time of sexual metamorphosis, and it was a profound experience. Trobe knew something about it; he knew that one day he would go to sleep as always, without even knowing what sexual feelings were, and then, on next awakening, he would be a full-fledged male. It was a complete change, occurring entirely during one sleep cycle, although that sleep cycle lasted fifty-seven days. The only sure indication of the imminence of this event was a ravenous hunger for weeks beforehand accompanied by some tenderness and odd bumps in parts ot the body.

This would signal the new training phase. A child could only be trained so far; it took adult muscles and nerves to complete the physical part of the training, and an adult mind to complete the mental part.

But Trobe was unprepared for the reality. He suddenly found himself eating and drinking everything in sight, and then some, gaining so much weight that he became pudgy, and wanting to find a place to hide himself away from others. He developed a few bulges where he'd never had them before. He went to sleep a few weeks later. He awoke fifty-seven days later feeling exhausted, achy, famished, very thin, and irritable. He roared for breakfast, and jumped at the full throat of his own voice. His throat hurt from this first exertion as an adult.

Without looking, he gingerly probed his own body and found shapes that hadn't ever been there before. His entire shape was different. The differences would appear more subtle to the untrained observer, but were immense to Trobe. He groaned.

A'Khor came in the room. "Lie still," he said. "You need to rest up today. Do not even try to get up until you absolutely must. And you must eat--much. Your body has overspent its energy budget the past so many days."

He motioned out the door, and a servant brought in a huge cart laden with food. Trobe needed no encouragement, and within the half-hour the feast was obliterated. And Trobe immediately disappeared into his waste chamber for another half-hour. He emerged feeling both energized and exhausted.

"In a few days," A'Khor said. "We begin the next phase of your training. For the next few weeks, we will be doing intensive physical training. In the meantime, this is Prorta, a concubine for your pleasure. You will find her indispensible in the near future. She will live here with you"

Prorta came in and stood there. She was a slender, rather small female Nerrung. "Hello," she said, shyly.

Trobe looked at her. "Then if you are my concubine, you must be a raipti."

"Yes, I am," she said. "I was born without the capacity to have children.

Trobe knew that it was customary for the Empress and Emporer to reproduce, but to have at least one concubine each for recreational sex.

A'khor left the room, closing the door behind him. Prorta removed her robe and stood there naked before hiim. Trobe felt a stirring he'd never felt before. A Nerrung male's organs are never visible unless excited, and he felt pressure in his groin. It seemed the only way to relieve some of the pressure was to take off his clothing.

He knew about sex academically, but this was so, so different than anything he'd imagined. He stared in astonishment at the organ now jutting from his body. He's never seen it before.

Prorta came to the bed and lay next to him. Trobe could not help himself. He rolled onto her and into her without even trying.

They consumed each other's passions for over three hours.

Afterwards, Trobe looked at her lying there. She was very attractive. He felt tender towards her. "Do you mind being a concubine?" he asked.

"No, not at all. In fact, the last three hours are the best three hours I have had in my life. I knew as a young child that I would not be able to have children. When I was becoming of age, I went to a meeting with my parents where I was told about this possible role. I chose it. I knew that someone in your position would be attractive as a male, and you are."

"You're more than attractive," replied Trobe. He felt blood rising in him. "You're incredible."

And he suddently felt the need to enter her one more time, and she was willing.

Later, Trobe was talking it over with A'khor. "So I can see her whenever I want?" he asked.

"For the next month, your most important job is to spend time with her, get to know her, and to vent your sexual impulse," A'khor said. "It is a peculiarity of your species that you are desperate for sex after metamorphosis. After another month, you'll be more back to normal. Enjoy yourself. I will be away much of that time on various business."

The first few days, Trobe's sessions with Prorta took up most of his waking hours. She was willing beyond anything he'd though possible. However, she explained that she had just gone through the change herself, so she was in the same boat sexually as Trobe. Gradually, over the next few weeks, their sexual need diminished to the point where once a day was sufficient. A'khor returned to start Trobe's adult training.

The training started slowly, to allow for Trobe's need to recover from his extended "vacation," but quickly accelerated. By the fifth day after A'khor came back, he was easily handling a sword with just one hand that he could have barely lifted with both hands before the change.

And the workouts with A'Khor were profoundly different. Before, it had been completely a matter of his flailing away at his moves against what was, for all intents and purposes, an immovable object which also exerted irresistable force. Now, it was apparent that A'Khor at least was forced to pay attention to the workout. Trobe still knew he had absolutely no chance of besting A'Khor, now or ever, but he could see that his tutor at least was appreciating his improvement in skills.

His weight training was similarly enhanced, and his aerobic endurance was easily tripled after a few short weeks. Trobe had always felt robust as a child, but he had had no idea of what robustness really was, as he was now.

His mental work was also stepped up. Already having been schooled in five languages of the Empire as well as Empirical itself, he began learning an additional nine languages. He received intensive schooling in all levels of fundamental physics, and advanced into the highest levels of calculus. He studied in further depth the folkways of every known intelligent race in the galaxy, and studied further the astronomy of all the surrounding galaxies. In short, the mental training was several orders of magnitude beyond simply intensive.

One area of training that was an utter failure, however, was swimming. The Nerrung simply weren't swimmers, and few indeed were the individuals who could overcome their natural disabilities and disinclinations in this regard. Trobe, brilliant, strong, and quick even for one of the Nerrung, was no exception in this area. After a dozen dismally failing attempts, the swimming lessons were abandoned.

Trobe also received training in social skills. Art, cooking, even sewing were included. Trobe had been chosen in part for his capacity to absorb knowledge and develop skills, and nothing was omitted.

The training went on and on. For the first year after his change, Trobe was occupied every waking minute in intense training, and for the next two years he had little time to himself. But, at last, after three years of this intensive training, it at last slacked off. Ironically, now that Trobe had a bit of spare time, he felt a loss, a loss of the structure and the rigor of his life.

He expressed this to A'Khor.

"That is a natural feeling, Trobe. But just as you learned to live an intensive life, you must also now learn to live once more the life of an individual, a person who does more than just what he is required to do. You must take some of your own initiative and find some of your own interests in life. You must be your own person."

Trobe started taking more walks, spending more time on his computer finding out about the things that weren't part of his education, and watching some more entertainment. And, after a few months, he found that he was irresistibly drawn to rare and peculiar plant species, and he started growing them. Fortunately, he had the Galactic Botanical Gardens at least partially at his disposal.

Chapter Ten - Tenxis

Tenxis quickly adapted to the schedules and customs of the University. By the third day, he knew the locations of everything important: his apartment, his office, the classrooms, Dobrono's office, several other offices, the nearest cafeteria to each, and the small areas containing shops.

Tenxis' tuition, other basic educational expenses, room and board were covered by his grant. He also received a small stipend over and above that for incidentals. Fortunately, he was a careful creature with money. He foresaw no financial difficulties here as long as he was a very good student. And more fortunately, he had always been a very good student and saw no difficulties in continuing that trend.

He was about to become very intimate with the quantum world. Of course, he already was versed in it, but he was going to be far more familiar by the time he was through. He knew that master engineers were rare, and commanded high salaries.

The coursework began with a survey of all known particles and atomic forces. This occupied the first two months. Mesons alone took nine days, and that was only a survey. They covered the study of the history of particle discovery, means of generating, means of control, particle interactions, and everything else currently known about them. The remainder of the year would be devoted primarily to experimental lab work.

Along the way, Tenxis discovered many parts of the University. Since it covered a bit more than thirty-eight bilotras, a bilotra being a square ftarbolet, there were many exploring opportunities, even given off-limits areas. In this he was much like Jed and Kilyawa, all being deeply curious about their surroundings.

On one of his weekend days off, Tenxis walked all the way to the north boundary of the University. His apartment was about midway in the southeast sector. He knew when he had encountered the border, as it had a wall surface that was different from any other walls in the compound.

He was in a residential sector, in the general area of the economics school, on Helegratha Street. The passageway, named Wootrah Way, went to the wall some seven ftarbolets past the last door and then just ended. The extra space had not been converted to building space or to garden or rest area. It was just a useless bit of corridor.

Apparently, this bit of the wall was newer than the rest of the local construction. This must mean that either the University had gotten smaller when this wall was placed cutting off former space, or it had just been expanded into space that had already been used for something else. Tenxis knew that the University would not indefinitely waste this much space. All space within the compound had a purpose.

The zfor'tinla was a bit vague on some of the university boundaries, including this one. Tenxis looked around for a place that the wall may have formerly been, farther in, and could find no trace. Of course, that did not necessarily mean anything since the location would have received rebuilding or cosmetic work to make it not apparent.

Tenxis also looked around for any unusual buildings or functions, but all looked entirely normal. In fact, it looked much like his apartment area. If he didn't know where he was, he could have thought that he was in Sector 2mnr - instead of Sector 2mnh.

It was getting on through the day, and another day of classes lay ahead the next day. Tenxis sighed and began his return. He knew, however, that the next weekend he would be trying to find the same corridor from the other side.

Chapter Eleven - Owani'i'i'ia

Owani'i'i'ia alternately slept, and sat and observed traffic as she listened to her English lessons. She felt she could hold a rudimentary conversation now.

Below the hill on which she sat was a house by itself in a hollow, a nice-looking house although not large. She had noticed that nobody had been to the house all day or had come out from it. She decided to take a look at dusk.

Sun finally down, she quietly made her way to the house. No dog barked. There were a couple of lights on, but they had been on all day. She walked around it and saw that it looked like someone had been away for at least several days. She gently tested the doors, then window after window. She finally found a small bathroom window that she could slip through, although an adult human would find it difficult.

She explored the house. All seemed in order, but obviously whoever lived here was away for a while. The electricity was on, as there were lights on the range and microwave. She opened a tap and water came out.

She walked into what appeared to be the master bedroom and took a close look at what was on top of the bureau, then at what was inside it. Nothing helpful there except some jewelry, but apparently, at least, a woman lived here, whomever else might be inhabiting the house. She looked through the drawers. That produced little of interest, although she was intrigued by some of the human undergarments. She did find some black cotton gloves in one drawer that fit well enough, which took care of her hands.

Owani'i'i'ia went into the bathroom. Here she struck gold. Several types of makeup, and in sufficient quantities to cover her face. The moon was up far enough that it was shining through the window, so she had plenty of light in which to paint her face. She used the full range of makeup that she'd seen on the women she'd observed, or at least as best she could understand its use.

At last, fairly satisfied with the result, she looked for money. She found some. It wasn't much, around fifty dollars, but it would prove greatly useful. She also took a purse to hold everything she had.

She walked from the house back to the highway, and walked towards town. It was not a large town, but it still had a retail strip along the highway. She looked at the stores and tried to figure out how to find what she wanted.

Finally, choosing the largest store, she walked into it. She was greeted brightly by a woman, and she nodded to her and walked on. The woman called after her, "I like your shoes. They are really different!" Owani'i'i'ia turned and bobbed her head and waved a little wave and walked on. Absolutely nobody else was paying her any attention. She saw some rather strangely-dressed and strange-looking humans in the store, and nobody was paying any attention to them, either.

She found the section she was looking for. Before leaving the house, she had memorized the printed terms for what she wanted.

Owani'i'i'ia took them up to the checkout counter. The woman behind the counter never even looked at her as she bagged the items and announced the price. She paid, picked up the bag, and left the store.

Now, next, how was she going to travel on from there? And what would she do for future money?

Money had never been plentiful in Owani'i'i'ia's life. In fact, it had been rather scarce. She had grown up in a poor sector of a poor planet, Ieog'een, and, while she did not comprehend the pinch of poverty as a child, she knew it fully once she left home and started working on another planet. Her neighborhood was on the fringe of an area that had been terribly scarred by past wars. She knew all about those wars. The hive races, hundreds of years back, then the Lorgat had come, and conquered the planet on their way to DreeLemorrag, the Lemorra.homeworld. The conquest had been at considerable cost, as the Ieog'eeh, her people, did not appreciate the aggression against them. In the end, both the people and the planet had been severely damaged. Two-thirds of the population had been killed, and their was an undercurrent of smoldering resentment towards the Lorgat even now, one hundred forty years later.

But that didn't excuse acting unethically towards other people, especially ones that had had nothing to do with her ancestral history. Owani'i'i'ia felt guilty about taking the things she had, but it was a matter, after all, of her survival. And whatever else she was, she was a survivor. That was something very important she'd learned as a child in a hardscrabble existence.

Owani'i'i'ia escaped the planet by enlisting in the Galactic force, where she served for three years, then was able to get a job following her release. She sent money home to her folks regularly, but felt little inclination to go back there.

When she had some money saved up, she traveled. She had gotten interested in traveling in the Galactic force, and was eager to keep it up. She had visited seven new planets when disaster struck.

She had gained passage on a Grain ship because she'd found out it was going to a little-known, backwater planet. Arriving there, she discovered that her bank account had been hacked and all the money stolen. Of course, this wasn't her home bank account, but a traveling account that had been transferred to the Grain shipboard computer, which was the usual practice.

When she found the theft, she immediately complained to the ship's administration. The first mate had listened to her, then had her check her bank account so that he could see. When he saw there was no money left, he announced to her that they could no longer carry her,. They would drop her off on Planet Dvornika, but no farther. She had argued and pleaded with him, but the decision was firm. She had heard before that some Grain were very unscrupulous, but had never thought that she would be their direct victim.

But victim she had become, and that was how she had landed on Earth.

Chapter Twelve - Jed

"Oh, do not worry, Jed, everyone here knows your secret already," Kir'don said. "They can be trusted. We have a small group including those of us here today that have been working together behind the scenes. They can be trusted to keep their mouths shut."

"Working behind the scenes," Jed asked dumbly.

"It is hard to explain. There are conflicts between cultures all the time. And there are conflicts between cultures and Empire. Someone must monitor the trends there. That is what we do. There are official public people charged with doing this, but, as with the observation of subatomic particles, the simple act of observing by one of them can change their behavior. Because those we observe are unaware of what we are, we can learn much more than the officials can. But we are not part of officialdom. The presumption is that they do not even know we exist. I'm part of it largely because of my depth and breadth of knowledge of galactic species and cultures. Did you know that I can communicate in fifty-three languages?"

"But didn't you just meet Tenxis on the ship?"

"Indeed I did. We have quietly assumed him into the group, and now it is your turn. Come, let us sit and serve ourselves."

"What will be asked of me if I am part of this?"

""Little as of yet," G"i" told him, passing a very green pebbly dish that reminded Jed of Earth peas. "We ask you to keep your eyes and your ears and your nose open you people of Dvornika do have a sense of smell, as I recall and look for anything unusual or people acting oddly.

"She doesn't mean odd as in eccentric," Turrip, Orrup said, spooning out a brown concoction that looked like some kind of thick stew. "Odd as in out of the norm for themselves."

"Yes, I figured," Jed said. "But why me? I'm nobody special, I'm not even one of the galactic races."

"Because you're smart, you know how to blend in, and, and this is very important, you're not from a Galactic Empire planet meaning you presumably do not have a stake in any subterfuge. And I do not get the feeling that you do, or I would not have included you here."

"Well, I guess. I mean, the Empire seems to be working well for people. And it is been held together so many years, thousands of years."

"Well, consider this," said Kir'don. "Here, Jed, pass on the forakas while we're talking." They appeared to be something like bread, about the size of a hushpuppy but very light with a thin fragrant liquid at the core. "If there was a struggle for power, millions of people would probably die, and the Empire would be unstable and fragmented. We'd be easy prey for the hive races, and more, the Empire's races would be at each other's throats. And whoever was the first to grab the reserved technology would be able to lord it over those of us without it."

"Reserved technology?"

"Yes," said Derrig. "The Empire always has a reserve of technology, feeding it to the Empirical species a little at a time, and evenly. The thing about Empire is that all the planets, all the species, get equivalent treatment. Nobody is favored over another, unless you count my species or the Khar'/ai."

"It is one of the eight principles of Empire," Turrip, Orrup said. "These principles were carefully worked out over hundreds of years. The first, which rests upon all the rest, is the Pax Impirica we're all at peace with one another, though minor squabbles do flare up. Then, other than the technology, are the enabled transportation and communication. Ever wonder how that works? It works because Empire makes it work, It is infrastructure that must serve the whole galaxy. Or our part of it.

"Then there are the personal rights and liberties reserved for all galactic citizens. The Empire often has difficulty with this one, and may bend the rules to accommodate various cultures, but anyone can sue in Empirical court and be fairly heard.

"And, of course common defense. We've not seen an enemy for centuries, but we know for certain that they are out there, because they practically obliterated many of our species. We call them the hive species.

"And banking and taxation, or, as the Empire calls it, minimal tribute, round it all out. The banking is critical for avoiding local economic anomalies, at least in an extreme form."

Jed asked, "I have never been able to find out this thing about the hive species. People mutter it under their breath, something like May the Empire save me from the hive species, but nobody wants to talk about it. Supposedly they are the only real threat to Empire."

Dzrig held her arm up. "I can probably answer that better than anyone here except Kir'don. The hive species are beings who are all workers serving a central power. There is not freedom for them, only survival, growth and conquest. But they could not act freely, they are not mentally equipped to do so. We have never figured out how they communicate, but they do somehow, and any one of them will willingly and immediately sacrifice themselves for the hive. They are seemingly innumerable, and exceedingly dangerous. Each one does not care about dying because they are not individuals. Each one is simply a tool for the central power. They attacked the Empire over a seven-hundred year period. We must maintain a strong defense to guard against them ever returning."

"And what is the central power?"

"We do not know. We do not know if it is a special one of them that can think at a level where the workers and soldiers cannot, or if it is something else entirely. Mind you, there are many of these, but they all work in concert. Each space vessel centers on one of their powers, but we've never been able to take a spacecraft intact to figure it out. These craft are immense, with tens of thousands of beings living in each one."

"Why do you not just blow up their world? Or why do they not blow up yours?"

"They do not want to blow anything up because they desperately want it for living and breeding space. And we've never been able to find their home planets. The waves of invasion came so constantly that we were penned in, and since then, we have explored much of the rest of the galaxy and have not found them. We are speculating that something may have happened, such as a disease, that could have caused a catastrophic population collapse. But it would have had to happen on at least several worlds, as we're pretty sure that they have colonized an area of the galaxy."

"But you still worry about them."

"Oh, yes," Tenxis interjected. "Everyone worries about them. Everyone has ancestors killed by them, and usually eaten. They regard us only as meat."

"So you cannot find them? Surely it is just a matter of systematically searching the galaxy."

"We so far have only been able to search and inventory less than half the galaxy."

"What we're most worried about," said Derrig, "is that they may already be attacking us in subtle ways. Some things do not add up. They may have gotten much wiser about how to deal with us, and that could be a fatal threat to us."

Jed fell silent, thinking. Kir'don said, brightly, "Well, this Earth revelation will take some time to sink in and we will take time as we go to give you training, but not tonight. Let us retire to the living room."

When they were again seated, she continued, "Let me tell you about the planet of Ziridin, where the Ziridini species has seven genders."

"Seven? How is that possible?" Tenxis asked.

"They are differentiated genetically between male and female as many species are. In their case, there are actually two chromosomes for maleness, and all three gender chromosomes are codominant. The females are usually heterozygous and the males may be homozygous or heterozygous. The heterozygous males have one of each of the male chromosomes and are the dominant species in terms of everyday work and in reproduction. The homozygous males on the one chromosome are completely asexual, but have heightened intelligence and pretty much run things. The homozygous males on the other chromosome are highly sexual but rarely fertile, and they are of lower intelligence, and make up most of the more menial workers. The females, of course, have a female chromosome and either one of the male chromosomes. They are all fertile, but there are more subtle differences between them. Generally, a female with the smart chromosome is the head of the household."

"And that is five," Jed said. "What about the other two?"

"Also both female. One is a female that is homozygous, quite rare, and one is a female that is haploid, even rarer. The haploids are sort of ethereal creatures that are not fertile. The homozygous females represent the height of sexual attractiveness for their species and are extremely fertile. These females only occur from very rare parthenogenic pregnancies."

G"i" made some sort of face, indicating Jed knew not what. She said, "Yes, our galaxy is full of many various and strange life forms. I knew this species existed on a non-Empire world, but didn't know how it all worked."

Jed said, "I'm always learning. I'm always eager to learn. There is so much to know."

"And that is one of the reasons we selected you," G"i" said.

As Jed made his way home, he thought about what they had discussed at dinner. It felt so strange but then, he had been experiencing strangeness upon strangeness for years now, and the shock of it had somewhat worn off. When you're faced with a sentient creature and you cannot even tell where its face is, that's pretty strange.

He made his way back to the transporter line and rode back. On the way, he scrutinized the various species around him, and it was quite a mix. He wondered how he would ever know if one of them was doing anything strange. He had so much to learn. He took out a notepad and a writing implement and began sketching the various species with which he wasn't familiar.

After that, Jed kept sketching in various species. He started eating lunch with a fellow employee name A'a'arokh, who, Jed learned, was a Lemorrin. A'a'arokh seemed familiar with many species, and he soon had named every species eating lunch with them every day at the cafeteria, and was even able to tell Jed something about the backgrounds of some of them. Jed listened eagerly to add to his store of knowledge.

One day he was sitting at lunch with A'a'arokh, eating something somewhat analogous to an Earth sandwich, when he asked, " A'a'arokh, where does all this food come from?"

"Right here on the Outer Shell, most of it. There are vast greenhouse areas, some not too far away, perhaps within a thousand ftarbolets. They say they grow food from seventeen different worlds there. Some of it is hydroponic, but most of it is in real soil. It took millennia, they say, to create all that soil, not mention building the greenhouses. I have been in a couple of them, and it is pretty fascinating."

"Are not those really vulnerable to being broken by space junk?"

"Not really. The transparent substance they use to roof them is incredibly strong. They are used it for colonies on airless worlds, and it is worked fine. I have never heard of a greenhouse being breached.

"Of course, those greenhouses also generate much of the oxygen that we breathe, and the air processing units do the rest."

"I'd like to see one of those some day."

"Perhaps I could take you some off-day."

"I'd like that."

Jed's workday was boring, there wads no other way to describe it, but he kept on top of the job. The lunches with A'a'arokh helped alleviate the tedium, but still, he was doing what someone had ot do. He never lunched with Ghugg, since one of them had to be on duty at all times. Since he was monitoring a large area on the Outer Shell, Jed was able to familiarize himself rather quickly with the basic layout, and then, combined with taking many long walks in the evenings, was able to learn the local geography in great depth, including possible hiding places just in case.

He was also able to learn about the geography of other surrounding areas by doing research on his screen. The whole layout of the Outer Shell was available, although some areas were obviously made off-limits, both physically and virtually, to a worker like him.

Chapter Thirteen - Kilyawa ^^Day 40

Kilyawa had now studied in some depth twenty-two of the galactic species, and was familiar on some level with all sentient levels of being. She was well aware that, as Empress, an important duty was diplomacy. She felt determined to be the most skilled diplomat in Imperial history.

Having studied the Ieog'eeh in some depth, she now was working on learning about the people of a planet called Dvornika. The people of this planet were known to be extraordinarily emotionally volative, often violent, and irresponsible. The people themselves called their planet Earth, or la terre, or das Mund, and a variety of other names. There was another peculiarity of the planet: the bewildering variety of language spoken. In most cases, Empire planets only spoke a single language, and the most languages that any other planet of which Kilyawa was aware was seventeen. There were hundreds of languages on Dvornika. That alone was confusing. And it seemed that for every language, there was a different culture. In fact, there was a variety of cultures within each language.

"This is the most difficult planet to learn," she told Deka.

"Indeed, it probably is," Deka said. "The Dvornika people are a very complex species. They are regarded as potentially very dangerous to Empire."

"So they are kept in isolation."

"Yes, but they do have visitors from the Empire. The Grain are particularly fond of playing practical jokes on them. So there are some people on Dvornika who believe in alien life forms almost as a form of religion, although most do not."

"This is such a minor planet. But they do seem to be rich in resources."

"Indeed, one of the richest planets in the Galaxy in that way. But they seem determined to overpopulate their planet until they all die."

"Why? Why would a species be so suicidal?"

"They do not carefully consider the consequences of what they do."

"I'm tired of looking at this planet Dvornak. It disturbs me."

"Fine, let us move on to Dormo. This is a very isolated planet, unaware of Empire, and far out on the fringes of what is known in the galaxy.. The Dormak live to be at least three thousand years old, possibly much older. They have the greatest longevity of any known sentient species in the universe, However, they have never left their planet. They have a semi-aquatic existence. Their technology is only level seven. They have powered transportation, steam that is, and it is rather primitive. They do have a very highly developed language and mythology. However, the planet is far below its carrying capacity. It is not that they deny technology, but are very careful about adopting it and using it. Dormo could be a prime target for the hive races, and the Empire keeps special sentinels nearby for that purpose. While their planet may have a larger ratio of ocean to land than the hive races may like, the land is still very attractive, with plenty of sunshine but little in the way of temperature extremes."

Kilyawa loved her home chambers and was happy to be in them. However, she started practicing her stealth skills at home, passing down corridors and through doors that were no necessarily meant for her. She was aware that monitors could follow her every move except she was able to program her zfor'tinla to prevent that. She could not normalize her signal to make it appear that she was not there, but she could cause it to be static for an interval, which interval she varied in length to make it less obvious that there was a sequence.

Great caution was necessary for this. For starters, she could only do this when Deka was absent from her life, which was not a common event. Nonetheless, Deka did have Imperial duties which took her elsewhere, to the royal chambers, to the administrative offices, or who knew where. On average, since Deka slept in Kilyawa's chambers, there was only about an hour a day when Kilyawa could risk movement.

She already had discovered several things that perhaps she was not to know, at least not yet. She discovered the chambers of the Imperial Prince Porfor, and even saw him. There was something about the way that he looked and moved that she did not like, and she shuddered to think that she was to be mated to him. When she was watching him, even though she was in the shadows, indeed in total blackness, and she was wearing a blackout suit, she still had the feeling that his Khar'/ai, Bork'eer, saw her, although he did not say anything or do anything to indicate it it was just a sense. She had had such feelings before, and whenever they could be confirmed, she had been correct in her assumptions. Deka indicated that she had slight extrasensory powers, rare but not unheard of and a plus for an empress. She knew their names because she heard them speaking to each other and addressing each other by name.

"Deka," she asked after this incidence, "must I be mated to the Emporer candidate?"

"Yes, indeed. But the mating is only for children. You will be assigned a lover soon. If he is not to your liking, then we can try another."

"But I might have a child by the lover!"

"But, no, for he will be raipti."

"When will this happen? I do not feel ready nor do I feel any desire for this."

"It will happen in due time. You will find pleasure in the relationship at that time. Be patient. You will be ready when the time comes."

Kilyawa had also seen some of the palace's infrastructure, storage areas and some of the food preparation areas. She was surprised at the security of these areas, only able to reach the fringes of them and then with great difficulty. She supposed is was about food safety, to ensure that the Imperial court was not poisoned. But the garbage area was easy to find. It was a simple processing chamber. Food waste went into this transporter, and everything else went into that transporter. She knew that these went to various recycling facilities.

She was almost caught by Deka several times. Once, she arrived back at her chambers to see Deka conversing outside them with another Khar'/ai. Kilyawa was able to snake through passages to come in the back way, the service entrance. She still had the sense that, somehow, Deka must know about her excursions, although Deka never made any indication of this.

Chapter Fourteen - Trobe ^^Day 95-97

"It is time," A'Khor said, "For a grand tour. You have not gone afield as yet, and it is now time."

"Isn't it dangerous?" Trobe asked.

A'Khor shrugged. "Everything is dangerous. You will travel incognito. You will be disguised as a common Braith'garn, an easy disguise to accomplish. We will use common carriers. This will test your resources as well as helping you better understand the nature of the Empire."

"I see," Trobe said. "But what about you?"

"I will be traveling with you but will not be seen to be doing so. It is not common for one of us to travel by common carrier, but it is neither so rare. I will always be close by."

"But there is so much I do not know. I do not even know how to use money. Somehow that was omitted from my education."

"Ah, my Trobe, but I will teach you. This is part of understanding how your future subjects live."

"Where will we go?"

"We will tour for a full year, during which time we will visit perhaps thirty-seven worlds. We will begin at the historic fortress world of Hchbor. We will go there by Imperial ship. It will then bring us back to Furstli, where you will assume your disguise."

"And what about Prorta?"

"She can go with us but will be confined to the ship."

Trobe had been aboard a variety of Imperial ships to travel around the system, but had never experienced interstellar travel. Thus, he had never before traveled aboard an interstellar ship, although he had toured one and had had extensive simulation training in the flying of one. In fact, Trobe had been trained to fly twenty-seven models of space ship.

Trobe, A'Khor and Prorta boarded the ISS (Imperial Star Ship) Dree (Kyortadreekrohn). They entered to the smart salute of a contingent of crew which welcomed them aboard amidst decidedly plush surroundings. The crew were mostly Nerrung and Ghek, with several Kzzg and one each Ossbonal, Dorrup, and Grain. It did not escape Trobe's attention that they were all from prime races of Empire. Nerrung and Trobe started turning back towards the passenger compartments, but A'Khor sharply ordered, "Come!" and strode off towards the control room. Trobe followed, mildly surprised.

They entered the control room, where the captain was awaiting them.

"Greetings," she said. "I am Captain Khardin Dekray Oraba. And you are Trobe?"

"Yes, I am," Trobe said, taking his proffered hand. "And this is A'Khor."

"Ah, yes, Trobe," A'Khor said, "Captain Khardin and I know each other quite well. We are old friends."

"Indeed," the captain beamed. "And I have been looking forward to this opportunity to meet you, Trobe. I have heard great things about you from A'Khor."

Trobe regarded the captain. She was an Ossbonal, a people strongly-boned and stocky, with large heads and flattened faces. The captain was taller than most. She had the deep golden eyes that bespoke exceptional intelligence. Those Ossbonal of least intelligence had purple eyes, with varying shades of red, yellow and orange in between.

"Thank you," Trobe said, graciously.

"And this is my first mate, Gorig Taffi'."

"Pleased to meet you, First Mate Gorig," Trobe said, extending his hand. Taffi', a male Nerrung, shook it.

"Captain Khardin, Are we ready to go?" Trobe asked.

"Shortly," she replied. "First, let me introduce you to the rest of the control room crew. Trobe, this is our navigator, Sahndeh. And my second mate, Hray. And, of course, our systems monitor, Xfrgkt." She indicated, in turn, a Ghek, a Dorrup, and a Kzzg. "All, this is Trobe, as you know."

She then turned Trobe around and pointed. "Sit here."

She was indicating the captain's chair. Trobe looked at it, then around at A'Khor. He nodded.

"You are going to take us to Hchbor," A'Khor told him.

"But I have never flown one of these before," Trobe complained.

"You have completed many successful simulations," A'Khor replied. "It is now your duty to captain and pilot this ship to Hchbor. I will say nothing further, and neither will the Captain. You are on your own."

Trobe's face portrayed shock, then became composed. He shrugged and sat.

"Before we go," A'khor said, "Here is your first zfor'tinla." Trobe was aware that most people carried them, and he had been waiting for the day that he would be allowed to have one of his own. It was a small computer that almost everyone carried, which was called a zfor'tinla, which was an abbreviation of zforlablode tin'nactipa, which meant pocket computer. In orther words, like an Earth smart phone, but much more sophisiticated.

"After we get into interstellar drive, "A'khor said, "I will show you how to attune this with your system."

Trobe sat, looking it over. He knew that he could only access rudimentary functions until the device was linked to him.

"It is time to depart," Captain Khardin said. "It is time to put away the zfor'tinla and drive this bucket. We will not be using the booster beam. With the low gravity at this departure point, we can make it into space easily without it."

Trobe did so and looked over the controls once more. He strapped himself into the control chair.

"Your attention please," he announced over the PA system. "We will now prepare for departure. Please secure all items and yourselves. We will take off in five minutes." He thumbed the start key for the countdown, which was displayed on a screen in every compartment of the ship.

He then checked all systems on the console, although he knew this had been exhaustively done before his boarding. Fuel levels, good. Fuel delivery, good. Engine status, good for each. Engine shielding, good. Engine fields, good. Engine fire suppression, good. And so on for fifty-seven systems. These were all being monitored routinely by crew members on an ongoing basis, of course, but it was still his responsibility to check them all before takeoff.

"One minute to departure," he announced. He finished bringing the engines on-line and began to build the quantum- phase field. Only Imperial starships carried a quantum-phase unit on-board. All other ships were required to use the field generated by an Imperial station. Apart from Imperial warships, there were only twelve starships carrying the units, of which the ISS Dree was one. Two were reserved for royal use, four were for use by other high nobility, and six were messenger ships. Trobe had been on one of the messenger ships, and he got a strong impression that they did far more than just carry messages.

It must be said that the crews of these twelve starships were something special. They were the most exceptional individuals, who had passed intensive loyalty tests. They were also paid salaries that the average Empire citizen could only dream about. It doesn't hurt to reenforce loyalty.

At zero, Trobe separated the ship from the terminal and initiated autopilot. The ship moved slowly through the automated course away from the relatively congested area around the Imperial planet, and passed into the space above the orbital plane. Steadily accelerating, it took an hour to reach a safe point at which to start the secondary engines. Trobe completed the sequence, then waited for the acceleration forces to stabilize. At a steady one gee, he turned off the shipboard warning indicators and announced, "We will be accelerating at one gee for the next twelve hours before making our transition. We will announce one-half hour before the transition."

He turned to the captain. "Well?" he asked.

"Quite satisfactory," she said. "You haven't killed us yet."

"I won't. I promise."

"Well," A'Khor said, "I suggest that you turn over command to Hray temporarily and that we retire to the galley for a meal."

Over the food, A'Khor questioned Trobe about the history of Hchbor. The questions came thick and fast, barely giving Trobe time to chew between giving answers. Obviously, this was not to be a complete vacation from schoolwork. But Trobe was up to the task.

But, between stints in the control room, Trobe still had time to gaze out at the galaxy and view entertainment and find other ways to occupy his time on his own terms.

Once, he was called to the control room just prior to their first major jump and he was requested to command the ship through the jump. That was possibly the most terrifying instant of his young life so far, as he knew that jumps had a failure rate of almost one hundredth of one percent, and that most of that failure was due to inexperience or commander error. Although the computers did almost all the work, there was still the small people factor, and Trobe's heart was in his throat as he executed the necessary motions and commands. He knew that any error would mean not only his annihilation, but that of every person aboard the ship.

"Prepare for jump!" was the first thing he announced to the ship when he sat. Then, "Jump imminent!" Then "Now jumping!"

He pressed the final command icon on the screen this was too critical to be left to voice command and the universe turned inside out. Trobe had jumped before, but not quite like this. The other jumps he'd been on had taken an hour or more, and were relatively mild, causing no more than a bit of mental unsettling. This, however, threatened to be a mind-changing experience: Trobe knew that the speed of a jump in this ship was vastly greater than in most ships or in public gates. But the jump went well, and he sat back, breathing, reflecting that the personnel error causing almost all jump errors was due to inattention, sloppiness, or lack of proper training, none of which could redound on him. However, those thoughts had not been so quelling before the fact.

Chapter Fifteen - Tenxis

Tenxis could use his computer terminal at home or in his office for a vast amount of research, but he loved to go to the library and delve into old paper or plastic books. They seemed to have a feel that just couldn't be gotten from a computer screen. However, that was only a small part of his time available for that. The rest was practical observation, calculation, and experimentation. He was kept busy.

One convenient feature of the Second Shell was that it was a vast distance around, and so could support an immensely long nuclear accelerator. Tenxis spent his first few months doing nothing but setting up and running classic experiments that had enabled physicists to decipher atomic secrets.

Not all of the experimentation was as large-scale as were those with the accelerator. Some took place in a small lab. There were microscopes that could clearly envision molecules and even atoms of any size. Here, Tenxis' knowledge of and expertise in chemical engineering was put to the test in running more classic experiments.

He seldom ventured off the university grounds, however. He went to the gatherings at Kir'don's, of course, and occasionally went to visit parks outside the grounds, and once in a while went to a store. Since meals, clothing and other necessities were easily available on-grounds and cost him much less than they would have off-grounds, he seldom had need to shop outside the grounds.

But he continued to explore the university grounds assiduously. It cannot be said that he explored them thoroughly only because they were so vast. Every nook and cranny was used and used efficiently. That is not to say that there were no parks and green space indeed there were, but inevitably they doubled as botanical gardens and, in one case, a zoological garden. Tenxis especially enjoyed Helegrath Park, which particularly featured plantings from his home world, Helegratha. He spent many an evening there with another of his hobbies reading old "space opera" works, such as they were; even in Empire, there was speculative adventure fiction in abundance.

When he next had the time, he walked down Helegratha Street to Wootrah Way, the site of the mysterious dead end. To his left, he could see that the way continued for as far as he could see.

He walked into the dead-end portion of the passage and came to the end, to the blank wall. There were several stores in this half-block, opening off either side of the street, and the interior side walls of the last stores all seemed to be even with the wall across the passageway.

Tenxis ducked into a store adjacent to the wall, which sold snacks. He purchased something small to eat and asked the clerk, "What is on the other side of that wall?"

The clerk just said, "Oh, I suppose just more of the same. Just outside the university."

"But it looks like the wall across the street is newer than the rest of the block."

"I would not know. I just work here."

The clerk clearly neither knew nor cared.

Tenxis exited the store and went back to Helegratha Street, named after his home planet, and continued in the direction in which he had been going. He came to the next street to the left, but there was no street to the right. As he studied the building wall there, he could see that it appeared to be slightly newer than the rest of the facades. He continued on down the street and saw the same phenomenon five more times. He finally came to a cross street which continued to the right. He went to his right and saw that the street continued. He walked it to its end, where it curved to the left to parallel Helegratha Street. He counted as he paced and calculated that it was some eighty-four ftarbolets longer. Wootrah Way had only continued for some seven ftarbolets. It appeared to him that, for some reason, seventy- seven ftarbolets of Wootrah Way and a full eighty-four ftarbolets of the other streets had been closed since the area was built.

Tenxis was plodding and dull in his engineer way, but he was also immensely curious. His curiosity had always been a great asset in his education, and it had made spare time interesting as well. He resolved to research this phenomenon further.

He retraced his steps back Helegratha Street past Wootrah Way to the next cross street, which continued on for the same eighty-four ftarbolets as the other street had. The distance between the two streets he had paced off as not quite a ftar. That was quite a large area to be blocked off.

He did not have spare time to investigate further the rest of the week. The next weekend, however, saw him leaving the university grounds to explore on the other side of the university wall on that side. What he found was that almost as large an area had been closed off in non-university space. As on the other side, the streetways had been filled in with facades, except for the continuation of Wootrah Way, which similarly ended in a blank wall.

He asked Dobrono about the area. Dobrono shrugged and said he knew nothing about it. The university was vast and it was ancient. Who knew what changes had been made in its configuration?

Chapter Sixteen - Owani'i'i'ia

Owani'i'i'ia had figured out a few things. The most important thing was that the town was fairly near a much larger city, and there was bus service. She looked at the rate schedule, and checked her money. Just barely enough money. She would not have anything left for anything else, but would have to find a way to get more money. Well, there had to be ways.

As she waited in line to board the night bus, the driver seemed surprised that she had no luggage other than her bag of cosmetics and her purse.

"I just came here for the day," she explained, somewhat haltingly. He nodded and she got onto the bus. Fortunately, it was more than half-empty and it was not difficult to find a seat separate from other people,.

She took the opportunity of the half-mile ride to sleep. She was able to settle into the chair comfortably, helped by her slight, slim stature. She awoke when the bus lurched to a stop and the lights came on.

"We are now in Denver," the driver announced.

Owani'i'i'ia disembarked and walked into the bus station. Inside, she scrutinized a map of the city. She found that there was a river running through it, and suspected she could find shelter close to it. She began walking.

After an hour, she came to a bridge over the stream. She left the road and walked down the embankment. There were some fairly strong smells here, but she had been smelling strong smells ever since approaching human habitation. They were at least mostly bearable.

She reached the underside of the bridge and looked around. There were five people, three men and two women, under the bridge already.

"Hello," she said.

"Howdy," one of the women said. "You looking for a place to sleep?"

"Yes, I guess so."

"Well, this place ain't too bad. There's places on the bridge abutments up underneath the bridge where you can stay dry and kind of private. There're a couple of tarps here you can use."

Owani'i'i'ia didn't completely understand her words, but the woman's gestures made her meaning clear enough. She nodded to the woman and took one of the tarps and went up under the end of the bridge. There were hours of night left, but she was exhausted after her journeying, and welcomed the chance to sleep. Nobody bothered her, and the occasional car going across the bridge registered but she was able to doze through them.

She woke up early next morning a little stiff. It was a beautiful morning and a bit warm. It didn't bother Owani'i'i'ia, who found it comfortable. The nights had been a little cool, which she could cope with well enough, but the warmth was much preferable.

"If you get up and come up to the corner, you might get some work," the woman from the previous owner told her when she could see that Owani'i'i'ia was awake. She was stout but not fat, probably in her forties, and had darker skin that Owani'i'i'ia had seen so far.

"What kind of work?"


"I think I could do that," she said. She gathered up her meager possessions and followed the woman and other people up to the street level. They walked one half-block, then one long block, to a street corner where half a dozen people were already waiting.

"Those are mighty nice clothes to be picking in," the woman told her as they walked.

Owani'i'i'ia wasn't sure what she had said. "Please, again?"

The woman repeated herself more slowly, and she thought that she understood.

"Oh, I know," she said, "But I got stranded here without any of my possessions, and I have to make money to get home."

"How old are you, honey?" the woman asked. "You can't be more than sixteen or seventeen."

Owani'i'i'ia did some mental calculations. In her counting system, that would be fourteen or fifteen. Then she had to convert Earth years into Galactic years. They woman was saying that she was only twenty-one to twenty-three!

"No, I'm older than that," she said. "I'm twenty-two years old." She reckoned that was close to the truth.

"Well, you do not look it," the woman said. "Hi, my name is Rosa. What's yours?"

Owani'i'i'ia had prepared for this moment. I'm Laura," she said.

"You do use a lot of makeup," Rosa said.

"I have a skin thing. You can't catch it, but it makes it easier for everyone if I cover it up," the newly-minted Laura said.

They had reached the street corner just as a truck pulled away with a dozen workers in it.

"There should be another one soon," Rosa said.

"I'm not going anywhere else," Laura said. She was feeling more and more confident with the language, although it was frustrating that she kept running into people with different accents from each other.

Another truck came by. A middle-aged man stuck his head out the window and said, "I need six to pick green beans."

Eight hands went up, The man pointed and counted, "One, two . . . eight." They got onto the truck and the truck left. There were still five people on the corner. One man looked disgusted and walked away, leaving four.

It was another half-hour before another truck came by, during which another man had left. The only people left were Rosa, Laura, and another man that Rosa called Manuel. A man leaned out the window and said, "Crap, this is all that's left?"

Rosa shrugged her shoulders. "We usually start earlier."

"Damn truck broke down," the man said. "Well, get in, I got to get strawberries picked today."

They rode out to his farm, a half-hour drive. The man introduced himself as Jim and a woman introduced herself as Joan.

"You ever pick strawberries before?" Joan asked.

Rosa and Manuel said yes. Laura did not say anything. She thought she should shrug her shoulders, but could not do it the way a human could.

"Well, Laura, I'll just have to teach you. You're dressed awfully fancy for picking strawberries, though."

"It is all I have left," Laura said. "I got stranded and need to work for money to get home."

"I can hear you're not from around here with that accent," Joan said. "Wait a minute." She disappeared into a nearby shack and came back with a coverall and other clothing. "Here, try this on, save your clothes. These were left behind by workers from last year, but they're clean."

Laura gratefully took them. She went into the shack and changed. When she came out, Rosa and Manuel were already out picking berries. Joan took Laura out and showed her how to pick. Joan and Jim were picking as well because they were short-handed.

It took some time for Laura to get the hang of it. In the first hour, she only picked one-third as much as the others, but she improved as time went on. By noon, she was picking some three-quarters of what the others were picking.

Joan had disappeared about 11:30. At noon, she came out and announced, "Lunch!"

"Oh, we get lunch?" Laura asked.

"Not when you're staying here as you have a kitchen of your own then. But we feed day laborers lunch. Nothing fancy, just basics, but it fills you."

Laura was only able to eat perhaps a third as much as Rosa or Joan. Rosa looked concerned. "Is that all you can eat?" she asked. "Doesn't look like enough to keep a pigeon going."

"I'm really very full," Laura said. "I do not need much to eat."

After lunch, the others slowed down a bit in the afternoon heat, but it didn't bother Laura. She made up for lost time. Jim looked pleased at the end of the day. "We did a good job today," he said. "Y'all want to come back tomorrow? I'll be earlier."

They all said yes, and he loaded them up to take them back. Laura felt relieved to settle in back under the bridge.

Chapter Seventeen - Jed

Jed spent one boring day after another, chatting with Ghugg as he worked. He began to sense that Ghugg had a very different view of the galaxy. And he also learned that Ghugg believed in a number of conspiracy theories. On Earth, he would have written him off as a crackpot, but how could an Earth boy know what conspiracies there might be on a galactic level?

One day, Ghugg, going on his lunch break, leaned close to Jed and said, "Did you know that it is no accident that there hasn't been an attack from the hive races for centuries?"

"How so?" Jed asked.

"The hive races are just used as a scare tactic to control everyone. As long as people are afraid of a b'tunfa [which loosely translates as boogyman] you can tell them what to do."

"But what if the hive races really came back?"

"How do we know those attacks were real in the first place? They supposedly happened centuries ago. Think about it. If you wanted to use such a scare tactic to control people, you couldn't put it in the immediate past as people would remember. You have to put it beyond people's memories."

"I thought there were older people who remember the last wave of attacks. How do you account for that?"

"Only the very old claim to remember them, and they are on the galactic payroll openly, or they are retired or undercover and on the galactic payroll secretly."

"That is an awful lot of people to cover up a conspiracy."

"Only a few thousand. Do not you know the ring theory of power?"

"No, what is that?"

"Dictatorial power is maintained by rings of privilege. Those closest to the dictator have the greatest privilege, while those more removed have progressively less privilege. Each person the dictator relies on has some privilege compared to his peer group, so they are better off with the dictator than they'd be without. So the foot soldier is better off than his friends or family at a level of support that more wealthy people would sneer at. Only by gaining something material in return can a dictator buy loyalty. He needs the greatest loyalty from those closest to him, so they gain the most. The next level out don not get as much, but it is probably more than they would have otherwise, and they do not dare challenge the next step up in the hierarchy, and so forth until you get to people who are not part of the power structure at all. Those people can be ruthlessly surpressed."

"That actually makes sense. Where did you learn that?"

"From a very old text, the Pharlinboma. Not just old but ancient thousands of years old. Original copies have been suppressed and are all in control of the central Empire government, but there are bootleg copies available."

"In what form?"

"Mainly print. Print material is easier to hide unless someone is actually looking for it. You just cannot code electronic files well enough to keep them hidden. Of course, original copies are pretty much gone because of time, but you can get reprints if you are careful."

"I would like to read that."

"I will lend you a copy if I can swear you to secrecy."

"I will do that."

"I promise that it will help to open your eyes to everything going on. Galactic conspiracies go back centuries. You know, Empire is the biggest conspiracy of all. The Nerrungs and the Khar'/ai long ago conspired to control it, and they have been in control ever since. Other species do not have a chance to wield real power."

"But it seems to be working well, Ghugg," Jed responded, bemused. "And every planet has some other species for its leader or leaders. The Nerrungs are only here at the center."

"That is what they want you to believe. They want you lulled into complacency so that they can manipulate you."

"To what end?"

"That is what we're worried about," Ghugg said, darkly. "That is part of the conspiracy." He went on to lunch.

Jed suspected that Ghugg was as full of bologna as an Earth-side conspiracy theorist. This exchange did not help nor did it clear anything up.

The next day, as they sat at their workstations, Ghugg said, "I have a copy of that book here for you."

"Uh, thanks," Jed said.

Ghugg surreptitiously handed him the book.

Jed read the book over the next few days. Ghugg started asking him, "Finish it yet?" after two days. Jed assured him he was reading it. The book turned out to be exactly, more or less, what Ghugg purported it to be: a practical manual for maintaining and running a galactic empire. Jed read it with fascination. Although he didn't know it, the matter in the book corresponded very much with Trobe's education.

After five days, with the weekend approaching, Jed told Ghugg that he had read it.

"Do you see what I mean?" Ghugg asked. "It lays out a conspiracy for controlling the galaxy!"

"Do not they actually only control about one-eleventh of the galaxy?" Jed asked.

"That we know about," Ghugg said darkly. "I suspect that we're actually being ruled from elsewhere. What is the real story behind the Kar'/ai, anyway? I suspect that they are our real overlords. Who knows where they really come from? They claim it is just one planet, but I do not know if I swallow that."

"Have you ever seen a Kar'zai?"

"Once. At a distance. There is a rumor that they are actually some kind of robot. In any case, I suspect that they are our overlords."

"But there is a Galactic Council."

"Yes, there is, and they meet. But they have little power. They just rubberstamp what has already been decided."

The discussion went on, over the next week, during unbusy moments during the day. Then one day, as they were leaving, Ghugg said, "Do you mind if I walk with you for a while? I am going your way."

"Not at all,' Jed said.

They strolled down the corridor. Jed never felt like walking briskly on his way home, but preferred to take his time, observing all the galactic species around him.

After they had gone about a quarter of the way, Ghugg said, "You know, there is a secret siblinghood of beings who oppose Empire. Did you know that?"

"I had no idea," Jed said. "What are they called?"

"Yes, there is - the Khargrist. They have long been looking for an opportunity to step in, They feel that eventually the Emprical government must collapse, and we must be ready to take over when they do."

"And are you a member of that group?"

Ghugg looked around, quickly. "Yes, I am. And I am talking to you because I think you would be an asset to our organization."

"I'm not sure . . ." Jed trailed off.

"I'm not looking for an answer now, Please just think about it. And keep it to yourself. That is one of the reasons that I approached you, because I think you can be trusted with a secret."

Chapter Eighteen - Kilyawa ^^Day 76

Kilyawa was going through her questioning in Imperial court, as Trobe had done. They had dispensed with the principles of Empire, and was now shining in her knowledge of history, a great strong point for her.

"Tell us about the formation of the Empire," Fark'ai said.

"Twenty-two thousand years ago, nine sentient species had achieved local space travel. The Khar'/ai were the first to achieve interstellar flight, how long ago is unknown, but did not colonize beyond their home planet. However, their planet is one of the largest planets evolving sentient life. The Ossbonal were the next to achieve interstellar flight, about twenty-two thousand years ago, followed by the Grain. The Ossbonal were benevolent in their travel, concealing themselves and observing, but the Grain started interfering with other species and cultures. The Ossbonal and the Khar'/ai teamed together to control the Grain, and were successful. The Nerrung were the fourth species to achieve such travel, about twenty-one thousand years ago, and within a thousand years had colonized a small empire of twelve planets in five solar systems. The Ossbonal by then had colonized three other planets, and the Grain some seven others. The Nerrung were more able to adapt to conditions than the other species.

"However, the Nerrung quickly achieved a reputation for being impartial and fair, as did the Khar'/ai. They formed a confederation of the four species at about twenty thousand years ago. Then the R'Urr and the Dorrup appeared on the scene in close order, at about nineteen thousand years ago. They were both within the sphere of influence of the other four species, and it has long been believed that the Dorrup learned interstellar space flight from the Grain. The Azzsara and the Kzzg were then given spaceflight by the confederation, but their flight was closely regulated. The Azzsara were respected and admired for their artistic abilities, which was why they were invited to join Empire. The Kzzg were visited repeatedly by the Grain, who came to employ many of them as workers aboard their ships, and so they were well aware of Empire, and the Empire of them.

"Then, seventeen thousand years ago came the first attack of the Hive Races, apparently both the Forsawt and the Lesticcian. They were repulsed at great cost, and the Forsawt managed to keep one of their conquered planets for almost a thousand years. An attempt was made to include these races in the confederation, but they refused to cooperate or even deal with the non-hive races, although we suspect they had some form of collaboration between them.

"The Khar'/ai then proposed an Imperial system. There was a great deal of resistance to this at first, but the fear of the Hive Races made people throughout the galactic sector aware that they needed a stronger, more powerful central government to be able to repel them in the future. The Nerrung worlds had been hit the hardest by the Hive Races, with seventeen of their planets so badly destroyed that they were no longer worth using as colony planets, with most of their populations killed. Their home planet was the one that had received the worst damage, so they were left as the only galactic species without a native home planet.

"At first, the Imperial government rotated between member species, with eight-year terms. However, selection of qualified, capable, and non-selfish leaders became a real problem, as each race selected their own when it was their turn. The Kzzg and the Azzsara both turned out to be simply unable to conduct affairs on such a large scale, especially in regulating member worlds. The Grain were an absolute disaster, trying to seize power permanently, but were strongly repulsed by the other worlds.

"It was widely suggested that the Khar'/ai become the sole emperors, as the Khar'/ai were by now recognized as being very impartial and ironically the least imperialistic of the species. In the meantime, a supernova had destroyed yet another of the Nerrung worlds. They only had two habitable worlds left. The Khar'/ai had long observed an excellence in administration and fairness amongst the Nerrung, although they were not the most technologically advanced. So the Khar'/ai suggested a compromise: That the Nerrung become solely the Emporer class, in exchange for which they would only control one planet, and that there would always be a Khar'/ai assigned to each emperor and empress. This was, after two hundred years and several more scares of Hive invasion, ratified by every member species. At this point, Empire had eight member species: the Khar'/ai, the Ossbonal, the Nerrung, the Grain, the R'Urr, the Dorrup, the Azzsara, and the Kzzg. The Empire was thus properly founded almost seventeen thousand years ago.

"It was at this time that the Dargawilagewana discovered the Galactic civilization, through some rather clever technology. They were quite advanced in many fields, and requested membership in Empire, and they were accepted and given interstellar flight.

"Another race had suffered greatly from Hive Race attacks, but these attacks had taken place several hundred years after the other attacks. These were the Nrangijwa. The Confederation was aware of their existence, and were impressed by their ability to fight the invaders. After further observation of the Nrangijwa, and how quickly they were able to rebuild, as well as their civil government, they were invited to join Empire.

"At this time, both the Ghek and the Harneii had become aware of the Empire. The Ghek because they were embedded well within Imperial territory and intercepted communications, and the Harnei through their telepathic abilities. After a great deal of deliberation, the Ghek joined the Empire.

"Affairs were fairly stable for about three thousand years, then thirteen thousand years ago came a new wave of Hive attacks. The Empire attempted every diplomatic means it could try, but to no avail. Again, the Hive Races were repelled, and this time, the Empire discovered and destroyed seven worlds colonized by the Hive Races close to or within Imperial space.

"In the meantime, the Empire had become aware of and was monitoring some thirty-four individual sentient races on as many planets. None were close to space travel at the time of these Hive attacks, but three achieved space programs over the next two thousand years, when came the next wave of Hive Race attacks. This invasion, however, was very weak and easily repulsed.

"The Harneii were again asked to join Empire because of their remarkable abilities to sense the coming of the Hive Races. This time they agreed and the twelve prime races of Empire were complete.

"There was a period of some six thousand years of peace, then seven thousand years ago came the most serious series of Hive Race attacks. Several of the non-Empire sentient planets were badly damaged. This time, the Empire pursued them to the very fringes of what is believed to be their home territory, about a third of the way around the galaxy, destroying colonies along the way but stopping when they encountered such density of Hive Race planets that they knew they were too badly outnumbered to proceed further.

"The last known attack of the Hive Races was about three hundred years ago, but it was a fairly small wave of attack. It, too, of course, was repelled.

"Is that enough, or do you want more? I can give you very much more."

"And she can," said Deka. "She could continue this for two days straight, easily. She is exceptionally well-versed in Galactic history."

"Yes, I would think she passes her testing," said Empress Primoi.

Chapter Nineteen - Trobe ^^Day 99

Hchbor had once been a barren rock of a planet, a planet that had had an abundance of life in previous geological eras but which had lost most of its atmosphere and life through a series of cosmic accidents. It was the one planet of its system which had been capable of supporting life. Because of this situation, and its position in relation to the past attacks by the hive races, it had been chosen as a fortress planet. A dispensable planet, garrisoned so as to draw attack from the hive races while diverting their attention from more vital planets, it had astonishingly survived repeated attacks. In the past thousand years, with relatively few attacks, terraforming had gradually progressed, and the planet now was once again a lush wonderland of life--except for the usual exceptions such as high mountains, including the site of the ancient Hchborach fortress.

This fortress was built of stone and concrete and steel, towering over the surrounding land on a prominent mountain amid a tropical and lofty mountain range. It was situated thusly in order to emerge above the bulk of the thin atmosphere so that telescopy and far-range radio contact could be effectively accomplished from on-planet as well as enabling good radio contact with orbital satellites.

Because of its altitude, it had had to be originally pressurized in order to enable occupation. Because of the terraforming, pressurization at this altitude was no longer necessary if one carryied supplemental oxygen, but the structure itself still maintained the pressurization because it also served as a potential defense against biological warfare.

That was the official reason given, but in fact, as with most Imperial facilities and functions, there were ulterior reasons. The pressurization was actually contained within a field that flowed within and through the exterior structure, which field could withstand a direct nuclear or antimatter blast--and had several times. The fortress was as impregnable as any structure could be made to be. The system depended not on one power source, but on seven. Two massive banks of different types of batteries, solar, wind, nuclear fusion, hydroelectric, and a system that could be termed an ethereal system, to bring it as close to Earth understanding as possible.

Trobe flew the starship to Hchbor where he parked it in orbit., Next, A'Khor piloted Trobe and himself down to the fortress in a shuttlecraft. They landed on an upper deck of the fortress and entered a door where they passed a security checkpoint, then took an elevator down--and down--and down.

"So, are not we now deep enough that pressurization wouldn't ever have been necessary?" Trobe asked.

"But of course," A'Khor replied. "Even if an antimatter device penetrated the upper shield, we would be quite safe from it at the depths we're reaching. Unless it was powerful enough to destroy half the planet. Now I must ask you to surrender your zfor'tinla while we are here."

They exited into corridors lined with smooth, slick metallic walls and were met and led by a functionary to their quarters.

"So what are we going to do here?" Trobe asked.

"You will meet with several of our commanders here, and further familiarize yourself with our defense network and strategies. You will also be tutored and tested in several weapons systems and defense strategy systems."

Trobe looked around their chambers. They were moderate: a sitting room, two bedrooms, bathroom. Nothing fancy about them, but they were comfortable and clean. There were the usual amenities: electronic center that combined entertainment, computer, and communications; drink and snack bar, and climate control, including adjustable air pressure and oxygen content.

"Your luggage will arrive shortly," A'Khor said. "You take that bedroom, and I'll take the one closer to the door."

The rest of the day passed uneventfully, and the next, and the next. Then, the fourth night, it happened.

"Hsst!" a voice said, prodding Trobe with a pole.

Instantly stark awake, Trobe grabbed the pole and swung it away. He swung it back with a vengeance, only to stop in mid-swing as he wakened.

"Whoa!" the voice said in the darkness. "I'm friend, not foe! I mean you no harm!"

"Who are you?" Trobe demanded harshly.

"Not important. I'm only a messenger and a page. Your presence is requested at an urgent meeting. Please follow! You must leave your zfor'tinla behind."

Trobe considered this a scant moment. If there was an intent of harm, it would have occurred while he was asleep. He had no especially secure information for anyone to want to torture out of him that other power figures were unaware of. He shrugged, arose, threw on a robe and slippers, and followed the rapidly retreating, heavily-robed figure of his awaker.

They walked in silence for a half-hour, eschewing motorized elevators but descending countless flights of stone steps and swiftly traversing primeval hallways. They at last descended into a corridor with walls of rough, black but sparkling stone, where the heat was just above the threshold of comfort. The page opened a door into a large chamber but stood well back of the doorway, out of sight of whoever was in the interior. As Trobe stepped through, the door slammed shut behind him.

Before him was a large table at which were seated seventeen individuals. Trobe recognized several: the governor of Dretz, the overlord of Sfzigvint, the proctor of Harrlen. The others all appeared to be individuals of importance, judging from dress, even including two generals of the Imperial Force. An impressive array of stature sat before him, awaiting him. They represented nine races of the galaxy, and all but one were of the prime races.

"Welcome, Trobe," the overlord of Sfzigvint said. "We appreciate your attendance here. Please, have a seat," he said, motioning to a seat at the head of the large table.

Trobe sat, cautiously. "Why am I here? Where is A'khor?"

An Imperial general spoke up. "Ah, we feel it best that we talk to you alone, Trobe. We have a proposition to put to you. First, however, we must explain a few things to you.

"Trobe, are you the heir apparent to the Emperor's throne?"

Trobe was taken aback. "Of course I am. Why in the galaxy would you ask?"

"Because you may not be the Emperor's successor. Trobe, did you know that there are two other candidates for the throne, just as you are? And another three candidates unknowingly vying for the throne of the Empress?"

"You lie!" Trobe snapped. "If that were so, I would have known!"

"No, Trobe," the proctor of Harrlen told him. "You would have known only if you became Emperor. But we are telling you now that there are always three candidates; you are only one of three. Please regard the viewscreen on the wall."

Trobe turned his head as an image of another young Nerrung male appeared, dressed in the garb of an Imperial heir.

"That young man that you see is Kride," the proctor said. "And this one, now, is Porfor. These are your rivals, Trobe. One will be chosen Emperor, the other two will simply--disappear."

"And you are the selection committee?" Trobe asked, icily.

Now an unknown individual, dressed in a scholar's robes, spoke. "No, Trobe, we are not. There are two of us here who sit on the selection committee, but we, here, are a special ad-hoc committee that has appointed itself."

"And just what is your committee for?"

The unknown sighed. "Well, we are what you may call an emergency committee. We have come to realize that the Empire is not what it could be. We could grow faster than we are. We could be more powerful militarily. We could be including more new races in Empire. Everything is simply going too slow."

The other Imperial general spoke up. "We're also concerned that the Empire meddles too much in the affairs of some of the subject worlds. Great men are held back in their careers by roadblocks thrown up by the Imperial government."

"You may think these to be different viewpoints," the proctor said, "But they are not. Perhaps if the Empire were bigger and more diverse, it wouldn't need to or be able to meddle so much in the affairs of individual worlds, as long as those worlds pay their duties to the Empire."

"Are you some kind of movement?"

""Yes," another person said, "We call it the Greater Empire Movement."

"So why am I here?" Trobe asked.

The first general spoke. "We've watched your career closely, Trobe. We think that you have the ability to do what needs to be done, and that you may have the willingness to work with us. We can guarantee your selection, Trobe. You are our chosen candidate if you work with us. Otherwise--who knows?"

The second general added, "It is also your road to greatness. You could be known as one of the greatest Emperors in history!"

The scholar now spoke. "History shows us that the greatest achievements may come during periods of greatest growth, greatest expansion, greatest creativity. The Empire has been held back too long."

"We are offering you," said, "A guarantee of your rightful position as Emperor. We are your only sure hope. Join us, and you will be Emperor. If you do not join us, you only have a chance to maybe be Emperor. If you do not join us but tell others of us, then you will be tainted and never become Emperor. We are the guarantee of your future."

Trobe looked around at the group gathered at the table, disbelieving. How could this be happening? How could this be real?

"I'm not certain how to respond," Trobe said. "Can I think about this for a while?"

"Yes, we will call you back tomorrow night at the same time. We would have done so for your decision in any case. In the meantime, it is critical that you do not speak to A'khor about this. We will know if you do, and if you do, you will be eliminated as a matter of course," said the overlord of Sfzigvint.

"Even with A'khor there?""

"We know how to separate you from A'khor. And, trust me, the Khar'/ai are not invincible, although they may seem to be so."

"And how will you guarantee my selection?"

Another unidentified individual spoke up. "I am on the selection committe of five persons. Two of us are here, and another will vote with us if we so decide."

"And what will happen to the other two candidates?"

The same person continued. "Whatever would happen to them in any case if you are selected. They will survive, but they will have extensive memory modifications, and placed in a low-stress job and environment for the rest of their lives."

"And A'khor knows absolutely nothing of this?"


"Then what is he doing tonight that he was not in my suite when I came down here? If he had been there, he would have awakened."

One of the generals said, "He knows this to be an absolutely safe place for you, almost as safe as your home at the palace complex. And indeed it is safe for you. Nothing will happen to you while you're here, no matter what you decide. A'khor was called away to arbitrate a difficult issue with a local settlement, and had to travel to reach it. He left a message for you which we intercepted."

"May I know who everyone here is?"

"No. The less you know at this point, the better. I know that you have recognized some of us, but we can't help that. However, if you say no, I do have to inform you that you will cease to exist, and we can do it without A'khor being able to prevent it. But it will not happen on this planet."

"You may go back to your room now," said the person who had first spoken when Trobe came into the room. "I am paging our messenger right now."

Chapter Twenty - Laura

Laura worked in the strawberry fields all week. She found Joan to be unexpectedly friendly and concerned for her. She found Laura some more clothing and generally fussed over her like a mother hen.

"There's a camp meeting this weekend," Joan said. "I'd love it if you could come with us. We'd pick you up. It is an outdoor worship service, but a little bigger and longer than usual."

"I'd love to," Laura said. "If you can come get me."

"I think we can do that. So, Sunday, about 11 am."

"Have you ever been to one before?"

"Once," Laura said. "It was interesting."

"Well, it's a good time. Good music, good preaching. Oh, and good food. We all bring some. Don't worry, I'll bring enough to cover you. I always take too much anyway."

Laura worked through Saturday, then Sunday came around and she wore her better clothing. Joan and Jim picked her up on schedule. They drove through the countryside to a shady grove a mile from the farm, where a large tent had been pitched.

Joan and Laura hustled out the food and placed it on the table, then all three went to sit.

"I don't know any of the songs," Laura said.

"They'll hand out the words, and you can pick up the tune," Joan said.

"I don't read English very well."

"Then just follow our lead."

As they sat, a young man was walking around, handing out the words of the hymns on photocopied sheets.

A large man came onto the stage and the murmuring crowd went silent. Jim hissed, "That's the reverend, Jim Wheeler."

"Friends," he said, "I want to thank you for coming to this meeting. This meeting is a place for us to worship the Lord, and He is here today. HE IS HERE! He is here for me, and for you and for you, and for all of us. Don't have fear in your hearts for you can trust in Him. He will keep you safe. He will watch over you. He will save you."

A woman seated to one side started playing a portable organ. Laura had noticed that there were electric wires leading into the tent. The tune was unfamiliar, but strangely moving.

The woman played while a choir came filing onto the stage, wearing white robes, and stood in front of seats. Another man in a white robe started directing them and they sang, "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing . . ." Laura had always enjoyed music, and she found that all the music related to this religious activity was coherent, tuneful, and singable. She had heard much that was not but preferred the type she was now hearing.

The choir finished and an older woman came to the podium. "Friends, thank you for coming. We have a wonderful program today. My name is Emma Pitney, and I'm the coordinator of this here event. We spared no effort in putting this together. We'll have a great service, then we'll have our potluck lunch. After, we'll have a singing round, then we'll have another short service, during which we'll walk to the river for baptism."

"Baptism? What's that?" Laura whispered. She was learning to use contractions, which were absent from Galactic standard.

"It's where they dunk you in the river to wash away all your sins," Joan said. Laura wondered how that would work. Now that she noticed, there was a small river just beyond some trees. They had crossed it on a bridge coming in.

"And we're led today by the right reverend Jim Wheeler!" Emma announced, loudly and gleefully. "He's here as part of a national tour. You may have seen him on teevee, but that's not his real ministry. No, friends and neighbors, his real ministry is out here amongst us, and we are happy and fortunate to have him here."

The crowd applauded loudly as Emma retired and Reverend Wheeler stepped back up to the podium. "We will now hear our Bible reading for the day," he said, "Read to us by Cindy Freeman."

"That's our neighbor!" Joan whispered.

Cindy, a fading middle-aged blonde, came up to the microphone, open Bible in hand. She placed it on the podium and ran her finger down the page until she stabbed it at the print. "Our reading today is from the book of Matthew, Chapter 25.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They also will answer, Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.' Laura listened breathlessly. There was a poetry to the words. And she felt that the passage was obviously relevant. She was a stranger, and Jim and Joan had shown her kindness, as had Rosa. She felt grateful for their generosity. She would have wept if her species could have shed tears.

The reverend Wheeler came back to the podium. "And now we shall sing Take My Life and Let It Be." The choir stood up and so did the audience. Laura did so after a slight pause.

The organ started playing again. The crowd sang, "Take my life and let it be, ever, only, all for thee . . ."

Laura was able to follow along some of the words to this song, singing in a high, sweet voice.

Wheeler again stepped up to the microphone.

"Friends, today's Bible verse talks about our essential relationship with our Lord. It speaks of how we treat one another. It tells us what we must do to live our lives as saved Christians . . ." He continued at some length.

The crowd then sang "Crown Him with Many Crowns." Laura was endlessly fascinated by the seemingly endless variety of beautiful harmonies she was hearing. She was able to roughly follow along by reading, although it was still difficult.

Then Emma came back to the microphone and asked the crowd to give money to enable the ministry, to spread the word of the Gospel, to honor Jesus, and to fund the movement's charitable missions. The collection plates were passed around and Laura, following Jim's lead, who put in a twenty dollar bill, stuck in her own meager dollar.

Wheeler closed the service with an admonition to be good Christians and to be kind to one another and to have a good lunch. The choir sang "God be with you til we meet again, may his counsel's guide uphold you . . ."

As they broke for lunch, Joan was beaming. "Wasn't that great?" she chortled. "Kinda makes you feel good all over."

"Makes me glad I was saved," Jim said.

"And who is this?" asked an elderly woman, who obviously knew Jim and Joan well.

"This is Laura . . . Laura, dear, I never did learn your last name," Joan said.

"It's Carter," Laura said, having prepared for this moment. She was introduced to many more people.

The lunch was ample and toothsome. Laura avidly ate fried chicken, potato salad, cole slaw, three-bean salad, sliced ham, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn on the cob (after observing how others ate it), and more. She was as full as she had ever been when they lurched back to the seats under the tent.

The service started anew. The crowd sang, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me . . ."

Wheeler came back to the microphone and started talking about what it meant to be saved. He put such passion and exhortation into his words that Laura felt truly moved. All around her, people seemed rapt. He said, "Now let us proceed to the river. Let us proceed to our baptismal font. Let us shed our sins as we are saved!" Laura noticed that he had changed clothes from his business suit to dungarees and a flannel shirt. She wondered why.

The choir, with participation by the audience, sang "Shall we gather at the river . . ." as a processional as they walked down to the bank. It was a beautiful small river or large creek, rather shallow, with a rocky bottom, fast-moving clear water.

Laura soon understood why the change of clothing. Wheeler began baptizing eager participants, placing his hand behind their backs with the other hand on their fronts as they reclined to be immersed in the stream. She had missed this part of the previous camp meeting. She watched in fascination. These people actually believed they could be made more holy by immersion. It was yet another concept new to her.

On the way home from the meeting, Joan said, "Yeah, Jim and me, we were talking, and we would like to let you live in one of the cabins, if you want to. We never seen the place you're living, but we bet it ain't too nice."

"That's . . . nice of you," Laura replied, falteringly. Her brain was working furiously. Would this be a good idea? Could they find out too much about her? She was pretty much left alone under the bridge except for Rosa inviting her to a few meals. But even an Ieog'eeh appreciated a soft bed, shelter from the weather, security and a chance to get clean regularly. She smiled. "Yes," she said. "That would be nice."

"Well, you can stay tonite, then tomorrow morning after work when Jim takes workers back, he and you can pick up your stuff."

It isn't much."

"I didn't figure."

The next day, Jim stopped at the corner. "I'm close by," Laura said, "I'll be back quickly." She walked away, with Rosa, whom she had told during the day about the deal.

"That's good," Rosa had said. "They're good people and would probably let me stay there, too, but I don't want to be out there far from the city."

Laura gathered her things and quickly bundled them up and made her way back to the truck. She was off to yet another phase of her sojourn on Planet Earth.

Chapter Twenty-One - Trobe

Trobe awoke the next morning feeling very troubled. What was he going to do? He had several options:

1) Take the Movement up on their offer and be assured of becoming the Emporer. But how did he know they were telling the truth? And what kind of control would they have over him if he were emporer? And would they manage the selection process in the future?

2) Reject them and, according to them, be "eliminated." Killed, in other words.

3) Discuss it with A'khor, in which case they said they would eliminate him.

4) Make an escape, necessarily with A'khor. There would be no chance of success in getting away without A'khor.

5) Try to take them all out at the meeting. Considering that probably everyone there had probably had training in martial arts, this did not seem to be a likely option.

6) Notify planetary authorities of their treason the word of a student, Trobe, against that of highly respected political figures.

He lay in bed thinking this over. He couldn't talk it over with A'khor today; the delayed message informed him that he would be away for at least two days, and that he was in good hands. If they were to eliminate him, it would probably be in some way that they could make it appear to be an accident. Logically, it would be here on Hchbor. And he had the rest of the day to think it over.

Trobe did not for one minute think about acceding to their request out of personal ambition. He hadn't asked to be chosen as a candidate for Emporer, and many times had wished he had not. But he did feel misgivings about not having more years to explore life, the universe, and everything.

It is a curious thing that somehow that phrase "Life, the universe, and everything," had somehow made it from Earth's popular culture into the Galactic Standard language at the galactic hub. But the phrase (in Galactic Standard) was exactly what formed his thoughts.

Trobe was at loose ends for the day. He had been urged to roam the open parts of the fortress and to visit the museum on the thirty-eigth floor. There were only four thousand people living at the fortress; many of the floors were storage, offices, mechanical, or other things, not living quarters. The museum occupied an entire floor.

He ordered breakfast but was unable to eat with his usual vigor. Afterwards, he went to the museum. There was a guard at the gate who checked his credentials, and who appeared suitably impressed when he saw them.

Trobe was impressed by the museum. The architecture within, for one thing, leaned heavily towards polished exotic rock, which Trobe always liked. The ceilings were high and the space was vast.

There were cases upon cases of art and objects from around the galaxy. There were twenty-seven panorama rooms featuring odd worlds. Walking into them, it was almost impossible to believe that he was not, in fact, where they pretended to be except he knew that at least two of them did not have an atmosphere but he continued successfully breathing nonetheless. He was possibly to rule over all this, with whomever his empress turned out to be.

That was another issue that he had given some thought. The Emporer and Empress were co-rulers, of course, but more to the point, they were held to be a couple. Trobe suspected that possibly either or both of them had concubines; his species was as sexual as any. Although sex was pretty strange among some species, and some of them only were sexual only every couple of years. Or perhaps they were content with each other and each satisfied the other. He perhaps would know more at some point if he were still alive.

He walked into the panorama for Fzzzt, an odd planet on which life had taken some strange forms. The planetary name had been given by the Kzzg. Most of the planetary surface was invisible, covered by gelatinous, multi-colored mounds of life. There appeared to be only two kinds of life on the planet, the gelatinous things which were actually individual entities of several different but related kinds even though they appeared to flow into one another, and small insect-like creatures that ate them and, curiously, nested in them. In an odd turn of evolution, the food that the small creatures ate controlled their reproductive capacity; the more they ate, the less they could reproduce. The presence of two such radically different types of organisms spoke to a long process of evolution, with many, many previous life forms now extinct. The effect of seeming to stand among the gel entities, with the creature entities fluttering around, under a purple sky was exceedlingly odd.

Which brought up another point that had bothered him for some time. He hadn't felt able to ask A'khor about it. When would he and his female counterpart succeed the emporer and empress? Trobe had the impression that they were sort of put to pasture eventually, but when? Was his selection only one of several successive cycles, each one aborting because the Emporer was not ready to stop being Emporer? And the implications of that meeting last night if they were telling the truth, then they must have some way to kill the Emporer or force him to resign. It was chilling to think about. Trobe had always depended on the Khar'/ai present within the fabric of the palace and the government to keep order and to protect not that the Nerrung needed terribly much protection. Trobe could best all but one of his sparring partners, and they were not pulling punches or taking falls.

He wandered into another planetary panorama, this one for P'rohtkerr, a planet that was mostly ocean, with only about enough land for one small colony. The exhibit, however, was not of the land but simulated being undersea. Bizarre life forms flocked all around Trobe. Here there was a long eel-like creature, easily a ftarbolet long. It had a dozen or so tentacles on the front end, all with sharp, deadly ridges. There was a green creature that could photosynthesize, yet it had a large beak and broad, flat wing-like structures that could be used to pull food to the mouth. And over there, anchored to the seafloor, was a chimney creature. It was several ftarbolets tall, and half one in diameter. It had several very long tentacles that ended in what looked very much like fishes, and which could swim independently, all the while tethered to the creature. They also had jaws that could open at 180 degrees with long, sharp, hooked teeth. A sign noted that this was one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet, and could easily tear to shreds anything that lived there

Trobe felt despondent. How was he going to be able to cope with this situation? It was untenable. There was no winning selection, since if he chose to become emporer (according to them), he would both be giving up some degree of freedom but worse, he would be betraying the empire. Yes, he felt ineluctably that saying yes would be treachery of his soul, no matter how it affected the empire, which he suspected either might be very little or might be frightenintly much, but he would not be guiding those changes. Other persons, possibly known but probably mostly unknown, would be doing that.

Trobe spent the rest of the day in the museum, stopping only for lunch at the small cafe on the premises. Apparently, this museum was open to the public at least at times. Why else such an elaborate museum just for a few thousand people who had seem it many times? Surely it was not for the exclusive use of Imperial personnel. That thought made Trobe feel uncomfortable. Whatever else he was, he was not an elitist snob, despite his peculiar position.

He wandered back to his suite and watched some entertainment programs on the room screen that covered much of one wall. He was still thinking furiously, although most of it was the same thoughts over and over again.

Trobe had decided that he really could accept dying if it meant keeping his honor and his conscience. But what would he leave behind? Who would remember him? By far the closest person to him was A'khor, and who knew how a Khar'/ai felt about such things? His other daily associates were all palace personnel. He had not friends nor even acquaintences his own age.

He also considered that an immense amount of resources had already been put to use in his rearing and training. If he died, that would all go to waste. But if he were not chosen, it would all go to waste, anyway. He was, in fact, mourning before the fact, but was not agitated or manic as some species would have been, only somewhat restless. Nerrungs conserved their energy for the important things.

He was just starting to verge towards some vague semblence of sleep after lying awake for hours, when he was again summoned. Again, the page used a pole to touch him, not trusting safety were he to touch him with his own hand. The page knew how such elite people were trained, and routinely took no chances.

Trobe was wide awake at the touch. "It is time?" he asked.

"It is time," the page said.

Trobe braced himself as he forced himself to enter the room. He knew he had a grim look on his face, but it seemed that everyone in the assemblage also was wearing a grim look. It was exactly the same collection of people, all nine different species, sitting in the same places, all staring at him. It seemed to be an eternity that he stood there, with them staring at him.

This time the first general seemed to be charged with all the talking.

"Have a seat," the general said. Did you spend the day well, Trobe?"

"I got through it," Trobe grimly replied.

"Do you have any questions? Do you need more information?"

"No, I have made up my mind."

"And what is your response?"

"I will NOT be a part of this, whatever the consequences to me."

"You'e sure that is your answer? You've thoroughly thought this through."

"And that is my answer. I will not change it."

"Why did you come to that conclusion? It will take but a second to kill you when we're ready."

"Because of my honor, because of my commitment to the Empire, because we have a good, workable system and any change of regime would almost certainly tip the balance in worse directions."

"And you realize, do not you, that one of the other two candidates will almost certainly accept our offer? You were our first choice, but the others will do."

"I know that. But I cannot be a part of it."

"Then you know what will await you. When we're good and readly. You will not see it coming. I ask you once more: will you be a part of the movement as our titular head, or do you choose death?"

"Then I suppose I choose death. But I will fight it with all that I have."

"Very well, but it will do you no good. Leave this room."

The general tapped the summons for the page. Trobe was escorted out of the chamber and taken back to his apartment. Even after this fourth trip, the way was so convoluted that Trobe suspected he could never find it again.

He spent the rest of the night in bed, but he slept not at all. It was the beginning of the end, he could see. The rest of his life, however long it might be, would not be easy. Indeed, it would be quite uneasy.

Chapter Twenty-Two - Tenxis

In a reading room deep in the stacks, Tenxis pored over histories and plans of the shell. He had been working on it for at least two hours, and had not seen another human being during that time. He was able to find old maps that showed Wootrah Way as a through street, with attendant side streets that were no longer there. There was nothing remarkable shown in the "blank" area. It looked just like any other area on the map.

He could find nothing in histories of the shell. Through the maps, however, he was able to set the date of closure to within a seven-year period, from 342 to 349 years before. That was close to, but not coincident with, the last Hive invasion. Why would this area be closed? He could see no reason.

How could he find out more? He had failed to find anything in an exhaustive library search. But, wait, he had searched through the computer. What if he delved into the physical stacks of the library? Such a thing would be highly unusual, but it was certainly not prohibited just seen as unnecessary effort.

His school work was too intensive for the rest of the week, but on the weekend, instead of taking one of his walks, he went to the library. He checked into the stacks and was guided into a climate-controlled clean room where he was required to shower, decontaminate, and wear a clean suit and gloves. He called for the books that he wanted through an automated system, which delivered them quickly as few people were ever using the system.

He started with histories of that time historical documents of the university, of the shell, of the empire. After hours of searching, he came across a marginal note written in with pencil: "fail safe fail." There was an arrow pointing on the page to a paragraph. The paragraph read, "The University was instrumental in engineering new weapons systems for defense against the Hive Races. Several important innovations came out of University programs, including the quark resonator, the meson energizer, and the tau capture field."

Huh. Those were subjects right up Tenxis' alley. He was familiar with the quark resonator, but unfamiliar with the other two weapons. The quark resonator could cause spin resonance of selected quarks leading to the disruption of atomic nuclei, resulting in major nuclear explosions, but the energy input required was far too much for a spaceship or even a city it required a developed planet's worth of energy to operate! Still, if the hive races were attacking a civilized planet, the sacrifice could and needed to be made to divert all energy to such a weapon. However, there were only five of them ever built, and they were all old. Tenxis was sure that none of them were still functional, although the Nrangijwa had been maintained until a century or so in the past. Apparently, these weapons were only used once (on Nrangijwa), and had been successful but crippled the planet-wide power grid. It took decades to rebuild the damage, it was so severe. The weapon not only attacked the enemy, it attacked the user.

But a meson energizer? A tau capture field? What were those about? How could a meson energizer work? Mesons only lasted fractions of a second before winking out of existence or decaying into other particles. Tenxis supposed that they could be related to the quark resonator, since a meson only consisted of two quarks. But he still could not see how they could be relevant. And the tau capture field? This surely meant the tauon or the tau neutrino. However, it was difficult to imagine a tau neutrino being useful as a weapon since neutrino interactions were so sparse, uncertain, and difficult to observe. If it was the tauon, what good would it do to capture them? They weren't exactly mainstream particles in the basic physics of the universe. Not only were they rare, but their known lifespan was vanishingly short - 2.9 10 13 seconds!

This was the only such reference to these weapons he could find in an entire day searching. Could they have anything to do with the closed section? If so, how?

And why did this document exist here but this passage was not on computer records? If they wanted to expunge this information, why was it here? He looked at the online catalog again, and saw there were seven copies of this document. He ordered them all. All the others had been tampered with to remove the mention of the meson energizer and the tau capture field.

But this was still a tenuous and marginal reference. The galaxy was a big place, and there was no reason to think that the blank area, as Tenxis had come to think of it, was linked to his own personal mystery. What they both had in common was an absence of information. He was acutely aware that absence of evidence is not evidence of anything, much less absence although under certain circumstances it could imply a hush-up.

But what about that marginal note?? "Fail safe fail?" That sounded ominous at best, especially when applied to a weapons system or multiple weapons systems. The removal of the sentence portion was only possible because it occupied only a part of the last line in a paragraph.

Tenxis knew he would have to investigate this further. He now had two personal mysteries to clear up. But it was too late, and he was due at the lab early. Perhaps the next gathering at Kir'don's would shed some light on these.

They gathered once again at Kir'Don's for their third gathering since Tenxis and Jed had joined. Everyone that Tenxis had met so far was there. Supper was not yet ready, and they had been chatting. Tenxis spoke up.

"Excuse me, please, everyone. I have a problem that I hope you may be able to help me with."

"Explain away," Kir'Don said.

"There is a closed-off area at the edge of the university. It is mostly within the university grounds, but also partly outside. It appears to be sealed. I can find no way in. Passages have been modified to hide its existence. It is located on Helegrath Street at Wootrah Way."

Most of the assemblage looked blank. "Nothing I ever heard of," said Derrig.

"Nor I," said Turrip, Orrup.

"It is a mystery to me as well," said Kik.

Royoho looked thoughtful. "That sounds vaguely familiar," she said. "Something one of my family once said, I think about having to close off and seal an area."

"I also seem to recall something about that," Kir'Don said.

"It may have something to do with a failed weapons system."

"Please elaborate," Derrig said.

"I found a reference in one source to three weapon systems that seem to no longer exist. At least, I think they were weapons systems. I cannot think of what other purpose they could serve. They were the quark resonator, the meson energizer, and the tau capture field. Apparently, the quark resonator was tested at some point. In the margin of the page of the reference where I found this information was a note penciled in "fail safe fail" with an arrow pointing to that sentence."

"Huh." Kik said. "I will have to look into this."

Turrip, Orrup looked thoughtful. "I do remember hearing something about a quark weapon. But only that it had not worked. And that was many years ago."

"So we can assume that the quark resonator actually existed, was tested, and failed," Tenxis said. "But what about the meson energizer and the tau capture field? Neither one seems to make much sense, and I can find no other reference. And does the quark resonator or the others have anything to do with the sealed-off area?"

"This is the first I have heard about the closed area," Kir'Don said. "I have been around a long time. But I was not associated with the University at that time. Is it just on one level?"

"I'm not sure," Tenxis said. "I have only verified it on one level, and it does not go above that level. It could, however, go below that level. Do any of you have ideas on how to continue my research to find out more?" Tenxis said.

"I suspect that is something we will have to think about," Turrip, Orrup said.

"There are some people I can talk to," Kir'don said. "People much older than me, with longer yet more complete memories. Let me make inquiries."

"We all can do that," Derrig said. The others all nodded.

Chapter Twenty-Three - Jed

"I heard a rumor about a race called the Thrifgrints. I never heard of them before." Kik hesitated. "I don't know about such a rumor, but someone told me that they are planning some kind of attack on a neighboring planet. They are not of Empire, I know, but I am not sure where they are."

"I know," said Kir'Don. "They are pretty far out. And every rumor deserves to be investigated, especially if it can save lives. Derrig, can you pass this on through the appropriate channels?"

"I will do so," Derrig said.

"And while you are still here," chirped Kir'don. "Let me tell you about the Thrifgrints' love life. Their entire social structure revolves around sex. While they are male and female in gender, they are superficially hermaphroditic. A normal social greeting involves mutual intromission, whether between opposite genders or the same gender. Social intercourse, if you excuse my phraseology, is only quite shallow in terms of penetration, as both male and female vaginas are not very long. However, a female cannot be impregnated in this way. A male goes into rut several times per year, during which times his penis becomes quite engorged and publicly obvious. Then a female only allows him to enter her by choice. His penis secretes chemicals then that open up her vagina at a deeper level and allows greater penetration and thus fertilization."

"So the female's body really is a gatekeeper?" Royoho asked.

"Indeed. It is her conscious choice. But if she makes that choice, then her body takes over and she is totally committed."

They concluded their session for that day. As Jed rose to leave, making his apologies for doing so, Derrig also announced, "I too must go. Time is so fleeting."

They exited together. "I have seen you on my transport before," Jed said.

"And I you. So let us take it together."

As they walked to the station, Jed said, "I think the Nerrung are a beautiful race, and you are an excellent example."

"Well, thank you," she said. They sat in silence, awaiting the transport.

After a time, Derrig spoke. "I have found you fascinating since I met you. Your scent reminds me of a Nerrung yet is sharply different, but not in an unpleasant way. You appear to be shaped so much like a Nerrung."

"I always thought so," Jed said. "Which means that the Vorg are shaped like Nerrung, too."

"Except to a Nerrung nose, they smell rather unappetizing. We have a very strong sense of smell."

"I'm glad you like it," Jed said. "I try to avoid smelling much."

"As do most species," she laughed. "But we can still smell you even if you've just taken an antiseptic shower."

""I wish I could show you Earth," Jed blurted. "It is such a beautiful place."

She gave him a calculated look. "I think I would like to learn much more about Earth and its inhabitants," she said. "Perhaps it is time to get started."

Jed took the cue. "Would you like to come by and talk for a while?"

"Yes. I have nowhere else I must be yet today. I would like that."

They chatted on the way to his place, telling each other about their homeworlds. Jed discovered that Derrig had been on the planetary surface at the core of the shells. Apparently, very few Nerrung made it there, although it was their ancestral home world. She explained that wars many centuries ago had ravaged the sphere, and it was just now beginning to be liveable again, even with centuries of intensive effort.

At Jed's, he opened the door and ushered her in. She sat beside him on the couch. They talked of Jed's home world. He told her in detail about where he'd grown up and gone to school and about the people there and the jobs that he had had.

They reached an awkward pause in the conversation. Jed blushed.

"You know, I really like you," he said.

She smiled back at him. "I really like you, too. Would you like to kiss me?"

He reached over and drew her to him.

Chapter Twenty-Four - Trobe

Trobe eyed A'khor carefully. A'khor had just returned after two days. I wonder, thought Trobe, whether he can tell that something happened. But then, it was difficult to tell what any Khar'/la thought about anything, even when you had already spent your entire life in intimate association with one..

Trobe knew that if any person with equivalent arms came into conflict with him and A'khor, or even almost any person against just one of them, that the other person would be defeated. In fact, it would take a fairly large group, well- armed, to be able to prevail against the two. But that wasn't what he was worried about. It was the sneak attack. Between them, the two had senses that theoretically could not be fooled. Ah, but Trobe knew there was always a way to fool any wetware system. And if he was going to be taken down, he fervently did not want to take A'khor down with him.

"You are quiet this morning," A'khor observed. "How did you spend your time while I was away? Did anything out of the ordinary happen?"

"Oh, no, I just went to the museum and I wandered around."

"You look as if you have not slept well."

"A bit of insomnia. This is an awful lot of input in a short period of time."

"That is what I would hope to hear," A'khor said, "that you would continue to be learning while I was gone. It is time to pack to move on to the next planet."

They packed and found the ship waiting. Trobe realized that one of the best starships in existence had just waited two days for him. He knew he was an emporer candidate, but still . . .

Trobe again piloted the ship into interstellar space. He locked the ship to a propeller beam, which did much of the work of accelerating it into space. When he had piloted the ships on the shell world, they were in a low-gravity environment that could easily be escaped by craft. Of course, the shells also had propeller beams for a quicker takeoff, but this was the first time Trobe had used one. When into space beyond the planet's heaviest pull, he turned over the controls to the captain. They were going to the world of Niulegarfispatling next. It was a Grain planet. He had never seen the Grain on their home world. The journey would take about a week.

They were just finishing lunch in private (and Trobe sometimes thought, A'khor eats well, I know he can't be a robot) and Trobe blurted out, "A'khor, am I really only one of three candidates? All my training may have been for nothing?"

"Training is never for naught. But where did you hear this, Trobe?"

"You'd be surprised where one can hear things if one tries."

"Indeed. I will neither confirm nor deny that."

With most non-Khar'/las, this would have been an admission. But with a Khar'/las, Trobe knew that he meant exactly what he said. He had said it many times before after which the revealed fact could be on either side of the equation. A'khor often had obscure reasons for being reticent about some topics.

"Before we arrive at Niulegarfispatling," A'khor told Trobe, "We will be making another stop beforehand. I want you to meet someone on Xorxx."

"But i already set the coordinates for Grain space," Trobe said, astonished.

"Those coordinates were intercepted and replaced. By me."

"Oh. How long before we arrive, then?"


"We will be in the city of Tethra, an ancient historic city. It dates from more primitive days and still has much ancient architecture."

"Who will we be seeing?"

"Her name is Tethrys. She is named after the city even though she was born far from it."

"What is she?"

"I will explain that when we arrive at her place."

If there was one place that Trobe felt safe, it was aboard an Imperial starship, barring attack from without. So he slept a quantum better that night. But he suspected that leaving the ship to visit the unknown person could be a suitable venue for attack in any number of ways.

They emerged into normal space in the glow of a red dwarf. Trobe knew it would be a few hours before they arrived at the planet, since emergence could not be terribly close to a planetary body. He sat and thought and ran a variety of scenarios through his mind.

"We will be there in a few minutes," A'khor said. "Then we will make our visit."

"Yet today?"


"A'khor, I know this is a strange place and tjat going any place like incurs much more in the way of risk than to many other places. I just want you to know that I can deal with it."

"Indeed, A'khor said. "In the meantime, you will put these robes over your own clothing and ensure that nothing of wealth or Emprie can be seen protruding out. We will travel the streeat incognito."

Incognito? Perhaps for Trobe, but not A'khor.

"I know what you are probably thinking, Trobe. We will separate and follow different routes to our destination. This is part of your testing, in a way."

"Are we going now?"

"No, we will wait until dark."

The sun was immense in the sky, closer to the planet than Trobe had ever experienced a sun to be. Setting, as he watched it, it seemed to consume the entire western horizon. It cast a very reddish light, and the moon, as it rose slightly before sunset, did as well when reflecting it. It felt tiring to walk under such a light.

They left the ship in the early evening and were guided to an office in the terminal building nearby by someone who apparently had A'khor's trust. They waited an hour until full darkness except for the moonlight -- then slipped out one by one, with Trobe first.

Trobe was able to follow A'khor's directions, although they were rather long and complex. Part of Trobe's training had been memory training, and he was putting it to good use now.

The streets of the city were more than remnants of ancient architecture. The whole city was ancient, or at least so much of it as was visible to Trobe. Narrow, winding streets and stone paving. The streets were far from empty, with people people frequently passing. Trobe was on maximum alert.

The people passing were mostly Xorxxians. They were a humanoid species with very broad faces, and almost indiscernible necks. Their faces resembled those of an Ossbonal. They seemed to have exceptionally long arms for their size. Their skin glowed an amber red, but different from the color of an Ossbonal. Their hair, which covered the backs of their necks and under their chins, but not on their faces, was as black as any Trobe had seen. Trobe did not hear one word of Galactic Standard, but only Xorxxian, which was a curiously sibilant language.

While walking down one of the narrower streets, Trobe suddenly felt a prickling on his neck. He had learned to trust this feeling, and he immediately darted for a convenient inset doorway. He heard a terrible noise behind him, and was able to turn in time to see the parapet of a building come crashing into the street. He felt sickened as he saw several people crushed. There was a tremendous amount of dust billowing, and Trobe used it to cover his escape. He felt guilt about leaving the scene behind, but under the circumstances, he knew he could do nothing that would not be done anyway.

Trobe stealthily continued until he came to the door he was seeking with no further incident. It was an ancient dwelling made of an adobe-like substance, with a high peaked roof. As he approached, the door swung open, and there stood A'khor.

"In, quickly! You look dusty," said A'khor.

"There was a sudden breeze and a lot of dust," Trobe said, not willing to admit that the parapet falling might have been an attempt on his life.

"Well come in, and come into the inner chambers," A'khor said.

He ushered Trobe in and seated him in the empty room. After a moment, an older woman came in. Trobe recognized her she was one of the seventeen in the deep room. She was similar to but unlike the Xorxxians Trobe had already seen. Her hair was a very light green.

"Trobe, meet Arghana," A'khor said. "She is the Empire's ambassador to this planet."

But "

"Trobe, that was a test. Arghana is not disloyal. None of the seventeen are. I not only knew about the meetings, I planned them. Had you chosen to go with the conspiracy, you would have been eliminated. Only by making the choice that you did could you survive."

Trobe felt a chill go down his back. "But " He considered a moment. "There was an accident on my way here that would have killed me had I been slightly slower. I assumed that was an attack on my life."

"What happened in the street, Trobe?" asked Arghana.

"A building parapet came down in the street. It land directly where I was walking."

"Indeed," A'khor said. "And where was this?"

"The Way of Many Sounds."

It did not escape Trobe's notice that A'khor and Arghana exchanged glances.

""And now you think it was an accident?" A'khor asked.

"I do not know."

"Trobe." Arghana paused. "Trobe, what did you feel when it was happening? What did you feel when you felt you had to move quickly?"

"That someone was trying to kill me."

Both Arghana and A'Khor were silent for a moment. Then they said, nearly together, "We must leave! Immediately!"

"In here," said Arghana, hurrying through the house, beckoning them to follow her. They lost no time in following her; the house could be attacked at any moment.. She led them through the kitchen, which was surprisingly modern for the obvious age of the house, to the rather large pantry, and down ancient stone steps in the building's cool, musty and humid cellar, which obviously also served as part of the pantry. Once down there, she did something that Trobe couldn't see, and an entire wall of shelves split in the middle, opening into the room noiselessly and easily. He could see a tunnel beyond.

"Down the tunnel and keep going," she urged them.

They passed through the door, Arghana securing it behind them, and they hurried down the rough tunnel, shored up by timbers and heavy boards. It was surprisingly dry, although rather musty. Trobe felt a slight air movement, so it was ventilated in some way. It seemed to be very old but very sound.

After walking for some distance which Trobe guessed was about sixty ftarbolets, they stopped briefly so Arghana could catch her breath. "I'm not so young anymore, you know," she said.

Trobe touched one of the timbers then tapped a finger against it. It seemed to be hard as iron. "Many of those timbers come from the Khrang trees," Arghana said. "It is the hardest wood known in the galaxy. The fact that they were able to cut it at all was something of a miracle. Someone discovered a microbe that could eat it and that could be controlled, and that is the only way the trees could come down and be cut up. They are not terribly large trees. The timbers you see are the trunks of some of the bigger trees. Let us go on, now, I have caught my breath enough."

After walking another shorter distance, they came to a door. Arghana did something to open the door, and they stepped through into a very modern room, with semi-glossy walls and lockers. And it was clean.

Arghana started rooting through the lockers and pulling things out. As she did, the ground trembled about them. It was only one shock wave, but it was well-felt. Trobe felt it passing through his body, down to his core, and felt a slight twinge of nausea.

"There it goes," she said.

A'khor told Trobe, "She means that whoever it is have blown up her house and office."

"And in the process," Arghana said, "triggered explosives that have completely collapsed the tunnel. They won't be able to see where the tunnel led until tomorrow when the street starts caving into the space, and we must be away. Here, wear this," handing Trobe a robe that looked like it belonged on a wild animal.

"I have been the Empirical ambassador to this planet for three hundred fifty-nine years, and have lived in that house for two hundred three of those years," she said. "My position is supposed to be as sacred as any on the planet. I am certain that this was not the work of Xorxxians, but of off-worlders.

"We will disguise as the Pershkin, the rural herders of thrdels, who wear these heavy hooded robes. They are only distantly related to the rest of us Xorxxians. These are thrdel skins. Of course, if they are looking for us, they'll be looking hard at anyone wearing thrdel skin robes, but at least we're less conspicuous as they are often in town in small groups. Now we are going to leave through the official storerooms of the planetary government."

"Then we will go to the ship," A'khor said. "I have already signaled them."

"Come over and look at this," Arghana said. She gestured to a small screen that she had turned on. It showed a scene of devastation. "That is a satellite feed showing where my house was. If we had stayed, we would be bits of soft stuff among the rubble."

"What is going on?" Trobe asked.

"We do not know yet," A'khor said. "We just knew there is trouble. Arghana's race has some slight clairvoyance, and she was able to know that destruction was coming."

Arghana picked up a rectangle of some plastic-like material. "Here, hold this in front of your face and stand just there, so, under the light." She handed Trobe was he could see was a false identification card, and positioned him. Then she did something at the edge of the card with a small instrument that she had retrieved from a locker. "Keep your pose," she said, and after a few seconds, she said, "Okay, now done. Look at the card."

Nothing about the card was Trobe except for the general description and the fact that his face was now on the card. The name on the card was Hishka Bzorf. A'khor and Arghana did the same. The picture wasn't a mirror image of his face, though, it was as others would see it.

"Now, look at the card again." She turned on a much brighter light and seated Trobe, positioning him just so. This time she put the card in a holder she'd also retrieved from a locker, that was at the end of a mechanical arm fastened to the wall. "Hold as absolutely still as you can." She again did something to the card with the small instrument.

Trobe sat there, this time for at least a minute, and Arghana touched the card with the instrument. "You can move now."

"What was that?"

"A retinal recording. Every species with eyes has some kind of retina, so it is as close to universal ID as we can get."

"Yes, I knew that. But I have never known you could record it this easily."

A'khor spoke. "There is technology that is unknown to the planets and species that is nonetheless distributed to trusted agents of the Empire," he said. "And I am next."

Arghana went through the same procedure with A"khor, then put away the holder and the small instrument.

"What about you, Arghana?" asked Trobe.

"I first prepared mine centuries ago," she said, "and I have updated it every few decades. I'm ready to go. When we get to the spaceport, we'll shed our robes and go as these," Arghana explained. "I am now Ghrandla. And A'Khor is now K'razf. First, let us eat and drink something while we're safe. If we can't reach the spaceport, it may be a while before we can eat again." She pulled supplies out of another locker. They ate silently.

They hoisted the shoulder bags that she gave them, then put on the animal skin robes over them. She turned to Trobe and asked him, "What are our names?

"Hishka, Ghrandla, and K'razf," he replied.

"Good," she said, and she opened another door. It opened silently, and as they went though, it closed silently behind them. They hurried down a short corridor, then down another one, and another one, passing chambers along the way. They eventually reached an area where people were passing to and fro, and there was natural light. They came to a door where there was a guard station, but the guards were checking people coming in, not out. They walked to the door, as the level they were on was now on the ground level, and went into the street.

They walked leisurely, trying to blend in as Pershkins. The hoods of the robes amply covered their faces, and animal skin gloves covered their hands. They got looks in the street, which Trobe suspected was largely because A'khor was so tall and Arghana was so short even wearing elevated shoes she'd put on in the room; they presented quite a contrast. The group approached the spaceport and ducked into a dark tunnelway to discuss their approach.

"We should be safe once we're on spaceport grounds," A'khor said. "They maintain very effective forcefields for anything larger in size than a flying kroooft, and nothing can get through. But we must maintain our disguises. It will be obvious to the guards at the gate that we're the species that we are, and that we simply are wearing the robes of the Pershkins. However, a guard could be on the payroll of our enemy, whoever they area, so it is best if we use the false identification. Knowing Ghrandla, these identification cards will be effective."

"But we can trust that there will be surveillance near the spaceport gates, if they were sophisticated enough to make two attempts on your life already," Arghana said. She pulled out a zfor'tinla.

"Here we have a good view of the gate area," she said. "Pull yours out, too, and let me give you access to these cameras." They did so and she worked with them a moment and handed them back. "We need to try to identify whom the agents may be."

"There," said A'khor, pointing to his screen, "there is a suspicious one. He is obviously loitering with no purpose, except for looking at his zfor'tinla, and with no social interaction." They looked at this screen.

"There is another one," Trobe said. "She is working on painting a wall, but she is taking plenty of furtive glances over towards the gate."

"The spaceport has three gates," Arghana said. "Surely they wouldn't have enough agents on this planet to employ more than two per gate."

"Except here is another one," A'khor said. "She is pretending to tend a small garden, but she, too, is making apparent glances. And she has a zfor'tinla thata she is concealing but looking at frequently."

"But what can we do about them?" Trobe asked,.

"Follow me," said Arghana. She led them a short distance back up the street, then down a dark alleyway, coming onto another very narrow street. They followed her back towards the spaceport, and she gestured them to be close to a wall. She gestured forward, and there was the Xorxxian looking at his zfor'tinla. He resembled Arghana more than the other Xorxxians that Trobe had seen. Trobe had not seen many of them that appeared so. A'khor waited until he turned his back completely towards them, then approached him at incredible speed and did something from behind. The person went limp, but A'khor was supporting him as he moved backwards and laid the body out of sight of the other agents.

"Now we walk quickly to the gate," A'khor said. "The initial assumption of the other two will be that we've already been scrutinized by this agent."

They did so. They were going to a different gate than that which they had used on the way in, with different guards. They got into a short line, and they were soon being investigated by the guards. Out of the corner of his eye, Trobe could see the Xorxxian tending the garden look up in surprise and slip into the building.

They were admitted through the gate, showing the credentials that Arghana had taken out of the lockers, and having their retinas checked. They received odd looks, but the guards apparently felt that the credentials were in order.

The ship was out on a side pad.

"Can we have a shuttle out to the Ebla'ta?" A'khor asked a Xorxxian who appeared to be a porter. He had named a much smaller craft positioned near the ISS Dree in order to mask their destination.

"I am so sorry," said he. "But the shuttles all stopped working this morning. We're trying to find out why. You'll have to walk."

Arghana had a pained expression on her face. As usual, A'khor was unreadable, but his voice gave away some frustration.

"So we must walk," he said. The porter guided them down a corridor and to a door, where they exited. They were still twenty or so ftarbolets from the ship.

"Walk quickly!" A'khor hissed. They did so. The walk seemed interminable. Halfway across the pavement, Trobe and A'khor simultaneously turned their heads in alarm, and Arghana also did so in response to them. A'khor, with his tremendous strength, heaved Arghana out of the way and onto the pavement as Trobe did the same in another direction. The missile exploded between them.

Chapter Twenty-Five - Kilyawa ^^Day 78

Deka was entered the salon of Kilyawa's chambers. Kilyawa was sitting there reading.

"Deka," Kilyawa asked, "Do you know all of the other Khar'/ai here at the palace?"

"But of course."

"How many of you are there?"


"The emperor, the empress, the prince, and me that counts for four. What do the other eight do?"

"That I cannot tell you. You will know someday when you are empress."

"Which will be how long now?" Kilyawa had asked this question many times, although she knew the answer. The real answer, not just Deka's answer. Deka's answer was always the same.

"In due time, when you are ready and the empress retires."

Which, according to what Kilyawa knew, was about 33 years ahead. Surely she would be far more than ready by then.

"It is soon time for field work," Deka also said.

"Finally! I have been wanting to get out of this palace for years!"

"And you've been out many times. You've already visited five other worlds."

"Yes, and I was younger and less knowledgeable. Not mention the fact that five is a very small number, and they were all near to here."

"Admittedly. So now you may consider yourself to becoming a star galactic traveler."

If anyone else had said than a Khar'/ai, Kilyawa would have expected at least a smirk to accompany such a remark. But the Khar'/ai seemed to never smile. Kilyawa suspected that they could not.

"Where will we go?"

"We will travel mostly in the D sector."

"Which is the region that has suffered the most incursions by the Hive Races."

"Correct. It will help to add to your sense of history to see it on the ground."

"Well, I'm ready."

"You'll be ready as soon as you go through your transformation."

"But I'm nowhere near that," Kilyawa said confusedly.

"Closer than you think. Our tests predict that it will begin within the next few days."

"And I'll know it is beginning because I will become ravenously hungry?"

"And more lethargic and sleeping longer. You slept an extra half-hour just this morning."

The change was moderately difficult for Kilyawa. During the two weeks leading up to the great sleep, she ate wolfishly and gained 20 pounds. She not only felt naturally lethargic, but the extra weight she was carrying made her even more so. She felt too sluggish to exercise, and Deka did not urge her to do so. Kilyawa had difficulty studying or even reading, and eventually just sat in a chair and watched video dramas.

At last she went into the sleep. The metamorphosis for girls was a bit shorter than for boys, typically lasting only forty-eight days.

Kilyawa awoke and found it took several long seconds to orient herself. Where was she? For that matter, who was she and what was she doing? It all came back to her with reasonable celerity. She was Kilyawa, Imperial princess, and she had just gone through sexual maturing.

Her body certainly felt different. Felt different and was different. She had a shape differing from her girlhood shape. Of course, she now knew that she looked like a woman, and not just a girl actually, just a youngster since young boys and girls resembled each other so much.

She gingerly started easing herself out of bed. She had to use the bathroom very urgently, but getting up was difficult. She felt woozy and unsure of her step. But she made it into the bathroom where she remained for an hour, then took a shower. Afterwards, she was famished.

She paged Deka. "Deka, I'm up," she said.

"Have you eaten yet?"

"Not yet."

"Well, order some food and get yourself fed. That is very important right now. I will be there soon."

Kilyawa ordered a large meal. She ate the entire thing, then ordered another meal, and was just finishing it up when Deka came in.

"Have you had enough to eat?" Deka asked.

"Yes, but am I going to always eat this much?"

"No, your appetite will taper off in a few days."

"I feel strange, sort of like my body needs something else."

"You have achieved sexual maturity, and those are sexual feelings. I think it is time to introduce you to your chosen consort."


"When you're done eating and have cleaned up."

Kilyawa finally had her fill of food, then went and meticulously cleaned herself, and donned clothing that she hoped was becoming. Then she waited nervously. "Now what?" she said.

"I will go get him," Deka said. Deka ushered in a young Nerrung male. "Kilyawa, this is Bildol. He has been chosen to be your consort."

"Uh, hello," Kilyawa said, shyly.

He seemed just as shy in his response. "I am pleased to meet you."

"I will leave you two to get aquainted for the next two hours," Deka said, leaving. "I expect you to explore each other's bodies during this time."

Kilyawa felt nervous but somehow her body felt eager, more eager than she could ever have imagined.

"You are beautiful," Bildol said.

"Thank you. You are as well."

"So what has it been like to be the princess?"

"I think that I have enjoyed it. Much of my enjoyment comes from the opportunity to just learn, to learn as much as possible. I also know that I have been sheltered from harm and from want, and have had an easy life, although some of my training has been rigorous."

"I guess I will get to see what your life is like, now."

"Were you born on the inner shell?"

"No, I come from the outer shell. My parents were very pleased when I was chosen for this role."

""Did you get training for your role?" Kilyawa asked, mischievously.

"But of course," he said. "I was taught about many things at court and of the Imperial family. I was also well-taught in giving pleasure."

"Perhaps we should try that now." She felt emboldened. "Please take off your clothing and show me your body."

Bildol stood and stripped, slowly. The pants came off last, and he had difficulty removing them because of his rigid erection.

"Wow," Kilyawa said. "That is a penis? I have seen them in videos, but never one in person."

"That is it," Bildol said, "But I will not use it in you yet. First I will try to excite your body in other ways."

And he did. And then he made it feel like the bottom dropped out of her world, that there was nobody in the universe except the two of them.

Chapter Twenty-Six - Laura

Life on the farm was routine but pleasant. Laura started doing a variety of other chores. She learned to care for the livestock not a commercial operation, as the farm made its money from produce, but enough to supply the farm and sell at the farmer's market. She learned basic fencing and house repair. She realized that part of the reason that Jim and Joan welcomed her to the farm was that they were aging and finding much of the work to be more difficult. It was past planting or picking season now, and stretching on towards winter. That was fine with her, as it gave her even more of an excuse to keep well-covered up.

At some point, Joan started dropping some hints about possibly moving into the house, but Laura was happy in the transient's cabin. It gave her a greater degree of privacy.

While she wasn't working, she enjoyed roaming the woods. However, spare hours were relatively few as she was also drafted to help with the cooking. She began knowing nothing,

"I can't believe you don't know nothing about cooking, Joan said. "Didn't you mother teach you anything?"

"We always ate in a community meal area. I was always assigned to other chores. I saw people cooking, but never really observed them."

"That sounds like an interesting community approach. Well, we've been to a few community type meals, but we all pitched in to cook beforehand," Joan said.

"But I'm ready to learn. And willing. In fact, I'm eager to learn." Laura was starting to handle contractions quite well.

"And learn you shall."

Laura learned fast. Within the month, she was cooking with the best of them. She learned to roll exquisite pie crusts, she made moist, delicious cake, she made extra-fruity turnovers, and found a recipe for Pennsylvania-Dutch style sticky buns that made people stop in their tracks. She was starting to gain a reputation. But she didn't want to rest on her laurels. She wanted to learn it all. She started on breads. She made plain white bread, then whole-wheat and rye, then salt-rising, raisin bread, and pita bread. She was as eager a learner as Joan had ever seen no, a much MORE eager learner than she had ever seen.

All this time, she was also working out in the field. Jim and Joan marveled at her energy. Of course, she was far younger than they were, but still . . .

She knew she had to get a passport to get to the station in Europe. But how? It was impossible while living at the farm. It was remote and isolated, and she was with Joan and/or Jim during almost all her waking hours. They knew she needed a passport, but assumed she already had one. If she was trying to get one without any documentation, it would have raised too many awkward questions.

But she became closer with Joan and Jim. She yearned to tell them the truth about her and her origins. The strongest reason that she refrained was their strong religious bent. She was afraid that an alien might not fit in so well in their belief system.

But still she didn't move into the house, preferring the privacy of her cabin.

One night, after dark, she was alone in the cabin changing for bed. She had undressed to take a shower, and was nonchalantly walking naked back into the bedroom. She dressed for the night, and sat on the bed. Then the door to the cabin burst open and Jim stood there, raging.

"WHAT ARE YOU?" he screamed. "You're a demon, sent to torture us! Admit it! You're nothing from God, you're no Christian woman, you're a demon!

"No, no, I'm just an alien," Laura tried to say. He wasn't listening. He continued screaming. She realized that he'd seen her through the window. She had no idea why he was out so late; it was uncharacteristic for him, but here he was.

"Begone, demon!" he screamed. Then he stopped abruptly, and rushed out of the room. She heard him mutter "my gun, gotta get my gun."

She hurriedly slipped on her shoes and grabbed some clothing and her money and fled into the night.

Chapter Twenty-Seven - Trobe

The spaceport energy field was apparently still working, as the missile had been very small. So small that, while it would have killed them had they been standing, it failed to kill them prone on the pavement a short distance away. Because it had dug slightly into the pavement before exploding, most of the shrapnel went over their heads.

Arghana sat up, dazed. A'khor was on his feet quickly. Trobe quickly got up and they scurried to the ship.

Once inside the airlock, Trobe said, "I have got some shrapnel in my side." Arghana had none, as A'khor's body had shielded her well. A'khor's side showed obvious scrapings, but his incredibly touch exoskeleton had prevented any penetration.

"Why did you not shield Trobe?" asked the captain, out of breath, arriving on the scene.

"Trobe could respond adequately," A'khor said. "Arghana could not. They are both important."

They made their way to the ship without further incident. Apparently the missile was the only one the would-be assassins had. On board ship, they went to the medical bay. A technician there wasted no time in extracting the shrapnel from Trobe, none of which had penetrated deeply, and dressed his wounds.

The ship took off, quickly. The booster beam was working, but they were soon beyond its reach. The ISS Dree was one of the rare starships that could land on a planet and take off again unassisted. Trobe had been expected to do the piloting off the planet, but given the situation, there was no time for that. When it achieved space flight, the three made their way from the acceleration couches to the loungs. The captain joined them.

"You can ask me anything,"Arghana said. "I will answer."

"So are you a Xorxxian?" Trobe asked her. "You do not look quite like the others I saw on the way here."

"Yes, I am a Xorxxian, but I am from almost the other side of the planet. Our two peoples have been separated so long that we're considered a different species. We can interbreed, but offspring is usually sterile. But neither species can interbreed at all with the Pershkins. There are three large continents, and the red Xorxxians are from the largest, the Pershkins are on the next largest, and my species, the blues, are on the smallest."

"Why do they call you the reds and the blues? You do not look even faintly blue."

"New born babies have a bluish tint."

"How did you become ambassador?"

"I went through twenty-four years of higher education. I then worked for one of the larger agricultural concerns on the planet as an administrator for almost forty years. Then I apprenticed to the planetary government for six years as an executive assistant. I then transferred to the state department and became embassy staff on several planets for another thirty-five years. Then I transferred to the Galactic state department, where I worked my way up for another forty-nine years. Then I was offered by current post, and took it, quite early, I must say."

"Then you are over five hundred thirty years old," Trobe said in surprise.

"Yes, my species are exceptionally long-lived. But it comes with a price as we have a very low reproductive rate. Our society has come perilously close to collapse several times because of this."

"There are only three known species with longer average lifespans," Captain Khardin said. "My own species, the Ossbonals seldom survive past two hundred fifty years old. But we're fantastic while we're alive." She smiled to let Trobe know she was being facetious. The Ossbonal smile much like humans.

"But you must rest now," A'khor said. "You must not expend your energies too much while you heal."

And Trobe realized he was utterly exhausted. He spent the next two days resting and watching programs on his room's screen.

On the third day, he came out to the bridge. He looked in astonishment at what he saw on the displays. Once again, they were not going to Niulegarfispatling, the Grain planet, but rather to another destination.

"What is going on?" he asked the captain. "I see our destination has changed again."

"For safety reasons," the captain said. "After your experience on Xorxx, we cannot follow our previous itinerary. At the same time, A'khor is unwilling to cut the tour short, so we are now bound for Ossbonnlaf, my home planet. But only the bridge crew know this, for safety reasons. You must not speak of it."

"Oh," Trobe said. He reviewed what he knew about Ossbonnlaf. It was a fairly large world, with a bit higher than average gravity. It circled a yellow dwarf star. There were five wildly different kingdoms of life on the planet, the most divergence known on any world. It had a number of very large, cosmopolitan cities where one could see almost any Galactic species. Ossbonal cooking was widely known in the Galaxy for its quality, although this good reputation was only among about the sixty percent who found it palatable out of all the spacefaring species.

Chapter Twenty-Eight - Jed

Derrig started staying frequently at Jed's apartment. They did not stay at her place because she shared quarters with three others. Their passion was very real and Jed wondered if he was falling in love with an alien. But it felt good, as if many pieces had fallen into place.

It was an open secret among the others of their group that they were a couple. There seemed to be no expressions of concern, but there were a few sly smiles or whatever expression was analogous among the various spedies.

In the meantime, Jed was playing along with Ghugg. He found himself promising to attend a meeting.

He talked it over with Derrig. "I think you need to stick in there and try to work your way in deeper," she said. "See what you can find out."

"I'm working on it," Jed said. "It is a bit boring and disturbing at the same time. They actually have so much right, and so much wrong, and then they completely misapply even the knowledge that is right. For instance, the book I have read. Have you read it?"

"Not yet," she said. Perhaps I should start on it."

"It is basically an abstract of a manual for governing the galaxy. But their interpretation is very slanted towards power for the sake of power rather than for capable management. Having read it, I can see where both interpretations make sense to people. However, I am inclined to see it as a practical manual. I have roved the galaxy for several years now, and I can find no large-scale abuse of rights by the Empire nor excessive interference in local affairs."

"Yes, I tend to agree," Derrig said. "It is not easy governing the galaxy, especially coordinating so many diverse races and planets."

"It seems to me that there is a lot of potential for abuse and tyranny in the Empire. The sheer size of it, for one thing. How can anyone possibly know all that is going on? There could be an oppressive dictatorship right under our noses and we wouldn't know it. But the worst I have seen is some degree of neglect in various places."

"I can assure you, Jed, that there are no occult tyrannies. The Empire has sophisticated ways of monitoring what is going on, and plenty of staff members to analyze it in real time. But if you find any indications of something like that happening, I need to know."

"Agreed. And I am getting a slight suspicion that there may be an authoritarian force behind the Khargrist, reading between the lines. Whoever is behind it is definitely working hard to manipulate the adherents of the movement. And if something happens like a revolution, all those people are likely just to be .' Jed had inadvertently used an Earth English phrase.

"Cannon fodder? What is that?"

So Jed had to explain to her what a cannon was and what it did: "A very primitive weapon that uses explosive powder to eject a heavy piece of metal in a particular direction," he said. And he had to explain what fodder meant originally and what it meant in this context.

Work continued in its usual boring pace from day to day until . . . sometimes Jed thought that he could stand it no longer, but he stuck to it. Security and a healthy bank account were critical concepts to him. He also wanted to hear the next convoluted argument from his conspiracy theorist co-worker, Ghugg.

Jed's own group had been encouraging him to attemd Ghugg's meetings, so he finally gave in. Ghugg gave Jed the address, but warned him not to announce his presence until he, Ghugg, arrived to introduce him. Security protocol, Ghugg explained.

Jed showed up at the appointed time, and Ghugg was already there. He felt relieved that there may have been some awkwardness avoided if he had shown up first and had had to loiter. Ghugg knocked on the door, which Jed noticed. Why knock when you could signal? But that seemed to be part of the "security protocol."

They entered the rather seedy apartment. It was definitely a working-class establishment. In the living room, there were already four others, three males and a female. Jed was introduced by Ghugg.

Ghugg indicated the Grain who had admitted them. "That is Gneet," he said.

"Um, not his real name?" No Grain could ever really have a name that short.

"Of course not. The only one of us that you will know by his real name for now is me. And I am Gway here, so call me Gway from now on when we are gathered. And this is Gorn, a Nrangijwa. And Glep, a Soccoran. And finally, Gfit, a Dretz." Gfit was the female.

Jed was astonished. He had never before encountered three of the five species before him. And a Soccoran? They were the only known silicon-based sentient species, and rather stood out with their strange, translucent body tissues. Gfit, as a Dretz, seemed to have no bones, although he knew there had to be some kind of internal structure to her.

"Now we need a name for you," Ghugg continued. "Do you want to choose one yourself, or do you want us to choose it for you?"

"It must start with a g' and have only one syllable?" Jed asked. That seemed to be the rule.

"Of course."

"How about Gloin?" Jed was thinking back to his Tolkein. He pronounced it as one syllable.

"That would be acceptable."

They sat and Gneet spoke. "Gloin, we operate on a need-to-know basis. However, we need to know many things, and we hope that we can teach you about the things that are really going on in Empire."

"I am here to learn," Jed said.

"Fine. Glep, tell Gloin about the hive-race project."

"Gloin, we have heard a rumor that the empire is keeping alive some members of one or more of the hive races. Since we believe this not to be true, and doubt the very existence of these species, it is obvious that someone within the Imperial government is deliberately trying to spread misinformation."

"What if the hive races were real?" Jed asked.

Gneet snorted and the others assumed rather pained expressions. "You get real, Gloin. If they were real, we would have seen some evidence. And the hive races' would not just have sat back for the past few hundred years biding their time. No, there is every reason to believe that they are myth and manipulation."

"Then why are you paying any attention to the rumor, Gway?"

"Because it may lead us to the roots of a conspiracy, and to the conspirators themselves, of course."

"But they are reputed to be third-level species. So who knows?"

"That is true that strange species come from the third level," Gfit snorted. She seemed unaware of just how strange Jed found her own species. "So it is easy to claim that anything may come from the third level. It is a level of myth and mystery. So we have a myth here masquerading as mystery."

"How do you assess the myth, then I mean its origins and its intent?"

"The first step is to trace it backwards, a very difficult thing to do," Gneet said. "We know from whom we know about it a Helegite named Difftel Shrank. She is a co-worker of Gorn's. But she is an innocent, a naif. She is only relaying the rumor. We know that she found out about it from another co-worker, a Helegite. But that person is in a particular position where we can reasonably assume that he has the ear of the sector supervisor, a R'urr. And from there we infer that the rumor came downward through the chain of authority from some level. Perhaps another person in the Shell governance. But it is still too tenuous to find from there. What we must do is to find other sources of the rumor and to try to trace them back to common factors. So that will be our job until the next meeting, to try to casually but discretely converse with others and to see if they have heard of the rumor."

"So I am supposed to do that as well?" Jed asked.

"If you are with us, yes. And I do hope that you are with us. It would be unfortunate if you were not." All the conspirators gave Jed a Significant Look. Jed was relieved to escape after a few more moments of pleasantry.

Chapter Twenty-Nine - Tenxis

What to do next? Tenxis wondered. He did not allow his school work to lag, prepossessed as he was with his mystery.

He was called into the office of &&&. "You do not seem to be attending properly to your work," he was told. "Is there some problem that we need to resolve?"

"I am all right," Tenxis said. "I have simply found so many other fascinating things to distract me. I will try to focus more."

"See that you do. Your future depends on it."

Tenxis did not stop his investigations, of course, but he made an effort to be more discrete about them and to more thoroughly follow through on his coursework. He had nothing to distract him but his mysteries, and he was an industrious sort. He found time for both.

On his next free day, he spent time wandering on the next two levels down. Both were part of the university, and both were blocked off in the same location. There were no more levels below that shown on the maps. He could still find no means of ingress.

He was returning to his lodgings, still on the lowest level and only having gone a half-dozen blocks, when he passed a utility vehicle heading past him. These were not common but not rare as they made their electric way around the complex, picking up and delivering. Late on a Saturday afternoon seemed a little unusual to Tenxis, so he casually turned around and strolled back the way he had come from the same direction the vehicle was going.

As he passed streets, what the inhabitants invariably called any corridor accessible to such vehicles, he would peer down them to make sure that he did not see any vehicles going about any business. Nothing. Until he returned back to the edge of the blanked-off area, and there was still nothing. He felt sure that the vehicle could not have eluded his examinations were it still on the street. He tried to recall the vehicle's markings. They were of the university, but what was the number? He could not remember. He suspected that the vehicle had disappeared into some door that was not immediately apparent, which would fit the description of any entrance to the blanked-off area.

He was fortunate. There was a small caf‚ just up the street. By perching himself on one of the outside seats, he could barely see part of the edge of the blanked-off area. He drank a balghir, a drink popular thereabouts that contained a variety of stimulants guaranteed to make alert most races capable of drinking it, and ate a small meal slowly. He was watching. After two hours or so, he saw a utility vehicle with university markings coming back up the street from the direction in which the earlier passage had occurred. He assumed that it was most likely to be the same vehicle, but his angle of view had not allowed him to perceive exactly whence it originated. He made careful notes of the number and of the occupants. It appeared to him that the two individuals might be a Kzzg and a Harneii.

After the vehicle passed out of sight, he finished his meal, now eating more quickly, and resumed his journey home. Had the vehicle gone into the blanked-off area? He felt sure that it had. Why late on a Saturday afternoon? No idea. Was there an emergency, or was it just a routine thing that happened every day at this time, or was it because there were few people around that particular area then? Was it delivering someone or something, or picking up someone or something? Clearly, he needed to arrange to be here about that time on a weekday. In the meantime, he could monitor all the vehicles that passed him to see if he saw that one. That was assuming that they always used the same one, but that was standard practice. Pool vehicles used by a variety of users were rare, he knew, having had to use one to deliver some equipment to his lab.

Back at a computer interface, he thought to search images of the shell. The level on which he lived was nominally the top layer, with many transparent domes to allow in light. But over the blanked-out area, there was a peculiar-looking superstructure, a type of dome. It was peculiar because there was no window in it, just a solid surface.

He did see the vehicle again, four days later. Squinting, it seemed to him that there were again a Kzzg and a Harneii inside, the Kzzg driving. It seemed a typical job for a Kzzg, but possibly slightly out of the ordinary for a Harneii, known as they were for psychological and social-science pursuits. It was on the main thoroughfare passing his work lab, and he was just coming out the front door to go home for the evening. It was about the right time of day to match the previous encounter, but if it was going to the same place, it would have to drop two levels.

The next day, he managed to leave early on a plausible pretext, and dropped to the bottom level, where he again went to the caf‚ and watched. Sure enough, the vehicle came again, heading towards the blanked-out area. He finished his drink hurriedly and walked after it. He hoped that he could still see it, since vehicles could not go very fast in congested streets. He figured that his conjecture about Saturday being an unbusy time was incorrect, since it was here on a weekday.

He reached the end of the street and turned the corner just in time to hear a noise down the next alley. It sounded like a garage-style door closing to him. He reached the alley and looked down, and saw nothing. There were apparently blank walls that were sectioned in such a way that they could be hiding such a door. At least he had a possible location. He examined the street. There was almost nothing there but warehouses. There was certainly no place convenient to hole up and watch for the vehicle's re-emergence. He thought back to the previous encounter. It had been an hour and twenty minutes, give or take, between the vehicle's appearances. He resolved to return in an hour and ten minutes so as not to be conspicuous in the meantime. Which he did, and hung around for half an hour, feeling that he was making himself conspicuous, and finally gave up. He was three blocks towards home when the vehicle came passing him on the street.

Perhaps he could get to know the Kzzg. They were a generally friendly people, but how to find this one? He certainly was not going to try to get to know the Harneii, as that individual would know, at least in general terms, what he was up to as soon as he approached him or her.

Over the next few days, he researched Kzzg hangouts. There were several establishments where they liked to congregate. He was aware, of course, that this particular Kzzg might not be at liberty to congregate anywhere, and might in fact be cloistered in some location. But surely they would not have living quarters away from the blanked-out area if they were in fact cloistered. There was so much to figure out.

That Saturday, Tenxis did a bit of shopping at a small grocery close to the blanked-out area. At the approximate time that he expected the vehicle, he strolled onto the edge street, walking slowly. When he was opposite the alley, he dropped his bag, ensuring that its contents went rolling in such a way that they would take an effort to gather again. As he was bending over picking up the small djokar fruit, he heard the soft hum of a utility vehicle, and furtively looked up in time to see it turn into the alley, and into a doorway on the side of the alley. At least now he had a definite location. He finished retrieving the groceries by himself. It wasn't that he wasn't offered help by bystanders there had been no bystanders, which was a relief to him.

Tenxis was stumped. How could he find out more? He went to a bar where Kzzg liked to congregate nearby, and sat nursing a drink, his eyes and ears open. The place was perhaps thirty-percent Kzzg and the rest mixed species, so he was not a standout. He neither saw nor heard anything that might inform him.

He started hanging out at various Kzzg hangouts, spacing out his forays by several days, not planning to go to the same one twice until he had made a tour of them all. Like the first place, none of them were exclusively Kzzg; it just didn't happen in the university zone, with its wild diversity of species congregated together and all able to breathe the same atmosphere.

Tenxis made an effort to see the vehicle again, and was able to view it again another three times over the next two weeks. Each time, he scrutinized the Kzzg occupant, trying to learn to recognize him, although one time when he was just a little too close, the Harneii looked at him suddenly and sharply. Tenxis turned away and lost himself in the crowd.

Ironically, it was after a month or so, when he was sitting in the joint closest to his lodgings, that he saw a Kzzg entering that he thought might be the one. He sat and tried to observe it and to listen in. He thought it was a female from its markings, so began thinking of her as she. He could hear nothing she said. All he could see was apparently perfectly normal socializing with others of her species.

He decided he was not going to learn anything in the bar, so got up to leave. As he was about to go through the door, he felt an eerie feeling and turned to look directly into the eyes of a Harneii, possibly the same one as in the vehicle. It was unusual to see a Harneii in a bar, sensitive as they were to others' thoughts. He left hurriedly.

Walking down the street, a block away, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a utility vehicle slowing to match his pace. As he reached the corner, it stopped in front of him.

"Get in!" the Harneii hissed, leaning out the window. "We need to talk!"

Tenxis looked around. There was no convenient place to go to evade the vehicle, and it could easily overtake him on the almost empty street. He sighed and moved to the vehicle, entering the indicated rear door. When he entered and sat, he could hear the locking system click in, and realized there was a force field between him and the front of the vehicle. Was he in for it now? Was this going to be the end of his career, for snooping?

The vehicle drove to a garage some fifteen-minute's walk from Tenxis' lodgings, and entered an individual cubicle. The force field dropped as the Harneii swiveled its seat to face Tenxis.

The two were apparently unarmed, but they also knew that Tenxis was unarmed and those of Tenxis' species were not exactly known to be fighters. The Kzzg, even female, could probably flatten him in seconds. Tenxis realized that the Harneii was also a female of her species.

"What do you want?" the Harneii asked. "I know of your interest in our job. I could not ignore it."

Chapter Thirty - Trobe

The ship settled into the Ossbonnlaf spaceport. They disembarked, and when they did so, two immense Ftporo joined them, flanking Trobe.

"Trobe, these Ftporo are friendly," A'Khor said. "The one on the left, with the nicked ear, is named Hizzogana, and the one on your right, with the larger nose, is named Azaganalahf. We will use them to help security as we are not here under cover. Anyone who wants you will have to go through them. Either one could have easily withstood that missile."

Ftporo were huge. They had skin that was hardened into armor plating. They were slow, with immense hands. Trobe knew that their strength was legendary. He also knew that they were known for their courtesy, even as they were dismembering you. He hoped that he would feel safer with them there but they would take some getting used to.

They loaded into a shuttle, Trobe, A'Khor, Prorta, Arghana, Captain Khardin, and the two Ftporo, which took them directly out of the spaceport to the Empirical embassy, where they left the vehicle and entered. It was large and architecturally spectacular, but Trobe had noticed that all the architecture in this city, or at least all that he had seen, was

"This seems rather opulent," Trobe observed.

"This is the most luxurious embassy of any in the Empire," Arghana said. "But the Empire did not build it. The Ossbonals built it as a gift to the Empire. Fortunately, the Ossbonals have been on excellent terms with Empire for many centuries."

They walked into a reception hall. There almost the entire embassy staff stood, respectfully at attention. Every major race of Empire was represented in the large staff. It was the greatest show of ceremony that Trobe had ever had accorded him. Although he had been trained for moments like this, he felt very awkward. Nonetheless, it was how he appeared on the outside that counted, and he was doing his best to hold up that part of the bargain.

An Ossbanal stepped forward, in a fancy outfit. "Sir," he said, "We are honored by your presence here. I am Ghidor Spo, prime minister. This woman is Krahtor Flane, president of our planetary council. We will have a banquet tonight in your honor."

Trobe looked at A'khor. A'khor nodded. "It has been arranged," he said.

A little later, they were in their private quarters. Trobe asked A'Khor, "Why didn't you tell me about the banquet? And do I really have to?"

"First, yes, you must. It is part of your duties as the heir apparent."

"Heir apparent? I'm now the heir apparent? How did that happen?"

"We will not discuss it. The reason I did not discuss it before is that I suspect that there are malevolent ears on the ship, and we did not know some of the people escorting us from the spaceport."

Trobe was shocked, "On the SHIP?" he asked. "You mean, there is a traitor on the ship?"

"That is the most likely explanation. How else could a conspiracy have known that we were going to Xorxx? Or when we were expected back at the spaceport? That information could only have come from someone on the ship with access to information."

Trobe was silent for a while. A'khor sat and looked at him expectantly.

"So it is dangerous to be on the ship?" Trobe asked.

"Only if the person is suicidal, and I doubt that is the case. Other than blowing up the ship, they would not want to be revealed by any attempt on your life, which has a much smaller chance of succeeding on board. We will continue the journey on the ship, not least in order to try to find out who this person or these persons are."

The banquet was everything that Trobe could have hoped for and everything he could have feared. A'khor had assured him that no attempt would be made on his life inside the building, but the Ftporo kept close. Trobe had to listen to several long and boring speeches, then was prodded to the dais to speak himself. It was not something he wanted to do, but he was up to the task.

The prime minister, who was acting as master of ceremonies, told the crowd, "Our emperor-apparent, Trobe, was not expecting this banquet, so he doesn't have a speech prepared. So I have two things to say: Trobe, formal affairs always involve a banquet" - the crowd chuckled - "So you will never go hungry. And, folks," he said, turning to the room, "I'm sure we'll appreciate what this young person has to say."

"As he noted," Trobe said, "I am the heir apparent to the emperor. I have spent my entire life training for this. I have learned very much in many different fields, especially politics, anthropology, and the sciences. I have been trained to fight, to pilot spaceships and to plot their courses, to speak diplomatically, to perform small-scale medicine, and a host of other skills. I know that when I become emperor, whenever that is, I will continue to learn as much as I can. The job is a life-long job, and the learning attached to it is life-long. I have also been tutored intensively in ethics. That is perhaps the most important part of my education. I think that I am naturally an ethical person, as much of this education has fit very well with what I feel,. However, I must tell you as one person to another, and as your future emperor to his people, that I commit myself to doing everything that I can to be a good emperor, a just emperor, and one that cares about all the people within the Empire. That is my job, and I take it seriously. I am looking forward to the day when this happens, but, trust me, considering how much energy I'll have to put out for the job, I have no wish to speed up the process."

There was a chuckle from the audience.

"So I am very happy to have had the opportunity to visit your planet. I have visited now seven planets in person and around forty virtually. I can see that my impressions of your planet from my virtual planet are very much confirmed by what I have seen since I'm been here. This is a beautiful place."

He went on for another ten minutes, then wrapped up and sat down. The audience applauded. Whether it was polite or enthusiastic, Trobe wasn't sure. But they had been attentive.

Back in their room, Trobe asked A'khor, "What did they think of my speech?"

"I think they took it well,. Especially since you had not had much preparation time. It was, I think well-spoken."

"I'm going to have to be doing this sort of thing a lot, are not I?"

"As certain as death, taxes, and the Empire," A'khor said.

Chapter Thirty-One - Kilyawa

The corridor Kilyawa crept down was dimly lit and had no traffic. She surmised that the doors on this corridor only opened onto storerooms. Deka was away, on some mission that took her off the orbital station, and Bildol was sound asleep.

She came to the end of the corridor, to a door with a stairway symbol on it. Kilyawa was able to disable the door's sensors with her zfor'tinla, and went through. Up or down? There were at least several more floors in each direction. She chose up.

She climbed three stories, to the next to the highest level. This level obviously had somewhat higher ceilings. She disabled the door sensor and went through. The hallway looked much like the hallway outside her chambers. She heard voices coming and ducked inside a doorway to the left that looked little-used and wasn't locked. From there, she was able to hear with the door cracked without being seen unless someone came to the end of the corridor.

She looked around at the room. More storage. But this was storage of the kind that she had near her salon, in her chambers. Very much like. She paid attention to the voices in the corridor.

"But, Fle'ka, I would rather stay here," she heard a young woman's voice saying, another Nerrung.

"We must go, Yorbiah. It is part of your training."

A shiver went down Kilyawa's spine. It was a Khar'/air speaking. Who was this other young woman being trained?

"Fle'ka, I do not see why a princess needs to be physically present on so many worlds."

"Because it is essential to your knowledge and to your awareness and to your future role as ambassador for the Empire."

"With modern communications, why is traveling necessary?"

"Even the Empress herself travels broadly. You must, too, when you are Empress."

Kilyawa couldn't believe her ears. Did she have a competitor who was also being trained as potential princess? Why had she never heard anything of this? She continued listening, in shock.

She had the distinct impression of their presences. Yorbiah's being weak, and Fle'ka's being strong, like that of Deka. She felt, somehow, that Fle'ka may have sensed her presence.

After a few minutes of continued argument, they went into a room and the door closed.

Kilyawa lost no time in getting back to her own chambers. She went into the salon and sat, brooding. Bildol awakened and came in.

"Are you all right?" he asked. "Is anything the matter?" They had been together now almost two weeks and he was becoming able to read her moods.

"No," she said. "You are fine. We are fine. But there is something I must ask Deka about."

"And what is that?"

"I can't tell you."

"But you seem very concerned about something."

"It is something I must talk over with Deka first."

She would not speak to him about it, and he gave up and went back to his bedroom. Deka came back soon and looked at Kilyawa.

"I believe you have been somewhere that you should not have been," Deka said.

Kilyawa nodded numbly.

"And where were you?"

"At the chambers of the . . . other princess candidate."

"Really? Do you know a name for this person?"

"Yorbiah. And her Khar'/ai was Fle'ka. Do you know them?"

"I know Fle'ka. I know of Yorbiah but have never met her."

"So there are more than one of us competing to be the princess?"

"Yes, you have found out an important piece of information."

"What happens if I don't make it? Am I eliminated?"

"No, of course not. But you will receive some memory work and placed in a suitable position."

"So I wouldn't remember this?"

"Only as a dream."

"I am really worried."

"Kilyawa, you are a good candidate. I am sure you will do well when it comes time for selection."

"Is there just one other? Or are there more?"

"There is one more, for a total of three of you."

All that night, Kilyawa felt stunned. She was only one of three. This forced a major change in her personal paradigm The future was much less certain. She stumbled through the next few days on automatic.

"You are neglecting your studies," Deka said. "Are you still upset about finding out about your competition?"

Kilyawa nodded numbly.

"It is nothing to worry about. If you are not selected, you will still have a good position and you will have a good life."

"But I will still remember that for so long I had thought I was the heir apparent," Kilyawa said, glumly.

"It will not be so bad. You will still be able to do worthwhile things with your life. You will be able to marry the mate of your choice and have a family. You will live a much more normal life."

"I have enjoyed my life here, so far. I do not want to have to start living a strange life."

"What you must understand is this: If you are chosen as the final Empress candidate, you will start living an even stranger life, and one much different from your life now. No matter what the future holds for you, it will bring great change to your life."

"I guess that is a sort of comforting thought, in a way."

"It is what it is. Part of your assessment, I will tell you, is how well you adapt to change. You have already done well in this regard, and I think you have the capacity to do very well in the future."

"I would really like to be able to go some place different while this all sinks in."

"That can be arranged. It is time for you to travel in any case. You must take a tour of planets before the final selection. We can leave whenever you are ready. I am ready and the ship is ready. We will start with Abroftporo, which is one of the safest of places to be."

"Isn't that the planet of the giant armored beings who are often used as guards?"


"Will Bildol be able to come with me?"

"But of course."

"I am willing to leave any time. I am willing to leave now. How soon can we go?"

"Within the hour. I must notify the ship's captain, flight control, the Emperor and Empress, the court administrator, and you must tell Bildol."

"I will do that immediately," Kilyawa said.

Chapter Thirty-Two - Tenxis

Tenxis faced his captors in the utility vehicle inside the garage. "I just - just want knowledge," he said, truthfully. "I seek to know that which I do not know."

"And what business is it of yours?" asked the Kzzg, growlingly. The Harneii waved at her and said, "So you are just a nosy person?"

"I guess so," Tenxis said.

"And what are you other than a Helegite? What do you do?"

"I am an engineering student here at the university."

"What level?"

"Fifth level."

The Kzzg and the Harneii exchanged glances. "So you are not some lowly but nosy undergraduate?"

"No, I have studied for some years."

"Your name?"

"Tenxis Gree. And yours?"

"Maybe later. And what, specifically, are you seeking to know here? And why do you think there is anything worth knowing?"

"Your picking me up to question me is strong evidence that there is something here worth knowing. I found several anomalies in geography and in historic records, and my sense of logic and order feels incomplete if I cannot fill in such mysteries. I know there is a blanked-off area that is at least three levels in height, covering quite an area, and that any entrances to it are hidden. I know that it was once nothing more than normal neighborhoods. I have found obscure references to weapons systems that are not now known to exist, that is, not known by me, and I am curious to know if there is a correlation."

"Who is your mentor?"


"What is your security clearance?"

"I was assigned a level six, commensurate with my academic level."

"What should we do with him?" asked the Kzzg. However unfriendly the Harneii was, the Kzzg was far more hostile. Tenxis feared that she might harm him. A Kzzg was not to be trifled with.

"Let me handle this. He may be of use to us yet. Tenxis, what are your interests?"


"What else?"

"Solving mysteries?"

"That is how you spend your spare time?"

"Until I found this one, I was looking for something to do in my spare time not that there is much spare time in my program."

"Tell me about your friends. Who and what are they?"

"I know a variety of people, although not many in number. I know people of maybe eight species, but I am not close to any of them. Most of the people I know are through the university. I am also part of a small group of people who meet monthly to share dinner."

"And what do you talk about at these dinner parties?"

"It's mostly small talk. But sometimes we talk about different species and cultures."

"Tenxis, show me your identification," said the Harneii.


"That is for us to know. We will find out anything you try to conceal from us. You have become a person of concern. We will investigate you. Be assured that this is not our usual garage, so do not look for us here. We will change vehicles to one you will not recognize. If we are satisfied with the investigation, we may or may not contact you once again. Now, where might we drop you?"

Tenxis told them his address. He was sure they would shortly know it even if he did not tell them.

"Do not tell anyone about this," the Harneii said. "There could yet be consequences." She examined his ID as they drove to his lodgings. She returned it, and Tenxis got out and went home.

Chapter Thirty-Three - Laura

Laura walked into town all twelve miles. She cut across fields and through woods in the crisp night air, not daring to be seen. Who knew who Jim might have called? Who knew where he might be looking for her? She arrived at the bus station in the early morning and sat to rest. She had to wait only an hour until the next bus to leave. But she was afraid. She shrank into a corner and tried to be inconspicuous, all the while trying to decide the best escape route.

The bus finally arrived and boarded. She got on. It didn't matter to where, just that it was the first bus out of town. She could make connections there. She needed to get to a coastal town to find a ship to take across the ocean, since it was too risky to try to fly.

Once safely on the bus she hoped and out of town, she began to breathe a little easier. The look of revulsion, rage, fear and loathing on Jim's face was imprinted on her mind. She knew she would never forget it. It broke her heart to leave Joan, but she had no choice.

It happened that the bus was going east to Denver. She figured she could ride the bus there and then figure out where and how to go. She had saved enough money and more to afford the cost of getting off the planet now. Other than that, she had only a couple of changes of clothing and her zfor'tinla. Through hours of exploring the device, she had discovered that she could access the Earth internet through it if she was in a wifi setting. She had learned this while still living in the bridge and going to sit in a nearby caf‚. But she hadn't dared to use it while at the farm. She used it now; the bus had wifi, and she had to plan her trip.

She finally calmed down enough to sleep. She stirred when the bus was making the many local stops on the way to Denver; she was fortunate that it was not an express, as that would have cost more. She was frantic to leave Planet Earth, but she was in no hurry because she knew how to be patient.

At last, arriving in Denver late the next day, after two changes of driver through the night and through the following day, she disembarked. She physically felt how dirty the bus station was. The bus had been no sanitary treat, but the station hadn't been cleaned for the day yet and it depressed her to see it. But she knew it was only a stopover.

Now she knew what bus to take to continue. She wanted to get to a large eastern port city, and she figured that New York City was at least as likely as any.

So she found another local to New York. She had a layover of three hours, during which she purchased a cheap suitcase and more makeup and had a meal. This was another bus leaving late at night, on an even longer leg of her journey. She arrived after dawn in the big city.

Once in the bus station, she would have liked to feel safe, considering her distance from Jim. But the crush of people around her made her nervous and fearful. And the station in New York made Denver appear to be the paradigm of cleanliness in comparison. Outside, the street was dirty. Dirt. She was surrounded by it. How could people live like this? The next step was to find really cheap lodgings for a few days until she could resolve the passport issue.

There was a fleabag hotel a short walk from the bus station. There she wound up lodging. She began worrying that her money might not be enough. Even though the hotel was a cheap one for New York it was still quite a strain on her budget.

The hotel was no treat, either. The rooms were dirty, the sheets and towels were stained, and it had bedbugs. The bugs were no inconvenience for her, as they were not interested in biting her they weren't attracted to her alien blood, apparently but they were annoying and even somewhat disgusting. Though not as disgusting as the dirtiness. She was accustomed to various alien life forms. But she had to put up with them; this was the cheapest lodging available without living on the street.

There was no question of her being able to obtain a passport legitimately. She simply could not provide documentation for that. She needed to explore the shady side of life in the city and find a way to obtain a forgery a good forgery that would not be challenged.

During this time, she was also nosing around the docks looking for a freighter to Europe that would carry a few paying passengers. She found a likely ship that was leaving in two days, but she was not able to get a passport by the time it left. She had another ship leaving in three days that looked like it would work.

Over several days, she struck up conversations with various people who she suspected might know something about this. This included several street people, several random people she met in a sleazy bar down the block from the hotel, the shady night clerk at the hotel, and another guest at the hotel. She finally struck pay dirt in the bar.

It was a careful conversation. It had turned out to be her benefit that she still had a discernible accent and was somewhat exotic-looking: her story about being stranded was believed. After all, it was true, except for a few of the details such as what planet she was from.

She was talking with a young man with a thick local accent. He seemed solicitous, as had a number of men whom she had managed not to get too close to. But he was connected. And he could provide the passport for a fee, a fee that was going to put an immense dent in her finances. She had no choice.

The next day found her knocking at a door in an alleyway. It opened a crack and she told the suspicious eyes glaring at her, "Joey Benucci sent me." The man behind the eyes grunted and let her in after looking carefully up and down the alley.

"Yeah, he called me, said you'd be coming," the man said. "Down the stairs there. We gotta take yer picture."

She went with him into a dirty, dusty and cluttered basement room, and in the middle of it was a seat with a backdrop, lighting, and a camera. She sat and he photographed her.

"Okay," he said. "Half now, and half when I give you the passport. It'll be ready tomorrow."

She gave him half of what Joey said it would cost. "Hold on there," he said. "This ain't enough!"

"But that's half of what Joey said it would cost me."

"Yeah? Wait a minute." He left the room and went into another room where she could hear him talking on the phone. He came back in. "Yeah, all right, I'll give you the special Joey rate. This time. But I ain't in this for charity. Come back tomorrow after noon."

"Who do I ask for if you aren't here?"

"I ll be the only one her, but you can call me Nick."

She thanked him. She would have her passport in time for the next ship. And she did. The man, still surly to the extreme, handed her the document, and as far as she could tell, it was perfect.

She went directly to the freighter and managed to gain the ear of the captain. She explained what she wanted, including telling him her story, and explaining that she was terrified of airplanes, another outright lie. She had no problem with them, but she knew they'd have problems major problems with her and she had visions of being held for vivisection as an alien.

He agreed to take her as a passenger; they had three cabins, small and stuffy, set aside. They were leaving in three days. He looked at her passport and told her she needed a medical certificate. So it was back to the Nick/Joey shop for a fake medical certificate.

Nick looked at her suspiciously. "What," he croaked, "You got some sort of dreadsome disease that you can't pass a medical exam?"

"I've tried seven doctors, and none of them can get me in in time for the ship's sailing." Nick seemed satisfied with the explanation, having waited months for doctors' appointments himself.

Two days later, certificate in hand, Laura returned to the ship two days later and found the captain. She gave him the certificate and he seemed satisfied. She paid him and he gave her a ticket. She asked if she could go ahead and come aboard to stay the night. He agreed, but told her that her passage wasn't paying for any meals until they were underway, so she would still have to provide her supper and breakfast the next morning.

Laura lost no time gathering her things and getting on board ship. First, however, she sat down in her hotel room and wrote a letter to Joan, explaining honestly who she was and what had happened. She knew the letter would find her, but had no idea what Joan's reaction would be. She preferred not to find out. But she felt she owed Joan an explanation considering her kindness and their friendship. She mailed it on the way to the ship.

She found herself in a tiny cabin, barely large enough for a bed, chair, and small table. But it was going to be home for the next fortnight. And the cabin was clean. Very clean. She was grateful for that. She sighed a sigh of relief and settled in.

Chapter Thirty-Four - Jed

Jed was on his way to Kir'Don's for their regular weekly meeting. Derrig had stayed at home for the past few nights due to work difficulties, and he looked forward to seeing her. As he passed through a smaller corridor that he had never been in before liking to vary his route a small animal darted out of the doorway and Jed looked around at it, astonished. It looked exactly like an Earth cat, the domestic shorthair type. A Harneii darted out of the doorway after it. "Kkkkkggh," it impeached. "Kkkkggh."

The cat looked back and stopped, rubbing up against the wall as if it had belonged there the whole time.

"What is that?" Jed asked of the Harneii.

"It is a Gaht, a small animal from an out-of-the-way planet," the Harneii replied. "I can't remember the name of the place, but it is a non-member planet."

"Really? How did you find such an animal?"

"They are becoming popular among the Harneii. They are excellent at catching stelk [a small and irritating opportunistic animal]."

"And there are stelk here, on the shell?"

"Oh, yes, more than you would think. They are excellent at hiding. Not from one such as me, however, and that is a problem for me. I can unfortunately hear' them when I do not want to."

"Please allow myself to introduce myself," Jed said. "I'm Jed Gloorigaboxifla."

"A Vorg, right? I am Nereein t'Sta' Fellsuung."

Nereein seemed to be in no hurry, but then, neither was Jed. Jed adjudged Nereein to be a youngish female.

"I have never been to Aknanereeim," Jed said. "What is it like there?"

"I was pretty young when we left," Nereein said. "We've lived here ever since. My parents both worked for Imperial government."

"Do you know if more gahts are available?"

"I can ask. Do you live close by?"

"About a quarter of a ftar from here. Not close, but not far. But I can come by here on my way to work. I work at the environmental monitoring station."

"I can tell you where you may obtain a gaht, if you are interested."

"I might be in the future. Not yet. I'm not ready for a pet right now."

"Let me know," Nereein said, breezily.

Jed continued on his way. He eventually arrived at Kir'don's. Most of the group was there. He and Derrig embraced, their affinity being generally known by this point.

They sat down to eat. Jed was always amazed at Kir'don's ability to feed them. It wasn't just standard-issue food, but good food. Every time. Usually, there were one or two alien dishes on the table that various others of the group found delicious but Jed didn't like, but tonight everything had been quite tasty.

"So, do you want to hear about the reproduction of the Dormo?" Kir'don asked in her usual bright manner as they leaned back with full bellies.

"Aren't they some obscure semi-aquatic species?" Derrig asked.

"Indeed." Kir'don beamed. She seemed unusually happy today. "They are fairly conventional in laying eggs and fertilizing them in the water, although it follows a complex mating ritual. They caress and engage in what might be termed foreplay, and when they have sufficiently excited each other and are in the correct position, the female ejaculates eggs and the male simultaneously ejaculates sperm. It's what happens next that is a little odd.

"After the couple recover from their coitus bliss, the male eats the fertilized eggs. Swallows them. Passes them into his digestive tract. He digests most of them. But there are always a few that survive and begin eating the material in his colon, and so are free-swimming and ready to feed when they exit. The parents do not protect the young until the young pass from that first larval stage into a more conventional juvenile form that looks more like the parents."

"I always appreciate it that you do not tell us such things until we have finished eating," Kik said.

"Something unusual happened for me on the way over," Jed said. He told them about the cat.

"You say that it was a Harneii that owned the cat?" Kir'don asked.


"Hmm. Interesting. Do you know the name of the Harneei?"

"She said it was Nereein something or other. I remember where she lives."

"Nereein t'Sta' Fellsuung?" Derrig asked.

"Yes, I think that was it. Do you know her?"

"I know of her, slightly. She works for either the university or for the government, or both. It is unclear."

"She seemed nice enough. She said she could tell me where to get a cat if I wanted one."

"Are you used to living with a cat?" Kik asked.

"I have often had a cat," Jed said. "They are interesting creatures. They are kind of an exemplar of self-absorption."

"Like a Dargawilagewana?" Kik asked, brightly.

"Be nice," Derrig told her.

Jed noticed that Kir'don had said nothing but seemed to have abandoned her cheerful aspect and now had a worried look on her face.

"Anything wrong, Kir'don?" he asked her.

"I am not sure," she said. "Perhaps it would be best if you did not talk with Nereein further. I cannot tell you why until I find out more."

"If that is how you feel," Jed said. "Please tell me more, eventually."

"When I know more."

Tenxis spoke up but hesitantly. "What did she look like? Was she taller than the average female Harneii?"

"Um, yes, I guess she was."

"Were the white stripes on her face more prominent than most?"

"Were they? Um, let me think . . . yes, I think they may have been. So you have met her?"

"Yes, I think so. It is a long story. I will have to find out more and get back with all of you. However, there is a much more important issue that I need to discuss." It was a relief to Jed that he had come to trust this group completely. He felt that he could tell all.

"I met with the conspiracy group that I told you about. They told me that there is a rumor afoot that the Empire has members of hive races in captivity. They swear that such a thing cannot be so, and that the rumor is some sort of prelude to subversive action. I had never before thought about this possibility, but now I am worried about it. What if the conspiracy group is incorrect and the rumor is true? But what if they are correct and the rumor is a plant?"

Tenxis was looking amused. "Such a terrible conundrum," he said. "What was the phrase that you taught us recently? Damned if you do, and damned if you don't?' I do not believe that such a rumor could possibly be true." He did not notice that Kir'don had shot him a sharp and even almost startled glance.

Rohoyo also seemed amused. "For there to be truth to such a rumor, it would have been necessary for one of two things to be true. Either a hive ship has recently been intercepted and individuals from that ship made captive, and the whole thing kept secret, which is almost out of the question with the current state of communications in the Empire. Or, alternatively, that such a colony has been kept hidden and alive for a long time, for possibly centuries, which seems just about as unlikely."

Turrip, Orrup injected his opinion. "If the rumor was true, then its very existence might be due, then, to the very impossibility of keeping such a thing permanently hidden."

"I do not believe it," Kik said. "I simply do not believe it. It would be too absurd in a large variety of ways."

The general consensus among the group was that it was really rather unlikely. Kir'don did not express an opinion.

Chapter Thirty-Five - Laura

Laura kept to herself on board ship. She ate with the crew in the mess, but did not welcome much conversation. She was regarded as something of a woman of mystery. They wondered what her story was. She gave them the same old tired (to her) story, and they seemed to accept it.

She explored the ship. She did not have completely free reign, but was able to roam much of it. She was welcome on the bridge, which was a fascinating place. The captain was Jacob Hughes, and he was a 34-year veteran of the high seas. He was overjoyed to have a young person to teach about everything about ships, even if she was a slender young girl.

Her favorite place was at the very stern, watching the roiling water in the ship's wake. Laura did get her exercise; there was no elevator on board ship, so she was constantly taking stairs from one level to another. She didn't mind; she needed the workout.

She did get to know two of the crew just slightly, a man from China named Wu Yi and a woman from Argentina named Sophia Domingo. Wu Yi spoke almost perfect English, with an accent so slight that Laura could barely recognize it. He had learned English in school, and had spent seven years, now, at sea. Sophia had gone to sea when fleeing a terribly abusive relationship, which she owned up to but preferred not to talk about. She was a Valkyrie, long blonde braid cascading down a strong back.

Laura did not notice that one other crew member, George, kept looking at her with more than just curious interest. One night, after supper, he fell in with her as she was walking back to her cabin. He was slender and feral.

"So tell me about yourself," he ventured.

"I'd rather not."

"Oh, come on. Don't be so aloof."

"I'm just trying to get back home."

"So why didn't you fly?"

She shrugged. "I couldn't afford to."

"Is that the real reason?"

"I'm afraid of flying."

They reached her cabin. "This is me," Laura said. "Goodnight." She quickly entered and locked the door.

She had a bad feeling about George. She mentioned him to Sophia the next day.

"He's an ass," Sophia said. "He thinks that he's some kind of gift to women. He's not bad looking in a sleazy kind of way, but his attitude is ugly. I suggest avoiding him."

The next day, Laura was on her way up to the bridge. Two flights below her destination, George was there, leaning on the railing of the next stairway up.

"Well, hello there," he said. "How would you like to take a walk with me?"

Laura smiled a forced smile. "Thanks, but I've got other things I want to do."

"Oh, come on. It won't hurt you."

"I'm really not interested in starting anything."

"Oh, sure you are. You just don't know it yet. I could show you some private places you never knew existed." George turned and gestured expansively towards the bow of the ship.

Laura used his movement to the side to dart around him and run up the steps and up and up. Safely on the bridge, she lingered there. She was learning everything there was to know about the ship's instrumentation, navigation, piloting, and the ship's mechanical functioning.

She stayed until time for supper, then went quietly, even timidly, to the mess. She chatted with Sophia and Wu Yi about the sea and shipping. Wu had to leave for his shift. After he left, she asked, "Sophia, would you be willing to walk with me to my cabin?"

"Why, certainly," Sophia said, sounding a little surprised. "I'll be glad to walk with you."

As they arrived at the cabin, Laura caught a glimpse out of the corner of her eye of someone quickly moving out of sight. She was certain it was George.

The next morning, George was waiting for her outside her door. "Come on," he said, "I'll walk you to breakfast."

Laura sighed. It looked like there was no choice. He tried to make conversation, mostly about himself and what a great career he'd had, but he was not particularly aggressive.

After breakfast, she did not see him again for the rest of the day. The next morning, however, he was waiting for her again.

This time, after breakfast, he tried to stick with her, but she went up to the bridge. She knew this was the surest way of shedding his attentions. She spent the morning there, but then there was lunch.

George was there, waiting, but Sophia grabbed Laura and took her to a small table with only two chairs. George nonetheless pulled up a chair and tried to talk with them.

"We're trying to have a private chat," Sophia said. She smiled sweetly. "Be a dear, and let us talk, would you?"

George frowned and turned away. Laura could sense anger on his part. Wu Yi came by and sat with them, and Laura could see George, out of the corner of her eye, depart angrily.

Laura didn't see George for the afternoon.

Or the next day. Until evening. She had dined with Sophia and Wu Yi, and they had walked her back to her cabin. Once in, she felt stir-crazy. The weather outside was excellent, and she felt imprisoned. Finally, after a long debate with herself, she opened the door to roam. She was all the way on the stern, watching the chop recede, when she heard the voice behind her shoulder that she did not want to hear.

"What do you have against me?" George asked. "I just want to get to know you."

She shrugged helplessly. "I'm just not interested. We'll be at port day after tomorrow. You'll never see me again. What do you want with me?"

"Oh, you know what I want. And I've known enough women to know that no doesn't mean no most of the time."

"You mean, most women will give into you pressuring them."

"Persuading them. Are you any different?"

"Yes, I am." She had turned around and her back was to the rail. He was very close to her, nobody else was around, and there was no room to escape him. George, seeing this, backed off slightly and waved his hand in what he apparently thought was a gallant way, turning. She began to walk back to her cabin, and he stuck with her.

"Your circumstances aboard ship are a little . . . mysterious. What are you running from?"

"Nothing. I'm going TO somewhere."

"I don't believe you. Why did you board a ship instead of flying?"

"Because I don't like to fly."

"Excuses. Or did you not want to go through airport security? I'll tell you what, let me sleep with you and I'll keep your secret and I'll help you."

They reached her cabin, on a narrow deck facing the ocean.

"I'm really not interested and I really don't need your help, but thank you anyway." Although she didn't show it, she was quaking from terror inside. She managed to open her door behind her and slip through. She didn't breathe easy until she was inside.

The next day she made it to breakfast with trepidation but unmolested. She told Sophia about what happened. "It's time to go to the captain," Sophia said. "This is sexual harassment, pure and simple. Something needs to be done about it."

Laura shrank back. "I can't do that. No, that's too much."

"You trust George?" Laura shook her head. It had taken a while for that to feel natural to her. On her planet, a nonverbal "no" was a sharp tilt of the head to the right side.

"I don't either, Laura. If you won't tell the captain, I will. I want you to be safe."

Sophia eventually talked Laura into accompanying her to the bridge. Laura was glad for the company. She had contemplated spending the entire day and night in her cabin until they docked and she could disembark. Not for the first time, she was grateful that she didn't mind small spaces.

The cabin always felt like anything but a small space. It felt like being on top of the world. Nothing but oceans and clouds for many miles around. Except for the George lurking out there wanting to prey on her.

Sophia quickly explained the situation to the captain. He looked annoyed, but with a "not again" kind of look.

"So, young lady, is this true?" he asked Laura.

Laura nodded numbly. "He hasn't hurt me or even touched me yet," she said. "But I feel afraid."

The captain sighed, long and loud. "Well, you'll be disembarking Monday. Would you like to have meals delivered to your room until then?"

"That would be nice for breakfast," she said. "But maybe someone could walk with me for lunch and dinner?"

"I think that can be arranged. I'll walk you to the mess if you stay up here on the bridge until lunchtime. And, Sophie, will you walk her back after lunch and to and fro for supper?"

"I will, Captain."

Sophie left and Laura reviewed various aspects of the ship's systems with the captain until lunch. Just before lunch, he received a weather bulletin.

"Hmmph," he said, "Normally we have more warning. Severe storm coming up this afternoon. Probably. It's never certain, but best to be prepared." He announced the weather bulletin over the ship's system, and they went to lunch.

Laura sat with the captain at lunch. She saw George sitting all the way on the opposite side of the room. After she was seated, the captain walked over and talked to George, who looked both angry and worried.

"You shouldn't have any more trouble," the captain said, returning. "I know his kind of guy. He's a bully and a coward who's been trying hard to cover it up. But a word from me makes a big difference."

Sophia walked Laura back to her cabin. The sky was darkening and waves were definitely getting bigger. "Laura, something you should know. The scuttlebutt is that George has talked about jumping ship at this port, so he might be more likely to try something because he can be gone before he gets caught. So just stay in your cabin with the door locked until dinner, okay? He's more likely to try something on the last day out."

"I will," Laura promised. She read for the afternoon. The seas continued to become heavier, and the ship was starting to roll and pitch in ways it had never done before with her on board. She had thought herself immune to seasickness. She hadn't felt a tinge of it so far, and after all, seasickness was a human thing, wasn't it?

But she began getting sick. There was only so much that even her body could tolerate. When Sophie came to walk her to suffer, she deferred, wanting to do anything but eat. Sophie understood and left, again extracting a promise to stay locked in her cabin.

The seas became so rough that she wondered how they could be eating supper. In addition to the rolling and the pitching, she could now detect a definite yaw. She knew she was going to throw up. She was standing next to the outdoor door and didn't think she could make it to the head, so she opened the door and flung herself at the rail. Pretty much nothing was left in her stomach from lunch, but that didn't mean that nothing came up. How can that be, she wondered.

After a few minutes, she felt better. She turned to go back into the cabin. Rain was blowing so hard that she wasn't sure she could make it. Not only that, there was George, between her and the cabin door.

"You turning me down, huh?" He was almost snarling. "I don't think you got any room to turn me down. And I think that you need it!"

"I don't need it," she snapped.

"Yes you do," he said, wrapping an arm firmly around her and feeling for her crotch. A roll of the ship enabled her to push off the railing with their feet and they both went careening into the wall next to her door. She reached out and managed to grab the handle.

He kept one arm firmly wrapped around her and use the other to pull down the front of his pants. "Yeah, I think you need this!" He waved a very rigid male member at her. It was the first erect human penis that Laura had seen, and it shocked her. He let go of it, adjusted his grip on her, grabbed the front of her dress and ripped it open and stared in astonishment at her blue skin. His eyes went wide and he backed off in astonishment. She suddenly bent forward and ran with all her might towards him and ramming him. He went backwards, astonished, with a grunt, and hit the railing behind him, just as a roll favored his momentum. The railing bowed slightly and he crumpled backwards and disappeared over it. The railing was directly above the ocean, and Owana'i'i'i'wa heard his strangled cry and heard a splash. The fog was so thick that the sounds that he made were utterly swallowed up. She stood there, gripping the door handle for stability as she was beat by wind and rain, breathing hard, not sure what to do next, feeling unbelievable guilt but she'd acted in self-defense and hadn't expected him to go over the rail.

She decided her best option was complete discretion. She fought the door to open it and gained the interior, where she sat and gasped for half an hour. Finally finding energy, she disrobed, took out clean clothing and put them on, and repaired her makeup.

She had just finished when there was a pounding at her door. "Who is it?" she managed to get out, leaning in next to the door.

"It's Sophie!" Laura flung the door open and Sophie thrust herself inside, fighting the ship's roll.

"He wasn't at mess," Sophia said. "Have you seen him? Did he bother you?"

Laura allowed her eyes to widen. "No. I haven't seen him. Thank God."

"Oh, I'm so glad," Sophie said. "I'm off-shift now. Why don't I sit with you for a while in case he does come by? I could handle him with one arm tied behind my back."

They sat for several hours, talking, and Sophie finally left to go to bed. Laura sat there, feeling drained, wondering if she would find any sleep that night.

She finally found some towards morning. Her eyes fought against soreness to open, and the clock informed her that it was now 7 am, Greenwich ante-meridian standard time. Two more hours until they docked.

Laura heard a knock at the door and realized it had been a previous knock that had wakened her. "Who is it?" she called out.

"Wu Yi with your breakfast."

Laura opened the door and he came in. "Courtesy of the captain," he told her.

"Thank you. What time will I be able to disembark?"

"About two and a half hours."

"You didn't see George, did you?" she asked him.

"Nobody has seen him since early last evening. We think he jumped ship. He had threatened to do that."

Laura felt relived. After Wu Yi left, she spent the next two hours eating and waiting. She was still too unsettled to do any reading.

She finally found her turn to exit the ship. At the top of the gangplank, Sophie came up and hugged her. "It's been nice knowing you," she told Laura. "And you too," said Laura. "Thank you so much for everything."

Then Laura was down and she made it through customs where the British authorities weren't overly concerned about people traveling by ship from America and so didn't scrutinize her documentation too thoroughly. She was free on the streets of London.

Chapter Thirty-Six - Trobe

The ISS Dree was on its way to a frontier planet, one with only a few very small settlements on it of Lemorriin and Ftporo. These were clustered mostly on one side of the planet.

As they approached, the planet was brilliant blue and green with wispy cloud cover. Although Trobe did not know it, it looked much like Earth.

"We will set down on the day side," A'Khor said. "The settlements are all on the night side. I want you to feel what a true frontier, a wilderness, feels like. We should be perfectly safe here."

They took a shuttle down to the planetary surface, just Trobe, A'Khor, and the two Ftporo. They settled in a small vale in a rocky area overlooking a large sparkling lake. It was an achingly beautiful scene with mountains in the background and a bright meadow in the foreground.

They left the shuttle and strolled down to the lakeshore. One of the Ftporo was carrying a large container in which, A'Khor assured Trobe, was their lunch.

Some convenient rocks provided seating an this idyll. Trobe thought he'd never seen such an achingly beautiful place. As is often the case on alien planets, local small life forms did not find any of the four tasty, and so did not devote themselves to try to have their own lunch at the four's expense. The lack of negative attention only heightened the effect of Eden.

And then their zfor'tinlas began sounding off all four of them. They were on override mode all four of them.

"Danger!" the captain barked. "There is a suspected hive ship now entering orbit. The ship must retreat to the night side. Take cover!"

This was standard operating procedure. It made no sense, if the enemy didn't already know you were there, to announce your presence and virtually assure destruction when it could be avoided. The four ran back to the shuttle and A'Khor quickly maneuvered it into the deepest shadow available, under trees. It was none too soon. As they watched from behind a rocky parapet, an immense somewhat flattened ovoid spacecraft floated out of the sky onto the lake. Trobe watched in disbelief as the ship started vacuuming water from the lake into its holds.

"They are taking water," he said, stating the obvious.

"It appears so," A'Khor said.

"That is one big ship, if you'll excuse my saying so," Hizzogana said.

"That is only a small supply ship," A'Khor told them. "The mother ship is immense. We estimate that one of their mother ships can hold up to two million individuals."

"If you can call them individuals," Trobe muttered.

"You could probably call their scientists individuals," A'Khor said. "There seems to be a special caste of at least one of the races of longer-lived beings who can think independently up to a point. They are the ones that have produced most of their science, with the queens making up the difference. They are linked to the queens as are all of the members of the hive races, though."

"And the other hive races? How did they develop higher technology?"

"That is unknown as yet," A'Khor said. "But we have scientists trying to figure that out. We have special resources for such research. I will tell you more about that when the time comes."

The ship was still sucking in water at an astounding rate.

"What do you think they are planning on doing?" Trobe asked.

"Planetary conquest, I'm sure," A'Khor said. "I imagine that every settlement right now is scrambling to leave in spaceships. Our experience has been that since they have found a habitable planet, they will take it by force and settle it. They seem to essentially ignore fleeing spaceships. But if you stand and fight without impressive defenses that most ships do not have, you are dead without a question. We will have to wait until they go elsewhere on the planet to leave."

"But we can monitor them from the ship."

"I advise not to. In fact, I suggest that we stay well away from our ship. We do not want to encourage them to find it or us, and if we use monitoring equipment, they may detect it."

They waited for hours. Even as fast as the ship was sucking up water, it had an immense hold. Finally, hours later, it was full and the entire lake surface was drawn down around half a ftarbolet, leaving large areas of muddy lake bottom exposed. The ship sluggishly rose upward and kept rising.

They waited until the ship was out of sight, then went back to their own ship.

"It should be safe enough to use our equipment, now, as long as we keep it as quiet as possible," A'khor said.

Their sensors showed that the mother ship was making no signs of leaving. They waited until its orbit took it below the horizon from them. They waited for several more hours, then they received a signal, a very short burst, from the Empire ship. With the hive ship on the opposite side of the planet, they took off in the shuttle, and as soon as they could be secured about the larger ship, it took off - fast - and almost immediately went into warp.

Chapter Thirty-Seven - A'khor

Back at the palace the Emperor Fark'ai, the Empress Primol, and the court executive Tie Dzriff were looking stunned at the news of the hive ship, even though they had already received the news two days before. Primoi was talking: "Of course we must have full and immediate mobilization of all of our forces," she said.

"That is already underway," A'khor said. "All forces should be mobilized by now. And the planetary forces under each member of Empire are now under the command of the Empire."

Five other Khar'/ai had been called to this meeting, as well, including Deka. These were all the Khar'/ai in the Imperial Palace, comprising all of the candidate advisors. Three of the other four, however, were now working on their charges making the adjustment to another way of life including memory modification - while the other one, A'a'tah, was assuming other duties.

"And we must start an urgent program to build more fighting ships and to recruit new service members," Fark'ai said.

"The minister of defense has already ordered expanded recruitment. We are only waiting for your and Primoi's authorization to step up the construction program."

"Well, of course that is granted," Fark'ai said. Primoi agreed.

"There may be trouble getting XXX to cooperate fully," Tie said. "There is a rumor rampant there that this is a manufactured scare in order to manipulate the empire."

"That is nonsense," A'khor said. "I saw it for myself."

"We know," Primoi said. "We know that we can trust you absolutely."

"I have already called for the prime council to meet immediately," Tie said. "But it will be two more days before it is possible."

"Is there anything else we can do at this time?" Fark'ai asked.

"Public information," A'khor said. "Tailored to emphasize the seriousness of the situation."

"Yes, I can see that is necessary," Primoi said.

"Is the formula of support still valid?" A'khor asked.

"I think so," said Tie. "It was revised two years ago to update it, and little has changed since then. Some member nations may have difficulty meeting their obligations, but we have no choice but to extract it now."

"And we have to tend to reinforced shielding at the Hive colony."

"That has been well-shielded," A'a'tah said.

"Yes, that is so, by our standards," A'khor said. "But we do not know about the standards needed to fully shield them from the invaders. We do not need the problems that could be caused if the invaders were able to communicate with the colony."

They discussed several more facets of the situation. Having worn out the topic for the time being, and knowing that all the necessary forces had been set in motion, Tie said, "I believe it is time to look at some other matters."

"Such as?" Fark'ai said.

"Both the pending prince and princess candidates have been winnowed down to one each. It may be time to introduce them at court."

"I believe that is so," A'khor agreed.

Primoi looked at Fark'ai. "It is only an eight-year or so until time for our retirement," she said.

"That is so," said Fark'ai. "Very well. But let us wait until after the council has met."

Chapter Thirty-Eight - Kilyawa

Kilyawa, Deka and Bildol boarded the Imperial liner. It was a different one than the one used by Trobe and A'Khor, but just as well fitted. It had been named the ISS Tornidee.

Like Trobe, Kilyawa was required to pilot the ship out of its berth, which she did well. The captain was, rather unusually, a Dorrup. He was named Prit ZZhrgg. The first mate was an Ossbonal, Fekrai Fada. The rest of the crew were the usual mix.

On the bridge, with Kilyawa, Prit and Fekra present, Deka announced, "We shall be going to Abroftporo first." Kilyawa knew that this was the first that the captain and the mate knew where they were going, for security reasons. All outgoing message capabilities of the ship were blanked out for everyone but Deka and the captain.

The trip was uneventful. Kilyawa and other members of the excursion party spent time doing conditioning excercises to prepare for the planet's gravity, which was thirty percent higher than the standard on the shell. Coming to Abroftporo, Kilyawa could see that it looked gray-green from space, where the surface could be seen through the clouds.

Because of the higher gravity, the ship would not land on the planet. The excursion party went via shuttle, which Kilyawa piloted. She brought it into the spaceport smoothly.

As much as she thought she was prepared for the gravity, its reality was a revelation. She felt like a lurching drunk as she descended from the ship. Deka seemed entirely unaffected, but she could see that the captain, Bildol, and the two crew member that had accompanied them (and would stay with the shuttle) were affected to various degrees.

Four Ftporo awaited them as escorts. As Kilyawa knew they would be, they were immense. Any one of them could have crushed her to a pulp with one hand. One introduced herself as Hekazakahl, the planetary chancellor. She was as polite as Kilyawa knew she would be. Kilyawa introduced herself graciously then introduced the rest of the landing party. The other three Ftporo were introduced - politely - but Kilyawa could see that they were not of great importance except as Hekazakahl's entourage.

The city beyond the spaceport was nice enough in its own way, but the architecture was rather staid and massive. Kilyawa could not help but notice how clean the city was. It was as spotless a planetary space as she had ever seen. They rode in a solid and massive aircar to the main government building. It was made of a deep gray stone and was as massive a building as she had ever seen.

There were no diplomatic functions planned for Kilyawa, she realized to her dismay. She was in what passed for a central palace on the planet, but was not being treated as an heir apparent, and she understood why. She was still only one of three. The uncertainty was unsettling.

She passed three days in a sort of unstatus. Meals were served to the landing party in a small but nicely appointed dining area, although it reflected the artistic sensibilities of the Ftporo. Of course, small to a Ftporo was almost half the size of a banquet room back at the Imperial Palace. She was not allowed to roam freely, but was given leave to roam within a fairly small area.

As had happened with Trobe, Deka was called away for several days - and inexplicably took Bildol with her. And as had happened with Trobe, Kilyawa was awakened in the middle of the night, but her awakening was by someone talking to her from across the room. Apparently, nobody was concerned about sound carrying through the thick walls of Ftporo architecture.

She came awake at the ready, true to her training. But the awakener, who was not a Ftporo but a Helegite, bade her to follow. "It is critical that you come with me," the Helegite said. "Your life depends on it."

"Does Deka know about this?"

"Deka has no need to know. You will be safe as long as you accompany me."

Kilyawa dressed and followed. Well, she thought, at least it will be an adventure. And it also occurred to her that she did not have as much to lose as she had thought she had previously. They walked down endless corridors, through changing architecture, until she had no idea where they could be.

At long last, they came to a chamber and Kilyawa was ushered in by a Ghek. Sitting around a parlor were eleven assorted persons of nine assorted species. All of them gazed at her gravely.

"Do you know why you're here?" asked a Harneii. She was only the second Harneii Kilyawa had ever met. And the Harneii, a female, seemed to be boring through Kilyawa with her stare. She wondered how much the Harneii could read her thoughts.

"I have no idea," Kilyawa said.

"You are here because we believe you have violated the basic code of the Empire. We know that you have violated the terms of your education and accommodation by surreptitiously exploring areas that were off-limits to you. Do you have any idea how serious that is?"

"Really?" Kilyawa felt shocked. "That . . .?"

"Yes, that. Do you not recall the oath that you took when you became a princess of the Empire?"

"Yes . . . That was years ago."

"Time does not change a sworn oath. I shall quote, I shall obey my instructor at all times. I shall take no actions nor shall I engage in any behavior that jeopardizes my security or the security of those around me nor shall I act in such a way as to violate the trust that the Empire places in me.' We believe that sneaking around and spying on your competition has violated that trust. Do you understand the consequences?"

"Was it . . . banishment?"

"NO. It is more serious than that."

"How - how much more serious?"

"Disobedience can cause your death. We shall decide your fate here tonight."

Kilyawa thought for a moment, with 24 assorted eyes on her. How could she handle this situation? She was in no position to be rebellious, certainly. Her best chance was to be humble and contrite.

"I'm sorry if I was disappointing. What can I do? I wish I could make this right."

"I'm sure you feel that way. But . . . what . . . can . . . we . . . do?"

She shuddered internally. "Please let me ask, what can I do?"

"Well, we will present you with a choice. You shall choose. You can face a sentencing tribunal or you can do as we ask you to."

"What do I need to do?"

"Let me explain that if you do what we ask, we will make sure that you are the heir apparent. The choice is clear for you."

"But what must I do?"

The Harneii leaned forward, elbows on the table, her eyes boring through Kilyawa.

"We want you to be our figurehead in a rebellion, to replace the current Imperical government with our own system."

Kilyawa was shocked. "Why - why me?"

"Because you are the brightest of the three princess candidates, and you show the ability for independent thought."

"And how would this work?"

"We have been building a conspiracy network for the last century. We already have one of the prince candidates on board. You and he will assume the throne, but as nominal rulers only. The real decisions will be made by a ruling council, which will comprise much the same people you see here."

"But that would violate everything I have ever believed about the Empire."

The Harneii grunted contemptuously. "You mean everything you have been fed about the Empire. They have only allowed you to hear or read what they wanted you to. The current regime completely controlled any information reaching you."

Kilyawa felt a little faint and a little nauseous. How could she stick this out? "But then I would only be a figurehead?"

"You would have a voice on the council, but only a voice. We do not expect an answer now. You will have two days from now to make your decision. We will call you back then to see what you have decided."

Kilyawa left in a numb haze. She had been getting more shocks to her system lately than she cared for. She was escorted back to her room and lay there awake, thinking.

She stewed on the issue for the next two days. During this time, she explored the Ftporo building. It was immense. And the hallways and rooms were each immense on their own. She felt like an insect skittering around the building. At one point, she discovered a corridor that featured nothing but twelve empty rooms. The rooms were small for Ftporo rooms, and they were barren and featureless, not a stick of furnishing. The doors would latch but not lock. She could not figure out their purpose.

Her meals had been delivered to her room suite, and she had not yet dined with anyone outside her party. But she discovered a cafeteria. It seemed vast. The food was widely varied and much of it looked like something that Kilyawa did not want to know the source of. Some of the individual pieces on the cafeteria line were bigger than Kilyawa's head. She attracted attention by being there, but she didn't mind. They did not seem at all hostile, just curious. But they were too polite to intrude on her space. They were the most courteous society she'd ever seen. That explained why there was not great security that, and how would anyone fight or even harm a Ftporo? Obviously, the Ftporo expected people's behavior to remain within an accepted range of norms.

On another occasion, she stumbled on an assembly room, full of at least a hundred Ftporo conducting planetary business. She managed to sneak in, unnoticed, in the back to watch a while. She was able to sneak out as well.

She slept scantily the second night after the meeting, and felt no sleepiness whatsoever on the third night, when she was expecting to be again summoned. And was.

She was escorted into the room. The meeting was attended by exactly the same people, no more, no less. She stood there, waiting. They seemed to take their time in initiating their business.

"Well," the Harneii said, at long last, "What do you have to say?"

"I have given it long thought and I am not interested in your offer. It would betray the Empire and I would know for the rest of my life that I had compromised my principles. I will not do it. I will attempt to deal with any consequences as best I can."

She saw several frowns and scowls around the room.

"Is that your final answer?" the Helegite asked. Kilyawa was wondering why she had not heard anyone else talk, in this meeting or the previous.

"That is it," Kilyawa said, her voice slightly quavering. "I must be true to my principles. I can only pray that my rivals also have enough strength of character to resist your offer, as well."

"What would you say if we told you that both of the others have already accepted?"

"I have nothing to say. It aggrieves me that it might be so, but what can I do about it? I am not accepting your offer."

"Very well. Suffer the consequences. Escort her back to her room!"

She was conducted back and spent another night of restlessness.

The next day, Deka returned. Deka seemed cheerful, if one of her race can be said to seem cheerful. They were a hard species to read.

"It is soon time for us to leave," Deka said. "We shall continue our tour."

"Wait. I have to tell you something."

"That you refused their offer?"

"You - you know?"

"Of course I do. It was a test, and you passed with flying colors. You are now the princess apparent."

Kilyawa felt astonished. "I am?" she asked, dumbly.

"You are. And there will be a banquet tomorrow at which you will be expected to speak. And we will leave tomorrow."

"But then the people in that room were not traitors?"

"No, they are part of a selected high council that oversees succession,"

"What if I had agreed with them?"

"You would not be in personal danger, but you would lose your status, receive memory modifications, and placed in a position suitable for your talents."

Kilyawa shuddered. "I came so close . . ."

Deka gazed at her. "No, I do not think so. I know you too well. I had not the slightest concern that you would fail the test."

"Um, thanks. I guess. So where will we go next?"

"To Harneia. But that is strictly between us. Do not tell anyone. Not even the captain will know until we have lifted off the planet surface. We must observe the highest security."


"However, we will be accompanied by a Harneii. She will be informed of our time of departure with only an hour's advance notice. Now you must prepare your presentation."

"What should I say?"

"Most people enjoy hearing your story, what you learned through the years, and the experiences that you had. Build on those."

"You have prepared me for many things, but not this particularly."

"I feel confident in you."

Kilyawa spent the rest of the afternoon creating drafts and practicing her speech. She presented it to her reflection in the mirror when she felt it complete enough, then drafted Deka to endure it.

"Good enough," Deka said. "You are not expected to be a master orator at this stage. In any case, the Ftporo will listen politely as they always do.

That evening, the banquet was interesting but edible. It was not Kilyawa's idea of feast food, but she knew that such events were always a compromise to offend the least number of species' palates. Although the audience was mostly Ftporo, there were a number of seven other species there.

She was then introduced by a Ftporo. She had no idea which one, except that it said its name was Agazlonor, but who could tell one Ftporo apart from another?

Kilyawa stepped up to the podium then realized with horror that her zfor'tinla was back in her room. She had been so preoccupied that she had forgotten it. What kind of a princess was that to be?

But she had learned to relax her mind and to allow herself to flow, using remembered phrases and filling the rest extemporaneously. And she did.

"It is such a treat to be here tonight, seeing wonderful galactic citizens filling this hall and, of course, listening to ME." A bit of laughter; it was intended. "I have trained for years to be who I am and to be here tonight. As you know, the Imperial offices are not hereditary, but are awarded based on perceived merit. I am always in awe that they thought that I could fill this position. I have no idea what they saw in me as a small child. Like other children, I was only interested in toys and candy. Learning to fill this role has not always been easy. I don't recline on padded couches being fed Glurgs [a fruit similar to an Earth grape but a bit more chewy] well, actually, sometimes I do recline on a padded couch, but I have to feed myself the Glurgs [more chuckles] but that is only after a long day of training. It includes classroom work. I think that I devoted, let us see, approximately an eternity to classroom work or maybe it was two eternities, I lose track. But another eternity or two or three was spent in physical work, learning the graces, the martial arts, to make art, to make useful objects, and to and this was often the hardest work of all sample some odd cuisine from some rather odd planets. Not including Abroftporo, of course! [more chuckles].

"I learned art, history, culture, science, politics, diplomacy, and now my head is quite full and I am expected to shove more in there. I think I will need a plunger to force it in at this point. [some real guffaws, but mostly not from the Ftporo, which only chuckled. A Ftporo could be hearing the funniest joke in the history of the universe and yet only chuckle.]

"It has not been without its sorrows. I have seen quite explicit video of tragedy and devastation. I have visited the terribly injured and the dying in hospitals. I have learned and reviewed the cruelest occurrences in history. I have learned so much that I wish I had never been expected to know.

"But there has also been much joy along the way. I have had the opportunity to hold newborn babies of a dozen different species. I have had the opportunity to see new communities built along with all the great infrastructure that goes into them. I have seen the Empire function smoothly and humanely.

Chapter Thirty-Nine - Tenxis

Tenxis stared at his terminal screen. There, in plain letters, was a mysterious message: Meet us at Sector 2mnh, Helegratha Street, 235 tomorrow at 8:00pm. We will discuss further the matter from before.' It was unsigned but he recognized that it was using a university protocol, and not just any protocol, but a fairly high-level one. He knew exactly whom it was from.

So he was there at Helegratha 234 at 8 pm on the next day. As soon as he came up to the blank door in a blank wall, it was opened and he was invited inside. He was in a small office. The others there, waiting for him, were Nereein (or so he assumed that was her name), the Kzzg, &&&, and another Nerrung that he did not recognize but, of course, Derrig was the only Nerrung he had ever met personally.

"Have a seat," Nereein said.

"Tenxis, I am Diboor Negung," said the Nerrung, a male. "I am here on behalf of Imperial government. I believe you have met everyone else here."

Tenxis was quaking inside. The presence of &&& and the Nerrung seemed to be a bit too much.

"Yes, sir, I have."

&&& fixed Tenxis with an inscrutable gaze. "Tenxis, I am only here to assure you that what is going on is legitimate and officially sanctioned. It is above my level of security clearance, so I will have to leave. But you will be assuming additional duties over and above your studies. Accommodations will be made when necessary." He arose and excused himself and exited.

"Tenxis, my name is Nereein," Nereein said. Tenxis thought, aha! So I was right! She continued, "and my assistant, the Kzzg, is Figgggr."

"Tenxis, it is time for you to learn what is in the area that you are so curious about," Diboor said. "What do you think it is?"

"I guessed that it may have something to do with failed weapons systems."

"That is partially true, but not in the way that you may think. What that area is, first and foremost, is a kind of zoo, so to speak."

Tenxis was floored. "A zoo?" he asked, weakly. "What kind of animals?"

"Hive races."

Whereas Tenxis had felt floored, now he could hardly breathe. Hive races? Here?

"Why?" was all he could get out.

"For study. We have learned so much about them over the past few centuries. There are only thirty-seven people in existence, including you, who know this."

"Why me?" was his only possible question.

"Ah, allow me," said Nereein. "Because you are an engineer. We have researched you and you are a very good multi-disciplinary engineer. We happen to need one on staff. Our last engineer died two years ago of natural causes, and we have been slow to replace him."

"The engineering has not already been all done?"

"You would be surprised, even after these centuries, at the challenges we keep facing. Keeping hive race colonies going, not just of one, but of two species, is extremely difficult. We need expertise not presently available within our network. We have to be very careful about who we get involved with this project. You meet all of our essential criteria."

"So why was this location chosen?"

"Because this was where there was a collision between the shell and a hive ship. It was a collision of such a nature that we were able to save the lives of many of the creatures aboard while not allowing them to realize fully what had happened. If you noticed that there is a dome above the shell at this location, it is because it was necessary for concealment of part of the ship. Of course, that accounts for only one species. We were able to capture individuals of the other species as well, but they have been much more difficult to manage and managing them mainly means keeping them alive. They have life-support needs that depend on their own species ecology, and that is difficult to maintain."

"How will this help in the future to resist hive invasion?"

"Allow me," said Diboor. "We have learned a vast amount. One of the things that we have learned is that they are not interested in invasion in the conventional sense. They have no need to conquer. Their motivation is solely to create new colonies on suitable planets, and if that means exterminating the existing inhabitants of that planet, that is what they do. The only ethics to it are the needs of their species."

"And this is the same for both species? Which two species?"

"The Forsawt and the Lehsticcian. We assume that what goes for the Lehsticcian also applies to the Klahstikla in most part, because they are apparently related species. The Forsawt are much more ruthless than the Lehsticcian, and it is a Forsawt ship that collided with the shell. Whereas the Lehsticcian will only destroy species that resist them, the Forsawt will eradicate all sentient life forms. To them, there is no question of ethics. It is simply how life is lived. There is only their own hive race, and everything else is subject to their needs."

"I have heard of people who are almost like that," Tenxis said.

"Indeed," Diboor said. "And we try to isolate such people from society for the protection of society. Fortunately, they are rare in most species."

"What do they eat?"

"That was extremely difficult in the beginning, and it is still a challenge. Most of the original individuals died of malnutrition or starvation before our predecessors figured it out. Those who starved did not do it because food was not available, but because they did not recognize what we gave them as being food. It is like the dzorfin beasts of some planet or other that will only eat its sole dietary component of a certain type of leaf when the leaves are attached to the branch. Take the leaves off the branch and the dzorfins will starve. The hive races are individually extremely stupid. Only in an intact hive is there significant intelligence. So we eventually found a way to manufacture food that they would recognize, that they would eat, and which would sustain them. There are some unusual nutritional requirements that are difficult to meet. For instance, the Forsawt must have a phenomenally high level of arsenic in their diets. While not a rare element, there is otherwise little use for arsenic in modern technology, and it is rather poisonous for most species, and so it has been difficult to maintain effective but concealed sources for it. And that is one of the challenges that you may help us address."

"So you could transmute other elements, but doing so requires an unusually high energy draw that would be noticed."

"Precisely, Tenxis." Diboor seemed pleased, and Nereein shared his smile.

"I am sure you have many more questions, Tenxis, but many of them will have to wait," Nereein said. "You will learn many things in the near future. We need to get you set up. You must have an office in Area Dzorfin yes, we named it after that peculiar creature that Diboor told you about, because that is rare knowledge, and we never use the name, anyway, except to another person in the inner circle. In any case, you must do your work here in your office so that you are not creating sensitive files that may be hacked within the university computer system. We have a freestanding system here that is not connected to the university system."

"But why such security? Why cannot this be common knowledge?"

All three of the others exchanged looks. "Because of the danger," said Diboor. "There are rebel forces who would happily use captured hive species to create attacks on the Empire and weaken it. We cannot risk that." Chapter Forty - Laura

Laura knew where she had to go. There was an office building on one of the older streets in town, in one of the older buildings, and she had that address. She was grateful that it had not been necessary to learn an entire new language, although she suspected that the cabbie was perhaps speaking his own proprietary language never elsewhere heard in the history of the world, but she and he eventually made themselves understood. It was just before lunchtime when she was dropped off on the doorstep of her destination.

She entered the office and looked around. It all looked ancient, including the receptionist seated behind a desk that perhaps could have been auctioned at Sotheby's for a significant amount of money. The receptionist was looking at Laura bemusedly.

"Yes, my dear, can I help you?" she said.

"Yes, I'm here to see Edgar Princips." Laura was glad the zfor'tinla had included that bit of information.

"Mr. Princips has left this firm. Would you like to see his replacement, Mr. Reed?"

"Yes, I would . . . If he really is his, um, complete replacement," Laura said, feeling lame.

The receptionist seemed to be gazing through her, apparently discerning parts of her that Laura didn't even know she had.

"Very well. He will be available shortly. Have a seat."

Laura's eye was caught by a colorful tabloid cover entitled "Private Eye," which she began to read. She was halfway through an article citing "little-enders" and "big-enders" in British politics when the receptionist broke into her concentration.

"You may see him now," she said. "Follow the man, there." A young man stood in a doorway and beckoned Laura with a broad sweep of his arm. Laura followed him into a private office where sat a rather stout and florid man. The young man announced "Mr. Reed, Miss Laura Carter." The young man left, closing the door behind him.

"What is the nature of your business, Miss Carter?" Mr. Reed said.

"I need a ticket to leave," she said.

"Miss Carter, we are not a travel agency."

Laura knew she was far out on a limb. "Um, I have information that you help stranded . . . people from very exotic locations return home."

"Indeed? And how would you describe yourself?"

"I am Ieog'eeh," she said firmly, looking Mr. Reed in the eye. She casually raised a hand to mess with her hair, allowing her wristband to drop just enough to see a slight bit of blue.

"Indeed. And you wish to return there?"

"Yes, I do. I was abandoned here by the Grain last year and I am trying to return home."

"The Grain?"

"The Dargawinrangijwana," she explained. That seemed to finally satisfy him.

"And how much money can you afford?"

"All I have left in Earth money, about $2,400 American."

Mr. Reed looked pained. "Indeed. Oh, dear, that is not much. How can we deal with your situation for that kind of money?"

Laura gazed back at him for a moment. "And what are you?" she asked.

"I am Mr. Reed."

"No, WHAT are you? You know that I am Ieog'eeh."

Mr. Reed sighed. "Oh, very well, then. I am Vorg. My species is favored for these earth assignments because of our ease of passing. And, I say, you have apparently been doing an excellent job of passing yourself, although I certainly can see that you have had to paste on large amounts of makeup. How have you explained that?"

"Terrible acne scars," she said. "Since Earth people seem totally unaware that there's anybody but them, that seems to satisfy them."

"So tell me your story. I have nothing else to do at the moment.:

Laura told him the entire story, from planetfall up to her arrival at Mr. Reed's office. When she was done, Mr. Reed gazed at her for long moments.

"Do you have any way of coming up with any more money? It's not that I am not willing to help you, but we are in the unfortunate position of having to charge heavily for our services. It is difficult to get you off-planet, especially considering how few ships drop by in the course of a year. In any case, you will have to wait some time to be able to embark for home. And then it will not be home, but some intermediate point."

"I have no way of getting more money. Unless I can get a job here in London to make some more until whatever ship gets here."

"Not easy but not out of the question. What skills do you have?"

Laura enumerated.

"Not much use for field agricultural skills here in London," Mr. Reed said. "Or for the rest of your skillset. We don't want to put you in an easy job, like restaurant attendant, because of the public exposure. You have already been accidentally discovered three times, by your own admission.

"But, hummm, there is one possibility. One possibility indeed. Do you mind terribly doing janitorial work at night?"

Laura shook her head.

"So I think that's our one real possibility. Where are you staying?"

"Nowhere as yet. I just got here."

"I can arrange for you to stay here. In return, you agree to live frugally and to turn whatever money over to us that you have when you leave. If this were one block farther over, we could not get away with your telling people that this is your address. There are just a few old flats left on this street that might be affordable for one such as you."

"For how long will this be?"

"According to my best sources, it will be ninety-three days until a suitable vessel visits and leaves. So, about three months."

Laura agreed.

"Very well, then, I will introduce you to Ms. Jannings, your probable new supervisor, after lunch. Stay and eat with us."

Laura was grateful to do so. She was famished. And it was a good, albeit thoroughly British, lunch. Afterwards, Mr. Reed took her via taxicab to an office high-rise about a mile distant, where she was introduced to Ms. Jannings, a middle-aged woman with large, fleshy arms.

"I don't know," said Ms. Jannings. "We really don't need anyone right now. But we do have a high rate of turnover in this kind of work."

"You have a large conference starting tomorrow in the ConGen offices. Won't you need extra help?"

Ms. Jannings mused a few moments. "Yes, I guess so. I suppose I can take her on."

Laura started the following evening. This gave her a day and a half to roam the streets of London, taking it in. She reported for duty as requested.

It was, as predicted, fairly tedious and mindless work. But she was working at night with only a few other people at any one time, and it was straightforward. It was certainly no worse than working on the farm.

Days came and went. Laura's flat was furnished but she had to buy her own food. Nonetheless, she had few other expenses other than being a tourist in her time off.

Time went by. She checked in with Mr. Reed, or if he was not there, the receptionist, Joan or Mr. Reed's assistance, Joel, every afternoon. She discovered that Joan and Joel were also Vorg. She was glad that that the Vorg seemed to be a tolerant and accommodating species.

"The Trisforbaqla will arrive in two more days," Joel eventually informed her. But it will then be almost two weeks before it leaves. So you have about two weeks left to wait."

The time passed excruciatingly slowly, but the end of it finally came. Mr. Reed took care of informing Ms. Jannings of her departure, giving some sort of Terran species of excuse.

They drove out to the countryside in the eveningtide in an old Bentley that apparently belonged to Mr. Reed, out to an ancient farmhouse a three-hour drive out of London, near the coast somewhere in Wales. The occupant of the house welcomed them in. Laura could see that he was not Vorg, but something else entirely. She suspected Lemorrin, although they were not a well-known species to most galactic citizens.

It was completely dark out now. They were on a barren headland overlooking the ocean. They stood outside as a small vessel, obviously just a lander, alit on a mass of rock. Laura had already given Mr. Reed all of her money. She was happy to find that he gave her back a fair amount of galactic scrip. That was unexpected but a great relief. Her passage, she had been assured, was paid all the way to Ieog'eeh.

The ship that she found herself on was a Zhuhazhutht ship, but she only saw perhaps three Zhuhazhutht aboard. The rest were a mix of galactic races. On board ship, she was able to relate her story freely, and she had many eager listeners. They were at a transfer station all too soon, where she boarded an Ossbonal ship heading for yet another transfer station, where she changed to another, this time Helegite ship, finally bound for Ioeg'eeh. Finally arriving, it was far too late to call family, so she stayed at a small inexpensive hotel near the spaceport.

More to come . . .