Time To Go Zulm


Brian W. Antoine

Bob Kirkpatrick

April 4, 1994

Chapter One

Long, long ago tomorrow

The Grand Seer felt the presence but couldn't see it, hear it, or feel it. Before her life was extinguished in a millisecond pulse of energy to her brain, she had a vision of her assailant. It was an animal she was unable to recognize.

* * *

"It is done, Administrator" said Ymml. "The Magg is inoperative, and his anomaly is..."

"The anomaly is unimportant. The anomaly depended on the Magg. We shall move to our goal." The Administrator waved a hand above a control and the great sphere began to move. Inside the double walls of the Dyson, life went on unaware of the motion.

* * *

The bridge was in chaos. When Brian expired, those things which had existed by virtue of his power faded to nothing. The ship was intact and functional, but certain items were lost. The Mage's staff hissed and bubbled where it sat, and turned to vapor which dissipated itself into the air. The crew couldn't agree on anything except that they needed to get home. It was Gregor who called for, and gotten the calm long enough for all to take stock of what had just transpired.

"Lythandi, you will set a course for Meenzeii" ordered Kalindra. The words met with objections.

"Who you to say do?" growled Nek.

"I am the mate of the Captain of this ship."

"You not member of crew. How you be Leader?"

"It falls to me."

"Uh, forgive me, Kalindra" said Dave. "But I don't think that makes any difference. Most of us on this ship are kinda like cargo. We go where the ship does, but we don't say where that is or how it's done. The only crew there is...was... the only crew is Lythandi and Nek here."

Kalindra balled fists and glared at Dave. "I think he's right" said Gregor. "It is not up to us to control the ship, a crewman has to do that. Since Lythandi is the ranking officer, it's her that gets the command."

"But she is a child!" argued Kalindra. Lythandi nodded.

"I do not wish to be the leader. It was my honor and duty to serve my Klizach as an apprentice, but I cannot take his place now that he is gone."

"Then you have to select your replacement" said Gregor quietly. "We have to maintain some kind of order or none of us will ever get home."

Kalindra stood a little straighter. "Good, then here is how it will be..."

"Nek shall take command" interrupted Lythandi. "He is the only crew left and he has experience with ships and command." Kalindra tried to surpress her rage.

"You would choose a Meenzal?" she hissed.

"I make the best choice I can" replied the young Velan.

"You will never join the Family."

"With the Klizach dead, there is no family."

"So long as any one of us lives, the Family Kan survives."

"This may be true for you and your kit, but it is not true for me or my brother. We are orphaned again." There was sadness in her voice, and for a moment, Kalindra softened.

"You will still be welcome. As Klizan, I must seek to rebuild my family."

"I mean no dishonor, Kalindra. But my brother and I sought the Klizan as our Mentor. We have seen the worlds beyond ours, and it is now your duty to return to Velar to continue your protection of it."

"And what will you do, kit?" came the snarling reply. "Live your life with the cats?" The gunner stood and faced the Velan.

"If small furry want live Meenzeii, she be care for. She have honor."

"And I do not?"

"I no say. You say." Kalindra raised her hands and began a gesture. In half a heartbeat she found herself in a stasis field and heard Penny's voice.

"You will harm no one on this ship." The firmness in her voice was unmistakable. "You will not use your powers here, nor will you influence any in your pain."

The anger faded from Kalindra's eyes as she realized the truth of what Penny had said. "I will not be a threat" she said. The field released and Kal walked from the flightdeck. Before she was through the hatch, her shoulders had begin to shake with the tears of rage, frustration and loss she felt.

"Your orders, Captain?" asked Lythandi. The old cat told her to set course for Meenzeii, and asked Penny to pilot the large craft. A soft chime told everyone that the ship was accelerating, and would soon jump into hyperspace. Gone was the excitement of earlier jumps. There was the unknown ahead, but this time there was none of the bright wonder of adventure. There was only the pain of worry.

* * *

The Grand Seer who was not the Grand Seer made her way to the Hall of Root. She had been bidden to an audience with the Chief Administrator. Her robes flowed about her as she moved, but the hood of her cloak hid her face as Zulm Law dictated. None might view the face of God, nor any of its agents. Stepping into the conveyor, she was rendered into raw energy and rode the wave guide the 2000 meters to the Administrators Port. There she was reconstituted and entered the hall and the Presence of the Admin.

"Seer." he said with a bow. "I acknowledge your arrival. Gods Presence who gives me mine is welcome." He may have acknowledged her, but she made no move, but stood and waited for the query she had been summoned to answer.

"All has been done as it has been sung. God's will has been performed. Now we seek the Song of Deeds to Come." To this, the Grand Seer slowly shook her head to indicate the negative

* * *

In her cabin, Kalindra was weeping silently. The quiet was broken only by an occasional sob of grief. Thoughts came and went quickly, so fleeting that she couldn't grasp any with clarity. All she could recognize were the flashes of images flashing in and out of her mind with machine gun rapidity. In the pictures she saw herself, Brian, and all the others who'd played such a significant role in her recent life. The image which burned like fire was that of her mate, felled by her hand. Making it worse was the emptiness of a link that was gone.

She knew that she had duties left to perform. Before she could return to Velar, she had news to give to those who waited for Bob and Brian on the Station K1. It was a task she did not want, but it was her place to tell them that their husband, father and friends would never return.

* * *

Suzanne sat on the hillock looking over the station. She was bored, but then that wasn't anything new. She had only come because her children had chosen to be with their father, lured into space with the promise of adventure.

"Sue," said the voice from behind her. She turned and looked but there wasn't anyone to be seen.

"Who's there?" she asked, standing.

"It's me." Suzanne looked around but still saw no one. She wondered if that Penny lady was talking to her, and asked if it was she. "No, someone you know a lot better than that." There was a quality to the voice that was both familiar and foreign to her.

"Where are you?" she asked the voice.

"I'm here." it replied, and a cylinder of darkness descended from nowhere. Inside it was an apparition bathed in an aura of indistinguishable colors. The figure was humanoid, a male with wide and powerful shoulders, and thighs with sinewy musculature. Its head was catlike, with long flowing hair which cascaded over its shoulders with the appearance of a mane. Its nose jutted out in a mustached muzzle that couldn't hide incisor fangs that lined the inside boundaries of the mustache. It had cat's eyes which glowed silver like chrome. Across both shoulders hung crossed bandoleers which held rows of cylindrical objects. Around its waist was w belt which hung at a jaunty angle, gunfighter style. Holstered and strapped to one thigh was the most menacing sidearm she'd ever seen.

"Who are you?" Suzanne asked again. She wasn't afraid, but curious.

The creature stepped forward from the cylinder of darkness and faded from view. But Suzanne could see the grass crush under the weight of the footfalls that approached her. "I am the father of your children, and I am more." it replied.

Suzanne's eyes widened and she felt her legs grow weak.

Chapter Two

Long, long ago tomorrow II

Suzanne squinted as though she was looking at a bright light. Try as she might, she couldn't what she'd been looking at a moment ago. The image of the apparition in the dark was fading from her startled mind and she was trying hard to recapture it.

"I can see where you are, but I can't see you." she said towards the place she expected it to be. "What are you, some sort of spook?"

"I've been that and I will again." it replied. "I am anything and I am nothing at all."

"Quit talking in riddles, you sound like a character in a bad sci-fi story."

"I am that too. But, as you wish." The image returned, and then was corporeal and standing before her. Suzanne caught her breath in a gasp, and without thinking reached out to touch the thing that stood before her.

"What are you?" she said. The wonder in her voice was apparent.

"Do you believe in souls, Suzanne?" it asked her. She said no. "Then I ask if you believe in destiny."

"No, and if you tell me Jesus loves me I'm going to kick you in your furry balls." The Spook laughed at this.

"Try it." it said to her. And she did. Her foot passed through the Spook like it had through the air. The Spook smiled and showed her a row of teeth well suited fro tearing meat from bones. Suzanne shuddered and stepped back.

"You said you were the father of my children."

"And I am." For an instant, Suzanne saw Bob clearly in the face of the apparition.

"Bullshit. You're that Penny person. What are you --it? A hologram or something?" The Spook laughed and stepped forwards and occupied the same space that Suzanne did. When it stepped again, Suzanne was gone.

"And now I am the mother of the children as well."

"Tell me," it said to itself aloud. "What am I now?"

"What I was before, and will be." it replied to itself. "We are the sum total of all that brought us to this moment. And we have work to do."

With a wave of a clawed hand, a gate appeared. Through its portal was a brilliance that couldn't be viewed by biological eyes. The Spook took a step through the gate and it dissolved into nothingness, closing behind.

* * *

Kalindra sensed the change as soon as it happened. She forgot her grief and was on her feet, poised for battle as if responding to an ancient instinct. When it appeared before her, she lashed out with energy bolts at the thing which materialized in her cabin.

They had no effect.

It stepped to her, and as it passed through her body she too was gone. The crew of the Sunbeam didn't miss her for almost three hours.

* * *

"We do not understand, Seer" said the Chief Administrator. "Have we not followed the song of conquest?" Again the Seer shook her head slowly. "I do not comprehend. Where was the error made?"

"Data assimilation." she said. There was an unexpected lilting tone in her voice. The teeth which crushed the life from the Administrator were unexpected too.

In the last milliseconds of his life, he saw the face of Destiny and knew he'd lost his soul.

* * *

"Good Evening, I'm Ted Koppel and this ...is Nightline. Tonight, a look into the weather.

Chapter Three

Long, long ago tomorrow III

"Red Alert!" growled Nek sharply. The ship had been searched from bow to stern and no sign of Kalindra could be found. While the cat felt that it was no great loss, he was also sure that this was not another mysterious suicide. His years of strategies and analysis of situations told him that something unseen was at work, and he didn't intend to be caught unaware and become a victim himself. The other crew members felt the same way, and as the Sunbeam was ordered about to retrace its steps, the ships compliment donned their armor and released all the safeties.

"Lose four, not loose five, not lose more." he snarled. The ships vast weapons were brought to standby, and then rethinking it, Nek ordered them primed and floating. If the ship's sensor web detected anything, all weapons would immediately train on it and fire.

All were poised with apprehension as the ship started its way back to where it was when Bob and Jab self destructed in the Anarchy, and where their captain, the Terran Mage had vanished. Nek ordered that all of the ships logs be scrutinized. He wanted to hear about even the tiniest deviation from normal entries. It was Penny who pointed out the unusual setting for the ship's comm. Dave was pressed into service. As the only remaining engineer aboard, it was his job to determine what the comm had been used for, and why the odd settings. When the dump was made from the optical crystal that the ship used routinely as memory, they had their answer.

"Oh, fuck" wheezed Dave. "Look at this, will you?" What they found made it clear that Brian was not only a victim, but a murderer. "He ordered Bob to kill himself."

"I do not believe this. There is some sort of trickery here" said Lythandi. The conviction in her voice was solid.

"I don't know about that" said Gregor. "He was in communication and he did what he was told, you can... Wait. Who was he communicating WITH?"

* * *

"All right, whose turn is it to do the dishes?" asked Karen. This was a daily question that always led to a daily argument. Today, no argument came.

"Mine" said Megan. The girl sighed as she spoke.

"Don't worry, honey." Karen told her. "Your mom probably just went back to Earth for something."

"It's not like her to just go without saying anything. She always says something." Ficus agreed.

"Yeah." Aron agreed too. Megan went off to collect the dishes from the table outside. She didn't come back.

* * *

"It good question" mused Nek. Gregor's question on who Brian was in communication with was perplexing. "Can trace comm to source?"

"No way, man" said Dave. "It isn't going to happen. If it was a hyperlink then we could follow the filament, but this was a transmission on the, uh. Hell. I don't know what band this is."

"Band?" asked the old gunner.

"Yeah, I don't know what frequency --if there was one, or what he was modulating. I've never seen anything like this."

All the crew was focused on the communications station when a shadow dimmed the light for a moment. They all turned in unison to see what had done it. What they saw was a cylinder of darkness rise up from the flightdeck. It paused for a moment and then sank back through the deck where it came from. It left Brian and Kalindra standing where it had appeared.

Nobody moved to greet them.

Brian smiled, and looked around the flight deck until his eyes found what they were looking for. He strode forward and reached down to pick something off the floor. As he did, all hands raised their weapons.

"Are you all that glad to see me?" asked Brian. He held out his hand to show what he'd fetched from the floor. It was a small gem, the ruby he'd left behind when he'd teleported himself off the Sunbeam. "Can't break up a set, can I Kalindra?" He smiled, reached up to his ear and plucked the small earring he wore. With a quick movement, he set the small gem with its match and returned the earring to his lobe.

"So," said Kalindra. "I guess this settles the argument on who it is who runs the ship." Heads swivelled as the crew looked at one another, and they all lowered their weapons.

"Ok, man. We need an explanation" said Dave.

Nobody shut off or removed their armor.

Chapter Four

Reset, Reboot and Restart

"Report, Ymml" said the Administrator. The new Ymml looked at his Admin and then to the Seer who stood like a silent pillar.

"It is as batched, Administrator. The Magg was dispatched as the song decreed."

"But it was not as the song decreed, Ymml. Was there an error in your restart?" The assistant went inside himself a moment and then returned.

"There is no error, Administrator." he reported.

"Then you are flawed. There is no lyric which sang of the destruction of the Anomaly."

"But it was your command, Administrator."

"No. The command was that the Anomaly should be destroyed should it discover our presence. It did not."

"But it did, Administrator. It heard our communications and would report it to the Magg."

"It thought it heard our Maal. The Seer sings a new song, Ymml. The Seer sings of a ship which is consumed by disruption of its stream. The animals will be looking for what it is which has caused such a failure of the task list. They might tell the twenty worlds of us, and those worlds could mount defenses which might damage us." The Seer nodded slowly at this, and raised a cloaked extremity towards the assistant. A tiny filament of energy reached from the Seer to Ymml.

The assistant looked surprised. "What is this?" he asked as the Seers communication completed.

"Monitor the ship yourself, Ymml. What do you detect?" said the Administrator.

"It is the linnc." craoked Ymml. "But this means the Magg is still operational and communicating with its animal."

"Yes, Ymml. That is what it means. You have caused it to kill its anomaly, made the crew wary, and now they shall seek us."

"I am flawed" sighed Ymml. "Abort!" he said to himself, and sent a spike through his circuits. What was the assistant crashed to the floor. This time, there would be no recovery of memory, no copy to a functional assistant.

As soon as Ymml had gone off-line, a new assistant reported for duty. "Reverse course, Xaz. We must not be discovered" ordered the Administrator.

"Working" replied the assistant.

* * *

"Mr. Vaughn, I don't get it." said Dawn. She was considered by most of her classmates to be a little stupid, however, a pretty face, large breasts and a willing attitude made her popular with the guys in the class. All except the dweebs had had a chance to be inside her, and fondle the breasts which never saw a bra.

"It's simple, Dawn." said the physics Prof. "We believe that something has changed the way the gravity of the sun and planets affect the earth. That is what's caused the severe weather, the abnormally high tides, and even the run of earthquakes we've seen recently."

"But how can they do that? It's not like the other planets are, like, touching the earth or something."

The Prof. raised his eyebrows. To himself, he thought about what Dawn would be doing for him in his office later. On her knees with a bobbing head she would find the way to pass his course.

Chapter Five


Brian stood on the bridge and surveyed the crew and the instruments of the flightdeck. It had been very quiet since he and Kalindra showed up so magically. But then, magic was the realm of the Mage, and so nobody was too anxious to question.

That didn't stop some of the crew from discussing it among themselves. Nek was naturally suspicious, and he had a good grasp of details. The fact that Brian had commanded Bob and Jab to destroy themselves and while the Mage and his mate had returned, the Anarchy's designers and crew were still missing. He whispered this to Dave while they were in the galley.

"I noticed that too. What I don't see is some explanation for all of this. I tell you, it's spooky." Dave replied as quietly. The old gunner nodded sagely.

"What you think we need do?" asked the cat. Dave wasn't sure, but he felt that it might be dangerous to bring it up. Dave recalled a number of things from earth history that made him very nervous.

"You ever hear of Jim Jones, Nek?" The cat said no. "He was a religious guy on earth, had a whole bunch of people that followed him. Well, in order to have their own place, they went to another country and set up a collective."


"Yeah. That's where a bunch of people go to live. They share everything. Food, work, clothes, hell, even the women were shared." The Meenzal's eyes widened at that. "Anyway, these people, they'd do anything he said for them to do."

"He was Commander."

"Yeah. But also he was their god, sort of. He said he had a special friendship with god so he knew everything the people were supposed to be doing. And he got it right from god's mouth. Get it?"

"Who god?"

"Oh. Uh, god is this all powerful being."

"Like Mage?"

"Only more powerful. But different, too." The cat looked at Dave as though the human had a big chunk of spinach on a front tooth. "Look," Dave continued. "God is, like, the creator of the universe. He made the stars, the planets, the space in between. He made all the lifeforms, water, everything." The big cat looked horrified.

"Where this god is? I want see this god."

"Oh man. You can't see him. He's _cosmic_, Nek. You can't see him, you can't touch him, hear him --can't see anything, except all the cool stuff he's made."

Nek regarded Dave with a critical eye. "You say can not see god? Cannot talk god? Cannot touch god?"

"That's what I'm saying. Yes."

"You nuts. I not pay attention to thing not there. Things here can kill." He thumped his chest as he said it.

"I'm not saying what _I_ think, cat." The Meenzal winced. "I'm trying to tell you what some people think."

"People like that no live long on Meenzeii."

"And they, those people who thought Jim Jones was god's friend, they didn't live long either. They all committed suicide. Drank poison. Some didn't. they tried to run away and the church leaders shot them. In the end, everyone died."

"Stupid people." said the cat. He shook his head in disgust. But Dave went on to show how people who got to be very powerful went nuts sometimes, and took to murdering their friends out of paranoia.

"Given the events we've seen here in the past few days, I think we need to be on our toes." The connection wasn't lost on Nek. The big cat nodded at Dave, and left. Within three hours, all of the crew --except Brian and Kalindra-- had made the connection too as they talked among themselves.

* * *

The Dyson had reversed its course. The gravitational anomalies which accompanied its movement through space had released the Terran solar system to the former status quo. In doing so, it also let the weather and tectonic return to normalcy on earth. The Dyson was navigated by billions upon billions of contingency routines, developed over its existence. When it was discovered that the Magg's linnc was again operating, the routine for just that turn of events was jumped to, and the big station began a return to its former position. The Seers were right again.

They all sat as an enclave in the huge Seers Hall. Literally a part of the terminals they worked with, the Seers used their combinant understanding of the way things worked to write the destiny of the Zulm. Each Seer was part of a group that answered to a Leader. The Leaders were a group that answered to the Grand Seer, the Chief of the Analysts and Director to the Engineers. They were the Religion of the Zulm, and their codings were indisputable.

And so there were two offices of power among the Zulm. That of the Seers, and that of Administration. The Seers set the law, and Administration enforced it.

The leaders of their respective arms sat in the office of the Chief Administrator. The Grand Seer and the Chief Administrator were deep in hushed conversation. "You do fine, Used Lady." said the Root. He passed the Seer a small crystal. "Put this where we plan."

Both rose, bowed to one another, and the Seer flowed from the room.

* * *

Kalindra got Brian's attention by staring at him. When he returned her gaze, she nodded almost imperceptibly towards the crew quarters. Brian looked away and stared at nothing for a moment. Getting up quickly, he strode once around the flightdeck. "I guess everything is all right here. I am going to try to get some sleep."

In a few seconds, Brian and Kal had left the bridge and returned to their cabin. Kalindra looked at Brian. "Is something the matter?"

"No, I just do not feel at ease." he answered.

"Yeah, it's a little weird out there. It's, like I feel like everyone is talking about us behind our backs."

"And they are. But that is not what I meant."

"Maybe you should take a shower or something. I always feel a lot better after a nice shower."

Brian looked at her. "Do you have any idea how long it takes me to dry?"

Kalindra's eyebrows went up.

Chapter Six

The Star is Born

! ? ? ? . . . *pain!*

It was the first coherent thought I had that didn't get swept back into the heart of the maelstrom that was the heart of the Tipkatz star. When enough of the random bits of my mind pulled themselves together and stayed that way. I drifted on the raw energy currents coursing through the core and tried to remember who I was. Or for that matter, what I was.

I had no sense of time passing until I found myself listening to my heartbeat and counting the breaths I was taking. It was the only sense of self that remained to me. *That can't be right?*

It was a thought, it made sense and I held onto it as if my life depended upon it without knowing why. *How can I be breathing?* Yet I was breathing, or at least I was aware of something that reminded me of that gentle rhythm that signaled my being alive. Without purpose I continued to drift, and add the random bits of thought that passed within my awareness to the slowly growing core that was... Something, I couldn't remember what though.

As I drifted and grew, that lack of identity became the driving force that started me searching. No longer content to drift, I now began guiding my path through the currents of energy. Searching for the bits of thought that might answer the questions I could now ask. *Who am I?* The answer was not to be found, but the question was slowly pushed to the background by another thought that refused to be ignored.

*Where is Kalindra?*

The problem was that I didn't know who or what 'Kalindra' was. I barely had enough of my mind pulled together to realize how much was missing. Kalindra could have been anything, up to and including myself. I just didn't know. The need to know, yet the inability to find the answer, re-awoke the first emotion I recognized and understood. %RAGE%

* * *

The primitive solar observatory had been designed to monitor the stellar furnace that both provided the energy that made life possible, and the noise that deafened that life. It should have been the quiet part of the 15 year dance that the star had followed since time unknown. Now, its death knell raced the waves of particles that had destroyed it out into the system. As the Tipkatz astronomers turned their instruments with horror towards the heart of their system. They were greeted by the sight of a star gone mad.

* * *

I had nothing to gauge the passage of time against so I don't know how long I screamed my rage into the surroundings. My mad dash from point to point accomplished only one thing that was useful. In my scramble around the world as it existed for me I collected enough of the random bits of my mind to reach critical mass. Now, the remaining parts of my scattered mind were drawn from their hiding places and collected together. Unfortunately they remained for the most part just random slices of information. There was no core to my existence to join them together into the person I had been. What did exist though in that random collection of memories was the knowledge of who Kalindra was and why I needed to find her.

*The memory crystal...*

I wasn't sure what it was, but I knew it was important to find it. If I had any hope of recovering who or what I had been. The memory crystal was both the answer and the guide that was my only hope. Gathering the scattered parts of my mind I began my search. I'd already covered my world as I knew it, so I left it behind as I now ventured outwards into the universe beyond.

* * *

The solar telescopes of the Tipkatz, those in orbit around the homeworld and the stationary ones on their moon, began to register solar flares that dwarfed anything on record. The very fabric of their communication network was rendered useless within the inner solar system as one large flare in particular extended itself to the orbit of their innermost planet.

* * *

*How can I be cold?* I didn't have the answer, but cold is the closest equivalent I had to the feeling that was washing over me. Like an animal in winter I shook myself and pulled inward to conserve heat. When I felt safe again I continued my journey and my search. Free of the noise behind me I could now somehow sense the presence of the object I was looking for ahead of me. With my destination in sight, I accelerated and raced towards it.

* * *

"Can you feel it?" Brian closed his eyes for a second and seemed to be listening to something. "It's getting stronger also. Maybe you better..." and lights shifted to red as Penny yelled a warning to the crew.

"Incoming attack! All crew to their stations!"

Brian glanced over at Kalindra and nodded. "You go, they still trust you. When the shooting starts they might decide to include me as a target."

"What am I suppose to do? Dad didn't leave me much in the way of instructions" said Kalindra with a worried look on her face.

"Just sit there and look busy. I usually don't have much to do during combat when I sit at the science station" replied Brian. Kal gave her a funny look, but ducked out the door and headed for the flightdeck. "Ok, let's find out what or who this is" muttered Brian as the door irised back closed again.

* * *

I slowed my approach as I got close, but still was moving at a good pace when I ran into a wall in space. Before I had a chance to wonder what the hell was going on the vessel in front of me opened up with all weapons, and I barely noticed. While I tried to figure out a way through the wall I kept aware of the attack, but basically ignored it. Only when I began to be hit by gravity based weaponry did I bother to defend myself. Pulling on the energy from the home I'd left behind I wrapped myself in a field that deflected the attacks.

%Why do you attack me?% I didn't get an answer. @I don't mean you any harm. I just want my memories!@

* * *

"Kalindra, did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" replied Brian as he sat in his cabin and searched with every sense at his disposal. "I'm not getting a thing, but somehow I feel I should be."

"Kalindra I'm going to take a chance. If all hell breaks loose in a second, it's been fun getting to know you." A microsecond later the main shields of the Sunbeam dropped as an override command ordered both them and the main weapons off-line. The screams of rage from the flightdeck could be heard all over the ship.

* * *

It was nothing I'd done, but the wall that kept me from completing my voyage melted away before me. I could sense three sources that felt like the object of my search. Two of them were in close proximity, so I headed for those first. Flashing through the hull as if it didn't exist. I came to a halt and hovered in the center of an enclosure that felt familiar.

There were two lifeforms present. One was a tiny chaotic mind that was trying to hide within the walls of the enclosure itself. The other was maddeningly familiar and also held two of the small bundles of memory that I hoped could help me.

%Who am I?% Once again I got no answer. @Who am I?@ This time I got an answer, but it was from another lifeform sitting in the heart of the ship.


@Is that my name?@

@Don't you know?@

@No!@ I raged as I tried to make sense of the jumble of thoughts that I held within myself. @Please tell me who I am...@ I cried as the thoughts whirled and tried to escape. @Please?@ I sensed whoever I had been talking to ask something of the lifeform in front of me. Then a new voice joined us and I knew who it was, but didn't know at the same time. The only thing I was sure of was that I TRUSTED the voice.


*Is that my name? Do you know who I am?*

As I floated there I sensed another life enter the enclosure from an opening behind me. Nestled close to it was the third memory core I'd seen during my approach.


The term was familiar, but meant nothing to me. *What is that? Do you know who I am?* I sensed a feeling of panic that was quieted by the life I had been talking to a moment ago.

*I know who you are*

*Tell me!* I pleaded.

All three lifeforms I had been talking with said the same thing in unison and it reverberated through my mind like a shockwave.

*Your name is Brian Wayne Antoine ne Kan*

I grabbed that thought and held on to it. I turned it over and looked at from different angles even as it became obscured by the growing core of memories that began to attach themselves to it.

*Who is the keeper of my memories?* I sensed puzzlement, then the larger of the two forms detached one of the memory cores in its keeping and floated it to me. As it came within range I grabbed it and absorbed it into my being.

*What am I?* I asked as I duplicated the memories from the core and added them to the collection I held. When I heard the reply, the entire swirling mass of thoughts and memories I was juggling began to slam together and my mind began to reassemble itself.

*You are an Engineer...*


*Human Male...* *Lifemate...*





The litany continued from three sides at once. Every phrase echoed within my mind and pulled yet more memories together into the core of who I once had been, and would be again. When the voices slowed, one thought fought its way to the forefront and I acted without stopping to think. I wasn't sure how I did it, I was going to be sorting memories for quite awhile yet. Pulling on the energy of the star I had called home I spun a shield around the ship that would defend us against the attack I expected to come.

I'd made that mistake once before and it had cost me the life of my friend and my own. *Never try to out think a computer with a human mind. The speed just isn't there...* Penny had taught me how to defend myself against the attack I had been subjected to. If I'd had any sense at all I'd have made use of that knowledge BEFORE I'd returned from where she had kept me safe. I'd never gotten the chance.

*Kalindra, I need to teach you how to defend against what was done to us so that we will be safe.* I reached a small thread of thought across the space that separated us. *It is really quite simple...* and both our minds went numb for a second as our link re-formed with a snap that everyone on the ship had to have felt. Even as we both reeled in shock, some part of me made sure the knowledge she needed was passed to her. When we both could think clearly again, I could see the change to her aura that showed that she too was now defended.

*Remind me not to do that again without an aspirin handy.*

*If you ever need to do it again I will cheerfully kill you with my own claws* came the quiet but amused rumble in my mind.

I sensed the amusement, but I also sensed the pain that was being held in check for the moment. I'd hurt this fierce but gentle person worse than I ever had before. I could still feel the confusion and pain echoing within my memory of what I had gone through. I was certain beyond doubt that she had gone through worse. *I'll even hold still while you do it. You might have waited another week before giving up on me though.*

*What do you mean?*

*I once swore I'd come back to help you even though I'd been dead for two weeks. I was only gone one. Didn't you believe me?*

*No, and I should have known better after all this time.*

*Forget it, I wouldn't have believed me either. Now though we have a job to do and I need one last question answered.*

*And that is?*

*Do you remember what I look like? I'm afraid I don't seem to have that memory handy at the moment and I can't go on the flightdeck as a ball of energy. What would the crew think?* There was a pause and then I felt Kalindra, Lythandi and Penny all start laughing. There was more than a faint undertone of hysteria to the laughter, but I joined them and let them work it out of their systems.

*I'm serious. I don't have a clear picture of what I'm suppose to look like.*

*Then I will help my mate remember. I believe after all these years that I can do at least that much for him.*

Through our restored and strengthened link Kalindra began to feed me the image I needed. Mixed in with it though were flashes of other forms and I had to work to keep them separate. The Wolf I remembered, the huge Velan Male I didn't recognize at all as I filed it away for future reference. When I had my form in mind I concentrated and once more stood before my family as a physical being. It was a good thing I had two arms because they were both filled by the people who were hugging me.

Something though didn't feel right and pushed Kalindra away from me to stare at her in shock. "This is disgusting!" I yelled as I looked into my own face. "What the hell is going on here?"

"Uh, well..." grinned Kalindra/Brian. "Bob figured that we needed to divert the Zulm by making it look like you had returned."

"Bob? Wait a minute, he's dead!"

"Well, yes and no. He's kind of... Well, it's a little hard to explain at the moment."

I thought about it for a moment then shook my head. "I suppose if I can come back from being dead, so can Bob. This one though is going to take a hell of a lot of explaining. In the mean time I refuse to go around hugging myself." Christ it was weird watching myself smile like that. With a shimmer though Kalindra shifted to her own form and returned to my arms to hug me.


"Much" I answered as I breathed in the musty smell I'd grown to know so well. "Now we have one last thing to do before I go teach someone a lesson in living." I loosened my hold on Lythandi and let her back away slightly so I could look at her.

"Thank you for helping, and I think I have something for you here." I opened my hand to show her the small Ruby that should have been in my ear. "Kalindra and I were suppose to exchange these after they had copied our memories. Our link has made that unnecessary, but I still believe in the reason she choose to use the Keeper of Memories as the family stone. I can't think of anyone I'd like more then you, to carry a part of me with them. Would you exchange with me?"

She nodded and I saw her trying to keep from crying as she gently removed the stone from her ear that Kalindra and I had put there. Taking the one I held out for her she fastened it in her ear and gave me a smile that made the star I'd left behind dim in comparison. "My Klizach does me honor."

"No, I begin to repay the honor done me by my family." I glanced at Kalindra who had been watching us. "Besides, you will probably have more sense then to leave it lying on the floor in the middle of the flightdeck." The blush was beautiful to watch and went from the tips of her ears to the end of her nose. "Now if you would be so kind?" I tilted my head so she could reach my ear and I held out the stone she had given me. "Kalindra did the honors last time. These are your memories, you should do the honors this time."

I still shuddered slightly as I watched those teeth going for my ear. I made sure though I didn't even whimper as Lythandi bit through my ear and closed the latch for the earring. I was though surprised to see her spitting hair from her mouth as she backed away.

"What's wrong?"

"The hair is ok, but I don't know that I like your new ears. The old ones were more distinctive."

"New ears? Wait a minute, what do you mean new ears?" I looked over at Kalindra and saw her trying to look innocent. "What did you do?" I asked as I reached up and touched my ear. It felt ok to me, but then it was part of the image I'd gotten from Kal and was now part of my self image. It had no choice but to feel normal."

"Well..." she stammered. "I always thought your ears looked so cold sticking out like that without any fur to keep them warm. Velan ears are much more practical. As for the hair, you are the one who thinks that a white wolf looks so beautiful." She reached over and flicked the tuft of hair on the top of my ear. Before she could repeat the motion I swiveled the ear sideways out of the way.

"Kalindra, you and I are going to have a long talk when this is over."

"I'm sure I don't know what for" she said with a silly grin on her face. Then she pulled me into a hug and whispered "I will be more then glad to listen though." I just hugged her back and made a note to myself to keep my mouth shut. While I stood there though I caught a movement in the corner of my eye where nothing should have been moving. When Kalindra released me I looked over to see the Book of Mages lying open on its stand in the corner of the room.

"Kal, has that been there while I was gone?"

"No, it vanished when you did" she answered as she watched the look in my eyes.

"I'm getting tired of being second guessed by that damn thing." Walking over to the stand I started talking to the book. An action that everyone else in the room thought was a little odd. The aura I could now see surrounding the book though gave me reason for the first time to think that someone or something was listening.

"I don't know who or what sent you to me, but the time has come to clear something up once and for all. I will not continue to be used as a pawn in whatever game you are playing. If I feel the need to reveal who and what I am to the planet you expect me to defend, then I will do so. If you don't like the idea, go bother Kimi and get the hell out of my life."

I didn't expect an answer, in truth I wasn't sure what to expect. The book though, or whoever had sent it gave me one. Folding itself closed, I watched as the latch clicked and locked. The book though did not vanish as I then expected it to.

"What did you just do?" asked Lythandi as she peered around me to stare at the book on its stand.

"I may have just resigned my commission" I answered as turned to face my mate. "Kal, how hard is Velan magic?"

"Not very if you have the aptitude for it."

"I may need a teacher then. Until then though it's time to kick some ass" I said as I ignored the book and headed for the door. "Someone out there has gone to a great deal of trouble to piss me off and it's payday." I was through the door before it even had time to open all the way and Kal and Lythandi were right behind me. "I'm getting tired of being played with."

The three of us were still talking when we stepped onto the flightdeck and froze. Sitting at the science station was Megan and on the other side of the room was the entire crew with enough firepower to blow a hole in the hull. "So that's who was playing you?" I muttered to Kalindra as she peered around me.

"Yes, we needed someone who was empathic enough to simulate your link with me. Bob choose her to help us distract the Zulm."

I shook my head in pain. "I'm going to have a headache figuring this shit out. Bob is going to be a week explaining this when I find him." I looked at Megan, who was sitting real still, and the crew who was now looking like they wanted to shoot me as well.

"Well, either fire those things or shut them off. We have work to do and blowing away the Captain and the daughter of the pilot will just screw things up worse then they already are."

"You not move" said Nek as he continued to try to cover both me and Megan with the gun he held. "You kill Bob, maybe kill us next."

"So much for loyalty" I muttered. "You ok Megan?"

"Yeah, but this sucks..."

"Tell me about it. Penny, didn't you explain what was going on?"

"I tried, but they aren't talking to me either. They came unglued when I shut down the shields to let you on-board. Of course I'm not sure what all is going on around here myself" she muttered quietly so only I could hear.

I looked from Megan to Nek and made my decision. "Fuck this" and I strode onto the flightdeck and headed for the communications console. The energy blast from Nek's popgun got absorbed before I even realized what I'd done. "I prefer chocolate if you want to try again." Standing in front of the comm system I muttered obscenities as I saw its condition. "Didn't anyone think to fix this damn thing? I didn't mess it up so bad that it was unfixable."

"We haven't had time yet" said Dave. Even as he spoke he got a surprised look on his face as he realized he'd replied to my question.

"Well then I do this the hard way..."

Part of who I was now still remembered what it was like to be part of the star I could still sense in the distance. Now I reached out with that part and altered the emissions that were part of the stellar dance of life. With the full power of star to power it I sent a simple transmission on the same band I has used to report the death of my friend. This message too spoke of death, but for the receiver.

[You have brought death and pain to me and my family. Now it is my turn and the day I find you I will pay you back in kind. If you don't know what fear is, prepare to learn.] I had expected the message to be sent just once. When every star within twelve light-years began to echo it, some part of me asked the rest 'just what did I become back there?'

"Ok, now who wants to tell me what the hell has been going on around here for the last week and where the hell Bob is?"

Kalindra, Lythandi and Megan stood staring at Nek and the rest of the crew. I just sat down in my chair and waited for someone to speak first.

Chapter Seven

Punch Line

Nek looked at Brian with obvious mistrust. "Get away from comm." It was an order, not a request.

"You shot at me once, and it had no effect. You can get the idea or-- well, you can get dead. I'd rather you got the idea." Brian stood and faced the Meenzal.

"Too much pass by. Not know what believe. You kill Bob and ask where Bob is."

"It's a little difficult to explain, Nek. I'm the same me that was killed, but I'm also not the same." The gunner screeched and slammed a ham fist on the weapons station.

"No talk riddles. You may be Mage, you may not. How you prove you who you say?"

"He is my mate." said Kalindra.

"Who YOU?" asked the cat. "You here, you not here, you two Velans but you nobody. How can take you words for truth?"

"Then ask the child." said Kalindra quietly. The cat looked like he was sucking on a lemon.

"Ask CHILD? Who the child?"

"She is Megan, daughter of Bob. You know her."

"I have seen her. Not know her. Not know anybody on stupid ship. How can girl child tell Nek some things? She know nothing."

"I know this..." said Megan. "I know you'd better move to your left about three feet."

The cat looked at her with confusion in his eyes. "Some people tell Nek something make sense." He was sounding tired.

"Four, three, two, ..." The cat jumped left as Megan counted, and thumbed the charge spike on his rail gun in a single move.

"Nek!" barked Brian. "Back that off, you want to blow a hole in the damn ship?" The cat paid no attention. Where he'd been standing the floor had turned black. A black so deep it had no bottom. As the compliment of the ship watched, a cylinder of darkness rose from the floor.

"Looks like our potential victims got the message I sent." said the Mage. "Weapons on that --thing."

"The whole fucking universe got your message, asshole. You have a lot of races trying to figure out who and what they pissed off I'd guess."

"Hi, Dad." said Megan through a beaming smile.

"What the fuck is THIS?" said Dave.

"Judgment Day." replied the beast that stepped from the blackness. Four sidearms fired at the creature simultaneously. "Fuck. I should have brought marshmallows." it said. The charged particles of the weapons went into its body but didn't exit. "Look folks, if you keep this up the ship will experience sensor damage."

There was a gentle laugh from the remote that always stayed in the flightdeck. "I see you paid attention." said Penny.

"Would someone PLEASE tell me what's going on?" asked Brian. The creature that was part man and part cat stepped to him. The size of the beast dwarfed the Mage.

"Nice ears, man. And the hair... is this a new look for you?" it said.

"Bob?" asked Brian. His eyes searched the reflective chrome glow of the creature's eyes.

"In person." it replied.

"WHO'S person?" asked Brian. Nek slumped into the weapons saddle and looked morose. His head shook back and forth as he tried to comprehend what he was seeing.

"Perhaps this might make everyone more comfortable." said the beast. While it stood still, it also took a step sideways. Once it had, Bob and Jab stood on the flightdeck, grinning at the crew. "It's a new dawn." and Bob's eyebrows wiggled up and down. A wink followed.

The ship was set to station keeping and weapons set to autofire. With that done the crew assembled in the galley. Only Jab was absent, Bob mumbled something inaudible to him and the cat was enveloped in a darkcyl, and had dropped through the floor and was gone.

"Nothing is ever as it seems." said Bob. "The truth of anything is like anything else. There is what we know, what we don't know, and what we suspect or theorize. Truth is a variable --which goes against the grain of most intelligent life. That's because insecurity breeds a need for something solid to cling to, even a belief. This is why religion works, and why it was so necessary to invent a system of numbers to prove or quantify what we observe."

"I don't get it." said Gregor.

"Try it this way then. I'm no different than I ever was. You just see me differently because of what I believe. You have your beliefs and I have mine."

"What has that do do with math?"

"Everything, Gregor. And nothing. Because numbers are an intelligent construct, not a universal absolute. Look at it this way. An entity sees a thing occur, and so has to find some way to convince the observation to be a constant, because that's what people do. What they observe may or may not be a constant in the universe --because the universe is a lot more random than is comfortable for people to believe."

"That is not true." said Naldantis. "There are consistencies which cannot be dismissed."

"Like what, man?"

"For an instance, you are here. You cannot be elsewhere." he said. A Bob at the opposite end of the table asked why he believed that. "This is magic. It is an illusion."

"What makes you so sure?" asked the first Bob, still at the head of the crew table. The big Velan swivelled his head to face him.

"I have seen such illusions before." came the stiff reply. Bob nodded.

"Ok. Then how do I prove it to your satisfaction?"

"You not prove nothing." growled Nek. As if to respond, Bob exploded. Like a star gone nova, the galley was suddenly bathed in brilliant light. As it faded, each of the crew could feel it.

"I think I can prove it." said Nek.

"Yep, I do believe it's true, y'all a believers." said Lythandi.

"Kalindra's fur feels really good on my balls." said Brian. Who was instantly enraged. "Get the hell out of here!" he bellowed. Megan started laughing.

"Do it to me too, Dad." she said. As soon as the words came from her lips, time just ...blinked. "This is way cool." she said. The slight girl was now a muscular amazon some six feet tall. Her voice had deepened and grown husky.

"What evil is this?" asked Naldantis. "How do you become one with us?"

"You'd call it an illusion." said Megan. Like the cat-thing before, she stood still and stepped to the side at the same time. Bob and Megan then stood side by side. "and you'd be wrong, Velan."

"It is telepathy." said Kalindra. "It is strong, but it telepathy."

"No, Kal. It isn't." said Bob. "It is anything I perceive it to be. But your truth requires it to be telepathy, so for you it is." Bob paused. "That's also kinda sad."

"Explain this to me, Bob." asked Brian. "You are doing things you can't do."

"No, I'm doing things you can't envision me doing. Suppose I was someone else. Would it still be as hard for you to get it?" Brian mused this over.

"Maybe, maybe not. I'm still lacking some detail of what's going on. Maybe you can fill me in?"

As Bob started to speak, the darkcyl returned, and Jab stepped from the darkness and into Bob. Together, they were the huge cat-beast. Brian watched this in wonder, and Megan smiled again. "That is just so COOL!" she said.

"Time for that later. We have work to do if we're going to have our worlds survive." said the beast. Its eyes radiated an eternity of cold from colorless chromium eyes. "Whitey, we need to talk."

Brian winced. "Don't call me 'whitey.' I don't think I like that."

"Tell it to your hairdresser. We can do this one of two ways. I can explain it, or I can show you."

"Show me, then." said Brian. And Bob did. Walking to Brian, the cat beast stepped into the Mage's body. As it did, Brian's body shimmered and sparkled as it transformed into a white coated Velen whose size and stature dwarfed Naldantis bulk. After a moment, the great wolf nodded. "I understand. Are you sure it will only take the two?"

"No." he said to himself, and Bob stepped from the wolf. Brian and Bob took their seats again, and Bob continued. "There's no guarantee. But I figure that the leaders of their religion and their law are a damn good place to start."

"Well, you started this, so we don't have much choice about going on with it."

"No." said Bob firmly. "We don't." The crew wasn't sure what to make of what they were seeing. However, they were willing to take a chance they weren't sharing a ship with beings who wanted to kill them. The way that Brian and Bob spoke was familiar and so comforting. It went a long way towards making the crew willing to assume that there was at least some truth to what they were seeing and hearing. But then, even that wasn't complete comfort, and would probably not be again.

What had Bob said? Dave found himself thinking. `Nothing is ever as it seems.'

Chapter Eight

It's really nothing to worry about

I just sat in my chair and stared at Bob as he continued to ramble on. It was like watching a kid being handed the keys to the candy store and turned loose. Running on about alternate realities, traveling the stars in the blink of an eye, I wondered if I ever sounded like that when I got going.

"Going somewhere?" he asked as I stood up to leave.

"Yeah, I've got something to check on. Keep talking though, you're better then the USO." Kalindra looked like she wanted to follow, but stayed put when she caught me shaking my head slightly. As soon as I got out of ear shot I headed towards the center of the ship where Penny lived and stood outside her vault door. I didn't need to say a word. The various layers of hull metal slid into the walls and I stepped inside. When I had locked, wiz-locked, triple shielded and set alarms on every possible way into the vault, I turned and sat in the lone chair present and waited.

"You're worried." It was a statement, not a question.


"About Bob."

"Yes" I replied. When I was sure Penny had decided it was my turn I turned to face her crystal. "Have I ever been that callous with others?"

"Do you mean friends or enemies?"

"Friends, I know damn well how I deal with enemies."

"No, not that I have ever seen."

"Jesus..." I muttered as I shook my head in shame. "He didn't ask if I wanted my form altered or my mind spilled for everyone to see, he just took over and did it. There wasn't a think I could do to stop him either."

"He does seem to have changed. He went further then even I expected. He's completely impossible to scan anymore, even worse then you and Kalindra."

"How do you mean?"

"When I read the lines of probability I can at least see where a Mage or magic comes into play. They are the lines that have blank spots in them at every nexus point. With Bob I can't see him, or rather I see to much of him. He shows up in every line with equal probability. The way he can shift between them makes it impossible to follow or predict his actions."

"Great, I've created a monster..." She didn't say it but I could hear the 'I warned you' in the back of my mind. "So what do I do now?"

"What you've always done. Make the near impossible, reality. Roll and see what comes up."

It was an old joke between us, dating back to the moment Penny had first tried to explain what magic really was. 'You are the dice that Einstein said God didn't use' she had told me in all seriousness. In a way she was right though only about part of it.

Whatever magic really was, a mystic force that held the universe together or your favorite ice-cream on a hot day. A Mage was someone who could alter the probability of events by conscious effort. Unfortunately they also tended to alter the probability of events by their very presence and that was the heart of my current problem. Almost every Mage I had read about in that damn book in my cabin had been a loner and for good reason. Things tended to happen around them. Things that were hard to explain. When you have to try to blend in and are forbidden to reveal your existence. Trying to explain why fires won't burn around you or why it never rains when you are around tends to make life difficult.

Kalindra had it easy on her world. Her people were well aware that both magic and Mages existed. The occasional odd happening was dismissed as 'she's playing around again'. The fact that her existence tended to bring out buried talents in those around her was not even realized because the talent itself was not seen as unusual. When a significant portion of the population is telepathic. The fact that a marginal telepath living next to a Mage becomes an outstanding telepath is not even noticed.

Bob though had jumped right off the scale and most of it was due to the fact that he'd been around Kal and I for quite a while now. Hell, even his kids were beginning to react to the possibilities that became available when a Mage is around.

"Do you understand what he's become now?"

"Only partially" she answered. "He seems to be able to visualize the branches in the time stream and pick which one he wants to occur. The way he moves about I believe he is either picking a stream that has him in the location desired, or riding the stream backwards and forwards until he shows up where he wants to be."

"What about that bit with the shapeshifting?"

"That's harder to explain. There is something else going on there as well, but he seems to be altering both the branch of time his subject is living in and playing with probability at the same time."

"So in some probability I exist as that Velan Rambo?"

"Somewhere, I'd say yes."

"Don't let Kalindra hear that. She'd spend the rest of her life searching."

"Maybe, maybe not. She took you as her mate the way you look. Don't be too hard on her for having a fantasy version of you running around the inside of her mind."

"That's the point! Knowledge of that form was something I considered private between her and I, and it got pulled from my mind without a thought for the results."

"Then we are going to have to teach Bob some manners. You and Kalindra grew into both your abilities, and the responsibility that went with them. Bob got handed everything at once and he's still playing with his shiny new toy at this point."

"Well that kid and his toy might be more of a threat then whatever the hell the Zulm might do to us."

"Then we'll have to hope he's a fast learner. That, or we better clear a wide area around him to keep the collateral damage to a minimum."

I was trying to imagine how wide that would have to be for someone who traveled the way he did when something occurred to me. Concentrating for a moment I could feel the star behind us in the distance. "Penny, Bob isn't the only thing we need to worry about. What ever shows up to answer my threat. I'd just as soon not reduce the Tipkatz to a memory during the fight." I expanded my awareness and 'looked' around at the nearby systems. "Do you have any records on the system at 245 mark 17?"

"They say it's a G3 star with 5 planets. No recorded life signs during the survey by the Meenzals who passed through it."

I touched the star with my mind and let it register. "Yeah, G3 feels about right. Plot us a course and get us away from the Tipkatz. If we ever get the chance to talk to them again, I'd just as soon they didn't remember us as the idiots that got their system laid waste without knowing why."

"Course plotted and laid in. Flight time about 10 hours unless you want me to push it."

"No, don't strain a bolt. I'd like to be close enough to draw on the star if needed, but getting us away from here is good enough. Now I..." and I both felt and saw the cylinder of shadow rise from the floor beside me.

"Hey, where you taking us?" asked Bob as he took his own form. "We need to..."

"Bob, shut up and get out!" yelled Penny. "This is my home and I expect you to damn well knock before barging in without asking!"

I tried to hide my shock as I watched Bob gulp twice, then vanish back into the floor.

"Well brother, you always wanted an apprentice. Here is your chance to see how good a teacher you'll make."

"The teacher is usually supposed to know more than the student" I said as I started removing the defenses that Bob hadn't even appeared to notice.

"Bitch, bitch, bitch... You could always kill him again. Maybe he won't even return to our universe the next time."

"Do you want to explain that one to Karen" I laughed as the vault doors retracted. "Some things are even to scary for me to think about." I didn't hear the answer, but I felt the chuckle in my mind.

@Just remember brother, you changed a little also.@

"What the hell was that all about?" asked Bob as I stepped to where he stood just outside the vault. "Has she got an energy surge stuck crossways or something?"

"No, she just expects people to respect her privacy. Something you seem to have forgotten lately..."

Bob and I walked down the corridor towards the flightdeck as I began to explain just how I felt about being 'played' with. I just hoped I lived long enough to see how the Zulm planned on killing me.

Chapter Nine

Understanding my options

I sat in my cabin and watched Penny and Brian talking. As I thought, Brian was frightened of me, maybe a little jealous too. It didn't matter. What did was the fact that if Penny hadn't gotten through to me when she did, I'd be dead and Brian would have done it. The irony of his concern was, in a way, humorous. We were apparently going to go after the Zulm, and they had programmed him like a Radio Shack robotic arm once before. Yet, he was all concerned about me.

I wondered if Brian had considered that their power over him was limited because of distance. That meant it was possible their control might be a lot more complete if they were closer to him. Being what I was had given me the opportunity to visualize the circumstances of multiple timelines. What Brian was unaware of, was that in many of them, he was dead. In others, he was reduced to mental and physical infirmary that would have made suicide better for him.

Looking at the possibilities, I found that making a change here and a change there produced a series of timelines with a much better outcome.

There were limits to what I could do. It was a sure bet that I could be anywhere --anyWHEN-- I wanted to. But I didn't really have a mystical power. When I was anywhere, I was as vulnerable as any human being could be. The answer to that was to make sure that I was never in one place at any given moment. By being partially in one place and part in another, I had an ethereal quality which made me impervious. If shot at, the projectile would enter in the local time, but exit in an alternate time.

It irked me that Brian was talking about me like a science project. I thought it a little egocentric of him to presume to teach me anything--at least about how my life was at the moment. He blew off my attempts to tell him about is as my bragging, and in doing so was a lot more conceited than I was. The difference was, I knew I was conceited, Brian simply thought he was concerned. I lived on earth long enough to hate others who thought that way. They were the people who wanted censorship of thoughts that disagreed with theirs, laws against anything fun, and a press towards some banal religious dogma. Of course, they hadn't taken the severe rap on the head that my friend had from becoming part of a star. And they weren't good friends with me either.

Time to break up the conversation before anyone took themselves too seriously. I sent myself to the door to Penny's vault, then stepped inside. Penny threw me out right away. That was fine, it got Brian off the jag he was on and got him thinking about other things.

"You do know that you have the crew frightened, don't you?" Brian asked me.

"Sure I do. Do you know they only trust you as far as they can toss a black hole with their bare hands?"

Brian looked at me sideways. "I'm talking about you, not me."

"I'm talking about both of us. You need to wake up to the fact that you ain't exactly sweetness and light here. The both of us are something we weren't before, yet are the same old people we always were. And if you want to talk about frightened crew, then think about this; I didn't kill anyone, Brian. You did. You showed a weakness that blew right through the artificial belief the crew had that you were all powerful. You're now someone just like the rest of the crew --a person with a specialty. But unlike most of them, you've done something they haven't. You killed your pilot and tried to kill your mate."

"Yeah, that's true. But they'll come around."

"Will they?" I stepped sideways and brought Brian into my perspective. "Let's take a look and see what it is the crew thinks."

With Brian able to see through my eyes, we took a step backwards and to the oblique. The crew were watching Brian --the real one-- as he surveyed the galley. "They look pretty happy to see me."

"Uh huh. Keep watching." The outBrian stepped out of the ships galley, the flight crew relaxed noticeably. Shoulders slumped down and some of them breathed great sighs of relief. I could feel the worry and confusion the inBrian felt as he watched the scene unfold.

"Mage not look or feel same as before." said Nek.

"It's like when I was at summer camp years ago." added Dave. "We were all having a great time, then someone started stealing our stuff out of our lockers. We didn't know who it was, and we all got suspicious of everyone else. It was hard to have a good time."

"Yes. I believe I understand you." said Lythandi. "I do not know what to expect of my Klizach now. I cannot even rely on the Klizan. Her bond is so tight with her mate, she may be blinded by it."

Gregor looked at each of his crewmates in turn. "We have a problem here. Should I say it?" The crew nodded. "We don't know what Brian is anymore, and Bob --is that really Bob?"

Nek said it seemed like Bob, and there was some assent. What he said next was alarming. "We need to watch both. If can, must kill them. No can take chance with all crew."

We separated in my cabin. "That's just one of the timelines, dude. The rest of them are uglier."

"I didn't think they were so stupid. I'd never hurt them, any of them."

"How do they know that? After all, you killed me."

"No, you're still here."

"How do they know that? As they each said, they're used to illusion."

Brian looked concerned. He had good reason. I was also concerned that Penny hadn't explained what was going on to him. She joined into that lame conversation like a believer.

Something wasn't right.

Chapter Ten

You down with it?

I sat, for wont of a better place, in my cabin. The Sunbeam was on course and under autopilot, so there wasn't much to do. All the steps I could think of to take had been taken. The shimmer of the air caught the attention of my peripheral vision, and I turned to watch Penny materialize --or at least her version of it.

"I've been watching you." she said.

"I know that. There's nothing the almighty Penny doesn't see." I answered, smiling.

"Very funny. I'm really interested in what you think the point of our conversation was." I asked if she meant the one on Anarchy just before it blew up. "Yes, that's what I mean."

"You told me that perceptions were the key to everything. You were right. Is that what you mean?"

"Yes, but what I don't know is what you did. It would make me feel a lot better if I had some idea."

"It was just as you said. That there was a continuum that we all exist on. You have a universe in which you live. Like other universes, it has certain constants which aren't constant at all, but self-imposed restrictions." And that is what she said. The Penny that stood with me nodded as I spoke. Ignorance is the strongest law there is. If you don't know how to do a thing, then you can't, and won't, do it.

Perception is the key. There are clues to it everywhere. It's like with eye witnesses. Let ten people see something, and you'll get ten versions of the occurrence and ten descriptions of the people involved. A part of my understanding --or the application of Penny's words-- was intuitive. There was something in me that allowed me to sense certain things. What I was sensing was shifts in the time continuum. It was the loudest and brashest of the disturbances, and so I heard it without knowing I could. It was Penny who explained it to me that way, and she was basing her opinion on probabilities which emerged from the information store she maintained as her memory. It was a theorem --therefore a perspective-- and something I could picture.

When we detonated the Anarchy, it was against our will. The suggestion had been a powerful one, and so I obeyed it, and taken Jab with me. But in there somewhere was the belief that our life energy was more important than our physical presence. It was coming to the conclusion that our physical presence was a subfunction of our existence that allowed me to continue. In my instinct, I knew that I didn't have to resign my life, allowing my life force to spread and merge with the other noises of space and time. I could hang onto it. What people saw of me would be a combination of my own image of myself, coupled with their perceptions of what I should look like. In a way, it was true. It had to be, after all I was here.

"Brian doesn't trust you" said Penny.

"Yeah, I know. I'm not so sure I trust him either. It's funny. He killed me and he's worried about the results of his handiwork. I have to see him as the friend who killed me."

"It was a strong suggestion that Brian experienced. I know him in and out, and he'd never hurt you on purpose. You have to know that too."

"In a way, I do --just as I bet Brian knows it about me. But for the both of us, we aren't the same people we used to be. We're the same lives, but all of life evokes changes, and our lives have evoked some beauties. So what am I supposed to believe. Just because I can move in time and space doesn't make me a god or anything. I have to see something gone bad, then go back to before it went bad and try to do something that changes the timeline."

"You should tell this to Brian. For that matter, you should try to explain it to the crew. It would allow more peace in the crew, and keep you from always having to worry when Nek is going to fire at you."

"I'm not worried about weapons. There are few things that can cause me harm anymore."

"You think you're invincible?"

"Hell, no. It's my vulnerability that causes me to maintain myself in two places at once."

"Where's the other part of you?"

"Eternity, I guess. There is nothing there at all."

"Maybe it's where everything is, rather than nothing."

"Either way, it doesn't matter. I can't see it, don't know about it, so it's a law for me to follow."

"Bob's First Law of Ignorance, huh?" Penny smiled.

"Yeah, you're stupid for what you don't know. Speaking of knowing, what gave you the idea I could do what I do?"

"The sensitivity you developed for the Maal --and the Zulm. Also, I got a lot from my own understandings of what, how, and when I am."

"There was a day that line would have confused me, you know."

Penny laughed lightly. "And for me too. But there's a lot to know about, and as a computer --at least in origin-- I saw my abilities multiplied by what I knew about. The more I knew, the more I could do. So I guessed that reality was controlled by perception."

"In your universe, anyway." I said.

"And in yours too. All of them I suspect. And I'll agree with you that your First Law is probably more accurate than even we know."

"What was the deciding factor for you, Penny. I mean the thing that really clinched it for you?"

"It was where the Y'Ishta went that caused me to collate the information I had."

"The what?"

"Y'Ishta, Yee-Ish-Tah. Knowing you, you'll say Yishtah."

"Maybe. Who the hell are the Y'Ishta?"

"Why, the race that built the Guardians, of course. I'm surprised you didn't know that."

"Why should I know that?"

"Because of that time trick of yours. I'd have thought you'd have checked out everything that got you here --to this point."

"Nuh-uh. Remember my limits. I have to know of something before I can know to go check it out."

Penny smiled broadly, and nodded the affirmative. "Talk to Brian" she said, and disappeared.

Chapter Eleven

Speak now, or forever hold you... pie?

"So the guardian was capable of punching a hole in that damn thing?"

"At the time it was designed, yes" answered Penny. "I've recovered enough of the specifications for the 'plasma bolt' generation system to believe it was capable of punching a hole through at least the outer hull. I suspect that the systems having guardians fell when the Zulm figured out a way to defend their Dyson from that particular attack."

"And now they are our problem" I muttered. "Shit, what a way to be introduced to galactic culture." I toyed with the figures I'd been tossing around in the navigation tank. "Any chance that my little twist on the guardians attack might catch them by surprise?"

"I don't know. I can't find any reference to the defense the Zulm used in the remains of the guardians memory. If I assume though that they developed a shield capable of deflecting that much energy. You might get lucky if you can form the gate inside the shield."

"This just gets better all the time. I'm just getting comfortable with using that trick you taught me to open a gate in a short time frame. Now I have to sync it to a moving target and keep it there at close range? Got any more good news?"

"Sorry, I'm all out of tricks at the moment."

"Well, we'll just have to hope I'm as good as you think I am. Being able to use you to help me rattle off a half hour spell in a few seconds will help, I just hope it's enough."

"When you're fighting a computer..."

"You have to think as fast as one" I finished for her. "If all else fails, maybe I can shut off their power at the source. That should cause enough chaos to make them think twice about bothering us."

"That depends upon how much energy storage capacity they have. They might run for years before they start to worry about what you did to their star."

"If it doesn't get their attention right away. I'll see if the inside is shielded as well as the outside. Get me close to that star they are dragging around with them and all hell will break loose. I didn't spend a week living as one without learning how to tinker with the way they work. The guardian would look like a popgun if I had the time to ask the core to listen to me."

"Boss, I'd be careful who you said that around. Most of the crew is already on edge around you. Hearing you talk about 'asking the star to detonate' would convince them you're around the bend."

I hated to admit it, but she was right as usual. That week I'd spent being the heart of the Tipkatz star had taught me a lot about stellar dynamics on the intuitive level. I didn't think so much as I felt how that star had worked and how I could effect it. "Ok, no scaring the crew shitless."

"Unless it's in a good cause" came her reply with just a touch of humor in it. "I do believe it's about that time."

I looked at the clock and grinned. "I wonder if Kalindra warned Lythandi or any of the others about our little tradition?"

"I wonder if Lythandi would believe her, and warn anyone else."

"It's not going to be as fun without Jab around to raise hell."

"He'll get in on the next one."

I thought about it for a moment. "That would mean we were on the eve of battle again. When we are through with this one, I'm going to find a nice black hole and bolt the door behind me."

"That sounds kind of cocky there oh Mighty Mage" snickered Penny.

"If we don't kick the Zulm's butt, I don't think I'll be worrying about it much."

"True... Anyway, time to go unwind. I'd be careful though, I just saw Kalindra coming out of the REC room. Your loving mate was probably rigging some kind of surprise for you."

"Thanks for the warning. I'll be sure to let her know it was you that warned me."

"Let's see... Filter duty for the next two years..." Penny was still muttering just loud enough for me to hear as I left the flightdeck on my way to the REC room. I didn't need anything that I didn't have on me so I headed straight there. Everything else was arranged where I could 'port it to where it might be needed.

About half way there I caught up with Dave as he strolled along in a distracted walk. "Hi!" <bang> "Jesus, doesn't that hurt?" Dave was holding his arm where he had cracked it against the wall when I'd surprised him.

"Damn, right on the funny bone!"

"Ah, a cripple. You'll make an easy target" I said as I leered at him. The look I got back was about half terror and half puzzlement. "Don't worry I won't let anyone else know about it." Make that three quarters terror and the rest puzzlement. He did though continue to follow me to the REC room.

* * *

"Ok, most of you don't have any idea what's going on here." Those that did were snickering to themselves. Kalindra was doing a terrible job of trying to look innocent. Bob was just standing there with one of his standard shit eating grins. "It has come to my attention that most of you don't trust me or Bob any further then you could drop kick us."

Now the looks of puzzlement were on Kal's and Bob's faces. "If I had to guess, I'd say that the only real question at this point is the method that you'd like to use to get rid of me, right? Nek I assume just keeps voting to blow me away with that gun he's been carrying."

"Does Mage go good with mustard?" growled Nek as I caught him glancing at the charge indicator on his wristrail.

"The rest of you, not being quite so militant probably voted to lock me away, but didn't know how to lock up a Mage." I caught guilty looks from Gregor and Naldantis, so I made a point of smiling sweetly at both of them.

"How many of you would like to go home right now?"

You could have heard a pin drop.

"I mean it. It's plain you don't trust either Bob or I the way you did before I killed him." Bob turned and bowed to the crew and then flipped me the bird.

"I'm still trying to decide how much to charge you for that one" he laughed.

"Judging from the way you all have been avoiding Kalindra, you don't trust her much at this point either because she trusts me. And yes, I include you in that group Lythandi. You know better then anyone what happened to me, yet you still have not spoken to either of us since I got back." In truth, I believed I knew exactly why she had been avoiding us. Even as she now had my memories to sort through, I had hers on tap from the small stone that dangled from my ear. I was leaving it up to her though to make the first move.

"How would you send us home?" asked Cali. "If you move from here you risk having the Zulm follow you into an inhabited system."



I turned and pulled the energy needed from the idling main drive. With Penny running my mind through the steps at her speed, the Gate shimmered into existence in just under 5 seconds. The view it showed was the bridge of the Valence.

"Anyone who wants out, that's your ride home" I said as I turned back to face them. "You can take that ship anywhere you want. If you still believe in the reason we came out here, you can bring it back to the Tipkatz and start your own trading empire. Otherwise you can use it to go home and try to forget this entire mess."

"Even back to Earth?" asked Gregor.

"Even to Earth. I had Penny remove the flight restrictions from the on-board computer. You may have a hell of a time explaining things to NASA, but that's part of the adventure."

"And we keep our memories of you and everything?"

"I don't touch a thing. Without me, who would believe you anyway?"

I could see them thinking about it and they split off into a small group to talk amongst themselves. The way Nek kept gesturing with that gun of his I knew how he was voting.

"So you now wish to back out of your bargain with us" said Naldantis as the group turned to face me.

"I didn't say that."

"But you wish us to leave."

"I didn't say that either. With the shit that is coming down the pipe at the moment, I can't afford to split my time watching my back and fighting the Zulm. I'm hoping those of you who can't bring themselves to trust me will leave so I can devote my attention where it will be needed." They turned and talked another few minutes before Dave stepped away from the group and turned to face me.

"You promised us the adventure of a lifetime."

"Are you saying it's been dull around here?" My eyebrow was hitting my hairline as I grinned at him.

"No, but we intend to hold you to that promise."

"Does that include the animated hairball?" I said as I stared at Nek.

"Is Meenzal way to kill those we no trust."

"I'm not a Meenzal, but if you insist, go ahead and shoot." Being direct as ever, Nek snap aimed and fired his wristrail as the rest of the crew was just starting to yell at him to stop. Everyone except Kalindra stood there in shock as I wiped the spattered jelly from my shirt and took a taste.

"Yech, prune jelly. Kalindra, you know how much I hate prunes." I tried to scrape the worst of it off while Nek stared at me and his gun like we'd both become his worst nightmare. When I could see reasonably well again I 'port the weapons racks I'd prepared into separate corners of the room.

"Since you seem to have decided to stick with me for the moment. It's time I introduced you to what has sadly become a kind of tradition aboard the Sunbeam before a battle." I was walking towards one of the racks and grabbing a cream pie from the shelf, that I then balanced it in my hand. "It seems that the rest of my family likes to beat the shit out of me to keep me humble. They do this so that I don't let my power go to my head after the battle is over. Of course they could just like beating the shit out of me also." The pie was balancing in my hand and every eye but Bob's was watching me. He had stepped back a step or two and was removing something from his pocket.

"Now as might be assumed, I tend to find this a little one sided. I therefore propose to change the tradition just slightly." I noticed one of Penny's remotes drop its cloak as it hovered right behind Nek and almost burst out laughing. Inching forward slightly, it brushed his tail and he spun around to see what was there.

Hanging about six inches off the ground was a two foot long remote done up to look like a huge mouse. Great big pink ears, whiskers, and a long tail made truly hilarious image. It wasn't a hologram either, Penny had somehow glued the disguise to the hull of the remote. With a noise that sounded like a sick cow sneezing, the 'mouse' gave off a static discharge that caused every hair Nek had to stick straight out. Even as he turned to attack it, it circled him, and my pie caught him square in the face.

"I'm not going to go down without a fight!" I yelled as I reached for the Super Soaker 1000 I'd loaded with green dye. "Down with the Empire! Faries Bad, not Good! It's the foxes fault!" I tuck rolled and nailed Kalindra in the middle of the back as she was trying to drown Dave in a bucket of honey she'd 'ported from somewhere.

"See how it feels you little hairless glanth!"

In seconds, everyone caught on and scrambled for the weapons racks I'd arranged around the room. Seconds later they discovered that about half the implements of destruction I'd provided did more harm to the user then the target. Throughout it all, Bob just stood in the center of the room and let any attack that came his way pass through him without effect. With the rest of us scraping jelly, honey and any number of cream pies from our clothing, Bob just stood there and laughed. Almost as one, we all turned and started to close in on him.

"It won't do you any good" he snickered as the sticky collection of walking wounded approached him. "Pick on Bob night has been canceled until further notice."

I grabbed one of the squeeze guns loaded with lemon filling and pointed at Bob as I stood in front of him. "Kalindra, did you get my message through?" I asked as I took aim.


"Now please..."

For just a second Bob seemed to solidify and I fired as the look of surprise on his face changed first to anger then laughter. *Jab not want Bob to miss all the fun* came the voice in our minds as Bob started wiping the lemon filling from his face. Even as I watched, both Bob and the filling seemed to become ever so slightly translucent.

"Never under estimate Kalindra where a practical joke is concerned" I said as Bob continued to laugh. I tossed the empty squeeze gun over my shoulder into the pile of weaponry the littered the floor. Then I reached around and grabbed both Kalindra and Lythandi around the waist. "Could I interest you two in a hot bath" I snickered as I bent over and nibbled on a glob of chocolate frosting hanging from Kalindra's hair. They both grabbed me and started carrying me to our cabin.

"He washes my back first!" they both yelled at almost the same time.

"Hey, who gets to clean this up?" yelled Dave as I got carried through the door.

"The last one out of the room" answered Penny as her remote shot through the door behind us.

"Holy shit! Not me!" and the mad scramble began among the ones left to get to the door. There was more then enough stuff on the floor to make it an interesting race. The next one through the door was Naldantis, with Cali thrown over his shoulder.

"You really wish to help me wash the..." and his voice faded as they turned to go another direction. I turned my head to wink at Kal, who gave me one of her 'I told you so' looks.

To hear about it later, the scramble for the door was almost as bad as the battle itself. Bob must still have been in shock over Jab setting him up though, because he was the last one out of the room.

Chapter Twelve


"Right there." I said pointing to the map. Brian had asked me where the best place was to gain entry to the Dyson. "If we make our insertion there, we won't show up on any monitors."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but it's hard to believe that this thing has an unprotected area."

"I thought it was nuts too, until I discovered its purpose. Seems that it's a way for the Admins to come and go at will. They have some very strict laws, the Zulm, and this is one of the ways their leaders exempt themselves from it."

Brian shook his head. "Every time some government gets built, the first thing it does is put itself above the laws it created."

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely." I replied in sing-song.

"Absolute zero is just cold."

"Why, thank you Brian." I said, trying to get the joke. I failed. "Anyway, that's the spot right there."

"So, we're supposed to just beam on down there and destroy the Dyson?" asked Dave.

"No, that's not it at all. The idea is to do what we can to cause a breakdown in their social systems."

"That may have been great for Stalin, but what makes you think it will be needed here? Why don't we just blow it to kingdom come?"

Brian answered him. "You haven't seen this thing yet, Dave. I don't think anyone can imagine how really huge it is, or just how many Zulm live on it. So, we can't think in terms of a big gun because we don't have one big enough. At least, not at the moment."

"I do not understand, Brian" said Naldantis.

"Look, Nal." I said. "The sphere is a living thing. The Zulm are plugged right into it, and there's billions of them. Billions. If we blow a hole in the sphere, they'll just spin it and shoot back. All of the Zulm or one of the Zulm can put it in defense mode. More than that, I've had the opportunity to see what kind of firepower they have. It's, uh, pretty damn amazing. Unless I misunderstood what it was I was reading, they can bring Dysons from alternate realities into play, so the number of Dysons we'd be fighting could be infinite --in the literal sense of the word." I gave everyone a look at the basic design of the Dyson, then placed a proportional sized copy of the Terran sun in the holotank next to it.

"Oh, man" said Dave. "That thing is a hundred times bigger than the sun. How the hell can we ever hope to beat it?"

"Actually, it's a thousand or so times bigger than the sun" said Brian. "And that's what makes Bob's plan so important."

"You are saying," said Lythandi carefully, "that the only way we may succeed is to get them to fight with, and mistrust each other. But how will we do that when they all think as one?"

"Because they don't." I answered. "They are capable of thinking and acting as a unit, but they're also individuals too. They have different goals and ideals like we do. Some aspire to certain jobs, some aspire to religious positions... it's like Earth or Velar, or Meenzeii."

"And so we're just going to drive over and start a fist fight?" asked Dave. The sarcasm was thick.

"No, Dave. You're going to get there with the others on the B-Train. They won't see us coming, they won't see us leave."

"What the hell is a B-Train, and what about seeing us while we're there?"

"I'm the B-Train, I'll get you there. As to being seen while you're there, that's a part of the plan. They see us."

Nek looked down at his wristrail and back up. "No think like odds."

"Relax, Nek. You're going to look like a Zulm. They won't think of you as out of place at all."

Everyone leaned in on the table, all at once. I took the cue and the Dyson and sun vanished from the holotank, and was replaced by their first look at a Zulm. They were moderately humanoid, standing about five feet tall. It had no legs and feet, instead, they had rubber like treads to carry them around. The smooth floors of the Dyson didn't require the intricate steps that legs and feet required, and were abandoned to the treads. I put the thing into animation so they could see it move, and it scurried around the tank like a tiny remote controlled car.

The torso was what gave them humanoid appearance. They had bio-arms much like we do, but they also has a utility mecharm which attached to the right side of their 'chests.' These were interchangeable, depending on the duties they had to perform. Their heads were ovoid, and completed the humanoid look. But the interior of their skulls was a mix of cybernetic junctions and biological synapses. Their eyes never blinked. They didn't need to. The eyes which at one time probably were similar to ours were now sensors, and their eyes were large, dark and round. Like a fly, they were faceted in a honeycomb structure that gave them the ability to see in a few directions at once.

Cali sat back. "How is is possible to sneak up on something like that?"

"You don't." I replied. "That's why we have to look like Zulm. For the most part, they ignore each other."

"And they all look exactly like this?" asked Gregor.

"No, they don't. The Seers and the Admins have legs and feet. I think that's because they have to deal with steps and stairs a lot. Their political and religious offices maintain a certain amount of pompousness --a hold over from ancient times. But even so, the legs and feet aren't bio, they're mechanical."

"They look like little tanks" said Brian grinning.

"And these little tanks can move at a couple hundred miles per hour. They don't do vehicles like we do. They all get where they need to go on their own. It's pretty remarkable."

"And so what we need to do is get them to argue and fight among themselves?" asked Gregor.

"Yes. That won't be difficult, though."


"Because right about now, the previous couple of weeks is starting to catch up with them."

"What you mean?" asked Nek.

"I mean, the Admin side is starting to disagree with the Seer side. We just need to propagate the discontent."

"What for?" asked Dave.

Brian looked at him. "We told you. To get them fighting among themselves. If we do that, we have a chance at taking the sphere over --after we disable it, of course."

"We not destroy?" asked Nek.

"Not unless we have to."

It was Kalindra who spoke this time. "If I may, Rober...Bob. Why is it they wish my mate --and you-- harm?"

"Because Brian protects earth, and I'm with Brian." I answered.

"But I am with Brian as well --so are we all. Why is it they did not direct their mind attacks upon us also?"

"They were using your link with Brian to program him. You were a necessary part of what they were doing. On the other hand, I was able to know when they were around, so they wanted me silenced. Sort of like a burglar cutting the alarm wires, I suppose." Kal nodded pensively.

"But then, why earth?"

"Earth has something they want. Something that no other planet in the universe has."

"Which is?"

"The simple answer to that is salt water. More accurately, the word would be electrolyte. The earth's oceans have a virtually perfect balance of minerals, salts and water."

"And they want this for what? For their own consumption?"

"For power. Simply put, their sun generates power, but they need a way to store that energy. What they have to do that job is a jury-rig that is failing. Their survival depends on them building a hellaciously big battery."

"Are you telling me," asked Dave, "that huge fucker is going to die for lack of a D cell?"

"Uh, yeah. That's exactly what I'm telling you."

"Why not my planet's oceans?" asked Kalindra.

"Or Meenzeii?" added Nek.

"Because neither of them have the type of salt seas they need."

"Why not just take water from somewhere and add needed minerals?" asked Naldantis.

"We're talking about what, four quadrillion gallons or so?" said Brian.

"More than that. The Great Lakes have five quadrillion gallons of fresh water in them. The oceans are about fifty times that. It would take an awful lot of asteroids --or planets-- to get enough of the necessary modifiers to convert the water of another planet or body into the needed combination. It's better to take what they need already premade."

"Damn" said Gregor.

"At least." I smiled at him. "Ok, everyone coming needs to wear armor. The atmosphere they use is almost pure nitrogen."

"They breathe nitrogen?" asked Dave.

"No, they breathe an oxygenated liquid chloroflourocarbon. Their biology is fairly similar to ours in that respect. By the way, a good way to choke one to death is to blow a hole in their personal reservoir." I showed the group where the Zulm stored their liquid air, pointing to it on the model in the holotank.

"Is only way to kill?" asked Nek.

"No, you can blow their head off and kill them a hell of a lot faster. You can also shoot them in the base of their spines, and that will cause the signals in their bodies to go unprocessed. That causes a shutdown of their cybersystems. That doesn't kill them, but leaves them inert until something reconnects them again."

There weren't any more questions... at least, not spoken ones. We were playing by ear as always. I told the group to stand up and line up if they were part of the boarding party. Brian, Kalindra, Dave, Gregor and Naldantis shuffled themselves into a single file. I strode forward through them, and when all were absorbed, I stopped and backed up, re depositing them where they were before.

"Uh, lets get the armor on, ok?" I said. Looking at Kalindra, I nodded. "Thanks for the reminder." She smiled and followed the others to get the exosuits.

Ten minutes later, a large mechanoid being darkcyl'd off the ship and reappeared inside the Dyson.

"Say, Bob" said Brian.


"I hate to break this to you, but we don't look anything like the Zulm you showed us. We look an awful lot like the crew of the Sunbeam."

"Details, details." I said. A few minutes later, five Zulm had dropped off-line, then reappeared. Oddly enough, two of them were a lot more hairy than they were moments before.

Chapter Thirteen

This little Zulm went to market, this little Zulm went Boom!

Without even a warning to 'keep your head down', Bob dropped the five of us in the middle of an empty plain and vanished back into the dark Quantum Mechanic realm he called home now.

"So much for pleasant good-bye's" muttered Dave as we all began to look at our surroundings.

"I just hope he remembers to keep an eye out for us" I replied. "He's suppose to be the ghost in the works that keeps us from being discovered."

"Yeah, right... He's probably off screwing a fusion reactor somewhere."

I thought sideways for a second and checked. "No, the star in the middle of this thing is still a virgin." Nobody thought it was funny except me. "Ok, so he's gone to play spook for awhile. We can survive without him."

Cupping my hands, I called up a magical projection that showed our location within the Dyson. "Ok, let's get going. The closest town is about 200 miles that way" I nodded with my head. "Gregor and I will head that way and see how much trouble we can begin to stir up."

"Do you have the bearings for the closest computer nexus?" asked Dave.

I called up the location and showed it to Dave. "You have about 400 miles for you and Naldantis to cover. Should take you less than an hour once you hit the roadway."

"Less than an hour..." said Nal with a smile. "This will take some getting use to" he laughed as he shifted back and forth on the treads that had replaced his legs. "These people have made some interesting adaptations to their physical structure."

"Well don't get so interested in studying them that you forget to watch my ass" said Dave with a sideways look at me. "I'm going to be neck deep in trying to screw up their computers. I'll feel a lot safer if I'm sure you are going to be watching out for me."

"I will make sure nobody takes advantage of you while you work little Human."

"Just fucking great... I feel so much safer now." Dave looked at the rest of us and then spun to head off. "Come on furball and try not to get your fur caught in your treads." Naldantis spun to follow him and a second later they were both out of sight.

"Are you sure Dave didn't join us to keep from being shot by his friends on Earth?"

"Could be" I answered Kalindra. "Anyway, you have enough troubles of your own to worry about. You have to find a way to either fix or disable that damn secondary power grid. If we get into a shooting match with this damn thing I want to be able to cut the power without worrying about the damn Energizer Bunny blowing my ass away."

"Do not worry then. I'm the only one allowed to shoot you in the ass" she replied with a laugh. "I'll either fix it, or leave it so full of holes that they won't be able to light a candle with it."

"I'd prefer fixing myself. If they like sea water so much we'll just create all they need and send them on their way."

"That would prevent a lot of grief on both sides" added Gregor.

I nodded and turned to send Kalindra on her way. "Try to be careful though. I might not be able to sense when you get in trouble and need help."

"I'll keep that in mind, but you might remember that I make a mean enemy. Anything that gets in my way is going to come up missing vital parts of their anatomy." Even with her tail having been integrated into her base, Kalindra still tried to smack me as she turned and headed off. Gregor and I just closed our eye's and let the pebbles bounce off our leathery hides.

"You made an interesting choice of paths for your life to take" laughed Gregor as we watched the dust cloud vanish into the distance.

"You haven't read enough of my journals yet then. I don't think I've had a choice I could call my own for the better part of a year now." I let the map collapse back in on itself and turned to head out. "Come on, we have a culture to turn on its ear." I had to stop myself as I caught myself about to reach for my link to Kalindra. We had damped and shielded it so that the Zulm wouldn't know we were here. We were both sure though that opening it up would cause us both to register on every sensor this damn place had at its disposal. "Let's roll" I said with a look behind me, and Gregor took up a position at my side.

* * *

We spotted the town long before we actually got to it because whoever the architect of this place had been, he had hated mountains. As we slowed and raised our bodies upright, everything snapped into focus as the secondary eyelid snapped out of the way.

"That is a hell of a way to travel" I yelled at Gregor. We were still going almost a 100 MPH as we hit the outskirts of the town. "I don't know about you but I'm hungry enough to eat a horse!"

"Naldantis could probably explain it better, but I suspect we burn a lot of energy traveling like that" yelled Gregor in reply.

I nodded in agreement and checked the internal sense of being that I'd been experimenting with during our trip. There wasn't a fuel gauge I could point at, but somehow I knew that the mechanical part of the bio-mechanical construct I rested on needed to be re-fueled. "I'll bet you cooking duties for a week that the edge of town has a gas station." I was slightly miffed that Gregor wouldn't take the bet.

It would have been a draw anyway. Arranged around the edge of the town was a small series of rest stops that were a cross between a gas station and a trailer park. As Gregor and I rolled into the first one we came to we noticed quite a few Zulm who appeared to be asleep in small stalls. "Resting after the trip?"

"Could be" replied Gregor as we came to a stop.

We both were feeling the effects of the trip, but neither of us had much luck making sense of the re-fueling station. Rather than take a chance of screwing up our bodies. We rested off to the side and talked until someone else came through and we could watch how they did it.

"You didn't see any hoses or anything?" I asked.

"Nothing, she just parked over the plate and seemed to rest for a moment."

I looked around and didn't see anybody watching. "Well, maybe its done by induction or something." Feeling like I was stepping onto a large target I rolled onto the plate and waited. Within a few seconds I felt the change and listened to my internal sense of being until I felt 'full'. "It must be induction. Just sit there and wait until you feel full." A few minutes later Gregor came back with a smile on what passed for his face. That done we headed on in the town and began to look for a place to start our work.

"Any idea's on where you want to start?"

"Someplace safe. If this works we're going to start quite a riot I would think."

"Safe?" I thought about it for a moment and wanted to smack my forehead. "We should have stayed at the rest stop. I saw cyber jacks in the stalls and we would have been where we could make a quick getaway afterwards." Feeling like complete fools we retraced our path back to the rest stop and picked a couple of stalls out of the way.

"Ok, you know the plan. You set them up and finger them for me. I'll take it from there."

"You are sure this is needed?"

"Look, we either get them to stop themselves or I have to figure out how to stop all of them from every being a threat to Earth again. I'd rather take out a few here then the entire Dyson on the edge of our solar system."

"I would not have your job for anything" said Gregor as he jacked into the net.

"Neither would I" I mumbled to myself as I watched his eye close.

The plan was straight forward and pretty simple. Gregor was to use his skill at interpreting social interactions to start an argument between the two factions. Being biased, I'd decided to pick on the religious idiots that seemed to be the most vocal for sucking our oceans dry. When he had identified my targets, I was to make sure everyone went from simply arguing to active warfare. With a thought thread open to Gregor, I began to spin the spell that would do just that. Then I hit the first snag.

"Oh shit... Bob, I'm going to kill you again!" I got kidded a lot by both Kalindra and the rest of the family about my using either music or song as a focus for my heavy duty spells. The first note I tried to sing from my new vocal setup came out as a burst of static. "God damn useless body!" I had to improvise and fast. Running through the internal inventory that was part of my mechanical component, I searched for anything that was capable of making a vibration in the audible range. The only thing I could come up with was the motor that powered my treads. As I lay down on my side I distracted myself with thoughts of what I was going to do to Bob when I saw him next. With one tread locked, I began spinning the other one and varying the rate so as to produce the tones I needed as mnemonic aids. It was crude, it hurt like hell, but it worked.

*I don't need to start the argument* came the thought from Gregor. *It seems to be the major topic of conversation on the personal nets.*

*Just pick out the targets and feed them to me*

The idea was for Gregor to start an argument between the factions as to the 'rightness' of the techno's point of view over the religious one. Since the argument was already in progress, he joined in and began to heat it up. While he got things ready, I prepared to start the war. With the energy available, and the spell set to direct it, I began to add the signatures to the matrix that were the Zulm targets Gregor picked out.

*We should be prepared to leave in a hurry*

*Things are that volatile?*

*For such a structured race. The Zulm show a sad lack of moral advancement for a race their age.*

*Then this will be their wakeup call to re-evaluate themselves* I answered as I continued to add targets to the matrix.

*Then get ready to ring the alarm...*

What had been a minor new voice in the net, became a voice of anger that couldn't be ignored. [You are wrong as is the Seer! Worse, you are wrong minded! We can not chance our very being on the Seer's fantasies regarding our place in the universe. Let this be a lesson to all who follow him!]


Even with the advanced state of their technology there was still the possibility for mechanical or electrical failure. With a single query of the databases any Zulm in the network could have given you the figures for a point failure to 20 decimal places. Nobody though could have quoted you the probability that 2000 such failures would occur in the same town at the same instant and only to the followers of the Seer. As the matrix I controlled vanished, 2000 Zulm in the town beyond died as their cyber interfaces exploded within their heads.

Gregor and I had been right to stay at the edge of town. Both sides reacted instantly and violently. The 2000 that died from my attack were just the beginning...

Chapter Fourteen

Through the looking glass

"Mage busy." said Jab looking at the console. As the Lord High Root of the Zulm, he was monitoring all of the systems for the Dyson Sphere. What he was seeing was the first major system malfunction that the Zulm had seen in hundreds of years. The cat chuckled at it.

"Contact Sue and see what's happening with the zealots." I told him, he started to comply, but was cut short.

"Did I hear my name?" asked Suzanne. She stepped in the door as Jab was opening the comm to the Hall of Seers.

"As a matter of fact, you did. Looks like Brian and his party just made their first hit." Sue grinned.

"I expect to hear about it through the Seers. Maybe I should get back there."

I said that was the best course. With things starting to go wrong, she could be instrumental in directing the tide of emotions that was about to sweep through the population. She turned and left, but not before I cautioned her to accent on the fact that the Admins had deviated from the course of events laid out by the Grand Seer she'd replaced.

Jab wasted no time. He set out programs to isolate the damage that had been created when the cabal had self-destructed --with a little help from the shore party. We called the little clusters of activity and housing on the sphere cabals, because they functioned like one. Each cabal had a special area of expertise and function, and the housing contained the Zulm who worked those functions. Like a cabal, they could operate as a part of the whole, or as an independent entity. It was the independence that would be key to our plans. If we could get the cabals to separate themselves from the whole, it would be easier to manipulate them into distrust.

* * *

Dave was in a very earth-like pose. He had his back to the wall and was looking up at nothing. His hands were behind his back, and his lips were pursed in a whistle. He was an icon of innocence, and the only thing he lacked to complete the image was a halo. When he felt the coast was clear, he turned to the access socket and began to work.

* * *

Jab sounded like a rusty hinge. His Meenzal laugh caused me to peer over his shoulder. The Zulm-wide network was broadcasting a message which, to the Zulm, said "Root Sucks." As we watched the status board, we could see seeker daemons come on-line and light up the path they took as they tried to isolate where the message came from. After ten minutes, every representation of a datapath was lit up, and the daemons were reporting that it was they who sent the message.

Another ten minutes went by and the path trails were almost all dark again as the daemons, believing they'd done their jobs, had gone back to a quiescent state. A new message came up which said the Zulm equivalent of "The Grand Seer smells like burned rubber." This happy message started the search daemons up again, and the process repeated itself. However, this time a new message was broadcast before the datapath board was cleared. Each of the electronic insults came faster and became more rude than the one preceding it.

"Root has feet."

"Seers are blind."

"Admins lubricate with urine."

"Replicate yourself."

The board was lit up to the point that normal communications were blocked by the insulting electronic graffiti and the daemons that sought the sources. When it seemed that the communications storm was at its worst, and the system couldn't handle anymore, klaxon's started to belch alarms everywhere. The status board cleared and displayed a whole new layer of comm channels, and all of these began to light up with warnings about everything from hull breaches to the stellar mass inside the sphere going nova. These brought an even greater flurry of activity as the systems and Zulm frantically tried to react to the warnings.

In two hours, all normal layers of system communication were either off-line or being ignored completely.

The Hall of Root was shaken at its foundation. The explosion that rocked it was so loud it was silent. Jab looked at me, his Zulm eyes wide. "What that was?" he asked.

"If it was big enough to shake this sphere, I'd say it was probably Brian."

"Or furry" added Jab. "Maybe time for you go look?"

"I think it is." I said. "I think it is."

Chapter Fifteen

Did you hear something?

Naldantis nodded at me after a final look around. "It seems quiet enough."

"It won't be that way long" I grinned. Pulling the plug extension Brian had given me from my pouch. I slipped it over the end of my data plug and jacked into the network. I had no idea what to expect.


[It's about time you got busy] said the familiar voice of Brian's sister. [Have you decided how you want to start?]

[I need to familiarize myself with the setup so I figured I'd start with something small. Kind of like electronic harassment on a small scale.]

[Easy enough. I will use the time to figure out the safeguards to the more secure areas of their network.]

[Say, is this what Brian hears when he talks to you?]

[A faint echo of it, yes. You're hearing me like you expect to hear someone inside a machine. The way I communicate with Brian goes far beyond that.]

Maybe she was right, and maybe not. It sure sounded like she was laughing at me as we dove into the electronic web I could sense through the data jack. Trusting Penny to keep me safe from the network and Naldantis to watch out for my physical body, I started my search for the public infonet.

* * *

"But the Seer is never wrong, that's why he is the Seer!"

Gregor and I had stopped in one of the smaller towns to rest and regroup for our next excursion. Unfortunately, we'd had the miserable luck to run into the local equivalent of a missionary. His fellow towns people had let him know in no uncertain terms that his rantings were annoying. Seeing us sitting in the hospice, and not recognizing us, we'd become his next targets.

"Go away" I said with a glare. "I feel no need to listen to mythical nonsense from someone who can't even keep his treads in decent running shape."

"My condition is unimportant. What matters is the truth I bring into your existence. If you would only listen, I'm..."

I'm not sure what frightened him more. The smile on my face, or the tiny red dot that kept flicking between his forehead and his torso. "I will count to three. I do not expect to see you before me when I finish."

"This is an outrage! No one may..."


"This is illegal, I will protest!"


What ever two brain cells the idiot used to power his mind. Both of them decided to retreat at the same time. The door to the hospice was almost closed again when I quietly said "Three..."

"Was that wise?" asked Gregor as he looked at the audience that had watched my show.

"Remind me sometime when we have less to worry about and I'll tell you what I think of religious fanatics that don't take hints. I had bad luck to undergo indoctrination in one of the more active 'we have to spread the word' religions during my youth." I was so pissed that I didn't realize Gregor was watching something behind me until the hand landed on my shoulder.

"You should not have treated Zlan that way. He may be a pain, but he is harmless."

"To you maybe, but my audio channels found him to be painful to listen to. People who consume, yet produce only pain and annoyance, should be fed to the conversion plants."

"My friend, you should produce less noise of your own." The hand on my shoulder began to squeeze. "I think you need a lesson in manners."

Turning my head completely around so I could see the idiot, I smiled once again. "Does your mate have a spare for that arm?"

"Why do you ask?" came his answer as a look of puzzlement began to show on his face. He obviously had expected me to show some reaction to the force he was applying to my shoulder. All he was doing though was squeezing the hull metal frame of the exo-skeleton that Bob had somehow melded into our form during the conversion.

Reaching up, I closed my hand over his and lifted his arm from my shoulder without effort. "Are all the people around here as stupid as you? Go away while you are able to move under your own power." After trying several times to wrench his arm from my grasp, he nodded and I let him go.

"These people would fit in fine back home. Just paint their necks and turn them loose."

"I think we should leave before things get out of hand" muttered Gregor as he looked around the room. "We are slightly out numbered if things should become uncomfortable."

I glanced around the room and noted more than a few looks that promised long stays in the regen tanks. "Maybe you're right" and I started to get up.

<Slam> "That is the offender!" and I watched as Zlan stormed into the room with a dozen of his friends behind him.

"So much for religious freedom and peaceful discussion." I set myself on my treads and noted that a few of the techies joined the zealots as the crowd around us grew. "Have you ever been in a bar fight Gregor?"

"Not that I recall" he answered as he slid around to guard my backside.

"Neither have I, but I suspect this is going to get out of hand real fast."

"You could 'port us out of here."

"And give away a lot more than I want to. No, I think we handle this the old fashioned way." Reaching down and grabbing the table we had been sitting at. I used a mixture of telekinesis and the augmented strength from the exoskeleton to lift it in the air.

"The Seer uses memory enhancement aids and the Admin likes using the female temple assistants for party treats!" Everyone froze for just a second in shock at the accusations I had spouted. "He eats to many damn egg's also" I said as I threw the table into the crowd in front of me. Things got ugly after that...

* * *

[Dave, what are you doing?]

[You and Brian both want this thing to stop wrecking havoc wherever it goes, right?]

[It would make things easier, yes.]

[I've found a way to get them to come to a stop. It's going to have both sides out for each others blood also.]

In searching through some of the more autonomic systems of the Dyson. I'd come across the external defense and navigation deflector arrays that were under computer control. With something this large roaming around the galaxy. It's external deflectors were kept pretty busy vaporizing anything that might pose a threat to the external hull. I couldn't shut them off, but I could alter the programming slightly.

[The question stands. What are you doing?]

[I'm altering the size parameters for the external debris sensors. They will have to bring this thing to a stop to recalibrate them after they figure out what happened.]

[How will that cause the two factions to attack each other?]

[The trail I'm leaving in the code points each of the two failures I'm introducing at each faction. They are both going to believe that the other side tried to destroy them rather then let them win the argument Brian is having so much fun starting.]

I had set up the nested trips so that a single command caused everything to cascade fail as required. Long before the failure actually happened, the trails would be laid and all references to me would be erased.

[Would you mind if I double checked your work?]

[Still don't trust me? I know what I'm doing.] With a single thought I entered the trigger.


I should have let Penny double check my figures. I was off by an order of magnitude in the size of the debris that was now allowed through the navigation deflectors. The first clue any of us had that something might be real wrong was when the sky above exploded outwards.

"Damn, we would have to have been on the forward face!"

As Naldantis and I started looking for cover, a steadily growing breeze began to pass by us. A breeze that quickly grew into a Hurricane!

Chapter Sixteen

Stirring the pot

Stepping from the darkcyl, I had to marvel at the technology of the sphere. Above me in the shell of the Dyson, panels began to move. It reminded me of a toy I had as a child. It was a little square of letters tiles, and you had to shuffle the tiles to form words with the letters. The sphere repaired the hole in its skin by blowing a section out into space, and as quickly replacing it with a new one which slid into place.

The rush of wind made by the escaping atmosphere was quieted, and the area was quiet again. I smiled at the way it seemed quiet, but then I knew that beneath the appearances, the pot was boiling furiously.

* * *

Kalindra looked in both directions and then satisfied she wasn't standing out like a sore thumb, she rolled into the stall and jacked into the Zulm control network. She was in a set of structures that monitored the travel of the Zulm as they sped from place to place.

* * *

The Zulm was traveling at a sedate 300 kilometers per hour when it saw it. What it saw was a beast it had never seen before. A great hairy thing with big teeth. It stood tall, muscular and terrifying. The Zulm reacted by swerving away, and it crashed into another Zulm traveling in the opposite direction. Rebounding from each other, the two each crashed into other Zulm and the chain reaction was begun. When it was over, nearly eight hundred Zulm lay disabled.

The repair Zulm, the sphere's doctors and maintenance, were dispatched to a location nearly 1,200 miles away from the accident scene. The rerouted detour took Zulm to places in the sphere they'd never seen before.

* * *

"What else should I do?" Kalindra questioned herself out loud. "Ah!" she said, and called Dave over the link. A few moments later, she was making small giggling noises to herself as she sent out random messages to various Zulm telling them their mates were at home entertaining other Zulm.

* * *

When I got to the Seers Chamber, I found Sue bent over the console. She was watching the developments as they showed up. To one side was an inbound messages monitor. It was blinking with seeming intensity as it tried vainly to attract attention. "Ok, kiddo. It's time to go." I said. "It's not going to be safe here anymore."

Sue looked up, nodded and then turned to the console. She quickly typed a message, cross fed it as an autoreply to the inbounds, and then sent it off as a general broadcast message. It said that the Grand Seer had seen what the Admins had done, and there being no hope left, she had disassembled and self destructed. Finished, she stood and I walked through her. Moments later, she stood on the firm ground of the K1 station, and I'd returned to the Dyson. "One down, six to go." I mumbled, and went off in search of Jab. He wasn't in the Hall of Root, and it took me a few moments to locate him. The cat had strolled down to the communal area and had taken up a sniper's position atop an equipment cover.

"Hi." <peengow!> "Bob. What brings you" <thut thut peengow!> "here?"

"Just checking in" I said. His shots were impeccable. The cat was casually firing on the tread mechanisms of passing Zulm as they sped one way or another. After a few moments, he said it was time to shift positions.

"Pile of junk give away that problem is here" he said. I stepped through the Meenzal and deposited the now dead Admin behind me. Selecting a Zulm at random, I picked it up and merged it with Jab. This done, he set off to do some more sniping while I left a note with the body of the dead Admin the cat had been replacing. It simply said "DIE ADMINS" in Zulm. At the bottom was the stylized ovoid that was the logo of the Seers.

"Ok, y'all." I said into our link. "Time to do what you're going to do and get ready for extraction."

Somewhere on the sphere, Brian cocked his head listening for a moment. He nodded to himself and set to work.

Chapter Seventeen

Turn out the lights, the party's just starting

*It sure looks like they built themselves into a corner* came the familiar voice in my mind. *Most of the storage tanks I've examined are dry or filled with the vaporized remains of the water they once held.*

*Any chance of getting inside to check out the interior?*

*I would have to 'port blindly. I haven't seen anything that looks like an access port and the computer net claims there is no way through.*


I could feel the amusement riding the edges of her reply. *Now, is that any way to talk around your son?*

Kalindra had run into a snag. We now had a much better idea of how the Zulm were using the water they stole from planets that met their criteria. As much as they needed the water to regulate and distribute the power they drew from the star in the center. They also needed it to keep the entire structure from melting down.

Besides the inherent problem of gravity in a Dyson sphere, there is the problem of waste heat. With a ringworld you don't have to worry about it, but a Dyson captures 100 percent of the particle flux and heat the star generates. You either use it all, or have one hell of a heat problem. The Zulm had designed their power system to cycle water from the inner surface where it collected heat, to the outer where energy was extracted and waste heat radiated into space. With the water shortage they had, the entire Dyson was like a light bulb in a sealed box. The internal temperature was rising slowly to the point where something was going to give. When I turned my senses towards the star that should have been in the center of the Dyson. I found the expected energy output of the white dwarf that was supposed to be there, but it was spread over an area that was huge.

*The damn thing's going unstable on them*


*The star in the center is reacting to the increase in particle density from the trapped heat and energy. The surface has began to expand outwards as the density rises high enough to support fusion reactions.*

*Where is the relief valve?*

*Better yet, is there a relief valve?* I answered as the image of an old style pressure cooker came to mind.

*Well there is no way I'm going to be able to help them restore the operation of the system. I couldn't create enough water to fill even one of the storage tanks I've seen.*

*Then we help nature along and do as much damage as we can. Have you ran into much trouble in your explorations?*

*Not from the Zulm. Quite a lot of them are being distracted by the civil war you guys have been stirring up. The rest are depressed because the can't get any guidance from above that would let them fix the problem in front of them. The computer on the other hand making a pest of itself.*

*It doesn't have the sweet disposition of my sister?*

*It is a pain in the pelt!* came the mutter of disgust even Gregor chuckled at. *It keeps taking shots at me every time it spots me in one of the storage tanks.*

*It probably thinks you're some kind of large hairy rat that got into the tank by accident. Think of it as pest control.* I tried real hard to keep from letting Kalindra catch the thought that followed. My ears might look a little different now, but I liked them the way they were. Still attached to my head!

*So, do you want to help me?*

*Nope, this one is all yours. Gregor and I have enough trouble of our own to keep rolling. Remember what I told you about stellar dynamics and have fun! I'll see you back on the Sunbeam when you're done.*

*You'll see a lot more then my back!* she chuckled as she twisted my words back at me.

* * *

My first blind teleport had taken me a million miles beyond the inner surface of what Brian and Bob called a Dyson sphere. Even as I got my bearings I could see my mate had been right about the star being unhappy. The entire interior of the sphere was awash in light being reflected from the inner surface. Where the star should have been though there was now a large and ill defined ball. "Not happy indeed!" I didn't have the almost innate sense of the energy flows that my mate did, but I could feel the high density solar wind that now fed back on itself.

"Well, let's see what we can find in the way of targets" I muttered to myself as I patted the area of my abdomen where my child should have been. Bob had promised that no harm would come to him after I had asked to be included on the 'away team'. While he wasn't physically present, I could still sense him as if he were nestled away in his home.

"I couldn't find the storage tanks that still operated from the inside, but they should be easy from here." The inner surface of the sphere was decorated with towers thousands of miles tall. Closing my eyes so I could 'see' the energy patterns around them. I began to search for the areas that were cooler then their surroundings. If the water returning from the outer hull was used to carry away heat. It had to be cooler then the return pipe and I could spot the energy differential. It was surprising how few areas I found.

"Brian was correct, they are in serious trouble." Less then one in a hundred towers still showed signs of activity. "That still leaves a lot of targets though. Any ideas?" I asked the tiny mind that had been letting me know was old enough to be aware of its existence. "No? Don't worry, you will make up for it later. You've going to be born into a family that has too many ideas for its own good."

Spinning slowly I turned to face the bloated star in the center. "Let the star do all the work huh." Sometimes Brian forgets to include the details when he explains things to me. If he'd been close enough I'd have whacked him with my tail as he'd done it to me once again. "Of course I don't have a tail" I muttered as I looked at the body Bob had placed me in. "Oh well... Time to get creative."

Somehow I needed to disable as many of the remaining power regulators as possible and make it look natural. That meant I couldn't just channel the energy from the star myself and destroy the towers. Thinking about channeling the energy though gave me the kernel of an idea and I began to check the density of the plasma that was building up within the sphere. "Hummmmm... This might just work!" With my protective shields forced almost to the point of being visible, I began to head inward towards the center. I couldn't generate the power bolt to vaporize the towers, but that angry star might just be talked into doing it for me. This was going to be fun!

* * *

I was talking with Dave in the net when the floor below me shuddered.

[Are you taking pot shots at the outer hull again?]

[It isn't me this time.]

[Then what the hell...]

*Oh, pretty!*


*And who else would be shaking the foundations of the world?* she giggled in reply.

*What the hell are you doing?* I asked as the floor shuddered again.

*Do you know what happens when two charged masses are joined by conductive plasma?*

*Yeah, it's called flashover. You get one hell of a spark.*

*Guess what happens when one of the masses is a star?*

I thought about it and my jaw dropped. *You're short circuiting the fucking star?*

*Something like that* she giggled. *I'm manipulating the plasma trapped inside the sphere to create a conductive path between the star and the towers on the inner surface. When I get the plasma dense enough I get this really pretty arc.*

*Jesus Fucking Christ!*

*No, Kalindra nal Kan.*

I paused to explain to Dave and Gregor what was going on and they both had the same reaction. While we were talking, Kal broke in and told me to 'hang on to something again'.

Some thousands of miles in the distance I could see one of the huge columns that were the structural supports holding the dual spheres together. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the column take on a brilliant glow as if it had been lit by some horrendous spotlight. A second later the entire column vanished in a giant blue arc of fire that must have been visible halfway around the sphere.

"Oh shit..." and I started counting to myself. "Gregor find something large to hold onto" and I started digging handholds in the floor of the rest stop cubicle we were working from.

"What's going on?"

"We are about to get blown back to Kansas the hard way Toto. I don't want to even try to figure out what kind of shock wave is going to hit us in about" and I check my internal clock, "23.3 seconds..."

Even as we dug in I felt the floor beneath us shudder once again.

Chapter Eighteen

Chicken Little was Wrong...

"What THAT was?" asked my cat as he surveyed the console in front of him. The floor of the Hall of Root shook with what on earth would be a force 15 earthquake, an honest 9 on the Richter Scale. I was climbing to my feet wishing I'd had the same luxury of a contoured chair that Jab had. Rubbing my behind I stood up and walked over to the console.

"Aren't you listening to Brian and Kalindra?" I asked him.

"No, was watching Dave and Mage on Zulm link. Saying Furry was in sphere with star." We looked at the reports lighting up the problem display and were surprised at the damage that had been done with the two tremors Kalindra had induced. "Furry is in oven, no?"

"Furry is in oven, yes." I answered. Jab pointed to the master display. The inner wall of the Dyson, what would be the ground to those of us in the habitat area of the sphere, was heating rapidly. "We're going to have to get the hell out of here, cat."

"Better put butt on floor" said the cat. He was right. Sensors on the sphere showed another tremor, this one much bigger than the previous two, was on the way. I didn't lay down, but stepped through the cat and opened a darkcyl.

From inside our protected zone we could see disaster in the offing. The floor of the Hall rippled like a flag in a breeze, and caused the walls to warp. The console was illuminated by sheets of electronic arcs, and the wall of monitors exploded in unison. Ceiling supports collapsed and dropped heavy girders where Jab and I had been moments before. "Furry make it hot for everybody" said Jab.

"Hell hath no Furry like a woman scorched." I said. "Let's go get the teams the hell off this ball. I have a feeling we're going to see more damage from this than we expected to." With that, we winked out of the Hall of Root.

* * *

Kalindra had stopped her mass transits, but the interior of the sphere was continuing without her. A chain reaction had started when towers inside the Dyson were shaken from their anchors and fell inwards on the boiling stellar mass inside. Ionization from the torn circuits created a path for even more huge arcs between the sun and the sphere's interior. These caused more material to break free and fall inwards, repeating the process. Kal hung in the void, tapping the star itself for enough power to hold her away from it.

All about her was a brightness that consumed every millimeter of space. Between the reflection of energy off the sphere's inside wall, and the star that produced it, the photosphere of the stellar mass had grown to fill the Dyson's interior.

*What does it look like in there?* 'pathed Brian. Through his link to his mate he sent a smile.

*I cannot see anymore* replied Kalindra. *It is too bright*

*It's time to leave. Bob is calling all of us for extraction*

*I heard him, I'm ...*

Kalindra was cut off as a solar flare seared by her, grazing the shield she'd cast to protect her. Her concentration was lost for a moment and the force field holding her in place was broken. She began an accelerating tumble inwards towards the star.

She called to Brian as she reached out to reestablish the field. *I'm lost!*

The Mage tried to reach out to her, but was limited by the body he was in. He couldn't focus energy, nor accurately locate Kalindra amid the vast chaos of energy. *BOB*

* * *

The universe was erupting around Dave. The Zulm link he was using to introduce malice to the systems had revealed him to a conclave of Seer supporters. As soon as they'd located him, they'd focused their group and sped to the nest of cubicles where the signals had come from. On arrival, they opened up with everything they'd been able to muster as weapons.

[Somebody get me the fuck out of here!] he sent. It was the final message he was able to transmit. The circuits of his socket tap melted and blew into a mist of metallic vapor as it was struck with a multi-billion megawatt blast from a carving beam. Smaller shots from less powerful tools began to tear apart the flooring beneath him, and he pivoted and fled the stall. His movements were seen by the attackers, and another blast from the huge beam exploded in front of him. The impact of it blew both of his treads off asymmetrically and sent him spinning to fall over and skid for twenty yards.

The attackers rolled towards him, their weapons seeking aim on his disabled Zulm body. Dave closed his eyes and readied himself to die.

The force stopped short. The thing that appeared from nowhere was something they'd never seen before. Its tall body was roughly humanoid, and its chromium eyes appeared to be laughing at them. Drops of saliva dripped from eight inch metallic fangs. Their audio sensors heard it transmit sound they hadn't heard before. Sounding like it was saying 'Fuggh Roo Ah Ssoles,' it raised a muscular arm and fired a barrage of charged particles. The force fell like ducks in a shooting gallery one after another until only one was left. It raised the cutting beam at the beast, but it never found purchase. The Zulm holing it disappeared in an explosion that sent its pieces flying in all directions like shrapnel. The powerful tool fell to the floor and rolled lazily across the ground, inert.

"Time to leave, Dave" said the beast.

* * *

Kalindra was falling. She couldn't tell if she was moving quickly or slowly, she only knew that she would be consumed by the stellar mass. Heat and light were all around her, and she couldn't hear for the deafening roar of the energy that surrounded her. The link to her mate was lost in a blare of static she'd never experienced before.

She placed a hand on the spot where her child would be in another materialization, and sang quietly to her offspring in Velan song. In her mind she felt no despair, but the question of what sort of life her kit would have, if it had one at all. Believing in her own death, she began the chant to cast her energy out of her body in the hopes it would be collected by her mate someday, somewhere.

Kalindra felt the coolness at her back before the brilliance of the starshine winked into blackness.

@You realize you owe me one hell of a long backrub for this@ said Bob.

@Maybe I'll just scratch your eyes out for getting us into this@ she replied, but the communication carried warmth.

* * *

The darkcyl rose up into the flightdeck of the Sunbeam. The odd creature that stepped from it went through a bizarre metamorphosis as it moved across the bridge, leaving one, two, three, for, five crew members in its wake. Each of them looked at their hands and scanned themselves up and down with eyes that held more relief than anything else.

The large catlike creature that remained looked back at the crew with metallic eyes and spoke.

"Everybody ready for a more conventional approach?"

Nek sat at his station and twisted his head slowly to look at the his fellow crew members, and then at the Mage. His smile and expression contained relish and anticipation. His grin was that of Lucifer and all the legendary souls of hell.

Without a word, he tapped his panel and the Sunbeam accelerated from its hiding place and bore in on the distant sphere.

Chapter Nineteen

Welcome my friends, to the show that never ends.

"Nek, I'm making good on my promise!" I yelled as everyone dove for their battle stations. "I want a hole in that thing big enough to drive this ship enough and make it quick!" I heard him mumble something about 'get the kittens under cover' and I heard about half the switches on his console go <click>. After that I was too busy getting the Sunbeam moving to pay him any attention.

"Penny, what's that damn thing doing?"

"It's sitting at the edge of the system scanning for us. It's a good thing you choose an empty system. It would have ruined the orbits of any planet in the area."

"That was the idea" I yelled as the last of the crew sang out. Even as the echo of Nal's 'ok' was fading, the safety fields snapped on and locked us in our chairs. "Hit it!"

The Sunbeam clawed its way out of the star's photosphere on the side facing away from the Zulm. With the main drive roaring in the background we were halfway to light speed before we'd even completed the backwards arc that brought us over the north pole of the star and into sight of the Zulm.

"There are going to spot us shortly" came Penny's running report in our ears. "I'm picking up H-space scanning signals that are going to pick... Correction, HAVE picked us up."

*Shall we let them know who they are fighting?* came Kalindra's question with an odd mixture of contempt and humor.

*Why the hell not!* I answered laughing and we both dropped the restraints and shields we'd been holding around our link. If there was anyone around looking for us, I'd have bet their treads were wet when the link announced our return.

%Much better, I was getting lonely!%

I was spending a guilty moment with Kalindra when I heard Nek start to yell over the roar in the background. "No fair! Give Nek target to big to destroy!"

"Am I hearing a Meenzai complain about something being fair? Which one of you guys put the catnip in his food while we were gone? You picked a hell of a time to go soft on me cat!" My only reply was the lights blinking as about half the weapons systems of the Sunbeam lit off at the same time.

"You want hole? I give you hole! Release Nek and I make plenty damn big hole in Mage!"

"After the war though, right?" I heard him mumble something that was lost in the noise as the first salvo impacted. His comments after the glare died away were louder and much more colorful.

"I don't see a hole Nek all though this ship will make one of its own when we hit that surface."

"Huh?" went about half the crew.

"There is no way we can fight that thing given its external armament. Therefore I propose to get out of the line of fire by going inside that damn thing."

"Uh boss, we won't survive an impact with one of those support struts even if we get inside safely. We're moving to fast for manual control."

"That why I'm turning navigation over to you. You have the reaction time to keep our flightpath clear."

"Just checking" came the chuckle from Penny. "You might have had an idea I hadn't thought of. I should..."

"MAGE HOLD DAMN SHIP STILL!" came the scream from Nek. "How I make hole if can't hit same place twice!"

"In case you haven't been watching fuzzball, their shooting back!" I yelled in reply.

"Want hole, hold still for 10 seconds!"

It went against my better judgment, but I quit the dodging and held a straight path towards the sphere that was quickly growing to fill the viewport. "Make it quick! We're sitting..."


"Want hole, hold still for 10 seconds!"

I was thinking about doing just that when the Sunbeam jerked sideways of its own accord. *Bad idea* came the voice of our guardian kitty-man in the minds of the entire crew. *You owe me a steak* came the afterthought in my mind only. I gave Bob the mental equivalent of a thumbs up and went back to dodging incoming fire.

"Nek, either aim better or let someone else take over! I'm not sitting still again!" This time he muttered loud enough for me to hear and I made a note to avoid him for at least a year after things were settled around here. This time as I dodged the lights blinked out completely and stayed out for almost 5 seconds as every weapon Nek had available went into repeat fire. This time when the glare died away the sensors showed a hole blown in the outer surface of the Dyson with pockmarks surrounding it. "That's one way to do it."

Even as I watched, the interlocking plates began to shift near the edges to seal the hole. "Penny, it's all yours" and I released the controls. At something like 70% the speed of light the Sunbeam shot through the opening and into the Dyson. What ever they had thought of the hole being blown in their sky, our entrance gave them the shock of their lives. For the short time they lived...

There wasn't a lot of atmosphere that close to the sky, but what the mass of the Sunbeam did to it left a wake of destruction planets wide behind us. Penny was working overtime to keep us from hitting one of those supports and I noticed our speed starting to drop about the time she spoke up.

"Boss, I can't keep this up. I'm not getting... ...information fast enough to plot... ...course safely! It's slow us down or hit something." I was only catching glimmers of the pillars as they flashed past us.

"Slow us down then to where you feel safe" and I watched our speed continue to drop.

*I would have kept you safe*

*No, you would have brought us back after dying in this reality* I told Bob/Jab. *I've died once already today and that's enough.*

"Kalindra, Dave, sensor reading? Any more weapons hidden on the inner surface of this thing?"

"Nothing we can find that poses a threat" came their joint reply. "We are getting minor readings from the ground, but nothing like the outer hull had available."

"Unless you count that volcano over the horizon" came the voice of Marlanda in surprise.

"A volcano, on a Dyson sphere?"

"I'm getting something that echoes like a volcanic caldera and enough energy to sterilize a small planet."

I slaved my console to his to see for myself when Kalindra started to chuckle. "I think the cork blew."

"Cork?" asked Marlanda.

"Cork!" I echoed as I started to chuckle also. "My mate started to cook the Zulm a meal and I think she left the oven on." I was trying to imagine what it must have been like at ground zero as Penny bent our course to give us a closer look. A visual scan turned out to be out of the question as we started running into high density plasma before we even got close to the center.

"Jesus Christ!" muttered Dave as we looked at the radar reconstruction in the holotank. "Remind me never to eat her Chili again!"

All life in the area might have been killed, but the automated systems still managed to lock onto us and let us know our presence wasn't welcome. It didn't do much more then make the shields ring, but it was still annoying. "Penny, take us into the center. Let's see what remains of Kalindra's cooking lesson." With a sharp bend, we ceased our circling of the crater and dove through its mouth.

"I don't think they are going to be moving this thing very soon" came my comment once we cleared the inner hull and got far enough from it to get a good look at the remains.

"I'm scanning very few operational towers of the type you asked me to search for" added Dave as we all looked at the destruction.

"They are going to be power starved and drifting in short order I would think."


"I'd bet those towers also served to keep that star centered when they move this thing. Guess what would happen if they moved it and the star stayed put?"

"They still have enough power to take potshots at us though. What do we do with them?"

"Make harmless" growled Nek and he turned back to his station. A few seconds later the Sunbeams weapons came back to life and began to target the remaining towers. There were a lot of mixed reactions around the flightdeck, but I let him continue.

"We settle this once and for all now while we can" I told everyone. "If we leave them the means to cause trouble, I have no doubt that they will."

"Does that justify Genocide?" came Gregors question as we watched the remaining towers flair and vanish.

"I don't plan on killing them, just making sure they don't go anywhere. When I'm sure their power is gone I'll orbit this thing around the star we hid in and let them live their lives right here."

"Orbit? And just how do you intend to do that?"

"There is still plenty of power in that white dwarf they have sitting inside here. I'll use it to change and stabilize their course."

"Won't they just rebuild?" asked Lythandi as she stared at me. "What if they come after Velar the next time."

"Then I teach them the same lesson over again. NOBODY screws with the worlds I call home." The smile I got from both her and Kalindra almost made the last few weeks worth it. "Besides, I think we can prevent them from going on the rampage again."

"And how will you do that?"

"Easy" said the kitty-man as the darkcyl spilled its occupant into the middle of the flightdeck.

Chapter Twenty

Within and Without

The Zulm which tumbled out of the darkcyl looked about with confusion. When he saw where he was, he pivoted and came upright and slowly turned a circle. "What place is this?" he asked, and then was surprised that he had a voice. Zulm communicate electronically, so having a voice was a new and unexpected experience. Almost as unexpected as his abduction.

"In good time." answered the beast who brought him aboard the Sunbeam. "For now, you'll listen." Bob turned to Brian. "May I introduce you to the chief engineer of the station?"

The smile which appeared on Brian's face was almost evil. "An opportunity to explain their situation, huh?" Bob nodded. The Mage stepped to the Zulm and faced him. Behind Brian, the crew of the 'Beam drew weapons and aimed them at the captive cyborg. "Do you know who I am?" asked Brian. The Zulm didn't answer, but continued to look nervous and uncomfortable. For a moment, the Mage directed a 'pathed message at the Zulm. *You have heard this carrier and monitored this link?"

That brought shock to the metallic face of the hostage. "You are the Magg." he whined. Brian nodded to him.

"That's right, I am. And I believe that you know that your world is on the verge of destruction." The Zulm nodded slowly. "Good. Then you can know this too. You have the power to save your world." This brought another surprised reaction.

"How can I do this thing?" he asked.

"It's up to you to make your people understand their position. We don't want to harm you, but we cannot let your race destroy ours --even to save your own. If you are to survive, then you must find a way to do so without trading other lives for yours. Do you understand?"

"How can I do this thing? What have we left? Our star has been cast loose from its moorings, our systems are in ruin, and our enclaves are in battle. Even as I stand in this place, they kill each other."

"That's not our problem, it's yours." said Brian. "You threatened us and we responded. Now, as the saying goes, you made the bed, you can lie in it."

"I do not understand. What is this bed we have created?"

"I mean, you created this situation, so now you can un-create it. You will be released to return to your sphere, and given the chance to make your people understand what they face."

"But we must follow the Song of Seers. We must prevail." On those words, the beast threw another from the darkcyl. The dead and mangled body of the Grand Seer lay at the treads of the Zulm.

"There's your religion, dip shit" said the beast. "Would you like to see what's left of your precious Root?" The Zulm made a sucking noise and rolled backwards a few inches.

"You have done this? Why?"

Now Gregor spoke. "On my planet, more people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason. Entire families and towns have been mercilessly destroyed because they didn't think the same way that some religious big-wig thought. The penalty was death, and the need for the deaths was --well, there was no need. If your people are willing to destroy an entire race because something like ...that says you're supposed to, then you're worse than any enemy you've ever faced."

The Zulm looked at the dead body of the Seer. "If you have been able to take the life of the Grand Seer, you must be powerful. Are you gods?"

Bob stepped forward and grabbed the Zulm by its neck gimbals and jerked it into the darkcyl. Sinking through the floor, they were gone, only to reappear moments later. Again the hapless Zulm was unceremoniously tossed from the darkcyl to the floor of the flightdeck. It lay there motionless, in a state of shock. "What did you do to him?" asked Brian blandly.

"I showed him a few versions of the future. None of them were very appealing. Right about now, he feels like Scrooge after the visit from the ghost of Christmas yet to come." smiled the beast. The to the Zulm: "Get up you bucket of chips." Shaking, the Zulm rose to it's treads with the same pivot maneuver it used before. The horror was still reflected in the features of its metallic face. "At this moment, I can place you in any of a billion futures, but I'd like to see you make your own, here in this time line."

"You are gods." said the Zulm.

"And don't you fucking forget it." said Dave from across the bridge. The Zulm looked at him, then at the circle of crew that surrounded him.

"I will try." he said simply.

"You'd better do more than that" said Brian.






* * *

The Sunbeam left the orbit of the star in which it had hidden while the teams had done their work aboard the Dyson. The crew sat in their posts, watching the great sphere diminish slowly in size as it fell behind.

"It took them five tries, but they got it" said Bob. Brian nodded.

"What course?" asked Lythandi from the Nav station.

"Make for the Tipkatz star" replied Brian. "We have some apologies to make."

The beast got a distasteful look. "Oh shit. The spiders again?"

"Yes, the spiders again. But don't worry, you won't be coming down to the surface with us. I don't think they'll be ready for a kitty-man like you."

"Would you stop with the kitty-man shit?" Then, "Please?" Nek sat up a little taller on his station saddle.

"Is good idea Mage not make fun of warrior" said the gunner. The Mage smiled and made a raspberry noise, which rated a low growl from the big cat.

"Now, now, kiddies" said the beast.

"You make kitty joke too?" said the old Meenzal in amazement.

"That's kid-deez, not kit-teez." The gunners eyes narrowed, but he said nothing for a moment. Then he spoke.

"What of Jab? Him like be part of time warrior?"

"Ask him yourself" replied Bob, and stepped sideways. The entire crew gasped loudly. "What's the matter? Is my fly open or something?"

Standing side by side were Bob and Jab --the beast was gone. Bob looked over at his cat and his eyes opened wide. What his gaze met was a cat much more ancient than the old Meenzal gunner. Brian made a gesture and a reflection field appeared in front of the pair.

The pair that looked back from the mirror-like area were familiar, but not Bob and his cat. Naldantis moved swiftly to them, and just in time. Bob's legs collapsed and Naldantis caught him, lowering him to the deck gently. Taking an instrument from his kit, Nal passed it over the prone body of the ship's pilot.

"By your own calendar, you are over fifteen hundred years of age." Bob looked at the healer questioningly.

"I'm what?" he looked back at the reflection, and studied the long snow white hair that cascaded from his head --except for a large bald area on top. His white beard fell in spirals across his chest to stop at the waist.

"You look like the old drawings of Merlin" said Cali.

"Maybe he is" said Dave. "I'd believe almost anything at this point." Brian cast an impatient glance toward Dave and then looked at Nal.

"Did he start to faint, or what?" asked the Mage.

"No, his legs could not support his weight."

"But he's --skinny. What could he weigh, about ninety pounds?"

"I would estimate that, yes." The healer looked at the wrinkled face of the ship's pilot. "What is more than that, he is dying."

"What? Again?" asked Brian. There was an edge of impatience in his voice.

Jab looked at his friend and sighed audibly. "We make time go too fast" he said. "We live too fast, now go too soon."

Naldantis nodded, and looked up at Brian. "I do not know what I may do for them."

"The power is in him, not you or anyone else" came Penny's voice from a remote. "It has always been that way. Bob, if you choose to die, you will die. If you choose to live, you'll live."

"What about my cat?" asked Bob.

"You brought him with you. That's for you to decide."

"You mean that if I don't do something, Nahn will croak?"

"Yes." Penny's tone was chilled.

"Help me up" said Bob. Naldantis and Brian took him by the arms and put him on his feet. A step later, the beast stood again on the flightdeck. "Brian?" it said --it was a question.

"Find what you need to find, Bob. Find who you are." The Mage put out a hand and the beast took it. "This isn't good-bye, more like a see you later." The beast nodded, and turned its head on powerful shoulders to look at the crew, one at a time.

"Later" said the beast, and descended through the deck in a cylinder of darkness.

Brian watched the void disappear, then said "Engage the GALA..." he looked at the empty pilot's chair, caught himself and took the vacant position. "Hyperspace in three, two, one..."

On the sphere, the engineer watched the Sunbeam elongate and then slingshot out of sight.

Chapter Twenty One

As our heroes ride off into the sunset...

"Hey Brian, the Tipkatz want to..." and Gregor swallowed the rest as I waved him back out of my room.

"Yeah, that sounds like Bob" I told Karen as she looked back at me from the comm panel with one of those 'what happened this time' looks. "He's going to work out when he is in his own way."

"But showing up as an 8 year old holding a kitten?" she yelled.

"Hey, I didn't do a thing this time! Don't yell at me, yell at Bob!"

"I didn't have time. He showed up, cussed a blue streak, then vanished again."

"Well at least he's getting a handle on his problem. Imagine what your life would have been like had he shown up as a baby!"

"I'd have stuffed him out the airlock. I've raised all the kids I can take for one lifetime" she replied in disgust. "Why do you two get into so much trouble?"

"Just lucky I guess" I sighed. "And don't tell me about kids. I'm having enough anxiety pangs as it is."

"About three months to go isn't it?"

"Three long, painful, loud..." <whap> I grabbed the pillow Kalindra had thrown at my head and tossed it over my shoulder back at her. "I'm having so much fun I could kill myself."

"You've done that already this month" came the snide remark from the bed. Karen just grinned and listened as I got informed in great detail how uncomfortable the bed was, that the temperature of our cabin was to warm, and that I was supposed to be massaging the kinks out of my mates neck. The look I gave Karen before I signed off let her know exactly what my hands were going to do when I got them around Kal's neck.

"I'll trade you places anytime."

"No, I'll keep the kids and leave you to your fun" snickered Karen.

"I'll call if Bob shows up either here or back home" and I stuck my tongue out at the screen. Karen just laughed and signed off with a <click>.

"Ok, what did I do wrong this time?" I asked as I turned around to face Kalindra. We'd been in orbit around Katz 4 for a few weeks now while Gregor and I smoothed things over and got everything on track again. Being idle though had left the crew with time on their hands and Kalindra had started getting more irritable as time passed. I reminded myself what I was going to do to Wythdantis the next time I saw her and waited for Kal to answer.

"This room is too hot!"

I glanced at the controls on the wall and noted that the temp was set for a cool 60 degrees. "I can't help the fact that you're having problems staying cool. What do you expect me to do? You're in a closed environment, you've added a bit of mass that needs cooling, and you're wearing a fur coat!" She just sat there and glared at me. "Ok, I'll see what I can do..." and I ducked out of our cabin to see what Gregor had wanted.

"I hope you have some good news" I told him as I caught up with him on the flightdeck.

"Well, it isn't bad news."

"That'll do" I grinned as I collapsed into my chair.

"The Tipkatz have accepted the Valence and want to know what we want for it, and the technical specs."

My mood brightened considerably. I'd opened a Gate and drawn the Valence through it about a week ago. Since then the Tipkatz had been swarming all over it trying to decide whether they could modify it for their own use.

"Would they have about a dozen air-conditioners?"


"Bad joke" I said as I shook my head. Glancing out the port I could see the Valence where it hung in orbit about a mile off our port side. "They understand that the engine design stays a secret for the time being?"

"Yes, although they hope to change our minds."

"They are welcome to try." I thought about it for a moment. "Tell them they can have the ship if they give us space on their station to open a trade and diplomatic office."

Gregor looked at me like I'd lost my mind again. A look I was getting used to seeing, but would never like seeing. "That ship has to be worth a fortune!"

"To who? It was designed for a human crew, but the only humans in space presently already have a ship. We didn't spend a cent on its construction because the materials were available from the asteroid belt and we already had the construction facilities. If we don't give it away, it'll just gather dust in orbit someplace."

Gregor thought about it for a moment the nodded as he at least understood my point. "Anything else?"

"Let them know that the office will be the focal point for a Gate and that use of it will be restricted to people I think need access. Commerce goes via normal space or not at all. If they aren't interested in going to the trouble to fly there, they must not be interested enough to trade with whoever lives at the destination."

"I'll pass on the price, but I don't expect they will object."

I looked out the port at the Valence and noted that parts of the hull were already being opened to space. "They better not given that they seem to be starting work already." Gregor looked out the port and let out a yell.

"Damnit, I told them to wait until..." and his voice faded as he ran down the corridor towards the shuttle bay. I waited until the shuttle cleared the port wing then headed back to our cabin.

"It's about time you got back. What have you decided to do about the temperature in here?"

"It's nice to see you also" I sighed as the door finished opening. "As for the cabin, I'm not going to do a thing. I have however found a way to cool you off" I yelled as Kal had grabbed another pillow.

"That being?" she asked as she eye'd me in distrust.

"I'm taking you home to Velar and I'm going to throw you into the largest mountain lake I can find. That ought to cool you off!" and I ducked the pillow that slammed into the wall behind me. "Get it out of your system now because if you act up around the crew I'll paddle your tail until you won't be able to sit down."

"Just you wait until our son is born! When I can concentrate again I'll fry that hairless hide of yours to a crisp! There won't be a place..." and I closed the door to our cabin to get out of earshot. One of the few things I could be thankful for was that being pregnant had fouled Kal's concentration to the point where all but the simplest spell was beyond her. I liked to think it was an evolutionary adaptation that had kept Velan Mages from killing their mates at an early age. It certainly had kept me from becoming a decoration on our cabin wall more than once.

%Don't think you can walk out on me! If I have to be miserable you are going to share every moment! And fix me something to eat as long as...%

It was two days before the Tipkatz gave us room for our embassy in the central core of their station. By the time I got Kalindra home I was ready to go visit the Zulm just to be somewhere peaceful.