How strange, that such an insignificant little world should come to matter so much.
Traffic roared amid the towers of Capital City, just beyond the sealed crystal dome of the official palanquin. But no sound penetrated to disturb the bureaucrat of Cost and Caution, who concentrated only on the holo-image of a small planet, turning slowly within reach of one down-covered arm. Blue seas and a jewel-bright spray of islands came into view as the bureaucrat watched, sparkling in the reflected glow of an out-of-view star.
If I were one of the gods spoken of in wolfling legends... the bureaucrat imagined. Its pinions flexed. There was the feeling one had only to reach out with a talon and seize...
But no. The absurd idea demonstrated that the bureaucrat had spent too much time studying the enemy. Crazy Terran concepts were infecting its mind.
Two downy aides fluttered quietly nearby, preening the bureaucrat's feathers and bright torc for the appointment ahead. They were ignored. Aircars and floater barges darted aside and regimented lanes of traffic melted away before the bright beacon of the official vehicle. This was status normally accorded only royalty, but within the palanquin all went on unnoticed as the bureaucrat's heavy beak lowered toward the holo-image.
Garth. So many times the victim.
The outlines of brown continents and shallow blue seas lay partly smeared under pinwheel stormclouds, as deceptively white and soft to the eye as a Gubru's plumage. Along just one chain of islands — and at a single point at the edge of the largest continent — shone the lights of a few small cities. Everywhere else the world appeared untouched, perturbed only by occasional flickering strokes of stormbrewed lightning.
Strings of code symbols told a darker truth. Garth was a poor place, a bad risk. Why else had the wolfling humans and their clients been granted a colony leasehold there? The place had been written off by the Galactic Institutes long ago.
And now, unhappy little world, you have been chosen as a site for war.
For practice, the bureaucrat of Cost and Caution thought in Anglic, the beastly, unsanctioned language of the Earthling creatures. Most Gubru considered the study of alien things an unwholesome pastime, but now the bureaucrat's obsession seemed about to pay off at last.
At last. Today.
The palanquin had threaded past the great towers of Capital City, and a mammoth edifice of opalescent stone now seemed to rise just ahead. The Conclave Arena, seat of government of all the Gubru race and clan.
Nervous, anticipatory shivers flowed down the bureaucrat's head-crest all the way to its vestigial flight feathers, bringing forth chirps of complaint from the two Kwackoo aides. How could they finish preening the bureaucrat's fine white feathers, they asked, or buff its long, hooked beak, if it didn't sit still?
"I comprehend, understand, will comply," the bureaucrat answered indulgently in Standard Galactic Language Number Three. These Kwackoo were loyal creatures, to be allowed some minor impertinences. For distraction, the bureaucrat returned to thoughts of the small planet, Garth.
It is the most defenseless Earthling outpost... the one most easily taken hostage. That is why the military pushed for this operation, even while we are hard-pressed elsewhere in space. This will strike deeply at the wolflings, and we may thereby coerce them to yield what we want.
After the armed forces, the priesthood had been next to agree to the plan. Recently the Guardians of Propriety had ruled that an invasion could be undertaken without any loss of honor.
That left the Civil Service — the third leg of the Perch of Command. And there consensus had broken. The bureaucrat's superiors in the Department of Cost and Caution had demurred. The plan was too risky, they declared. Too expensive.
A perch cannot stand long on two legs. There must be consensus. There must be compromise.
There are times when a nest cannot avoid taking risks.
The mountainous Conclave Arena became a cliff of dressed stone, covering half the sky. A cavernous opening loomed, then swallowed the palanquin. With a quiet murmur the small vessel's gravitics shut down and the canopy lifted. A crowd of Gubru in the normal white plumage of adult neuters already waited at the foot of the landing apron.
They know, the bureaucrat thought, regarding them with its right eye. They know I am already no longer one of them.
In its other eye the bureaucrat caught a last glimpse of the white-swaddled blue globe. Garth.
Soon, the bureaucrat thought in Anglic. We shall meet soon.
The Conclave Arena was a riot of color. And such colors! Feathers shimmered everywhere in the royal hues, crimson, amber, and arsene blue.
Two four-footed Kwackoo servants opened a ceremonial portal for the bureaucrat of Cost and Caution, who momentarily had to stop and hiss in awe at the grandeur of the Arena. Hundreds of perches lined the terraced walls, crafted in delicate, ornate beauty out of costly woods imported from a hundred worlds. And all around, in regal splendor, stood the Roost Masters of the Gubru race.
No matter how well it had prepared for today, the bureaucrat could not help feeling deeply moved. Never had it seen so many queens and princes at one time!
To an alien, there might seem little to distinguish the bureaucrat from its lords. All were tall, slender descendants of flightless birds. To the eye, only the Roost Masters' striking colored plumage set them apart from the majority of the race. More important differences lay underneath, however. These, after all, were queens and princes, possessed of gender and the proven right to command.
Nearby Roost Masters turned their sharp beaks aside in order to watch with one eye as the bureaucrat of Cost and Caution hurried through a quick, mincing dance of ritual abasement.
Such colors! Love rose within the bureaucrat's downy breast, a hormonal surge triggered by those royal hues. It was an ancient, instinctive response, and no Gubru had ever proposed changing it. Not even after they had learned the art of gene-altering and become starfarers. Those of the race who achieved the ultimate — color and gender — had to be worshipped and obeyed by those who were still white and neuter.
It was the very heart of what it meant to be Gubru.
It was good. It was the way.
The bureaucrat noticed that two other white-plumed Gubru had also entered the Arena through neighboring doors. They joined the bureaucrat upon the central platform. Together the three of them took low perches facing the assembled Roost Masters.
The one on the right was draped in a silvery robe and bore around its narrow white throat the striped torc of priesthood.
The candidate on the left wore the sidearm and steel talon guards of a military officer. The tips of its crest feathers were dyed to show the rank of stoop-colonel.
Aloof, the other two white-plumed Gubru did not turn to acknowledge the bureaucrat. Nor did the bureaucrat offer any sign of recognizing them. Nevertheless, it felt a thrill. We are three!
The President of the Conclave — an aged queen whose once fiery plumage had now faded to a pale pinkish wash — fluffed her feathers and opened her beak. The Arena's acoustics automatically amplified her voice as she chirped for attention. On all sides the other queens and princes fell silent.
The Conclave President raised one slender, down-covered arm. Then she began to croon and sway. One by one, the other Roost Masters joined in, and soon the crowd of blue, amber, and crimson forms was rocking with her. From the royal assemblage there rose a low, atonal moaning.
"Since time immemorial," the President chirped in formal Galactic Three. "Since before our glory, since before our patronhood, since before even our Uplift into sentience, it has been our way to seek balance."
The assembly chanted in counter rhythm.
"Balance on the ground's brown seams,
Balance in the rough air streams,
Balance in our greatest schemes."
"Back when our ancestors were still pre-sentient beasts, back before our Gooksyu patrons found us and uplifted us to knowledge, back before we even spoke or knew tools, we had already learned this wisdom, this way of coming to decision, this way of coming to consensus, this way of making love."
"As half-animals, our ancestors still knew that we must... must choose... must choose three."
"One to hunt and strike with daring,
for glory and for territory!
One to seek the righteous bearing,
for purity and propriety!
One to warn of danger looming,
for our eggs' security!"
The bureaucrat of Cost and Caution sensed the other two candidates on either side and knew they were just as electrically aware, just as caught up in tense expectation. There was no greater honor than to be chosen as the three of them had been.
Of course all young Gubru were taught that this way was best, for what other species so beautifully combined politics and philosophy with lovemaking and reproduction? The system had served their race and clan well for ages. It had brought them to the heights of power in Galactic society.
And now it may have brought us to the brink of ruin.
Perhaps it was sacrilegious even to imagine it, but the bureaucrat of Cost and Caution could not help wondering if one of the other methods it had studied might not be better after all. It had read of so many styles of government used by other races and clans — autarchies and aristocracies, technocracies and democracies, syndicates and meritocracies. Might not one of those actually be a better way of judging the right path in a dangerous universe?
The idea might be irreverent, but such unconventional thinking was the reason certain Roost Masters had singled out the bureaucrat for a role of destiny. Over the days and months ahead, someone among the three would have to be the doubting one. That was ever the role of Cost and Caution.
"In this way, we strike a balance. In this way, we seek consensus. In this way, we resolve conflict."
"Zooon!" agreed the gathered queens and princes.
Much negotiation had gone into selecting each of the candidates, one from the military, one from the priestly orders, and one from the Civil Service. If all worked out well, a new queen and two new princes would emerge from the molting ahead. And along with a vital new line of eggs for the race would also come a new policy, one arising out of the merging of their views.
That was how it was supposed to end. The beginning, however, was another matter. Fated eventually to be lovers, the three would from the start also he competitors. Adversaries.
For there could be only one queen.
"We send forth this trio on a vital mission. A mission of conquest. A mission of coercion.
"We send them also in search of unity... in search of agreement... in search of consensus, to unite us in these troubled times."
In the eager chorus could be felt the Conclave's desperate wish for resolution, for an end to bitter disagreements. The three candidates were to lead just one of many battle forces sent forth by the clan of the Gooksyu-Gubru. But clearly the Roost Masters had special hopes for this triumvirate.
Kwackoo servitors offered shining goblets to each candidate. The bureaucrat of Cost and Caution lifted one and drank deeply. The fluid felt like golden fire going down.
First taste of the Royal Liquor...
As expected, it had a flavor like nothing else imaginable. Already, the three candidates' white plumage seemed to glisten with a shimmering promise of color to come.
We shall struggle together, and eventually one of us shall molt amber. One shall molt blue.
And one, presumably the strongest, the one with the best policy, would win the ultimate prize.
A prize fated to be mine. For it was said to have all been arranged in advance. Caution had to win the upcoming consensus. Careful analysis had shown that the alternatives would be unbearable.
"You shall go forth, then," the Conclave President sang. "You three new Suzerains of our race and of our clan. You shall go forth and win conquest. You shall go forth and humble the wolfling heretics."
"Zooooon!" the assembly cheered.
The President's beak lowered toward her breast, as if she were suddenly exhausted. Then, the new Suzerain of Cost and Caution faintly heard her add, "You shall go forth and try your best to save us...."
Let them uplift us, shoulder high. Then we will see over their heads to the several promised lands, from which we have come, and to which we trust to go.
— W. B. Yeats
There had never been such traffic at Port Helenia's sleepy landing field — not in all the years Fiben Bolger had lived here. The mesa overlooking Aspinal Bay reverberated with the numbing, infrasonic growl of engines. Dust plumes obscured the launching pits, but that did not prevent spectators from gathering along the peripheral fence to watch all the excitement. Those with a touch of psi talent could tell whenever a starship was about to lift off. Waves of muzzy uncertainty, caused by leaky gravitics, made a few onlookers blink quickly moments before another great-strutted spacecraft rose above the haze and lumbered off into the cloud-dappled sky.
The noise and stinging dust frayed tempers. It was even worse for those standing out on the tarmac, and especially bad for those forced to be there against their will.
Fiben certainly would much rather have been just about anywhere else, preferably in a pub applying pints of liquid anesthetic. But that was not to be.
He observed the frenetic activity cynically. We're a sinking ship, he thought. And all th' rats are saying a'dieu.
Everything able to space and warp was departing Garth in indecent haste. Soon, the landing field would be all but empty.
Until the enemy arrives... whoever it turns out to be.
"Pssst. Fiben. Quit fidgeting!"
Fiben glanced to his right. The chim stand next to him in formation looked nearly as uncomfortable as Fiben felt. Simon Levin's dress uniform cap was turning dark just above his bony eye ridges, where damp brown fur curled under the rim. With his eyes, Simon mutely urged Fiben to straighten up and look forward.
Fiben sighed. He knew he should try to stand at attention. The ceremony for the departing dignitary was nearly over, and a member of the Planetary Honor Guard wasn't supposed to slouch.
But his gaze kept drifting over toward the southern end of the mesa, far from the commercial terminal and the departing freighters. Over there, uncamouflaged, lay an uneven row of drab, black cigar shapes with the blocky look of fighting craft. Several of the small scoutboats shimmered as technicians crawled over them, tuning their detectors and shields for the coming battle.
Fiben wondered if Command had already decided which craft he was to fly. Perhaps they would let the half-trained Colonial Militia pilots draw lots to see who would get the most decrepit of the ancient war machines, recently purchased cut-rate off a passing Xatinni scrap dealer.
With his left hand Fiben tugged at the stiff collar of his uniform and scratched the thick hair below his collarbone. Old ain't necessarily bad, he reminded himself. Go into battle aboard a thousand-year-old tub, and at least you know it can take punishment.
Most of those battered scoutboats had seen action out on the starlanes before human beings ever heard of Galactic civilization... before they had even begun playing with gunpowder rockets, singeing their fingers and scaring the birds back on homeworld Earth.
The image made Fiben smile briefly. It wasn't the most respectful thing to think about one's patron race. But then, humans hadn't exactly brought his people up to be reverent.
Jeez, this monkey suit itches! Naked apes like humans may be able to take this, but we hairy types just aren't built to wear this much clothing!
At least the ceremony for the departing Synthian Consul seemed to be nearing completion. Swoio Shochuhun — that pompous ball of fur and whiskers — was finishing her speech of farewell to the tenants of Garth Planet, the humans and chims she was leaving to their fate. Fiben scratched his chin again, wishing the little windbag would just climb into her launch and get the hell out of here, if she was in such a hurry to be going.
An elbow jabbed him in the ribs. Simon muttered urgently. "Straighten up, Fiben. Her Nibs is looking this way!"
Over among the dignitaries Megan Oneagle, the gray-haired Planetary Coordinator, pursed her lips and gave Fiben a quick shake of her head.
Aw, hell, he thought.
Megan's son, Robert, had been a classmate of Fiben's at Garth's small university. Fiben arched an eyebrow as if to say to the human administrator that he hadn't asked to serve on this dubious honor guard. And anyway, if humans had wanted clients who didn't scratch themselves, they never should have uplifted chimpanzees.
He fixed his collar though, and tried to straighten his posture. Form was nearly everything to these Galactics, and Fiben knew that even a lowly neo-chimp had to play his part, or the clan of Earth might lose face.
On either side of Coordinator Oneagle stood the other dignitaries who had come to see Swoio Shochuhun off. To Megan's left was Kault, the hulking Thennanin envoy, leathery and resplendent in his brilliant cape and towering ridge crest. The breathing slits in his throat opened and closed like louvered blinds each time the big-jawed creature inhaled.
To Megan's right stood a much more humanoid figure, slender and long-limbed, who slouched slightly, almost insouciantly in the afternoon sunshine.
Uthacalthing's amused by something. Fiben could tell. So what else is new?
Of course Ambassador Uthacalthing thought everything was funny. In his posture, in the gently waving silvery tendrils that floated above his small ears, and in the glint in his golden, wide-cast eyes, the pale Tymbrimi envoy seemed to say what could not be spoken aloud — something just short of insulting to the departing Synthian diplomat.
Swoio Shochuhun sleeked back her whiskers before stepping forward to say farewell to each of her colleagues in turn. Watching her make ornate formal paw motions in front of Kault, Fiben was struck by how much she resembled a large, rotund raccoon, dressed up like some ancient, oriental courtier.
Kault, the huge Thennanin, puffed up his crest as he bowed in response. The two uneven-sized Galactics exchanged pleasantries in fluting, highly inflected Galactic Six. Fiben knew that there was little love to be lost between them.
"Well, you can't choose your friends, can you?" Simon whispered.
"Damn right," Fiben agreed.
It was ironic. The furry, canny Synthians were among Earth's few "allies" in the political and military quagmire of the Five Galaxies. But they were also fantastically self-centered and famous cowards. Swoio's departure as much as guaranteed there would be no armadas of fat, furry warriors coming to Garth's aid in her hour of need.
Just like there won't be any help from Earth, nor Tymbrim, them having enough problems of their own right now.
Fiben understood GalSix well enough to follow some of what the big Thennanin said to Swoio. Kault apparently did not think much of ambassadors who skip out on their posts.
Give the Thennanin that much, Fiben thought, Kault's folk might be fanatics. Certainly they were listed among Earth's present official enemies. Nevertheless, they were known everywhere for their courage and severe sense of honor.
No, you can't always choose your friends, or your enemies.
Swoio stepped over to face Megan Oneagle. The Synthians bow was marginally shallower than the one she had given Kault. After all, humans ranked pretty low among the patron races of the galaxy.
And you know what that makes you, Fiben reminded himself.
Megan bowed in return. "I am sorry to see you go," she told Swoio in thickly accented GalSix. "Please pass on to your people our gratitude for their good wishes."
"Right," Fiben muttered. "Tell all th' other raccoons thanks a whole bunch." He wore a blank expression, though, when Colonel Maiven, the human commander of the Honor Guard, looked sharply his way.
Swoio's reply was filled with platitudes.
Be patient, she urged. The Five Galaxies are in turmoil right now. The fanatics among the great powers are causing so much trouble because they think the Millennium, the end of a great era, is at hand. They are the first to act.
Meanwhile, the moderates and the Galactic Institutes must move slower, more judiciously. But act they would, she assured. In due time. Little Garth would not be forgotten.
Sure, Fiben thought sarcastically. Why, help might be no more'n a century or two away!
The other chims in the Honor Guard glanced at one other and rolled their eyes in disgust. The human officers were more reserved, but Fiben saw that one was rotating his tongue firmly in his cheek.
Swoio stopped at last before the senior member of the diplomatic corps, Uthacalthing Man-Friend, the consul-ambassador from the Tymbrimi.
The tall E.T. wore a loose black robe that offset his pale skin. Uthacalthing's mouth was small, and the unearthly separation between his shadowed eyes seemed very wide. Nevertheless, the humanoid impression was quite strong. It always seemed to Fiben as if the representative of Earth's greatest ally was always on the verge of laughing at some joke, great or small. Uthacalthing — with his narrow scalp-ruff of soft, brown fur bordered by waving, delicate tendrils — with his long, delicate hands and ready humor — was the solitary being on this mesa who seemed untouched by the tension of the day. The Tymbrimi's ironic smile affected Fiben, momentarily lifting his spirits.
Finally! Fiben sighed in relief. Swoio appeared to be finished at last. She turned and strode up the ramp toward her waiting launch. With a sharp command Colonel Maiven brought the Guard to attention. Fiben started mentally counting the number of steps to shade and a cool drink.
But it was too soon to relax. Fiben wasn't the only one to groan low as the Synthian turned at the top of the ramp to address the onlookers one more time.
Just what occurred then — and in exactly what order — would perplex Fiben for a long time afterward. But it appeared that, just as the first fluting tones of GalSix left Swoio's mouth, something bizarre happened across the landing field. Fiben felt a scratchiness at the back of his eyeballs and glanced to the left, just in time to see a lambency shimmer around one of the scoutboats. Then the tiny craft seemed to explode.
He did not recall diving to the tarmac, but that's where he found himself next, trying to burrow into the tough, rubbery surface. What is it? An enemy attack so soon?
He heard Simon snort violently. Then a chorus of sneezes followed. Blinking away dust, Fiben peered and saw that the little scoutcraft still existed. It hadn't blown up, after all!
But its fields were out of control. They coruscated in a deafening, blinding display of light and sound. Shield-suited engineers scurried to shut down the boat's malfunctioning probability generator, but not before the noisome display had run everyone nearby through all the senses they had, from touch and taste all the way to smell and psi.
"Whooee!" the chimmie to Fiben's left whistled, holding her nose uselessly. "Who set off a stinkbomb!"
In a flash Fiben knew, with uncanny certainty, that she had called it right. He rolled over quickly, in time to see the Synthian Ambassador, her nose wrinkled in disgust and whiskers curled in shame, scamper into her ship, abandoning all dignity. The hatch clanged shut.
Someone found the right switch at last and cut off the horrible overload, leaving only a fierce aftertaste and a ringing in his ears. The members of the Honor Guard stood up, dusting themselves and muttering irritably. Some humans and chims still quivered, blinking and yawning vigorously. Only the stolid, oblivious Thennanin Ambassador seemed unaffected. In fact, Kault appeared perplexed over this unusual Earthling behavior.
A stinkbomb. Fiben nodded. It was somebody's idea of a practical joke.
And I think I know whose.
Fiben looked closely at Uthacalthing. He stared at the being who had been named Man-Friend and recalled how the slender Tymbrimi had smiled as Swoio, the pompous little Synthian, launched into her final speech. Yes, Fiben would be willing to swear on a copy of Darwin that at that very moment, just before the scout boat malfunctioned, Uthacalthing's crown of silvery tendrils had lifted and the ambassador had smiled as if in delicious anticipation.
Fiben shook his head. For all of their renowned psychic senses, no Tymbrimi could have caused such an accident by sheer force of will.
Not unless it had been arranged in advance, that is.
The Synthian launch rose upward on a blast of air and skimmed out across the field to a safe distance. Then, in a high whine of gravitics, the glittering craft swept upward to meet the clouds.
At Colonel Maiven's command, the Honor Guard snapped to attention one last time. The Planetary Coordinator and her two remaining envoys passed in review.
It might have been his imagination, but Fiben felt sure that for an instant Uthacalthing slowed right in front of him. Fiben was certain one of those wide, silver-rimmed eyes looked directly at him.
And the other one winked.
Fiben sighed. Very funny, he thought, hoping the Tymbrimi emissary would pick up the sarcasm in his mind. We all may be smokin' dead meat in a week's time, and you're making with practical jokes.
Very funny, Uthacalthing.
Tendrils wafted alongside her head, ungentle in their agitation. Athaclena let her frustration and anger fizz like static electricity at the tips of the silvery strands. Their ends waved as if of their own accord, like slender fingers, shaping her almost palpable resentment into something...
Nearby, one of the humans awaiting an audience with the Planetary Coordinator sniffed the air and looked around, puzzled. He moved away from Athaclena, without quite knowing why he felt uncomfortable all of a sudden. He was probably a natural, if primitive, empath. Some men and women were able vaguely to kenn Tymbrimi empathy-glyphs, though few ever had the training to interpret anything more than vague emotions.
Someone else also noticed what Athaclena was doing. Across the public room, standing amid a small crowd of humans, her father lifted his head suddenly. His own corona of tendrils remained smooth and undisturbed, but Uthacalthing cocked his head and turned slightly to regard her, his expression both quizzical and slightly amused.
It might have been similar if a human parent had caught his daughter in the act of kicking the sofa, or muttering to herself sullenly. The frustration at the core was very nearly the same, except that Athaclena expressed it through her Tymbrimi aura rather than an outward tantrum. At her father's glance she hurriedly drew back her waving tendrils and wiped away the ugly sense-glyph she had been crafting overhead.
That did not erase her resentment, however. In this crowd of Earthlings it was hard to forget. Caricatures, was Athaclena's contemptuous thought, knowing full well it was both unkind and unfair. Of course Earthlings couldn't help being what they were — one of the strangest tribes to come upon the Galactic scene in aeons. But that did not mean she had to like them!
It might have helped if they were more alien... less like hulking, narrow-eyed, awkward versions of Tymbrimi. Wildly varied in color and hairiness, eerily off in their body proportions, and so often dour and moody, they frequently left Athaclena feeling depressed after too long a time spent in their company.
Another thought unbecoming the daughter of a diplomat. She chided herself and tried to redirect her mind. After all, the humans could not be blamed for radiating their fear right now, with a war they hadn't chosen about to fall crushingly upon them.
She watched her father laugh at something said by one of the Earthling officers and wondered how he did it. How he bore it so well.
I'll never learn that easy, confident manner.
I'll never be able to make him proud of me.
Athaclena wished Uthacalthing would finish up with these Terrans so she could speak to him alone. In a few minutes Robert Oneagle would arrive to pick her up, and she wanted to have one more try at persuading her father not to send her away with the young human.
I can be useful. I know I can! I don't have to be coddled off into the mountains for safety, like some child!
Quickly she clamped down before another glyph-of-resentment could form above her head. She needed distraction, something to keep her mind occupied while she waited. Restraining her emotions, Athaclena stepped quietly toward two human officers standing nearby, heads lowered in earnest conversation. They were speaking Anglic, the most commonly used Earth-tongue.
"Look," the first one said. "All we really know is that one of Earth's survey ships stumbled onto something weird and totally unexpected, out in one of those ancient star clusters on the galactic fringe."
"But what was it?" the other militiaman asked. "What did they find? You're in alien studies, Alice. Don't you have any idea what those poor dolphins uncovered that could stir up such a ruckus?"
The female Earthman shrugged. "Search me. But it didn't take anything more than the hints in the Streaker's first beamed report to set the most fanatic clans in the Five Galaxies Fighting each other at a level that hasn't been seen in megayears. The latest dispatches say some of the skirmishes have gotten pretty damn rough. You saw how scared that Synthian looked a week ago, before she decided to pull out."
The other man nodded gloomily. Neither human spoke for a long moment. Their tension was a thing which arched the space between them. Athaclena kenned it as a simple but dark glyph of uncertain dread.
"It's something big," the first officer said at last, in a low voice. This may really be it."
Athaclena moved away when she sensed the humans begin to take notice of her. Since arriving here in Garth she had been altering her normal body form, changing her figure and features to resemble more closely those of a human girl. Nevertheless, there were limits to what such manipulations could accomplish, even using Tymbrimi body-imagery methods. There was no way really to disguise who she was. If she had stayed, inevitably, the humans would have asked her a Tymbrimi's opinion of the current crisis, and she was loathe to tell Earthlings that she really knew no more than they did.
Athaclena found the situation bitterly ironic. Once again, the races of Earth were in the spotlight, as they had been ever since the notorious "Sundiver" affair, two centuries ago. This time an interstellar crisis had been sparked by the first starship ever put under command of neo-dolphins.
Mankind's second client race was no more than two centuries old — younger even than the neo-chimpanzees. How the cetacean spacers would ever find a way out of the mess they had inadvertently created was anyone's guess. But the repercussions were already spreading halfway across the Central Galaxy, all the way to isolated colony worlds such as Garth.
She whirled. Uthacalthing stood at her elbow, looking down at her with an air of benign concern. "Are you all right, daughter?"
She felt so small in Uthacalthing's presence. Athaclena couldn't help being intimidated, however gentle he always was. His art and discipline were so great that she hadn't even sensed his approach until he touched the sleeve of her robe! Even now, all that could be kenned from his complex aura was the whirling empathy-glyph called caridouo... a father's love.
"Yes, Father. I... I am fine."
"Good. Are you all packed and ready for your expedition then?"
His words were in Anglic. She answered in Tymbrim-dialect Galactic Seven.
"Father, I do not wish to go into the mountains with Robert Oneagle."
Uthacalthing frowned. "I had thought that you and Robert were friends."
Athaclena's nostrils flared in frustration. Why was Uthacalthing purposely misunderstanding her? He had to know that the son of the Planetary Coordinator was unobjectionable as a companion. Robert was as close to a friend as she had among the young humans of Port Helenia.
"It is partly for Robert's sake that I urge you to reconsider," she told her father. "He is shamed at being ordered to 'nursemaid' me, as they say, while his comrades and classmates are all in the militia preparing for war. And I certainly cannot blame him for his resentment."
When Uthacalthing started to speak she hurried on. "Also, I do not wish to leave you, Father. I reiterate my earlier arguments-of-logic, when I explained how I might be useful to you in the weeks ahead. And now I add to them this offering, as well."
With great care she concentrated on crafting the glyph she had composed earlier in the day. She had named it ke'ipathye... a plea, out of love, to be allowed to face danger at love's side. Her tendrils trembled above her ears, and the construct quavered slightly over her head as it began to rotate. Finally though, it stabilized. She sent it drifting over toward her fathers aura. At that moment, Athaclena did not even care that they were in a room crowded with hulking, smooth-browed humans and their furry little chim clients. All that mattered in the world was the two of them, and the bridge she so longed to build across this void.
Ke'ipathye fell into Uthacalthing's waiting tendrils and spun there, brightening in his appreciation. Briefly, Athaclena gasped at its sudden beauty, which she knew had now grown far beyond her own simple art.
Then the glyph tell, like a gentle fog of morning dew, to coat and shine along her father's corona.
"Such a fine gift." His voice was soft, and she knew he had been moved.
But... She knew, all at once, that his resolve was unshifted.
"I offer you a kenning of my own," he said to her. And from his sleeve he withdrew a small gilt box with a silver clasp. "Your mother, Mathicluanna, wished for you to have this when you were ready to declare yourself of age. Although we had not yet spoken of a date, I judge that now is the time for you to have it."
Athaclena blinked, suddenly lost in a whirl of confused emotions. How often had she longed to know what her dead mother had left in her legacy? And yet, right now the small locket might have been a poison-beetle for all the will she had to pick it up.
Uthacalthing would not be doing this if he thought it likely they would meet again.
She hissed in realization. "You're planning to fight!"
Uthacalthing actually shrugged... that human gesture of momentary indifference. "The enemies of the humans are mine as well, daughter. The Earthlings are bold, but they are only wolflings after all. They will need my help."
There was finality in his voice, and Athaclena knew that any further word of protest would accomplish nothing but to make her look foolish in his eyes. Their hands met around the locket, long fingers intertwining, and they walked silently out of the room together. It seemed, for a short span, as if they were not two but three, for the locket carried something of Mathicluanna. The moment was both sweet and painful.
Neo-chimp militia guards snapped to attention and opened the doors for them as they stepped out of the Ministry Building and into the clear, early spring sunshine. Uthacalthing accompanied Athaclena down to the curbside, where her backpack awaited her. Their hands parted, and Athaclena was left grasping her mother's locket.
"Here comes Robert, right on time," Uthacalthing said, shading his eyes. "His mother calls him unpunctual. But I have never known him to be late for anything that mattered."
A battered floater wagon approached along the long gravel driveway, rolling past limousines and militia staff cars. Uthacalthing turned back to his daughter, "Do try to enjoy the Mountains of Mulun. I have seen them. They are quite beautiful. Look at this as an opportunity, Athaclena."
She nodded. "I shall do as you asked, Father. I'll spend the time improving my grasp of Anglic and of wolfling emotional patterns."
"Good. And keep your eyes open for any signs or traces of the legendary Garthlings."
Athadena frowned. Her father's late interest in odd wolfling folk tales had lately begun to resemble a fixation. And yet, one could never tell when Uthacalthing was being serious or simply setting up a complicated jest.
"I'll watch out for signs, though the creatures are certainly mythical."
Uthacalthing smiled. "I must go now. My love will travel with you. It will be a bird, hovering" — he motioned with his hands — "just over your shoulder."
His tendrils touched hers briefly, and then he was gone, striding back up the steps to rejoin the worried colonials. Athaclena was left standing there, wondering why, in parting, Uthacalthing had used such a bizarre human metaphor.
How can love be a bird?
Sometimes Uthacalthing was so strange it frightened even her.
There was a crunching of gravel as the floater car settled down at the curb nearby. Robert Oneagle, the dark-haired young human who was to be her partner-in-exile, grinned and waved from behind the machine's tiller, hut it was easy to tell that his cheery demeanor was superficial, put on for her benefit. Deep down, Robert was nearly as unhappy about this trip as she was. Fate — and the imperious rule of adults — had thrown the two of them together in a direction neither of them would have chosen.
The crude glyph Athaclena formed — invisible to Robert — was little more than a sigh of resignation and defeat. But she kept up appearances with a carefully arranged Earthling-type smile of her own.
"Hello, Robert," she said, and picked up her pack.
The Suzerain of Propriety fluffed its feathery down, displaying at the roots of its still-white plumage the shimmering glow that foretold royalty. Proudly, the Suzerain of Propriety hopped up onto the Perch of Pronouncement and chirped for attention.
The battleships of the Expeditionary Force were still in interspace, between the levels of the world. Battle was not imminent for some time yet. Because of this, the Suzerain of Propriety was still dominant and could interrupt the activities of the flagship's crew.
Across the bridge, the Suzerain of Beam and Talon looked up from its own Perch of Command. The admiral shared with the Suzerain of Propriety the bright plumage of dominance. Nevertheless, there was no question of interfering when a religious pronouncement was about to be made. The admiral at once interrupted the stream of orders it had been chirping to subordinates and shifted into a stance of attentive reverence.
All through the bridge the noisy clamor of Gubru engineers and spacers quieted to a low chittering. Their four-footed Kwackoo clients ceased their cooing as well and settled down to listen.
Still the Suzerain of Propriety waited. It would not be proper to begin until all Three were present.
A hatchway dilated. In stepped the last of the masters of the expedition, the third member of the triarchy. As appropriate, the Suzerain of Cost and Caution wore the black torc of suspicion and doubt as it entered and found a comfortable perch, followed by a small covey of its accountants and bureaucrats.
For a moment their eyes met across the bridge. The tension among the Three had already begun, and it would grow in the weeks and months ahead, until the day when consensus was finally achieved — when they molted and a new queen emerged.
It was thrilling, sexual, exhilarating. None of them knew how it would end. Beam and Talon started with an advantage, of course, since this expedition would begin in battle. But that dominance did not have to last.
This moment, for instance, was clearly one for the priesthood.
All beaks turned as the Suzerain of Propriety lifted and flexed one leg, then the other, and prepared to pronounce. Soon a low crooning began to rise from the assembled avians.
"We embark on a mission, a holy mission," the Suzerain fluted.
— Zzooon —
"Embarking on this mission, we must persevere."
— Zzooon —
"Persevere to accomplish four great tasks."
— Zzooon —
"Tasks which include Conquest for the glory of our Clan, zzooon."
— ZZooon —
"Conquest and Coercion, so we may gain the Secret,
the Secret that the animal Earthlings clutch talon-tight,
clutch to keep from us, zzooon."
— ZZooon —
"Conquest, Coercion, and Counting Coup upon our enemies
winning honor and submitting our foes to shame,
avoiding shame ourselves, zzooon."
— ZZooon —
"Avoiding shame, as well as Conquest and Coercion, and last, and last to prove our worthiness,
our worthiness before our ancestrals,
our worthiness before the Progenitors whose time of Return has surely come
Our worthiness of Mastery, zzzoooon."
The refrain was enthusiastic.
The two other Suzerains bowed respectfully to the priest, and the ceremony was officially at an end. The Talon Soldiers and Spacers returned to work at once. But as the bureaucrats and civil servants retreated toward their own sheltered offices, they could be heard clearly but softly crooning.
"All... all... all of that. But one thing, one thing more....
"First of all... survival of the nest...."
The priest looked up sharply and saw a glint in the eye of the Suzerain of Cost and Caution. And in that instant it knew that its rival had won a subtle but important point. There was triumph in the other's eye as it bowed again and hummed lowly.
This series is set in a future universe in which no species can reach sentience without being "uplifted" (genetically brought to sapience) by a patron race, which then "owns" the uplifted species for 100,000 years. But the greatest mystery of all remains unsolved: who uplifted humankind? Earth has no known link to the Progenitors — and that terrifies client and patron species alike. Should its inhabitants be allowed to exist?
The uplift saga began with Sundiver, and continued with Startide Rising and The Uplift War. A second series — the Uplift Trilogy — began with Brightness Reef, continued in Infinity's Shore, and concluded with Heaven's Reach.
In THE UPLIFT WAR, as galactic armadas search the Five Galaxies in quest of the Streaker, bearer of the secret of the Progenitors, a brutal alien race seizes the planet of Garth, an Earth colony. Humans and their Uplifted allies must battle their conquerors or face ultimate extinction.
Copyright © 1987 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
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David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was cited as one of the top 10 writers the AI elite follow. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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