Haloed Bane

P.E.T.S.


1

On Earth it's 2004 or 2005. Sinduin has been quietly gathering her data for two or three years. But back home in her Incudea-dominated universe…things are happening.

For one thing, Lancour III Enades, Potentate of Silverlight Pool (palasvuil nu aumi flak ijil), is on trial for murder. Here he is:

Lancour III Enades

Lancour III Enades, a.k.a. “Lankers”, E76th PETS Member

In that picture he’s already wearing his regulation P.E.T.S. cap, but you should imagine him bareheaded and in shackles. And unmasked. The deal with the mask is that Veronians grow amidst toxic pools and their bodies become used to them, so that anywhere outside of the planet (even elsewhere in their own planetary system) they are forced to wear masks to protect them from clean air.

Silverlight Pool is a mid-sized polity on the planet of Veron Pools in the Veron System. Lancour is an extremely popular ruler, but he is ethically impaired and everyone and their grandmothers know he is guilty. Usually he’d get off free, but the judge this time around was wronged by him earlier (daughter seduced, same old story) and so he conducts the trial with dignity and justice and Lancour III Enades is toast.

After the sentence is passed, the judge has this to say: “And do not for a moment consider teleporting out of here. If you do, you will be nothing but an outlaw to the Incudean Guards, whereas here you will die a lord among his people.”

The judge does not lie. Blinking out, for a second-grader like Lancour, would mean moving to either one of two sideline worlds: Deleon or Floy. But the Veron System is a part of Incudea, and this means that Deleon and Floy are occupied by Incudean Guards. Most Veronians don’t ever learn how to blink out, since the sidelines are officially barred to them for all eternity. As Potentate, Lancour has done it a few times (goodwill tours, inspections, stuff to keep Incudea happy) so he’s confident he can pull it off, but the threat is real. Here in Eryamite Veron he will die by firing squad in front of a deadly pool. His lifeless body will fall over the pool and disintegrate. Lancour doesn’t know what the Guards would do to him if he blinked into their neck of the woods, but it’s bound to be much worse.

And yet…a firing squad means certain death, whereas if luck’s on his side he might get to blink into an empty area of Deleon, say, and he might evade capture, then somehow commandeer a ship and escape. And so with that in mind he blinks into Deleon as he is being carried to the execution pool.

Long story short, he uses his traditional Fighting Stances to bring down two Inculae before he is seized and put to sleep. His prowess has been marked by Incudea, however, and as he sleeps he gets signed up to join P.E.T.S.

2

The captive is only woken up from his trip when he arrives at the destination. He is taken to a building and left in a room with a long table. “Here’s another shellie for ya”, one of the Inculae says with a laugh before leaving. Two other people are already seated there. And at the head of the table, stands an eyebrowless Incula, probably a Gorgon or a descendant of colonists from that awful planet.

On one side of the table, there sits a female with pointy ears.

Sukara Gatesh

Sukara Gatesh, a.k.a. “Suk”, E76th PETS Member

On the other side, a furry tetrapod with bulging eyes and, to Lancour, indeterminate gender.

Dan

Dan, E76th PETS Leader

“There he is,” says the Incula. “Let’s all welcome Lancour III Enades, until a few months ago the Potentate of Silverlight Pool in the Phylarchy of Veron Pools (grase verronaumins).” The Danguang, for that is what the tetrapod is, opens his eyes, for he is male you see, even wider upon hearing this introduction.

“That makes three of you. The fourth will be arriving in a week or so. Now-” The Incula, clearly a scientist or scholar of some sort, is interrupted by a call. She leaves the room, but not before encouraging the team members to get to know each other.

Lancour decides to start small: “Could anyone tell me what we—me especially—are doing here?!”

The Danguang, who introduces himself as Dan, cheerfully explains. The four individuals have been summoned to form a new trail squadron within Peace Enforcement (PE). As is well known, Incudean order in vassal (i.e. occupied, alien) territories is kept by the Incudean Guards (IG). The Guards are stationed in sideline worlds, ready to access the stemline world (where the vassals live) whenever necessary.

Now, 99 times out of 100 the IGs are sufficient for any troublesome task. But if things get overly rowdy, then Peace Enforcement steps in. Peace Enforcement is thus halfway between being a police force (the IGs) and an outright military force (the Incudean Army, IA), let’s call them a paramilitary police or an anti-riot unit. The IGs and the IA are both filled only by Inculae, although the latter has been known to hire auxiliaries such as the Glapachiko Expeditionary Force when necessary. Dan the Danguang tells Lancour that Incudea is experimenting with incorporating vassal units, but only within the PE, at least as far as he knows. Dan believes it’s a propaganda effort. In any case, they won’t be doing any of the heavy-lifting, as they will not be forming a regular squadron.

Trail Squadrons sweep in when the regular squadrons of PE have completed the job of pacifying an area. They reassure the population and hand back control to the local vassal rulers and the IGs. If they’re lucky they might get to do a little bit of mop-up action, but not much (Enforcers are good at what they do and rarely does a troublemaker escape capture from them). Lancour’s unit will be known as the E76th P.E.T.S. This is short for Eryamite 76th Peace Enforcement Trail Squadron. “Eryamite” tell us that they are a second-grade unit and all four members are second-graders. This is of course essential since they wouldn’t be able to operate together otherwise. But of course there remains a potential problem lurking here, one which Dan has figured out though he does not state it: though all four members are currently second-graders, two of them belong to species that often ascend to the third grade (Ava, Danguang). If one of them ascends, the team will be left short a member..

As for the number, 76th tells us there are many of these units, though of course they are usually filled by Inculae and not vassals.

Throughout Dan’s disquisition, the pointy-eared woman has said absolutely nothing. She doesn’t look unhappy or angry, she just isn’t showing any emotion at all, almost as if she were dead. Lancour is tempted to say hello but decides against it. “How come you know so much, Dan?” he asks the Danguang.

“I was the first member they chose, but don’t think too much of it. I happened to be around. You see, I was born and raised here on Sargica.”

“Far from home I imagine.”

“Prima Fas is very far indeed, though I don’t think it problematic to call myself a Sargican…”

“Sargican…”

“Where we are right now. The Exarchy of Sargica (hetene sarjika), a small planet on the Oreon System…” Dan’s eyes open up once again. “We’re in the neighborhood of Targa Oreon. I imagine your people have heard of it?”

“Targa Oreon? Yeah, sure. Who hasn’t? By the way, since you know so much, I might as well ask you. What’s a shellie?”

“A shellie…”

“The boss back there called me one, and I was wondering if I should be upset about it.”

“Oh no no no. Shellie is just slang for vassal. Inculae teach that they are at the center of the universe, and the rest of us live on the surface of the shell around them. As adornments or decorations.”

“Shit.”

2a

If you’re wondering why Lancour III speaks so crudely, there’s a very good reason. Veronian society is extremely class-oriented. There is a strict distinction between upper class and lower class. One of the ways that distinction is expressed is in speech. Upper-class Veronians are allowed to speak very impolitely. Their casualness, even rudeness, is a mark of their status. Lower-class Veronians are politer than the Japanese and the Javanese of Earth. I don’t know about you, but this makes perfect sense to me.

There’s lots to say about the legend that is Targa Oreon but I’ll keep it short. The planet is in the Exotic Systems, nearer to Incudea’s core than any of the home planets of our four P.E.T.S., and it has been under Incudean rule for ages. However, about a century ago (in Earth time, though note that the Incudean year is practically equal to ours, so it comes out to the same thing) the planet rebelled. The move shocked the Incudean Council, and to her dismay the Targans somehow held out for close to two years. There were even fears that other vassal states across the universe would join the rebellion, but that didn’t happen. Still, since that time the name of Targa Oreon is known by most educated beings tapped into the administrative goings-on of the universe.

Wintergarden

Exarchy of Sargica. The squadron trains in the archipelagic capital of Wintergarden.

3

After Lancour’s expletive, the sound of approaching footsteps can be heard. All of a sudden the silent woman, without looking at him, begins slowly introducing herself: “Sukara Gatesh of Clan Gat in…”

As their hostess the scientist comes in, Sukara finishes her sentence: “…Death’s Dominion (dus nu fel).”

The scientist smiles. “That being the local name, yes. Officially we call it the Phylarchy of Dead Ava (grase feltes ava). Have you ever met an Ava, Lancour?”

“Nope.” Lancour hasn’t even heard of one. The universe of Belklaun is rather large and lacking in good tourist packages.

“A lethal race,” the scientist goes on as if Sukara weren’t in the room, actually, as if nobody except herself were in the room. “Ideally we’d form a team with all the Ava factions, but then the squadron wouldn’t be able to enforce the peace in their own group, hehe.”

Vandinein

Vandinein, Hypecoology Division, Exarchy of Sargica

Since nobody says anything, the scientist continues speaking to Lancour: “You can call me Vandinein. I work as a hypecoologist (sikiaturir) for the Exarchy of Sargica. Hypecoology means the study of our vassal races.”

Sukara turns to Vandinein. “You’re an expert on all of them?” She grins.

Vandinein giggles (is she nervous?) and explains: “I agree with you. It sounds a bit ridiculous to have hypecoologists deal with any and every species in Incudea. We are asked to focus on the monarchy we are stationed in, but we are expected to keep up on everything outside it as well. I myself would like to specialize in Targan culture but well, Incudean policy is what it is, and since you fellows are here now while not being Inculae then you become my responsibility. In any case, rest assured that I study very hard and know many things about your cultures you that don’t know yourself. Well, I’m glad to have met you Lancour. You’ll fit in perfectly. Now we can adjourn and wait for the last member to arrive.”

The meeting ends. The compound the vassals are lodged at has a mess hall, with three demarcated areas: two large tables for the Inculae, a small table for male vassals and a small table for female vassals. Essentially this means that Sukara eats alone and Lancour and Dan eat together. The E76th P.E.T.S. never get to see any other aliens eating there.

Mess Hall

Dinner time. Very abruptly, with a brashness intended to mask a fake innocence deployed to keep away any potential trouble, Lancour asks Dan about their chances of escaping. Dan says it’s impossible. “Guards waiting to get you, huh.” “Blinking out here is even scarier than you think,” Dan retorts, with tap water cascading down his muzzle and throat. “Various bombs were employed in quelling the Targan rebellion, as the Incudean Army was hard pressed to block access to the sideline worlds in the system. Sargica remains to this day a living hell in those worlds. There’s no need for Guards at all. There’s not even a Wintergarden to blink into…”

Deleonian Sargica

Deleonian Sargica

4

Days later, the arrival of a new guy causes a bit of trouble.

Sukara, Lancour and Dan are ushered into the usual meeting room. By this point Lancour has learned that all male Danguangs are called Dan, but that there are infinite tonal variations of this one word “Dan” and thus each male individual’s name is strictly unique…if you can hear the differences, which Lancour can’t. Lancour has also learned that Sukara, who doesn’t seem to talk very much, refers to him as Lankers (Lankerins). The Veronian is unsure if this is a nick (and if so, whether it’s endearing, nasty or what) or if she is simply unable to pronounce Lancour for some reason. He’ll have to ask her at some point.

Vandinein comes in and soon a guard bring in the much anticipated fellow. He’s a large feline hexapod, colored bright purple with black spots.

Six

6,141,615,585,141, a.k.a. “Six”, E76th PETS Member

He gives off the impression of being extremely fast. And he is. Before anyone can say or do anything, he has yelled: “Arganath!” and pounced on Sukara Gatesh.

From Lancour’s POV, this is basically what happens:

1. The feline leaps, aiming for Sukara.

2. Sukara pulls out a sickeningly white handgun as she tries to swing her chair to the right, away from the Garland’s leap.

3. She manages to get one shot off.

4. The shot apparently makes contact with the Garland just as he’s about to make contact with Sukara, but instead of blood spurting out, electric bolts shoot forth like something is short circuiting.

5. The lights begin to flicker on and off.

6. It’s impossible to see what happens, but one more shot (or is it two?) can be heard.

7. The light system comes back and the feet of two, or three or four,guards can be seen. Lancour is on the ground, and soporific gas is already flooding the room. The last thing his senses pick up is the voice of a guard saying: “Damn shellies.”

Sukara Gun

The next morning, Vandinein shows up at Dan’s quarters.

“…Yesterday’s incident has been cleared up. Would you believe it? Arganath, what the Garland shouted, turned out to be the name of a hybrid, a love child of a Garland and a Dead Ava that was supposedly destined to herald an epic alliance against the rest of Shalath. Alas, Arganath failed the Dead Avas’ rite of passage and was betrayed to the enemy. Garlands haven’t forgotten and they have hated the Dead Avas ever since. And this happened over a thousand years ago!”

“Very interesting.”

“I trust the Council will not be too upset. It was an innocent mistake. We know of a few couplings between Avas and Garlands since they joined Incudea, but yesterday I checked the databases and sure enough only Black Avas or White Avas have been involved. Never a Dead Ava. Ah, vassal culture is such a rich subject.”

Dan thinks the line 'I trust the Council will not be too upset' mighty curious. Why would the Incudean Council, the supreme authority of the entire universe, be receiving specific reports on a lowly Eryamite trail squadron?? Why on Earth, you would ask, and be right. In any case, Dan feels confident enough to ask:

“How did the Ava smuggle her gun all the way here?”

“She didn’t. It’s Targan-made and very old, probably manufactured right here in Sargica before we took it over. We’ll figure out who sold it to her sooner or later. She did pull it in self-defense, so I can’t be too upset at her. Peace Enforcement encourages the acquisition of personal weapons by its members, after all. Though I told her we’d prefer it if she started assembling an arsenal after the training had concluded, not before it has even begun.”

“Would you mind if I asked another question?”

“Of course, Dan. Anything.”

“I fail to understand the rationale behind our team’s makeup. What happened yesterday is bound to happen again. I should think separate squadrons for each species would work much better, and it would still fulfill the goal of cementing relations between Incudea and her vassals.” A this point Dan pauses just slightly, hoping maybe Vandinein might comment on his own interpretation of the whole project. She doesn’t, so he goes on:

“If an integrated team is deemed best, then I believe an Incudean leader would be required. Perhaps we will receive one after training?”

Vandinein smiles. She loves answering questions, even when she knows she won’t really answer them because she is unable to. Basically, she’s the teacherly type. “No, and in fact, one of the reasons I’m here today is to ask you to become squadron leader.”

“…”

“The team will work well, I am sure of it. I’ve already made the Garland see the light and he and the Ava will patch up their differences today. Sargica is no place for shell—ehem, vassals, to rehash old feuds. As for the whys and the hows, you were born here and you know that Incudean policy is what it is and one knows what one needs to know, neither more nor less.”

“Absolutely.”

“We will have another meeting tomorrow where the Garland will properly introduce himself. I won’t push him to apologize, I think that would be…insensitive. Does that settle your doubts?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Dan, trust us. All of you are from the Storm Systems and as troublesome as vassals come, but if the Exarchy believed there was even the slightest chance that this project could jeopardize the life of a single Incula, it would be cancelled. We’re in Oreon after all. We know how rebellions work! We are and always will be in control.”

And with that she leaves, presumably to have much shorter conversations with the other team members.

5

The last round of introductions goes off without a hitch. He might look like a purple cheetah, but this Garland is acting rather sheepishly today. When asked for his name, he almost blushes. “You can call me Six.” Vandinein prods him, saying: “Which is short for?”

“6,141,615,585,141.”

“Say what?!” Lancour almost falls off of his chair, and even Sukara smiles.

“That means he is the 6 trillion 141 billion 615 million 585 thousand one hundred and forty-first (senary: 2,1021,230,320,302,433, actual nickname is 2 Garland to be born.” Since Vandinein leaves things here pretty much, I’ll add a few details. Six comes from the Phylarchy of Gerlendia in the planet of Sya, a hop and a skip from Sukara’s Ava, both in the Shalath System. Six used to be a Runner, a Gerlendian profession that involves even more running than what is usual for the race, pun intended. He has lightning-fast reflexes of the sort that will become very useful when enforcing the Incudean peace.

Speaking of Ms. Gatesh, Lancour is very much interested in her. The Veronian is well aware of the fact that reproductive systems vary wildly between the various species, but since receiving confirmation at the mess hall that she is in fact of a sex opposite to his (at least according to Incudean science), he’s been obsessed with her. Lancour is used to exotic affairs, but he’ll be damned if he’s sleeping with a Wirehead (=Veronian slang for Incula, taushlefen) and so it’s either Sukara or zilch. I’ll be her Lankers if she’ll be my…Suk? His neurons giggles with anticipation.

As a first step, Lancour waits for Vandinein to visit him in his room for a briefing and then tries to get her to spill the beans on Sukara’s background.

“I’m sure she will tell you as soon as you’ve bonded as teammates.”

“She’s not exactly very social, doc. I’d rather not wait that long.”

“She’s very quiet, isn’t she.”

“She says she’s just a regular Dead Ava, and that’s it.”

Vandinein laughs out loud, then shrugs. Lancour moves close to her with a smile, and then quickly places a finger on her throat, touching it ever so slightly. The Incula’s eyes open as wide as a Danguang’s, and Lancour can actually feel what he cannot hear: the rumbling whisper in her throat repeating over and over “Is it the fifth? Or is it the sixth?”

What a dumbass. “It’s the seventeenth, doc.” Lancour is lying. That finger move is the Twelfth Veronian Fighting Stance, but there’s no reason to tell the truth when one can lie.

Vandinein gathers up some courage. “One word and you’re dead, vassal.”

“One word,” responds Lancour, “and the project is ruined, Incula. My head might be detached from my body, but yours will be the one to roll, politically speaking. I just want a bit of intel on the gal, that’s all.”

“W-why?”

“I’ve talked to Dan plenty; I feel comfortable with him. Six seems friendly enough and I’m sure we’ll get along fine. But Gatesh is a mystery, and if I’m going to work well with her I need to have at least some notion of, you know, who or what she is…”

“You make sense, Lancour, I’ll give you that much. Fine.”

Lancour removes the finger, half-expecting Vandinein to blink out (having momentarily forgotten what Dan told him of the sideline Sargicas) or call someone or something. Thankfully, she sits down and begins to tell a story. And what a wacky story it is!

“She told you she was a regular dead Ava, huh. It’s a funny choice of words.”

“Go on.”

“Hmm…have you noticed Sukara’s diet?”

“We don’t eat together, doc. You’ve made sure of that. I’ve seen her knocking down some brews then and again, but that’s about it.”

“Brews…drinks? You haven’t missed anything, actually. Avas have very delicate, very brittle digestive systems. They only take liquids.”

“I’m surprised. She’s not exactly skinny.”

Vandinein looks around her, and lowers her voice. “Oh, they have a balanced diet in their own way. But it’s all liquid. Listen closely. When a Dead Ava, or should I say, when a living Ava who wants to die and become a warrior is ready, he finds a living thing, something small enough to swallow, but coarse enough to kill him. These requirements are not that hard to fill, there are plenty such creatures in Ava. The bigger and nastier the creature is, the greater a warrior he’s supposed to become and these Avas are always trying to outdo themselves. Follow me so far?”

“I guess.”

“So, the right of passage begins, the creature is killed and only then ingested. The Ava suffers an agonizing death as his or her entrails fragment and literally implode. It’s not a pretty sight, maybe I’ll show you one of our medical research videos one day. The process is well documented.”

“Yipee.” Inculae are freaks, Lancour reminds himself.

“Then afterwards, due to a mechanism whose true essence still eludes us, the poor little creature is resurrected in the now ravaged belly of the Ava, and in turn this creature’s undeadforce (I cannot call it a lifeforce you understand) proceeds to reanimate the dead Ava. From that point on the Dead Ava and the creature exist, or endure, in a state of symbiosis. Shalath specialists call them symbies (non.ko.kins, from nantes kelarins), and these fellows will then run around until they, well, are killed and die a second time.”

“Hmmm, that’s weird.”

“Sukara’s case is far weirder, as you’re about to find out. For a few years now we have had unidentified biological intruders (taraharnimeth rinonturte dopesturatumand), we call them UBIs (torodons), emerging in various systems across Incudea. Are you aware of this? I don’t think I’ve heard of any contamination in Veron…”

“No, I haven’t. Carry on.” Lancour is not really listening to the question or thinking about the answer, he just wants Vandinein to get to the point. He is confident he’ll know what it is as soon as she spills it.

“It's all classified, but you were about to find out anyway. UBIs suddenly appear out of nowhere, then multiply without end. Two years ago a never seen type of winged bug emerged in Ava. Now, everyone awaited eagerly to see which young Ava would dare swallow one of these new creatures for the sake of the rite.”

“And that was Ms. Gatesh, I presume.” This is getting interesting, Lancour thought.

UBI

“Two years ago a never seen type of winged bug emerged in Ava.”

“Yes, she is certainly very brave..has always been.” Vandinein pauses, looks at Lancour, then continues. “Apparently she killed the creature and swallowed it. The bug came back to life as expected but…”

“But what?”

“Something went wrong, Lancour. Sukara…didn’t die. For some reason she just didn’t die. Suffer she did, I hear, and plenty, but she lived through. This survival was considered a curse by the Dead Avas. They probably would have sold her to the highest bidder among their enemies the White Avas or the Black, since that is what they usually do to those who somehow botch the right of passage. Thankfully, our IGs on the sideline got wind of the incident and took her into custody before it was too late. Her bravery will be of much use to Incudea, and of course her body itself is of great interest to us. I am convinced that what happened to her proves that these UBI bugs truly are something else. Our expansion...” Vandinein's words trailed off. Maybe she had said too much.

"A great result for the new bugs, I bet. I’m sure nobody has dared to stick them inside their mouths after that?”

“You’re right and you’re wrong. The Dead Avas are carpet bombing their marshes as we speak, trying to exterminate them completely.”

“And you say they come from outside Incudea?”

Oh, I wouldn't put it that way. Their homes might have been outside once, but not anymore. Anyway, it’s a very odd case, as if the creature had found its way home and delicately made space there… Not only did it not kill her, but it actually grew in size. You might find this next part grotesque, actually.”

“I think I’ve heard enough. I’ll have to look forward to hearing the grotesque part some other time. Thanks very much, doc.”

Vandinein takes a while to stand up, but she eventually does. Before opening the door she turns to him and says: “You know, I’ve never understood how vassal races like yours can be so lacking in curiosity toward us Inculae.”

“Oh, I’ll have you tell me some of it another time, if that’s OK with you,” says Lancour.

“I will, if there is time.”

Vandinein leaves, robbed of her chance to put Sukara in the worst light possible where attractiveness is concerned. Lancour could sense the glee as she was about to speak, though, and cut her off in time. There’s no way a Dead Ava, even a freakish living Dead Ava, will turn out to be more disgusting than a Wirehead.

6

As much as the P.E. training improves Lancour’s fighting skills, it is his conversations with Dan that gradually make of him a much more dangerous man.

In Dan’s eyes, the number one priority of Incudean administration is to ensure integrated regional planning across the various worlds. Monarchies like Sargica rely heavily on communication relays between exarchical authorities in each trinity and the Metacommunication Grid (dibios dantirialter) back in the Silver Planet within Flayer Field. The Exarch and her Voices can have what Humans would call “conference calls” by way of this system. According to Dan, somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the surface of the Silver Planet is covered by the grid’s metacomm equipment.

Phylarchies and even some of the less important enarchies and exarchies are at a terrible disadvantage because they simply do not have access to the grid. Dan tells Lancour that in his own native Prima Fas, for example, the Phylarch in Kalderon has very little control and even knowledge of what goes on in Briga, Eryam and Halaron. For all intents and purposes it’s as if there were four phylarchies and not one (breaming and bream-feeding are used as much as possible, but results are very limited and pale in comparison to the tasks at hand). A phylarchy can put in a request for certain information or even a (temporary) metacomm link, but the request is at the mercy of Incudean interests and will more often than not be denied. Incudea will argue, convincingly enough, that the grid is simply not large enough to service the entire universe's every whim.

Lancour has never really thought about these matters carefully, but a number of anecdotes spring to mind. Here’s a story he tells Dan: “Back in Veron Pools, one of my neighbors used to be the Potentate of Lighthouse Pools (aumikins anshi). The fellow was anything but lazy. As soon as he succeeded to his title in Eryam, he decided that he wanted to direct the earnings from the products made by his family’s serfs in Briga into his holdings here in Eryam. Basically, he thought that only a fool of a potentate would allow his economy to be split halfway, and that it made more sense to harvest Briga’s manpower (all Veronian serfs live there, and workers in Eryam have more rights and are far less productive) for money, invest it all in Eryam, and then feed some of the profits back into Briga. Bream-feeding was out of the question, Veronians tending to be lousy at it, and in any case he didn’t trust his own blood to carry out his wishes without close supervision. He applied to Incudea for permission to set up the scheme, and was accepted. Nobody knew whether the officials had been bribed, or simply persuaded that this could be a new model that would help the Phylarchy and Incudea in the end. Anyway, the pace picked up at Lighthouse Pools. The serfs in Briga worked their asses off according to precise directions sent by the fellow, and all the money from the wares sold went into a savings account at the Incudean Bank. The Potentate spent every day planning and scheming on how he would use the money as he made sure of the progress being made through periodic data downloads. The day finally came. The man went to the bank and tried to access his money. He was told that the money indeed was there, but it wasn’t his. A couple of months ago an old court case in Briga (so old he had forgotten about it) had been adjudicated against him. A cousin, another Potentate, had been declared legal possessor of Lighthouse Pools, and of the product of the land, and of the moneys. The fellow was upset but what could he do? The data downloads he had received covered all economic activity on the planet, but he hadn’t thought to request legal information as well, and Incudea hadn’t volunteered it. He wasn’t around when the new Lighthouse lord came to collect…”

7

Incudean domination of the universe extends to, or rather is undergirt by, an elaborate and dense information field. However, the legion of Incudean scientists constantly feeding the central hub in the Silver Planet share nothing at all with the vassal species. Therefore most sapient species in the universe know little about other species beyond their own planetary systems. Which means that one of the most important aspects of the multi-species E76th P.E.T.S. training was simply getting to know more about each other (to be precise: Lancour had never seen any of these species before, Sukara had seen Garlands in cages once or twice, Six had fought off Avas in ship battles without ever seeing them eye to eye, and Dan claimed he had only laid eyes on Inculae and Zeburajas and hadn’t even met another Danguang yet!). This necessity was put even more into relief by the fact that the unit was way down on the priority list and would be provided with outdated weaponry and mere Spinner craft to lug it around with.

The Garland Six was even faster than anyone had anticipated. On paper, a Peace Enforcement Squadron composed wholly of Garlands looked like an unstoppable machine. In practice, Garlands (Six included) consistently ran into the problem of running ahead of themselves during operations (puns intended). That is, if the mission was simple and straightforward, Six could complete it cleanly and with panache. But if it was complex, or the circumstances changed in midstream, he tended to try too many things at one time, change his mind one too many times, etc. Lancour always wondered how Six managed to speak normally at all, since he ran and thought so quickly.

Sukara was a classic Ava warrior. She was naturally acrobatic, great with weapons, adept at piloting, but rather impatient in difficult situations (this impatience is a general Shalath trait). Like all Avas, her instinct for self-preservation overrode her desire to deal damage to the enemy; she was actually better at shooting off bullets aimed at her than at hitting moving targets with her bullets, say, and she was judged by Dan and the others to be ideally suited to hold and defend a position while Six and the others ran ahead. Lancour found her a bit of a puzzle. At the opening of a training session on Triumph 300 (one of Sargica’s moons), he dared to answer her “Morning, Lankers” with a “Whassup, Suk”. The Ava smiled, grinned and yanked off the mask from his face. As he scrambled to the floor to get his mask back on, she left him with a “Later, Lankers.” He was stuck in a recovery chamber for two days after that.

Veronians have no use for weapons...a mixture of disdain, ignorance and fear toward the things. Veron Pools did quite well without them until Incudea arrived, and even then, it wasn’t the easiest of conquests. Before the team, Lancour showed off several Fighting Stances, concentrating on taking out the iron dummies at hand with one hit. I know what they’re thinking. They think it’s all very pretty but not real effective in war. They’ll see, though. They’ll see.

Lankers and Suk

Dream on, Lankers

8

Lancour’s initial impression of Dan was that the tetrapod would make a better scientist than a Peace Enforcer. His appointment as squadron leader was, the Veronian though, surely due to Incudean politics. Dan turned out to be quite the fighter, though. Early on in training, he asked Lancour to show the group his toughest Veronian Fighting Stance.

“You mean, the hardest hitting?”

“No, no. I mean the toughest one to learn or to imitate.”

Lancour eyed the Danguang with some mistrust. For all he knew Dan was an Incudean agent through and through, and although he wasn’t the most patriotic of Veronians, the former Potentate was not about to hand key intel to Incudea on a platter if he could avoid it. Still, Lancour factored in the possibility that Incudea was testing his own trustworthiness. Perhaps Incudea already knew every single Fighting Stance in existence, and they were simply trying to gauge whether the Veronian was true to his word or not. Lying at this point could bring trouble for Lancour down the road. He decided to hedge his bets with some ambiguity.

“They’re all tough, Dan. Here’s a good one, though.”

Lancour went through the Thirteenth, moderately rare, and quite tough to replicate (..for a Veronian, as for other species, he deemed it impossible to replicate). Six grunted in approval. Everyone else was quiet. Then Dan asked:

“Thank you. What do you call this stance?”

“That was the Thirteenth Fighting Stance.”

“What does the number indicate? Difficulty?” Six asked.

“Nope. It’s just a historical thing. When the stance was developed, invented or discovered, as the case may be. You can’t put much stock in the number. It’s really just a name.”

“The Thirteenth…Fighting…Stance,” repeated Dan, pronouncing each word very deliberately.

“That’s right.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, Lancour III Enades, but are you sure that was the Thirteenth Fighting Stance you just performed right now?”

What the hell was Dan driving at?! “Yes, and stop calling me by that name, that ‘the Third’ thing is meaningless by now.” The thought of Silverlight under the rule of others’ irked him more than he liked to admit.

Dan was adamant, though cautious. “It’s just that…I was wondering if that was exactly what…”

“Listen, if you must know, that wasn’t a perfect Thirteenth. I added a little variation of my own at the end. We’re allowed to do that.” And indeed Lancour had added an extra step and a hook at the end, as he always did when using this Stance.

“And what do you call your variation then?”

“Hmmm….The Wave Breaker, I guess.” This is getting embarrassing, but he did call it that, especially when showing it off at parties on Veron Pools.

“One last question, if I may. This Wave Breaker, is it the name of the variation by itself or do you use it to refer to the Stance as a whole.”

Lancour sighed. “I guess I call the whole thing the Wave Breaker. But I don’t see what—?”

He was interrupted by Dan’s loud voice, as he announced with a flourish (and by a flourish I mean a tail wag): “Behold: the Wave Breaker.”

And Lancour watched, mouth open, as the Danguang proceeded to do a perfect “Wave Breaker”. Truth be told, it wasn’t an exact replica, but it was as close to it as could be taking into account the glaringly obvious physiological differences between a Veronian and a Danguang. If you had asked Lancour the next day about it, he would have told you it was a pretty funny sight to see the tetrapod do what he did. But it wasn’t at all funny then, especially with Sukara clapping wildly and yelling “Well done, Dan!!”

“How in Eryam did you learn to do that?!” As Lancour asked, his mind raced. Dan had already mentioned that he had never been off Sargica, and never met any Veronians. Either he was a great big liar or Incudea knew far more about the arts of Veron than he had ever feared. Also, why didn’t Sukara fucking call Dan Danners or Dankers or something?!

“I learned just now, Lancour, watching you. We Danguang possess something called the Three Hollows (mir gavenis). These are…umm…empty areas in our brain which we can immediately fill in with any skills we have witnessed. There are certain somewhat severe restrictions, unfortunately. If we memorize a skill and then choose to forget it in order to pick a new one, we many never again relearn the old skill. Also, we must reenact the skill very soon after having witnessed it. Otherwise our brains cannot adapt themselves to it. Finally, in order to learn a skill we must know its proper name.”

“So evidently you’ve just discarded a skill you had, right?” asked Sukara.

“Yes, I did. But not to worry, I was duped by an Incula recently into acquiring a false, useless skill. It didn’t do what was promised.”

Sukara asked: “What was it supposed to do?”

“I’d rather not say, Ms. Gatesh. I was a fool. Good riddance.”

And then Dan blushed, sort of. Lancour didn’t really notice it, though. He was busy indulging in the outrage of the robbed. That and the sweet pain of envy. He snapped out of a revery and asked Dan:

“So I guess you can do a Wave Breaker now. What else can you do?”

9

Dan had them follow him to the firing range, and he regaled them with a display of flawless accuracy with projectiles ranging from stones to laser guns. A very useful skill to have. The Danguang would have a fair shot of escaping Sargica if he ever really put his mind to it (pun intended yet again).

The third skill was something truly special, however. Dan knew it and played it up like a master:

“A while back I petitioned the exarchical government to grant me access to the arsenals in Wintergarden, for study purposes. My petition was denied, and I am sure by now you understand why. I know the names of most of the weapons there, and if I could use them even once then…I could have made their powers my own.”

Lancour was curious. “What were you after?”

“Everything and nothing. I simply wanted to learn more about the universe out there. You can learn a lot about a species by studying its weaponry. Then again, I really must admit I wanted to lay my eyes on an Echoblaster.”

Sukara was stunned. “They keep Echoblasters at Wintergarden?!”

“Three, I believe. Though one no longer works.”

“What’s so great about them blasters? It’s not like Inculae need them to keep their hold on us.” Lancour had a vague notion of the super-weapon, though his somewhat less vague notion of his own local history informed him that no Echoblasters had been employed in the reduction of the Veron System.

“They are truly mighty weapons,” noted Six.

“The mightiest.” Dan looked smiled, ready to give another lecture. “Echoblasters were the primary achievement of the realm of Echoglass, which held back the Incudean onslaught for a full seventy Inculae years. That's 115 local years! Inculae enduring a hundred and fifteen revolutions around a foreign sun before success came their way...quite unprecedented for these last few millennia. The subtlety of their design, which included five rare and volatile components from the Echoglass System and surrounding areas finely, nay, exquisitely balanced by means of an icosahedral force field, still eludes Incudean scientists. They cannot be copied. The technology is lost, and even if it isn’t, Glassic scientists would rather die than tell. I do believe that Incudea is sick of killing Glassics.”

“Yet Incudea keeps several of these blasters you say.”

“Oh, a couple thousand at least. Maybe more. I myself could never emulate an Echoblaster, my Three Hollows are too few for the five components, but even with three components in hand…well, let’s just say I understand Sargica’s anxieties on the matter. Still, I do possess the power of one of these components.”

Dan waited for someone to ask, but their silence, full of expectation as it was, proved even more satisfying than any question. He continued:

“About a year ago, a cargo ship crash-landed on the icicle beach south of Wintergarden. Cleaning up the wreckage took longer than usual due to the nature of the cargo…” This time he did not need to wait long for someone to ask.

Six rushed in. “What was the cargo?”

“Silent Spores, one of the Echoblaster’s ingredients. These organisms, when made to be panicked, cause their enemies over a wide range to be silent for up to several hours. They literally paralyze sound. Think of the damage this can cause on the battlefield.”

Lancour thought. If you cannot speak, you cannot communicate with your troops. Incudean Army operations would have been severely hampered. If you cannot speak, you cannot employ your grade abilities. In Eryam, where the Echoglass War was mainly fought, this meant that wounded Inculae would writhe in pain without hope of solace. And if the Glassics were as technologically-savvy as they seemed…

Dan added, more to himself than to the others, “The power of the Silent Spores is the power of a sixth-grader. I will use it wisely.”

Silent Spores

Silent Spores

“How do you keep it a secret from Incudea?” Lancour didn’t have to look at the others’ faces to realize immediately how stupid his question was.

“I informed the Exarchy as soon as I picked up the skill. Asking permission first and learning it later was not an option, as I have already explained. They didn’t ask me to relinquish it and so here we are. And here I am, quite literally, for I believe to some extent my presence here with you is probably due to this handy ability.”

“Show us,” Lancour said.

Are you sure?” Dan’s eyes opened wide.

“I’d love to see it,” chimed in Sukara.

“I as well,” said Six.

The request was unanimous, and Dan complied. He wasn’t sure Inculae would be happy at the waste of a training day (what else could they do but basic exercises while quiet?), but he still had to test this important skill and that in itself was crucial for future missions.

“Silent Spores!”

Dan tried speaking. Nothing. Sukara tried it, nothing. The same with Six. But Lancour had a different reaction. He started to sneeze, and sneeze, and sneeze. After about ten minutes he stopped, and sure enough, he couldn’t speak either. Seeing Sukara off to one side laughing in deep silence was very traumatic. Even the Garland seemed to be smiling.

Back in Wintergarden, Dan gave Lancour an apology. “Life is unpredictable. I didn’t realize Veronians sneezed when hit with Silent Spores.”

“Neither did I,” said Lancour.

Lancour begged Dan not to tell the Inculae about the sneezing incident. The Danguang made a grimace, as if it pained him to consider the request, but finally agreed. Lancour hoped he was a man of his word.

Incidentally, during these camaraderie-building sessions no one ever asked Dan about that most infamous of the Danguang species’ claims to fame: that they had supposedly created the universe. As things stood, none of Dan’s teammates knew this tidbit of Danguang lore, and the one person who would have usually educated them abou this kind of thing, Dan himself, was not at all comfortable with opening it up for discussion. He was, in this and in other traditional matters, a conflicted skeptic.

10

Besides having the team members learn about each other, another important foundation for the training was memorizing the Crisis Workflow of a Peace Enforcement operation. The Inculae were anything if not methodical, with the few non-methodically-inclined Inculae being methodically posted to certain functions [e.g. Sinduin as a spy on Earth]. For all its cleanliness and orderliness, P.E. was also as a unit very proud of its combativeness and fierceness. “Never in the history of Peace Enforcement,” said one of the trainers, "have any of its members called for Army backup in the heat of battle. Reinforcements, on the few occasions they have been needed, have literally stepped over the P.E.’s dead bodies.” Although technically true, the claim was also propaganda. P.E. squadrons were allowed to call in the Army, but only if their own current situation was stable. It was taboo to request aid under fire, but if a squadron was trapped in a valley with thousands of enemies waiting in mountains, they were more than welcome to send for an airstrike. They could be five minutes away from being pulverized, they could have just undergone withering fire and significant casualties, but as long as the front was quiet when the call went through, Enforcement’s pride was unscathed.

When the time came to do Spinner training, Lancour found himself behind yet again. Dan had experienced no warfare whatsoever, yet he had seen training Army and P.E. units come and go, had studied all the major battles and had an enviable knack for converting theoretical knowledge into practical advantage. Sukara and Six had both actually seen battle. As an Ava, Sukara had fought and fought and fought her way to adulthood, though she had yet to shed the blood of any sapient species other than her own. Six had been involved in a few inter-species scuffles, of the kind that the beings of the Shalath System continued to revel in to the eternal chagrin of their Incudean overlords. Lancour was a lord in a peaceful planet, his only fighting was done for pleasure. He had never piloted a spaceship. In contrast, Sukara had piloted Spinners, Six hadn’t and disliked them because of their infuriating curvy motions but could command them easily if asked, and Dan had memorized the manual, which in his case meant enough.

Spinners are quite fast, with a maximum speed of BR 2.7, but they consume tons of fuel and are only effective for short distances. They are ringed with three sets of triple turrets (plus a fourth triple turret on top to fend off air attacks), so once a Spinner starts shooting while spinning in place, it is tremendously difficult to destroy it or even reach it. These makes them ideal vessels for deploying troops and then sticking around under heavy fire waiting for the troops to return. The trick for the troops, of course, is not to get hit by the defensive barrage upon returning!

After some practice, Lancour found out that piloting was difficult but manageable, shooting was that much harder, and doing both was beyond his means. The flight trainers mumbled something about him not being P.E. material but if any steps were taken to reassess Lancour’s assignment to the team he himself never heard of them, and his team members seemed him to treat with enough respect. The Veronian took it all in stride. The way he saw it, he had no other choice.

11

The really serious phase of training was set to begin, ironically enough, in the virtual world. For this purpose the E76th P.E.T.S. trainees were shipped on a two-month journey to the Malvrein System, which housed one of the best simulation centroids in the Exotic Systems. Dan was beside himself with joy at the opportunity to see other sapient species. He was to be disappointed. During the trip, the four vassals were practically quarantined and barely saw Inculae, let alone other races. The Enarchy of New Malvrein, as far as Eryam was concerned, was literally devoid of the locals. The Malvrein race had gone extinct in anything except the fourth and fifth grades, Dan was told, and it was only a matter of time before it perished completely.

Still, Life, the enarchical capital with an ironic name, was pretty enough, and Dan kept a constant look out for two members of the Dolentian species apparently stationed somewhere on the planet.

Soon enough the time came for the simulation training and the team got to sit on the roof of the centroid staring into the distance while Squadron Leader Dan downloaded the instructions and sorted them out for the crew. The breath-taking scene was no accident. Incudean medical authorities were always very worried that repeat centroid users might become addicted to the virtual world and refuse to return to reality. A policy was instituted to place centroids in beautiful locales, artificially redo entire landscapes even, in order to keep the users enamored with reality. Lancour thought it was all very funny, since he at least had never seen anything so beautiful and so utterly fake looking as this view. As if Incudea readily admitted that the “reality” it wanted to maintain in force throughout the universe was false to begin with…

Simulation Centroid

The view from atop the simulation centroid in Malvrein

These musings were disturbed by Dan’s voice, which had just mentioned “Littors”.

“Littors?”

“Yes, they are…”

Lancour stopped him, not about to let a chance to show he actually knew something pass him by. “I know what they are. Creatures made of light pretty much. Easy to beat singly, but tough in groups, and they love to congregate. They’ve spread like a plague through several systems in Eryam.”

“Yes. The simulated planet we will be fighting on, Taina 3, is very small, as is appropriate for a first training mission. There are two landmasses, one to the southwest and one the northeast, plus an island off to the southeast. The social life of the Littors on Taina revolves around an important temple in the northeastern landmass.”

Lancour could not for the life of him picture what a Littor temple would look like.

Dan continued “The reason we have been called here is because of the temple. It just so happens that the Floirian version of the temple is the most hallowed. When the planet was absorbed into Incudea, the locals pleaded to be allowed to worship at this temple in Floy, but Constat makes no exceptions and everyone was forcibly evacuated from both of the sideline worlds in the second trinity."

Dan paused just in case he needed to explain what the Office of Consolidation and Statistics was, but a quick look around the room convinced him to carry on.

“Once Constat left the planet, the Incudean Guards were forced to break with their own procedure and concentrate 80% of their strength on Floy, around the vicinity of the temple, leaving Deleon dangerously exposed. Five days ago, a scuffle erupted on the eastern island in Eryam. The IG were too nervous to send in any of their Floirian forces, and instead sent the entire Deleonian garrison. The turmoil was artificial, it was a trap, and a great number of Littors blinked into the northeast landmass in Deleon, now empty, while the IGs on the island in Eryam were decimated.”

Taina 3

A super low-res map of Taina 3

Dan looked around to make sure everyone was listening. They were. This sounded like it could be fun.

“Peace Enforcement was called in. Seven squadrons rescued the remaining Inculae on the island in Eryam and captured the escapees in Deleon. Our job as trail squadron is simple: we are to land in the only clear area large enough to accommodate a Spinner in the southwestern landmass, then proceed north to the main town. There, we will relieve two P.E. squadrons, which are needed elsewhere, and await the arrival of new Incudean Guards. In the meantime we are to assuage the locals and maintain order.”

“What about Floy? What about the temple?” Sukara looked disappointed.

“We are to remain in Eryam at all times. The temple, as far as I can tell from the data provided, has been secure throughout the entire disturbance in all three worlds.”

Correction: this looked to be a very boring mission. Assigned to babysit Littors in the quietest area of the freaking planet? Yippee hooray.

12

Ah, but Incudea wouldn’t be the Empire if she didn’t know how to throw a monkey wrench or two down one’s way, as the E76th found out immediately upon entering the centroid.

Sukara Gatesh executed an excellent landing in the clearing to the southwest, but nobody was there to see it. There were supposed to be two Enforcers waiting for them, whispered Dan, but the place was dark and neither Inculae nor Littors could be seen. Dan made the determination to leave Suk with the Spinner and rendezvous with the Enforcers in the town ahead.

“Happy hunting!” Sukara waved with a smile, and Lancour thought that she was something to be able to so merrily send them off. She was so naturally and honestly brave that an action which in others would immediately be marked as cowardice, simply did not strike one as such in her case.

About two thirds of the way to the town, Six said Dan’s name. Dan nodded. Both tetrapods had smelled what lay ahead. Lancour’s nose wasn’t as good but he could see what it was. Two inert lumps lay on the ground. Enforcers, dead. Then four ahead, then two more. Eight of eight. They were all facing down, so Lancour turned one over just to make sure. Once he parted all the wiry hair out of the way, he almost felt pity. Her throat was slit finely and deeply, a bit more and she would have been decapitated. The blood blended insensibly into the Enforcer’s regulation red and and black. Oh right, Lancour thought, she’s not real.

Six came up close and asked: “What kind of Littor charge is capable of this?”

Before Dan could respond, the area around them suddenly burst into flames. Dozens of Littors were rolling down the mountains, making a sound between a hum and a screech that was unnerving, to say the least. They would slide off stones on the mountain sides and hurl themselves straight at the three P.E.T.S. Lancour dodged one, then grabbed it and tossed it at the second attack wave already hurtling down. He was satisfied at the explosion, though the dull ache in his gloved hand convinced him to start swatting the things instead.

Slashed neck

“What kind of Littor charge is capable of this?”

Six ran up a mountain (for a single unpardonable second, Lancour thought he was trying to run away), then jumped across to the other side of the pass and ran down just as quickly, choosing a steep path clean of protrusions. By the time he was to hit the ground, at least forty Littors were on his tail. But he didn’t hit the ground. Instead, the Runner shot in mid-air across the road and let the Littors crash and go up in flames. Next, Six started running up again, diagonally this time, trying to get as many of the Littors away from Dan and Lancour, who were pinned down in the middle of an inferno. The Garland was fitted with twelve shoulder missiles but was supposed to conserve them until things turned really bad, if they ever did.

The Squadron Leader was shooting Littors left and right. In the heat of battle Lancour thought his leader’s actions only natural, but later on when he reflected on the operation he realized that he had truly expected Dan to chicken out at the first sight of fighting, his awesome Three Hollows be damned. The problem was that the Littors began combining into larger and larger lights. The explosions from Dan’s gunfire were threatening to fry them all, so the Danguang switched to using Veronian fighting and swatting the enemy as far away as possible over the mountain sides.

The Littors were rarely able to hit them cleanly, and the P.E. suits were capable of withstanding quite a bit of heat before breaking, but one didn’t want to push it. It was a matter of repulsing the onslaught until it abated while trying to minimize actual contact with the crazy things.

13

After five minutes or so, a commcall came in from Sukara in the landing zone. She reported more than 350 Littors hovering around the Spinner, waiting for who knew what. Dan immediately sent Six back to the landing zone as the Littor attacks in their area were diminishing steadily in strength. He was worried that Sukara would jump the gun and fire on the Littors over at her end, who perhaps were not firmly hostile. With Six in hand, Sukara should feel safer…

The Ava was far more nervous about something else, however. High concentrations of Littors were known to cause mechanical failures within a certain radius, the higher the concentration, the wider the area affected. Try as she might, Sukara couldn’t remember the precise formula, and the ship’s teledetector kept rising: 400 Littors, 450, 500. Should she fire before the Spinner broke down?

In the end, it didn’t much matter, because Dan’s plan backfired. When Six ran back at top speed, bringing several Littors with him, Sukara figured he was in serious trouble (a Garland doesn’t turn his back on the enemy lightly), so she told him by comm to run south and stay there, then she lifted the Spinner and proceeded to lay waste to a full 80% of her perimeter.

Spinner in action

Sukara’s IA Spinner in action. This type of ship is meant purely for ground attack operations in areas where the enemy has negligible flight capability. The nine bottom turrets cause substantial and rather indiscriminate damage as the ship spins…

Six concentrated on staying alive amidst the barrage, Spinner fire not being the most accurate. All of a sudden, silence. The Littors in the landing zone had been evaporated by the Spinner. Six boarded the ship and told Sukara about the dead Inculae. On the road ahead, Dan and Lancour had dispatched most of the Littors, the remainder fleeing. Now they were both worried maybe the Garland and the Ava had gotten into a fight and killed each other. A quick comm-call dispelled their fears.

Dan and Lancour walked ahead, more cautiously now, and finally reached the town. There were about fifty Littors waiting at the gate. Everyone was quiet. Dan nodded to Lancour and moved ahead of him. He cleared his throat with a good bark and began to read one of the thousand generic speeches he had memorized during squadron leader training.

“We are the Eryamite Seventy-Sixth Peace Enforcement Trail Squadron and we bring greetings from the Incudean Council, the Highborn, the Low, and your fellow Monarchies throughout Incudea. It is with joy that we note your continued loyalty amidst this disturbance caused, we are sure, by a handful of less than worthy compatriots of yours…”

Littor Leader

Littor Town Leader

Lancour thought: a handful?! We just killed half their people because they were trying to kill us, what a load of crap. He was glad he didn’t have to deal with the political aspect of the thing.

Dan asked for the leader, a Littor three times the size of the others, and accepted from him a pledge of loyalty and a promise to house them in the town until the new batch of Incudean Guards showed up. Lancour felt his muscles relax, but as he walked into town he heard one of them mutter something. Then another. Their voices were uncanny, vocal chords being alien to them, but the language was the same and the third time he heard it Lancour could be sure. They were calling him a “traitor”. The Veronian very slowly stretched out his arm, looked at it, then looked at his interlopers. He finished by giving them a quizzical look. He hoped, though with Littors it was impossible to tell, that they had understood his response: Veronians are not Littors, Littors are not Veronians, if a Veronian does what it takes to survive in the Incudean rat race, even to the point of exterminating other vassal species, you can’t call that a betrayal. And then, as he smiled to himself, he remembered again that this was all a simulation.

14

Sukara’s Spinner had all in all pulverized 630 Littors, and the zone remained nice and quiet. Dan told Six to move up into town and leave Sukara with the ship. The Squadron Leader wasn’t sure what to expect. The simulation could end at that point (as the mission objective had been achieved, he judged), or maybe it would end when the IGs arrived. Considering that in real time it could take days for that to happen, Dan hoped that the simulation would speed things up. But maybe patience was part of the training. After about forty-five minutes, the P.E.T.S. did receive an Incudean visit, but not from Guards.

Three Inculae blinked in ten meters before them. Pure red tabard over a red and white outfit…Most definitely not Guard colors, nor P.E. colors either. Constat colors. The Danguang winced.

Their leader, a small raven-haired Incula, walked straight up to Dan and made what amounted to the Incudean “I mean business” salute. She introduced herself as:

“Tartion, Consolidation and Statistics.”

Tartion

“Their leader, a small raven-haired Incula, walked straight up to Dan and made what amounted to the Incudean ‘I mean business’ salute.”

“Dan, E76th P.E.T.S. Leader, Danguang from the Prima Fas System, at your service. This is Lancour Enades from Veron, and this is Six from Shalath.”

“Well done, pets.

The praise fell cold from her lips. She didn’t seem too happy, or maybe she was fired up by her job. She was Constat after all.

“Is this it? Are you the entire team?”

“No, we have a pilot back in the landing zone south. Sukara Gatesh, from Ava in Shalath.”

“An Ava? I see. Well, I am here to inform you that your services are required elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere…Where exactly?”

Tartion narrowed her eyes for just a second, as if she had detected something untoward in Dan’s tone of voice. Lancour made a mental note not to engage her in conversation if at all possible.

“The northeastern landmass..over in Deleon. We have 700 Littors contained in a silver box. Your lead squadrons captured them and turned them over to us. I’m responsible for transferring them to Eryam, but the bastards are too worked up to blink back here, and my team needs to move out immediately.”

Just grabbing the box and blinking wouldn't work. If the Littors couldn't or wouldn't blink, one would have to hold them or hug them and then go, and how could one do that with a Littor, let alone with 700?!

“What are we to do? Stay with them until they settle down?”

“Who knows how much time that will take? The temple area is a hornet’s nest. Just take the box to a secure location and get rid of it.”

Dan paused, then stated: “We have orders to keep this town secure until the Guards come to relieve us.”

Tartion smiled. “Did you read them the peace speech or whatever it is you guys call it?”

“Yes.”

“Have they submitted?”

“Yes.”

“Good, so these fellow heres are in good standing with Incudea. Their kin over in Deleon are not. Go over there and get rid of them. Quickly. Leave one of you here if you like. Then go do the job and comm-call me when you’re done. I’ll go visit your Ava before I leave. I have yet to see one of them…”

Tartion and her minions took to the road, leaving the P.E.T.S. looking at each other.

Six volunteered to stay in the Littor town, while Dan and Lancour blinked into Deleon. Thank goodness they had practiced it plenty of times on Sargica. The Veronian felt nostagic about his last visit to the harsh geometric world, back when he tried to escape…correction, did escape the reach of...correction, that is, the law. In any case, neither of the P.E.T.S. could fathom what blinking in or out actually meant inside a simulation centroid.

There was a corresponding town over in Deleon, but it was absolutely empty. The two men headed north and soon found the coast. There was a small boat waiting for them. As they started rowing to the opposite shore, Lancour broke the silence:

“This silver box she talked about. Any idea on how big it is?”

“I imagine it’s some sort of portable prison (shuirti dukinglaiglari). It won’t be too large…”

“A silver box. Fuck.”

Dan laughed. “Inculae from the Silver Planet rules the universe. In a manner of speaking, we all live in a silver box.”

“Whoa, whoa, careful, Squadron Leader sir. Let's keep it in our heads. I dare say that comment is bordering on the seditious!” Lancour was liking Dan more and more.

” I know Inculae, Lancour. They are not too afraid of the Truth. What worries them are deceptions.”

Both men fell to musing, but the sight of the coastline confronted them once more with the reality, as far as it went, of their simulated mission.

“Dan, she wants us to exterminate those Littors, huh.”

Dan did not respond. Maybe it was too obvious and stupid a question. Maybe the Danguang hadn’t heard him, maybe he was too busy pondering the vastness of universal injustice (suvadozalin).

“700 Littors, trapped in a box. Fuck me, man, the hell kind of peace enforcement is that?!”

Dan kept quiet. Lancour thought back to the aliens calling him a traitor, then reminded himself it was all a simulation. But if it this was part of their training, it meant one day he’d probably have to go and do it for real.

“Hmph.”

15

The fourth member of Tartion’s Constat team greeted them at the temple with a broad smile and a box, the so-called silver box, about twelve inches long and six inches wide. Before Dan could say anything she had blinked out. Lancour gave the Danguang a smile. They both felt pity for each other and for their captives. Lancour tucked the box under his arm.

The darkness around the temple area was so dark that one could easily catch glimpses of a few Littors that had still evaded capture buzzing about. At least, it was Lancour’s hope that they were a few. Still, the Veronian was a little shocked, and oddly pleased, to see that neither the regular squadrons nor bloody Constat itself were as perfectly efficient as everyone thought. By rights they should have taken care of every single Littor in the area. Or maybe they reckoned that once the ones in the box were gotten rid of, the rest would return to Eryam of their own accord…

Mopping up the area was not among their orders, so Dan and Lancour made way for the coast. As they moved, the box hummed to the tune of 700 trapped Littors. No wonder the Constat Incula hadn’t budged from the temple. She didn’t want to rattle the Littors and alert their friends. And indeed, the more Dan and Lancour walked the louder the noise emanating from the box became, and the more flashes of light they could catch fluttering about them.

They reached another conveniently placed boat. Lancour was about to hop on when Dan stopped him.

“The noise from these Littors is reaching dangerous levels. If there are more of them outside, and they attempt a rescue while we’re on the water, it would be a logistical nightmare.”

“Indeed,” Lancour responded, wondering what the point of stating the obvious was. Shouldn’t they rather hurry up as much as possible?!

“As a squadron leader, it is my duty to adapt the operation when circumstances change. This is such a case. It is true what they say: Life is unpredictable.”

“Indeed.” The Danguang had said that before, Lancour remembered, back during the sneezing incident with the spores.

“That is why I will use my Silent Spores ability to eliminate the noise and minimize the risk to our mission.”

Lancour stared at Dan, and was about to berate him for the sheer lunacy of his proposal when it hit him. He nodded, adding for good measure:

“Do it quickly and let’s get out of here.”

Dan said: “Silent Spores!”

The humming stopped as Veronian began to violently sneeze. There was absolutely no need for him to play it up for effect. He couldn’t have held on to the silver box even if he had wanted to with all his heart. The thing fell down from his hands. A Littor came up from behind them and swiftly crashed into the box. It was a suicide attack and it succeeded. The box burst open and all 700 Littors came buzzing out.

Dan gestured for Lancour to go after them, but at first the latter couldn’t really do anything else but sneeze. Thankfully, the released Littors were more concerned with fleeing than with killing them. They moved in the direction of the temple with Dan shooting after them, and Lancour, running and sneezing, a few feet behind.

Once in the temple area, a dozen Littors turned around and began to strike back. Lancour felt a searing pain on his right shoulder as one of them found its target. With the Silent Spores still active, the P.E.T.S. couldn’t make the pain go away like usual (their second grade “malleability of pleasure and pain” ability had to be activated by voice), but on the upside Lancour didn’t have to suppress any unseemly howls or screams either. Anyway, Lancour felt elated. Far better to kill the Littors in combat, or be killed if that was his fate, than execute them in cold blood, though for the life of him he couldn’t grasp the idea of Littors having blood. He had a hard time controlling his sneezes, but somehow managed to take out the Littor that had hurt him.

Dan, for his part, had killed about ten of the enemy, when suddenly he motioned to Lancour to get down. The Danguang switched the setting on his gun and Lancour immediately took to the ground, knowing that Dan was about to fire a Blazeflood, bad news for anything standing nearby. Dan aimed at a group of Littors, but didn’t shoot just yet. Lancour turned his head and looked at him. Dan slowly reached for the trigger, and then the 700-odd Littors opposing them suddenly vanished. Apparently their impending annihilation had jolted the Littors’ memories and reminded them how to blink.

Lancour stood up. ‘Well I’ll be damned…” he said, or would have said if his voice was working properly. At least the sneezing had almost stopped.

They took a boat back southwest and blinked into Eryam. Six had had no problem with the town Littors. Dan wrote down what had happened, making it understood that the sneezing was supposed to have been an unforeseeable accident, and the Garland comm-called Tartion to make a report. The Incula appeared to them via hologram.

“You don’t have to tell me what happened. Whatever you did worked. The captured Littors blinked into Eryam and immediately submitted. It wasn’t what I told you to do but it works for us just the same.”

Lancour was in high spirits, and more than ready to throw caution to the winds. He wrote down something on a piece of paper and passed it to Six. The Garland frowned and crushed the paper in his jaws. To his dismay, Tartion had noticed the act and wouldn’t let it go.

“What does the Veronian say?”

Six growled at Lancour, then replied: “He asks if you are good with blades.”

“I have a weakness for daggers,” deadpanned Tartion. “…And not for much else.”

The Incula looked to the side as she tapped on a keyboard, then turned her eyes to Dan.

“I see now. Silent Spores, huh. What a dangerous Danguang you are.”

Dan bowed and wrote something on a piece of paper. Six took it much more readily than Lancour’s, though his face soured when he actually read the contents. He had no choice but to relay them, however.

“The feeling is mutual, he says.”

To the side, Lancour was furiously scribbling on another piece of paper. Six looked at him and said: “That’ll be your last one, Lankers.”

“Very funny” is what the Veronian would have said if he could. Six read the message: “You’re almost too much of a talker to be a simulation.”

Tartion stopped typing away. “Hahaha! And you’re almost too much of a sneezer… I didn’t realize Veronians were this quirky.”

The Incula’s brief levity disintegrated as what seemed to be a customary frown returned to her face. She eyed the crew as if trying to penetrate into their hearts. Six nervously volunteered an explanation:

“We didn’t know that the Danguang’s abilities would cause the Veronian to react thus. I imagine the Incudean records on the species must be updated.”

Tartion grew thoughtful, then smiled, and was just about to speak when she began to contort wildly. Dan knew what it was immediately, but Six and Lancour were quite terrified, both thinking they had botched the training or worse, they had botched the whole gig. The hologram crackled and buzzed as badly as any Littor would.

Tartion was trying to speak but whatever was coursing inside of her wouldn’t let her. Then she was finally able to scream out something. Lancour heard it right, but since he couldn’t make heads or tails of it, he assumed he had gotten it wrong. She had yelled: “For the greater glory of the Glowgerms!!” And with that, she was gone.

Tartion's Ascent

Six asked Dan if he should comm-call Sukara. Dan nodded, but before the Garland could contact the Ava the simulation suddenly ended.

16

The three men reunited with Sukara outside the centroid. They climbed to the rooftop again, waiting for the effects of the Silent Spores to wear off. Six was sick of having the others pass papers around to him, and Sukara had been in the landing zone throughout, so Dan took it upon himself to give the full report, which meant they would have to wait for his vocal chords to function properly again.

For a long time they all sat still. Each of them had plenty of thoughts to entertain them. It was Sukara who finally broke the silence. She told the others she had been visited by a fellow from Constat. Six asked her:

“Tartion, I imagine. We met her too.”

“That was her name, yeah. She was weird.” Sukara stared at her shoes for a minute, then looked at Dan. “She said she hadn’t seen one of me before, so she gave me a gift.”

“What was it?” Six asked.

“A dagger.”

Dan wrote something and gave it to Sukara. She said:

“Yes.” Again she broke off, looked at the ground, and with eyes still riveted there, she added: “Yes, that’s just it.”

Lancour stood up and tried to take the paper from Sukara’s hand. The Ava tossed it to the winds and the Veronian went after it, recklessly, though he managed to grab it just before it disappeared beyond the edge. Dan had written a simple question: Do you still have it?

Lancour felt a headache coming on. The dagger wasn’t supposed to be real, was it? Unless the Incula was real… Once he allowed for the possibility it all came into place. Tartion was real, she was running through a simulation just like they were and assumed they were unreal just like they did with regards to her. She finally figured out they were not a part of the simulation because of his own sneezing. If the fact that Veronians reacted so weirdly to Silent Spores was previously unknown then it couldn’t be in the database, which meant it would be totally out of place in the simulation. Then, for some reason or another this realization triggered in her an ascension. She probably was running around the third grade by now. Lancour himself remembered very clearly his own ascension to the second grade, and it was nothing quite as colorful, but he knew that different people experienced it in different ways (some people ascended a grade when sleeping and didn’t even notice it!) and so this in itself was no surprise.

He chuckled, then was surprised. The chuckle had made a sound, faint but sure. The spores were wearing off. He turned to Dan and whispered as best as he could: “What the hell’s a glowgerm?”

Dan’s response was just as faint, but nobody made a sound and the words were perfectly understood: “Glowgerm (kriavarta) is a derogatory term, a slur, for people from the Incudean planet of Glowgem (Kriavarda). My educated guess is that she herself hails from Glowgem, and her statement evinces, how shall I put it, a rather twisted sense of humor.”

Six quipped: “That will serve her well in Constat.”

Lancour simply whispered: “Fuck.”

17

Fast-forward nine months to the end of training and the official constitution of the E76th P.E.T.S. Dan, Six, Sukara and Lancour stand before the Second Voice of Sargica, the supreme exarchical authority in the second trinity. The Second Voice is not much of a talker, and this suits the P.E.T.S. fine. Her entire speech consists of the following lines, the first word in each pronounced slowly for emphasis:

“JUSTICE demands that our Empire rule the cosmos from one end to another.

BENEVOLENCE asks that we temper that rule with love and understanding.

CIRCUMSTANCE compels you to facilitate our aims

YOU will not fail us.”

Lancour thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Sukara’s comment at the dinner party was: “At least she didn’t call us shellies.”

Time passed. For almost three years the trail squadron acquitted themselves well in various operations throughout the Exotics. It all came to an end when Dan ascended to the third grade. The three remaining team members were assigned to Guard duty on Targa Oreon in Floy, a broken down mine-infested hellhole that stretched the definition of the word livable beyond all reasonable bounds. The third time that Sukara petitioned for news of Dan’s whereabouts and well-being, the Incula in charge tapped a few commands on her keyboard and then said to the Ava:

“He’s alive still. What else do you need to know?”

The first two times she had received no answer, and the response now was a rhetorical question, no doubt. Sukara knew better than to push her luck. She never petitioned again.

The old E76th was history. Or was it?

ultimately successful.

Second Voice of Sargica

The Second Voice of the Exarchy of Sargica

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