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Chapter One

Tareil had set, and Norellarn was a city of light. The pedestrian slidewalks were streams of mercury, the soaring crysteel-and-glass towers were a blaze of illumination, and, barely visible in the far distance, this hemisphere's orbital tower was a string of light rising impossibly up, up, up into infinity.

Yes, Norellarn seemed constructed of light. And to Varien hle'Morna, viewing the dazzling cityscape from the balcony of his private office, it was as insubstantial as the massless photons of that light, for he knew it was doomed.

The great city in the last days of its greatness, its civilization a ghost that does not yet know it is dead! Varien shook himself irritably. And how many more banalities shall we dredge up from bad historical fiction? He rubbed the tip of his right index finger across an area of skin on the back of his left hand, activating the imprint circuits, and consulted the tiny chronometer that glowed to life. Yes, it was time. He squared his narrow shoulders, turned his back on the city and strode purposefully inside.

He paused to look around the familiar office, seeing its architecture and furnishings with new eyes. It was like a showcase for a tradition of understated elegance that had had centuries to refine upon refinement . . . a showcase about to be smashed by a steel truncheon.

Yes, perhaps one could do worse than historical novels as a source of inspiration just now. History has started happening to this world of Raehan again, and it's been so long that we've forgotten how to react. Better cliche than speechlessness.

Enough! He lowered himself into a Taelieu-period recliner and took a set of wraparound, ear-covering goggles from the small matching end table beside it. He then attached a few tiny movement sensors to his clothing at various points on his upper body, put on the headset, and spoke a short numeric code.

Tarlann and Arduin were already seated at the plain conference table. Sitting and talking was, of course, about all that the three of them, located in as many continents, could do; nothing more was required at the moment, and it would have been too much trouble to don the full suit and helmet that would have enabled them to interact physically, with all the appropriate sensations. Never really liked the things anyway, Varien groused to himself. If they get much better, how will we keep track of what is and isn't real? At least, this shared line was as secure as Varien's resources, and the military ones at Arduin's disposal, could make it. And the stark, utilitarian meeting room that the program simulated was appropriate to the subject at hand.

"Well," Varien began without ceremony, addressing Tarlann. "Is everything in readiness?"

His son nodded, his unease palpable as the computer faithfully reproduced all the outward signs of human emotions it would never feel. "Yes, father. I know it's useless to try to talk you into changing your mind . . . ."

"Then don't bother trying," Varien cut in. "Our time is limited." He instantly regretted his curtness—he might never see his only son again. He softened his tone, which had always represented his very best effort at apology. "Our plans have already been set in motion, son. And you've been running our enterprises on a day-to-day basis for years now, so the company shouldn't go into shock. Besides, It's not as if I was leaving permanently!" Which, he gibed at himself, might even turn out to be true. He turned to Arduin. "And at your end?"

His old friend and colleague nodded, looking even more miserable than Tarlann. Varien understood; as a senior officer in the new Raehaniv military, Arduin was experiencing a conflict of loyalties with which his open and honorable nature was unfit to cope. Varien's arguments had persuaded his intellect, but his conscience remained stubbornly unconvinced. Of course, Arduin's misery might also have had something to do with the sheer discomfort of the uniform he was wearing. The Raehaniv had remembered enough of their history to think, uncritically, of uniforms as something soldiers were supposed to have. And for their desperately improvised military, they had naturally looked to the most recent examples of such things: the consciously archaic (even then) confections used by the rival states of the Fourth Global War in their efforts to reignite their despairing populations' nationalism.

So we made our defenders look—and feel—like buffoons, Varien reflected. Ah, well; we did everything else wrong, so why not that too?

"Yes," Arduin amplified. "The last of the supply caches is in place. And I've managed to arrange for the transfer of the remainder of the units whose commanders I can be sure of. There'll be a resistance fleet operating in the asteroids when you return." A fresh wave of anguish crossed his blunt features; he was discovering what it was to serve two masters, and it was anathema to him. When he spoke, it was to blurt out the final appeal that Varien had known he must make. "Varien, you don't need to do this! Turn the new drive over to the government! Maybe we can still put it to use, stop the Korvaasha before . . ."

"We've been over this ground already, Arduin," Varien interrupted, his voice unwontedly gentle. "Many times, in fact. I put it to you: has the situation changed since our final decision was reached? Do you have any new information that invalidates the logic of that decision?"

"No," Arduin admitted.

"Then," Varien went on remorselessly, "our conclusions still stand. The Korvaash fleets are advancing at a rate limited only by their own caution—I imagine they still haven't fully grasped how feeble their opposition is." He raised a forestalling hand. "Forgive me, old friend, but the time for good manners is past. No one doubts the courage of your young men and women. They will go on till the end, trying to shelter Raehan behind a wall of their own corpses. But they are, quite simply, amateurs—products of a society for which war has been nothing more than the fading memory of an old nightmare. And they are fighting an enemy who sees himself as being permanently at war and organizes his society accordingly, and who commands resources that dwarf ours."

"But," Arduin argued stubbornly, "our technology is more sophisticated than theirs! Given your new drive . . ."

" . . . We could do far more damage to them than we otherwise would," Varien finished for him. "Maybe even provoke them into making exceptions to their usual guidelines for dealing with newly conquered planets—exceptions we wouldn't like. But we could not stop them. No technological advantage can win a war without a viable military force to take advantage of it. To give the drive to our government now would merely make it part of the spoils the Korvaasha will take when they occupy Raehan." He paused for breath, and then gazed somberly at the other two.

"I haven't used this argument until now, partly because"—a wintery smile—"it is so out of character that you both would have suspected I was up to something. But I ask you to consider this. We now know we are not the only intelligent race in the cosmos. So we are acting not only for ourselves, but for all that lives and thinks! To give the Korvaasha the secret of faster-than-light interstellar travel without recourse to displacement points—and, I repeat, that is precisely what turning it over to our government would amount to—would be to remove all limits to the militaristic expansion their ideology commands them to pursue. Their capabilities would become as unbounded as their aims. I will see Raehan go down into the dark rather than permit my work to be so perverted!"

He stopped, as astonished at his own vehemence as they doubtless were. Tarlann finally broke the silence.

"The Korvaasha will eventually discover it for themselves. You yourself have said it is a logical outgrowth of gravitics. In fact, you've admitted the concept wasn't original with you—you merely found a way to make it workable."

"Which is precisely why I have no intention of leaving them in peace to discover it," Varien replied, his normal asperity reasserting itself. "The entire purpose of our plans is to secure allies. Raehan cannot be saved—but it can be liberated."

"And what makes you so sure the Landaeniv will be able—or inclined—to do so? You've learned enough about them to know that their technology is laughable compared to ours or even the Korvaasha . . . ."

" 'Far behind' I will grant," Varien interrupted his son. "But not 'laughable'. Aelanni's people at Lirauva have concluded that we are looking at a civilization at least as advanced as ours was at the time of the Third Global War. And it seems probable that for the last several generations they have been advancing about as rapidly as we did during that era. So constant change has become an expected part of their lives; they are intellectually ready to accept the notion of a still higher technology, and not just fall down and start babbling of magic. They will be able to understand, utilize, and even—with certain exceptions—manufacture the devices we will explain to them. And as for why they will be willing to ally themselves with us . . . well, you seem to have answered your own question. We can offer them a technological quantum leap. We can offer them the stars!" He paused, then continued more matter-of-factly. "Of course they'll have to be approached in the right way. That's why I have to go myself; I don't trust anyone else to manage the critical first-contact stage . . . ."

Arduin barked laughter. "Right! You're just what we need when tact and diplomacy are called for! Varien, you never change. Always the Indispensable Man!" The big engineer-turned-admiral paused reflectively. "Still, you may be right about their ability to help us. They still live with the threat of war—they have professional soldiers. And they'll be able to enter this system from a totally unexpected direction." The other two nodded unconsciously; it was their other great secret, and they knew what would have to be done to preserve it. "You may also be right about their willingness to help us against the Korvaasha, given . . . what we now know about them."

His voice trailed to a halt, and no one broke the silence. They were all rationalists, children of a culture for which rationalism had been beyond debate for centuries. Faced with the rationally inexplicable, they were intellectually lost. In his circumlocution, Arduin was as one with the most superstitious of his forebears, fearful to speak aloud the names of unknowable, ill-omened things.

We must face what we know to be fact, Varien thought bleakly, and not let our inability to explain it paralyze us. Later—if there is a later—we will have time to try and account for the manifestly impossible. In our present pass, we can only seek to take whatever advantage we can from it.

"Well," he spoke briskly, "at all events, my mind is made up. I will depart on schedule." He spoke a command, and a holographic image-of-an-image appeared, suspended above the table. It showed stars, identified by glowing labels in the uncial Raehaniv alphabet and linked to each other by narrow bands of pale-blue light representing the connections between displacement points—those gravitational anomalies which were, as far as nearly everyone knew, still the only way to evade the lightspeed limit. Four of the luminous bands branched out from the star Tareil, on whose second planet they sat; every other such display on this world of Raehan showed three. Varien reached out and indicated the series of displacement connections reaching outward from the fourth point through three intervening star systems to the glowing star-symbol of Lirauva. His eyes lingered over another such symbol floating close to Lirauva in isolation, unconnected to any other star, with the name "Landaen" beside it in letters of light.

"The Lirauva Chain," he declaimed, giving it the convenience-label by which it was known to the few who knew of it at all. "The knowledge of its existence will, after tonight, vanish from every record in this planetary system . . . except, of course, your living memories. And you both know what must be done if you are in danger of being interrogated." The others both nodded, and for an instant Varien gazed at Tarlann and knew irreparable loss. Tarlann—brilliant student, efficient executive, the father of his grandchildren . . . but, somehow, never fully a son. Never enough time for that. Where did all that grey at his temples come from? All at once Varien wished they had, after all, donned the full virtual reality gear. A virtual embrace would have been better than none at all.

* * *

The next day, the global datanet interrupted the daily war news with the announcement that Varien hle'Morna, fabulously wealthy manufacturer of spacecraft and related technologies, holder of numerous scientific honors, discoverer of the displacement points that had given humankind the stars (and the Korvaasha, some muttered, though all admitted that the aliens' inexorable expansion would eventually have carried them to the Tareil system anyway) had died in a freak aircar accident. The body fragments found in the wreck made the identification certain—as they should have done, having been cloned and force-grown expressly for the purpose.

Raehan's great loss was duly remarked upon, suitable obsequies were uttered . . . and the world went back to awaiting its end.

* * *

In the outer reaches of the system, beyond the orbit of the outermost gas giant, where Tareil itself was little more than a yellow zero-magnitude star, a heavily stealthed ship rendezvoused with a small fleet of like vessels. In a little while, the ships began accelerating still further outward. Each of them, upon reaching a certain location in the void, suddenly surrounded itself with a momentary, space-distorting pulse of artificial gravitation . . . and vanished.

Presently, only two ships were left. They remained, with only the occasional absentminded flare of thrust needed to keep them on station near the region of nothingness that had swallowed their fellows, and monitored the reports of the robotic proxies that kept watch on the distant inner system of Tareil.

* * *

Again it was night. And I had so looked forward to seeing once again a living world's daylight, Varien thought, pulling his cloak tightly around his old body against the chill. But this was the night of a different world. And it was a different sort of night, here on the third planet of Lirauva's primary stellar component. The planet's sun—a yellow-white star somewhat more massive and luminous than Tareil—had set, but the secondary star of this binary system was in the sky, currently almost halfway out on its long elliptical orbit but still a bright orange flare that illuminated the coastal plain below the bluffs on which this base was built and dimmed all but the brightest stars in the sky—such as Landaen, at which he now gazed.

Not really a very luminous star, he knew—slightly less so than this planet's primary, in fact. But it was so close that light could travel the distance in just under six of Raehan's years. And it was the goal that had brought him here tonight, and that previously had lent urgency to his quest for a means of outpacing light where no displacement points existed. For his earliest outpost here at Lirauva, scanning the nearby stars, had detected the extravagant outpouring of patterned radio waves that could only represent the signature of a fairly advanced civilization, so tantalizingly just beyond this final terminus of the Lirauva Chain.

A patch of blackness flanked by running lights suddenly occluded a few stars, growing rapidly as Aelanni's drop shuttle fell groundward until it reached a sufficiently low altitude for its atmospheric drive to take hold. It then swooped around in a landing pattern that avoided areas of the base where electronic equipment might have been disrupted by the annoying side effects of grav repulsion. Must do something about that, Varien entered in his mental filing system as the shuttle settled onto the landing platform, its hatch wheezed open, and, for the first time in over two years, he saw his daughter.

Varien, and Varien alone, had never really seen her beauty. Features that were merely sharp in himself and Tarlann were, in Aelanni, chiseled by a sculptor of genius. Such a sculptor would have been inspired by the body her form-fitting light duty vac suit revealed, moving with unself-conscious grace as she descended the shuttle's ramp in a gravity eight percent less than Raehan's. Her long, thick dark hair held a fascinating reddish glint now brought out by Lirauva's secondary sun; it harmonized with reddish-brown skin, made even more coppery by long exposure to this planet's wind and sun. Her great deep-brown eyes also had a faintly reddish, almost mahogany tone . . . and Varien did, at times, see those eyes, for they were the eyes of his long-dead wife. But mostly he saw a mind as whetted as his son's, and an adventurousness that Tarlann would never possess.

They embraced with the restraint enjoined by their culture, which taught that to display personal passion was to crack open, ever so slightly, a door behind which roared the flames of total war. Still, it was more than the small, formal bows Varien's parents would have exchanged.

"Sorry I was at the orbital station when you arrived," she greeted him. "Miralann is sure he's onto a fundamental breakthrough in . . . well that doesn't matter now, does it?" She withdrew a step and looked him over. He had aged. "How bad is it?"

"Worse than you think . . . however bad that may be. When the last courier was sent here, we thought Raehan couldn't hold. Now we're certain of it."

"So." She gazed somberly around her at the base, and the world, that had been her home for two years. For a moment, it was so quiet that the faint, hissing roar of the distant surf was audible. She then looked upward at the tiny point of yellow-white light. "Then we must all go to Landaen?"

"Oh, not everyone. This base can remain in operation with a skeleton staff—I'll leave the choice of who remains up to you. But if our observers at Tareil ever come here with the news that the Korvaasha have discovered Tareil's fourth displacement point and the Lirauva Chain, it will be necessary to immediately obliterate every indication that we ever knew of it. We destroyed all the robot stations in the intervening systems on our way here." (So much still to learn in those systems! Aelanni looked as sad as Varien felt.) "And we've brought a fusion device which can be triggered with a minimum of fuss, and is powerful enough to wipe out every trace of this base.

"But," he continued more cheerfully, "for now we'll keep the base operating. I'll need you at Landaen, of course, and certain others . . . notably Miralann."

Aelanni smiled impishly. "For his professional expertise, Father? Or could it be that you also expect his hobby to be useful?" Varien smiled back. The brilliant linguist had made the initial breakthrough that had enabled them to crack the primary Landaeniv language sooner than anyone had expected. But they both knew that Miralann's hobby was the truly eccentric one of military history.

"Well, possibly," Varien allowed. "But I can certainly appreciate his professional achievement. Throughout the voyage here, I've been force-feeding myself that awful language. Of course, sleep-teaching devices are no substitute for actual practice . . . ."

And, Aelanni knew, they exacted a price. She looked again at Varien's haggard face. "Father! At your age . . . !"

"There's no alternative," Varien said harshly. "I must be able to communicate with them. So must we all . . . although the rest of you can take it at a saner pace. And there is no time to be lost. As soon as your ships can be ready, we must depart for Landaen."

Aelanni's gaze drifted upward to the bright yellow-white star again. She had been there, almost a year before. "Yes, Landaen," she said somberly. "It's seemed to dominate our destinies, hasn't it? I remember when you were almost ready to make it, and the entire Lirauva Chain, public knowledge. But then we found out about the Landeniv, and we all agreed that the secret would have to be kept a little longer. There was no predicting how people would react to the news that we had discovered the one, single thing that we had known we would never discover: another race of humans!"

Silence descended again. Trust Aelanni to say it openly and unflinchingly, Varien thought. She was right, of course. The social consequences of blurting out upon the datanets the great contradiction their earliest probing of Landaen had revealed—the starkly impossible which was also starkly factual—were unpredictable. Varien and the group of brilliant people he had gathered around him might think of themselves as fearless iconoclasts; but they were, inescapably, Raehaniv. Uncontrollable, unmanageable change was, simply, bad. So it had been for centuries.

Varien also looked up at the yellow-white star, and the skin at the nape of his neck prickled.

"Well." He spoke a little more loudly than necessary, straightening his cloak. "Whatever my reasons—and I seem to recall hearing the term 'childish secretiveness' from you at the beginning—it is fortunate that I kept the knowledge to myself. For it is now the one advantage we have over the Korvaasha. We must make what use of it we can—for we, here, are now acting for our entire race. As quickly as possible, we must depart Lirauva . . . but no." He smiled, seeking to lighten the mood. "I must practice my Landaeniv, and broaden my vocabulary. What do the Landaeniv call Lirauva? They must have a name for this system—it's one of the brighter stars in their night skies."

"Oh, yes. Let's see . . ." She frowned as she struggled with the impossibly strange syllables. "Alpha Centauri, I believe they call it."

Varien nodded, and practiced the words as the two of them walked toward the waiting ground car.

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