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CHAPTER ONE

Nyjord (Nu Phoenicis IV), 3889 C.E.

Afterwards, Basil Castellan was always certain that it had all begun the day he'd been rescued by the dragon.

Oh, it hadn't been a real dragon, of course. So he hastily assured everyone to whom he told the story. Only . . . it had been a real dragon. He would never share that particular knowledge with anyone but Sonja and Torval.

* * *

His feet started to slip as he mounted the trail, such as it was, and he scrambled to compensate, grabbing at the slender trunk of a sapling. He felt a sense of kinship, for its species was a Terran import like his own; and the tree evidently agreed, for it held. He pulled himself upright and regained his footing, then resumed hiking uphill.

The ridge line couldn't be too much further. Not that he could see it yet, for he'd walked upward into a low-lying cloud that enveloped this region of the Kraaken range, into an enchanted world of pearly mist made subtly iridescent whenever the afternoon light of Nu Phoenicis came streaming through the occasional rift.

Then, abruptly, he was above the clouds, and the ridge line was just ahead. He hastened his steps and soon was at the summit, standing under a crystalline blue sky in which Nyjord's small, intense white sun rode serenely with only a few fleecy high-altitude clouds for escorts. He stood breathing heavily, but only for a moment. He was a healthy young man of fifteen years (local years, of course; eighteen of the standard years of faraway Earth in which people's ages, as well as history, were generally measured), and exertion in this thin mountain air was more exhilarating than exhausting. He turned slowly in a circle, automatically shading his eyes against a slightly more ultraviolet-rich sunlight than they'd evolved under.

Below and to the east, whence he'd come, the wooded mountainside sloped down into the clouds that rested against it like an ocean lapping against a breakwater. But elsewhere all was dazzling clarity, and he could see forever through air that had never known large-scale burning of hydrocarbons. Northward and southward the mountains curved away into infinity, while to the west a whole series of upland valleys spread themselves verdantly at his feet. Beyond them the further ranges of the Kraaken rose, range piled upon enormous range. Dark forests clothed the lower slopes, but above the timberline the peaks rose through snow and glaciers to altitudes where no life could exist.

After a while he dragged his eyes from those god-remote titans and gazed down at the valleys below, checkerboarded with fields and dotted with curious little towns where a few pure-blooded Old Nyjorders still spoke the language their ancestors had brought from a part of Earth called Scandinavia. The sun was warm, but his jumpsuit's molecularly engineered material responded to his sweat by breathing more copiously, and no discomfort distracted him from the view. He was still in familiar territory, for he'd come to this crag many times in the course of his youth, sometimes in the company of friends but more and more often alone. Here, with what seemed like the entire continent on display far below, he'd always felt an irrational but nonetheless real sense of isolation; his problems were down there in those distant valleys and plains, and couldn't touch him. Which was why he'd come today, for what would probably be the last time. He'd already taken a long look through the window of his old room at a familiar panorama that had suddenly seemed strange, and disposed of certain objects which he'd somehow never quite gotten around to throwing out; but this seemed the right place to complete the relinquishment of boyhood.

He shook his head, irritated with himself. It must, he decided, be the thinness of the air. His mother, a planetologist by profession, had explained it long ago. "Nyjord is a relatively massive world, compared to Old Earth," she'd clipped, in lecture mode.

"Is that what they mean by 'one point thirteen gee'?" he'd piped up, eager to display his precociousness. How old had he been that day?

"Don't interrupt. And yes, that means that our gravity is stronger than Earth standard. At the same time, our atmosphere is somewhat thinner. That's all right at sea level, or even on this plateau. But the gravity causes the atmospheric density to drop off faster with altitude—you might say the atmosphere is shallower and 'harder.' Anyway, that's why the higher peaks of the Kraakens are lifeless; they're in near-vacuum." She'd indicated the distant pale-blue mountains to the west that seemed to float above the cityscape beyond their back garden. "And it's why you and your friends have to be very careful hiking, even on the established trails. As you climb higher, the air can get dangerously thin before you know it."

He'd stopped listening, for his eyes had followed her finger toward the mountains and stayed there. "Is it true," he'd asked softly, "that a Luon lives up there?"

"Well," she'd replied, slightly ill at ease, "there are always stories. Nobody knows how many Luonli are left on this world, if any—certainly not more than a very few. Some people claim to have seen one in this part of the Kraakens. But they were probably just imagining things. Luonli are hardly ever seen unless they want to be seen."

"Why? I mean, if they're so big . . . ?"

Her unease had deepened. "It has to do with telepathy."

All his resolve to seem grown-up and sophisticated had fled, leaving him alone with the childhood fears that were part of his culture's legacy. "You mean . . . you mean they can control your mind . . . ?"

"Don't be silly! The theory is that they can, ah, implant certain suggestions . . . including the negative one that you haven't seen something." She'd taken a deep breath and turned severe. "Don't bother your head with such things! Even if there are any Luonli left on Nyjord, they keep to themselves just as they do on all the worlds where they live."

"But," he'd protested, "if nobody ever sees one, how do we know they even exist? My friend Ivar says they don't." But Ivar hadn't said so very loudly.

"Oh, they exist," she had said, smiling and nodding slowly. "If they didn't, we wouldn't be living here."

Later, he'd learned what she had meant. And whenever he'd walked this trail he had strained his eyes against the intense sunlight, hoping for just a glimpse in the royal-blue sky. But none had been granted him. And, it seemed, none was going to be today.

He stretched and rubbed a finger across the sun-browned skin of the back of his left hand. The imprinted circuitry glowed to life and showed him the time. He really shouldn't go any further, not if he wanted to return the way he'd come. But he could always summon the aircar he'd parked down below—it was quite capable of flying itself and seeking out his wrist communicator's homing beacon. Normally, neither he nor any of his friends would be caught dead taking advantage of any such unworthy expedient. But now, on the eve of his departure for Sigma Draconis, he was above all that. Wasn't he? He sighed. Maybe he should start back now. He began to turn, then paused for a last look at the vista which, like so much else, he was leaving behind.

It was then that a metallic-seeming glint of reflected sunlight in the high deep-blue vault of heaven caught his eye. It didn't register at first; surely it must be a high-altitude aircraft, although few such flew above this region. But no, the glint wasn't really metallic, for it was not quite coppery and not precisely golden, and as he focused on it he could make out the impossibly slow beat of vast wings. . . .

"A Luon," he breathed, fearful to shatter the crystalline fragility of the moment. Then, as he watched, the Luon caught an updraft and snapped its wings out to full extension, swooping into a southward glide, and was gone from sight.

The lateness of the hour was forgotten. He had to get another look. He looked to his left. The trail led upward as it followed the ridge line to the south. Perhaps the Luon was headed to its home among the higher crags. Nobody really knew where they lived, but it was well known that they liked mountains, and his imagination conjured up a titanic eyrie where the Luon perched—or whatever—in lonely majesty. Without hesitation, he started upward. It was steep, and the trail seemed little used. He paused to pick up a fallen limb that was the right length to make a walking stick. He made good time with its aid, leveraging himself up the increasingly steep trail and dismissing his occasional, annoying dizziness with a headshake and a deep breath. In his eagerness, he didn't notice that he was having to do so more and more frequently.

The woods were thinning, leaving the view obstructed only by a few stunted trees. Soon, surely, he must catch another sight of the Luon. The thought made him glance upward, and he momentarily lost his footing. He muttered a word that even now would have drawn a rebuke from his mother, irritated by the way his head spun as he steadied himself. Then, up ahead, he saw that the trail narrowed as it skirted the righthand side of a crag. To the right of the trail, a sheer cliff fell away. There'd be a matchless view from there, he thought as he resumed his heavy-breathing progress.

The trail was rough as well as narrow as it wound around the crag. Fortunately, he'd never been afflicted by a fear of heights. And the view was even more spectacular than he'd expected. He rested his back and looked around for a sight of the Luon.

There was no flash of reflected sunlight anywhere in the sky. But maybe the Luon had left some trace of its habitation nearby. He leaned forward, using the stick to support his weight, and peered southward.

With a sharp crack, the stick snapped.

His oxygen-deprived brain responded with nightmarish slowness as he began to topple forward. He tried to throw himself back and regain his balance, but then his feet began to slip and in a timeless instant of terror he was over the edge, scraping his back against the lip of the cliff as he fell. He flailed his arms wildly, seeking something to grab. As he did, his left wrist smashed into the cliff face, and he felt a stinging pain. Then he was in free fall . . . but only for a sickening moment. With an ankle-wrenching impact, he landed on a ledge. Then he began to slide off it, but this time his windmilling arms caught the stunted trunk of one of the dwarf trees—not of Earthly origin—that grew through cracks in the rock at these altitudes.

For a time he simply hung there, feet dangling above the abyss, breathing in great gasps. Then, slowly and painfully, he pulled himself back up onto the little ledge. Only then did he yield to the shakes.

At last he could think clearly, if somewhat sluggishly. All right. No problem. Call the aircar. He brought his left hand up to speak into the wrist communicator . . . and then he remembered the pain in that wrist.

The communicator's plastic casing should have held. He must have hit it against the rocks in exactly the right way—or, rather, in exactly the wrong way. For a while he just looked at the shattered device, ignoring the cuts made by jagged little fragments. They were the least of his worries. Finally, for lack of anything better to do, he tried to activate the communicator. The result was precisely what he'd expected: a brief crackling sound and a flicker of dying molecular circuitry seen through the breaks in the casing, then nothing.

After a while he became aware that the sun was almost touching the peaks to the west as Nyjord's 19.3-hour day drew to a close. His jumpsuit would compensate for external temperature changes, up to a point. But in this thin air the nighttime drop in temperature was extreme, and a slight chill was already invading him. He looked up and saw that the trail from which he'd fallen wasn't too far above his ledge. Given anything at all to get a handhold on, he would have tried to climb the cliff wall. But there was only sheer stone.

He tried to think constructively, if only to avoid leaving a vacuum for despair to fill. But all that came was resentment of the Luon for having lured him into this. He rejected it angrily as the irrational petulance he knew it to be, but it wouldn't go away; he couldn't get it out of his head. . . .

And as he thought about it, something else came into his mind, something he had never felt before, something that seemed to swell like an expanding sun until for a moment its glare filled his consciousness, filled the universe. . . .

Then he was warily approaching the edge of the rock outcropping on all fours. (Odd, he'd never been afraid of heights before.) He looked down the sheer cliff at the wooded valley below. And all at once he forgot to breathe.

He'd only gotten the briefest, most distant glimpse of the Luon before. Now, in all its immeasurable splendor, it swept along almost skimming the tops of those trees so far below. Then, in a maneuver that its thirty-meter wings couldn't account for, it banked and flung itself upward, all that mass arrowing straight up toward him at a velocity that must surely carry it past and on up into the darkening sky.

Then it was level with him, and thrust its wings outward in a violent braking motion that brought it to a sudden stop with a thunderclap sound that flung him physically back from the edge, stunned. He scarcely noticed, for he was face to face with a visage conjured up from myth, gazing into enormous amber eyes in whose depths he saw the source of that which had seemed to burn its way into his mind. . . .

The cold wind brought him back to consciousness. Then his situation began to register, one impossible impression at a time.

The sun was setting and he was above the corrugated landscape of the eastern Kraakens, headed south. He would surely have yielded to hypothermia had it not been for the warmth emanating from the great flying body against which he was being held. What was holding him was one of the four specialized arms between the wings and the head. Aft of the wings, he knew, would be four more limbs: the legs and two that could function as either legs or arms. All these limbs, including the two that specialized as wings, were arranged in pairs. The Luonli might not be vertebrates—evolution had produced something far more flexible than a spinal column on their unknown homeworld—but they were bilaterally symmetrical.

Just ahead of him was the great head that a native of Earth might have characterized as vaguely crocodilian in a lighter-jawed sort of way until he saw the eyes. One of those eyes—their settings were wonderfully flexible—turned to gaze at him.

"Ah, you are conscious." A sensation of relief accompanied the bell-clear words into his mind, but then came concern at the cultural phobias that had come roaring to the surface of his consciousness. "Please set your mind at rest. I am, it is true, communicating with you telepathically. But your innate resistance to such communication is such that I can only detect consciously organized surface thoughts, such as those that a non-telepath such as yourself formulates in the process of speech. A certain sensitivity to emotions is an unavoidable concomitant, but with that exception your mental privacy is as secure as it is when you are conversing with a fellow human."

Basil knew about his own psi-resistance, for like everyone else he'd been tested for such talents at an early age. Of course, there was no knowing how effective it would be against an alien's powers. . . . But somehow it never occurred to Basil to doubt the Luon's words, or to suspect that his lack of doubt was a result of mental manipulation. He could only ask, "Where are you taking me?" in a voice that the wind whipped instantly away into inaudibility but which the Luon "heard" perfectly.

"Since night is falling, I thought it best to take you to shelter before the temperatures fall to a level that is dangerous to you. In the morning, I will convey you to the nearest human habitation, unless you have a specific destination in mind."

"My aircar," he muttered. For a fact, the wind was biting into him cruelly and his eyeballs were starting to ache. But he felt oddly detached from all such sensations, as detached as he was from fear.

The stars were coming out and one of the moons was rising as they approached a cliff. For a moment of panic, Basil thought the Luon was going to crash into it. But then the great wings went into braking configuration, and the Luon lost velocity with an abruptness that almost stunned its human passenger. Very slowly, they continued to approach that rock wall.

"Prepare yourself," said the calm, asexual pseudo-voice in his head.

The moonlit sky around them and the world beneath vanished.

Basil had no opportunity to lose his sanity, for without the passage of any time at all they were in an interior that seemed too vast to be indoors, landing with a bone-rattling thump, and the Luon was using its legs and dual-purpose limbs to come to a running stop. Conservation of momentum, he thought with a brain that only wanted to gibber.

The irresistibly strong arms released him and he sank to the stony floor, content for the moment to let the sudden warmth soak into his bones. Presently, his surroundings began to register. He could see clearly, although the artificial lighting's source was obscure. But it was difficult to make out the vaulted ceiling and soaring walls, for his initial impression of immense space had not been exaggerated. His intellect insisted that spaces designed to accommodate Luonli must be vast as a matter of simple practicality; the rest of him knew he stood in the Hall of the Mountain King.

The chamber was carved out of solid rock, and he had not the slightest doubt that it was inside the mountain they'd been approaching. It must fill most of it, and he wondered how, and when, the Luonli had scooped out a mountain's insides.

The thought made him turn and look at his rescuer. The Luon had its legs drawn up under it and its other limbs extended to prop it into a sitting position, and it gazed down from a height of only about half its total length—slightly more than three times Basil's height. Its wings were folded, although there was plenty of room to flap them in this titanic hall. The odd illumination, indefinably different in quality from electric light, shimmered on the fine scale pattern of its hide.

"So you can teleport, too," Basil heard himself say. Something about the acoustics made his voice seem less tiny than it should have in this hollow mountain.

The Luon didn't physically nod its head, but a sensation of nonverbal affirmation touched Basil's mind as the soundless words came in their unhurried way. "The technique is inherently limited, but it has its uses." (Concern.) "Are you hungry? Our species' dietary requirements are not identical, but there is considerable overlap, so I can offer you sustenance."

"I have my own food." Basil indicated his pouch and canteen. He wasn't hungry, but he found he was suffering from a bad case of dry-mouth. He took a swig of water from the canteen, wishing he'd brought something stronger. "Thank you for saving me," he continued belatedly. "Why did you do it?"

(Puzzlement.) "You were obviously in distress, and would hardly have survived the night. I followed an elementary ethical imperative. And besides . . ." For the first time, there was a perceptible hesitation in the Luon's telepathic cadence. "I knew your great-grandfather Boris Marczali."

Basil's lulled apprehensions awakened. "What? But you said you could only read the thoughts I actually vocalize—and I haven't told you who I am!"

"Compose yourself. I know you as the son of Arabella Marczali-Castellan and the late Lysander Castellan because I know of your mother—a noted student of my species. Which reminds me: a moment ago, you observed that we could teleport too. May I ask what you meant by that particular phraseology?"

"Well," Basil began, not noticing that the subject had been deftly changed, "the first humans to encounter you were unable to account for your ability to fly. It was a manifest impossibility for beings as massive as yourselves."

"Approximately three-quarters of a metric ton, in your terms," the Luon interjected.

"It was clear that you must be able to somehow neutralize, or shield against, gravity. At first it was theorized that you had some kind of contra-grav generator—not that anyone had any notion how to build one then—surgically implanted in your bodies." Basil wondered fleetingly if the Luon could sense his distaste and embarrassment. "That was back when people used to do that sort of thing a lot, you see. So the idea naturally occurred to them. But it didn't make sense. You wouldn't have evolved in the wild as flyers if you couldn't fly without advanced technology. So after Antonescu established the scientific basis of psi phenomena, it was suggested that maybe you used psionic levitation for lift, and that the wings are for lateral movement only. My mother has always favored that theory, even though it doesn't seem to make evolutionary sense either. . . ." He trailed to an abashed halt as the Luon's amusement communicated itself nonverbally to him.

"I see that you have come to share your mother's interest in us . . . and also, perhaps, the characteristic academic tendency to lecture." The Luon paused, whether thoughtfully or for effect Basil couldn't tell. "In point of fact, she is correct."

Basil grew aware that his mouth was hanging open. In the sixteen—or was it seventeen?—standard centuries since human interstellar explorers had first set unbelieving eyes on a Luon, the aliens had never evinced the slightest hostility toward humankind. But neither had they volunteered any solutions to the mysteries implicit in their existence. They had simply remained aloof, living out their unimaginably long lives in solitary splendor—never had two of them been seen together—amid the mountainous terrain they seemed to prefer. Only rarely did they deign to notice their small, ephemeral supplanters.

"But," the Luon broke into his thoughts, "why do you say this violates evolutionary logic?"

Basil ordered himself not to stammer. He didn't know why he was being singled out to receive such knowledge, but he had to prolong this unique moment as long as possible. This flow of revelations must be made to continue. "Well, er, a species' evolutionary history occurs before it becomes sentient—that is, before psionic powers become possible. It's like the notion of the implanted contra-grav device; evolution wouldn't have prepared you to exercise a capability you weren't going to acquire until later."

"Your logic is faultless. But your premises are not. You see, our evolutionary ancestors acquired an elementary form of psionic levitation while still presentient."

Basil's mouth started to open, but in his mind he felt the equivalent of an upraised, forestalling hand. "Yes, I know: psionic phenomena are a concomitant of neural activity above a level of complexity which is normally associated with sentience. But our brain structure, like our physiology, is the unique product of an equally unique series of evolutionary accidents—what I believe you would call an evolutionary 'hothouse plant.' We became aware of this when we left our homeworld."

"I suppose," Basil began hesitantly, hardly daring to ask for more information than he'd already been given, "that's why you engaged in so many terraforming projects."

"Leaving aside your ethnocentric terminology, the answer is yes." (Renewed amusement.) "I perceive that this accounts for the interest your mother—a planetologist, not an exobiologist—has shown in us."

"Yes. Planetology is an offshoot of astronomy, and astronomers used to be conditioned to think in terms of a lifeless universe. But then we started to learn something about the planetary systems near Sol, and that stopped being possible. . . ."

* * *

Epsilon Eridani had been the first.

That K2v star, only eleven light-years distant, had once seemed one of humanity's most promising neighbors. Less massive than Sol, and burning with a relatively cool orange glow, it nevertheless belonged to that narrow range of main-sequence stars that could conceive and nurture a world at an orbital distance where liquid water was possible, neither tidelocking such a world into dual hells of searing and frozen hemispheres nor consuming it prematurely within the fiery envelope of an expanding red giant. Even before the first landing on Earth's moon, electronic ears had been cocked in Epsilon Eridani's direction, hoping to hear the voices of other radio users.

Then, in the last decade of the twentieth century, the realization had sunk home: Epsilon Eridani was rotating at the undignified rate of a young star. It hadn't existed long enough to slow to the more sedate spin of stellar adulthood. Any planets it possessed would be barren at best, molten at worst. The quest for life had turned elsewhere. Only in a spirit of curiosity about earlier stages of planetary-system formation, and as a matter of distinctly low priority, had the twenty-first century's space-based instruments been turned toward Epsilon Eridani.

They had found the spectral lines that meant free oxygen, and therefore life.

Somebody, it seemed, had been up to something.

* * *

"The astronomers never recovered, according to Mother. Some of them simply denied the findings until the first interstellar probes confirmed them. By then, other living worlds that shouldn't have existed had come to light—including this one. When the first colony ships reached those worlds, they found various species that were identical or nearly so on all of them."

"And, on some of them, us." For a time there was silence inside Basil's skull, beneath which he thought to detect a brooding undercurrent. Then the Luon resumed, at first with seeming irrelevance. "Our development differed from yours. For example, since we knew psionic phenomena to be possible we were able to attain an understanding of them at an earlier stage. At the same time, space travel was quite out of the question for us as long as payload mass remained a limiting factor, given our physical size and psychological need for living room." A motion with two right arms indicated the vast hall. "By the time we left the surface of our homeworld we had reached an overall technological level that your species would not attain until the Unification Wars period, but were far more advanced in the application of psionic effects—for which, unlike the vast majority of humans, we had a considerable natural aptitude."

"You must have been like gods," Basil breathed.

"But vulnerable gods. It was only when we ventured away from our birthworld that we came to realize how precisely we were attuned to it." (Irony.) "Once, when your race was still so new to the scientific world view as to be susceptible to pseudoscientific quackeries, there was a theory that human behavior was controlled by biorhythms. It was nonsense as applied to humans. But something analogous was altogether too real for us. Only rare individuals could survive away from the homeworld, with its particular orbital and rotational periods.

"We resolved to colonize as many planets as possible with those individuals, to assure the continuity of our species. It proved to be easier to establish a biosphere from scratch than to alter an existing one, so we were attracted to those planets which were capable of sustaining life but were as yet too young to have given birth to it." The Luon's features remained as expressionless as ever—what evolutionary need had a naturally telepathic race for a face which served as a communications device?—but Basil sensed an almost embarrassed hesitancy. "Naturally, the worlds with highly developed native biospheres were of greater intellectual interest—especially yours."

"You mean," Basil said faintly, "Earth?"

"Earth," the Luon confirmed. "One of only three worlds where we encountered tool users."

"We've never found any, besides yourselves—at least not in Imperial space." Basil wondered how far the Luonli had explored. But his rescuer continued before he could put the question.

"I perceive that you are not particularly surprised that we visited the human homeworld. It had been my impression that this was not a matter of general knowledge."

"Well, not exactly knowledge—no actual proof. But we've surmised it ever since we first encountered you. After all, it would account for an old legend of ours."

(Dawning recollection.) "Ah, yes: dragons."

Basil nodded. "They appear in the myths of various old Earth cultures, always looking similar but with strangely different personalities."

"Yes, it all comes back to me now: the benign if not always reliable lung of China versus the evil treasure-hoarding monsters of Europe and the Near East." The verbal symbols evoked fairly meaningful images in Basil's mind, even though his knowledge of Earth's geography was sketchy. "There is no great mystery here. An officially sanctioned scientific expedition, to the extent that such a concept has meaning for us, established itself among the Neolithic tribes that would one day become the Chinese. At the same time, western Eurasia became the field of operations for a group of . . ." (Acute embarrassment.)

"Uh, enemies in a war?" Basil prompted.

"Oh, no. Divided sovereignties were quite unknown to us."

"Pirates?" Basil suggested, unable to keep the incredulity out of his voice.

"Not precisely. I believe the closest social equivalent would be certain associations of humans who use one- and two-seat open contra-grav vehicles to cruise the traffic lanes in large groups, committing assorted illegalities, abusing psychoreactive substances, and indulging in obnoxious and threatening behavior."

"Huh?" Basil's imagination reeled. "So you mean . . . you're talking about a Luonli gravbiker gang?"

(Slightly huffy defensiveness.) "Any race of social beings is bound to have its social deviates. And the most infallible way to bring out the worst in those deviates is to give them access to a culture so far behind their own as to be helpless. When a sufficiently wide technological gulf separates two societies, the fate of the weaker depends entirely on the morality of the stronger."

"But, but," Basil stammered, horrified by the implications, "couldn't your government—your police, or whatever—do something?"

"Oh, something was done in the end—something rather drastic. But not before things had occurred which left permanent scars in the folk-memories of the afflicted regions. You see, we had no 'government' that you would have found recognizable as such. Large, permanent organizations do not come naturally to us, descended as we are from solitary animals which formed temporary unities-of-convenience around charismatic leaders. The suppression of the aberrational individuals who had taken refuge on Earth was not so much a law enforcement operation, in your sense, as it was a—" (Uncertainty as to whether meaning is being, or can be, accurately conveyed.) "—feud of honor. Delays were unavoidable. It was a matter of our racial peculiarities."

"It would seem," Basil said, carefully keeping his surface thoughts as emotionless as his voice, "that we humans paid a high price for these . . . peculiarities."

"Oh, so did we." (Bleak melancholy.) "So did we. For there was no widespread union to coordinate efforts at survival when our homeworld fell victim to a catastrophe beyond any possibility—even for us—of a technological solution."

Basil's capacity for astonishment finally reached the overload point as he realized that he was about to be given the answer to yet another mystery: the fate of the mighty prehistoric civilization that had scattered the Luonli among the stars. "What happened?" he asked in a small voice.

"Our home sun was an atypical one, unduly massive for its spectral class—seemingly too massive to have remained stable long enough for sentient life to evolve. But our inexplicable good fortune could not continue forever. As the star aged, freakish internal changes overtook it and it flared with almost no warning, wiping the homeworld clean of life."

"But," Basil protested, obscurely resentful of the Luon's matter-of-factness in describing transcendent horror, "you were already established on many other worlds, the worlds you'd terraformed."

"True. But, for the reasons I have explained, there could be no mass migration to join the few individuals able to adapt to those worlds. The fate of the species was in those individuals' hands."

"Shouldn't they have been enough? One thing we've learned about you is that you're fully functional hermaphrodites."

"Yes, even one individual per planet should have sufficed. Our lives are very long by your standards, and births are infrequent among us—an evolutionary necessity, for no ecosystem can support very many beings such as ourselves. So a long time passed before we came to the realization that we were even more finely attuned to our native environment than we had supposed. For our equivalent of your germ plasm began a slow deterioration, or unraveling. We gradually ceased to reproduce. We began to die out."

Basil waited, conscious of the inadequacy of words, as the Luon sat in a brooding mental silence which held the suggestion of an emotion beyond human capacity to define or feel, just as the tale it was telling was beyond mere tragedy.

"Few of us are left now," the Luon finally continued. "I am the only one on this world. On certain other worlds, we have died out altogether. But our lives are very long. The process of extinction takes an inordinate amount of time. We have watched with interest as you humans rose to civilization and later set out to colonize the stars in slower-than-light ships—astonishing, considering the brevity of your lifespans." (Slight but unmistakable bitterness.) "Indeed, our amazement at your species' determination almost exceeded our envy of its adaptability. We watched as you finally learned to outpace light and used that knowledge to form a federation. We watched as that federation devolved into interstellar states whose wars grew ever more brutal as technology advanced and imperial ambitions awoke. We watched as an empire finally arose and enforced peace."

"And now," Basil cut in bleakly, "you're watching as the Empire dies."

"Ah, you speak of the 'New Humans,' as I believe they call themselves." (Bemusement.) "I am afraid we have a great deal of difficulty with the entire concept of ideology. And their ideology is particularly incomprehensible to us—as is the allure it holds for humans."

"Not all humans are taken in by it!" Basil protested hotly.

"Enough, though, to have gained political control of several Imperial sectors," the Luon gently reminded him. "To the extent one understands the concept of the 'state'—admittedly foreign to my race—one must question the survivability of a state which allows a political movement inimical to its very existence to function."

"The Solarian Empire has never interfered with individual worlds' internal forms of government, as long as they acknowledge the Emperor's sovereignty and keep the peace. That's why it's worked. The Draconis Empire tried to rule as a vast, uniform anthill-state. And it collapsed! People accepted Anton the Great's restoration of it under a new name because he pledged to respect the right of the various worlds' cultures to be themselves." All at once, something slumped inside Basil. "Yes, I suppose you could say that caused the Empire to lack antibodies against this particular virus. We'd thought totalitarianism was safely tucked away in dusty history books."

"The New Humans indignantly deny any resemblance between themselves and the late unlamented Draconis Empire," the Luon pointed out.

"Sure," Basil snapped. "They're not trying to set themselves up as a master race and genetically engineer the rest of us into specialized subraces. Oh, no! In their version of Utopia, everybody will be equal . . . and alike!" He stopped abruptly, wondering why he was pouring out his anger to this alien.

"Such vehemence in one so young!" The Luon's mental tone held none of the sarcasm or condescension for which Basil suspiciously searched. "You obviously feel strongly about these matters. This must be why you sought admission to the Imperial Deep Space Fleet Academy."

"Why, yes. I leave for Sigma Draconis tomorrow. How did you know?"

"As I indicated before, I knew your great-grandfather."

"Yes, you did mention that. But it doesn't explain how you know so much about me. And . . . and why have you been telling me all these things? Things that humans have been wondering about since—"

(Silent laughter.) "Patience! All these questions can wait. For now, you need to rest. We must return you to your aircar early tomorrow. It would hardly do to miss your departure on such a momentous journey."

Basil became aware that he was, indeed, desperately weary. It hadn't even entered his consciousness before, any more than hunger had. But now he could barely keep his eyes open. . . . He blinked them angrily. "No! You've got to tell me—"

"Sleep now." The Luon's pseudo-voice tolled in his head like a bell, and he could only obey.

* * *

Again the stinging wind brought Basil awake, clutched against the Luon's side in flight. But this time his eyes were dazzled by the rising sun, for they were headed east.

"Your pardon. You were deeply asleep, but I thought it best to start without further delay lest you be late for your departure." Even as it thought these words, the Luon began circling downward. Soon Basil could make out his aircar below.

"How did you know where . . . ?"

"Given the trail on which you were hiking, this seemed the logical landing area." The Luon's placid tone quieted Basil's arising suspicions. Then they landed, and the Luon gently set him down.

He looked at the familiar aircar, and the sight seemed to trigger an oppressive awareness of how hungry he was, of how gummy his mouth felt, of what his mother would say when he finally called in, and of all the dreary, mundane things his consciousness had held no room for since the previous afternoon. Like one awakened too suddenly from too vivid a dream, he felt a leaden depression tinged with vague anxieties and nameless apprehensions. "Uh, thank you for everything," he mumbled.

"No thanks are necessary. Farewell." And with that curt thought, the Luon rose with a thunderous beat of its vast wings.

Basil watched his rescuer gain altitude and turn toward the west. And as he did, his mind seemed to abruptly regain its ability to function and all the questions he'd wanted to ask came crashing back into his awareness as one. He took a deep breath and opened his mouth to shout after the Luon . . . but there were so many questions, and for some reason he couldn't seem to frame any of them. Infuriatingly, all that came out was: "But I don't even know your name!"

"You may call me Shenyilu." The strange syllables came as a mental whisper as he watched the Luon recede against the distant mountains, gleaming coppery-gold in the morning sun. He watched until that gleam grew tiny and vanished. Then he returned to his own world, where his rescue by a Luon created a sensation that he left behind when he departed for Sigma Draconis. But he didn't tell anyone the things he had learned. Indeed, he felt an odd disinclination to do so, and the memories grew dim and confused in his own mind. And so it remained for a long time.

 

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Framed