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Archive for November, 2015

the portal

Agape Satori

 

They brought the government agent in, hands tied behind his back, his head in a black sack, and threw him onto his knees on the steel plates at the foot of the dais. A giant man with skin the color of night sat upon a golden dragon throne bathed in a pool of light that glinted off the gold of his collar and the precious stones the size of bird’s eggs set in the rings of his thick fingers.

The Khall waved his hand. “Let it see,” he said.

One of the agent’s kidnappers, a Khall soldier, shouldered his pulse rifle and whipped the sack off, stowing it in the pocket of his body armor.

The agent blinked at the glare and looked away while his eyes grew used to the light again. The Khall waited. The light over the throne flickered and grew brighter.

The Khall leaned forward and gestured at the light. The prisoner met his eyes. “Do you see? She finds you of interest. Why is that I wonder?”

The agent looked up, confused. What had appeared to be a light fixture above the throne was in fact an orb of light that floated, unbound and free, above the Khall’s head.

“Who?” the agent asked, profoundly confused by all this. “Who and why? Why am I here?”

The Khall looked almost sympathetic to his plight.

“I am the Khall. I am the outer face of God. She wishes to give you a message, Agent Donnelly. Stop looking for her.”

Donnelly frowned, his mind racing. Sometime in the past few days he must have asked the wrong question or entered the wrong search path on his terminal. Someone had noticed. This someone.

“I don’t know what you are talking about. I am an analyst. I am paid to notice patterns and ask the questions that no one has thought to ask before so that we can refine our search engines. I am not looking for any kind of god.”

The light flickered and flared, streamers of it reaching out towards Donnelly’s head. The agent flinched away and the light retreated.

The Khall tisked in annoyance. “She can tell when you are being purposefully obtuse, Walter. Your time with us will go more smoothly if you drop the pretenses.”

The two soldiers standing at his back shifted. The Khall shook his head. It was barely a motion, but Walter caught it, and the movement stopped behind him.

“My advisers think we should just drop you in the nearest black hole, but I have agreed to her request for patience. Hers is infinite. Mine is not. You were looking for her. Here she is. Now that you have found her what will you do with that knowledge?”

Walter Donnelly could feel the sweat trickling down his back even though the air was cool in this chamber. The interior of starships, by design, could not over-heat. If he was even on a starship. Could he trust his own senses? He had felt the disconnect from Atlantis Station through the deck plates of his cell. The sounds of the umbilicus being unsnapped and the docking jets kicking in had been unmistakable. The brief disorientation of passing through a portal had come not long after. Infinite were the gates of the universe. Where he was now was anyone’s guess. The feel of docking had come again but it was the solitary, subtle reorientation of a ship to ship connection. If he were to guess, they now sat in some out-of-the-way spot far from the Consortium’s shipping lanes.

Donnelly looked up at the Khall. “The Khall and his army. I have heard of you. You are thieves and pirates and rapists. Murders have been laid at your doorstep, but probably more than is your due. You are the boogeyman of the shipping lanes and a convenient scapegoat for crimes that are politically motivated. The secrecy and security around you is air-tight. No one in your organization talks out of turn or goes rogue. Why is that?”

The Khall smiled.

“You think me a bad man who rules with an iron fist? There is no need for threats. No one, after knowing her, has any wish to displease her. You will be given a choice. Change allegiances or die.”

“I am trained to resist mind-control and torture,” Walter said, hoping to allay any of the thousands of ways one could try to subvert a Consortium agent.

The Khall threw back his head and laughed. The men behind him did not move. Perhaps they did not find what Walter had said quite as amusing.

“Are you a robot, then?” the Khall asked, wiping the tears of laughter from his cheeks. “I do not think the Consortium has figured out how to remove the key part of your brain that makes you vulnerable to her will without killing the test subject. Not for want of trying, mind you. The Consortium is a cruel and heartless lot.”

A tendril of light flowed like water through the air. It touched the Khall’s head and tumbled like smoke down his jaw. The Khall leaned back and sighed in pleasure. Donnelly watched in alarm. Distracted, he did not see his own peril until it was too late. A tendril of light coiled over his head before it dropped to envelope his body in its smoky light.

Walter was seven years old again, come to stay for the summer on his grandmother’s farm. He stood on the wrap-around porch that circled half the house and listened to the world wake up. The cows here lowing in the barn, waiting for grandpa to milk them. Walter could see the grimy red hat perched on his grandpa’s bald head as it disappeared into the darkness inside the barn. Grandma was in the kitchen cleaning up after breakfast, getting ready to make her bread, the loaves of which would feed them for the rest of the week. Grandma did not like him underfoot on baking day so she would always hand him a sack full of sandwiches and apples and tell him to go explore. He could go as far as his feet could take him as long as he was back by lunch time.

As hallucinations went, this one was a doozy. Donnelly wiggled his toes inside his red high top sneakers. The shorts and t-shirt were old and faded from a hundred washes. Walter looked down, surprised to see the lunch bag in his hand. He could feel it, a real and solid thing. He opened it up and sniffed deeply. The slightly acidic smell of the tart apples, the yeasty tang of the bread, the sharp smell of aged cheese, these things seemed real too. He closed his eyes and tried to reclaim the body he knew to be bound and kneeling before the Khall’s throne but the memory eluded him.

“This is your memory. Why does it frighten you?” said a little voice.

Walter opened his eyes. Someone stood on the stone path that led up to the porch. It was a little girl dressed in shorts and a t-shirt much like his own, with white canvas shoes gone gray from too much time outdoors being scuffed in the black dirt. Her hair was the color of grandpa’s strawberry roan draft horses and it was fine and silky as only little kid’s hair could be. Her eyes and her mouth were too big for her face but it was a face that promised unparalleled beauty when she reached maturity.

“Who are you?” Walter asked.

“I am the being that Khall calls god. Come play with me.”

“I do not believe in gods,” Walter said.

The little girl laughed. “Nor do I. See. We have much in common.”

Walter found himself smiling, her joy infections. Without thinking, he stepped off the porch. When he realized what he had done he panicked and turned around, half expecting the house to have disappeared, leaving his stranded here in this memory.

“Silly,” said the girl, taking his hand and tugging him down the path between the drifts of blooms that grew head high in his grandmothers flower garden. “We are in your head. I will not make you forget.”

Walter scowling down at her. She was perhaps four, maybe five. Walter felt old and protective all at the same time.

“Can you?”

“Can I what?”

“Make me forget?”

“Of course. But why would you want to? If I could wish, my wish would be to remember everything. I cannot fathom the wish in others to not do the same,” she said as she tugged him into a run. She was headed down the hill towards the creek. Frogs and tadpole and dragonflies filled that corner of the world. He had spent thousands of hours exploring the creek bottom. Walter hurried to keep up with her.

Their feet hit the narrow path that wound its way through the dense stand of scrub oak and poplar. She took lead and he followed behind.

“Everything?” Walter asked.

“What?”

“You said you wanted to remember everything. What does that mean?”

The little girl turned, a smile threatening at the corners of her mouth. She pointed at the trunk of the nearest tree. “This tree has seen forty winters. It remembers them all. It remembers the sun in every moment as it travels across the sky. It knows rain and snow and the mind of Squirrel who births her children in its branches. Now I remember it also. The tree hears me and I hear it. Now it can die knowing that its memories have not been lost even if the children of this grove are dead and turned to ash.”

Walter eyed her skeptically. “What else do you remember?”

“I remember frogs and snakes and the birth of dragons at the beginning of time.” A full blown grin broke out on her face as she said the last.

She turned and ran down the path, leaving Walter to digest the idea that something could remember the beginning of time, though he doubted very much in the existence of dragons.

He followed more slowly and found her crouched at the edge of the creek, poking a stick into the pebbles under water.

“This a caddisfly,” she said. He peered over her shoulder at the water bug encased in large grains of sand. “It is a water butterfly who builds its own house. Simple. Beautiful. Elegant. It has not needed wings since it learned to breath underwater but it still remembers how it was to fly through the air. When it wants to mate it simply remembers where to find the nearest female.”

“It has no brain with higher functions. It cannot remember. I think you have oversimplified the process of procreation,” Walter said

The girl sat back in the grass and stared up at him. “You want it to be complicated so you only see the act and the illusion of flesh, all the while ignoring the infinite and multi-dimensional nature of all life. We are all part of one thing, one being. You are like a skin cell on the arse of a giant. It is important that you remember that you are only a skin cell but it is equally important to remember that you are a giant stomping about the world with a billion such cells living and dying on his arse, else you risk becoming a cancer or a parasite or a plague. This is the paradox that keeps the Oneverse from ripping itself apart.”

Walter sat down beside her, trying to digest that thought. “Paradox?”

“Yeah. Two ideas, one the mirror opposite of the other, occupying the same space at the same time.”

“I know what a paradox is,” he growled. “It is hard to remember being more than one thing at a time. Human brains go crazy.”

“Humans should be crazy more often. It is just levels of energy, transparent spheres, one nested in the next. It is impossible to forget who you are but you are free to climb the spiral and find the other levels of yourself, anytime you want.”

“What are you?” Walter asked. “How do you know all this? Are you really just a four-year-old kid?”

The girl laughed and pulled the lunch sack out of his hands. She rooted around in its depth, pulling out an apple. Taking a big bite out of it, she chewed as she eyed him, amused.

“No, really. What are you?” Walter asked. “Why am I here? Why here, now, as a younger me in a place and time before I figured out the world was full of assholes and everything we touched eventually turned to shit.”

“See,” she said, swallowing. “This is the thinking that got you into trouble. The world is shit, people are assholes. We should have gone extinct ten thousand years ago. Why did we not? What force keeps us from being the agent of our own annihilation? You kept running the numbers, looking for the outliers that balance out all the shit. You are looking for the eye of the shitstorm hurricane, so to speak. So here I am. You have found me. I exist. Somewhere out there, on one of the thousands of worlds, a being exists that holds all the memories and who has become the pivot point around which all life revolves. Now stop looking. Please.”

“Do you look like this in real life?”

“Hardly,” she snorted. “You created this body. It is your avatar. I merely animate it for you.”

“The Khall calls you god.” Walter could not get that thought out of his head.

“Because the Khall has no other word for a being, who by its very existence, can balance out all the bad in the world. Dark for light. Order in Chaos. The primary source code in an algorithm that has been running since the beginning of time but has not yet reached infinity. Think of it as you will. Whatever makes you comfortable.”

“There is no such creature,” Walter said stubbornly. “There is too much dark in the world. It would destroy a mind to hold enough power to equal all the bad in the world.”

“I made myself so empty,” she said with a shrug, tossing her apple core into the bushes, “I became a hole in the world. I am the pinprick in your balloon, through which the forces of the universe seek balance. Your balloon will never pop, no matter how much you manipulate your reality to create just such a cataclysm.”

“I? I do not want to destroy the universe.”

“You are just a cell on a giant’s arse. What would you know about the intentions of the giant?” she said with an amused snort. She pulled a cheese sandwich out of his lunch bag and took a huge bite. “Mnnfff.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Walter said, taking back his lunch. “Why would the giant want to destroy the world?”

The child swallowed. “Because he wants someone else to take the blame for the world having gone to shit. If he stomps his feet and breaks his toys, then surely something bigger and more powerful will come and make him stop, thus proving that he is not utterly alone.”

Walter took a bite, chewed and swallowed, thinking. “But he is a giant. By definition, he is the biggest, baddest thing in this fairy tale.”

The girl smiled. “I shall tell you a secret. One that will piss you off. No matter how powerful you get there is always someone more powerful. No matter how high the mountain is, no matter how high you climb, the moment you reach the summit, you will see another mountain, higher than you, waiting to be climbed. The circles of existence are infinite. You can never win.”

“And on what level of a mountain do you dwell?” Walter asked, annoyed.

“Did I not say it already? I am Nothing. A null point. If you are on a mountain, I am the darkness in the well at the bottom of the valley where no light ever reaches.”

“You balance the universe, you said,” Walter growled in frustration.

“You said you understood paradox,” the child said in the same tone.

“Nothing and everything? That is what exists in the paradox that is you?”

“Oh, very good!” the child said, laying back to rest her head on a pillow of grass. The sun dappled her golden skin. She closed her eyes and he suddenly realized he had no idea what color they were and began wishing she would look at him again. “I like this memory. I may come back and visit it again,” she murmured sleepily.

“Are you leaving?” Walter asked, not ready to let go of her yet.

“Come visit me,” she said with a yawn. The child’s form faded.

“Wait! What?” Walter cried in alarm, as the creek wobbled and disappeared.

The Khall studied him intently. Walter met that gaze. The light above the throne was gone.

“She did not destroy me,” Walter said.

“No, she does not work that way,” nodded the Khall.

“She said I could come and visit,” Walter added, confused.

“Did she? Then surely she expects it.”

The Khall watched his expectantly.

“What?” Walter asked.

“She would have given you the tools to do so, else she would not have said such a thing, surely,” the Khall said gently.

“Tools?”

Walter considered that. Had she done something to him while she was rummaging about inside his brain? He tried to remember everything she had said. Everything she had done. He closed his eyes and remembered the sunlight on her skin. A yellow buttercup had been growing by her head. Walter had the urge to pluck it though the urge had no basis in rational thought.

He imagined he was seven again and reached out with his small hand and plucked the flower. Things unfolded inside his head, unfurling endlessly like a bud opening to become a bloom.

He opened his eyes and stared in horror at the Khall.

“I was her enemy. She gave me everything. I know where she is. I have the power to destroy her.”

“Will you?” the Khall asked, as if Walter had announced that he meant to go visit a friend.

Walter dissolved the shackles on his wrists and stood up.

“Fool woman,” Walter said. “She will play this trick one time too many and get herself killed. I have to leave.”

“Yes, of course you do,” said the Khall, amused by something.

Walter thought about walking across the universe. A portal opened in the air above the deck plates. This was impossible, of course. The starship should have imploded.

Walter looked back at the Khall. “Fool woman,” he said, again, as he stepped into the event horizon and disappeared.

The portal ceased to exist.

The Khall grunted, satisfied. “Better him than me. She will lead that boy on a merry dance.”

Looking up, he shouted, “Find me a Consortium battle cruiser. All this love stuff has set my teeth on edge. I have the overwhelming need to beat something into a bloody pulp!”

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Space Port

Space Port

Kander paused in the hatchway of the transport shuttle while his eyes adjusted to the glare of bright daylight. The smell of the hot, humid air of Occonomara slapped him in the face, choking him.

After spending a week in the dimly lit corridors of the starship freighter, breathing the canned air, scrubbed and purged of all smell by the ship’s AI, planet air always smelled like something rotten stuck to the bottom of your boot. He had made planetfall on over a thousand planets and this landing pad was no different than any other. Kander forced himself to sniff deep, letting the smell of rocket fuel, singed earth, and the sweet smell of decay fill his sense.

Then, breath baited, he listened. Near at hand, the skin of the shuttle crackled and pinged as it cooled. It had been a hot drop – fast and direct. None of that shallow pitch glide that the politicians and the tourists loved. Ever since the War he had an aversion to hanging out in the upper atmo for too long. Back when every drop was a possible battle, the Spiders liked to use you for target practice up there.

Kander turned his head to study the spires of the city beyond the space port. Dunauken, they called it. A soft sub-sonic rumble made the air vibrate, a condition of all large human settlements. This human sprawl covered the hills around the city for as far as the eye could see. It was the mark of a people who had not yet filled their planet to bursting. Three million plus people lived in this densely packed city, the reports said, but the rest of the planet was thinly populated with farmers.

The landing officer waited patiently at the bottom of the ramp with his luggage cart. Kander ignored him.

A cool breeze curled around the edge of the hatch. It smelled like ocean. Kander eased out onto the ramp and squinted off into the distance. A flock of birds dipped and dived over the marshes that grew right up to the edge of the space port. He followed them with his eyes. There was something odd about them.

“Lizards. Winged lizards,” Kirr said.

Kander looked over his shoulder. Kirr, his Margai partner, had better eyesight and a better sense of smell than humans. Kirr opened his mouth and curled his abrasive tongue to catch the scents on the breeze. Whatever he smelled made his whiskers twitch.

Kirr did not want to be here. Up on the freighter the adept had developed a sudden case of cold feet. It had taken all Kander’s powers of persuasion to get him to board the landing shuttle.

Cursed, Kirr had said. The planet is cursed. This world is wounded and bleeding. It does not want us here.

But he had relented, this giant cat being, entering the pod with all his hackles standing on end. Fierce, were the Margai. Kander had never know Kirr to back down from a battle.

Now, lips curled back to show his impressive canines, Kirr sucked in the miasma in the atmosphere and snarled, perhaps daring this world to take him on.

“Good hunting, out there in the tall grass,” the cat-like alien growled savagely.

“Don’t eat anything unless you test it first. There are a thousand red-papers on this back-water planet and I have not waded through all of them yet but I am pretty sure I read that the meat of the apex predators can be toxic.”

Kirr’s muzzle wrinkled in a silent snarl.

“I smell Spider,” Kirr said. “It is faint and … pale.”

Captain Kander Hess put his hand on the weapon hanging from his hip as he turned his head carefully to scan the horizon. “I see nothing,” Hess murmured through tight lips.

“Perhaps it is a memory I smell.”

“How … Never mind. I think you let that red-paper report get inside your head. You will be seeing Spiders in every shadow, now.”

Kirr twitched his ears and then looked away, a puzzled look in his emerald green eyes. “Ssst,” the large alien hissed. “It could not be hoped that Colonel Bohea’s men destroyed all the eggs.”

“Keep it together, buddy,” Kander said punching him softly in the smokey gray ruff on his chest. “The war is over. Aside from you and I, there can be no more than a dozen people who know about the Spider’s attack on Occonomara. Keep such thoughts to yourself.”

“Aye,” Kirr said, nodding. “but I will never rest easy on this planet.”

“No,” Hess agreed. “But then we are not here on vacation, are we?”

Kirr grinned a grin that showed all his formidable teeth. “No. What did Colonel Bohea say? Dig in like a bot fly, find your way into the underbelly of Occonomara, and then wait, he said.”

“As vague and open ended as any set of orders we have received,” Kander grunted. His nonchalance was a ruse. Something about this whole affair smelled off, just like the air he was breathing. “He also said trust no one.”

“Aye,” grumbled Kirr.

Turning, Hess strode down the ramp and handed his duffel bag to the man with the cart. Kirr followed.

“Welcome to the ass end of the Universe, sirs.” the landing officer said as he tossed their luggage on the cart and then turned to walk towards the terminal. The carrier followed after him like a dog, two paces off his heels.

“That would explain the smell,” Kirr purred.

“Yeah. The smell takes some getting used to, gets purty rank when the wind changes in the afternoon and comes in across the marsh,” the man said”

Their voices disturbed something lurking in the deep shade of a stack of shipping canisters. Perhaps Kirr’s unease was contagious. It made Kander twitchy. His response to the first glimpse of the long, jointed exoskeleton legs was instinctive. He pulled his pistol as the creature skittered across the pavement and shot from the hip. What had been a snarl of legs and an armored carapace became a slimy green spot on the fused earth of the landing pad.

“Ach, I wish you had’na done that. Now I gotta spend my down time writing a report about how I let a Psi-Ops captain kill a protected land crab.”

“It looked like a Spider,” Hess said defensively.

“What did you call it?” as Kirr.

“A land crab. One of a dozen species who sorta look like miniature Spiders but who are in fact protected by the Governor’s edict and a treaty sighed by the Hegemony. I will tell you right now that you should probably lock that weapon away ’cause there ain’t nothing on this planet to kill that won’t get you called up on the carpet in the Admiral’s office.”

“That …. thing …. is protected?” Kander protested.

“Pests, they are. Get into everything. Eat the labels off the canisters and and climb into the rockets. Would love to fry the lot of them, but hey, what can you do?”

“Why not build a fence and keep them off the launch pads?”

“Did that. Electric, even. They just crawl over or burrow under. It doesn’t help that whoever built this port built it in the center of their breeding ground.”

A flock of bright yellow winged lizards descended upon the remains of the land crab. There was much squawking and screeching as they fought over the gory bits and then, as one, they flew away. The pavement was now clean, only a damp spot remaining where the crab had died.

Kirr stared after them, a calculated look in his eyes. Hess watched him. Something was up. Kirr turned and found his friend’s eyes on him. With an imperceptible shake of his head, the Margai told him to wait for a time when there were not so many ears listening.

Their luggage arrived at the terminal doors. The launch officer held the door open for them.

Kirr touched Kander’s arm and pointed at the sky with his chin. Two immense shapes circle above the sea out beyond the marsh. Noting them, Hess nodded and turned to enter the terminal. A tiny green lizard glared down at them from the wall above the door. Another lizard.

Kirr paused and stared at it, his ears flicking back and forth, searching for something only he could hear. Tired of waiting for them to enter or leave, the door swished closed. They were alone.

“They are psi-linked,” Kirr said softly.

“Which ones?”

“All of them,” Kirr said.

Hess tensed. He had been working with his adept partner for a long time and knew more than most about the nature of the unseen world that flowed through the senses of all the psi-gifted species.

“How is that possible?”

Kirr shook his head. “I obviously need to catch up on my reading. How many red-papers did Colonel Bohea let you have on this place? Perhaps it will be found in there somewhere.”

“Too damned many. I have waded through maybe a quarter of them.”

“We have our work cut out for us then,” Kirr purred.

The landing officer poked his head out the door.

“Coming, sirs?”

Just inside the door a single security officer manned the custom’s gate. The master sergeant saluted them as they approached. Their duffle bags had already gone through the scanner and were being loaded on another robotic cart. Kander scowled as they were whisked away.

“Welcome to Occonomara, Captain Hess, Specialist Kirr. Here are your coms. Keep them on you at all times so we know where you are if you get in trouble. They contain a map of the city and a list of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to the local population. I have already programmed the location of your temporary barracks rooms and the office space allocated to you over in Sec-Ops. The terminals in your rooms are linked to the terminals in your offices. I have taken the liberty of loading all the pertinent red-paper reports onto them so that you can get up to speed on what passes for local politics. I know you want to go to your rooms to freshen up but the Old Man wanted to see you as soon as you landed. That would be him,” the customs officer said, nodding at their coms.

The coms beeped and a yellow alert flashed on the screen followed by a digital map requesting that they step out the door down the hall. “I will send your luggage on to your rooms. Oh. The weapons … “ he seemed to hesitate, “I gotta ask you to send them after your luggage. You don’t want to start out on the wrong foot with the Old Man. This is a peace-time fleet, he says.”

“You don’t agree, Master Sergeant?” Kander asked, unbuckling his weapons belt.

“You see those two dactyls hunting over the ocean on your way in? Even as big as you are, one of them could swoop down, take your head off, and then take your body off to eat at its leisure. But at least you will see them coming. The little quilled ones hunt in gangs and like to drop off of something high onto your head. This planet does not have a stray problem. If your dog disappears, odds are you will never see it again. Best keep one eye peeled to the sky when you are out of doors, sirs.”

“There are dogs on this planet?” Kirr asked, surprised.

Kander smiled. Trust Kirr to miss the point of the Master Sergeant’s lecture.

“Uh… sure. I have a pup of my own. Cost me a months wages. Sweet tempered bitch. I plan on breeding her. Let me know if you want a puppy. I will cut you a deal. All can trace their lineage back to the six cattle dogs that came on the first colony ship.”

“The inbreeding must wreak havoc on the bloodlines,” Kirr observed.

“Don’t know nothing about that,” said the Master Sergeant, defensively. “My Sadie is as healthy as an ox. Have a nice day, sirs.”

Kander and Kirr strolled down the hallway and out a door into a garden and then in through another set of doors indicated by the coms. Half way between two security cameras, Hess stopped, popped him com unit open, and unplugged all the working parts. Kirr mimicked his actions.

“What are the odds those terminals they provided are all bugged?” Kirr purred softly.

“100%. What was that about the dogs?” Hess asked quietly.

“I have read some of the red-paper reports,” Kirr said softly. “There is a common thread that runs unseen in the background of all those intelligence reports. This place is a source of some sort of genetic anomaly generator.

”What? Like a source of hard radiation?” Kander asked. He did not remember that from his reading. “Nobody warned us that we needed to be on a regime of Gen-ix.”

“No. Because we don’t need it. The anomalies are not about degenerative diseases. More like the opposite.”

“Er?”

“Think about the genetic stability of that inbred dog population and then expand it to include the entire planet. I kept bumping into statistics that did not make sense so I ran the numbers. The people on this planet die of animal bites, accidents, septic wounds, murder, and suicide. If they are lucky they die of extreme old age, but they don’t die from any one of a thousand viruses that prey upon humankind and they don’t die of degenerative disease. Do you want to know the ratio of birth defects to live births?”

“Primitive planet with a primitive health care system? 7%?” Hess guessed.

“I looked it up. The Central Planets have that number down to 2% Here? Less than a tenth of a percent.”

Hess blinked, letting that sink in.

“Freaked out yet?” Kirr asked. “Then let me tell you a story that will make your ruff stand on end. Back when the Spider War was going badly for the CPC they needed warm bodies on the front lines so they started tracking down the lost colonies. Occonomara was one of them. The star fleet landed and started conscripting recruits and the population resisted. The revolt was brief but bloody. Star fleet got its manpower and as a parting revenge, seeded the remaining population with Marhburg’s virus.”

“Bloody hell!” swore Hess. “Where did you read that?”

“It was part of the un-redacted text in a black-paper report I … someone … passed along when they found out I was coming here. That is not the most frightening part of the story.”

“Gods! The CPC can be bloody bastards when they put their mind to it. Wait. You said nobody dies from disease here. Did the virus not take?”

“Oh, it did what it intended. The CPC sent a scout ship once a year to check. In five years 90 percent of the population over the age of 45 were showing symptoms of the end stages of the disease. The sixth time the scout showed up, nobody had died and everyone was healthy again.”

Hess shook his head. “That is impossible.”

“And yet it happened. The report gets redacted down to zero towards the end but I get the impression they sent specialist after specialist down-planet until one of them discovered the source.”

“Which was?”

“The rest of the paper was just blank sheets. The last legible word on the last page was the word magic.”

Hess stared at his partner. “Soooo. Do we start believing in magic?”

“Hardly,” Kirr sniffed, turning to resume their stroll down the hallway. “There was something real and concrete discovered here that someone does not want us to know about. That they left the word magic uncovered means they know it was no such thing.”

“OK, I don’t know about you, but I am starting to feel naked without my gun,” Kander said glancing up at the security cameras.

“I did not give up all my weapons,” Kirr snorted, amused.

Glancing down at the cat’s steel gray kimono, Kander raised an eyebrow. The stiff silk showed more spotted gray fur than not and if there was a weapon under that, Kander did not want to know where it was hidden.

“I am going to start wearing a kimono.”

“You would freeze without fur.”

“OK. A kilt then like the Royal Brigade wears.”

Kirr snorted, amused. “Your legs are certainly hairy enough.”

“Yeah. Then, when I need a gun I will just lift my skirt and … “

“Kilt,” Kirr corrected him. “You would not even need a weapon. The sight of your hairy … body would make anyone light headed.”

“That’s what all the girls say,” Kander said.

They were laughing uproariously as they opened the door and stepped into the Admiral’s offices. A Sergeant leaped to his feet and snapped a salute so brisk it made the bric-brac on his coat sleeves rattle.

“At ease, Sergeant,” laughed Kander. “Captain Hess and Specialist Kirr, reporting as ordered.”

“The Admiral is expecting you. Go right in.”

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