Eighteen years after Kelric died, he came home.
The Holly Rotor, his star schooner, limped into port near the city of Porthaven, an isolated metropolis on the planet Edgewhirl. Kelric felt both tired and jubilant. His fatigue came from more than the days he had spent on board this starship with minimal supplies. Although he looked healthy, within his body he bore the effects of eighteen years on a planet that wasn't his own. His internal systems had long ago begun a slow breakdown.
Right now even that didn't matter. He was coming home. Home. His life would be his again. He would resume his position among his people. Most important, he would see his parents and siblings, the family he loved.
Deep in his pilot's seat, with its frayed exoskeleton folded around his body, he guided the groaning schooner into its berth. His comm crackled again, but he still couldn't make out the words buried in the static. Amber warning lights glowed on the panels arrayed around his seat. When docking clamps gripped the schooner, its hull shook.
A line of 3-D hieroglyphs formed above the speckled screen in front of him. The height and width of the glyphs conveyed a message from the Port Authority: Docking complete. Sending fee schedule. Their third dimension added nuances: the PA wanted payment now.
Their attitude troubled Kelric. Why the rush? And why didn't they ask for his ID? They hadn't even requested a government code for the ship. It didn't bode well; in his time, it was unheard-of for a PA to be so lax.
He sent access codes for the Holly's credit line. Eighteen years ago it would easily have rented this cheap berth and bought some repairs. The schooner had been on Coba even longer than Kelric, sitting in an abandoned port. Despite some automated upkeep, its condition was worn. Repair costs had probably increased, but the credit line had a good cushion built into it.
The fee schedule appeared.
Kelric stared at the screen. He didn't even have enough to land, let alone rent a berth. Repairs were out of the question.
The console beeped. Funds insufficient. Please transmit an alternate access code.
Neither the audio nor visual system on the schooner worked. So he typed at the antiquated keyboard: I don't have an alternate code.
How do you plan to pay your bill? the PA inquired.
This vessel is in military use. ISC will cover the fees.
That option is no longer available. The PA shaded its glyphs with impatience.
Kelric blinked. Imperial Space Command no longer covered its officers? He found that hard to believe. Contact ISC.
They have no representative available to contact about financial matters associated with this port.
How could it be unknown? ISC was--or had been--the single most powerful force in Skolian life. Now he couldn't get enough credit to dock one old schooner? He had taken this ship from the planet Coba, where he had been imprisoned these past eighteen years while the rest of humanity believed him dead. As an ISC officer, he had the right to commandeer government property during an emergency. The schooner had made it possible for him to escape a war. Now, though, he wondered if he was landing in an even worse situation. He began to question the wisdom of revealing anything about himself.
What work options are available? he asked.
Unemployment in Porthaven is at 58 percent, the PA answered. Nor is a work contract likely to provide sufficient revenue to meet your obligation. Its nuances said he had less chance than an ice cube in hell of finding a job that would pay off his debt.
What about a loan?
We are willing to take your ship in lieu of payment Do you consent?
Scowling, he almost refused. But what else could he offer? At least if he signed the ship over to the Edgewhirl PA, they would be responsible for its repairs. He debated options with himself, but in the end he answered, simply: Yes.
Dazed and tired, Kelric walked along the starport concourse with everything he owned--his clothes. His suede trousers and white silk shirt were hand-tailored, of the highest quality, but wrinkles creased the fabric and scorch marks darkened his sleeves. His slight limp had been with him for eighteen years. He walked in bare feet. He had nothing else to his name.
Except his gold and gems.
Heavy gold guards circled his wrists and ankles, the metal engraved in a language no one spoke anymore. The guards were old. Ancient. So were the gold bands under his shirt, on his biceps, six on one arm, five on the other. Eighteen years ago the guards and bands would have summoned a fortune, more for their archaeological value than for the gold.
The innocuous pouch hanging from his belt contained dice. But no ordinary dice. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, opals, more: it held a glittering rainbow of wealth. Their worth didn't lie so much in rarity; perfect gems could easily be made, using molecular assemblers to place atoms in crystal lattices. The value of these came from their authenticity. They had been formed by eons of geological processes, rather than in a lab, and they were almost flawless. It gave them a worth well beyond their mundane synthetic counterparts.
He had no idea of the current value for his riches, but itmade no difference. He never intended to sell them. They were his only link to the wife and children he had been forced to leave on Coba, the family he would never again see.
So he continued along the wide, vaulted concourse. People thronged the area, a bustling, shoving, humming crowd. For the first time in eighteen years, he walked free. No guards watched him. No one tried to stop him. No political powers controlled his actions. Despite his towering height, massive build, bare feet, scorched clothes, and gold metallic coloring, no one spared him a second glance
He soon saw why.
Edgewhirl was a small, backwater planet, yet citizens from all over the Skolian Imperialate crammed its port. Within that vast, varied throng, he simply didn't stand out.
Then he saw them: a group of young people wearing overalls with the insignia of the Allied Worlds of Earth on their shoulders. Stunned, he looked around, trying to clear his mind and concentrate. Now that he paid more attention, he saw them everywhere, citizens from the Allied Worlds freely mixing with his people, the Skolians.
In his time, the visas and permissions required for Allied citizens to visit Skolian worlds had been so extensive, they kept most of them out. Now Allieds were everywhere, not only civilians, but military personnel as well. What power shifts had taken place? His unease increased. His family exerted--or had exerted--a great deal of influence within the hierarchy of Skolian power. If the political situation had changed, what did that bode for him?
He became aware of someone behind him. A hand was closing around his pouch. Before his mind fully registered what was happening, his body toggled into combat mode. He whirled around with enhanced reflexes and punched the chest of the man trying to rob him. No, not man. Youth. Lanky and ragged, the boy was about nineteen, with straggly brown hair.
It didn't matter that Kelric's internal biomech systems were damaged. His hydraulics still had enough control over his body to respond to commands from the computer nodeimplanted in his spine. Even with his enhancements at diminished power, he had twice the normal human strength and reflex speed.
Fortunately his node worked well enough to moderate his response so it fit the situation. He only knocked the thief away, into a group of startled tourists. The boy stumbled backward, scattering people, and thudded into a column. He slid down the column until he was sitting on the ground. The young man stared up at Kelric, his face turning as pale as a trapped snow-ferret.
Kelric stopped, dismayed. He waited to make sure the youth was all right. Then he left, letting the thief go. A ring of onlookers had formed, but they jumped out of his path now. He stalked away, angry at himself for causing the scene. Had he been in better condition, he wouldn't have struck the boy. Just turning around fast would have been enough. The youth had no idea how lucky he had been. If Kelric's node hadn't controlled his reflexes, that boy would be dead.
As Kelric's adrenaline surge eased, his body switched out of combat mode. He once more became aware of the low-level nausea that was almost always with him now. His fatigue had grown worse. Using his enhanced systems for such a brief time shouldn't have drained him this way. His physical resources were far too diminished.
The concourse opened into a huge rotunda, the open space in its center circled by five levels of balconies. Kelric found himself on the third level. He glanced across the rotunda--and stopped.
Taskmakers. Three of them. They were threading their way through the crowds down on the second level.
Taskmakers. Trader slaves.
Three interstellar powers vied for control in settled space: the Skolian Imperialate of Kelric's people, the Allied Worlds of Earth, and the Traders. The Traders called themselves the Eubian Concord, a euphemism Kelric found the ultimate in double-talk. Their citizens had no choice but to be in "concord" with their conquerors.
Taskmakers made up the bulk of the Trader population, over a trillion strong. Providers, the valued pleasure slaves, were rare and had far less freedom. Taskmakers lived fairly normal lives. Some were well off in their own right and exerted a degree of authority among other taskmakers. For all that, they were still slaves. But no one owned these taskmakers anymore. Under Skolian law, any slave entering Skolian territory became free. How had these three escaped to Edgewhirl?
Except it wasn't only three.
Now that Kelric looked, he saw other taskmakers among the crowds. He recognized them by the high-tech collars around their necks and the guards on their wrists and ankles. They must have just arrived on Edgewhirl. He didn't doubt they would soon have those signs of their former bondage removed. Maybe that was why no one paid him any heed; they probably mistook his wrist and ankle guards for slave restraints.
What the blazes had happened? Great shifts in power must have taken place, if large numbers of Trader slaves were escaping to Skolian worlds.
Kelric started to walk again. He had to find information, an open computer room where he could log in to one of the public webs. But every console room he passed was closed. That disquieted him as much as all the Allied and Trader citizens. Public console rooms never closed. The webs tied civilization together.
He walked under a giant arch into another concourse--and this time he froze.
Two of them. A man and woman. They were unmistakable, with glittering black hair, ruby eyes, and snow-marble skin. Although bodyguards surrounded them, they made no attempt to hide their identities as members of the caste that ruled the Trader Empire. Eighteen years ago they would have been insane to come here. If they hadn't been mobbed first, they would have been arrested as war criminals. Yet here they walked like anyone else, at liberty on a Skolian world, the land of their enemies.
Their presence hit Kelric like ice. His body toggled into combat mode, but this time his fight routines didn't activate. With trained mental reflexes, he manipulated the neural firings in his brain to buffer his mental activity, creating a sort of mental camouflage. I am not here.
The Aristo woman glanced idly in his direction. Then she stiffened and focused on him. As her attention intensified, he became aware of a shift in his neural firing patterns. His mind interpreted the effect as a mental abyss forming just beyond barriers he had created to protect himself. If his mental shield weakened, his mind would plunge into that void.
Two taskmakers strode by him, deep in conversation. They and the Aristos saw one another in the same instant. The taskmakers stopped, staring at these representatives of their former owners. The Aristos also halted, watching the taskmakers with obvious disdain, and also anger, that former slaves should share the concourse with them as equals.
Then the taskmakers resumed walking. They went on, free, without challenge, past the two symbols of a life that no longer had hold on them. The Aristos also went their way then, the woman having forgotten Kelric.
It took Kelric a moment to regain his equilibrium. He knew now, without doubt, that his universe had changed beyond recognition. If Trader Aristos could walk with impunity on a Skolian World, surrounded by Skolian and Allied military forces, what safe place remained for him? One thing was certain: until he better understood his situation, he would be a fool to reveal his identity.
He began to walk again, in numb silence. No one else noticed him. In all that astonishing, incredible crowd, no one dreamed that the long lost Imperial Heir of Skolia was walking among them.
Edgewhirl made Kelric dizzy, with its oxygen-rich air and gravity only 70 percent of the human standard. He felt light and light-headed. The sky arched in a glazed aqua bowl. Whirligig, the sun, hung low in the west, molten gold, flattenedlike a huge squashed coin. The Allieds called it Clement's Star, named for one of Earth's renowned literary giants from its Golden Age. Sunshine streamed everywhere, filling Porthaven with golden light, as if the city were an ancient bronzed photograph from centuries past.
He searched for a console room, but he couldn't find an open one anywhere. His nausea gradually increased. He hoped not too much chlorine remained in the air; his damaged respiratory system probably couldn't handle it. Decades ago chlorine had saturated Edgewhirl. The Advance Services Corps had cleaned out most of it when they biosculpted this planet, though the seas remained thick with magnesium and sodium salts.
He walked through the city, his bare feet silent on the sandy streets, his limp becoming more pronounced as his exhaustion increased. Every now and then it occurred to him that he was in shock. Most of time he just walked, searching for information but wary of revealing himself with questions.
Porthaven glowed in hues of yellow. Buildings, streets, plazas: all were made with yellow clay bricks or quartz. No wood. Fires started easily in this oxygen-rich air. It hadn't mattered before humans came; Edgewhirl had no animal life of its own, flammable or otherwise. The ASC team introduced biodesigned vines that used chlorine in their chemistry and helped remove it from the air. Vines spilled everywhere now, climbing walls, hanging over balconies, draping roofs, and spiraling up light posts, all the way to the top, where they curled around amberglass lamps shaped like onion bulbs. The leaves and stems were almost black in the bronzed sunlight, but their flowers rioted in vivid red, bronze, and gold hues. Their scent sweetened the air.
He saw no vehicles. The traffic authority probably kept them out to protect pedestrians. Porthaven had obviously never been meant to deal with this many people. They crammed cafés, clustered around yellow stone tables, perched on basins glinting with salt crystals, strolled, strode, wandered, stood, sat, and lay in amber-washed plazas and parks.
Cafés. Food. When had he last eaten? He had been inspace for two days, asleep, recovering from bums he sustained in the fire that made his escape from Coba possible. Vaguely he recalled the ship's robodoc hooking him to an antiquated IV. It must have provided enough nourishment; he felt only a distant, easily ignored sense of hollowness in his stomach. His nausea, however, had worsened. If he tried to eat now, he would lose his meal.
A man and a woman strolled past, glancing at him with concern. He realized he had stopped in the street and was simply standing there, gazing into space. Shaking his head, he resumed his walk.
Edgewhirl colonists were everywhere, distinctive by their bronze skin and hair, side effects of genetic tinkering meant to keep their cells from taking in too much chlorine. Their hair swung in braids to their waists, sometimes woven with copper threads, a sign of wealth on this metal-deficient world where corrosion ate minerals. But they made up less than half the current population. Offworlders filled the streets, diverse in their races, language, and garbs. Why? What had happened? What?
Kelric raked his hand through his hair, a mane of gold curls that spilled down his neck. Everything here shouted of political upheaval. He had to sort out his disordered thoughts. Form plans. Take action.
And do what?
If he made the wrong move, he could end up in even worse trouble. His position within the power hierarchy of Imperial Skolia had always been precarious. He was one of the three heirs to Kurj Skolia, the Imperator. Kurj served as commander in chief of the combined ISC forces: the Pharaoh's Army, the Imperial Fleet, the Advance Services Corps, and the Jagernaut Force.
Kurj. His half brother.
Technically Kurj didn't rule the Skolian Imperialate; that title went to an elected civilian, the First Councilor of the Assembly. But the question of who truly ruled Skolia had long plagued the halls of Imperial power. Kelric knew well the whispers that named Kurj a military dictator.
Kurj had no legitimate heirs of his own. So he chose three of his half siblings: Althor, Sauscony, and Kelric. Only one could become Imperator.
The one who survived.
And now? Kelric exhaled. His relationship with Kurj had always been difficult. They looked alike, moved alike, spoke in the same deep voice, had the same metallic coloring. Even their names were similar. In personality they were very different men, but that made no difference to Kurj. He looked at Kelric and saw himself. Having gained his title through violence, he feared Kelric would seek the same, perhaps even through fratricide. That Kelric was incapable of such an act against the family he so loved was a truth his half brother had never seen.
Even if Kelric had come back to an unchanged situation, he would have taken care in announcing his return from the dead. Now he had no idea what he faced.
He finally found an open console room in the library, a peaceful place with many windows that let sunlight slant across the clay walls and tables. It was one of the few empty areas he had seen in Porthaven. Most of the consoles were dark, but an active light glowed on one in the corner. He sat down and started to say "guest account."
Then he paused. Although he saw no one, that didn't mean no one could overhear. In a civilization so dependent on computers, even guarded interactions could become public. Electro-optical webs, molecular nanowebs, quantum picowebs, and the psiberweb permeated human existence, all its creations, even people like himself who carried nodes within their bodies.
Kelric knew his half brother saturated the nets with security monitors. More subtle, and perhaps more dangerous, were the shadow spies of his aunt, the Ruby Pharaoh. Her ghostlike omnipresence had once permeated the webs. But now? Who controlled the nets? His aunt? Kurj? The Allieds? The Aristos? The more sophisticated a system, the more ways existed to detect a user's presence. If he linked into a general web, would he reveal himself? For all heknew, it could be a fatal step. Better to hide his presence.
So in the end he resorted to barbarism: he typed at the keyboard. He intended only to access the library network.
Guest account, he entered.
A screen morphed out of the table and Guest account appeared on it in blue glyphs, glowing on a white background.
System down, the node printed.
Down? He rubbed his chin. The redundancy and backups built into planetary webs made it unlikely that any particular network would go down more than a few seconds. He waited a minute, then retyped Guest account.
System down, it repeated.
Baffled, he looked around. Except for himself, the room was still empty. People crammed Porthaven, yet no one was using a public console room that normally would be packed at this time of day.
He turned back to the console. How long has the library web been unavailable?
Unknown? That made no sense. Why?
The Collapse corrupted my files, the node answered, its self-reference implying it had an Evolving Intelligence brain. However, I have reconstructed them to some extent and can roughly place the Collapse as thirty days ago.
Are you talking about a collapse of the library web? Kel-. ric asked. Or a bigger web?
A bigger web.
He waited, but the node said no more. So he typed, What web collapsed?
All of them.
All of what?
Kelric held back his exasperation. The node's literal responses suggested its EI brain was less than state-of-the-art, to say the least. What webs do you mean?
Every web in settled space.
He almost laughed. So. Now he understood. The node had malfunctioned. When were you last serviced?
This morning? What about the rest of the library nodes? Thinking of its terse answers, he added, Explain in detail.
The Collapse damaged many nodes, it informed him. Some more than others. The techs took those library nodes that survived whole, or were easily repaired. They need them for webs more crucial to the city and port. With glyph shadings of pride, it added, They chose me to monitor the library.
Kelric suspected the library rarely left this node in charge. He had an odd urge to congratulate the computer. He wondered if his fatigue made him read human emotions into a machine.
What is "the Collapse"? he asked.
When psiberspace imploded, every psiberweb node crashed, it explained, its nuances indicating a desire to be helpful. That pulled down every EO, nano, and picoweb connected to them, which took down every web linked to them, and so on, until every web in settled space collapsed.
Kelric blinked. Saying psiberspace "imploded" was like saying spacetime collapsed. That's impossible.
This had to be a mistake. He had never known even a planetary web to go down for more than a few hours, and that only in a worldwide disaster. Now he was to believe the star-spanning webs that wove together three empires had collapsed? Impossible.
Yet the node seemed undamaged. He tried to absorb its story, but instead a memory came to him from fifty years ago, when he had been seven. Watching his father and another man practice with swords, he had suddenly understood that this man he loved, the center of his life, could die from a mere thrust of sharpened metal. It was the first time he realized how vulnerable humans became without their technology.
Kelric pressed the heels of his hands against his temples, trying to pull his thoughts together. He knew he was in shock, had been for hours, days even, ever since he escaped the inferno that had engulfed his home on Coba. Despite hisefforts to pull out his Coban bodyguards, they had perished as the city roared in the flames of war. The whole damnable war had been his own damnable fault. Not because he did anything. Simply because he existed. He gave an unsteady laugh. The man whose face had launched a thousand ships. Now he was here, arguing with a slow-witted computer.
He started to stand up, then sank back into his chair, too tired to do more. A thought pierced his haze. His family. The Ruby Dynasty. If the web truly had collapsed, it meant something had happened to them.
His family were Kyle operators. They ran the psiberweb. Kyle sciences had developed centuries ago, after the discovery of a nano-sized brain organ: the Kyle Afferent Body. In rare humans, the Kyle operators, the KAB grew to microscopic size.
Although the brain waves of any two people could interact, the effects were tiny. However, a Kyle operator's enlarged KAB boosted the effect. When stimulated by fields from another person's brain, the enlarged KAB sent signals to structures in the Kyle's brain called paras. Like many neural structures, paras turned such signals into thought. But these thoughts were filched. They belonged to someone else. In other words, Kyle operators were psions. Most were empaths, but if their paras were sensitive enough to decipher words, they rated as telepaths.
What gave birth to psiberspace? Quantum theory. Quantum wavefunctions existed for any system--including the brain. How do you define a thought? Simple. Use the wavefunction for the brain as it forms that thought.
If a function with fixed energy varied with time, it could be Fourier-transformed into one with a fixed time that varied with energy. Likewise for position and momentum.
So came the what if?: could they transform the spacetime function for a fixed thought into a "thought" function for fixed spacetime coordinates?
Kelric's eccentric, delicate, and reclusive aunt--the Ruby Pharaoh--had derived the transform that took functions from spacetime into psiberspace. Just as the wave for anatom existed everywhere in normal space, so the wave for a thought existed everywhere in psiberspace. In other words, as soon as a sender formed a thought, receivers could pick it up. It made possible instant communication across interstellar distances.
Of course, the folks doing all this sending and receiving needed links into psiberspace. Enter Kyle operators. With hardware to boost their abilities, strong Kyles could transform thoughts into psiberspace. But almost none could power the psiberweb. Only Rhon psions were strong enough to carry that load, and the only known Rhon were Kelric's family. It was why he was so close to them; they shared affection with an unusual ability to meld their emotions and thoughts. If the psiberweb had crashed, what did that mean for them?
What happened to the Ruby Dynasty? he typed.
Unknown, the node answered.
Why don't you know?
No one has seen fit to provide me with that information. Its nuances expressed annoyance.
You must have some information.
I'm sorry. I don't. Now its glyphs indicated regret.
Why did psiberspace implode?
Make a damn guess.
A high probability exists that the Collapse is due to the Radiance War. Then it added, Please do not curse at me.
Sorry. After so many years on Coba, without computers, it felt odd to apologize to a machine. But it had a brain, after all. It deserved courtesy too. He didn't recall ever having a computer chastise him for his language, though.
Then he absorbed its other words. What is the Radiance War?
It was fought by Imperial Space Command and Eubian Space Command.
ISC and ESComm have been fighting for centuries. What makes this any different?
ISC invaded Eube. ESComm invaded Skolia.
He stared at the screen. Do you mean full-scale invasion? Not deep-space ambushes, but attacks on major planetary centers?
Gods. Had the entire universe gone war-crazy? Give me all the details you have.
I have already done so. I suggest you go to a relocation office. They can provide more information, as well as humanitarian aid. The Dawn Corps has an office in the government building at Omega Drymorn Lane.
Aid. Yes. He needed help. Even if it had been safe to reveal his identity, he had no access to his family's resources without the web. If those resources even existed anymore. He rubbed his temples, trying to subdue his headache. Then he typed, Thank you for your help.
You are welcome. It was nice to talk to someone. I've been alone here.
I hope you meet more people. Looking at what he had written, Kelric smiled. Although in terms of "intellect," this El wasn't sophisticated, its emotional traits were advanced from those of his day.
Thank you, it printed. Good luck.
I may need it, he thought. He cleared the screen. A record of their conversation would remain in the node's files, but he doubted it would give away his identity.
Kelric stood up--and nearly passed out. He grabbed his chair, hanging on for balance while black spots danced in his vision. Taking a breath, he waited until his head cleared.
Then he left the library.
The holomural filled an entire side of Porthaven's tallest building, a ten-story skyscraper. Kelric saw it when he was walking to the Dawn Corps office. The mural showed two people. The woman had green eyes and curly black hair with gold tips. The austere simplicity of her black uniform gave her an aura of power greater than any medals or braid. Behindand to one side of her stood a towering, massive man with gold skin and violet eyes, an elite ISC officer wearing the black leathers of a Jagernaut. They gazed out of the mural, larger than life, regal and silent.
Kelric stopped dead. He had trouble breathing. His vertigo surged. With calm steps that gave no hint of the earthquake inside his heart, he walked to the building.
He read the plaque beneath the mural.
Its words were simple, dating from only a month ago--and they tore apart his heart: In honor of Imperator Sauscony Valdoria and Imperial Heir Althor Valdoria, who died to bring humanity freedom.
Kelric sank onto a stone bench next to the plaque. He couldn't see. His vision blurred.
Who died to bring humanity freedom.
His sister and brother. Soz and Althor. Dead.
He leaned forward, unable to make a sound.
Soz. The big sister who had laughed with him, scolded and teased him, looked after him. He had loved her with a child's adoration, a maturing boy's shy realization of her beauty, and an adult's admiration for her integrity. His many thoughts of her blended into a cherished haze.
And Althor. His older brother. Kelric had idolized him, the giant who swung the child Kelric in his arms, laughing as the small boy shouted with delight; the warrior who came home from the stars, striding through their father's stone house; the complicated adult who challenged Kelric's assumptions but never let him doubt his brother's love.
Gone. They were gone.
He choked, an almost inaudible protest. It was the only sound he made as tears rolled down his face. He stayed in the shadow of the war memorial, hidden by an obelisk, his arms folded across his stomach, unnoticed by anyone as he wept.
Then it hit him. Imperator Sauscony Valdoria. Imperator. His sister had taken over Imperial Space Command. That meant Kurj had also died. As much as Kelric had resentedand feared his half brother, he also respected him. And yes, loved him. Whether or not Kurj felt any fraternal affection in return, he would never know. But he mourned Kurj as well, with silent tears.
And then, finally, another realization came to him.
He was the only surviving Imperial Heir.
He now ruled the Skolian Imperialate.