We left our heroes recently returned to the ranch on Hellene, only to
find it a battlefield. Robbie and the cat, together with three of our
four nephilite house guests, have managed to escape to a mysterious
bolt-hole, and from there summon the aid of KaiSen, the race-mind.
A ship, sent by KaiSen, has landed over the crater where Salimar was standing, and the crew of Kishaer have begun excavating Salimar. The gargoyle, Gannar, and Tom spot the KaiSenese ship (a huge black egg festooned with the silver lyre-curves and stars that are KaiSen's logo) and head for it.
Meanwhile, in the bunkers of the bolt-hole, Robbie is exploring his communications options. He asks the comm panel if it has any channels to Jumping Jacks. It offers him a text link. Robbie quickly sends a message: "Have recently returned from Elsewhere, to find the ranch under attack. Currently in northern bolt-hole. Please advise."
He is then bemused to see the message get printed out, loaded into a can-like capsule, and apparently sucked away. Pneumatic tube delivery? Probably not, because the reply comes back very quickly, even quicker than e-mail could explain: "Busy now. HQ under attack. See you later I hope. C."
Robbie puzzles over this, then gives up and puzzles over the language used on all the displays. (He's been communing with the comm by cybernetic psi.) The comm tells him that it's Household Esoterica, and there's no dictionary available. Hmph.
Meanwhile, Markel is aloft on his dragon, glamoured invisible, flying through the night toward the beleaguered ranch. He sees various flashes and booms from that direction. About then, Tom sends out a telepathic APB for everyone to converge on the KaiSenese ship, but Markel feels it is important to know what's going on at the ranch house and continues. Kate, Katrina, Daphne, and Dafnord, however, do head for the ship.
Back in the bolt-hole, Robbie gets a public news feed. There's mention of the Gorslavia/Ipsylvania war, but nothing about Jumping Jacks. He learns the war is a recurring quarrel that rather surprised people by re-erupting two weeks ago. Click here for historical background.
He does, and finds instances of Ipsylvanian and Gorslavian military uniform and vehicles. They don't look at all like the armor or aircar we've seen on our attackers. He puts the image on a screen, for Greywolf, who confirms that nothing like that has shown up in battle. Greywolf also tells Robbie that the ranch was attacked about ten days ago, and so about four days after the war started. He and the others last raided the ranch house two days ago.
Robbie then climbs on the Hellene-Wide Web and looks for public traffic cameras in Pericles. Pericles, however, is the capital of a very turbulent planet, and is big on security. There aren't a lot of things like public cameras. Robbie does find a few, and one points vaguely toward Jumping Jacks. He sees a gleaming force-dome over that area, and finds posted advisories from the traffic control computers, routing vehicles away from it. But there are no flashing lights or sirens.
Robbie tries getting through to the ranch house, but the comm says that is in "isolation protocol." He then tries an indirect method. Braeta is a superlative hacker, so she might be able to hack her way onto the planetary Web. So he leaves a note for her -- in the personal ads:
"Android out of time seeks tall, electrifying woman. In fact, a goddess. Contact at [this link]. Have interest in computers. You share same."
Anything to attract her search engines. He then posts it in Ipsylvania and Pericles.
Tom, meanwhile, is working his way through the dark forest, toward the KaiSenese ship. He tries to contact Robbie telepathically. Nothing. He tries clairvoyance to the Munch and the Nones. Nothing. He tries his apartment in Pericles. He feels considerable resistance, but succeeds.
It's dark. The windows are opaqued. The door is bolted. And someone has set off an incendiary device... The walls look intact, but the furniture is a mess. When he has time, Tom plans to be upset and angry about this. Right now--
He sniffs around for psi signatures. There's an odd psi condition here. It increases quickly toward the walls. After some study, Tom figures out that it's a complex and powerful system of various cloaks, shields, and other forms of psi-conditioning. In generally, it lets you do psi in an area, but not do anything that crosses the boundary; it took a lot of luck and skill for him to get in. This is cutting-edge psi-tech, done with machines, not minds, and, as a time-traveler, he is able to recognize this as an early form of psi-scrambler, a technique generally dated to the next century. So either someone is very precocious or they're dabbling in time-travel.
Back in the bolt-hole, Robbie decides to send a message to "Green," one of the leaders of the Rainbow Contract group. (We don't really know what the Rainbow people are up to. They're clearly high-level espionage, and normally very cozy with Jumping Jacks, but such relationships are volatile. Green was their technical expert and seemed least alarmed by our various weirdnesses. It's interesting that we can send him a message from here.) The system gives him another printout sent ... somewhere ... in a capsule, and gets another immediate reply.
Robbie basically asked what the heck was going on. Green answered: "Unaware of your situation. Please advise or send contact information." Robbie prepares a second message, describing the attack and giving images from his memory, but the comm then announces that this channel has been compromised and shut down.
Damn. Robbie tries the KaiSenese Embassy again. He gets a brief flicker of some alien receptionist with golden fur, but is immediately forwarded to KaiSen itself, in the form of a miscellany of teddy-bear-like creatures with parrot beaks, shoe-button eyes, and large moth-like antennae. Please try to believe this is the most powerful individual in known space. Thank you.
Robbie asks after Salimar and is told the rescue is in progress. And the mysterious isolation of Jumping Jacks? The investigation is in progress.
Meanwhile, Tom has sent his clairvoyant viewpoint out of the apartment (squeezing it through the scrambler with some difficulty). Everything looks normal from the outside -- a residential brownstone in a nice neighborhood, with parking on the roof, etc. Taking the viewpoint up some, he sees the silvery force-dome over Jumping Jacks, with hints of traffic congestion around it, but no signs of disaster.
Tom has now reached the KaiSenese ship, along with his companions, and introduced himself as a KaiSenese Associate, and confirmed that he has no part in the local conflict. These diplomatic niceties out of the way, he is assured that he and his friends can get a lift out of the battle zone. Tom tells the Kishaer agent that he has several more friends on the way.
Markel, meanwhile, has got close enough to the ranch house to see a couple of figures, in white, possible armored, vanishing over the crest of a hill. They were illuminated by explosions. He agrees to be picked up.
Dafnord, Daphne, Katrina, and Kate arrive. (Daphne looks at the froggy Kishaer, immediately recognizes toad-goblins when she sees them, and, as an insectile sort of pixie, decides to stay perched way, way up on Dafnord's shoulders. Or his head, for preference.) Once we are all aboard the ship -- along with a grav-sled loaded with oozey gravel from which we will extract Salimar -- another Kishaer comes to meet us. He is in a black jumpsuit, with KaiSenese logo. He marches up to Tom, extends a hand, and introduces himself as "Chester."
It's the last stun. "You've got to be kidding," Tom murmurs in Earthron, shaking hands. "Why would I do that?" asks Chester in the same language. (Until now, Tom and the aliens were speaking KaiSenese Interstellar.) Tom recovers, apologizes, and congratulates Liaison Officer Chester on his obvious mastery of Terran cultures. He then tells Chester about Markel.
No problem. The ship lifts and zips toward the dragonrider. In the very short time en route, Tom warns the Kishaer that his friend is on a valued flying beast. "Ah, yes. Got it on sensors. Very unusual." Right. Tom believes it gets lift from psi and only uses its wings for thrust. Also, it, ah, can burn hydrogen in its breath. (Tom is guessing. For all he knows, the dragon burns butane, or uses pure glamour. Methane might be likeliest. But anything for a rag of rationalization.)
What Tom forgot to mention was that Markel and his dragon are glamoured for invisibility. But this doesn't seem to bother the Kishaer, who bring them aboard without incident, and merely stop squinting when Tom belatedly removes the glamour. Their visual spectra must not coincide with humans'.
Tom then asks if we can be taken to Pericles. Sure. ZIP In a bumpy but brief ride -- (Kishaer don't need as much inertial insulation as humans) -- we get hurtled through several timezones, and the ship plops down on the Pericles Spaceport tarmac.
Tom then calls the KaiSenese Embassy from the ship. Like Robbie, he quickly gets patched through to KaiSen itself. But not the same chunk of KaiSen. Apparently, KaiSen keeps thoughts about Jumping Jacks & Co. in a somewhat different mental folder than the one it keeps thoughts about Salimar and her doings. Robbie is in the one; Tom is in the other. When Tom asks KaiSen about rescuing guests from the ranch-house, the screen splits and he's talking to some different KaiSen units, but still not the same set Robbie addressed.
As it is, in the course of the conversation, Tom keeps getting switched from one screen window to another, while the irrelevant bits of KaiSen carefully look away to maintain internal security.
KaiSen tells him that it's a shame we were away when the war started; we could have declared the ranch a non-combatant zone. It also admits that the conflict is unusual in the way the Gorslavian forces have penetrated as far as the ranch so soon. As to rescuing the house guests, KaiSen does have the diplomatic right to make "non-violent extractions" of some types, but the fact that the "guests" are fighting back makes this awkward.
One thing KaiSen can do -- in its capacity as The Phone Company for interstellar communications, it is a consummate communications expert. (It has to be, to hold itself together over galactic distances.) KaiSen gives Tom a line into the ranch, so he can talk to the house computers.
The machinery that answers the phone tells Tom that it's disconnected from much of the rest of the house and doesn't know where anyone else is. Tom tell it that it's under attack. It guessed that, from the way the security systems were acting. It supplies Tom and KaiSen with some images of the attackers. Tom rings off and KaiSen admits that the attackers don't look like Gorslavian troops.
Tom now tries to contact Jumping Jacks, and fails. When Tom asks what's up with Jumping Jacks, KaiSen re-shuffles its internal personnel for the eighth time, and says that the public story is that Jumping Jacks claimed it had a "minor environmental difficulty" and erected the force field just one day after the war started. Tom then tells KaiSen about his trashed apartment and the growing certainty that a third party is attacking us under cover of the Gorslavian/Ipsylvania war. The race-mind boils around again, passes itself a sticky note in the shape of a yellow teddy bear running from one room to the other, and admits this is very likely.
Tom then asks KaiSen if it can locate Robbie. KaiSen goes into a huddle with itself and asks Tom if Robbie would be in "segmented access"? Yes! He was last seen with Brunalf. KaiSen remarks that it has Brunalf filed under "segmented technology," and presumably gives itself clearance to look up the bits of itself that are thinking about Brunalf. Somewhere in the populous halls of its mind, the penny drops.
"May we access fore-memories relating to you?" Sure. (This is an emergency.) KaiSen shuffles around and some tired-looking units come on screen.
"May we use a channel to which we will have access, to contact Robbie?" Okay. (Said while cringing.)
"Historical records show that, in ten minutes, Robbie will contact ... someone ... then lose contact. Then he will try again, fifteen minutes later." So we'll wait.
Meanwhile (or possibly elsewhile; it's getting hard to be sure), Robbie gets a capsule message from KaiSen, telling him Tom is trying to contact him. Robbie sends back his location and the list of people with him.
Back at Tom's end, KaiSen debates aloud, and/or with itself, over the convoluted privacy ethics involved here, but ultimately decides to remember a little about the bolt hole. In the course of the conversation (if that's what we're having), it reveals that the message capsules are sent back into Hellene's prehistoric past, then up to the present again, which explains the odd turn-around times -- and the fact that, if you check the time-stamps on the messages, some of them haven't been sent yet. At the end of the conversation/soliloquy, KaiSen offers to locate Robbie either through time-travel or using special sensors, but the later might violate our privacy.
Tom feels he'd rather violate more privacy than more causality, so we walk out of the ship and, low and behold, there is another KaiSenese ship -- much smaller, with some actual bits of KaiSen coming out of it, along with a vaguely humanoid alien with eyestalks.
Now face to faces, KaiSen explains to Tom that, back when it first met our gang, Daewen, Lorelei, Victoria, and Cantrel had been very concerned about their privacy. In particular, they wanted security for raising their children. KaiSen grows very wistful, in a hungry kind of way, over the "unshared technology" Daewen used to create the bolt-hole. It's even more wistful when Tom says he can't share it, either. But the children are all raised and gone, so the privacy issue is reduced, and KaiSen is tickled at getting even a slightly closer look at our doings.
So, in short order, we are whisked away to the ice-flows of Hellene's north pole. Meanwhile, Robbie is at last in communication with Tom. He learns that "Household Esoteric" is a deliberately cryptic blend of the various languages picked up by the crew of the pantope Dance of Hours, during the Diadem Quest. Hmph again.
We arrive at the island fortress, and Robbie, Brunalf, and the nephilim come out through the hidden entrance to the ship. Brunalf notes a funny ripple of softness around the entrance -- doubtless some of Daewen's "unshared technology." They break through an ice wall to get out, but Tom restores an illusion of it and cloaks the psi signature.
And we're off. Now all we have to do is break into our own house, pick up Braeta, regain the pantope Emerald Metaphor, rescue Jumping Jacks and a doubtless ungrateful Cantrel, and, oh yeah, resume our arcane diplomacy with the nephilim. And figure out who in the twenty corners of time is attacking us, and why.
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.