A MISFORTUNE OF STARS
By Dr. Jeffrey A. Robinson
(a tale of Del, Neebo and Plix)
(unpublished)

Chapter 1

The sleek black horse galloped down the road, a cloud of dust rising behind it, as its black mane streamed and fluttered in the wind. The rider, a tall lean man with equally dark hair tresses clung desperately to its back, his dark cape flapping in rhythm with the horse’s hooves.

Crouching low in the saddle to reduce his profile to the wind, the horseman pressed his steed harder and risked a backward glance along the long unpaved highway that stretched out of sight into the darkening twilight behind him. The dust from his passage, however, obscured any details of possible pursuit from his view.

“Can’t you run any faster?” shouted the man, as he struggled to stay in the saddle whose stirrups were cinched far too short for his long legs.

<What are you complaining about, Del?> thought the horse back at him. < I’m moving as fast as I can. Do you want me to break my leg or something?>

As the road turned, Del looked back again and, at the edge of the horizon, he saw another distant plume of dust rising ominously above the grassy plain. Riders still followed and indeed seemed closer. Calculating the distance that remained, Del quietly gloated that their lead would be more than enough to make a clean getaway.

<Can’t you sit straight in that saddle?> complained the horse. <You make it much harder to run when you throw your weight around like that.>

“I think they’re gaining,” said Del taunting his mount to increase its pace.

<That’s impossible. I’m the fastest horse in their stable.>

Ignoring Plix’s ego and attributing it to the horse, Del asked, “Why are they catching up, then?”

The question insulted Plix and the horse snorted. <Well maybe because you weigh more than the townsfolk following us and you have that heavy bag of stolen artifacts with you. Also, you really don’t know how to ride as well as you think you do. With you twisting around and bouncing all around the way you are, I can’t run nearly as fast as I normally do. Now sit still and lean forward. You’re giving me a pain in my back sitting upright like that. Just be quiet and hang on tight.>

The horse’s loud deep breaths sounded like steam pistons. Despite Plix’s bravado, the horse was tiring rapidly. Heeding Plix’s warning, Del obeyed, ducking low against the horse’s neck to minimize the wind that opposed them. With a burst of speed, the stallion pressed forward down the long dirt road.

Unexpectedly, the horse turned from the road, nearly throwing Del from the saddle. The steed lowered its head and dashed toward the line of trees across a grassy meadow.

“Where are you going?” demanded Del, desperately clinging to the horse’s mane. “The ship is further ahead.”

<Where do you think we stand a better chance of losing our pursuers? Out here in the open or in the woods?>

While annoyed at Plix’s sarcasm, Del didn’t reply. He was too busy trying to stay on the beast’s back as they raced across ground far more uneven than the road. Soon they reached the edge of forest and Del found himself dodging tree limbs as the horse wove through foliage that few increasingly larger and denser. A low branch nearly knocked Del out of the saddle and he glanced back amazed that he had avoided injury. Thanking his luck, he turned back forward just in time to see a thick bough so low that the horse had to lower its own head to duck under it.

Del heard an odd “Oof” and wondered who said it. Somewhere far off in the distance, he heard something fall and knew it was important, but couldn’t seem to remember why. Then he paused to watch all the pretty lights that sparkled across his field of vision. When the kaleidoscopic display of dancing stars receded, he found himself looking at trees that stretched horizontally, liked stacked firewood and he wondered briefly why someone would do that to perfectly good trees. It was another moment before he realized he was lying on his side. As his senses cleared, a terrible ache in his head grew rapidly and he moaned.

To make matters worse, someone was shaking him and wouldn’t let him quietly suffer. Rolling on his back, the world danced in a nauseating spiral above him and a long wet tongue rubbed itself across his face like a piece of soggy sandpaper.

<Hey, Del… are you okay down there?> came an uninvited thought.

Unable to articulate a reply, Del whimpered mentally at the annoying intruder who wouldn’t leave his mind.

<Come on, Del. You’ve only got the wind knocked out of you. Sit up and get on my back. I don’t think our pursuers can follow in this terrain and we should be able to travel slower.>

A stream of profane expletives, racial slurs and blasphemous curses came to Del’s mind and he did his best to project them at Plix and the ugly creature that kept licking his face.

<Del, don’t you think you ought to try to get back in the saddle so we can get out of here?>

“No,” said Del, gasping in short shallow breaths. “I think you’re trying to kill me… maybe I’ll be safer, if I stay down here.”

<They’ll kill you, if they catch you.>

“That’s what I mean…at least they’ll be quick about it.”

<No,> argued Plix. <I distinctly remember that the locals burn strangers who accost with their women and they torture thieves who steal religious relics.>

“Are you sure?” asked Del, squinting as he tried to resolve a single image of the horse head that hung before him.

<Yes. This host has memories of hauling wood for a bonfire to immolate such a criminal just a month or so ago. Come on. Try to climb back on. I promise to be more careful. Trust me. You’ll feel better after we start moving again.>

Slowly, Del rolled to his side and pushed himself into a sitting position, pausing briefly to marvel at the spinning landscape around him and fighting back the urge to empty his stomach on the grass before him. Swallowing bile that involuntarily rose to his throat, he looked up and watched the horse approach and kneel gently beside him. Rising to his knees, Del dragged himself into the saddle, straddling the beast’s back, and clung on dearly as it straightened first its hind legs and then its front ones.

After a moment’s pause to a ensure he would not immediately fall once more to the ground, the horse started a slow, gentle walk and headed deeper into the forest, paralleling the small stream that led toward their starship.

After several minutes of travel, Del’s head cleared and, in a moment of panic, he spun around quickly, searching for the precious bag of ancient treasure that had partially precipitated their long chase from town. Despite his moment of fear, he found the satchel securely tied across the rear of the horse, just where he had left it.

Clenching his teeth against the pain of his sudden movement, Del raised one hand and held it to the side of his head and soon the ringing in his ears subsided and his vision cleared to the point that he no longer wondered which horse he was riding.

“How far are we from the ship?” he asked, wincing at the sound of his own voice.

<Not far. Are you feeling better?>

“Yes…but now that the ringing in my ears has stopped I’m hearing a rushing sound like water. Are we still near that stream?”

<No, we left that about a quarter mile back. What you hear is horse hooves behind us. I was wrong. The villagers are apparently very good trackers in these woods and they’re approaching quiet fast.>

“Shit,” swore Del twisting in his seat to see if he could pick out any signs of the approaching horsemen.

<Sit still, Del. They’ll be here any second, but we’re safe. Look. We’ve arrived.>

Breaking out into a clearing, Del blinked and recognized his ship, the Heimdall’s Bridge, which had served as his home for the last decade, his only real possession.

Standing proudly in the small opening in the tree, the normally silver hull was a wash of mottled greens and browns, a camouflage field generated by the ship’s defensive systems to help it blend into the foliage of the surrounding woods and obscuring it from notice of passersby. No amount of color change, however, could hide its shape. Nearly thirty meters long, it stood the height of the tallest surrounding trees, but its sleek shape and aerodynamic lines belied its pretense to be native to these woods.

The ramp to the ship had been lowered and the hatch stood open, waiting to receive them. Neebo must have monitored their approach and deactivated the ship’s security field to receive them.

As Plix stopped the horse, Del slipped from the saddle and landed on the ground, his legs still somewhat reluctant to support his weight. He shouted toward the ship, “Neebo, re-activate the defense field. We’re going to have some unfriendly guests soon.”

“As you wish, Master,” came a surly reply. Neebo’s disembodied voice echoed from the audio system within the ship’s interior and Del winced, fighting back a reflexive and sarcastic response that would further aggravate Neebo’s delicate sensibilities.

Despite the fact that Neebo was probably the most advanced artificial intelligence in the galaxy, or maybe because of it, the inorganic entity, and Del’s de facto partner, was extremely sensitive about being ordered around. Feeling superior to humans, Neebo preferred to be addressed politely instead of simply being commanded.

Seconds later, Del heard the faint hum of the security field as it charged up. For a moment the air sparkled like glitter as the field formed a shimmering screen about twenty yards from the ship. Then the brief atmospheric ionization faded and the shield enclosing them all faded into an invisible barrier.

Primarily designed as a meteor deflection field, it would protect them from any of the locals who had followed him should they decide to intrude.

Relaxing with relief, Del turned and removed the saddlebags from the horse.

“You ready, Plix?” he asked, reaching out to pat the horse’s neck.

<Ready, when you are,> came the unspoken reply. Then the horse settled slowly to the ground and kneeled on the soft grass. Lowering his head, the stallion closed his eyes and appeared to sleep.

Plix often found it easier and gentler, if he put his host to sleep before detaching himself. Any disorientation or discomfort would thus pass before the animal noticed.

Reaching under the horse’s mane, Del grabbed Plix as he fell free of the beast. Resembling a large slug, Plix lay still for a moment, readjusting itself to its new more limited perceptions. After a moment the odd little alien began to move and then abruptly scurried up Del’s arm with remarkable agility coming to rest on his right shoulder. Once there Plix clung to Del’s clothing with tiny vestigial feet and carefully settled itself in the hood of Del’s cape. Then it extended one psuedopod to the base of Del’s neck, so it could communicate and poked one long eyestalk over Del’s shoulder to view the black horse as it began to stir.

<Be gentle, Del. This host served us well and was willing to run itself to death for us, if needed. It is a loyal and trustworthy friend.>

As the animal regained its feet, it looked Del in the eyes with an uncannily intense stare and lowered its head as if it were sad. Del stroked its neck and patted the horse tenderly.

prompted Plix,

“Thank you, Shadra. You’re a good friend. Rest now. We’ll get you something to eat and then you can go home.”

The horse nodded as if understanding Del’s words. Actually, it probably did. Plix was a symbiote, from a race discovered ages ago on a jungle planet, called Vengar, far out toward the galactic rim. Once members of its species were deemed so valuable that they were nearly hunted to extinction. Of all the galaxy’s intelligent species Plix’s kind had a unique talent, the ability meld with other lifeforms and link to the nervous systems of other beings. When bonded, hosts experienced a great boost to their intellect along with other benefits. The wealthy and powerful across the known galaxy valued Plix’s species quite highly. Planetary rulers and kings had bred them for centuries and deliberately kept their numbers small. Since the Vengarian symbiotes were quite intelligent on their own, their captivity and sale was prohibited in most systems. They were thus found almost exclusively on closed worlds far from the regulated worlds of the Galactic Hegemony.

While Plix and the horse were joined, the beast gained near human intelligence and became an extension of Plix, or more accurately, a partner. However, now that Plix had severed the link, the horse’s heightened intellect would fade over time, though some fraction of it would always remain. The mind one touched in this way, never resumed its original cognitive levels.

“If you are done now, Captain,” came Neebo’s voice from the ship. “I should probably inform you that your visitors have arrived and have now encircled the ship. From their movements, I expect them to attack momentarily. Do you have any special instructions for dealing with them?”

“Yes,” said Del. “Just ignore them. They can’t get past the deflection field. Before we take off though, scare them away with a nice pyrotechnic display so they aren’t hurt by the ships engines when we depart. In the meantime, use the ship food processors to create some feed for this horse and I’ll need a few buckets of water, too.”

“Buckets?”

“Yeah, any sort of containers… for the horse, for God sake.”

“And may I inquire what your plans are after your mount’s repast?”

“When I let Shadra go, liftoff and set a course for Corena Prime.”

“As you wish, Master.”

“Please,” added Del, wincing at Neebo’s continued sarcasm. “I mean… thank you, Neebo.”

A few moments later one of the ship’s servitors appeared carrying two moderately sized large plastic cylinders, one containing food, the other water.

The automaton was short and vaguely humanoid, except for the fact that it had no head. It was merely a torso with arms and legs. The mechanical servants were Neebo’s only physical manifestation and they never ranged more than a few dozen yards from the ship. In addition to being mobile sensory units, the mechanized shells served as Neebo’s hands. The ship intelligence used the automatons to perform tasks and make repairs that the ship’s other systems could not manage.

Bending and placing the containers near the horse, the servitor stood, turned, and headed back up the ramp, disappearing into the ship.

As the horse ate, the villagers finally mustered enough courage to attack the ship. Screaming wildly, they threw themselves toward Del. The attackers, men from the nearby town of Norato, wore no armor and were dressed in cloth of a uniformly drab brown livery. Their confidence, previously bolstered by anger, a belief in their superior numbers, and the excitement of the chase, had been shaken by the sight of the headless metal creature so they had withheld their assault until it disappeared back into the ship. At last, brandishing makeshift weapons, clubs and knives, they shouted loudly and assaulted the ship with reckless abandon.

While startled, Del had no opportunity to react before Neebo used the ship’s defensive lasers to generate a series of blasts at the base of the defense field. At low power, the laser bolts merely created tiny explosions, bright flashes of fire with disproportionately loud banging sounds, leaving a series of small smoldering craters in the grass.

The attackers, frightened by the pyrotechnic display, dropped their weapons and fled back into the woods. Only a single villager managed to make it to the deflector field. As he contacted it, there was a brief flash of blue light, which stunned him and threw him backwards several yards. As the unconscious man’s comrades disappeared back into the thick trees, abandoning him there, the scene settled into an awkwardly silent tableau.

“I thought I told you to ignore them.”

“I heard you,” replied Neebo. “But I didn’t want any of you pursuers to hurt themselves unnecessarily on the deflector field. I decided that a mildly ostentatious display of the lasers would be a more effective deterrent.”

Del shook his head and thought to himself, <It’s a waste of time to give him orders.>

<Actually,> interjected Plix, <You are the one who insists on deluding yourself that you are in charge. You know that Neebo generally does what he thinks is best regardless of your instructions.>

<I know>, mutters Del soundlessly. <I know.>

Del continued to run his hand across the horse’s neck. The laser discharge did not seem to have scared the beast at all, but the animal glanced at Del knowingly and Del couldn’t help but wonder how much the beast actually understood.

The horse looked first at Del and then back at the disabled villager and snorted loudly.

After a minute or two, the last straggler recovered and struggled to his hands and knees. Half crawling at first, the townsman finally gained his feet and half-stumbled and half-limped toward the tree line, eventually disappearing into the nearly forest.

When the horse finished eating, Del called out to Neebo, who confirmed that all of the locals had indeed left the area. Then Del instructed Neebo to lower the defense screen so that he could send Shadra on his way back home.

The horse trotted away but paused at the edge of the woods and looked back at the ship. Whinnying loudly, it turned and ran off in the opposite direction of the town.

Del waved and headed up the ramp into the ship. The ramp retracted and the hatch slid shut silently. Moments later, a loud humming sound arose as the contra-gravity drive activated and the ship lifted effortlessly off the ground.

The air shimmered with unseen energies and nearby trees swayed as if struggling against strong winds. When the vessel cleared the trees, it paused in the air for a moment as its surface changed from mottled green and brown to a mirror-like silver. As it did so, the ship resumed its ascent and rose steadily, accelerating in a graceful arc and vanishing silently into the sky.

Chapter 2

Leaning back in the ship’s solitary command chair, Del watched his ship, the Heimdall’s Bridge, climb into space, as the sky shifted color and darkened from deep blue to fathomless black. Stars emerged in the viewscreen on the bridge, until they filled the wall-sized display. The horizon became distinctly curved and the ground receded, the edge of the sky flowing more and more until the world changed into a disk which gradually shrank behind them.

Despite the rapid acceleration, there was no sensation of motion. One advantage of the contra-gravity generators was that they compensation for acceleration forces of the ship and provided, what seemed to passengers, to be an intertialess propulsion system. The spacecraft literally fell along an artificial gravity gradient increasing its velocity at hundreds of G’s. After all, in the vacuum of space there was almost no limit to how fast you could fall. With not air friction to resist their speed, their speed increased dramatically every second. If not for the deliberately designed gravitational variations inside the ship, Del and Plix would have actually been weightless as they continued to accelerate away from the planet.

“Warning!” announced Neebo, “The Orcanians have noted our departure and have launched surface to space missiles to interfere with our departure.”

Plix, still riding in Del’s hooded cape interjected,

“I know,” said Del, grabbing the control stick on the arm of the command chair and raising the aft screens himself. “Hang on,” he said, “We’re going to have a rough ride for a while.”

Then, pulling up a tactical holographic display, he proceeded to stress the ship to its limits, manually evading the incoming attack. The internal inertial dampers, unable to adjust to rapid changes of direction at more than one hundred G’s of acceleration, pulled violently at Del and Plix as if ship were encountering physical collisions. If Del had not been strapped in place, he would have been tossed about the cabin.

Plix, however, gently augmented and altered Del’s nervous system, heightening his host’s physical and mental abilities. Time seemed to slow as Del’s responses increased.

Calmly and calculatingly, Del waited until the last moment before jinking the ship aside, a maneuver the faster moving missiles could not compensate for. The ship strained in response to Del’s last second evasive commands, but the first and second missiles passed harmlessly to either side of their ship. The others, their fuel spent in their short but aggressive pursuit, began to fall behind as the Heimdall’s Bridge continued to accelerate and its velocity increased until it slowly outdistanced them.

Confident that they were out of danger, Del returned the ship to its original course and activated the autopilot. Plix ceased the modifications to Del’s cognitive functions and time returned to its former rate of flow.

Unbuckling his harness, Del rose from the command chair and walked to a cabinet at the rear of the control room, which held the ship’s med-unit, almost running into the silent silver servitor behind him, which held out a tray containing a field med-pack.

“For God’s sake, don’t sneak up on me like that, Neebo.”

“From your appearance, I assumed you needed minor medical treatment. I took the liberty of bringing you some medical supplies.” The automaton held out the metal tray for Del to peruse.

As Del surveyed the bandages, dressings, and medicinal items Neebo had assembled, the ship’s AI said, “I thought you told us there would be no trouble with the indigenous population.”

“What gives you the idea there was any trouble?” asked Del innocently.

“Do you mean other than missiles that just tried to destroy us, the two dozen would-be attackers who followed you back to the ship, and the obvious injuries you have sustained?” said Neebo. The headless robot then extended an arm and poked Del on the huge welt, which so predominantly decorated his brow, painfully identifying one of Neebo’s more significant clues.

Del flinched and stepped back, slapping the servitor’s metal appendage with one hand, while nursing the sensitive injury with his other. His fingers stinging from their impact on the hard metal of the automaton, Del grumbled angrily and snatched a med-pack from the tray. Tearing it open, he slapped the theura-patch on his upper left arm.

The medical-strip immediately bonded with his skin and nanocircuitry within the band analyzed his physical condition, automatically releasing painkillers, broadband xeno-antibiotics, and other medications to treat Del’s injuries.

These tiny field dressings were far more than the simple bandages they appeared. They were active bio-medical trauma units which could treat almost any injury not requiring surgery. In addition to healing cuts, bruises, and even burns with ease, they prevented infection with genetically tailored immune-system boosting antigens and biodegradable nanobots, which targeted any possible alien microbes or toxins. The nanos, however, would only remain active for a few hours. Deep tissue injuries or broken bones thus required larger more sophisticated prophylactic devices and could be handled by the ship’s auto-doc.

As soon as the patch was applied, Del’s pain diminished and faded. Touching his forehead, he gently probed the large bump there and felt the dried blood which had already begun to scab over broken skin. Grabbing a second med-pack, he opened it and gently applied it to his brow, feigning no loss of dignity.

“If you really must know, I merely ran into a branch on the way back to the ship.”

Without comment, Del removed his cape and draped it across the tray carried by the automaton. Plix quickly scrambled out of the hood and crawled up onto the servitor’s headless shoulders.

The mechanical form stood motionless, as Plix settled itself on the top of the robot’s featureless torso and reared up on its hindquarters, pausing to study Del. In its new position Plix looked as if a giant snail head had been transplanted onto an android body.

“And your bellicose companions were perhaps fans or star-faring paparazzi seeking favors from the infamous rouge and adventurer, Delvane Ifnish? Or were they bounty hunters sent by the jealous husbands of your most recent paramours?”

Del winced. He had always hated his last name and knew that Neebo only used it to annoy him.

<You might as well confess, Del,> said Plix, his words sounding from the automaton he now rode. < Neebo will give you no peace until he knows the details.> When linked as he was to the control circuits of the servitor, Plix could communicate remotely with Neebo and all three of them could share the telepathic conversations that normally only Del could hear.

Having linked so frequently with Plix, Del could still hear him telepathically at this close distance despite not being in physical contact.

“You stay out of this,” snapped Del. “I’m not in the mood for any of your I-told-you-so’s.”

<Well, if my admonitions go without saying,> said Plix augmenting his speech with the servitor’s artificial voice, <then I guess I don’t have to articulate them.>

Del felt a muted mental chuckle and gritted his teeth. “If you must know, Neebo, I had an idea after our search of the major ruins proved unproductive and decided to implement a new strategy for finding the artifacts we sought.”

<He means, the few remaining Xill cities on this world were either so badly eroded or picked over that we could find nothing valuable. So he decided to look elsewhere.>

Ignoring Plix’s sidebar commentary, Del continued. “Praetor Drimjak’s suspicion that the planet Artiban-IV may have been a home world of some ancient culture was correct. I’m still not convinced they were Xill, but the ruins are indeed are quite old. Unfortunately, Neebo, your visual assessment of the planet when we first arrived was also completely accurate. The numerous circular lakes pockmarking the continents here aren’t natural. They’re evidence of a massive bombardment which destroyed some advanced civilization more than a hundred thousand years ago. The devastation was so great that the planet’s eco-system is still recovering from that holocaust.”

“Interesting,” said Neebo. “That indicates some of the legends about the Xill which circulate throughout the galactic community may actually be based on fact. Someone or something wiped out the Xill at the height of their culture when they possessed technological skills galactic races nowadays can only dream of.”

“Neebo, I’ve told you the Xill are a myth. They never existed. What people call the Xill is just a collage of a dozen extinct races. I will admit that some civilization here was destroyed, but there’s no evidence they were Xill or that whoever destroyed them were Xill either.”

“If you don’t believe in the Xill, Del, then why do you do business so frequently in the purchase and sale of Xill relics?”

“Because, if other people want to believe it and pay me money to find useless antiques, I’ll be glad to humor them and take their money.”

“So you do not think the inhabitants on the planet are descendents of the Xill?” asked Neebo with annoying persistence.

“No, the Orcana culture, that’s on the planet now, seems to be a relatively recent arrival. From the extent of their holdings, they can’t have been here more than one or two thousand years.”

“So where did the Orcanians come from then?” asked Neebo.

“I figure the Orcanians colonized this world a couple millennia ago, before they abandoned their spacefaring ways. Their society is now dominated by religious fanatics who worship technology, even as they horde it and denounce it as evil. Before they settled here, the Orcanians must have been a fairly well traveled species, because they kept breeding stock of several lesser races that they keep as slaves.”

<Hence the presence of humans on the planet,> interjected Plix. <They perform menial labor for the larger and more sedentary Orcanians, who live in lavish estates inside walled enclaves. While they keep their subject races at a pre-industrial level to make them more docile and controllable, the aristocratic elite still maintain a respectable level of technology for themselves, including limited space travel and some advanced weaponry. Unfortunately, the humans here have no recollection that would lead them to believe they had any existence other than on this world.>

“As I was saying,” continued Del. “Plix and I checked out the primary sites we identified from orbit, but found no evidence of any artifacts. The ruins we investigated were so old that nothing remained. All we found were remnants of a few massive buildings, weathered and worn smooth over so much time. I therefore figured that anything valuable had probably already been found by the Orcanians and was locked up inside one of their walled cities. Plix and I thus selected a location renowned as a place of learning and decided to investigate.”

<It would be more precise to say that he snuck into the largest castle around to steal what he could find.>

“As I had surmised, the location held a significant repository of ancient relics and I gained access to it…”

<He broke into a vault.>

“…and found the items Praetor Drimjak sent us to locate.”

“Then the legends are true?” asked Neebo. “Xill singularity-nodes actually exist?”

“Well, I don’t know if that’s what they really are, but they seem to fit the Praetor’s description.”

Reaching down, Del picked up the saddlebags he had brought into the ship and carefully removed six objects, placing them on the command chair next to him. Setting the rest of the items down, he picked up one to study it more carefully.

Each was a cylinder about ten inches long. The ends were capped by ornate metal bands of green and gold, while the central portion seemed to be made of smooth translucent green crystal that glowed faintly in the ship’s light.

“Amazing,” mused Neebo, picking one of the others stubby rods. “If these are indeed the fabled singularity-nodes, there are people who would pay several planetary fortunes for them.”

“Well, of course,” said Del gloating. “Why do you think we came here in the first place? Anyway, I found them in a museum of some sort devoted to treasures and relics. I don’t think the Orcanians knew what they were, but they valued them quite highly. Finding them, however, was easier than leaving with them.”

<What he means is that he set off every alarm in the city when he removed the Xill artifacts from the altar where they were displayed, but he delayed further by staying to grab everything he could carry. Before he could leave, Orcanian security forces were on full alert.>

“The unexpected attention made me consider a different route out of the city.”

<The Orcanian city guard used sophisticated detectors to locate their relics, but they discovered Del’s hovercraft instead and converged on it before we could return to it.>

“Nevertheless, I managed to elude them by creating a diversion…”

<Del remotely triggered an overload of the hovercraft’s power cell and blew up half a block near the city walls.>

“…thus successfully affecting an alternative escape plan.”

<When the blast opened a gap in the castle walls, I bonded with a local animal used for transport by the one of the Orcanian slave races and we rode it out of the city before Orcanian guards could secure the exit.>

“Once we left the city, they lost track of us.” Grinning, he added, “We caught them off-guard and outwitted them.”

<To be honest, the human and alien servants on Orcana have been passive for so long that the city watch simply wasn’t prepared for such a blatant act of theft and wanton destruction.>

Del’s impatience with Plix’s annoying commentaries became apparent as his lips tightened. Pressing on, Del tried to ignore the Plix as an insignificant distraction.

“Since we were out of immediate danger, we headed back to the ship but stopped along the way to stock up on supplies.”

<Rather than returning immediately to the ship, Del made a detour to one of the human villages and found a local tavern to celebrate.>

“I was only going to stay for a short time, posing as a visiting dignitary.”

<Actually, he pretended to be a human overseer from another village and demanded a room and a full meal of the best they served.>

“…and since the locals were quite hospitable...”

<That is, he found the females in the tavern irresistibly attractive.>

“…I decided to be friendly.”

<He started making passes a buxom waitress who made him drool like a Rigalian soat.>

“Unfortunately, I seem to have violated some local taboo.”

<He insulted the woman by making an indecent proposition only to find out she was the innkeeper’s wife, whereupon she dumped a pitcher of wine in his lap.--

“The patrons of the establishment became quite upset…”

<A bar room brawl immediately ensued…>

“…so I decided to leave.”

<The customers collectively beat him and then threw him out into the street, apparently with the intent of inflicting more severe punishments upon him.>

“They were no match for me, however.”

<While Del fought courageously, they had him outnumbered at least fifteen to one and would have likely killed him, if I had not used the host I rode to charge through the crowd knocking many of them down and scattering the rest.>

“Since I didn’t like their local cuisine, I decided to return to the ship.”

<In other words, since he was wearing more wine that he was likely going to ever drink there again and since the townsfolk were quickly reassembling with crude weapons, Del bolted out of town like a Denebian racing hound.>

“Anyway, there was no harm done. We made it back without a hitch.”

<Except for the fact that we were followed, almost caught and that Del nearly killed himself because he can’t ride a horse.>

Del glared at Plix and put his hands on his hips angrily addressing his partner on his metallic perch atop Neebo’s servitor. “Hey, has anyone every told you that you have a real knack for ruining a good story?”

<No, but no one has ever accused me of exaggeration, hyperbole, or prevarication either.>

“It really doesn’t matter to me,” interrupted Neebo. “I’m not particularly interested our senior partner’s escapades and antics, but I would like to know more about the Xill artifacts he has returned with.” Focusing the servitor’s sensors on the items, he asked, “Did you find anything interesting other than the nodes?”

Del sighed and shook his head. “Sorry. Neebo, I looked but didn’t see anything even remotely resembling your missing end-cap. And I really did look.”

Plix confirmed, “It’s true, Neebo, all the items we found were far too small. And the extra time Del took searching nearly got us caught.”

Neebo remained silent for some seconds. Del felt bad that they hadn’t found the artifact that Neebo had sought for years, but rationalized that it probably didn’t exist except as a forlorn wish on Neebo’s part. After moments of unspoken tension, Neebo changed the subject back to the artifacts that Del and Plix had retrieved and asked, “So…have you determined if the nodes are matched?”

Del returned his attention to the relics as well and picked two of them up. “Yes, there appear to be three pairs. See? The matching ones have identical markings on the metal end pieces. But tell me one thing, Neebo. Now that we have them, tell me what makes them so special? Praetor Drimjak was a bit evasive regarding them.”

Reaching out, Del snatched the two relics from the servitor and returned them to his satchel. Then he put the second pair away and held the last two in his hands as he examined them closer.

“Well,” said Neebo dispassionately, “there are few records that have survived from those early years of galactic history. Legends suggest several things and, since only one other set was ever known to exist, little is certain.

“Speculation and stories imply that matched crystals interact over great distances, instantly, even across many light-years. Some experts believe that with sufficient study, they could resolve the riddle of null-space, serve as a means of instantaneous communication, intergalactic travel, or even teleportation. Unfortunately, one of the nodes in the only known pair was destroyed in attempts to analyze it centuries ago and the other exploded with devastating results.”

Del nodded, calmly inspecting the two odd looking devices. “Well, they don’t look like much, but since Drimjak wants them, I’ll bet he plans to use them to develop weapons applications, perhaps like those that legends suggest the Xill possessed.”

“Weapons,” said Neebo. “Is that what technology always comes down to for you organic races? I note that the mythical weapons of the Xill did not save them from annihilation.”

“Well, maybe with the right resources, money and arms, we humans could reclaim Earth and return to our own home world,” countered Del.

Neebo grumbled with displeasure a short burst of static cascading from the control room speakers. “You humans have the most unusual attention spans. While outwardly intelligent, you continue to ignore facts which you don’t like to accept. Can’t you face the truth that you have no world to return to? Earth was sold generations before you were born. It isn’t yours anymore.”

Del was tempted to start up the argument he had had so many times before with Neebo, about mankind’s collective dream of reunification and a triumphant return to Earth, but he knew he’d never win. Besides, everything Neebo said about humanity and Earth was true.

While it had happened centuries before, it was no less painful. Growing up, Del had always dreamed about the lost human legacies. After mankind had ventured out into the stars and discovered other races, many different alien cultures drifted into mankind’s sphere of influence. To humanity, these new cultures were exotic and exciting. Not only did the aliens know a lot more than mankind, they had wonderful items for trade. Over time, they came to Earth and established commerce. The strangers from the stars bought land and established settlements. They invested in local industry and eventually became owners and neighbors.

The process took generations, of course, but eventually mankind found it had sold most everything of value on Earth and had bartered its world away. The few people that remained served primarily as servants to richer, more powerful masters who had, over time, come to own all the land worth owning. The last few reservations of purely human settlements had finally been displaced and assimilated into a hegemony of galactic enclaves two centuries before Del was born.

Still, it had always bothered Del. The human race now persisted as a semi-nomadic species, spread across most of the civilized galaxy on a thousand different worlds, none of which they could call their own. No matter where he went or what he did, he always felt like humans were treated as second-class citizens of the galactic community.

There were countless star systems where men had established colonies, usually side-by-side with other alien cultures and they had many large habitats and stations in space which were almost entirely human, but there was no single place where mankind could call home anymore. As a result, many humans, like Del, endured a sense of loss and remorse that was difficult to express in words.

“Someday,” he had always promised himself. “Someday.” But the fantasy had faded with his passage to adulthood and his childhood dreams had all but been forgotten.

Holding two of the Xill singularity-nodes, Del examined the priceless treasures he held. While any pair of these items might bring him enough to buy a dozen ships like the one he owned, they were not enough to buy back a world. They might buy dreams, but not “The Dream”. Considering more wealth than he had ever before possessed, Del grew sullen as he shoved the last two relics back into the satchel.

“Did you acquire any artifacts beyond the singularity-nodes?” inquired Neebo.

“A few trinkets,” he said smiling once more, “but nothing to compare with the six nodes. After all, without the hovercraft I wasn’t prepared to carry too much and horse couldn’t carry everything I had grabbed. Still, I guess they’ll bring in a pretty penny with the wealthier collectors. I won’t know until I study them a little more. That’ll have to wait for a while though. I’m beat.”

“Would you mind if I examined them while you rest?”

“Yes, I’d mind,” said Del, picking up the satchel. “I don’t want you touching them. If what you’ve said is true, they could be dangerous. I’d rather wait until we could do so with better facilities.”

<Neebo,> said Plix, <I think he means someplace that’s explosion proof.>

Turning and stepping into the corridor outside the bridge, Del opened a small storage cabinet and stuffed the satchel inside, then waving his finger in the air, he admonished, “You’d better not touch those nodes. I don’t trust you tinkering with them and don’t want you blowing me up with your little experiments.”

“I planned, of course, to exercise the greatest caution. I merely wish to take some passive measurements and assess the value of the other items you found.”

“You keep and eye on him, Plix,” said Del turning to the small alien on its animated perch. “I don’t want those items left alone with him. He’s too obsessed with the Xill to be trusted with relics like these.”

reassured Plix while waving his eye stalks with feigned aggression.

“Good. By the way, how long before we’re clear of local gravity wells and we can activate the skip-drive?”

“At least another eight hours… though we’ll have approached relativistic speeds by then. We need to clear the gravity shoals of the inner planets, before we can risk initiating any null-space skips. In the meantime, would you like me to prepare something to eat?”

“No,” said Del. “I think I’ll clean up and rest a bit. Wake me when we’ve passed the system’s gravity reefs and can turn on the hyperspace drive.”

<I’m going to settle in a nutrient bath myself. I positively reek of equine pheromones. I can barely stand the stench.>

Del laughed. “Ha… and you probably thought the phrase sweating-like-a-horse was a purely idiomatic expression.”

Plix snorted mentally and the servitor, which carried him, turned and headed toward his quarters.

Finally, after returning to his cabin, Del grabbed hold of the bulkhead and swayed momentarily, as the sedatives and painkillers from the theura-patches took affect.

Collapsing onto his bunk, he decided he would use the fresher-unit to clean up later. He didn’t need the soothing luxury of a real-water shower to relax him.

Sure enough, as soon as his head touched the pillow on his bunk, sleep claimed him.

Nevertheless, even as exhausted as he was, he slept fitfully, his mind focusing on the problems and opportunities his newfound acquisitions brought him. His thoughts of fame and fortune unfortunately did not last and his dreams soon grew dark and foreboding, gradually turning into nightmares that denied him the rest which his body craved.

Chapter 3

Del woke hours later, opening his eyes to total darkness. The interior of his cabin brightened however, when he sat up and stretched. Yawning, he stripped off his clothes and headed for the shower, his mind racing as he reached a decision that he hadn’t suspected bothered him.

Finding a new Xill world, if that’s what it really was, was noteworthy, setting him apart from the thousands of other famous explorers, even if the discovery had been at Praetor Drimjak’s bidding. More importantly, finding a pair of matched singularity–nodes was a more monumental achievement, one that might elevate his name to history disks. Finding three matched pairs, however, was nothing less than miraculous.

Del’s dilemma, the one that had plagued his sleep, was what to do with them. On one hand, it might be a reasonable to assume that he would return all three pairs to his patron. After all, Drimjak had sponsored the trip with invaluable information, even though he had provided no retainer or money up front. On the other hand, since Drimjak’s most optimistic expectations had been that Del might return with a single pair of singularity-nodes, he would never suspect that Del had more than one matching set.

If Del did not mention the other two sets of Xill singularity-nodes, Drimjak would never be the wiser and Del might increase his fortunes by auctioning them off to the highest bidder.

The ethics of the decision did not bother Del nearly as much as the logistics. He would have to negotiate the sales of the relics secretly and in a fashion that Drimjak would not feel he had been double crossed.

Grinning to himself triumphantly, Del rationalized that his sponsor would never notice the change in plans and that, since Del had been the one to take all the risks, he deserved the additional compensation for his efforts.

As he stepped into the shower, he gloated at his good fortune and reflected on the events that had led him to this remote edge of the galaxy’s Orion Arm.

*****

Del should have known things were going to get complicated when Praetor Drimjak summoned him and had him brought into his chambers through a rear entrance instead of the front door. Whatever Drimjak wanted, he intended to keep secret from his business partners.

Drimjak was an unusual character who played several seemingly incongruous roles simultaneously. In one aspect of his life he served as a member of the Board of Regents of the Nedyah University, directing scholarly research in a number of technical areas, usually those associated with potential weapons development.

In his most public persona, he had a long distinguished reputation as a dealer in rare Xill antiquities. As a speculator and broker in precious artifacts, he had amassed a fortune that made him a player in many circles of power. It was this reputation that had led to his appointment to the Nedyah University Board of Regents.

His least known, but most significant position however, was as a senior member of the Orion Consortium. This group of businessmen collectively controlled most of the trade in the civilized region along one edge of the Orion arm of the galaxy. The organization consisted of dozens of members of many different races, though none of them were human. The Consortium’s purpose was to promote commerce and trade thus benefiting the galactic community at large, while controlling as much of it as possible, thus benefiting themselves even more.

In an almost cursory function, he was also a member of the Corenian Senate. After all, since money could buy anything, Drimjak had chosen to buy political power and influence, even if it was limited to one of the smaller systems in the Orion Arm.

Thus he led a quadruple life, scholar, collector, syndicate-boss, and politician, changing roles as casually as others changed their attire. Nevertheless, he kept his alternate personas separate. Few of his associates on Corena Prime were familiar with his other roles and no one questioned what he did when he traveled. At the Nedyah University, he downplayed his role in planetary system politics and assumed the role of dedicated academic. His role as a dealer in ancient artifacts was suspected by many, but known only to a few intermediaries through whom Drimjak channeled money. His final position and rank in the Orion Consortium was a secret known to a very small circle of closely trusted associates.

Del didn’t know from whom Drimjak wished this meeting kept secret, but as he entered the Praetor’s chambers, he worried. It did not bode well. Whatever Drimjak wanted was likely to be dangerous, illegal, or both.

The escort who had brought Del here discretely vanished after ushering Del into the Praetor’s presence. As Del approached, the alien rose and lumbered out from behind a large desk of dark intricately carved woods. His dark mottled skin was highlighted by the creature’s white mane, which he wore pulled back in a thick pony tail. The creature’s wide shoulders and nearly neckless torso gave the illusion of being squat and heavyset despite its more than two meter height. The distinguished but frightening alien stopped and extended a large leathery hand in a sign of inhuman friendship.

“Del, you old rascal. I’m glad you could join me.” Drimjak’s voice rasped in a terrible approximation of human speech. It grated as if small boulders were rubbed across one another and rumbled in frequencies that could be felt more easily than they could be heard.

The greeting, however, was insincere. Actually, Del had not really had an option to accept or decline the invitation. The huge brutish servant sent to find him had interrupted Del’s attempts to bargain a cargo transport job with a local merchant. The messenger had insisted that Del accompany him to Drimjak’s immediately. Half carrying him across the tavern, the escort cleared a path to the door like a riot squad storming a pre-school.

Once in his younger days, Del might have been upset or argumentative, but his past dealings with the syndicate boss had always been profitable. Besides, disagreeing with Drimjak’s messenger didn’t seem like it would be a very healthy option at the time.

Drimjak approached and Del shook the meaty hand, noting the presence of too many fingers. The grip was more than firm. Indeed Del was grateful to retrieve his own hand without any broken bones.

To Del’s surprise, Drimjak smiled awkwardly and tried to be polite. This worried Del even more. Normally, Drimjak’s species did not manifest this particular facial gesture and his attempt to imitate human social mannerism was frightening. The grimace wrapped disturbingly far across the alien’s face and displayed far too many teeth. Instead of making him seem friendly, the expression gave him a distressingly hungry appearance.

“I don’t mean to impose,” Praetor Drimjak said, “but I have a business proposition for you which could prove to be quite profitable.”

Del smiled and relaxed. It was a good sign when Drimjak mentioned money first. If he started itemizing all the favors that he had done for Del, then profits would usually be low compared to the danger involved.

“Always glad to do business with you,” said Del. Noting the empty office, he added, “I assume this is a delicate matter which needs to be kept confidential.”

“As usual, Del, you understand the situation perfectly.” Smiling once more, Drimjak sauntered back behind his desk and sat in a chair that creaked loudly as if threatening to collapse under the alien’s massive weight.

“So what is it this time?” asked Del. “Smuggling, industrial espionage, transporting dangerous cargo?”

“Oh, nothing that high profile, I assure you. I merely want you to go to a planet out on the edge of the Orion Arm and look for something for me?”

“Relic hunting again?” moaned Del. “Oh God, no. You know that all your treasure-hunting jobs in the past have been a waste of time.” In addition to being time consuming, Del silently noted that they also promised a very low profit margin, since they usually offered bonuses he could rarely claim. They were, at best, break-even ventures.

Drimjak simply continued smiling, totally unmoved by Del’s protestations.

Resigned to his mentor’s resolve, Del asked, “Why me?”

“Several reasons,” grumbled Drimjak. “You are efficient, discrete and have proven yourself trustworthy. You have never withheld any finds from me in the past and this mission has the potential of being more important than any you have ever participated in before. I dare not risk this mission with anyone else.”

Del didn’t blink, but his heart skipped a beat as he wondered what would happen if his sponsor ever found out Del had hidden something from him once, a very important item.

More than a decade before Del had discovered an inert piece of computer hardware on one of his first relic hunting missions for Drimjak. There, on an airless icy rogue moon, called Gartok Shrol, drifting far out in interstellar space, he had uncovered an instrument pod, badly damaged and buried deep under the debris of a hundred previous expeditions to the cold desolate world.

The pod was about 5 feet long and cylindrical. It was about ten inches across at its widest point and tapered to a rounded point at one end. The other ends, however, was missing. The bottom end of the unit had been removed or perhaps torn off, but there was no evidence of the missing piece. The main part of the pod seemed intact, so Del had taken it back to his ship to examine.

When activated, the pod manifested a machine-intelligence devoid of all memories. Del installed the unit in his ship to learn more about it and since the AI demonstrated a number of unique abilities that Del valued, he decided to keep it for his own. Since the computer possessed no recollection of his real origins, Del reasoned that Neebo the missing portion of the module contained memory elements essential for normal operation of the device. He conjectured that the computer had been left behind by some other race that had traveled to investigate the famous ruins of the lost moon, Gartok Shrol.

Upon learning about the Xill, however, Neebo fancied that he was an artifact from that ancient civilization, despite Del’s insistence that they really did not exist.

Del guessed that the computer personality had most likely been abandoned and remained inactive until Del’s tinkering restored it, albeit without memory. In any case, Del kept the find as his own and Neebo’s existence had remained a secret ever since. In the years that followed, Neebo had become more than the ship’s computer, he had become a partner and a friend.

Nevertheless, Drimjak’s comment confirmed he did not harbor any suspicions regarding Neebo’s origins. Del had managed to keep the AI system isolated to his ship, certain that disclosure of Neebo’s special abilities would likely cost him his freedom or his life.

Still, Drimjak’s explanation represented an unprecedented compliment, a gesture atypical of the Praetor’s normal demeanor.

“So what’s so important?” bantered Del, digging for more information. “What’d you find? … a treasure map?”

Drimjak’s face grew serious, as if not recognizing the comment as a human joke. Then he snorted and said, “Actually, something quite like that. I think I may have found one of the Xill home worlds and I would like you to check it out.”

Del blinked in surprise and wondered if the alien had lost his senses or if he was trying to mimic human humor by joking in return. The Xill, after all, were supposed to be a mysterious race that had vanished from the galaxy more than a thousand centuries before. At their height they had dominated the galaxy and wielded technologies unknown to the younger races. Since that was long before any of the current races had discovered star flight, what little was known about them had long since been lost over the intervening millennia.

In current times, there were few facts known about the Xill. Virtually everything believed about them was inseparably wrapped up in the stories and myths of dozens of alien cultures. No scrap of the Xill language remained. No one even knew for certain what they looked like.

Many scholars debated whether the Xill had ever existed at all. Most claimed that the stories about them were myths associated with a dozen or more civilizations that were so long extinct that only stories and fables remained.

Searching for Xill treasure troves and their lost home worlds was a perennial task for dreamers and fools, not unlike those that sought the Holy Grail back in the days of ancient Earth. Del knew of no credible archeological studies regarding the Xill. All known ruins had been exhaustively studied centuries ago. No new sites had been discovered since long before mankind’s venture into space. Even the lucrative trade in artifacts was based almost exclusively on the exchange of intricate and carefully crafted forgeries, since no new finds of alleged relics had occurred in centuries.

This talk of a possible Xill home world was therefore quite unexpected. Pausing for a moment, Del asked, “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Of course. That is why this expedition must be kept secret. That is why I want you to go on this mission alone.”

Del remained skeptical and worried briefly that his old sponsor had lost his mind. “All right,” he said. “Tell me what you’ve got, because I’m having a little difficultly accepting all this.”

“An understandable perspective,” growled Drimjak. “Let me explain. The reason I think I have identified a Xill home world is that I have deciphered a Xill star map.”

“A map?” gasped Xill. “That’s ridiculous. No written record from the Xill has even been found. Nothing written could possible last so long. Even the strongest metal or the most enduring data crystals erode to dust over so much time, unless you found something stored near absolute zero in a vacuum environment.

“With the exception of a few thousand exotic hand-me-downs from other extinct lesser races and fragments of duranium and neutronium metal, there’s never been anything to even prove the existence of the Xill. Some scholars even debate whether they existed at all or if the Xill are just a collectiono f loosely associated myths”

Realizing that he was rambling, Del struck to the heart of the issue. “Look, even if you had a map, no record of Xill writing has ever been found so you couldn’t translate it.” Endeavoring to look serious instead of excited, Del asked, “What make’s you think this map is real and not a fake, manufactured by some charlatan or con man?”

“An excellent question. Tell me first, though, what is the most famous alleged Xill ruin?”

Del thought for a moment. The choice wasn’t a hard one. There were only a few dozen verified Xill sites and grave robbers and relic hunters had stripped them bare over the past ten or twelve thousand years. Mentally reviewing the list, he said “The Pramira Plateau, I guess… in the Baratu system”

“Right,” said Drimjak, pounding his hand on his desk. “A thousand square miles on a desolate desert world, beneath which is a single massive plate of duranium. No one knows why it was built and nothing on the plain remains except that massive, seamless plate of exotic alloy. While we know its chemical structure, the secret to making this indestructible alloy eludes even our best scientists. It is the most spectacular and curious of all Xill archeological sites. Other than a few war scarred worlds, some anomalous asteroid belts where planets might once have been, and several isolated outposts, there’s nothing left to indicate that the Xill even existed, except stories older than any of our own races.”

Del interrupted. “So did you found something on the plain? Or something under it?”

“No, actually the map is the plain itself.”

Confused, Del managed an inarticulate, “Huh?”

“My curious friend, you probably know the plain is mostly covered by sand dunes, which the lifeless planet’s winds blow across it. The only features on the plain are holes where structures might have once existed.”

“Yeah, okay,” said Del. “Those holes corresponded to where huge towers once existed, buildings that have long since disintegrated over time.”

Drimjak gestured dismissively. “Idle speculation, without any scientific basis whatsoever. That is just a fabrication made up to cover the fact that after studying the holes for ages, scholars still don’t know what they are…or rather were. They’ve mapped their locations geographically and analyzed them using every conceivable and arcane mathematical algorithm, searching for some clue to their meaning. Using deep scanning devices that see through the sand, tens of thousands of such holes have been identified on that strange unnatural surface, but no one has ever been able to figure out what they were for or why they were made.”

Drimjak clicked his teeth excitedly. “That is… until recently. As a regent of Nedyah University, I sponsored some research by a post-graduate student, who made an unexpected breakthrough. While performing a computer analysis of the surface anomalies on the plain, he finally discovered a pattern match. The plain is actually a giant star-map and the holes correspond to the position of star systems within a twenty thousand light year radius of the Baratu sun.”

Del was stunned. “But surely someone considered that long ago.”

“They did and the holes didn’t match any known quadrant of space. However, this scholar ran extensive projections and discovered that they do match up to where the stars were more than one hundred and fifty three thousand years ago, and then only when viewed along the axis of where the Baratu primary pointed back then. Whatever else might have once been built there, the plain is an artificial construct, a huge map of the Xill universe.”

“But why would they do that?”

“Who knows?” grunted Drimjak. “Maybe there was some religious significance? Maybe they found it aesthetically pleasing. Who cares? What’s important is that the map has meaning and it has provided invaluable information.”

Del waited, now totally captivated.

“In addition to being a star map, a few of the anomalous holes on the Pramira Plateau have special significance,” said Drimjak. “Some holes are different from the others. They’re larger and have distinctive marks near them.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Del.

“Only a handful of archeologists do. I believe these special locations correspond to the major worlds which the Xill populated or colonized, possibly including the lost Xill home world.”

“Really?” asked Del now curious. “Have you matched these locations to current star systems?”

“Yes,” said Drimjak, gloating. “Unfortunately, few of those key worlds still exist. Most of the special stars marked on the plain went nova long ago, a series of phenomena that, while once considered natural, now seem suspiciously coincidental. In fact, one star system on the map is simply gone. No star, no planets, not even debris. A few others correspond to the destroyed worlds already associated with abandoned Xill real estate, like the dead world of Karadok.”

Del nodded. Karadok was a lifeless world that haunted the star ways. Legend suggested it had been left as some sort of warning. Its very mention killed light-hearted conversation and quieted the most arrogant of the younger races. Sometime in its distant past, something had melted Karadok. Some agency or event had expended so much energy onto the planetary surface that its crust had liquefied. Nothing remained except vast reaches of congealed and hardened lava flows which stretched from one horizon to the other. The devastation had always been attributed to the Xill and associated with stories that echoed through intergalactic history like the wars of the gods.

“There is one world on the star map, however, which is intact and has never attracted much interest.”

Reaching behind his desk, Drimjak produce a tube, from which he pulled a roll of plastic paper. Upon unrolling the chart open his desk, Drimjak stabbed a meaty finger at a location toward the edge of the map. “The world is the fourth planet of a star called Artiban near the outer reaches of the Orion Galactic Arm. It’s populated by a race of sentients who eschew contact with the galactic community. They want nothing to do with us and don’t desire any form of trade. Since their world is poor in natural resources and remarkably uninteresting, they have been never been bothered and have been left alone.”

Del studied the map carefully. “So, you want me to go to this star system and do what? Verify that the world was once a Xill colony? Hey, I’m an entrepreneur, a businessman, not an archeologist.”

“You misunderstand, Del. We already know the world is associated with the Xill. When I recognized the significance of this world, I had archivists at Nedyah research everything they had on Artiban IV. It appears there was a formal survey conducted about three hundred fifty years ago. The archives contained survey logs, reports, surveyor’s recommendations, and holoprints taken of the backwater world. Amongst the records, I found this. Look closely at this reprint.”

Del examined the picture Drimjak showed him. Frowning he said, “All I see is an altar with odd shaped containers and some fancy candlesticks.”

“Those aren’t candlesticks. Those are a matched pair of Xill singularity-nodes.”

“Singularity-whats?”

“Singularity-nodes. In the entire recorded history of the Galactic Hegemony there have been only a few functioning Xill artifacts. One of the most important was a pair of objects with very special properties. They apparently demonstrated solid evidence of Xill advanced science and they were studied for many years. In fact, the foundation formed to analyze them eventually became the Nedyah University, now the oldest and most respected institute of learning in the galaxy.

“Unfortunately, one of the pair was destroyed by over zealous scientists and the other exploded. The destruction of the nodes leveled most of the University and left a crater behind that you may know of as the memorial lake at the center of the central Nedyah complex here on Corena Prime.”

Del whistled slowly. Despite having visited the campus on numerous occasions, he was unfamiliar with the origins of the perfectly circular lake, which was more than a kilometer across.

Waving the holoprint slowly, Drimjak’s voice grew deep and serious. “This photograph is proof that another pair of singularity-nodes exists, or did exist on this frontier world. What I want is for you to go and find it.”

“Do you have anything more on its possible location? An entire planet is pretty big place to search.”

“No. I would assume it would be located near a major Xill ruin, but in the last three centuries, since this picture was taken, it could have moved anywhere. At that time, the culture was quite low-tech, so you should have no difficulty dealing with the locals.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Del scratching his chin. “This is beginning to sound like something of a wild goose chase to me. Do you think I might be able to speak to the researcher who deciphered this star map?”

Drimjak glared and Del fought an urge to step back away from the Praetor.

“No,” growled Drimjak, “for security reasons the researcher will not be available for interviews.”

Del nodded, his mouth now quite dry. No, of course not. Interviews would not be possible, since the research’s body was probably ash by now. “I understand,” he said. “But more information would be helpful.”

The alien shrugged and slowly rolled up the plastic chart. “You have all the information you need. In fact, for the sake of security, I don’t want you to do any additional research on this world, Artiban, at all. It would attract attention to the place at a time that I don’t want any. Do you understand?”

Del nodded in silent acknowledgement.

Drimjak’s voice deepened to a hoarse whisper. “I want someone to investigate this world discretely… no… invisibly. That’s why I don’t want to send in an entire expedition there or a team affiliated with the University or the Consortium. I don’t want others to know where you are going or what your mission is. Of course, I will provide you with a reasonable retainer and also pay quite handsomely for these artifacts, if you can locate them, quite handsomely indeed. And I will also consider purchasing any other relics you might find. Acquiring these two items, however, is the most critical.”

Del was suddenly suspicious. Praetor Drimjak had never paid him in advance for such missions before. Leaning over the desk, he boldly asked, “Why?”

Drimjak hesitated, studying Del, then he said, “The original charter of the University gives authority and governance of its assets to whoever possesses Xill singularity-nodes. Since the only known pair was destroyed, the University has been managed by a Board of Regents, though the original charter was never changed.

“Merely owning a new pair would give me complete authority over the entire institution, as well as control over funding, patents and royalties stemming from research conducted there. However, I must have a matched pair. Do you understand? A single unmatched singularity-node is useless. Allegedly, they only function in pairs.”

Drimjak’s oversize hands opened on closed reflexively. The Praetor calmed himself and leaned close enough that Del could smell his breath. “So? Will you do this? Will you go?”

Once more, there was no real option for Del. Declining might be his last living act. He was trapped. Still, thought Del, imagine what other relics he might find there. Nodding in agreement, Del flinched as Drimjak snorted with glee and extended his hand to seal the deal.

“What about anything else I find?” asked Del, pausing momentarily. “Will such items be mine to keep or sell?”

“Other items will, of course, be yours,” grinned Drimjak menacingly. “I will, however, expect to have first right of refusal should you decide to sell them, but I will compensate you handsomely for anything I decide to buy.”

With formal negotiations over, Del promptly left, nursing a bruised right hand. Spewing cordial farewells, he hurried out of Drimjak’s sanctum and headed straight back to his ship to break the news to his partners.

Chapter 4

Stepping from the shower, Del threw on a one piece jump suit and headed down the short corridor that led to the ship’s bridge. Between the cargo hold, engines and power cells, there was little room left for amenities on the vessel.

The ship’s power generators and drive took up more than half the inside of the ship. Most of the rest was associated with the cargo bay. Above that were five passenger compartments, three of which had been converted to storage, a configurable multi-purpose room, a computer and avionics room, and the bridge. The Heimdall’s Bridge was cramped and crowded, but it was home for Del.

Standing at the door to the command center of the vessel, Del gazed out across the tiny control room through the view screen at the sea of stars beyond. None of the constellations seemed familiar, however. This far out at the edge of the charted space, everything looked strange. The stars out here on the rim were far too sparse and dim, the heavens too dark and empty to remind him of home.

The trip back would be a long one. At maximum speed, it had taken more than two months and a dozen legs to reach Artiban. Still, they had made excellent time, since his ship had far more range than most commercial vessels. Only large military ships, with massive fusion power plants could exceed his range. Though they naturally traveled significantly slower, they never needed to stop to recharge their drive batteries. They therefore had virtually unlimited operating range.

Glancing about, Del saw no servitors nearby, but that didn’t mean Neebo wasn’t around. Within the ship, Neebo was everywhere. His sensors covered every inch of the ship’s interior. He could watch and listen to everything, and probably did.

Taking a seat in his command chair, Del noted Plix at the navigation station. The tiny alien was mounted on a saddle-like apparatus in front of the starboard console. When interfaced this way, Plix used the ship’s sensors as his own eyes and his senses expanded to cover a much wider spectrum and range than that of any organic species. Since his partner hadn’t greeted him, Del assumed Plix was lost in the interface’s dataflow, as he took final gravitational soundings prior to activation of the ship’s skip-drive.

Del waited for Plix to finish and stared out at the stars once more. The lights displayed distinctly bluish hues indicating that the last few hours of constant high-G acceleration had catapulted them to relativistic speeds.

<Oh, hello Del,> piped Plix, finally noticing his human counterpart’s presence.

“Not really. Are we ready to jump?”

<In about five more minutes. We have to clear a gravity wave that was generated by the system primary several months ago during a solar flare-up. If we hit the wave in our first skip, we could flip or splash.>

The comment was unnecessary. Del knew well the intricacies of interstellar travel using the skip-drive and he trusted Plix’s navigational abilities completely. In combat or atmospheric flight, Del would take the con, but in deep space Plix’s ability to interpret the ship’s sensors and read nearby space for gravitational anomalies was unsurpassed. Only Neebo could probably do better, but Del was still hesitant to allow the AI to directly access the ship’s flight controls.

Despite Neebo’s great age and more than a decade experience with the Heimdall’s Bridge, the alien computer was still learning about the ship and organic life forms. Del preferred that either he or Plix operate the ship’s flight controls. Besides, Neebo probably busy with one of his private research projects again.

Del waited impatiently as the ship accelerated toward the edge of the Artiban planetary system. The long flight to the edge of a solar system, where the hyper-space skip-drive could safely be activated, was always the most boring part of a star trip…except of course when they had to stop to let the ship reactor recharge the drive power cells between legs.

While other impatient pilots might have already activated their skip-drives, Del waited. Caution was an essential trait for star pilots. While they could probably start skipping across the surface of space now, the probability of asymmetrical re-entry to normal space was greater the deeper one was in a gravity well. After years of successful exploration, Del still fought the tendency to be overconfident. It was dangerous to push probabilities and suicide to ignore them. Cocky star pilots died.

Finally Plix rose up and twisted his eyestalks toward Del. <All right, we’ve passed the last gravity shoals in this system. The ride will be bumpy for a few parsecs but we should have a smooth ride for the rest of the first leg. I’m ready when you are.>

Del checked the power level on the drive power cells and performed a final diagnostic on skip-drive controller. The energy necessary to charge up the drive coils to shove the ship into null-space far exceeded the output of the ship’s reactor core. Only the massive fusion generators of giant military cruisers and battleships could generate the required magnitude of sheer electrical output. Smaller ships like the Heimdall’s Bridge had to accumulate power over days and store it in massive power cells. The ones Del owned took up nearly a third of the vessel’s interior. The electrical current they provided determined the length of the ship’s jump through null-space and the frequency of subsequent jumps. It was all a matter of tradeoffs.

Satisfied that everything was in order, he activated the jump program.

Immediately the field of stars in front of him flickered and shifted. As usual, there was no sensation of movement, though they had just traveled more than a light-day. Then, less than five seconds later, the star-field flickered again. As Del checked the drain on the power cells and the stability of the drive coils, the sequence repeated itself, over and over again.

That was it. They were making many repeated jumps through null-space and were now moving at a speed that averaged several thousand times the speed of light. . While travel in normal space was limited to Einstein’s relativistic rules, travel in null-space was not. Thus, they left the normal universe for short periods of time and skipped across space like a smooth stone tossed across the surface of a pond.

The real travel, however, occurred in null-space, but no one knew much about how that worked. While each jump lasted several minutes, time did not pass for objects in that other place. No time passed at all. Time paused and only resumed when objects returned to normal space. While every starship depended on null-space travel, it remained one of the ultimate mysteries of physics. No scientific instrument had ever successfully measured what space was like there. Since there was no duration, no passage of time, there simply wasn’t any time to do so.

Del watched for another few moments as the stars blinked and stabilized and blinked again. Now that they were underway, there was nothing to do but watch out for gravitational anomalies and enjoy the ride.

Doing some mental calculations, Del estimated their return trip. With each jump, they traversed about six light-days of distance, or about 96 billion miles, more than a thousand AUs. At their current speed, they could cover a light-year in about five hours. In a day, they could travel a little less than six light-years. Of course, they were now draining their power cells at a much faster rate than their reactor could charge them. When the power cells depleted themselves in about seven days, they would have to stop and rest in normal space while the cells recharged. The reactor, engines and power cells thus gave his ship about a fifty light-year range before they ran out of energy.

Oh, he could increase his speed by making the jumps longer or increasing the skip rate, but that would simply drain his power cells faster and his effective range would remain about the same. Besides, longer jumps increased the risk of anomalous re-entry to normal space, which would likely destroy the ship. Again, it was all a question of tradeoffs.

Despite Del’s notorious bravado, he preferred to play it safe. Taking it slow and steady would reduce the chance of ending a skip in a flip or splash. An adage older than many myths remained true; speed kills.

“Neebo,” called Del as he stood and stretched. “You have the con.” The transfer of control however was a perfunctory gesture, since Neebo had been instructed not to change course or speed. Basically Neebo was only supposed to monitor engine operations and stop the ship if anything adverse occurred.

“Yes, Master,” came the disembodied reply.

“Thanks,” Del added in a belated attempt to appease Neebo’s sensitivities.

“You’re welcome. Do you want me to increase our speed? I thought you might be in a hurry to get back to Corena Prime.”

Neebo always asked, but Del always said…

“No. I’d rather be safe than sorry. Besides I have some studying I want to do. I’ve been thinking about some things Drimjak told me. With this latest batch of artifacts, I’ve decided I need to know more about the Xill after all. Do we have any mnemonic modules on their history? I don’t mean the general stories and myths. I mean solid stuff about what’s really known about them.”

Neebo paused. “The ship library contains several modules that might satisfy your request. I have several scientific treatises on xeno-history, a few excellent recordings on xeno-archeology and one on histories translated from the extinct Cythonian empire which allegedly acquired more Xill relics than any other culture.”

“Okay, then. Download one of the xeno-archeology modules to the somno-learning unit in my quarters and I’ll start with that. Maybe I’ll work my way through a couple others too on the trip back.”

“In that case, I would recommend the personality record of an Arasmum Oronok, perhaps the foremost expert on the Xill in the past thousand years. Do you want me to download a partial for a full personality matrix?”

Del winced. Full downloads were always more time-consuming and painful, but edited versions left too many memory-links broken. The full download would leave him more worn out and stressed, but the partial loads always made information harder to recall and remember. “Can’t you just edit out the information I need and give me a summary?” he asked.

“No, the holographic neural maps are unreadable to me; otherwise I would be glad to. It would save a lot of time and effort for both of us. While I can read and access all known database formats, I cannot download personality matrices. The knowledge of sentients is thus denied me. ”

“All right then,” said Del, cutting off Neebo’s pique of self-pity. “Give me the full record. I need to know everything I can about the Xill.”

“As you wish,” replied Neebo.

Plix reared up once more from the console where he rested. <Del, are you sure you want to do that? Those forced-learning modules take at least two full days to run and there’s a limit to how much stress the human neural system can endure. Most humans can only handle about a dozen forced learning sessions in a lifetime. Over the past few years, you’ve had twice that many. As I’ve warned you before, one of these days you’re going to fry your brain.>

“I know. I know,” said Del. “You’ve given me this lecture before and we’d already decided that the reason I’m able to handle more is because of the changes you make to my nervous system whenever you link with me. Look, I haven’t manifested any symptoms of neural overload or synaptic decay yet. Have, I?

“See?” he said, holding out his hands. “No trembling, or twitching, no slurred speech.”

<You are correct. My bonding to your brain does seem to have some mitigating effect, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a limit. Your abuse of the forced-learning system is going to cause you severe neurological damage someday.>

“All right,” said Del dismissively. “I understand… and I promise to let you know if I experience any side effects. Okay?”

Plix was sullenly silent.

“In the meantime, I’ll be brushing up on the Xill. You two mind the fort.”

Pausing at the door, he turned back. “By the way, did you manage to re-plot a new course back? We took a pretty roundabout route getting here and spent a lot of time mapping out the topology of local gravity wells. I thought you might be able to figure out a shortcut or two for our trip back to Corena Prime.”

<Yes,> said Plix.

“Great, it’ll only be six weeks back instead of eight. I’ll grab something to eat and then be in my quarters.”

Del then made his way to the tiny ship’s mess and discovered that Neebo already had a high protein diet prepared for him. The next two days in the somno-forced-learning crèche would not be relaxing ones. The accelerated learning system, banned in many star systems because of its misuse and abuse, was physically and mentally exhausting. While he could learn things in days that it would normally take him years to master, the memories faded with time and some argued that each session caused irreparable synaptic damage to the brain.

As he ate, Del decided that maybe he’d only do the one archeology module. After all, he’d need some time to plan out the details for a private auction of the other singularity-nodes.

Then Del realized he hadn’t notified Neebo and Plix of his decision to modify their bargain with Drimjak. Del briefly considered bringing up the matter with Neebo, but stopped himself. It would likely only start a fight and he had plenty of time to tell them on the rest of the trip. It was after all a log way back.

Finishing his meal, he tossed the dishware in the cleaning unit and returned to his quarters. Once there, he opened a closet that housed the alien education system. As he climbed into the cocoon-like chamber, his heart pounded heavily. Despite his outspoken confidence, he too wondered when he would reach the limits of this machine and what the results might be.

Affixing the wire mesh helmet over his head and wrestling briefly with the thick umbilical that connected it to the wall of the unit, he leaned back, closed the hatch, and activated the device. Del’s scalp itched as the sensors and transducers in the helmet writhed and adjusted their positions across his skull. As moments passed, it felt as if ants were crawling through his hair and, as individual electrodes locked in place. Then they stopped and the system began to actively alter his brain’s electrical activity. Within seconds, his eyes closed and his breathing slowed.

Once more, his consciousness faded and he descended into a deep and troubled sleep.

Chapter 5

You weren’t supposed to remember the transfer process that accompanied the direct transcription of memories. The somno-learning system interlocks supposedly suppressed all cognitive functions as the subject slept. According to the unit’s specs, no awareness would intrude until the subject woke with a new set of memories. Subsequent sessions over several successive rest periods would integrate those memories into the subject, while suppressing residual traces of the donor’s personality.

Del, however, somehow maintained a thread of consciousness that was theoretically not possible. Perhaps he had developed a resistance to the machine’s invasive tampering of his brain. Maybe his subconscious instinctively struggled against the infusion of memories that were not its own.

Whatever the reason, Del had dreams and experienced the process without conscious awareness of the fact. As he awoke and the system withdrew its control of his autonomic functions, Del’s breath quickened and his heart raced. A combination of panic and relief overcame him as his nightmares faded and the images of hungry spiders crawling through his mind waned, leaving only a dull pain as if his entire skull were bruised.

Fighting the residual psychotropic chemicals and sedatives in his bloodstream, he pushed open the lid of his hi-tech sarcophagus and pulled himself to his feet. The light in his cabin came on automatically as Del staggered to the door. Supporting himself with one hand against the wall, he worked his way to the corridor and stumbled into the ship’s small multipurpose room.

At the touch of a button it could reconfigure itself from a tiny kitchen and dining area, to a conference room, or even an infirmary. Fortunately Neebo was good at second-guessing Del and the room was set up as a small fully functional mess, with cooking facilities and a small dining table and chairs.

As he scanned the dining area for evidence of a drink or food that would quell his nausea, his stomach cramped involuntarily with a pangs of hunger. Wrinkling his nose at the stench that accompanied him, he scratched his arm angrily. Days of dried sweat made his jumpsuit stiff and rough, chafing his senses and skin.

Grabbing a nutrient bar from a nearby cabinet, he ripped off the wrapper and stuffed the entire thing in his mouth, but his mouth was dry, too dry to swallow and he resumed his search for something to drink. Turning, he almost ran into one of Neebo’s automatons as it extended its metal arms and offered a large carafe of water.

Snatching it greedily, Del raised the pitcher to his lips and drank deeply, washing down the sweet crumbling food concentrate. He continued drinking, however, long after he had finished swallowing his snack. Even before the food quelled his hunger, Del realized he was ravaged by thirst as well.

“The sessions are taking longer,” said Neebo through the ships speakers.

Lowering the pitcher of water and gasping for breath, Del asked, “How long was I out?”

“Four days this time. It used to only take two. Plix and I were debating interrupting the somno-unit and waking you.”

A second servitor entered the ship’s mess. Plix rode on top of the headless robot, rising up, as it came to a halt in front of Del.

<So, how are you feeling?>

“Just peachy,” replied Del, belching loudly before he took another drink.

Waving his eyestalks, Plix said. <You don’t smell very good. Are you sure you’re all right?>

Del grunted. “No, I’m fine. I just relish the feeling that my skull’s been used as a target in a joppball tournament.” Wiping his mouth and setting the pitcher on the nearby counter, he said, “Perhaps I can sue the manufacturer. I seem to remember advertisements promising that users will wake feeling energetic and refreshed.”

“I don’t think that would be possible,” commented Neebo. “The warranty on the unit has probably long since expired and you have exceeded its recommended number of uses in any case.”

<Neebo, he’s not serious. He’s being sarcastic.> Approaching closer, Plix crawled from his mechanical mount onto Del’s shoulder. Contacting the nape of Del’s neck, he touched Del’s mind and tasted everything his partner felt.

Del stiffened and closed his eyes momentarily, swaying slightly as Plix gently integrated their two nervous systems.

<You’d best sit down, Del. This could take a few minutes.>

Del nodded and pulled himself into a chair adjacent to the nearby table, straddling it.

“Did you get the memories you wanted?” asked Neebo.

Del and Plix tilted their head and clenched their eyes as the very question drew attention to incoherent images and abstract facts that flashed across their mind in an involuntary assault of unwanted information.

”I’m not sure,” replied Del, laughing gently. “I’m gonna have to work on it a bit. You know the drill, Neebo. Why don’t you prepare a list of questions for me to review later, while I work on this headache?”

Then Del yawned, crossed his arms on the back of the chair and lowered his head. His breathing slowed and he spoke no more.

<He’s asleep,> said Plix.

“How bad is it?” asked Neebo.

<As you’d expect. This is the worst he’s been yet.>

“You’ll be able to help him though, won’t you?”

<I think so,> commented Plix. <But this is going to take a while.> “Is that why you always put him to sleep?”

<Of course, he’d continue his stoic charade and suffer needlessly, denying any adverse effects of his intellectual greed. If I didn’t perform neurological redaction of some kind, the damage would be permanent. One of these days though, he’s going to do more harm than I can repair.>

“Then why don’t you let him remember what you do? Why remove those memories too?”

<Because he and I have a deal,> said Plix. <He needs me, but doesn’t want to feel dependent. I need him, but don’t want to feel like a parasite. I don’t tell him what he doesn’t want to hear and I lighten his load of the memories he cannot bear. We’re partners.>

“Interesting. But it sounds like more than a partnership, to me.”

Plix did not reply, but gathered himself and focused on Del’s resting form.

As the servitors left the dining area, Del stirred slightly and gentle dreams took shape as strange, alien recollections of unfamiliar memories gradually became his own.

*****

Del woke and stretched, unable to discern how much time had passed. It couldn’t have been too long, he figured, since he felt so refreshed. Standing and stretching, he did not even notice Plix’s presence on his back until his partner spoke.



“Actually, yes…I was worried there for a while when I left the somno-unit, but I’m okay now. How’s the trip going? Are we making good speed?”

<We’re between legs right now. The drive batteries are recharging and it’ll be about four hours before we can reactivate the skip drive.>

“Good, cause I have some things to discuss with both of you before we get back.”

<I know,> said Plix, but then they shared memories and thoughts at the moment so he already knew.

“Neebo!” called Del. “Are you busy? We need to talk.”

“Yes, master,” came the disembodied voice.

“I want to discuss our business arrangements with Drimjak.”

“Ahh… why am I not surprised. You’re not planning to double cross him are you? I’ve heard you counsel many former colleagues about how foolish that might be.”

“Well, of course I’m not going to double cross him. He sent us to find a pair of Xill singularity-nodes and that’s what we’re going to give him, a pair of them.”

“But we found three pairs of Xill nodes. Won’t he be expecting them all?”

“Now, how could he expect three pairs, when he doesn’t know we found that many? Trust me, if we return one pair he’ll be ecstatic…or as ecstatic as a greedy Consortium crime-lord can be.”

“But you plan to keep the other two pairs?”

“No, of course not. They don’t do me any good. I’ll sell one pair to the highest bidder.”

“Are you sure that’s prudent? I thought you mentioned that Praetor Drimjak specified first right of refusal on all artifacts you found. Won’t auctioning them violate that agreement?”

“Well, yes...I suppose technically that’s true, but he’ll never find out if we’re careful. Besides, this is an opportunity we may never have again. Drimjak will pay us handsomely for the pair of nodes we’ll provide him. I expect our bonus will pay off all our debts and allow us to purchase some of those expensive upgrades you’ve been wanting for so long, Neebo. Selling a second set will make us truly independent and we won’t have to serve at the beck and call of degenerates like Drimjak anymore.”

“I see your reasoning, Del, but I worry about some of the details. For instance, is it worth the risk to ignore the technicalities of your agreement with one of the most powerful members of the Orion Consortium? If Drimjak ever discovers your deception, you could technically end up dead and this ship could technically turn into a slowly expanding ball of glowing gas near a Consortium Trade Frigate that has an unfortunate technical problem with one of its main plasma cannons.”

“All the more reason for us to be cautious and work out all the details,” countered Del. “Besides, we need more working capital if we’re ever going to break away from Drimjak and his colleagues.”

“While your assertions are correct,” argued Neebo, “I am not sure that your recommended course of action is either prudent or safe.”

Del shrugged nonchalantly. “You can’t get anywhere in this universe if you always worry about being safe. Even space travel is a risk. Why with every jump we make, we risk returning to normal space with our atoms reversed or rearranged. If mankind worried too much about risk, they would have never ventured out to the stars. They….”

“If they worried a little more about risk, your species might have never sold your precious home world,” interrupted Neebo.

Del flinched at the barb. “Okay…so we have a few details to work out. But if I can set up possible buyers, well out of Drimjak’s sphere of influence, will you consider the idea?”

<Del has a point,> interjected Plix. <Drimjak would cheat us in a nanosecond if it profited him, so we shouldn’t pretend that his current pretense of honor is an issue. Besides, Del’s basic premise is correct. You cannot make significant progress without taking corresponding risks.>

Neebo was silent for a few moments. “All right, I will review your list of prospective buyers and conduct a quantitative risk analysis, before I articulate an opinion.”

“Good, then I can start working on that list.”

“Actually,” added Neebo. “There is something else I would like to discuss first.”

“Yes, yes,” said Del dismissively. “We’ll get all those upgrades for the ship you’ve been wanting for so long. All you need to do is make a list.”

“I already have an enumerated list of items to purchase for when we reach the Corena Prime orbital StarDock. What I want to know is whether your mnemonic implants are functioning adequately to answer a few questions?”

Del squeezed his eyes and perused his new memories. Recollections of many lectures and treatises by the late Arasmum Oronok, the foremost expert on the Xill of his day, seemed as familiar and as vivid as his most recent visit with Drimjak. Virtually all of the dead scholar’s memories were now Del’s, with little of the personality that often accompanied memory transfers.

While he had dabbled in antiquities of many ancient cultures, he had never before considered himself an expert in any sense. Now, however, his mind overflowed with information on the Xill, but more than facts troubled Del. Endless questions he had never before considered rose to bother him.

In the many millennia since the Xill had vanished, thousands of theories about their passing and terabytes of commentaries had been generated by so-called experts who disagreed on virtually every aspect of the dead civilization. Had they really existed? How long had their species endured? Did the Xill simply die out? Had their culture simply grown old and disappeared or had they been overthrown by younger races that displaced their masters? Could the Xill have been vanquished by enemies who wielded even greater powers than they? If the Xill were destroyed, what happened to the enemy? Did they still remain? Had they gone away too? Would they someday return? Or did the Xill and this mysterious enemy destroy one another so completely that no evidence of either remained?

While hinted at in story and myth, these were questions he had never seriously considered before. To him stories about the Xill had been little more than tales to scare children. Now, however, he knew far more than he had ever suspected and his deepest fears gain credence and substance.

Dragging his thoughts back to Neebo’s question, he nodded and said, “Sure, go ahead and ask away. What do you want to know?”

A servitor entered the room holding a large rolled up sheet of silver-colored plastic with markings on it. It leaned over the table and unrolled it carefully, holding it open with smooth gleaming metal arms. As it did so, Neebo spoke.

“From your descriptions of your last conversation with the distinguished Praetor Drimjak, I have endeavored to replicate the star chart which he showed you. Extrapolating the paths of present day star systems backwards more than 153,000 years, I have prepared a map of their positions within a five thousand light-year radius of the planet Baratu. This is only a fraction of the total map on the Pramira Plateau but it covers most of the space in the Galactic Hegemony.

“What I want you to do, Del, is to examine this starchart and tell me if this is the same as the one the Drimjak showed you.”

Del squinted at the chart, turning it slowly as he tried to visualize the one he had seen in the Praetor’s private office.

At first, it just looked like a random sprawl of lines and arrows, but as Plix gently nudged and touched Del’s neural network, the images he had seen came back with photographic clarity.

With Plix enhancing Del’s memory, the two of them studied the map together. There were, however, several thousand star systems displayed.

“Can you narrow down what I’m looking for?” Del asked.

“I want you to focus on the special worlds that were marked on the Praetor’s map and compare them to the ones I have indicated here as possible Xill colonies.”

“Why? What do you think I’ll find?”

“I am hoping that you will find discrepancies between the starchart Drimjak showed you and the one I have prepared here. If I am correct, the records I have found documenting the anomalies on the Pramira Plateau on Baratu may not be complete and the chart you were shown may have had deliberate omissions. I suspect that Drimjak may be hiding important information.”

That make’s sense, thought Del. Drimjak was far too forthcoming with his answers when he recruited me for this the mission. If there was any information that I didn’t need to know, Drimjak would never have shown it to me.

At this point Del’s mind went into high gear. With help from Plix, he started comparing Scholar Oronok’s intimate familiarity with the Xill ruins on Baratu with the chart before him. With his memories enhanced by Plix to eidetic clarity, Del immediately began noting anomalies.

“Yes, you’re right,” said Del, involuntarily echoing some of the dead scholar’s enthusiasm for xenological studies. “Some of the most important sites on the Pramira Plain are missing.”

Jabbing his finger at one point he said, “The Tower of Madira should be here and the Sconce of Elidon should be there.”

“Wait,” said Neebo, “what are you talking about? I’m looking for missing star systems. What are you saying?”

Del waved his hand. “Oh, they’re just names that ancient academicians gave to some of the larger anomalies on the Pramira Plain. Back then they thought they were locations of ancient buildings that had long since decayed to dust. The biggest ones were given names, like the craters of Earth’s Moon in ancient times. They’re just nicknames that were easier to remember than abstract sets of coordinates.”

“So some of the special places on the Plain are missing from our construct startcharts,” observed Neebo. “That might support Drimjak’s comment that some stars no longer exist today. Let me update the map with novas that occurred around that time.”

The images on the metallic paper flickered and new points appeared as Neebo fed data into the micro-circuitry imbedded in the map. The new symbols, however, appeared as empty circles instead of solid dots like the other systems, and the ones Del had recently noted were displayed in red instead of dark blue.

“Go ahead. Name the other major ruins that you recall. Point them out to me.”

With uncanny ease, Del tapped Scholar Oronok’s extensive knowledge of Xill lore, quickly touching point after point, reciting the strange names with eerie familiarity. “The Pillar of the Ancients. The Mast of Shadows. The Starfarer’s Column. The Midden Spire….”

In rapid succession Del named all the major features of the Baratu Plain, and with each touch the icons flickered from blue to red as Neebo noted them. Some corresponded to existing star systems, some with nova remnants.

“Fascinating,” said Neebo. “Without exception you have noted virtually every exploded star, or war scarred world ever associated with the Xill. You even pointed out the Artiban system, or rather where it was located fifteen hundred centuries ago.”

“Wait,” said Del comparing his memories from Drimjak’s office with Arasmum Oronok’s arcane knowledge the Xill and the giant starmap on Baratu. “Something’s wrong. There is one more point missing. It wasn’t there.”

“Where, what point? Where should it be?”

“Let’s see. It was called The Hall of Sentients and was the largest depression on the Plain. It measured more than forty meters across and had cuneiform symbols surrounding it.”

Pointing at an empty region of the map, Del added, “If this were the Pramira plain it should be right here.”

At his touch, a yellow circle appeared on the digitized starchart.

“You are certain of this?” asked Neebo.

“Yes, but what does it mean?” asked Del. “If it wasn’t on Drimjak’s map and it’s apparently not an existing system that you can trace back to an earlier location, what could the location on the giant Baratu starmap represent?”

“I don’t know, Del. I’ll have to make some more calculations. In the meantime, why don’t you use your newly acquired knowledge of the Xill to assess the other artifacts you brought from Artiban, while I start that analysis? Then you can start working on that list of contacts for my review.”

Del started to grumble, but he rose and headed to the storage locker to retrieve the other assorted treasures. Pausing, he stopped and called out, “Hey, Neebo, where are the singularity nodes? I told you not to mess with them.”

<It’s okay,> reassured Plix. <Neebo moved them to the engineering lab.>

“Indeed,” interrupted Neebo. “There is no need for alarm. I merely conducted a few passive tests on them. As suggested by tales of the last pair of nodes, they seem to instantaneously transfer energy from one to the other. Electromagnetic energy aimed at one is immediately detectable at the matching node. The transfer seems to be instantaneous, far faster than the speed of light in normal space.”

“Well, don’t do anymore tests without checking with me first. I don’t want any… accidents.”

Taking the rest of the relics from the locker, Del gently carried them to the table in the mess hall and spread them out with almost reverent care.

With his new knowledge, he felt far more excited about determining their true market price than he had earlier. Chastising himself, Del realized he had sold himself short on some of his most profitable transactions in the past.

Examining these items with far greater attention than he could have demonstrated before, he was soon lost in thought as he studied the relics and calculated their potential profits.

Chapter 6

The remaining weeks of the trip passed remarkably fast. With Del’s access to the long dead Scholar Orokon’s expertise, he had a very solid estimate of the true value of Xill singularity-nodes. Realizing that he had essentially cheated himself with almost every sale he had ever made, he repeatedly admonished himself for not taking this memory module sooner. Over the years, he had lost a fortune undervaluing previous finds, selling what he thought was useless junk.

Even if he could only negotiate half the value of these artifacts with Drimjak, Del and his two partners would be richer than they had ever imagined becoming.

For the remainder of the trip, the three of them argued about the best ways to spend all the money they would soon have and each of them prepared their own respective shopping lists.

Each day, however, Delvane took the time to reset the all-purpose room of the ship to exercise. At the touch of a button, the appliances and shelves of the mess retracted into the walls, as the tables and chairs disappeared into the floor and were replaced by a multi-limbed fighting machine that positioned itself in the center of the seemingly larger room. After stretching and flexing in an almost choreographed ritual, Del activated his mechanical opponent and began an improvised dance as he let his instincts take over.

His prowess was the benefit of an earlier memory implant, one of his first. But while the knowledge and skills of unarmed fighting techniques remained fresh, he grunted and winced as his muscles complained about the vigorous workout.

In all he had taken three memory implants associated with martial arts. One based on the experience of a human sensei of renowned ability, who had mastered an amazing variety of unarmed combat forms. The second memory module had been taken from a member of an alien but humanoid species who had specialized in a wide range of weapon fighting styles, including staff, knife, sword, and even the exotic spiked chain. The final learning module he had received downloaded the memories of a mercenary who had mastered almost all modern weapons, including needleguns, energy weapons of both lethal and non-lethal types, projectile weapons of all sorts, and throwing weapons like knives, darts, and clubs. The greatest advantage of the third module was not the style and the skills as much as the attitude of the long dead mercenary. His fighting style had been unconventional and unorthodox. The fighting style was that of the backstreets and shadowed byways where rules and conventions simply did not apply. It was dirty fighting at its worst.

After an hour or more of working out, Del would return the room’s configuration to that of a ship’s mess and return to his quarters to shower before resuming his analysis of the Xill artifacts he planned to sell.

The arrival of the Heimdall’s Bridge at the edge of the Corena system was uneventful. Plix disengaged the skip-drive well outside the star’s gravity well and activated the contra-gravity drive to finish their journey to Corena Prime, one of the leading academic and commercial centers of the Sector.

They could not have called ahead to announce their arrival, since no reliable communication method existed that was faster than hyperspace travel. As they gradually decelerated from relativistic speeds and approached the StarDock facilities orbiting the only significant planet of this tiny system, Plix hailed the Corenian Space Authority and reserved an appropriately sized berth.

The Space Authority directed them to a docking bay quite far from the main complex of the orbital facility, but Del didn’t mind. Proximity to the main hub was a status symbol that reflected power and wealth. Gloating, he mused that with his new fortune he might soon rise significantly on the pecking order of local traders and rate more convenient accommodations or even a reserved berth that would be his alone.

Neebo maneuvered the ship to the designated locations and docked effortlessly. Power and life support umbilicals writhed out from the station and automatically attached themselves to the hull of their craft. When fully coupled, Del then shut down the engines and the ship’s power systems, drawing what was needed from the station utilities.

Del hurried down the spiraling ramp from the control room pausing in his quarters to grab his hooded cloak and a wrist-computer. While Del preferred subtler communication gear usually embedded in clothing or more fashionables accoutrements such as pins, broaches or even torcs, wrist-comps had regained popularity in recent retro-tech fashion trends. Although bulky and antiquated, the device served not only as an all-purpose computer interface and communicator but also concealed a small, high-powered scrambler that could temporarily jam security monitoring devices nearby for several minutes.

Hurrying to the cargo ramp, Del waiting as the inner airlock door slowly opened. Pausing, he turned back toward the ship and shouted, “Now don’t go off on a shopping spree yet. We’ve no idea what Drimjak will pay for these things. I should only be gone a few hours. I’ll grab a quick shuttle down to the planetary surface and be right back. Both of you just sit tight.”

No one replied, but Del was confident both Plix and Neebo had heard him and the fact that they did not reply was just as well. As senior partner of their tiny enterprise, he preferred getting the last word anyway.

The airlock cycled and, as the outer door slid opened, a wave of warm moist air surged around him, assaulting him with pungent smells and strange aromas of a dozen different races. Scents and odors no air recycling system could ever fully filter or scrub engulfed him. However, the salty, acerbic, and heady fragrances smelled like home to Del and, hiking his duffle bag of treasures higher on his shoulder, he strode of toward the shuttle embarkation docks to finish the last leg of his trip to Praetor Drimjak.

Del wove his way through the narrow corridors, avoiding hawkers and pitchmen of businesses selling wares or services to space travelers like himself. Periodically, merchants would step into his path to make their pitch, but Del gracefully wove past them avoiding the slightest contact that might further encourage their overzealous natures.

As usual, the station was crowded with merchants, travelers, and transients, the University here drawing nearly as many visitors as the bustling and overcrowded planet’s commerce regions. Though not nearly as busy nor as important as the financial centers nearer the galactic core, Corena drew sentients from many nearby systems, mostly backwater worlds with few resources and fewer opportunities. Unfortunately, as with most galactic metroplexes, far more individuals lost their fortunes here than made them. Unwary or well intentioned strangers often fell victim to locals who lived preying on such newcomers.

The corridor finally widened and Del entered the main terminal annex, a huge dome-like complex with multi-leveled terraces that led to dozens of different passageways and corridors spanning the StarDock. Looking up, he studied the slowly rotating message board that hung suspended in the middle of the annex. Schedules, times and locations of shuttled arriving from and departing to the planetary surface flashed and changed as throngs of sentients disembarked or hurried to other connections.

Ignoring holographic advertisements, which popped up before him or sprang out of nowhere to seemingly block his path, Del threaded his way through the crowd toward the embarkation docks where the next shuttle scheduled to leave waited. Pausing only to insert a credit disk into one of the many data ports along the corridor and to take the passenger confirmation token that it ejected, Del clutched his bag of Xill relics and boarded the nearest transport. Hurrying in to take one of the few remaining window seats in the aft humanoid section of the vessel, he settled in and surveyed his fellow passengers.

More than a dozen different species were evident, with humans representing a small fraction of the total. Most appeared to be students or tourists, spacefaring novices, who gawked and pointed at fellow travelers. Only a few appeared to be seasoned travelers and Del noted that they too sat apart from the rest, wary for pickpockets, thieves, or con men that preyed on the credulous or unsuspecting.

As minutes passed, the shuttle filled and with no fanfare, a high pitched tone sounded, strobe lighted briefly flashed and the shuttle doors closed. All sensation of weight vanished momentarily and then gravity reasserted itself as the ship’s contra-gravity engines engaged. Noting the time on his wrist-computer Del relaxed and rehearsed his forthcoming conversation with Drimjak.

*****

Soon Del found himself once more in Praetor Drimjak’s private offices.

“You were gone a long time,” grumbled the massive reptilian boss, not bothering to step out from behind is desk to greet Del. “I was starting to worry.”

Del laughed aloud and swung his totebag onto the Praetor’s expensive handcrafted desk. “We made good time and you know it. Have you any idea how far you sent us?”

Drimjak grinned, once again showing far too many pointed teeth to provide any reassurance. His race loved to taunt others that they considered inferior, even in casual conversation. It was part of their reptilian drive for dominance and competition. Still Drimjak admired those who did not submit too easily or cower in fear.

Placing both hands on the polished wood surface before him, Drimjak leaned close and asked in a low raspy voice, “Did you find them?”

Del smiled without a word, trying to show as much of his teeth as he could and simply opened the bag pulling out two ornately carved metallic cylinders.

Reaching toward them, Drimjak paused as Del pulled them away placidly admiring them.

“Are they authentic?” asked the Praetor. “I warn you, if you try to cheat me, I will have to have you killed, you know… with agonizing slowness and unimaginable pain.”

Ignoring the threat, Del carefully handed the pair to his sponsor. “Oh, they’re authentic all right. But we need to discuss my price for these. I nearly got killed taking them from the locals. While the general population is low-tech as you suggested, the rulers there are not. Trust me when I tell you that they were a bit tougher to handle than you led me to believe.”

Drimjak ignored Del as he studied the artifacts.

Del waited and soon wondered if Drimjak was even listening. Then Praetor said, “I will have to have these authenticated first.”

“Oh, I’ve already authenticated them.”

Raising his eyes incredulously, Drimjak glared at Del. “You showed these to someone else?”

“Huh? Oh, no, of course not. I mean I downloaded a personality module of the most renowned Xill expert available to ascertain whether these were genuine. From what I’ve learned, these are the real McCoys. You’re holding the first functioning Xill-singularity nodes known to exist in the past eight thousand years.”

Drimjak grunted and examined the nodes once mode.

“We still need to talk about price, though.” Del paused and then reached into the bag once more and started pulling out assorted Xill relics. “Not only for that, but for these as well.” Without fanfare, Del produced a dozen more curiosities, a polished metal sphere that changed colors as light shifted across its surface, a silver metal chain without visible links that was nevertheless as flexible and fluid as string, a black tapered rod with a tiny pinpoint of light suspended about one inch from its pointed end and disk that displayed untranslatable symbols which changed whenever it was touched.

The Praetor glanced from the objects in his hands to the growing horde of novelties and treasures that Del pulled from his bag. When Del stopped, both of them looked up and leered greedily at one another.

Del laughed and Drimjak responded in his racial equivalent, growled menacingly. Then the real negotiations and haggling began.

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