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Conclusion of previous post.

And here's the rest.

Part One.

Auren Reports In: Part 2

After the break, Major Lotor announced that she wanted a look at a standard residential zone, so off we went in the direction that seemed most likely. We came to an internal airlock, and beyond it.. "Zero pressure in the next area" said Sergeant Ferret. "Helmets and seals if we're going in."

Sergeant Ferret carefully watched everybody suit up and check each other, then he checked them himself just to be sure. He then looked over at me. I'd already solidified my veils, so I just smiled at him, and gestured at the airlock.

"Shall we?" I said, over their common suit frequency, and grinned at his response. Hey, a survival expert should be used to surprises by now.

We cycled through the airlock, and found ourselves in a dark, airless room. I invoked an encircling light spell while the others turned on their handlamps. There was no gravity to speak of and Sergeant Ferret's first step launched him upwards. Right behind him, the same thing happened to Major Lotor. "Zero gee" said Sergeant Ferret unnecessarily, regaining his balance and reaching out to snag Major Lotor as she drifted past. The others waited, then stepped forward cautiously, as I floated up to join them. It's a pity flight spells don't work too well under gravitation without being overly obvious about it, but there are times they come in handy.

Suddenly Major Fox shouted -"Hound! 2 o'clock zenith, 11 o'clock left!"

"Is it moving? It's moving! Shit!"

"Waitwaitwait! It's also in freefall!"

A large, boxy looking metallic warmech floated in the room. K Between illusion spun from the interactions of the various light sources in the room and perhaps a puff of air brought in with us, it did seem to be moving, but not under its own power. I tossed a general detection spell at it and found it at room temperature, apparently inactive. "It's not active!" I called out.

I placed it under watch and wove a direct chain of glittering pixie dust to make sure it was obvious to everybody else that I had done so. "I'll know if it starts moving under its own power." I told them. "It's not active, but I sense no damage to it, either." I helped Sergeant Ferret return the others to the airlock.

"Could our lights be feeding it enough power to reactivate it?" asked Major Lotor.

"Possibly, but I think it would have reacted by now."

"What is that?", I asked Major Fox, who'd been the first to recognize it.

"A terror weapon known as a Hound," he replied. "These formed a large part of what attacked this ship."

The Wild Hunt was loosed here indeed, I thought.

"Now we leave it behind," said Major Fox, "and we leave for another residential area."

"What about the Hound?" asked Major Lotor.

"We'll leave that for the follow-up mission. A team with heavy weapons, a few shaped charges, concrete and metal composite wire mesh and sealed automated transport."

"That sounds appropriately drastic," I commented.

Major Fox replied, "The L'Drey with their blasters weren't able to stop these things from driving them off the Kiran. I don't know how many Hounds they faced. Or whether Hounds could replicate themselves from their surrounding materials, either. I don't want to hazard that when all we've got is hand weapons. Or when the flotilla hasn't been advised that a recovery effort is underway."

Wow, I thought, shuddering a bit at the thought of self-replicating warmechs. Even intelligent ones. Especially intelligent ones.

It took us awhile, but we finally came to a residential area which was still powered. Again the familiar pattern; a high ceiling and beneath it buildings of varying height and size. K There were no windows, but plenty of doorways, recessed enough to make it plain they could serve as emergency airlocks. Hanging across the doorways chain curtains of small beads in varying colors and patterns. K

Major Lotor theorized that the colors and patterns dealt with access or status of the inhabitants.

"Why beads rather than doors?" asked Sergeant Ferret.

Major Fox suggested "If the L'Drey are telepaths, doors may not be meaningful barriers. Perhaps these serve as a privacy warning."

Major Lotor continued to consider the patterns. "Clan markings? Professional groupings? Let's go inside some of them."

The buildings were about as cleaned out as the ones I'd seen earlier. Major Lotor investigated the low platforms covered in fine 'sand' and said they were probably self-refilling toilet facilities.

And that was that until we figured out that there were closets in the rooms, and how to get into them. Major Lotor found a set of cushions filled with something granular, while a few rooms over I found a stack of nine mats K

"Those look like rough silk -long fiber strands woven together", said Major Lotor with a pleased tone. "Neat. Let's take a sample."

Major Fox picked one up and rubbed the end between his fingers. "That's odd - the individual strands appear stuck together."

Major Lotor tried to cut off a sample, and only succeeded in dulling her scissors. I tried it myself, and could not separate them either. I was in the middle of invoking a molecular scale cutting spell, when..

"Everybody out, NOW!" said Sergeant Ferret. I put the spell on hold, and followed everybody but Major Fox out of the room. The latter was hanging one of the mats up over the 'sandbox'. He then stepped back, took out a machine pistol, visibly checked the angle for ricochet purposes, and opened fire, with a loud BLAM! He walked over to check the results, and I finished invoking the cutting spell, then followed the others back in. Anticlimactically, the bullet had simply struck the mat and dropped, flattened into the sandbox. K

Meanwhile, my spell commenced nibbling through one strand and.. Saaaa! The whole thing vanished into a faint shower of dust!

"It's gone!"

In response to a chorus of "What happened?", I explained what I'd tried. "I think that whole mat was one long-chain molecule."

"Hell of a long chain" commented Sergeant Ferret.

We sent the rest of the mats back to the ship with the exception of one Major Fox decided to hang onto and carry. Ostensibly to sit on; more likely as a form of armor. I must consider weaving something like that myself some time, in a more useful shape. With certain modifications of course - as is it would be most uncomfortable to wear. Talk about material not 'breathing'….

Major Reynard made the next major discovery; a single, mummified body. Everybody promptly sealed their faceplates; I thickened my veil and traced the sigil for the dead.

In a standard sized living area, the body was sitting alone on a large embroidered cushion in multiple shades of still bright color, next to an intricate device of tubes and bulbs, and some sort of flexible material. Some dark gunk was deposited inside. K The departed had fallen forward, towards a wall upon which danced a holographic image. "That's unusual" Major Lotor murmured as she examined it.

"She died while smoking a hookah?" said Major Reynard.

"No, I mean that it's mummified. You'd expect most bodies to simply dissolve into primordial goop with bones sticking out."

Major Fox passed out assignments. "Ell Eff, why don't you run the chemical analyses on the material in the hookah. Jenny, you keep watching the hologram. Christiaan and I will check the rest of this building. Auren, if you've got any advice or research you want to offer, would you mind letting us know as you do it, or before, so we don't interfere with each other?"

Speaks the guy who shoots holes in things. "Fair enough."

The body was female, the dancer male, a fact that became increasingly obvious as the dance continued and the veils were discarded. Blatantly aroused, too.. "Erotic dancing, if not out-and-out pornographic, depending on cultural norms," decided Major Lotor

The holographic recording took about forty-five minutes to cycle, and showed the dancer to be very skillful. I decided not to wonder aloud how he kept his balance, especially towards the end. As time passed, Major Lotor searched for the generator, with increasing frustration, but no luck.

"This looks to have been a deliberate poisoning," said Major Reynard, looking up from a sample of the sticky dark organic gunk found in the 'hookah'.

Naturally enough the discussion turned to whether this was murder or suicide, with the general suspicion being the latter. Major Reynard took over the search for the projector and discovered that there were actually four of them, embedded in the walls and focusing on the same spot. K

"We haven't been looking that closely at the walls of any of these dwellings," Major Fox commented.

"It is the obvious place to put something you don't want to take up space with," I remarked. "I can cast the appropriate analysis spell but we'd have to take up more time per room."

"How much more time?" asked Major Lotor.

I consulted my shoulder dragon. "Hours."

Major Fox said. "No point. We'd find more with a general search. As usual, mark for further follow-up and let the next teams do detailed examination. We build in HD units in our own walls, so it's no surprise that the Shidran-Kas did theirs."

"But they're using projective holography," said Major Reynard. "Lasers."

"We've got molecular lasers - most of our optical chips use them," said Sergeant Ferret. "What's the big deal?"

"Those go millimeters - these are going meters!" protested Major Reynard.

I intervened. "Line of sight is line of sight - and air is a lot more transparent than silicon. Shall we continue?"

"Auren," asked Major Lotor. "Just what IS that moving in your hood?"

I held up my hand and my shoulder dragon K slithered out to coil about it. "My shoulder dragon," I explained.

Major Fox reached out, and the shoulder dragon glided its black and red head forward, 'breathing' a flicker of illusory flame to brush his finger. It then withdrew back to my shoulder.

Whatever caused the body to mummify was not unique to this individual, because we found three more bodies in two rooms of a nearby building. This time there was no doubt these were suicides. In one room lay a male with a cut throat, the next contained a female who had slashed across her own torso with what was probably the same knife that had killed the male, still embedded, with the hilt grasped by both hands. In a third was yet another body, also male, with a similar blade thrust upward through the throat. There were mirrored image ideographs on the blades - obviously a matched pair.

Everybody lapsed into forensic style like so many police investigators, recording the entire room with detailed running commentary. K Until Major Fox got tired of trying to get people's attention and tapped Major Lotor on the shoulder.

"Is there any doubt that these were family members, or that this was a mutual suicide?" he asked her.

"No," she said, shaking her head. "The DNA analysis found shared genes between two of the bodies and the third; parents and adolescent or adult child from the looks of it. Details will have to await full autopsies aboard the Ark Royal."

"Then first we should honor their passing. Respect their deaths and tradition."

"Yes, I'd like that too. On the record?" asked Major Lotor.

"Of course."

And so we recited a few prayers, while I traced the sigil for honoring the dead in the air, in glowing blue-green.

Several more rooms later, Major Reynard found a computer, and decided to try and see what could be learned by painting some of the symbols from a children's book onto the screen. Not much except that after awhile the computer emitted an abrupt vocal sound.

"That sounds like a warning," said Major Lotor.

"Great. About what?" said Major Reynard in an annoyed tone.

"Don't do that or I'll crash?" I suggested.

"All right, team," said Major Fox, "I think it's time for a rest. Let's go find a good place for dinner and a rest."

We left the room, and found another building with no particular features we hadn't seen a hundred times before to collapse in. Major Fox also took the time to check his mail and when I closed my own eyes was still busily composing something.

When in Danger When in Doubt

Came the dawn (well, somewhere) and a noisy argument between the three Majors over how long we should remain in the residential area. Major Reynard was becoming a bit bored with standard archaeological procedures, for the which I really couldn't blame her - the main reason I wasn't was the chance to learn new things about these people. She couldn't just keep up her own investigations; her techniques for directly connecting with computers require short sessions and a good deal of rest between them. Sergeant Ferret was concerned that they weren't being bombarded with questions from the ship, until Major Fox showed him the barrage of email he'd been keeping out of everybody else's hair. K

Eventually we went back to the room with the computer. The interface Major Reynard had cobbled together and suspended over the screen gave her more possibilities for communicating with it, so we left her to it and either watched or wandered about the room. I invoked a deep search of the walls, and also of our surroundings in the room and along our back trail. Smaller things than Hounds might be left about from long ago, with unknown capacities. But as usual I found no sign of pixie dust other than my own.

"Okay, there's no response to any direct feed; not through the leech, not through my implant - and I've tried to find a focal point, but failed," complained Major Reynard, gesturing at the operational computer and the test device suspended over it. "There's also squat that's coming through or from that doohickey."

"Ah," I said, "Nice technical term." She glared. (Amusing, that - how many people do you know who'd have the nerve to glare at a Technomancer? OK, other than other Technomancers, anyway.)

"Well… I've got an idea," said Major Fox.

Major Reynard transferred the glare to Major Fox.

"We draw an ideogram. A -"

"We've TRIED that," interrupted Major Reynard. "Hundreds and HUNDREDS of the basic ideograms we found earlier."

"Not this one." Major Fox walked to the 'tablet' and drew the symbol for the Kiran.

A gray fox like face appeared before what Major Reynard identified as a symbol for Ship's services and spoke a brief message. A different set of ideograms appeared, along with a change to the keypad.

"That did something," said Major Lotor.

"Yeah, but what?"

"A menu," said Major Fox. "Top to bottom, right to left, ends are more meaningful than middle…" and tapped at an ideogram.

Another change. Another image, other sounds, a voice speaking harshly.

"Uh-oh," said Sergeant Ferret, tensing. "Somebody's not happy."

The keyboard stopped responding, as a series of symbols flickered down to those for one and zero, followed by an alarm siren.

"Time to leave!" said Major Fox

"There are lights out there," pointed out Sergeant Ferret.

"Any movement?" asked Major Fox. "Grab your stuff and go, people!"

We all exited the building, to see spaced dots of blue light forming lines, leading down the passageway.

Sergeant Ferret went to the intersection, looked both ways. "That way leads to the shuttleport, we'd best take an alternate route."

We went the other way, as silently and rapidly as we could manage until we were several turns beyond the airlock. I summoned in all my pixie dust to leave the room clear as possible.

As everybody sat down or leaned against the walls and panted, Major Lotor explained. "I think I know what happened. You were just poking about at random, right George?"


"My hunch is that first voice was a simple warning to stop. But you just continued to poke around, like a child or someone incapacitated. So it summoned help."

"And the lighting?" inquired Sergeant Ferret.

"To point out where help might be coming from, and where it should go to."

"So why run?" asked Major Reynard

"After fifteen centuries any response is going to be automatic," explained Major Lotor.

"So, it wouldn't be hostile would it, if it was expecting an emergency?"

Right. "Even after something very hostile had slaughtered every body on board?" I inquired.

"What if a robot showed up and took us somewhere? It might be a long time before the authorities showed up to tell it what to do next." Major Fox pointed out.

"We shoot the robot?" suggested Sergeant Ferret.

"Thus promoting ourselves from 'disturbing anomaly' to 'dangerous vandals'. Not a win. Sometimes cowardice beats sweet reason hands down," observed Major Fox.

Good point.

The next place we investigated was listed on the map as something Major Lotor translated as "business works". The buildings were larger than the residential ones and arranged in definite hierarchies. The ubiquitous bead curtains were used inside between rooms, though with more similar patterns than previously. "This could be a sign of specialization by physical area," Major Lotor pointed out.

Sergeant Ferret observed "If the more 'central' offices are the most important, that should be the place to look."

"And I've seen some computer outlets which I can link to," added Major Reynard, cheerfully.

"Then on to the next area, and see if we can find an important, but not the most important business in the next area, so we can do a comparison." said Major Lotor.

At that important but not most important location, Major Reynard found an outlet, and hooked her "leech" up to it. I'd had more time to examine that device and found it faintly unnerving; one very important part of it was the brain of a non-sapient life form, serving as a sort of fuse against attack from protective functions inside the computer itself. K She had several of them with her. Presumably the environment was such that the creature did not feel trapped or restricted; even if only so that it would remain functional and not lapse into mindlessness. No worse, I suppose, than killing a non-sapient life form to eat it for dinner. But… perhaps it is best that we rarely must encounter the makeshifts our ancestors must have had to use to deal with things we've found better ways to handle. I shrugged. If I manage to hang around long enough I will doubtless find out what our descendants think of us, their 'primitive' ancestors.

Major Reynard remained connected longer than the last time, and there was no change in the aura of the device, but when she disconnected, she promptly collapsed making disconnected sounds, followed by panting and a definite comment of "Feh!"

"You there? Ell Eff? Moan if you're conscious," said Major Fox.

"Very funny," said Major Reynard, then noticed that she had just vomited into her suit. "Blech!"

After a break, the now recovered Major told us she'd found the main office of a shipping line, specializing in jams, jellies, perfumes, fruits etc. and also, hidden in their most secure safe, 30 grams of something monumentally disgusting and incredibly profitable, called Kwesin extract. Made from the destruction of living sapient brains, used to double the lifespan of others. Punishment for owning this stuff was equally grim. [WARNING - this link tells all, and you probably don't want to know but… one must be complete, I suppose.] K Small wonder the Major lost her lunch. I had a little trouble keeping mine after she described this. Ah, but also star maps, records of Earth as it was when they arrived. Nearest trade partner about 5,000 ly away. Homeships move at .10 ly/hour; tradeships at 2-3 ly/hr. Info on ship builders aboard the Kiran. Various bits of information about the ship itself. K

Yes, of course we went off to the central office, and investigated the safe. "Right here," said Major Reynard. "Careful - it's wired with explosives."

"Oh joy," said Sergeant Ferret. "And how do you expect me to get past that?"

"I don't," said Major Reynard, walking up to the access pad and touching out the authorization code, causing the door to open. "and you don't have to. I made sure I would have access while I was Diving."

Oh yes, this one definitely has potential, I thought.

Everyone else sheepishly got up off the floor (I'd anchored and solidified my veils, but that's a lot less visible.)

The safe held a number of things. First, a small, oval cylinder. "That's the Kwesin extract. Owning it is as illegal as anything gets in this society, other than actually making it," explained Major Reynard, with a shudder. Major Fox sealed the container in an opaque, labeled bag, then sealed THAT bag inside another one, also labeled, for transport back. I resisted the temptation to curse the whole thing with a disassembly crew of pixie dust. Barely.

The pile of glittery crystalline icosahedrons looked rather more like the traditional contents of a vault, though according to Major Reynard they were memory storage crystals, not jewelry. Still pretty. These were "bagged and tagged" as per the cylinder, and sent back to the ship via the connecting trail of robots.

Next was a stack of shimmery purple cards. After checking them for possible trouble, I picked one up and made it vanish. "These are pretty. Make a nice souvenir".

"Money, sort of," replied Major Reynard. "Three dozen of them, each worth half a million Kiran marks. No idea what that's worth. The Homeship has been dead a long time now."

"Sounds like a lot, anyway." I replied, card reappearing in my hand.

"Keep it, and call it a consulting fee with an open retainer for your services," suggested Major Fox.

"And what shall I consult on?" I asked.

"I want you to be able to have the authority to consult with us - no matter what your legal ties, or ours, might otherwise think about it. I'm not talking about any guarantee of results, or commitment to assist when that would be wrong,"" replied Major Fox.

"Sounds reasonable," I replied, putting the card away again, and logging a short-term contract.

"Any time you want to negotiate a change, let me know."

"What do we do with the rest of these, then?" asked Major Reynard.

"Never hurts to have walking around money." said Major Fox. "Everybody but Auren take two, I'll carry two extra, the rest get sent back. He grinned. "At least if any of us gets tossed in jail we should be able to make bail."

Major Fox had just set Major Reynard to attempting to order a starship from the local factory, when their superiors ordered recall. I loaded the images from the time we met until the present into one of their data crystals I'd abstracted earlier, and gave it to him to fulfill the rest of the contract, short as it had been. I also had an amulet and a note explaining it assemble themselves in the Major Reynard's pocket. It'll hook into the trace I left behind so if she wants to come visit The Tower she can. As I mentioned, she's got considerable promise.

I waited until they were out of sight, then walked through the wall and back to The Tower. The explorers were fine, but I had no particular desire to hang around until their military showed up. Not after Master Kellendrin's lecture on the subject of professional paranoids…

Some notes: On most lines, humanity encounters its first alien sapient species only upon leaving the solar system, or at least by having someone come by to visit. I think this is the first time I've ever heard of anyone developing a large multi-species society first, by creating their own aliens. And then developing worldgate technology before starflight. Though I suppose it is the most likely paratemporal technique to discover if you're actually trying to create a lowsheaf stardrive. They've already started a multiworld society without even visiting the other planets of Sol. Their future development should be interesting to watch.

Assuming they have one - as usual Murphy's invaded the details. They're in serious trouble, regardless of whether the tale of the sourdust curse on the sourceworld ocean is true, or someone's using it to pull off a coup, and maybe mass murder on top of it.

As soon as I finish my shakedown cruise, I'm going to go back and find out. If it's the former, I may be able to do something to help directly, if the latter - well, something will present itself.