Lady Death

© Copyright 2010

Screams woke Heyalna green gene-line Wilet-34 cross orange Aluet-237. She was instantly awake and on her feet. Automatically increasing the sensitivity of her eyes she spied orange light in the tiny cracks in the back wall of her small cottage against which she stored her healer’s supplies and tools in several shelves. That was also the direction from which her ears told her the screams came.

Heyalna wasted no time donning clothes or shoes. Two pantherish steps took her halfway across her bedroom toward the nearest window; then she leaped through it, arms tightly covering her head. Window frame and oil-washed near-transparent paper exploded outward.

She struck the close-cropped lawn head-on, her forearms still covering her head, her legs tucking against her body. As she rolled forward and over she uncoiled, arms first, forearms acting like springs flinging her into the air. She came down in a crouch, spun around, and leaped atop her small cottage.

Beyond the back of her cottage were two larger houses, one to the left and one to the right. Torches flung atop both had started fires, little ones atop the left one and an inferno atop the right. The screams were coming from there.

Heyalna leaped toward that house, hitting the ground running. Anyone watching would have seen an inhumanly fast woman moving at speed that blurred her pumping limbs.

Rounding the house she saw about a half-dozen family members who had escaped the house being speared by warriors from across the border several miles to the north. Two of the family were down and sprawled unmoving, which was not keeping three warriors from standing over them and stabbing them again and again, probably (from the downed warrior between the two) because one or both villagers had successfully fought back.

Three other family members were also fighting, near-naked and bare-handed against armed and armored opponents. A young girl crouched near them, staring at the fight with horror. Four more family erupted from the house, all young boys armed with heavy sticks except one who held a sword.

Rage exploded in Heyalna. For thirteen years she had lived in Creekside village, a hamlet of nearly two hundred people, healing them and slowly teaching basic medical knowledge such as the need to wash hands with soap before and after dealing with injured and ill people. A century and a half of life in an interstellar society with no war and little violence and high ethical standards had made her what to these people was a near saint. All softness instantly washed away from her soul and she became as near an incarnation of Death as a human could.

Naked she leapt toward the downward-stabbing threesome, her reflexes and perceptions jolted to near twice normal speed, her muscles already three times human strength and growing stronger every second. She grabbed the shoulder of the nearest warrior from the back with one hand and swung a stone-hard fist to shatter his helmet and skull.

She flung his crumpling body aside and leaped forward. She landed astride one of the fallen men and grabbed the throats of the two warriors facing her. One of them was able to spear her body before she crushed their windpipes. The spear point skidded off her abdomen as it struck her skinsuit, weightless chain mail armor made of invisibly small links that flowed over her skin like water but when struck became momentarily rigid and thousands of times tougher than steel.

In the next instant she was behind then among the several other warriors, killing them efficiently with just-sufficiently-lethal fist strikes now that her rage had cooled. In moments every warrior was down.

Heyalna glanced quickly around. No warriors were near though she saw perhaps a hundred feet away along the village perimeter a squad similar to the one she had just dispatched. They were tossing torches atop another house.

They and any other squads could wait. The vanquished warriors at her feet seemed to be the first to reach Creekside. She had time to help her villagers.

She knelt near the dead and dying villagers and, placing a hand on each of their bodies, sent into them a dose of healing nanotech messengers. Within days each of the villagers would be healed without scars. The dead would survive, their brains undamaged but with all memory of this day gone and perhaps the day before.

“They will be all right,” she said to an older man who had just come from his burning house, nodding at his fallen family members. “Get everyone out of your house. It’s lost.”

The grey-bearded oldster nodded. He seemed numb, but his brain was beginning to work as he glanced at the top of his burning house.

He looked back at her then quickly away, then back at her with dawning wonder and fear in his eyes.

“Get to work, all of you!” she said, catching the eyes of each of the women, men, and children who had left the house, a few of them clutching possessions, and waved at the house next door, the fire on its roof now being put out by its owners.

“But what about them?” said the grey-beard’s oldest son. He pointed toward the squad of warriors at the next house who, interrupted at their destruction, had turned and were now running toward Heyalna and her companions.

Heyalna’s lips peeled back in a near-snarl. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of them.”

Then she turned and beginning running toward the oncoming warriors. They seemed angry rather than fearful. But that would change. For it was Death who ran to meet them.

.

An hour later all the invaders were dead and all the injured villagers in good health or on their way to it.

Heyalna stood up from her last patient and glanced across the living room turned into a hospital at her apprentice of six years. He was still working on one last patient. He was doing a good job. Her eyes turned toward an older grey-haired man talking with a very old woman. Heyalna walked quickly toward them.

Nodding at the old woman she turned to him and let him know she must go to the next village over as she was sure they had been attacked as well. Shortly she rode out on the road to the east on her horse Beauty, a large horse with a sleek ebony coat and a white four-pointed star on his forehead.

Its dual saddle bags were stuffed with food and little else. She would no longer pretend to heal using her considerable collection of medicines and medical apparatus. Her secret was out; she healed by touching her patients.

The collection would not go to waste, however. Her apprentice would need them when he took over for her. Everyone soon would think she was a supernatural creature; she would have to leave Creekside. She could no longer usefully work as a hist-techneer, a technician skilled in applying historical engineering to this primitive planet to catalyze its uplift toward a more modern planet eventually able to become a member of the Human Interstellar Confederacy.

Presumably the Confederacy uplift agency would find another place for her, on this planet or the hundred or so other primitive planets surrounding the Confederacy. But for now she had another job to do.

Beyond the village the naked bodies of all the enemy were sprawled in a heap. She spat on the heap as she rode by it. Several minutes later programmed nanotech agents penetrating the bodies set them aflame.

She had earlier connected with her neural link to the web of Confederacy satellites which monitored the planet and its surroundings out to several light-months, as the web had been doing for the last thirty years since an automated explorer had discovered the planet. She had sent a command.

So it was that as soon as she was out of sight of the village that one of the several dozen space shuttles assigned to the planet appeared before her, sinking toward packed earth of the road. It could only be seen even by her as a seemingly transparent bubble which betrayed its existence only by a slight distortion in the air at its extreme edges.

As it descended it turned on its vertical axis so that it seemed to morph from a twenty-foot tall circle to a fat tail-less dart a hundred feet in length. A doorway flicked open to show a dimly lit interior and a seemingly wooden ramp extended outward and tilted down to touch the road with its nearer edge.

Having ridden in a shuttle before Beauty calmly walked up the ramp into a stall no different than he was used to at one the homes his owner kept in several villages on the northern border of the country Loseliath. As soon as Heyalna dismounted and removed his bridle he eagerly began to munch on hay. It seemed freshly cut but had been preserved in a stasis field until minutes before.

Behind them the ramp slid into the shuttle and the doorway snapped shut. The shuttle began to rise, turned toward the east, and accelerated at a steep angle. Within seconds it was moving just under the speed of sound, leveling off at a mile in the air.

This speed was limited only because Heyalna chose not to cause supersonic shockwaves. Each shuttle could accelerate to near light-speed in hours and, since its grapefruit-sized power plant tapped into a source of essentially limitless energy, it could travel for millennia far beyond the stellar system limits.

None of the Confed agents would travel so, however. Three interstellar hyper-speed ships were stationed on the opposite side of the largest of the two moons, two rested on the deepest ocean floors, and one lay in a cavern atop the highest mountain range.

Heyalna had not been confounded by the tilting back then forward of the ship deck. Gravity inside the shuttle was a comfortable standard gravity perpendicular to the floor no matter what the gravity was, or was not, outside.

She walked forward and sat in a comfortable padded chair facing forward. Its fluorescent yellow contrasted with the dull green interior, dark on the deck and light above it. The forward view screen showed the land and sky in front of the craft.

To one side a cupboard in the wall opened and a sandwich and a large glass of dark effervescent liquid flew toward her to alight in her hands. She began have breakfast. As she sat, seemingly staring vacantly at the countryside moving leisurely toward, below, and behind her, she ate and drank several sandwiches and glasses. She had used a big chunk of the energy resources she typically stored as highly compressed fat which sheathed her entire body. It made her half again as heavy as a primitive human with her tall slender figure.

Actually she was looking at images sent to her optic nerves from the monitor satellites. They showed recent events in the border villages and in the interior of the country to the north, Ketlow, caught by sand-grain sized invisible flying spies.

The next village had been worse hit than her own. It had only had the village’s usual defenders to fight the invaders. Three dozen villagers were dead, more than half of them with brain damage too long untreated to revive.

The village beyond, of the three hit, had suffered least. An alert villager had detected the enemy approach and the village guards had ambushed their attackers and killed them all but three of them. They had badly wounded and captured those.

At the second village Heyalna applied herself to the dead and wounded whom she could help. Within hours she rode east once again with a furiously burning pyre of enemy bodies sending flames into the air.

At the third village she healed everyone, including those of the enemy. Those she interrogated. One of them was grateful enough for her service to speak voluntarily, but the other two answered her questions only after being injected with nanotech that ensured their cooperation.

.

“So the attacks were impulse attacks?” The speaker was a petite but curvy very tanned red-head wearing a blue and green sarong and skimpy bra.

“Choia. You forgot again.” The speaker was a blue cat-like centaur curled in an orange futon nearby.

The young-appearing woman swore an obscure oath, shimmered, and was replaced by her current identity, a large hyper-masculine version of her previous form. This was his current body but he had been a woman for a long time before coming here, so his body image got confused when he was half-asleep, as now. And in a virtual lounge but lying in a physical bed a quarter of a planet away.

Heyalna and the other twenty uplift agents on the planet only needed a few hours of sleep each night. It was past midnight where Heyalna was stationed, on the western edge of a continent populated by several dozen feudal states who sailed in wind-powered ships. She was in a cottage in the worst-hit village pretending to sleep.

Elsewhere on the planet gunpowder had been used for several decades, and elsewhere still steam power had just been discovered. The agents were somewhat evenly stationed around the planet.

All but one agent who was asleep and two agents who were involved in local emergencies were with her in the virtual lounge.

With them were two more Confed citizens. Unlike the uplift agents, who were all one to three centuries old, one was close to a millennium old and the other three millennia.

The first was on a ship floating in the ionosphere, a diplomat to the electrical intelligences whose presence was sometimes observed on the planetary surface as “northern lights.” His actual body was presently human, but he projected an image of the glowing globe shape of the electrical intelligences.

The second was a scientist floating in the sun’s chromosphere trying to discover evidence of residence by a star god or gods, intelligences so far evolved beyond humanity that they might as well be gods. Star gods (or THE star god — no one knew if there was one or many) were not those of any established religion. There was plenty of proof of star-god existence, including the ruins of interstellar civilizations which had broken the one commandment the gods/god had several times given to interstellar civilizations — do nothing that might threaten any star.

The scientist’s virtual body was another centaur form but, unlike the seemingly catlike uplift agent, his humanoid torso was in the center of his quadruped body, rather than at one end as were the torsos of the other two centauroid species common in or near the Confederacy. His skin was bright green and clothed in blue-veined green leaves.

“Yes. I’m very annoyed with myself.” Heyalna bit her lip. “Ketlow military has been centralized for the last decade or so under the influence of a radical sect. I’d placed most of my surveillance assets in the capitol. But the border villages to the south have been more angry than the main country. Some young warriors decided to have some fun, apparently. So I got some people killed.”

She shook her head.

“Your first real brush with violence, isn’t it?” The green centaur nodded sympathetically, the green leaves on his head dancing with the movement. “It’s really a shocker the first time.” Most Confed citizens lived on one of the six-hundred-plus Core Planets or one of the thousands of satellites and space habitats in the Core. Violence was very rare in the Core and deadly violence almost nonexistent. Not that Core humans could not think of or decide to murder. It was just … unfashionable. Not to mention nearly impossible, given that every person was linked to dozens or hundreds of web sites which would instantly flash an alarm should any Core human get hurt.

“Yes. My first. But that’s not the real problem.”

She looked around at all her comrades, took a deep breath.

“I liked it. I liked killing. So much that several times I forgot efficiency and just tore them apart.

“And when they screamed and pleaded not to kill them …. It was all I could do not to kill them anyway.”

.

For the next several weeks Heyalna was busy helping the defenders of the country of Loseliath against Ketlow, the country to the north. As the warriors sent across the border in raids continue to fail disastrously, in large part due to Heyalna, the groups sent became increasingly larger.

She adopted a supernatural persona to hide that she was human but with strange powers. Otherwise centuries in the future it might come to light that off-planet humans had interfered with this planet’s history. She let it be known that she was one of the elf-like ketling who myth said had once lived among humans but had long ago become reclusive.

Able to control her body via her built-in nanotech she changed her skin to perfectly white and her complexion to inhumanly smooth and perfect. Her dark blue eyes became sky blue, larger, and slightly slanted. Her hair, which had always been made up of separate hair-like organs with superior heating and cooling than ordinary hair, became glossy gold that was faintly luminescent, unless she turned that off, and able to braid and style itself. Occasionally she let it move as if floating in an invisible breeze; that was usually quite enough to disconcert people who annoyed her.

And some did. Women in the primitive feudal system on the continent where Loseliath and Ketlow existed did not take up the trade of warrior – even ketling women. About the third time that she picked up someone twice her size and threw them fifty feet into water or tree tops the annoyances ceased.

Though her peace might have come more from the fact that she had caught the naked sword blade with her bare hand which her last annoyer had been swinging at her head, jerked it out of his hand, then casually snapped the blade in two.

The story of her last defense against annoyances eventually caught the attention of the prince of the realm. He had been training others and being trained in tactical maneuvers an hour’s ride from the border camp where Heyalna often stayed. He and a squad of troops rode over one afternoon to inspect the camp and confer with its commander — and meet Heyalna.

She was healing minor wounds in the camp’s small infirmary and chatting with the medic assigned to the camp. The front flaps of the tent were open and tied up to catch the late-afternoon breeze. The medic called attention as he saw the prince and his entourage approaching from behind her. She had heard their approach and knew from direct and echoed sound how many there were and where.

The warrior she was working on tried to stand up from his seat. In a motion so fast it was a blur she caught one shoulder and forced him still. She remained seated.

“You don’t stand when a superior approaches?” The voice behind her was amused. She automatically judged his age, size, and health from that voice.

“I hope I don’t offend,” she said pleasantly, “but I have no superior. Even among my kind.” Heyalna would have been just as happy to play obsequious and timid if the role called for it, but she was playing a ketling.

There was a gasp behind her (to her right) and the rasp of a sword blade being loosened in its sheath (to her left). She ignored both and finished tying a bandage on her patient’s hand. She patted his knee, let him rise to attention, and rose herself.

As she turned toward the prince the long black cloak she wore nowadays swirled around her black armor. It appeared to be made of plate but was actually made of an airy light synthetic reinforced with invisible force fields created by the fabricator on the shuttle she was using. It would protect her against weapons far more advanced than anything which existed on this planet but, as she continued to wear her skin suit, it was only for show.

The prince was of medium height, more lithe- than large-muscled, pleasant-faced, and blond like most southerners. He wore the light plate mail of light cavalry, shined to a mirror finish, over bright purple clothing. All of his companions, five in all, were similarly attired, though their purple was accented in several colors indicating their clan affiliations.

She greeted him with a nod as befitted equals. The medic introduced the two of them, using a superior-to-inferior style. Naturally he indicated the prince as the superior.

“Come walk with me, Lady.”

“It would be my pleasure.” She stepped aside and let the prince precede her between the tent flaps but stepped in front of his entourage, gaining her a growl but no other protest.

Outside it was a little before sunset. The dark evergreen forests around them were turned ruddy by red and orange clouds to the west, but already the eastern forest edge was half-sunk into the gloom of twilight. A sharp chill was stealing into the rude camp of some five hundred warriors. Tents in several rows made an L of one camp corner. A larger cook tent with trestle tables and bench seats for eaters made up much of a third edge of the camp, which also contained several other tents, including the infirmary from which they had just emerged.

“The camp medic is young but a good doctor.”

“You are a good judge of that?” said one of the prince’s companions. It was he who had pulled his sword a little way from his sheath. His sharp-angled face was not friendly.

“Yes. I was a healer among you, using human medicines and tools, for over a dozen years.”

“But you were faking that. You were really using your … magic.”

“Only when the human remedies would not work, or work well enough. I was also teaching an apprentice, and he needed to know human skills.”

“But you raise the dead. Which is blasphemy.”

“No. It only seems they are. The border between the life and death is not as sharp as it seems. I can heal most people if they have, to your senses, been dead less than about two hours. In cool weather. Eventually humans will be able to do the same.”

“And you don’t die. Which means you have no soul.”

“I can die, and eventually will. I am mortal. The difference is that I will never grow old. And I do have a soul.”

The prince said, “I am not here to discuss religion. What do you think of the military situation?”

The Human Interstellar Confederacy was several thousand years old and made up of over eight hundred planets, including about a hundred like this one which were fairly recently discovered and too primitive to know they were part of its Protectorate. The Confed’s military science was a real science rather than just by name and it had all of human history and several alien histories to draw upon. Since the northern invasions had begun Heyalna had spent much of every night while “sleeping” connected to the data web of the monitoring satellites, studying that science.

She made many helpful suggestions to make to the prince and to others, but she could not make them directly. Instead she asked leading questions and for clarifications which made some of those who answered rethink what they “knew.”

Most of that first evening, over a meal and drinks afterward, she spent being “educated” by the prince and his military advisers. In the weeks that followed there were more military planning sessions in several camps. Heyalna was invited to attend them and did, but suggested little directly. But indirectly much advanced thinking slowly percolated through the kingdom’s practice and planning. Though it was only slightly advanced. Only gradual evolution was practical and in line with Confed policy of injecting easily assimilated uplift knowledge.

At the same time Heyalna was routinely going on missions to defend against border incursions. She killed some enemy warriors but captured many more. She could get observation intelligence from the satellites and sand-grain-sized spy craft, but emotional and cultural intelligence of the enemy could be gotten only through interrogations.

Those were done humanely, using her “magic.” The prisoners were also housed humanely, a policy that required her to occasionally enforce it with “magic” and few but impressively brutal examples of what crossing her could cost someone, no matter how highly placed.

.

“And who are you?”

The most senior of several guards in bright chain mail and clothing of brilliant red, green, and blue confronted her. Behind him two huge double doors of gleaming dark wood were opened. Inside could be seen a hall with seats running aslant up the two long sides. At the far end a there was a dais and more seats similarly at a slant. On all three sides large windows above the seats let in bright noon sunlight.

“I once was the healer of Creekside. I am now a warrior protecting Loseliath against Ketlow.”

“She’s the one they call Lady Death, decurion.” A fresh-faced young sub-officer hurried over from just inside the doors. He had been consulting with an older officer. Both dressed in light plate mail and were blond, likely from the south of the country, while the guards were all black- or brown-haired like most northerners.

The decurion looked down at a list he had been consulting as nobles and officials came into the hall. The stream of attendees had become a trickle and now was time for the doors to be closed. Heyalna had waited for this last instant to approach the guards.

“I don’t see no Death on this list.”

“Her name is — Helaine Aluet, is it not, honored one?”

The older officer inside the doors had been talking with another man who was richly robed in purple and green. He was just turning toward the guards to see what was happening when the decurion found her name.

“Pass, friend,” the decurion said to the tall black-armored and -cloaked figure. She strode by him in company with the under-officer. He escorted her down the length of the hall while it was emptying of conferring attendees who were regaining their seats as the big doors swung slowly shut. As she neared the dais a heavy boom marked the doors’ final closing.

Her entrance had not been wasted. An experienced hist-techneer, she knew every trick of asserting her will upon crowds. Quick silence had followed fast upon her entering the doors followed even faster by a buzz of comment.

At the dais she bowed her head to the three most splendidly dressed and armored figures standing at the center of the first row of seats. At the center of them was the prince of the realm, blond, tall, fair-haired and fair of face. His plate armor shone and his clothing was the purple of royalty. The two older men, one much older, also wore purple but adorned with red or green sleeves to mark them as lesser members of the ruling house.

“Lady,” the prince said. “Be welcome here. It is an honor to have you sit with us.” He waved to the side where there was one empty seat.

“The honor is mine, lord prince.” Her voice was not offensively loud, but loud enough so the many nearer men could hear it in the total silence that had fallen as the prince had turned toward her.

She bowed her head a second time and took her seat.

.

The talk lasted half the afternoon. Nobles reaffirmed support, often in lengthy and impassioned speech. Officials gave reports and military outlined plans.

Heyalna was not bored. She listened attentively and made her own assessments. There only minor surprises and many of her suggestions, hints, and question-provoked ideas had entered into current opinion.

During the first intermission only a few people spoke to her. The prince and his staff were not among those. A few high officials and nobles did make her acquaintance. With a voice as eloquent as any on the planet, and an occasional nudge from her nanotech, she played them as a master musician would play an instrument. At the second intermission she was quickly surrounded by lower-ranked military men who knew her personally or had been told of her sagacity by others.

Now and as in previous weeks her public assessment of Loseliath military prowess was that she only had minor criticisms of an organization that was wise and efficient. She had also let it be known that Loseliath was so respected by the powerful and sagacious but rare and reclusive ketling that they had sent one of their healers and heroes to support them.

These were highly popular ideas.

Toward the end of the afternoon the second highest royal, who had been guiding the conference, turned to Heyalna.

“Perhaps the Lady would say a few words.”

Heyalna had primed him and the prince for this. She did not disappoint.

She rose and made her slow way to the lectern. The royal there nodded to her and stepped to the side.

As she turned full toward the lectern she looked out at the faces turned toward her, some curious, some annoyed, most indifferent — for now. Before now she had kept the cowl of her cloak up in the manner of a religious. Her face had been shadowed but not hidden. Now she casually swiped it back.

All could see perfectly smooth white skin, large sky-blue slanted eyes, a perfect oval face of beauty exactly matching their preference set in stern intent. Her golden hair fell in glossy obedience about her shoulders and it glowed too slightly to be consciously apprehended but subconsciously emphasized her specialness.

She spoke, a contralto controlled but easy and easily heard at the farthest corners.

“Our cause is just. Our leaders wise. Our warriors trained, disciplined, and valiant. We will be victorious.” Her arms lifted from her sides up and outward. Her shapely hands clamped decidedly into fists.

For an instant there was perfect silence. Then first one man stood, then several, then more, and more and more, till everyone was on their feet shouting Victory! Victory! Victory!

Any planned closing remarks were lost.

.

It took well several weeks to organize a major force response to the “northern aggression.” During that time Heyalna was in the thick of several minor actions. She held herself back from showing her full abilities and ensured that prisoners, at least under her direct influence, were humanely treated.

In addition to a plea for honor and occasional violent persuasions she had adopted the line that northern warriors were worthy foes bamboozled by a small coterie of evil fanatics. She also hinted that Ketlow would eventually become part of Loseliath and that it was wasteful to harm and further make enemies of vanquished foes who would eventually become valued workers for the greater good of Loseliath.

It did not hurt that Heyalna was ethereally beautiful and always friendly to everyone who treated her with respect. For a time a rumor, one of many, went around that she and the prince were romantically involved. She was publicly indifferent to the rumor but used nanotech and subliminal persuasions to combat the rumor. It was much more useful to have impressionable warriors think that if they were incredibly lucky she might look upon them with favor. And it worked; many a bad poem was written celebrating her beauty and virtue.

The prince also helped. When he and she were together he ensured there were always several people around, though often he put them far enough away for the two to have private conversations. In them he treated her as an equal and was perfectly willing to ask for and sometimes adopt her advice. He was a very practical man who was not fooled by his position or flattery and thought of himself as ordinary, though he never allowed anyone to forget his right to command. He also had a sense of humor and many a time they shared a joke though expressing their laughter only with their eyes.

In return she always let it be known that she thought him her superior and deferred to him. He took shrewd but diplomatic advantage of the fact that only he commanded the obedience of a powerful supernatural entity, thus lifting him above all others in his country.

Finally the Loseliath army began to move against the country’s enemy.

Forces and their logistic support traveled from all over the kingdom to a rendezvous area a day’s march from the country’s northern border. The day before the attack was to begin Heyalna traveled there with her horse via an invisible shuttle, leaving and arriving without anyone seeing her. By now she had ensured everyone knew that she, like all ketlings, could travel far and fast by mysterious means.

She sat in on the high-level command meetings which put the finishing touches on the battle plans. If the Loseliath leaders hopes panned out there would be one decisive battle against Ketlow forces. Heyalna’s intelligence sources indicated the northern leaders hoped the same but she said nothing.

The evening the Loseliath army was finally all together everyone was given a modest ale ration to be drunken in pledge to the Goddess of Harvest and Healing.

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“Lord Trask.”

“Lady.” The knight was grey-haired but tough and had much combat experience.

“Come to my campfire in a half-hour with another one or two knights with a good bit of your wisdom at war. I have something I wish to discuss. There is an extra mug of a really good ale in it for you.”

He answered with a glimmer of a smile. “When someone almost a Harvest priestess makes such an offer, how can I refuse?”

Near two dozen knights made an appearance. All were as wisty at war as Sir Trask except perhaps three younger knights. The latter however had impressed Heyalna as sober and tough men of unusual maturity.

Ah! There was a fourth young man who hung back behind Trask. It was a young cousin of the Prince, not a constant companion of the heir but a confidant. His presence was not a surprise. For all his tender years the Prince was one to avoid being surprised. Heyalna caught the young man’s eyes long enough to give him a slight nod.

When all two dozen men, including the Prince’s man with a touch of encouragement, had a filled mug in their possession Trask spoke up.

“You were right. This is a special brew. But you mentioned somewhat to discuss.”

Heyalna answered, “I want to request all of you to let some untried men engage in the mêlée tomorrow. If asked you could say you have no need to puff up your consequence. Or that the younger men should have their chance at experience.”

“You believe the red robes have some trick up their sleeves?” said another of the older men.

“I have my suspicions.”

Both countries had devised more efficient ways to battle in the past century or so, ways that included professional and peasant ground troops. But for a long time knights, who were aristocrats, had been the main fighters and they were not about to give up their chance for glory. So after arranging their opposing forces in very canny arrays before a battle the fighters then routinely and stupidly engaged in a group fight of knights one-on-one between the two forces, with an intermission after battle for the wounded and killed to be taken to a rear echelon.

However the militant priests of Ketlow, who distinguished themselves from others of their order by wearing red robes, had planned a surprise attack while the two armies were distracted by the knights’ actions.

“Well, then,” said Trask, after a good deal of discussion which finished off the keg of special ale which Heyalna had spiked with a hangover remedy and nanotech tailored for complaisance. “I for one will follow your advice, Lady.” A chorus of agreement followed his pronouncement and the little party broke up.

A day later the Loseliathi and Ketlow armies finished their final maneuvering to position themselves for battle.

.

Mist shrouded the battlefield the next morning but it was beginning to burn off by an hour after sunrise, by which time the two enemy armies had roused, eaten, performed other necessities, and smartened their lines, disordered because the fighters had slept in place.

It was going to be a beautiful day for the ugly business of killing, Heyalna noted with a touch of sadness. And in a beautiful arena, a long valley still green despite the beginning of summer, with a lovely stream wandering off to the side, partly shaded with willow-like trees. The valley ran from the east and a bit north to the west and a bit south. Loseliath had placed itself in the narrower southwest end, which caused the larger Ketlow force to crowd itself a bit, a tactical advantage for the Loseliathi.

When both sides were ready for battle, this cooperation in readying to savage one another an absurdity to Heyalna, a herald from each side rode to the center of the field separating the two army a point about a hundred feet from each front line. Each was accompanied by a flagman who bore a staff vaunting the two country’s flags, blue for Loseliath and gold for Ketlow, flapping in an early morning breeze.

After a brief conference a group of knights from army rode onto the field, each in a line that formed up with (as the knights eyed each other across the field with calculation) exactly enough men in each line to match the other line.

The two lines stopped about fifty feet apart. The Ketlow herald said in a scornful voice loud enough to reach each army, “What?! Only boys just out of school? Are the old men of Loseliath too tremble-full to put themselves at risk?”

The older knights of Heyalna’s last-night conference had dispersed themselves and stood by their horses to seem fewer than they were. One of them opened his mouth and turned to his horse as if to mount and reply. Sir Trask shook his head at the man and he pressed his lips together and resumed his stance.

“And where is this black corvus that calls itself Lady Death? Flapping its wings to flee the valiant Ketlow knights?”

Heyalna knew no one or no ten of the Ketlow knights wanted to face her. The Ketlow war leaders just wanted to be sure of where she was, something not obvious since there were other knights who wore black. But, as she had anticipated, she now had a chance to put some fear into the Ketlow warriors.

She swung onto Beauty, admiring the sheen of his sleek black hair. She patted him in affection, her hand allowed through his protective force field as no other bit of matter could today, and rode forward.

The sun on her face was warm, the breeze a cool sensuous caress. For a while her conscience was put to sleep about her martial fervor. The army across the field had unprovoked savaged the people under her care, many of whom she liked and respected a bit too much to be an efficient uplift agent. To kill them, to punish them, would give her great pleasure.

She halted Beauty a horse’s length forward of the line of Loseliath knights and to one side. There she placed her hands on the saddle before her, freed her feet from their stirrups, tilted forward to put all weight over her hands, and threw herself upward so that she landed with her black-shod feet balancing her atop her saddle. Her strength and skill made this seem casually easy, and it was. She needed no help from the tractor beams of the invisible shuttle floating a thousand feet above the battle field.

Standing hipshot as steadily as if she stood on level ground she put one hand on a hip. Her huge black cloak loomed and swirled around her the way a shroud might, moved as if by a source-less wind rather than the mild breeze everyone else felt. Her hood was back and her white skin gleamed as if it were pearl or porcelain. Her sleek golden hair swirled in the same wind which engaged her cloak.

“Here I am, loudmouth human.” A bit unfair, that stiletto dig. Her voice bugled out much louder than his, clear even to the far edge of the Ketlow army, a soprano with a bass hum beneath it, clearly not a sound a human throat could make.

The herald recovered quickly from his shock. “Yes, very like a carrion bird, waiting cowardly for good men to die!”

Heyalna put her other hand before her mouth and feigned a yawn. “Oh, please, I’ve already killed a thousand of you. I weary of the sport.” The lie did not bother her. Knights typically boasted extravagantly of their prowess, and knew precisely how to discount the boasts of others. Likely every warrior there knew her score was perhaps a tenth what she claimed. Which admittedly was still quite impressive.

She dropped her weary yawn-covering hand. “Still, if you insist, I will kill a thousand more today. But for now, go on, puny humans. Play at war.”

She dropped gracefully into her saddle and turned Beauty back toward her side’s lines, catcalls and jeers at the enemy accompanying her.

The two lines of opposing knights seemed to heed the same mysterious command. They surged into motion and the two heralds and flagmen hurried to distance themselves from them and from each other, heading back toward their own armies.

Heyalna reached the Loseliath lines and found her place near Sir Trask. He nodded to her and, as she did once facing back the way she had come, turned his attention to the fighters actively engaged.

Critically the two of them examined the crash and screams of men and horses. Three men were already down, one of the Loseliathi lying still on the ground and two knights standing hacking at each other with swords.

In seconds more several other knights were unhorsed and still or fighting. Half those ahorse were engaged and the other half had penetrated their enemies’ lines and were wheeling to dash back against their chosen targets.

Heyalna was watching the battle with her physical eyes and was watching the entire enemy force from a dozen spy eyes and the shuttle’s instruments tied into her neural link. She was shifting her attention among viewpoints, well over a century of practice making this as easy as breathing.

One focus was a group of Ketlow knights sitting well behind their lines, unable to view the battle and seemingly not interested in it. Then at a signal from someone they mounted and readied their weapons.

“I hear them getting ready,” Heyalna said to Trask. She pulled her cloak’s hood forward and its front filled with grey mist. Two glowing red spots like eyes blinked into existence in the mist.

He had heard about this phenomenon but this was the first time seeing it. He observed it impassively for a moment, then nodded and looked around them, catching the eyes of the experienced knights who had been awaiting the enemy’s treachery. They readied themselves, one of them having to curb his horse’s prancing. They could not begin their own charge until the enemy had clearly broken the rules.

There was a stirring among the Ketlow foot soldiers well to the side of their center. Suddenly the soldiers surged toward their left or their right to open an alley through them. Out of it came a line of enemy knights at full gallop. The single line split into two diverging ones headed toward the forces shielding the prince and his highest army commanders.

Both opposing forces were caught by surprise and stared at the intruders. Each wore a sash of red crossed from one shoulder to their opposite side like a bandoleer.

Heyalna tightened her legs and leaned forward. Beauty launched himself from the Loseliath lines into the clear. At full gallop Heyalna threw herself to stand on her saddle, her legs slightly bent and moving to keep her body aloft.

“Treachery! Treachery!” she shouted, inhumanly loud. “Death to the outlaws! Death to the outlaws!”

She snatched the two spears upright in sockets on the left and the right of her saddle. Bringing their butts together she twisted the poles in opposite direction. They slid into sockets and locked, making a two-headed spear twice eight-feet long. Hands close together she clasped it over her head and began to spin it. In instants the spear became a blurry disc.

It made a sound, fwoo fwoo fwoo fwoo. In moments the spear heads went supersonic, trailing twin sonic booms behind them. The sound become FWOP-FWOP-FWOP-FWOP.

Heyalna checked her spinning disk, twisted and jerked on the two-headed spear, and held two separate spears again. She dropped from her trick rider position to her seat on the saddle, stuck her feet into the stirrups, and settled herself securely.

Heyalna’s path crossed the twin paths of the red-sashed knights. Beauty, guided through his own neural link to her master, danced between two enemy’s horses riding almost tail to nose, then did the same on the twin path.

An instant before the first intersection she extended like a sword fighter and impaled one knight as if he were a fat trout. Instants later the other spear flicked out to impale a second.

Her enormous strength bore aloft two flopping knights, held halfway down the length of each spear by a crossbar that had flicked out of the faux-wood spear.

Beauty curved to one side and he and his rider plunged toward the Ketlow line. Heyalna twisted her body to one side and the other and first dying man and then the other soared toward the enemy.

From her red “eyes” two lines of red speared the air, so bright the air’s slight humidity made the lines glow red. They intersected at a point amid the Ketlow forces, seemingly guiding the first body to crash down there. The Ketlow fighters surged away from the spot, evading the body. It landed with a clang of armor and an awful plopping sound and bounced and rolled to a stop. Then the fiery lines flicked further into the Ketlow forces and a second instantly emptied spot received the second body.

Heyalna rode toward the two emptied spots and the troops near them surged away, leaving a path through the enemy lines. She rode into it toward a dozen or so red robed priests. She speared two before they escaped very far and a third was cut down by his own men. She curved back and got two more. Then no more as the remainder were killed or fled, their robes stripped off to save themselves.

Beauty danced in place, turning in a circle, and Heyalna levitated up to stand on her saddle again. The red lines from Heyalna’s hood flicked here there and elsewhere, sending the Ketlow warriors fleeing in every direction. In a minute a roar and a crash signaled the impact of the Loseliath army against the disintegrating Ketlow army.

Her need to fight was gone. She felt slightly sick about what she had done but still a bit euphoric.

She dropped down to sit in Beauty’s saddle, dropped her spears, turned her face upward, and lifted her arms as if to plead. Over her neural link she sent a command.

A great golden light expanded out from the invisible shuttle craft. The fighting below slowed then stopped as faces turned upward.. A great tone sounded high over the valley.

The light dimmed and diminished then vanished. But before it was totally gone a dazzlingly bright rainbow stabbed down.

When it faded Beauty was transformed. His saddle and accouterments were made of white leather, his hair turned a glossy cream like corn silk. Heyalna’s spears were gone. In their place she held a long staff with a shepherd’s crook at the end, the symbol of the Harvest Goddess. And she wore shining white healer’s robes.

All motion ceased on the battlefield. Quiet descended — but only for moments. Moans, cries, gasps of the injured returned.

Heyalna fell off her horse and hurried to the nearest who needed her. The more ordinary healers of the two armies joined her.

.

Hours later the healers’ work was done, at least for a time. The casualties were many fewer and less severe than they might have been if Heyalna’s “ascension” to an avatar of the Goddess of Harvest and Healing had not halted all fighting. Few of the Loseliathi wanted to butcher anyone after that momentous occasion, and few of the demoralized Ketlow wanted to fight on in the face of overwhelming force.

All but the leaders of the Ketlow army were offered and received parole from imprisonment on the condition that they surrender all but their belt knives and swear not to fight against Loseliath for the next ten years. This left them free to protect their country against all other enemies and within a week all had marched north to be redirected to Ketlow’s other borders. There they received weapons from the common armories, some of them even the ones they had surrendered, which had quickly been sent north after being ransomed.

Ordinarily such ransom would have been extended to the Ketlow army leaders, but they were in disgrace for allowing the sneaking dishonorable behavior of their knights during the mêlée. Only the very top leaders had known about and agreed, or been forced to agree, to that behavior, but its dishonor was shared by all.

This view was most emphatically felt by Ketlow’s own knights, who were even more furious with their own leaders for betraying them into dishonor than was almost any Loseliathi. Most of the younger Ketlow knights soon were offered and grimly agreed to a parole that put them in service to Loseliath for ten years on that country’s borders with other countries, and they soon marched south, bearing their personal weapons, to that duty.

The Loseliath army reconstituted itself and marched north toward the Ketlow capitol. None of the forces awaiting them could do more than slow them down. Nor were most of them willing, for they had all heard what had happened at the meeting of the two enemy armies.

This reluctance was reinforced by Heyalna’s presence at the point of the Loseliath army. Her stark white garments and shepherd’s crook and her imposing mount proclaimed her holy nature and few wanted to oppose her. More persuasive was the reflection that she had once changed from healer to fighter and might do so again. And not the bravest and stupidest of the Ketlow warriors wanted to meet Lady Death, even from behind from ambush.

Accompanying the Loseliath army and its high captives was a bier upon which lay the body of the Ketlow prince who had been the heir to the Ketlow throne. During Heyalna’s attack on the red-robe priests he had died of what seemed to be an honorable suicide, retrieving his honor and avoiding having it questioned. Only Heyalna knew if he had known of his knights’ betrayal and she said nothing. She did however provide a translucent garment that protected his body from decay and with her own hands had placed in his hands his own sword. This was taken as proof that his and Ketlow valor was preserved and respected by an authority Who could not be doubted.

Weeks later after many days travel and many more days of diplomatic discussion a great festival was held on the river meadows a few miles from the Ketlow capitol city. There a treaty of mutual esteem and aid was celebrated, including the crowning of the most eligible son of the Ketlow king as the new king in his place, since he had abdicated. Customarily it would have also included the betrothal of Ketlow’s oldest unmarried princess to the Loseliath heir.

Heyalna however had forbidden this. She insisted that the two would be given a year of acquaintance of each other, half in one country and half in the other, after which the princess could honorably decline his offer of marriage, should he make the offer. There were stiff objections from near two dozen people: priests, nobles, military, and merchants They had wrangled loud and long with The Avatar to convince her to abandon her insistence.

Finally she stood up from the huge heavy table in a palace conference room and said “Enough!” She raised one fist high and it was suddenly wreathed about with a coiling black mist which seemed as if it were trying to escape from her invisible grasp. Down went her fist to crash into the middle of the table, shattering it in two. Then she stalked out, leaving behind her a table which was turning to brown wood splinters from the middle outward, all the while making a sound like an animal whimpering as it died.

The new marriage custom was shortly not only the custom but also the law of both lands.

.

“That rainbow light and your change to an ‘avatar’ was hilarious.” In the airy virtual lounge Choia at the same time seemed to be standing on the deck of a sailing ship at mid-day clad in a sarong with a sword hanging in a bandoleer belt over his shoulder. Neither the lounge nor the ship reflected the actual situation. The uplift agent was on a ship, but he was “sleeping” in a narrow bunk below-decks a hour before sunrise a quarter of a world away from Heyalna. He had remembered this time to assume his current shape.

“Saved a lot of lives, though.” The blue cat-like centaur was in a tree this time.

It was several weeks later and about two-thirds of the uplift agents and the diplomat to the ionic life-forms were attending this chat. Lately Heyalna had missed several virtual get-togethers, busy as she was winding up her affairs so that she could leave the planet. This would be the last conference she would attend, and she had come to say good-bye to her friends of well over a decade, and had sent good-bye holo-messages to those who could not attend.

“I wish you could stay.” The diplomat was wearing the fiery globe persona of those he “spoke” to at the edge of space. “But I understand why you can’t.”

“I’m not suited to uplift. Not anymore.”

“What are you going to do now?” said another agent, who wore a semblance to the actual decrepit old-woman persona she wore in the jungle kingdoms of the south continent.

“I want to see my family. The children are all well-grown and in their first careers. And then I’m taking a year or three to loaf. And then I’ll start thinking about a new career.”

About this her friends had many suggestions but, though she listened to them and even asked questions, none of them seemed right. How could she possibly find honorable employment where she could let free her dark enjoyment of killing?

.

Heyalna had another goodbye, but it was not to a human. Though that might not have seemed so to an observer who found her past midnight floating in the air outside the bedroom window of the Loseliath prince in the castle where he had guested in Ketlow since the wars-end ceremony.

The darkness a hundred feet above the dimly torch-lit courtyard was riven by harsh cold winds. Unpleasant as they would be to the primitive humans in this area they would have a pleasant consequence the next day. The winds were also very dry and they were taking up most of the above-ground wetness that had been dumped to earth in the last few days.

She knocked a second time, this time a little louder, on the wooden frame which held the glass window panes in place. This time she was rewarded by the bottom half of the window popping loose from its position and rising jerkily upward in its slots, accompanied by the curses of the Loseliath prince.

“What are you doing here? This late?” He had obviously seen her through the window and had enough time to get over his surprise. She recollected with amusement how few people on this planet would have recovered so quickly and expressed themselves so frankly.

He stuck his upper body through the window and pushed upward with his shoulders to get the window-half all the way up. He looked around her and down at her feet, seeming not at all surprised to see her standing on nothing.

“Put on some warm clothes. I’m taking you to say goodbye to my horse.”

The prince was bitterly and obscenely unpleasant to her but only briefly before he acceded to her command. When he returned to the window Heyalna had provided him with a wooden ramp with sturdy banisters to support his exit from his bedroom. One open end butted against the side of the castle, the other led into a room inside the shuttle craft she had been using since the war began. To the rest of the planet it would be invisible, but from the angle of his gaze he could see the pearly sides of the roughly hundred-foot dart-shaped craft floating beside the castle.

A few feet away, obviously well-supported by the ramp, Heyalna stood looking at him. After taking it all in he grasped a banister with each hand and climbed through the window onto the ramp. She turned and he followed her into the shuttle craft.

Inside he stood and looked about him. The insides were hollow, colored a muted green, and followed well the contours of the outside skin. There was not much to see besides the empty horse stall floored with remnants of hay and two contoured padded seats resting side by side near the front of the vehicle.

In front of the seats was a window of glass or something like it which wrapped around the needle nose but which otherwise let him see everything in front of the vehicle, including the rough side of the grey castle visible as if in daylight. The window material was so invisible that only a guess and the warm stillness of the room let him know it shielded them from the weather.

She led him to the seats and motioned him to one while she sat in the other.

“Take us to my horse’s stables.” Her speech was only for his benefit. Her actual commands were sent over her neural link.

The outside view showed the castle seeming to move away from the craft but this was an illusion brought about by the internal gravity which protected them from the inertial effects of their motion.

“Are you from Mirtha?” The country he mentioned was nearly halfway around the planet. It was the most advanced technologically of all the civilizations on the planet.

“No. We moved long ago to the Moon.” This meant the larger moon; the smaller was called the Companion.

“And you’re not supernatural?”

“No. Don’t confuse us with any of your gods. We’re just people. Though —” She smiled at him. “— as you have seen we can pretend to have a close relationship with the gods.

“A few of us stayed here when the rest left. We try to help you but it’s not easy. We’re supposed to remain hidden and let you take the paths you think best. I skirted very close to breaking our rules when I showed some of our powers. I’ve lived so long among you that I care more about you than I should. So I did what I could to end the war quickly. For that I have to leave. And I want to say goodbye to my horse.”

“Your horse?”

“He will miss me much when I am gone.” The seriousness of her voice and demeanor was belied by the mischief in her eyes.

Then the great stables rose toward them, two hundred yards from the side of the castle where the prince’s guest room was. As the craft grounded she spoke.

“While we are here everyone here will doze if awake and sleep deeper if not. Still we must walk carefully and speak quietly.”

The craft grounded and they walked down the ramp and into the stable. Beauty heard and smelled them right away.

“Here I am, boy. Did you miss me? No. You missed my apples.”

Heyalna gave him an apple and the horse crunched into it, slobbering a bit as he did so. She scratched his ears and neck just right and he butted his great head into her hand. She laughed.

“Here. You give Greedy Guts one.” She handed the prince a second apple. He took her place and fed and caressed the horse as she had while she looked on in approval.

Minutes later they left the stables and re-entered the shuttle craft. It drifted upward as they returned to the seats.

“Take us above the sky,” said Heyalna. The earth beneath them seemed to tilt downward as the craft’s nose tilted upward.

“Beauty is now your horse. I can tell you will value him and care for him. He will serve you well in all ways. He is stronger and smarter than other horses and has strong protections. Still he can be harmed and it will be your job to protect him. And that includes protect him from loneliness. When … or if … you tire of him give him to someone else the way I gave you him tonight.”

“I will. I love him already. Who could not?”

He looked around him as the craft rose. The tilt of the nose was not so great that he could not see the earth below, almost as bright as if seen in day but with colors muted. He inspected the hills and valleys he knew so well, then the farther countries he knew less of. Soon they rose enough so that he could see the edge of sunrise to the east. She took him toward that and began to circle the planet from a few hundred miles up.

As the blue globe with its white and blue-white clouds rotated beneath them she pointed out some of the other countries below. One of them was swathed in storm clouds which reached so high their tops were pure white.

“It’s hard to believe from up here but beneath that the clouds look grey and dark.”

He watched in awe as spider webs of lightning flashed in the storm clouds.

They passed over the great eastern desert, brown and yellow despite the atmosphere which colored the rest of the world blue.

“That was once green forest and rolling plain. But the people let their goats and sheep run too wild and the grass was depleted so badly it could no longer shield the good soil from floods and winds.”

He turned to look at her perfect white face looking on the world below. He gazed for long moments before turning back to the sights.

“I remember the lessons of the Harvest Goddess toward gently treating the land. I will not forget.”

Presently she spoke again. The shuttle craft was moving north as well as east and the polar cap became clearer.

“All ice and snow for much or all of the year. Yet people and animals live there or near there.”

And presently: “All jungle, vast trees, deadly snakes and fish and other animals. Yet people live there and prosper too.”

And presently after minutes of silence: “Never doubt your gods love you. But they can rarely help you directly. Your priests and priestesses can explain this. For our part we ketling liken the situation to that of parents and children. The young forever propped up by crutches will never grown strong limbs.”

This was more than a rationalization aimed at a primitive human. It was a main philosophical thread throughout the Confederacy. People in the six-hundred-plus Core Planets were incredibly rich, healthy, and peaceful by the standards of more primitive planets and space habitats. They were also so woven about by and integrated with mind tools that no one was sure where man left off and machine began. Thus for several weeks each year every Core citizen “went naked,” disconnected completely from the Web except for voice and flat vision screen contacts.

They came around to the night side and entered it. The shuttle craft tilted downward. The land below was still visible as if in daylight, but a daylight that muted all colors toward grey.

“What do you think about the princess?” he said.

Heyalna thought he felt as she did that his sort-of-intended was not of great looks but had a slender elfin charm. He wanted to know something less obvious.

“She has more courage than common sense.”

He laughed. The princess had publicly fenced verbally with the increasingly powerful red-robed priests, the only member of the royal family to do so. And now she was not silent about the shortcomings of the Loseliathi.

“But she has a sense of humor. And can even laugh at herself.”

She replied. “Marry her because you want her and want to live with her. Don’t worry what I think. Or anyone.

“Still, I should point out that she is a healer of unusual power, and that has its merits and problems.” On this planet there were an unusual number of people with the gene complex for perfect health, which could be lent by their possessors by laying their hands on the ill or wounded. Naturally occurring submicroscopic agents not unlike nanotech messengers did the lending. Unlike nanotech messengers, however, their effect was temporary. Still, this often allowed patients to recover enough so that their own bodies could finish healing.

The princess was so powerful she could sometimes bring people back to life if they had not gone far beyond death’s door.

Ketlow was coming up from below them now. Both the prince and the uplift agent were silent until the shuttle positioned itself near the prince’s temporary quarters. At the shuttle door, before she had it open and sent the ramp into place, she stopped him.

“I have two presents for you.”

The wall nearest them opened briefly and a thin book floated toward them. Heyalna took it and handed it to him.

“These were the most important lessons I was passing on to your people. They will save millions of live in times to come. The lessons within will seem small to you. I task you to remember they are not, and that it is your duty to see they are passed on.”

She was not exaggerating. The first lesson was to wash hands with soap and water before treating ills or wounds. Confederacy historical engineers had proved that this lesson had saved more lives in primitive and not-so-primitives cultures than all other medical advances combined.

He tucked the book into his tunic while another opening appeared in the ship side. From it floated a sword and dagger in sheaths attached to a sword belt. She handed this to him but kept her hands on it when he grasped it.

“This will mean more to you because it is personal. When you unsheathe them you will see they are plain but elegant. What you cannot see is that they cannot be broken or destroyed in any way. They cannot be lost; you will always know where they are. They are lighter than what you are used to and never dull. Be very careful. They are sharper than you can imagine. You can lose a hand and not know it until the blood flows and the pain starts.”

She released the presents to him.

“I esteem you highly. Go and live a wise and good life, my prince for an instant more.”

She knelt and bowed her head to him. He placed a hand briefly on her shining head and turned toward the instantly open door and the ramp sliding toward his bedroom window.

“Bless you, Lady. I will not forget you.”

There might have been tears in his eyes as he strode quickly to the window and bent to pass through it. There certainly were in hers.

.

Atop the tallest mountain on the planet, its top half airless and sheathed in ice, massive splinters of rock folded back and down. Shattered ice exploded or fell away from the moving stone. Out of the cavern revealed a coppery sphere a thousand feet thick rose skyward, accelerating. As it neared the edge of space a shuttle craft darted past it, leaving behind an invisible bubble filled with warm air and one passenger, Heyalna.

The spherical starship met the bubble when already moving thousands of miles per hour. Yet Heyalna felt not the slightest jar nor alarm when gold-lit corridors appeared around her, banishing the sight of the frigid mountains below her. The last time the technology of the Confederation had failed was millennia in the past.

She flashed through the corridors, turning several corners without slowing. Her raiment disappeared somewhere along the way, disintegrated into the air. The small bundle of keepsakes also disappeared but only because they had been routed to her quarters. She herself stopped instantly in a large white-walled spherical room in the center of the starship.

She clothed herself in fiery-seeming air and sat back into an invisible easy chair. The golden walls disappeared and she seemed to float in space. “Behind” her she knew was the sun. Off to one side the larger and the smaller moons receded toward invisibility.

Beside her appeared the image of a golden globe of fire. It morphed into a slender teenager of dark curly hair and smiling blue eyes. He sat into another invisible easy chair, he clothed in blue fire. She turned her head toward her. He seemed to be looking forward, though there was nothing visible there beyond blackness and stars.

“I wondered when you would show up,” said Heyalna.

He glanced aside, smiled at her. His appearance was deceptive. He was around three thousand years old.

“Did you guess it was me?” he said.

“I guessed everyone. But you had let us know your age, so you slightly edged out the others.

“Are you really researching star gods? Or is that a cover?”

“Haven’t you yet grown beyond binaries? Both of course. And I’m doing mathematical studies you can’t even imagine. But the research takes up most of my time. Overseeing uplift takes the least.”

“Are you going to reprimand me for going somewhat public? And becoming violent?”

“I’m congratulating you, actually. You stopped a war that would have caused many thousands misery for many years, stopped a toxic religious movement, and began a health revolution that will fan out over centuries.”

She looked at his image in surprise. She lowered her head. “I feel like shit. I enjoyed killing those people. I want to kill more.”

He chuckled. “Well, you’ll have to work yourself out of the shit. I want you as a different kind of agent.”

She slewed her chair around. Or she desired his image in front of her and the ship’s comm system obliged. She neither knew or cared which was true.

He answered her silent attention. “When was the last time you discussed the genetic policies of the Confed? Or pondered them for a while?”

She had first discussed them when she was thirty and finishing formal education. Probably next when she started a family at ninety. Then “When I started uplift studies. That would be … thirty years or so.”

“One of the big arguing points is always why we humans have only gene-washed ourselves of our susceptibility to diseases and ability to age. Why we haven’t made ourselves spiritually better. Or upgraded our bodies toward superhuman abilities. Remember the position of the College of the Philosophers?”

Each planet of the Confed was a massive consensus democracy, something that worked only for bands of a few dozen primitive humans with only speech and their feet for communication and transportation to carry the discussions. With better tech the size of consensus decision-making systems could increase but with size also came the complexity of the cross-talk.

Hierarchical systems made up for this by reducing the complexity enough so group decisions could be made fast enough to be useful. But with bosses and super-bosses and sub-bosses came choke points of information flow and processing and reduced effectiveness. This was true whether the system was made up of earls, dukes, barons, and so on, or representative democracies, or any one of the hierarchical decision-making systems.

The Confed had vanquished these problems with worldwide webs of quantum-entangled comm systems, neural links to the web, and pico-cell parallel databases. Humans and their machines were so integrated no one was sure where one stopped and the other begin. A billion such super-cyborgs could engage in a consensus democracy. It included single humans and special study groups. The College of the Philosophers, also called the College of the Pleiades, was one such study group, and highly influential

But cyborgs faced the problem that human brains would atrophy like legs always aided by crutches. Hence the need, the College argued, for humans to “go naked” periodically.

Researcher led Heyalna through all these thoughts as the starship in which she rode continued to mount in speed. By now it had passed the orbit of the next planet out, a small cold planet with life forms like those around the shoulders of mountains on the planet she had left behind.

“And the reason we have not changed human brains to better integrate with machines?”

“We provide the higher brain functions we can’t put into our machines. Such as intuition and holistic reasoning and empathy.”

“Which we know how to reproduce in artificial intelligences.”

“But they evolve at computer component speeds, so fast that in a few minutes or hours they disappear from ordinary reality.” She paused, remembering where this was going, and continued.

“But we could slow them down toward human levels … Oh, the old argument: we already have computers which do that, biological computers.”

He nodded. “We’re coming up to hyper-jump speed. I’d better finish this off before we lose comm-lock.

“We also don’t clean our genes of the willingness to fight because we sometimes, rarely but sometimes, desperately need the trait, despite all our ethical training and other ways to lessen that need.

“Which is where you come in. You, I suspect, have been thinking of yourself as a wolf, a carnivore, who kills indiscriminately and eats their kills. But I submit that you are a wolf-hound, whose prey is specific: wolves. Faced with an ordinary dog, or a human, you are tame, uninterested in killing. Wasn’t it only the Ketlow warriors you wanted to kill, enjoyed killing? You never wanted to do the same to the people on your side, did you?”

She was silent. It was true.

“What you need to do, when you are ready, is join the Aggressor Agency. They will train you and put you down on Protected planets like the one you just left, and you’ll spy and study cultures and detect crimes and, when necessary, fight. You’ll be judge, jury, and executioner if that is needed. You won’t kill indiscriminately, for the pleasure of killing. You’ll have a license to kill.”

“Just Protected? Not Candidate planets?”

Both kinds of planets were on the expanding outward perimeter of the Core. The Candidates had limited space flight, knew of the Confederacy, and were a provisional part of it.

“Candidate problems are more difficult. You have to graduate to those kind. And then you can graduate to Periphery Agent. There are entire alien species out there which can be dangerous. If they are the species in any of the Thirteen Civilizations you hand the problem over to them. Otherwise you deal with it. Usually all alone.”

The image grinned. “But you’ll have one of the Periphery ships to help you. Wait till you see them. Who knows, maybe you’ll eventually be assigned a Star Ranger.”

The star ship reached the proper fraction of the speed of light and went superluminal. Behind it a sphere of white light bloomed and expanded and faded.

.

Another sphere of white light bloomed near the gas giant with the most spectacular rings in this stellar system. Heyalna’s ship flew out of it, now moving at the same speed as the planet.

Her position was far enough out so the giant took up only a tenth of the starry blackness in front of her. Her ship was above the planet’s ecliptic plane so the rings were at a tilt before her.

The sights still had the power to awe her.

“Gods! It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said to no one.

Imposed on the vision screen were symbols and geometric signs which she had learned to read. It seemed there were several dozen ships in transit directly from one of the million-year-old star gates of this grand central station to another. A few dozen other ships were refueling by sweeping through the planet’s atmosphere and siphoning up hydrogen and helium, for which they paid a price to the city-sized flying intelligences who swam far below the surface of the gas giant. And as always several more ships, mostly very large ones, parked in orbit around a small moon while their many and motley passengers flowed through the shopping malls inside the moon and sheltered in one of the two multi-species hotels and had business or other conferences in the conference center.

She laughed. The humans of every Candidate system were always indignant if they shared “their” stellar system with a subspace station created at least nine-million years ago.

Heyalna was tempted to join the liner passengers in the mall. She usually greatly enjoyed mixing with the races of the thirteen other advanced civilizations. Especially the blue cat-like centaurs whose own confederacy shared much the same part of this small spiral arm containing the human confederacy. Despite living on planets too different for humans to covet, and vice versa, they were the most numerous visitors to human planets and remarkably similar mentally and emotionally. They even laughed at the same jokes.

But she missed her children. She hadn’t seen any of them since she joined the uplift agency some thirty years ago. Why the youngest was approaching the century mark! He might have decided to have a family. Or even have begun one.

And she wanted to do a lot of research before she approached the Aggressor Agency.

Heyalna linked to the starship’s computer and for a short time they were one super-human intelligence. SHE linked to the subspace net computer, an invisible gravitic whorl of space, and THEY thought hyper-human thoughts. THEY decided on a sequence of actions and SHE exerted HER superhuman force-field muscles. SHE swept toward an invisible portal in the subspace net, fell through it, and vanished from the Universe.

Lady Death had gone hunting.

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