Zeta Exchange

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"Zeta Exchange" by Ann Wilson was published in 1992. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

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Story Collector
May 26, 2011

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Deep Space

Deep Space, 2669 CE

Ranger James Medart was standing beside Captain Jean Willis' control chair aboard the Empress Lindner, enjoying the peaceful trip back to Terra after a surprisingly uneventful cruise. He'd kept busy enough to avoid boredom, but there'd been no emergency calls, which made the cruise almost a vacation. Pleasant as it had been, he found himself almost wishing for the challenge of an emergency. Not quite, since an emergency serious enough to require a Ranger's attention meant the Empire was in trouble, and that part he didn't like--but the challenge he did. Maybe he'd ask for a tour in one of the alternate universes with an Empire just getting started, one that didn't have a full quota of home-grown Rangers to cope with the many problems of a brand-new Empire. He wouldn't mind visiting Sierra again; he'd had a hand in selecting both its Sovereign and her Successor, so he had a personal interest in its well-being.

He'd barely completed that thought when his surroundings disappeared. He was nowhere, in some sort of timeless sensory deprivation--

--then he was standing in the middle of a pentagram surrounded by other symbols he didn't recognize, facing a woman in a uniform identical to his own. Since he didn't know the woman herself, it seemed pretty clear he'd been brought to an alternate-universe Empire--and that had to mean it needed help, badly. It looked like he was getting the challenge he wanted, though not in any way he could've expected.

He grinned at his other-universe colleague. "I'm James Medart, of Alternate Alpha Prime. What's your problem?"

"Ariel of Rolian, Zeta Prime." The woman smiled, looking relieved. "You're all right?"


"Good. Inter-universe summoning spells are sometimes as rough on the subject as they are on the magician; I'm glad you were spared that. But I wasn't, so I need to rest before I brief you. I'll take you to the bridge and introduce you, then let you get acquainted while I recuperate for three or four hours."

"You're the expert here," Medart agreed. "It's safe to leave the pentagram?"

"Yes, of course." She frowned. "You're not familiar with magic?"

"Only what I've picked up from fantasy stories and games of Treasure Tunnels. It doesn't work in Alpha Prime--or in any of the other universes I've visited till now, either. But when I show up in the middle of a pentacle with a Ranger who obviously takes magic for granted, it seems pretty clear this is one where it does."

The other Ranger frowned again. "That's strange. You're from a high-probability alternate, then--sophisticated technology, no magic--but my spell was designed to summon a high-powered sorcerer."

Medart chuckled. "Either it glitched, or I am one and don't know it. I've played Tunnels characters who used magic, but I don't know a thing about the way it really works."

"In that case, I'd say you are and don't know it. I haven't had a spell miss its mark that far since I was in middle school. We'll find out for sure when you meet Captain Chavvorth, though. He's what we call a Reader, he can sense things about you just being in your presence." Ariel sighed, showing fatigue she'd concealed before. "And he tends to worry about me, since an inter-universe summoning can be tricky. Not to mention dangerous, if you tap into the wrong alternate. Would you mind if we go there now?"

"Sorry--of course not." Medart followed her out of the symbol-decorated room and through corridors that looked like a standard Imperial Navy ship's, though something he couldn't pinpoint right away seemed odd--something missing, maybe. "I can accept, though I don't understand, that you brought me here by magic. But this feels like the hyperdrive ships I know, and your sidearm looks like an issue blaster. I was under the impression magic and science didn't mix."

"They usually don't," Ariel replied. "Magic-using universes are much lower probability than technological ones, and the magic/technology mix is far lower even than that--but there are a few, and this is one." She smiled back at him. "Other than that, this universe should be almost a duplicate of yours, in everything important. I'd be willing to bet you'd even recognize this ship's designation, maybe name--IBC Emperor Barton."

"I do," Medart said. An Imperial Battle Cruiser, named after the twelfth Sovereign. "Then from what you've said about Captain Chavvorth, I'd expect him to be a Traiti."

"He is." They were at the Bridge by then; the door slid open to admit them, and the Traiti in the command chair stood, showing open relief as he scrutinized Ariel.

"You are well, ka'naya Ranger!" he said.

"Fine, Captain. This is my colleague from Alpha Prime, James Medart."

The Traiti bowed, crossing arms over his chest in that race's formal gesture. "I am honored, Ranger Medart."

Medart returned the gesture. "Likewise, Captain Chavvorth. I'm pleased to see that humans and Traiti share the Empire even in a universe so distant from mine."

"As am I--though I sense that until recently we were at war in yours, and you were nearly killed by one of our fighters."

"Right." Medart tried to hide his astonishment, and reply as though it were normal for someone in such a remote universe to know that kind of personal detail. "I wouldn't call a hundred years ago recent, but I suppose to a Traiti it would be . . . I was almost torn in half, and your people survived only because my colleague Steve Tarlac took your Ordeal of Honor and then died, becoming one of your gods. Peacelord Esteban."

"The one who kept that war from happening by doing the same here," the Traiti said. "He was able to determine the reason for the first incident, and then the way to prevent escalation. His courage in coming to us alone, we believe, saved millions of lives."

"Try billions," Medart said. "We were never able to determine accurate casualty figures, but the best estimate for both sides, military and civilian, is between eight and ten billion, mostly Traiti. And we came entirely too damn close to genocide before Steve was able to end the war."

"But he did," Chavvorth said calmly, "and we took our proper place in your Empire as we did here." His expression became taut. "Have you encountered the Sandemans?"

"Yes, sixteen years before the Traiti War. A century and a quarter ago." Medart frowned, scanned the Bridge crew. That was what he'd thought strange earlier--there were none of the small, dark-skinned blonds who were such a significant part of Alpha Prime's military. That, the phrasing of Chavvorth's question, and a major threat to this Empire came together in a conclusion as frightening as it was suddenly obvious. Medart allowed himself a quiet, intense, and uncharacteristic oath. "Holy Creator and all the gods! You just met them!"

"Yes," Ariel said, her fatigue seeming to vanish in eagerness. "You were able to defeat them?"

"We could've, but it wasn't necessary," Medart said. "I was able to use persuasion instead--along with five battle fleets to show them the alternative to peace. They'd managed to take over almost half of Sector Five by then, but they accepted annexation as a Subsector, and they've been loyal citizens ever since."

"You missed a Sandeman war," Ariel said thoughtfully, "and we missed a Traiti war. Steve Tarlac avoided or ended the Traiti war in both, and my spell summons the one who avoided the Sandeman war in his. I think that for the first time in three years, I can dare to hope."

Captain Chavvorth turned to her. "I also, Ranger. But with respect, I suggest you go rest. While you are doing that, I can begin teaching Ranger Medart to use his mage-power."

"He is a magician, then!" Ariel exclaimed in relief. "My spell said he should be, but when he denied it-- How powerful?"

"The strongest I have ever felt, sir." The Traiti smiled at Medart, gestured as he murmured something, and was holding a candle. "You have had no instruction, but your raw power should be adequate to light this if you concentrate."

The equivalent, Medart thought, of someone with PK Talent exciting the molecules of the wick to ignition temperature. He'd never shown any trace of that aspect--his only Talents, besides the basic mind-screen and telepathy, were healing and darlas--but this was supposed to be magic, not psionics; he had no reason not to try. He focused his attention on the candle, following an impulse to point at it as he willed it to light.

He felt a sensation of warmth flow into him and channel along his arm--then flame erupted from his fingers, enveloping both the candle and the hand that held it.

Instantly, Medart broke his concentration. The candle was burning, but it was sagging, and the Traiti's hand was reddened.

Chavvorth blew out the candle, his expression bemused, and put it down. "That was more . . . dramatic than I had expected, Ranger."

"A hell of a lot more than I expected," Medart said. "Let me see your hand."

The Traiti obeyed. Medart took it, concentrating again--but this time it was a familiar, trained ability he called on. Redness faded, vanished; he released the hand. "There. You should be okay now."

Chavvorth flexed his fingers, extending and retracting his claws. "It is fine--but that was not a spell."

"Nope. That was psionic Talent, a rare but perfectly normal ability."

"So is mage-power, here," Ariel put in. "I'd like to stay and talk, but the spell-reaction's getting me to the point I can't function much longer. Why don't you two go someplace comfortable and keep getting acquainted while I recuperate? Chavvorth can brief you on the Sandemans as well as I could, James."

"Jim's fine--sounds good to me. Captain?"

"I am agreeable." Chavvorth turned to one of his officers. "Lieutenant Dawson, you have the con."

Ten minutes later Medart and Chavvorth were sitting in the senior officers' lounge, drinking coffee and chovas. Medart had adjusted to the idea of magic far more easily than to the idea of Sandemans as enemies; magic was, for all practical purposes, something new, which made it easy to accept. Sandemans as enemies, though, was a total reversal of something that had been a given for over a century and a quarter. And Sandemans who'd had that extra time to grow and advance technologically--and magically, he was sure--would be an awesome enemy.

"From what Ranger Ariel said," Medart started, "I gather you ran into the Sandemans about three years ago. The Shapers must've gone a lot further out in this universe than they did in Alpha Prime."

"Who or what are the Shapers?"

Medart sighed. "You don't have much intelligence about the Sandemans?"

"Almost none," Chavvorth said. "Few have been captured, none successfully interrogated--few successfully held, in fact. Most are able to conjure their way out of custody, even denied the materials an Imperial magician would find necessary."

Medart chuckled. "Somehow that doesn't surprise me. Do you have anything like a mindprobe, so I can give you everything I know in a hurry?"

"Not yet," Chavvorth said regretfully. "One is in the development stage, but it will be several months at least before it is far enough along to experiment with humans on."

"We do it the hard way, then. Emperor Barton?"

"Yes, Ranger Medart," the ship replied.

"What access level do I have in this universe?"

"Full access, Ranger."

"Good." That was standard in every Empire he'd visited or heard of, but since neither had applied to this one, it'd seemed best to ask rather than assume. "Record everything I say about Sandemans, then, and pass it along to IntelDiv for summary and conversion to a teaching tape. They should include a caveat that this information comes from Alpha Prime and may or may not apply to the Zeta Prime Sandemans."

"It will be done, Ranger."

"Thank you." Medart turned his attention back to Captain Chavvorth. "The Shapers were genetic engineers who left Terra in 2130 and deliberately lost themselves. Not long after that, they began using their own germ plasm to create the Sandeman race as improvements on humanity. The idiots didn't stop with that, though. They designed a complex of physical and psychological traits that made a percentage of the males into genetically-determined warriors who not only like to fight--it's one of their favorite occupations--they have to either fight or make love at regular intervals just to stay healthy."

Chavvorth stared at him. "Genetically determined warriors? That would explain much about them--but how could anyone be so stupid?"

Medart shrugged. "We don't know. When our Sandemans overthrew their Shapers, almost all the Shaper records were destroyed. My personal opinion is that it was sheer arrogance."

"Which they passed along to their creations," Chavvorth said.

Medart chuckled. "They have some justification, you must admit--they're stronger, faster, and more intelligent than the standard human norm."

"True," Chavvorth said grudgingly. "They also have greater mage-power, as you must have deduced from what I told you about their ability to escape."

"Uh-huh. In my universe, they've got greater than usual Talent, especially the warriors. So it seems reasonable that here they'd have more than the normal amount of magical ability." He took a swallow of coffee, grimacing when he found it was cold. "Just how bad is the situation?"

"We have lost about a quarter of the Empire, and are rapidly losing more. Terra itself will be in danger within six months."

Medart winced. "That much that quickly? They must have one hell of a big civilization!"

"We believe so, but we have no way of being sure."

"Mmpf." Medart was silent for a moment, then he said, "Damned if I know what you expect one person to be able to do about something that's already taken out a quarter of your Empire, but I've got to try. First thing, I think, is to get in touch with His Majesty--or Her Majesty, here--let @ know I'm available, and find out what resources I can use. Emperor Barton?"

"His Majesty," the ship said, "is Emperor Ray Kennard, and he has been informed of your arrival. On Ranger Ariel's orders, I beamed an account to his personal comset, complete as of your departure from the Bridge."

"Good--thank you. In my universe under these circumstances, he'd be the one to call as soon as I made it to the top of his priority list; would that be safe to assume here?"

"Yes, sir, I believe so."

"Okay." Medart's attention went back to Chavvorth. They'd been expecting a visitor, so there'd be quarters ready for him--and since he usually worked in his living area rather than his office, that seemed a reasonable place to wait for His Majesty's call. "Shall we continue this discussion in my quarters, Captain?"

"As you wish, sir." The two rose, and Medart followed the Traiti again, thinking.

The Emperor Ray Kennard in his universe had limited precognition as part of his Talent; if parallels between the two universes held as well as they seemed to, the one here should have some equivalent means of foreseeing parts of the future. Which might mean he'd foreseen a solution.

Or might mean he'd foreseen the visitor would either be or bring a solution. In that case, Medart thought, he was likely to be disappointed--though Medart intended to do his best. He snorted to himself. He'd gotten the challenge he wanted, all right--gotten it in spades, and very possibly more of one than he could handle.

As he'd told Captain Chavvorth, though, he'd have to try to meet even such an impossible-seeming challenge. He had no idea at the moment how he'd meet it, but he was sure it'd have to be something unconventional. He was positive that this universe's people were every bit as competent as the ones at home; they'd have done all the conventional things as well as he could. Probably better, since this was their universe and they knew how it worked.

Chavvorth interrupted his train of thought. "If you will key the lock, sir?"

"Right." Medart placed his hand against the door's lock-plate, keying it to his palm-print. The two entered when the door slid open; Medart immediately went to the service panel for a fresh cup of coffee. "Want some more chovas?"

"No, thank you. A cup of Blue Ginger, perhaps?"

"You got it." Medart entered the appropriate order, took the steaming cup when it appeared, and handed it to the Traiti, then took his own seat. "You said you'd start teaching me magic. I know better than to tell a teacher how to teach, but I have a feeling I'm going to need something I wasn't wearing when Ranger Ariel summoned me. So I think I'd better learn that summoning spell first."

Chavvorth looked uncomfortable, but shook his head. "Such a summoning is dangerous even for an experienced magician--far too dangerous for a novice, particularly one who is also a Ranger. No, I will not teach you that spell. But I will attempt to summon this object myself, if you will describe it."

Medart frowned. He wasn't used to having his requests refused, even for his own safety--a Ranger was presumed to be able to evaluate risks and take only necessary ones. On the other hand, he didn't know enough about magic to make such an evaluation accurately, and his first attempt at using it had injured an Imperial officer . . . so maybe he'd better accept the refusal gracefully. "All right, Captain. But if it's that dangerous, I'd hesitate to risk an IBC's captain, either. Don't you have any magical specialists?"

"Yes, of course. Next to Ranger Ariel, Major Treschler is our most accomplished magician, and he has been successful with summonings."

"Get him to do it, then. I may be able to do better than a description of what I need, though--I'd better be, or there won't be any point in getting it. Emperor Barton, do your records include twentieth-century entertainment tapes?"

"Yes, Ranger. I have a complete selection."

"Then if they exist here, you've got the Star Wars movies."

"Yes, sir. They do, and I have." "Good! I'd like close-ups of Lord Vader's lightsaber, please, from as many angles as possible."

"It will be about ten seconds." The ship paused for that time, then said, "Completed; they are in your fabricator."

"Thank you." Medart went into the sleeping area to get the stills, then returned to the living area and handed them to Chavvorth. "Mine looks like this. It's in my quarters aboard the Empress Lindner."

Chavvorth took the pictures, clearly puzzled. "An object from an old entertainment tape?"

"Right, and I'd recommend close study of the movies, too--Lord Vader in particular. The Sandemans at home regard those movies as classics, and based several aspects of their culture on them. The first clan formed after Overthrow is named for Lord Vader, for instance, and the clothing they call honor-black is based on his armor and robes. They put a lot of effort into developing real lightsabers, too--I got mine as a death-gift from the warrior Leigh DarVader, and I wear it on ceremonial occasions or when I'm in Sandeman territory."

Chavvorth came as close to frowning as most Traiti could manage. "I hope you do not intend to confront them personally."

"I think I'm going to have to. There isn't anything I can do long-range that your own Rangers can't; what I can do is talk to them on their own terms."

"I understand." Chavvorth rose. "I will give these to Major Treschler and ask him to start preparations immediately."

"Thanks." Medart watched him leave, then asked the ship for a basic magic text. If he was going to have to confront hostile Sandemans again, he wanted every bit of knowledge and skill he could manage.

He was perhaps a third of the way through the tape when the ship informed him the Emperor was calling. He went to the screen, pleased to see that this universe's Sovereign looked like he was standing up well to the strains of war. "Ranger James Medart of Alpha Prime, Your Majesty. I'm at your Empire's service."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Ranger Medart, though I must apologize for having you taken away from your own Empire."

"No apologies needed, sir. Things were quiet at home, and I was planning to ask for temporary out-universe duty. It seems I've made friends out of your current enemies once before, so I get the challenge of trying to do it again."

The Emperor smiled. "I'm glad to hear you feel that way, Ranger. I'm not sure it'll be possible to make friends out of the Sandemans, but I'm not asking for a miracle; it'll be enough if you can just stop them from destroying the Empire."

"I'll do my best, sir. What resources can I call on?"

"Anything that's not actually engaged in combat. Or anything that is, if you consider it essential, including myself and the Rangers."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. In that case, I'd like to borrow the best magic teacher available; I won't be much real good until I can control the power I accidentally burned Captain Chavvorth with."

The Emperor frowned. "I saw the record tape of that, Jim. We don't have any teachers who can give you control of that much power without limiting it--the only ones who might even come close are the Sandemans, and they're not likely to want to help an Imperial."

"In that case, I'd like the fastest small ship available--something on the order of a courier--with a volunteer crew, to take me to Sandeman territory. I'll tape everything I know about them on the way, so you'll have that information whatever happens to me."

"What do you plan to do?"

"I don't know, exactly," Medart admitted. "That depends a lot on exactly how closely these Sandemans parallel the ones in Alpha Prime--and on how they feel about some incidents that took place there. But I do know, as I told Captain Chavvorth, that I can't do anything at long range that your people can't do at least as well. The only thing I have that they don't is over a hundred and a quarter years of friendship with Sandemans."

"That long?" The Emperor looked concerned. "Just how old are you, Ranger Medart?"

"A hundred and seventy-five, Your Majesty--but the anti-agathics are still working fine; I have the same physical abilities I did when I started them at eighteen."

"Understood. All right, Ranger; you were on full duty, and you obviously know more about them than we do, so I can't reasonably order you to stay away, however dangerous a situation I believe you're going into."

"It is dangerous, Your Majesty--I don't have any illusions about that. I fought them before I brought them into our Empire, and they scared the stuffing out of me then. These have an extra century and a quarter of development, a hell of a lot bigger civilization, and magic, so they scare me even worse. But the only chance I see for your Empire is going in, so I have to do it." He paused. "I was brought here with no chance to inform Alpha Prime's Emperor Kennard. If I'm able to return, I can explain things myself; if I can't, for whatever reason, I'd appreciate it if you'd notify my Sovereign of the circumstances."

"I'll see to it, Ranger. Is there anything else?"

"Just one thing, if I can indulge my curiosity."

The Emperor chuckled. "A weakness you know I share. Go ahead."

"In my universe, you have limited precognition. Do you foresee the kind of solution we'd both like as a result of bringing me here?"

"I foresee a chance of it," the Emperor said slowly. "Not a good chance, but without the summoning, there would be no chance."

Medart nodded. "You had to do it, then. Thank you, sir."

"Thank you, Ranger Medart. The ship and crew you want will meet you as soon as possible--and in the meantime, I'd recommend you not study magic. You don't want our version limiting you if you are able to get any help from the Sandemans."

"Yes, sir. I'll concentrate on recording everything I can remember about them, then."

Medart Watched The Lifecraft

Medart watched the lifecraft heading back for Imperial space. His volunteer crew had given him a good ride to near-Sandeman space, and had been reluctant to leave him to face them alone, but they'd finally obeyed his orders and left.

Once the lifecraft was out of sensor range, Medart switched on all the courier ship's external lights, activated the locator beacon, and set course for the center of the Sandeman sphere. The Sandemans at home had become familiar with Rangers, but the ones here still weren't, so he'd done as he had for the Mjolnir Conference: traded his military title and uniform for his civilian title and appropriate clothes, which meant a lot more to them.

The Sandemans here were as alert, quick to respond, and curious as the ones at home; less than an hour later, he was challenged. A dark-skinned face with light blond hair and pale grey eyes appeared on his comscreen. "You are intruding, Imperial. Identify yourself and give us a reason not to blast you out of existence."

"James Medart, Prince of the Terran Empire--but an Empire in a different universe. At home, we're friends, and I'd like the same to be true here." He unhooked the lightsaber from his belt, held it where the Sandeman could see. "I was bequeathed this by the warrior Leigh of Clan Vader, for giving him Last Gift. Both he and the warrior Keith, of Clan Lewies, named me as battle-companion for that service, and I have never claimed the life-debt owed by either clan."

"You know things you should not, Prince James," the Sandeman said. "Do you claim life-debt now?"

"No." Medart grinned. "I would if I thought it were necessary, but the Sandemans I know would be curious enough to invite me to their ships, or to Sandeman itself, to talk about it."

"You wish to surrender?"

"Not hardly--but I will, if that's what it takes to get a chance to talk to you."

"I will have to consult the Warleader on that, Prince. In the meantime, I will have your ship brought aboard our cruiser--release your controls to our operators."

Medart did so, nodded. "You have control."

The Sandeman disappeared, his place taken by a view of space. A ship-image was growing, and Medart's sensors told him it was a big one--not quite as large as an IBC, but close. Shortly afterward, he felt the surge of tractor beam lock-on and the ship grew more quickly--fast enough he would have worried, if anyone but a Sandeman had been at the controls. With their reflex speed double that of the human standard norm, though, the speed of his approach was perfectly safe; as his ship was brought into the docking bay and landed, he double-checked his appearance.

He wasn't used to seeing himself in anything but uniform, since he spent so much time aboard Imperial Navy ships. But he'd worn similar clothing during the Mjolnir Conference, with the Sandemans there thinking it appropriate for his rank: silvery shirt, emerald-green pants, black uniform boots and equipment/weapons belt, topped by his green, silver-fringed arms baldric with his arms pin on the left shoulder. He'd worn his coronet as well, there, but that had been to distinguish him from the other Rangers he'd called in; he saw no reason to go to that extreme here.

Satisfied, he went to the airlock. As soon as the pressure equalized, he opened it and left the little ship, leaning against its hull with his arms crossed to wait for his hosts--or his captors.

Moments later the bay's inner lock cycled open and a small group of warriors approached him, the central one wearing honor-black. Medart straightened, then bowed and addressed that one. "I am Prince James Medart of the Empire in Alternate Alpha Prime. You do me honor, Warleader, wearing ceremonials. Am I prisoner, or guest?"

The Sandeman returned the bow. "I am Ryan, a warrior of Clan Vader and Warleader of this fleet. You place me in a difficult position, bearing a lightsaber you claim was a death-gift, and claiming further that Clan Vader still owes you life-debt. If either is true, I cannot honorably hold you prisoner--but I have only your word and a lightsaber that could have been taken from a dead or captured warrior in this universe."

"I'd be skeptical too, in your position," Medart said. "Even the fact I came here alone, deliberately, could be a trick. It isn't, but it could be. There's a way to convince you, though; I'm sure you have some way of questioning people and being certain you get truthful answers."

The Warleader frowned. "We do, Prince. I could question you under a compulsion spell, but your magical defenses are strong enough that doing so would be the equivalent of torture--which I may not honorably have you subjected to if you did indeed give one of my clansmen Last Gift."

Medart winced at that. Sandeman customs allowed enemy warriors to be tortured for information, and having warriors as battle-companions made him the closest possible non-Sandeman equivalent of a warrior. As Ryan said, giving Last Gift had made him immune from that particular unpleasantness, at least as far as Clan Vader was concerned--but it also looked like telling his story under that compulsion spell was the only way he'd be believed. And for his already-uncertain plan to have any chance of success, he'd have to have more than belief; he'd need active cooperation from at least one of the two clan-chiefs who owed him life-debt. Which in turn depended, of course, on whether they'd consider that debt binding in a universe other than the one where it was incurred.

"Since you're not certain I did," Medart said at last, "and since that's the only way I can prove I'm telling the truth, does the prohibition have to apply?"

"That question has never come up." The Warleader frowned again. "Your claims cannot be disproven if they took place in another universe, so you must be given the protection they grant you, though not payment of a debt that may not exist. But I would also judge it dishonorable to deny you the opportunity to prove those claims, if you choose to waive that protection."

"Consider it waived." Medart managed a partial grin. "But don't bother asking any tactical or strategic questions; once I realized I'd have to put myself in your hands, I was careful to avoid any such information."

The Warleader stared at him for a moment, then chuckled. "Were our circumstances reversed, Prince, I would have done the same. I will ask only what is necessary to establish the truth of your claims. And you may consider yourself a guest of Clan Vader."

Medart bowed. "Thank you for your courtesy, Warleader. How soon can we take care of the interrogation?"

"As soon as you wish, Highness. That particular chamber is always kept ready."

"Let's get it over with, then. Putting it off isn't going to make it any easier, and I'd like to end this war as soon as I can--if that's possible at all."

"It will end, unfortunately," the Warleader said. "Not for some time, I hope--the Empire is the most competent enemy we have yet encountered--but it will end."

"With the Empire destroyed, the way you're going," Medart said. "That's not exactly what I had in mind. At home, you're a vital part of the Empire--a crucial part of our military, and contract police on any world that really values law and order. To me, that's the ideal--but I'll settle for having you as friends to this one, allies against the worst enemy any civilization in any universe has ever faced."

Ryan looked suddenly interested. "Oh? An even better enemy?"

"I thought that would intrigue you, if you hadn't already heard about them. Ask me about the Ravagers while you have me under--they're something nobody would believe on simple hearsay. If you're lucky, you'll never run into them--but if you're not, and they show up here, you'll be glad of any allies you can get."

Clan-Chief Ryan Watched

Clan-chief Ryan watched as his people fastened Prince James into the interrogation chair. He'd had a primarily-Vader fleet in the area because of an information-gathering spell that had told him his clan would benefit by an intercept here, with a "side note" that it would be best if he seem to be less than his true rank. Deception was difficult for Sandemans, but introducing himself as Warleader rather than clan-chief was failure to reveal he was both rather than an active lie, so he'd been able to manage it. Lying was for Shapers and their kin.

This Prince James was obviously related to the Shapers, from his size and coloring, but Ryan found himself wanting to believe what James had told him. Not that he'd given Last Gift to a Vader warrior, or that Sandemans were actually part of the Empire he came from--even though that was something chiefs couldn't either deny fully or reveal--but that he had gotten the saber honestly, and his motives for claiming what he did were equally honest. It was impossible to believe that one who risked himself as James was could do so without some overwhelming motivation beyond the self-advancement of Shaperkin!

When the restraints were all in place, Ryan moved to stand directly in front of the chair. "I regret the necessity of binding you, Highness, but it is for your protection; as I told you, this spell can be extremely painful to one with your automatic magical defenses, possibly causing convulsions and self-injury."

"I appreciate the consideration, especially toward one you must regard as little if any better than the Shapers." Medart shifted in the chair, then made himself as comfortable as possible. "Okay, I'm as ready as I can be; go ahead."

Ryan nodded. "As you wish, Highness." He began the words and gestures of the truth-compulsion spell, watching its effect on the human. Medart tensed and started to sweat, his expression becoming strained. The spell was working, but Ryan was impressed by the resistance it was encountering. Not conscious resistance; if anything, the Prince was trying to cooperate, which was less of a surprise than Ryan would have expected before meeting him.

But the resistance did make it necessary to strengthen his spell. As he did so, the Prince's discomfort turned into pain, his muscles spasming and his breath coming in gasps.

It wasn't enough, and Ryan frowned. The next level of this spell was likely to send the Prince into convulsions, and though he'd mentioned the possibility, he hadn't really expected the man's defenses to be that strong. Such extreme measures were normally used only to extract the most critical information; he was reluctant to use them for less.

"Why the hesitation, Ryan?" a woman's voice asked, curiously. "You've questioned Terrans before."

Ryan looked around. "I'm glad you're here, Kelly. He doesn't have any information, he just wants us to believe he's from a universe where we're part of the Empire--and where he was bequeathed a saber for giving one of our warriors Last Gift. He waived immunity from compulsion to obtain that belief, and he's trying to cooperate, but his auto-defenses are stronger than I'd have credited to a Terran; if I keep going I'll send him into convulsions, maybe kill him if his defenses collapse too quickly for me to pull back."

"And simple verification is nothing to die for, even verification of such revolting statements." The warriors'-woman nodded once, sharply. "Still, if he wants it, he is entitled to prove his honesty. I'll support his defenses if necessary, and have a healing spell ready if his condition gets critical."

"Good. As soon as you're ready, then, I'll boost the power."

Kelly took position behind the man, resting her hands on his shoulders. She closed her eyes for a few seconds, then opened them. "All right, I'm ready."

Ryan nodded, then concentrated on Medart again, increasing his spell's pressure against those defenses. As he'd predicted, the Prince convulsed almost immediately, the restraints the only things that kept him from breaking bones. At last, though, his defenses collapsed and Ryan released the pressure, maintaining only the truth-compulsion. A few questions verified his identity and universe of origin, then Ryan got to the key points. "You say you gave Last Gift to warriors of Clans Vader and Lewies. Describe the circumstances."

"They were prisoners aboard my ship, in sickbay because they were dying of something we didn't understand and couldn't cure. I was able to work it out and save most of the rest, but those two were beyond help, and I wasn't about to make them suffer if I could help it. I guessed you had some form of euthanasia or aided suicide the other Sandemans couldn't provide in enemy hands, so I told them I'd handle it if that was what they wanted. It was, so I did. They died quickly, and as painlessly as I could manage. Then we gave them star-burial, the best we could do in space."

"And how did you get the saber?"

"That was later, on Mjolnir, for the conference that brought the Sandeman worlds into the Empire. I got into a TreasureTunnels game that included Clan-chief Wylie of Vader, along with a few others, Sandeman and Imperial. But I didn't have an appropriate character, so Wylie loaned me one of his, the Black Jedi Kynan Ardais. He explained the game saber, then handed me a real one and let me try it out. When I went to return it, he told me it was mine, a thanks-gift from the warrior Leigh."

Ryan wanted to continue that line, but he'd promised to restrict his questioning to what was required to prove James' claims--and the subject James had told him he should ask about. "Tell me of the Ravagers."

"They're inter-universal raiders. They aren't life as we usually understand the term; some scientists believe they aren't really life at all. From time to time, at unpredictable intervals, they erupt into a random universe and--if that universe doesn't have a technological and population level near the Empire's--devastate it and proceed to another. But no Empire-level civilization is attacked more than once, because a civilization at that stage can defeat them, and so far always has. After such a defeat, the Ravagers retreat, and it's several years before they attack again anywhere. That's why Empires in various alternate universes cooperate to develop Empires or the equivalent in still other alternates."

"And you do not think we could defeat these Ravagers, though we are defeating this Empire?"

"You probably could. In fact, I'm sure you could. But it's never an easy fight; there are times we have to go in and rebuild, even after they're thrown out. The stronger a universe is, the better for everyone--and this one would be strongest with you and the Empire as allies. United would be best, but that wasn't easy at home; it may be impossible, here."

"And just how was such a union managed in your universe?"

Medart managed a grin. "Sweet reason, backed by five battle fleets. The fleets turned out to be a temptation rather than the threat I'd expected, but either way they worked."

"To your pleasure." Ryan scowled, then shook his head. "I have asked what I agreed to restrict myself to; I will not go beyond that. Is there anything else you would like to tell me while under the spell?"

"Just that I won't lie to you. Rangers don't, unless it's essential to the Empire's survival--and the survival of this one depends on me gaining your trust, which means I don't dare lie. I may not tell you everything, but what I do tell you will be the truth."

"Said under truth-compulsion, I must believe you--though I find it almost impossible to credit the idea of a Terran who does not lie. Still, this interrogation is over." Ryan released the spell, and Medart collapsed, unconscious. Looking at Kelly, Ryan said, "Will you care for him, lady? I named him clan-guest when he waived immunity to convince us of his honesty."

"Yes, Chief." Kelly looked down at her patient with a bemused expression. "His ideas are revolting . . . but there's a certain fascination to them at the same time, and the man himself is intriguing."

"Yes, he is. I think I'm going to leave Trevor in charge of the fleet and take Prince James back to Sandeman--you can come along, if you'd like."

"Thank you--I would."

Medart Knew As Soon As He Woke

Medart knew as soon as he woke that he was on a smaller ship. There was no single specific item, but a lifetime aboard numerous classes of ship had given him a feel for the differences between them; this was about courier size. Wondering what was going on, he got dressed--someone had cleaned his clothes and hung them up, with his boots and weapon belt nearby, his saber clipped to the belt.

That was a good sign, he thought as he fastened the belt. Weapons were customary for the warrior caste, but a warrior or equivalent being unarmed around others wasn't considered an insult, the way it was in the Traiti Sector; they could have disarmed him without dishonoring him.

Something to eat seemed like a good idea, so he left his cabin and started exploring. Almost immediately, he ran into the w'woman who'd taken part in the interrogation. He'd been aware of what was going on, though he hadn't been able to react without prompting, so he knew she'd been ready to help him--and he was willing to bet it was she who'd cared for him when he'd passed out once he was free to.

He bowed to her. "I thank you for your aid, lady. Without it I would probably be in considerable discomfort today."

She returned the bow. "I was pleased to be able to help, Prince. Fortunately, your pulled muscles responded well to a simple healing spell, which also insured a good rest. Would you care to join me and Warleader Ryan for breakfast?"

"I would be delighted. That's what I was looking for, as a matter of fact." Medart grinned at her as they started walking. "We've changed ships; are we bound for Sandeman?"

"Yes. Have you been there?"

"To Alpha Prime's, yes--but that's a different world, in a different part of the galaxy. I'm looking forward to seeing yours."

"It is a beautiful one, particularly near the Vader clanhome," Kelly said. "As the first clan formed after Overthrow, we took the Shapers' area--and they, of course, had chosen one of the best and most attractive parts of the planet."

"The same was true at home," Medart said. "I visited there a couple of years after Annexation, not long after they were granted the patent I suggested they try for, on the saber's controlled-length blade."

"What is a patent?"

"The exclusive right to market something you've invented. On something as useful as a controlled-length laser beam, that's quite an advantage--last I heard, Clan Vader was one of the richest groups in the Empire. And probably the only one that amount of money didn't change much."

"Why should it change?"

Medart laughed. "No reason, really, but most people who suddenly get a lot of money do change."

"In here--most people aren't Sandemans."

Medart followed her into the dining area and to Ryan's table; when the Warleader gestured them to sit, they did so. "I took the liberty of ordering breakfast for both of you," he told them. "It should be here very shortly."

"Thanks," Medart said. "And thanks for letting me keep my saber and gun, too. The gun I could replace if I ever get back; the saber's special." He paused, grinned. "Not that I'm any physical threat to a Sandeman, whether I'm armed or not. If I went for my gun, I'd be dead before I could get it halfway out of the holster."

"True," Ryan agreed. "That sounds like you've seen it tried."

"Close; I've demonstrated it. But I made sure the Sandeman was using a stun setting on his needler."

Ryan chuckled. "I'm not sure I'd care to let myself be used as a target that way. You must have trusted that warrior implicitly."

"No more or less than I trust any Sandeman," Medart said. "I've only known one who was capable of deliberate deception, and that was because his Intelligence field work for the Empire required it. Naturally, he was the best field agent we've had, though his successor as top agent came close."

"Naturally," Kelly said. Whatever she was going to say next, though, was interrupted by the arrival of their breakfast; all three concentrated on eating.

When they were done, they moved to a small lounge, and Ryan addressed Medart with an expression the Ranger couldn't quite identify. "I did not reveal my full rank yesterday, Highness; a foretelling spell said it would be in the clan's interest to use only my lesser one. Besides Warleader, I am the chief of Clan Vader."

Medart nodded, grinning. "I know. I can read clan arms, and you either forgot or didn't bother to change yours. But if you wanted to claim a lesser rank, I couldn't see any harm in playing along."

"My arms?" Ryan looked chagrined. "I never even thought of them--I did a lot at first, when I added the chief, but I've gotten so used to them since that I no longer really notice the difference."

"And you're not used to deception, so it's easy to understand how you'd miss that." Medart sobered. "But since you are clan-chief, I need to know whether the life-debt your clan owes me at home is valid here."

It couldn't be, was Ryan's automatic reaction. The debt had been incurred in a distant alternate, involving an enemy and a warrior who had, in this one, lived a long and adventurous life.

On the other hand, a life-debt was sacrosanct, and the one owed it was entitled to repayment whenever and wherever that repayment was asked. The crucial question, then, was whether a change in universes by the one owed it voided that obligation.

Ryan studied the Prince's carefully-impassive expression. The personalities involved should have no bearing on his judgement as the Vader in a matter of honor, but the human's courage and integrity had earned his respect; it would be difficult to ignore those, though he would have to try.

Restrict himself to the basic facts, then. James had done a warrior of Clan Vader the ultimate service, sparing him the horrors of death in need. That meant the clan owed him a comparable service. James was the person owed, no question about that. Was this universe's Clan Vader close enough to his universe's to be considered obligated, then?

The warrior Leigh had lived at the proper time, and Wylie had been clan-chief then. Those were indicators that it was, but he'd like more. "May I see your saber?" he asked, using High War Speech.

"Yes," Medart said in the same language, handing it over. "I've added the improved power pack, but otherwise it's the same one I was given."

So he did know the warrior caste's language, another point of similarity in his favor. Ryan examined the saber, checking for the small traces of workmanship that distinguished Vader-made lightsabers from those of other clans. They were there, including Leigh's engraved signature inside the powerpack cover. That made four points--five, if he counted the signature as extra verification of the saber's provenance.

Since the Prince had no other physical evidence, and couldn't be expected to know the clan as well as one of its members--wait, there was one more detail. "Did you recognize the complete arms, or just the chief?"

"The complete arms. They were a main clue to me, at home, of that part of your culture. The clan name, combined with arms of a scarlet-bladed light-saber, led me to study the Black Lord's part of the Saga. I'd seen it as a child, of course, but as entertainment, not cultural study."

"That's enough, then," Ryan decided. "As clan-chief of Vader, I judge the similarity between the Clans Vader in the two universes to be sufficient that we are liable for the life-debt. What repayment do you require, James?"

Medart sighed, letting his relief show. "I want you or someone you choose to teach me Sandeman magic, clan-chief. The only way I can see for an outsider like myself to end this war is to challenge whoever the clans designate to single combat, and I'd have no chance in a conventional battle. I was told shortly after I arrived that I have strong magical powers, though, and that you were the only ones who could train me to use them at their maximum. I have had no training whatsoever, so I have no bad habits to unlearn."

Ryan frowned. "I can testify to your power, Prince; that was obvious in the strength of your automatic defense against my compulsion spell. But magic training is started young, as soon as the . . . I suppose you could call them magical-energy channels . . . begin to develop. With respect, you are no longer young; such training would be both painful and dangerous. And fighting a magical duel would be even more so. I would prefer not to pay our debt in such a negative way."

"I was under the impression the choice was mine," Medart said quietly.

"It is, Highness, and if you insist I will begin your training myself as soon as proper preparations can be made. But honor also requires that I point out the drawbacks and possibility of injury."

Medart frowned. "The Imperials didn't want to teach me because their training would limit my powers, not because the training itself was dangerous."

"They also told you, I'm sure, that there are great differences in methodology. Terran magic operates primarily through symbols, tools, and ceremony; ours operates through personal mana. There's very little danger in their method, but as they admit, it costs them power. We accept the risks in return for that extra edge."

Medart chuckled. "Exactly the reaction I'd expect. Since I need that edge too, I have to accept the dangers as well. How long will it take for me to learn enough to fight a duel?"

Ryan shrugged. "We have very little information on training adults, none on training Terrans, so I have no way to give you an estimate. Why?"

"I want to end this war, and end it as soon as possible. It's as simple as that."

"In that case, I'd suggest you issue challenge right away. That will bring an immediate truce, which will last until after the duel. And the duel cannot be fought until Clan Vader has finished discharging its life-debt, now that we've begun."

"How do I do that?"

"Since you're leaving the choice of opponent to us, you inform a Warleader or clan-chief. You've already told me, and I'm willing to pass it along as a formal challenge if you want me to."

"I'd appreciate that. You do realize the Empire'll use the truce to regroup and rebuild?"

"I certainly hope so; they haven't been doing too well the last several weeks."

As He Had For The Last Month

As he had for the last month, Medart woke feeling like he hadn't slept for a year. If anything, Ryan had understated what he'd be going through, starting Sandeman-style magical training so late. He hurt all the time, and was usually on the edge of nausea, making it difficult to eat. That, in turn, meant he'd lost weight he could ill afford.

On the whole, he knew, he was in lousy shape--probably his worst since the early part of his recuperation from that Traiti almost tearing him in half. He'd been having doubts, the last couple of days, whether or not he'd be able to make it through the training, much less be able to fight and win a duel with someone who'd been using magic all his life. He couldn't quit now, though; at the very worst, he was buying the Empire some time. And there was always a chance he'd win the duel; pure dumb luck had been known to come to the rescue before.

He sighed, then forced himself to get out of bed, bathe, and dress. He'd been supplied with warrior-drab coveralls, complete with his arms on the breast--not too different from his uniform, and more practical than the civvies he'd worn at first.

And after the first couple of days, Ryan had ordered him exempted from the chores the entire warrior caste shared--cooking, clean-up, laundry and the like--because of the toll his training exacted even that early. Medart was grateful, though he'd felt guilty about it at first; by now, guilt had been swallowed by the chronic pain.

It amused him that he'd been more or less adopted by the lady Kelly and her son Haley, one of the young warriors in training. Like the rest of the clan, Haley had been aloofly superior at first--the typical Sandeman reaction Medart expected from those who hadn't been around Imperials much--but his stubborn determination to learn in spite of what the lessons did to him had broken down that reserve. The clan accepted him, and those two had practically become mother hens. As usual one--Kelly, this time--met him at the dining hall door, then brought him a tray and joined him.

"Thanks, Kelly." Medart picked up his fork and stared at the food for several seconds, trying to ignore his stomach. That didn't work any better than usual; at last he gave up the effort and started eating in spite of the queasiness.

"No improvement?" Kelly asked, after a few minutes' silence.

"No. I've given up expecting any, but I can't help hoping." Medart took a few more bites, then shook his head and put the fork down. "Who'm I going up against today?" He'd learned the necessary spells for a duel the first week, both offensive and defensive; he'd been practicing them ever since, trying to learn control, but that was frustratingly elusive. One day he'd barely be able to make his opponent feel his efforts or protect himself, the next it would take the monitors to erect fast barriers to keep him from injuring the other, while his own defenses were at peak.

"The warrior Loren of Clan Raynor," Kelly told him. "I think Chief Ryan is trying to force a breakthrough, finding you strong opponents who won't pull their punches the way we've started doing because we don't want to add to your problems."

"Um." Medart frowned at that. "I hadn't noticed--but then my control's so erratic I probably couldn't. Whoever I fight the duel with damnsure won't pull his punches, though, so I have to go along with Ryan--best I train with someone who's going all-out, too."

"That part no one can argue," Kelly said. "But . . . James, can you tolerate the added stress? Watching you is like watching a warrior in constant need, with no hope of being able to give you release."

Medart winced, aware of how much that would distress any warriors'-woman. "I'm not in that bad a shape--I've seen some who were, remember? What I'm going through is no fun, but I think I can hold out long enough."

"I pray to all the gods you're right."

By The End Of The Next Week

By the end of the next week, Medart was praying too, to all the gods he could recall from his childhood. He'd been brought up Omnist, so there were quite a number of them, and he added a pair the Sandemans in Alpha Prime said should be favorably inclined to him: the two warriors he'd given Last Gift to, Leigh DarVader and Keith DarLewies.

It didn't seem to help. Despite Ryan's instructions, his opponents' best efforts, and his own increasingly urgent attempts over the next month, his control remained erratic. Unfortunately his physical condition didn't remain as stable; it worsened steadily. By the end of that time, Medart had lost close to twenty kilos, and the constant pain allowed him only the sleep his body absolutely had to have.

He'd given up even trying to eat breakfast, beyond the hot chocolate that contained the caffeine he needed as a stimulant; he ate only after his afternoon practice sessions, when he was too tired to gag.

And he'd wondered how long Ryan would keep supporting him, so he wasn't surprised when the clan-chief joined him, Kelly, and Haley--both of whom had taken to remaining close except when Haley was at his own training sessions--at the evening meal.

Medart endured the clan-chief's scrutiny, certain he knew what was coming, so he wasn't surprised when Ryan spoke. "Prince James, will you admit I have done my best to teach you as you asked?"

"You have, Clan-chief," Medart replied. "My inability to benefit by more than the most basic instruction cannot be laid to your lack of effort." He took a deep breath, rubbed his aching eyes. "You've done your best; I can't hold you to a repayment I'm incapable of absorbing. As far as I'm concerned, that part of Clan Vader's life-debt has been discharged."

"I thank you for your generosity, James. I will have you returned to the Empire; perhaps they can heal you where we cannot."

"No. My job's not done, and you still owe me one thing--I have a duel to fight, as soon as you can arrange a meeting."

"In your condition, I cannot permit that."

"You don't have any choice, Clan-chief." Medart pulled himself together as well as he could, reminding himself that these peoples' origin made them Imperial citizens whether they knew--or liked--it or not. He didn't have any enforceable authority over them, true, but sometimes that wasn't essential. "You issued the challenge on my behalf and implicitly agreed to arrange the duel, without specifying my physical condition. The only criterion was that I be trained to use Sandeman magic as well as I could, which has been done."

"It has, and I did issue challenge for you--but I did not agree to send you to certain death."

"It isn't--I'm running about fifty-fifty minimum power and maximum. That gives me a reasonable chance, better than the Empire'd have if I don't even try." Medart felt himself weakening, summoned his remaining resources. "You'd do the same if it were the Sandeman race at risk; I know that from personal experience. Even if you knew it'd cost you your life."

"That is true," Ryan replied slowly. "Very well, Highness, I will make the arrangements. But you should rest until then, doing no magic--and you must try to eat. In your present condition, even winning a duel would be fatal; to have a chance of surviving, you need to build yourself back up."

"I will," Medart promised. "I don't want to die; I've got too many interesting things to do first. And--" he looked from Kelly to her son--"I have a couple of guardians who wouldn't let me overdo even if I wanted to."

Medart Kept His Promise

Medart kept his promise. It took Ryan six days to finalize arrangements for the duel, including what Clan Miklos needed to broadcast it to Sandemans and Empire alike; Medart spent the time resting as well as he could, nibbling on the food either Kelly or Haley kept him supplied with, and talking to the two of them.

He regained some strength, but the pain didn't ease in spite of Kelly's healing spells, so finally, the evening before the duel, he decided to ask her for a prognosis.

When he did, she frowned. "There's been no relief at all?"

"None that I've been able to notice."

"That is bad." Kelly paused. "As Ryan told you, we've had little experience with training adults to use magic, and you are our only experience teaching our system to a Terran. This makes it difficult for me to give you an accurate evaluation; I have almost nothing to base it on."

"I understand that."

"With that caution, then," Kelly said slowly, "I'm afraid our efforts to teach you have caused permanent damage. Either your age or your Terran physical characteristics--or possibly your extra-universe origin--have made it impossible to clear what Ryan called your magical-energy channels. Since my healing spells have no effect, I would say the attempts to train you have been . . . the best analogy I can think of is burning . . . them out."

Medart leaned back, sighing. "That's what I was afraid of. Is my opponent going to be battleprepped?"

"Of course."

"Will I be allowed a similar form of preparation?"

"Of course, if you have it."

"I do. Not built in, the way yours is, but I had a special medikit set up just in case; I have drugs that'll boost my strength and speed. And to block the pain, now that the duel's close--unless you think the painkiller'd interfere with what little control I do have."

"I can see no reason it should," Kelly said. "It should help, in fact, by allowing you to concentrate better. Why didn't you mention it before?"

"Because I don't have much, and wanted to save it for when I'd need it most." Medart opened one of the pouches on his belt and took out a small injector. "As you can see, my medikit's not that big, and I damnsure didn't think I'd need enough quidine for two months plus. I've got four doses, which is enough for about thirty hours." He felt for his carotid, triggered the painkiller into the artery, and seconds later sighed in relief. "Whew--that's a lot better."

"You look better, even so soon," Kelly agreed. "That quidine appears to be extremely strong--is it dangerous?"

"No." Medart shook his head, smiling as much at the relief from pain as at the question. "It is strong, but it's the safest analgesic ever discovered. It doesn't affect your reflexes or thinking, and it's not addictive--all it does is kill pain for about eight hours. The worst it does is numb you if you take an overdose."

"Doing that tonight might be wise. You haven't slept properly in that same two months plus, and you will need to be rested tomorrow."

"Recommendation accepted," Medart said promptly.

"Good." Kelly smiled. "I believe it would also help if you think of something besides the duel, so may I take advantage of your respite to ask you some things?"

"Be my guest."

"I found it revolting at first to think of being friends with a Terran, but after being around you for a brief time, that became a more attractive idea than otherwise. We seem to have more in common than I would have believed possible--do you have any idea why?"

"I know exactly why, and I think you could figure it out for yourselves--but you're like the ones at home. You don't want to think about it."

Kelly frowned. "I must lack information, because I've been trying to figure it out since you began training."

Medart grinned. "You have the necessary information. Want me to prove it, or just tell you outright?"

"Prove it," Kelly challenged.

"Remember you asked for it, and try not to attack me. I trust you both, but I also remember how strongly the ones at home reacted to the same information."

"I will control myself. Haley?"

"The same."

"Okay. You remember I told Ryan I recognized the design of Clan Vader's arms from seeing the Saga as a child?"

"I remember," Kelly said.

"And your Standard is almost the same as Imperial English, right?"


"And you know the Shapers began creating the Sandeman race from their own genetic material in 2130, according to the calendar you and the Empire share."

"Every child knows that."

"Uh-huh. Given all that, tell me where the Shaqers originated."

Kelly thought about his statements, her expression going from intent to disbelief to revulsion. "They came from Terra!"

"They sure did," Medart said. "Which makes you Terrans, too. An improved version, so changed my Empire classes you as human variant rather than standard human--but Terrans. And that makes you Imperial citizens by right of birth."

"That's obscene!" Haley burst out.

"Matter of opinion," Medart said calmly. "Both personally and as a Prince of the Empire, I think it's great--as long as you're not fighting the Empire you're rightfully part of."

"Ryan has to know about this," Kelly said. "Haley, would you please inform him and ask him to join us?"

"Yes, lady." Haley stood and bowed to her, then left.

"Is it really that bad?" Medart asked the w'woman as soon as the young warrior was out of hearing. "It doesn't change what you are, how you live, or have any other bad effects; what it does is give you new opportunities." He grinned. "I'm biased, of course--have been since I first met Sandemans. I've liked you even when I couldn't identify the reasons, and that grew when I could. Your absolute integrity is one, and it's also one of the most valuable things you've brought to our Empire."

"Put that way," Kelly said slowly, "it sounds almost reasonable. But you didn't grow up hating the Shapers and everything about them."

"You can't hate everything about them," Medart pointed out. "They did manage to engineer your race, after all. I personally think they were absolute, unmitigated idiots for thinking they could create and then control a race of the most deadly warriors in the known universes--but from my own experiences with Sandemans, I can't help but be grateful to them at the same time."

"Grateful to whom?" Ryan asked as he entered the room. "The Shapers, if I interpret what I heard correctly."

"You did," Medart told him. "They committed one of the worst crimes in Imperial history, meddling with human genetics just for the fun of it--but the results were so good I can't fault them totally for their arrogance."

Ryan smiled, taking the seat Haley had vacated. "It's good to see you feeling well again, Prince, and able to converse. So we are Terrans, are we?"

Medart nodded, pleased by the clan-chief's calm reaction. "Yes." Then he raised an eyebrow, grinning, and said, "You knew, didn't you? That emphasis on the first 'are' was a giveaway."

"We--the clan-chiefs--have known for centuries." Ryan sobered. "Or strongly suspected, at least; all the evidence pointed in that direction."

"So why in Chaos haven't you done anything about it?" Medart demanded.

Ryan shrugged. "You know we aren't as powerful as your nobles, Prince. We can only lead our people where they want to go--and that hasn't been into the Empire."

"But you could have told them, at least!"

"Not and lived," Ryan retorted. "You, of all people, must know how deeply unacceptable that particular truth is to most of us. Coming from you it's bad enough; coming from us, it would trigger a reaction I prefer not to think about."

Medart nodded, reluctantly. "I think I can understand that. What's going to happen now that I've spilled the beans?"

"The warriors' hall was full when Haley gave me the news; I'd imagine it's spreading as quickly as people can get to commsets or cast the necessary spells." Ryan looked serious. "I should contact the clan-chiefs as well. Prince James, would it upset you to speak to all the chiefs through me?"

"Not a bit--I'd jump at the opportunity."

"A moment, then, while I cast the spell. And some will need a few more moments to wake up."

"Go ahead." This wasn't anything he could have expected, Medart thought, and he had no idea what effect it would have. A drastic one, he was sure; Sandemans weren't known for moderation in their reactions, especially to strong stimuli, and this was one of the strongest possible. If he lost the duel, it could easily send them back into combat with the determination to eliminate every trace of the Shapers and their kin. If he won, their reaction was less predictable. They wouldn't continue the war; honor wouldn't permit that. But that still left two possibilities. They might pull back and refuse all further contact, or--Medart's earnest hope--they might decide to give the Empire the benefit of their improvements, and join it. Here, they'd be a full Sector--probably the biggest one, Medart thought, and certainly the strongest.

"Ready," Ryan said. "I'm linked to all the clan-chiefs and Warleaders available, Prince James. They see and hear what I do, and can speak through me if I permit. Would you summarize what you told the lady Kelly and the student warrior Haley?"

"Gladly." Medart did so, thinking that he preferred something like the Mjolnir Conference, where he could see that he was talking to a group. This was like talking to a camera, he supposed--but it felt decidedly peculiar, speaking to one person and knowing hundreds of others were watching and listening through that person's eyes and ears.

"That's it," he said at last. "Now what?"

"Now what, indeed," Ryan said. "I think that determination will be primarily up to you, Highness. Bryan of Alanna wishes to speak to you." His eyes lost focus for a second; when they regained it, Medart knew it was the Alanna addressing him.

"I am Bryan of Alanna," Ryan said, confirming that. "Are you aware that we have been following your training, Highness, as one of the most important events in this sphere?"

"I've been too preoccupied to give any consideration to my news value," Medart said. He didn't particularly enjoy being on public display, even after a lifetime of it--especially when he was at his worst. But he'd been there before, and if he survived he'd be there again; he could handle it. "I suppose it does make sense, though. What about it?"

"Your efforts have done you great honor, and earned you more regard than I can recall being given any other Terran. We understand your motive is to win our friendship or alliance as well as peace--but do you really believe one person can achieve that after three years of war?"

"I don't know," Medart admitted. "All I can do is try my best and hope. I know you from my universe, remember, and I achieved it once, even though the circumstances were drastically different."

"Dell, of Raynor," Ryan said, his voice changing as another chief spoke. "Why did none of this universe's Terrans make such an effort?"

"You didn't give them a chance. They know you the way we knew the Traiti--as ferocious, bloodthirsty killers. It took the Traiti asking one of my colleagues to take their Ordeal of Honor for him--and later the rest of us--to learn about them as they really are. I know that about you from home, so naturally I'm willing to take the same sort of chance to give you and this Empire the opportunity to become friends."

"Gareth, of Levva," was the next introduction. "I believe your acceptance of such a risk, and your willingness to endure such painful training, have earned that opportunity; win your duel, and Clan Levva will send a delegation to investigate the desirability of acknowledging the citizenship you say is ours by right."

Medart let his relief show. "That's all I ask, Clan-chief." Sandemans thought a lot more alike than their standard-human cousins; if one was willing to make such a concession, most others would too. And the few that wouldn't immediately would probably change their minds as soon as they saw the benefits of Imperial citizenship. Of course, that still left him with the problem of winning the duel . . .

If He Had To Fight A Duel

If he had to fight a duel, Medart thought, at least he had a good day for it. The weather at Vader clanhome was clear and sunny, the temperature a comfortable twenty degrees as he stood waiting for his opponent in the outdoor practice arena. And he was in uniform; Ryan had brought one from his courier ship--even had it tailored for his weight loss--in case he needed it as his ceremonials.

He'd taken the drugs that would bring him as close as possible for a standard human to the Sandeman battleprepped state. He was keyed up, unnaturally alert, sensitive to every movement around him, and eager to get on with the duel. It was mildly amusing to see that the Sandemans gave him the same cautious respect he'd give a battleprepped warrior; maybe the drugs brought him closer to that state than he'd thought.

It seemed like hours before he heard, then saw, the boxy transport null-grav craft bringing his opponent. That, in his edgy condition, was more of a relief than the threat he'd expected to feel. The transport landed outside the arena, too far away for him to recognize the clan-arms, and he briefly regretted not asking who he was going to be fighting. Not that the information would have been much help, he thought; he'd prepared as much as he could, whoever it was.

The group of warriors escorting his opponent entered the arena through the gate at the far end from where Medart stood with a group from Vader, and stopped. "Now," Medart heard Ryan say.

He stepped forward, accompanied by Ryan and Kelly, at the same time a trio of the newcomers did the same. They were to meet in the center of the arena for formal introductions, then separate to about three meters for the duel itself--but Medart came to a shocked halt as soon as he was close enough to recognize the central member of the other party. The Sandeman's familiar tattoo of a black-barred violet flower was missing from his cheek, but Medart knew him well enough to recognize him easily without it. "Oh, shit," he said, involuntarily. "Nevan!"

"Keep going," Ryan urged. As the three began moving again, he asked quietly, "What's wrong? You know him?"

"Too damn well," Medart said. "Nevan-Corina DarLeras and I have been battle-companions for the last century, since we fought together defending the Palace in the last battle of the White Order revolt. I know intellectually that this isn't the same person, but dammit, it's going to feel like I'm trying to hurt a friend." Thank all the gods, Sandeman duels were to disablement or conclusive advantage; he didn't think he'd be capable of killing--or trying to kill--a man he knew as one of the Empire's best defenders.

"This one is Nevan only," Ryan agreed. "His face shows he has never sworn personal fealty or won the right to use his thakur's name. While it would be dishonorable for you to fight a battle-companion, he is not truly such--though I agree the resemblance will make this duel more difficult."

"Yeah. Don't say anything, though, okay? At least till it's over."

"As you wish, James."

The last few steps to introduction distance were silent. Medart used them to study his opponent, apprehension growing. He knew precisely how good Nevan was at both conventional and psionic combat; since he'd been chosen as the Sandeman champion for this duel, there was every reason to believe he was just as good at magical combat. And Medart could remember thinking, the first time he saw Nevan battleprepped, how much he'd hate to be on the receiving end of the younger man's skills. Now that he was about to be, that opinion was even stronger.

But Medart had motivation of his own, and his pain and weakness were masked by the medications he'd taken. He exchanged bows and introductions with his opponent, then stepped back and began working the spells he'd been taught.

He could feel immediately that this was one of his strong days. The power flowed into and through him, part surrounding him in a silvery glow, part erupting from his hands like emerald blaster bolts.

The bolts flared off Nevan's shield, blending in with his counterattack. Medart's shield blazed scarlet, held--but he gasped as all-too-familiar pain shot through him. The quidine couldn't withstand active magic, it seemed; he could only hope the rest of his meds would.

So far they were, and he'd had two months' practice working in spite of pain; he could keep going. He couldn't do it for long, though. He felt all right thanks to the meds, but he knew his stamina was only a fraction of what it should be; a few more exchanges, and he'd lose by simple attrition.

He struck again, glad that Sandeman magic was simpler than in the books and TreasureTunnel game; he'd never have been able to remember, much less use, the complicated spells in those. Hit and defend was about all he could manage through the growing agony. He lost awareness of his surroundings, even of his opponent, in the effort to channel all his power into defense and, more importantly, attack.

What broke his concentration was the insistent repetition of his name. "James! James! It's over--stop! James, Jim--no more! You've won!"

"Huh?" It was Ryan's voice, Medart realized as the power ebbed from him and he slumped to his knees with his head drooped, overwhelmed by pain and exhaustion. "Won--I didn't kill him, did I?"

"No." The voice this time was unfamiliar; one of Nevan's seconds, Medart thought. "He is injured and unconscious, but he will recover."

"With your permission, James?" That was Kelly, kneeling in front of him and extending her hands.

"Yeah, whatever." She touched him, murmured briefly with no effect he could notice. Moisture trickled down his face and he felt tightness in his throat; he coughed, then vomited, seeing and tasting blood. Major internal damage, obviously, and Sandeman medicine here not much better than Imperial first aid . . . He fought to raise his head. "Any chance?" he asked.

Kelly shook her head. "I'm sorry, James. The damage is too extensive. I cannot even ease what few hours you may have left."

Medart coughed again, then sighed. "In that case . . . I ask Last Gift."

"Granted," Ryan said. "And may the gods accept you as one of themselves." Almost immediately Medart felt the tip of a blade at the angle of his jaw behind his ear. There was an instant of pressure, and the pain was over.

Ryan Accepted A Cloth

Ryan accepted a cloth from one of his warriors to wipe his blade, then re-sheathed the knife and dropped the cloth without looking away from the Prince's body. He'd thought it would be easy to kill any Terran, but he'd been wrong; giving this one Last Gift had been as painful as giving it to one of his own. At last he rose, still looking down. "His body should be returned to his Empire, but we haven't the facilities. Kelly, would you see to preparing him for burial?"

"Of course, Chief. In our memorial garden?"

"He deserves it, yes--with the warrior caste. But keep out his saber and badge; I'm going to take them to this Empire and ask that the one who brought him here return them, along with a copy of the tape of this duel. His people should know how and why he died."

"Yes, they should."

Ryan turned at the unfamiliar voice, to see the warrior Nevan. He'd been healed, though his clothing still showed the effects of battle. "I'm pleased you agree, warrior. Now that the combat is over, I'm free to tell you he knew your avatar in his home universe, and claimed him as battle-companion of a century's standing."

Nevan smiled. "From what I learned of him during our duel, I would willingly acknowledge such a bond. I ask permission to accompany you on the mission to return his belongings to his people."

"Granted, warrior. Will you be Vader's guest until we leave?"

"I would be honored, Chief."

Ryan's Battle Cruiser

Ryan's battle cruiser entered Imperial space as Medart's little courier had entered Sandeman: all lights on, and broadcasting its identity. They were expected; after the second broadcast of the duel, Bryan of Alanna had declared peace and announced both Clan Levva's investigation of their Imperial heritage and Clan Vader's intention of returning Medart's effects. The reply had been a cautious welcome, along with the information that unless and until they did accept Imperial citizenship they would be met and escorted. That seemed reasonable, so the Sandemans had agreed; Ryan wasn't at all surprised that his ship was met by the IBC Emperor Barton, or that Ranger Ariel invited him and Nevan aboard.

The two went alone, without the escort that normally accompanied a clan-chief anywhere outside his clan's territory. Ryan had decided to use his cruiser because it seemed proper to return James' little courier ship as well as his personal belongings; when they landed the tiny Imperial vessel aboard its huge sister ship, they were met by an honor guard of Marines in what Medart had described as their "ceremonials," what they called dress blues. The Marines escorted them directly from the lander bay to a room with a semi-circular table facing a large viewscreen, where Ariel was waiting.

She rose to greet them. "Welcome to the Empire, gentles. I understand you came to return Ranger Medart's effects in person; that was considerate of you."

"We do so to honor Prince James," Ryan said. "And it would seem we grant him greater honor than you do. He owed this universe nothing, since he was pulled without consent from his own; he had every right to refuse you any service. Yet he endured much pain and finally lost his life in the effort to preserve you and give us new opportunities."

Ariel nodded, and Ryan was pleased to see she had the grace to look regretful. "We didn't want to draft anyone, but you were pushing us so hard we didn't see any alternative--you'd already cost us half our Rangers and best magicians."

"That's no excuse," Nevan said. "What if his own universe needed him, perhaps to fight the Ravagers he told us about? What if it needs him in the future, after you brought him here to his death?"

"If you're trying to make me feel guilty," Ariel said, "you're too late. As soon as I saw your broadcast of his duel and the mercy Clan-chief Ryan gave him, I contacted His Majesty; I'll be delivering Ranger Medart's belongings and your tape personally to his Emperor--and I will remain in Alpha Prime to take his place. It will be difficult functioning without magic, but most universes manage; I'll learn to cope."

Nevan bowed, his expression chagrined. "In that case I spoke too hastily, Highness. Will you accept my apology?"

"Of course, warrior." Ariel paused, then looked wistful. "Once I get there, I doubt very much I'll be able to find out what's going on back here--can you give me any idea whether or not the Sandemans here will accept citizenship?"

Nevan glanced at Ryan, then turned back to the Ranger. "I can't speak for anyone else, Highness, but James' actions in bringing peace, and now your willingness to take his place, have made my own decision easy. I wish to accept citizenship and apply for a position in whatever segment of your military is most likely to see combat."

Ryan nodded agreement. "My responsibilities as clan-chief prevent me from joining the military, but I concur with the warrior Nevan: I also wish to accept citizenship, and I will recommend to my clan and the other chiefs that they do so as well."

"Thank you both. That's a considerable relief." Ariel smiled at them. "I'm looking forward, now, to working with your counterparts in my new home. I have the transfer spells ready, and I'd prefer to get started without delay, so if you'll give me James' effects, I'll be on my way." (End)