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."