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OK, this has been HEAVILY revised...Sorry to everyone who read it before, especially recently. The Grebsas are minding their own business when they are contacted by pretty aliens. Are they prepared for the consequences?
Zera fielded reports from the casual workers with her usual brisk efficiency and censured a lewd joke, putting the distributor on report. No bathroom humor on duty, she sniffed to herself. It was a matter of principal. After all, she didn"t precisely like the human grunts who worked on this station and, though there had been attempts to bribe her to ignore their little antics, they hadn"t been able to offer her enough to make it worth her while.
Honestly, in the six months she had been stationed on Outer System Outpost Thirty, it had yet to impress her positively. Ops itself was cramped by her standards, just big enough for six half-ton Grebsa Lords to move around in and small enough to be easily defensible in a crisis. She could have reached out with her tail and touched Scientist Jerran on the other side of the room if she thought he wouldn"t give it a good yank for being frivolous enough to flirt on duty.
She really missed the wide open fields of Earth. With ninety percent of the human species living on the Martian and Lunar colonies, the Grebsas had simply let most of Earth return to wilderness. On a good day, she could hunt enough wild mushrooms, potatoes, and rabbits to make a decent stew. Her stomach rumbled just from thinking about it. The reconstituted mash that passed for rations on the Outposts couldn"t really sate the big winged lion-monster she was.
An indicator blinked on her board. She pressed her thumb on the button that would give her the relevant data and lifted a bushy eyebrow. She promptly had the computer run mid-level diagnostics and put in a work order to have some of the casual workers go over the radio equipment manually. There was no use taking the chance of malfunctioning equipment; certainly not after the last prank the casual workers had pulled. The resulting crackdown managed to convince them that blaring "Für Elise" on all speakers, over and over, was in the realm of Not Funny.
She called over the telepathic Grebsa Network: *Captain Brio? We"re getting a transmission from outside Sol System.*
The captain answered promptly, *Have it patched through to my office, Lieutenant.*
He didn"t have to tell her to record it. The computer did that automatically. Zera obeyed Brio"s command and then accessed the transmission herself out of curiosity. A single symbol appeared on the screen. It looked like somebody had taken two calligraphy-style S"s, turned one on its side, and then crossed them.
A tinny, feminine voice came on the speaker. "Ver...Ver..."
It repeated that about six times, and then the image changed to something like an upside-down T, again calligraphy-style. "Hosh...Hosh..."
After that was repeated a few times, it changed to a fancy & symbol. "Shi...Shi..."
It"s a kind of reading lesson, Zera realized.
It changed to a picture of a silk-robed figure that looked like a bipedal Queen of the Fairy Wolves, with the three previous symbols in a row under the picture.
The next day, the reports from the radio equipment check came in. Everything was in good working order and Captain Brio decided that the transmission was too complex to be a prank.
*I can"t see the grunts putting so much effort into a mere joke,* he told both Zera and Jerran. *These, what are they called, Veroshi?*
Zera confirmed it. Brio was right on the verge of declaring her the resident expert on them. She could feel it in his mental tone.
*These Veroshi may be the first genuine alien race we"ve seen. Jerran, you probably should have your astronomers look for anything that might be a spacecraft.*
No member of the Enforcer Faction had the right to give a Scientist a direct order, but Jerran acknowledged Brio"s "suggestion." He probably didn"t even need the prodding. He had that look in his eyes he only got when he got hold of an especially juicy problem. Zera strongly suspected that he had gotten a peek at the file, too.
Brio turned his attention to Zera. *I"d like you to continue your study of their language.*
If Zera could have blushed, she would have. She had spent most of the past day on the "reading lesson" part of the transmission. It was the sort of thing that could have earned her a reprimand if Brio didn"t think it was a good idea.
*I will, Captain,* she said.
*Be sure to keep me posted,* Brio told both of them. Then, his mental presence disappeared from the backs of their minds.
Zera curled her tail and went back to the lessons. After a while, she found a highly realistic picture of a spaceship. The file labeled it a "Hoshrin." A Faith-ship? she translated it literally from earlier vocabulary words. Could be its name.
*Jerran? You may want to look for something that looks like this.*
She sent the picture to his console. His ears flicked backwards as he looked it over.
*That looks very much like one of our theoretical designs for an interstellar spacecraft.*
*The file calls it "Hoshrin." It means "Faith-ship" if I"m translating it correctly.*
*I don"t doubt you. The Japanese used to tag the word "maru" at the end of their ship names. It means "ship."*
*Hey. Who"s the linguist here? You or me?*
*You are. Territorial brute.*
*Geeky prude,* Zera shot back lightly.
Brio interjected, *How about you two cut it out and get back to work.*
They shared a mental chuckle and let it drop.
Stephen bounded down the stairs to his basement, taking two stairs at a time. Some days, when he did that, he could still hear his mother telling him he would fall and break his leg. Of course, he never had, but there had never been any convincing her. Besides, this day, he had a special reason for bounding down the stairs.
He went over to his radio receiver and flicked on several monitors before he even plopped himself into his seat. He had built this contraption entirely out of salvaged parts. The Grebsas would probably confiscate it and slap him with a hefty fine if they found out he was running a ham radio without a license. On the one hand, he wouldn"t have been able to pay the fine; on the other, he couldn"t afford the licensing fee, either. He probably wouldn"t even have the house if he hadn"t inherited it from his parents after that car accident...
But that was the last thing on his mind at the moment. His entire concentration was focused on the transmission that was strong enough to trip his alerts.
"C"mon, c"mon," he muttered, adjusting dials for better reception. Then, the picture came in, showing an alien calligraphy symbol.
"Eh?" he muttered.
The audio came through next, "Ver...Ver..."
He hit the record button. For the rest of his life, he would always debate whether that was the smartest or stupidest move of his life; for the moment, he just knew he would want a recording of this if his hunch was correct. He watched it until it showed the picture of the fairy wolf.
"Ver..Hosh...Shi. Veroshi," said the tinny voice.
Stephen promptly decided he needed a beer.
A few hours and a six-pack later, Stephen took his video into the front office of the first news station he reached. Confident that the mouthwash would cover his beer breath and the knicks from his hasty shave weren"t too obvious, he dropped it on the surprised receptionist"s desk.
"Got some news for yeh," he said, proud of the fact that he didn"t slur too much. "I spent all morning recording this transmission from god-knows-where. I think it"s from outer space."
The receptionist gave him the same look that people always gave his buddies when they spouted the latest conspiracy theory. "Sure."
"Seriously! Nobody comes up with a whole new language and a picture of the prettiest wolf-priestess you ever saw just for laughs."
She still looked unconvinced. "It"ll be up to my boss, I guess."
Ariana wheeled in mid-air, observing the herd of deer below. It was a point of pride for him that he never ate any meat he hadn"t killed himself. Most of the does had fawns beside them, though. The Hunting Code clearly stated that no pregnant or nursing female could be taken in a hunt.
He zeroed in on a buck with a respectable set of horns and swooped. One swipe of his massive paw and the buck never even knew what hit it.
He collected himself beside his kill and watched the rest of the herd disappear into the forest. Then, he hefted his buck onto his shoulders. It was a big thing, and probably an old one. A younger buck might have driven it away from the herd soon anyway. He flew back toward First"s City.
On the way, he received the report on the supposedly alien transmission from OSO-30. It came with a recommendation from Captain Brio that the contents be classified.
*All right. We can keep it on a need-to-know basis for now,* Ariana decided.
He heard a slight bit of sarcasm in Brio"s acknowledgment. In the Grebsas" lexicon, "need-to-know" meant that any Grebsa who was interested could access the information, but heaven help any human who found out about it. Brio went back to his business as Ariana crossed an invisible boundary into First"s City.
The City was the undeclared capital of the Solar Empire, occupied entirely by high-ranking Grebsas. It looked entirely like wilderness at first glimpse. In the valley and a good way up the mountains, trees grew thickly enough to indicate a healthy forest. A good look revealed rope bridges between the trees and even the corners of tree houses. They would have been too flimsy to support him. Instead, they housed a more human-seeming variety of Grebsa, a species the Scientists loved to refer to as Homo grebsa.
To be perfectly honest, the Shadows, Amazons, and Defenders who made up that species would have been embarrassed to admit that they had evolved from humans. Ariana didn"t have that problem, since his species never evolved, by the strict definition of the word. Instead, Grebsa avialeo had been designed by the Scientists.
Ariana flew on to the part of the City that was better designed for G. avialeo. ("Grebsa bird-lion," he snorted the translation to himself. Even if the description was, more or less, accurate, it was a little obvious.) It was carved into the mountains around the First Grebsa"s complex. A lot of effort had gone into keeping the impact to a minimum. Only the doors were immediately apparent, and even those were made of stone.
He landed next to the door to his apartment and flicked a hidden switch. A little rock slid aside to reveal a thumbprint reader. He pressed his thumb against it. A laser grid scanned his print and an indicator flashed green. The rock slid back into place and his door snapped open. He went inside.
His apartment wasn"t quite as luxurious as one might expect of one of the highest-ranking Lords of Sol System. It was big, but that was out of necessity more than anything. A few sturdy cushions made of cured deerskin were scattered here and there in what might count as a living room. He had a wide-screen television in a crevasse in one wall, primarily because he liked to know what the news programs were saying about the Grebsas. He flicked that on and went into the kitchen with the deer. He hefted it up onto a counter.
"Hello and welcome to News at Nine. Earlier today, we heard from a young man who claims to have received a transmission from an alien species..."
To her credit, the anchor sounded like she was trying not to crack up as the TV flashed a picture of the Veroshi. The battle scars which crisscrossed across his lion-like face stood out in stark relief as Commandrix Ariana of the Enforcers vented his anger by snarling and shredding the carpet with his claws. He always went through carpet so fast that people sometimes suggested that he stick with a rock floor. He would only answer that stone floors were hard on a person"s claws. That young man would pay for revealing the Veroshi before the Grebsas had decided what to do with that transmission or even verified that it was genuine!
*Let us look into it before you do anything,* said Commandrix Serith of the Shadows. Like his name, his mental tone sounded like a snarling hiss.
*What could there possibly be to look into? It"s an immature beer-guzzler who thinks he"s smarter than he really is.*
*You will only look vindictive if you kill him outright. If you can"t listen to your own common sense, listen to somebody who hates humans more than you do.*
Ariana lashed his tail, but quit shredding the carpet. Nobody hated as well as Serith did. In a way, he did make sense. If they killed this boy outright, they would only give humans another excuse for an uprising besides confirming the report of aliens.
*We can confiscate his radio equipment and fine him. We can also tell him and that news station that if the Veroshi theoretically exist, it would naturally be a classified matter.*
*Better than killing him.*
Ariana thanked Serith and transmitted the appropriate orders. Afterward, the newscast changed the subject to more mundane matters and he turned his attention to the deer.
Zera scratched one shoulder lazily as she scanned the promenade. The place wasn"t much, boasting only a few shops where humans could pick up essentials and one medium-sized restaurant. Occasionally, she overheard grumbles from passing casual workers about how that restaurant couldn"t measure up to a good bar. Alcoholic beverages weren"t allowed on OSO-30, and for good reason. Out near the far swing of Pluto"s orbit, it could be difficult to get replacement parts if an inebriated grunt damaged something important.
She pulled out a loose bit of fur and tossed it in the path of a roaming sweeper. The grunt glared at Zera and she looked back steadily. Then, she let out a big yawn, revealing a full mouth of lion"s teeth. The grunt lost the staring contest and swept up the fur.
Zera decided there was nothing particularly interesting going on here. The grunts never changed much. Well, the names and faces often did, but there wasn"t much difference between one conscript and another. Some of them were the uneducated dregs of Sol System who couldn"t find work on their own. Others were criminals that the judicial system decided to send to the back end of nowhere. Most often, they were both.
She took off, pumping huge wings. Even if she couldn"t fly in the open skies of Earth, this was still a delight for her. The grunts stared up at her, half in fear that one of them might become a target for her predatory instincts. It wasn"t even tempting. As prey, humans were most unsatisfactory and left a foul taste in her mouth. She could easily limit herself to any human who provoked her into it.
Which was more frequently these days, she noticed. The day before, a man had tried to stick a pen up her nose and she broke several of his ribs, and, early that morning, she had nearly maimed a human she caught trying to break into one of the shops. After the second incident, one of the Grebsa doctors had wanted to check her hormone levels and she had told the woman where she could stuff it. Now that she thought about it, she could see her reasoning. In a Grebsa, one symptom of certain hormone imbalances was increased irritability.
Jerran flew past, caught a whiff of her scent, and blinked. *Have you been taking your cycle pills, Zera?*
Zera wanted to retort that she had been. Those pills were meant to control both hormones and fertility in Grebsas working on the Outposts. Then, she realized that she hadn"t taken the last dose.
*Oh, geez, I forgot.*
*Yeah. I"m sure our doctors can help you get back on track.*
*And I went and told off Srebeth.*
*She told me. I don"t think she holds it against you, though she would have liked for you to take care of your annual physical while you were there.*
That was as close as Jerran would ever come to scolding her.
*Honestly, Jerran, I don"t think I want anyone touching me right now. I"m as likely as not to take poor Srebeth"s head off.*
*Well, you need to do something, unless you want to be humiliated in front of all these low-lifes in a few days.*
*Urg, you"re right.*
Almost anything was better than dealing with the results of an unresolved Grebsa heat-cycle in a place where she couldn"t simply lay low for a few days. Brio was not going to be happy.
Brio only gave her a light reprimand over it.
*Honestly, I expected somebody to make that mistake sooner or later. Maybe this isn"t the best environment to have children, though.*
*You"re right, Captain,* Zera sounded suitably chastised. *I"ll be sure to discuss options with the doctors.*
*I"ll leave it up to you. There is always the option of medical leave if you decide to take that route.*
Zera sent him a mental image of herself stalking a midget-sized Brio with malicious intent. He couldn"t quite blame her. Most of the Grebsas on the Outpost were fired up about what they were calling the Message.
*I"d rather stay put for now,* she told him.
He acknowledged it, and then turned back to other matters. The Grebsas might be fired up, but none of the humans knew why. The Enforcers, Scientists, and Shadows on the station agreed to take certain security measures, like triple-encrypting any file that referred to the Message in any way and, on the part of the few Shadows spies on the outpost, doing what they could to curb the more outlandish rumors. It was making the casual workers nervous, thinking the Enforcers were preparing for another crackdown, or so the Shadows reported. Nothing about scary alien monsters, yet.
Of course, he told himself, making humans nervous is not always a wise move. Maybe we can go through with the crackdown and give them something to think about besides spreading rumors. A really good crackdown always turned up interesting items, and not just illicit breweries and somebody"s attempt to cultivate tobacco or nicotine. Wondering what they might find this time, he gave the appropriate orders.
Lieutenant Fran pressed her thumb against the override reader. After the few milliseconds it took for the reader to scan her thumbprint and compare it to a database, the door opened with a squeak. She contacted Zera.
*I hate to bother you, but we should put a work ticket in for Quarters 13. The door shouldn"t be squeaking like that.*
*It"s no bother, Fran. This is why we have casual workers in the first place.*
Fran curled her tail. *Thanks.*
She stepped forward into the doorway, sniffed a couple of times, and wondered if the ventilation system was malfunctioning too. The living quarters definitely shouldn"t smell like fertilizer.
"Oh, lieutenant!" A human woman jumped up from the couch. "I didn"t know we were having inspections today."
"We"re having a crackdown right now. I just need to have a look around."
"Erm, you"ll probably have to look at my little garden. I don"t think I could live without gardening, especially in a drab place like this."
Fran nodded. "We don"t mind hobbies, as long as you don"t steal supplies or anything."
"Of course not! My gardening supplies took up most of the fifty kilos I was allowed on the shuttle and I have enough saved to special-order anything I need. It"s not a big garden and it"s mostly vegetables. And I"ll eat everything I produce."
Fran curled her tail in amusement. "You"re the first casual worker I ever met who actually has a practical hobby."
The woman took it as the compliment she meant it to be. "None of the others seem very interested in it. What"s your name? I"m Rachel Simmers."
"I"m Fran. Oh, I hope you don"t mind that I put in a request to fix that squeak in your door."
"I was just wondering how to do that. Annoying thing, isn"t it?"
Fran agreed. "You can contact Zera in Ops if you notice anything that needs repairs."
Rachel showed her the collection of soil-filled pots that took up nearly half her living space. It didn"t look like much, but she was quick to reassure Fran (who pretended to be interested) that she expected the first ones to mature in a couple of months. Perhaps she was simply glad to finally meet somebody who understood gardening, or, at least, was able to get a quick telepathic relay going between herself and the lieutenant in charge of the greenhouses.
"How do you handle fertilization with the tomatoes?" she asked.
"I haven"t thought of that yet. I guess I was half-hoping a bee would fly through the vent by chance and handle it."
"Our hydroponics people might be able to help. They have some tools you can use to fertilize tomatoes and the like. If you swear that you won"t break them and return them in a reasonable amount of time, they may be willing to loan them to you."
"I think I would like that."
Fran gave the rest of the quarters a quick scan, emphasizing the places were unimaginative grunts usually hid things and even telling Simmers an amusing tale about how someone once tried to hide tobacco plants in his pants. Simmers laughed in a way that didn"t sound forced, which was good. Fran privately held the theory that people would remember a genuinely funny story longer than the sensational ones favored by various news services. Honestly, the lieutenant found it difficult to believe that she was any kind of a criminal.
*Thirteen"s clear,* she reported to Brio. *And, gee whiz, did she talk my ear off!*
*That"ll be Rachel Simmers, I imagine.*
*Yesss,* Fran hissed. *I think she"ll do all right if she"s assigned to the hydroponics bays. She doesn"t really seem like the type who would be working out here.*
*I"m sure they will be delighted. They"re always short-staffed. She got an involuntary manslaughter conviction, I think. Hit her ex-boyfriend with a car and she claims she never even saw him.*
*Oh. She doesn"t seem like the killer type.*
*About half of them don"t.*
She went on to Number Fourteen with a slight curl in her tail. Gardening. Huh. The Empire would be a better place if every human had a hobby like that.
Acolyte Srain sat on the front pew, looking at the golden statue of one of the gods. The statue lay on its cradle, looking out toward the room with its mouth open just enough to reveal sharp canines. Its highly detailed features hinted at a stern, but not entirely unkindly, personality. Its wings were spread in a way that could have been an invitation or a threat, depending upon interpretation. The gods were certainly vicious toward their enemies. The Scriptures made that perfectly clear. However, the gods were also said to be gentle toward those who were faithful and Srain liked to think she was one of the faithful ones.
Srain heard the soft rustle of silk robes just before she heard a voice she loved call to her softly. She stood respectfully. High Priestess Rawn was standing there with a tray for two.
"I didn"t see you in the dining hall. I thought you might be hungry."
Srain ducked her head in embarrassment. She had forgotten all about tea time.
"I hope I didn"t inconvenience you, High Priestess. I should have kept better track of the time."
"It is no inconvenience. I was meaning to speak with you when we could both get a moment away from our duties."
Srain twitched her wings a bit. She hadn"t caused any mischief or accidents or forgotten any of her duties for close to a ship"s year now and Rawn was good about not remembering old mistakes. Surely Rawn wasn"t going to reprimand her for disciplining a puppy over a spilled vial of sacred perfume!
"Are you sure she wouldn"t mind us eating here?" Srain nodded to the statue.
"I"m sure she would be more upset if we starved ourselves over a little propriety."
Srain took the hint. Singing a hymn of thanks that Rawn soon picked up the harmony to, she served the tea and meat-stuffed pastries. She waited politely for the High Priestess to start the conversation.
"It"s been ten years since we sent the message to Sol. We haven"t heard back from them yet. How would you interpret that?"
Srain nibbled on a pastry and thought for a moment. She could never tell whether Rawn was testing her, or teaching a lesson, or simply making conversation when she asked these questions.
"I think it is merely the limitations of radio-frequency transmissions. The gods we seek limit their power and presence to Sol System by their own choice. Naturally, it will take them years to receive the message and years for any reply to reach us."
"And what if they chose not to limit their presence to Sol?"
"Why, we would probably have gods escorting us on the last part of our journey! But that"s not how they work. They like for people to prove their faithfulness."
"Can we do anything more to prove that we love them?"
"Surely not!" Srain immediately regretted her hasty answer. "Well, perhaps we can send them another, less formal transmission. Video of puppies playing and singing songs, people going about their daily lives, and so on. We certainly wouldn"t want them thinking we only think about them at church."
Rawn smiled at her favorite acolyte. It was true that they couldn"t do much for the gods from here, except reassure them that they were coming. Once Srain conquered the bad habit of blurting out the first thought that came to her mind, she would make an excellent priestess.
"That is an excellent idea," she said, finishing the last of her pastries. "Perhaps you can help me plan the contents of the transmission."
This time, Srain successfully swallowed the first response that came to mind. "If you wish it, High Priestess."
Srain gathered up the tray and they left the sanctuary. Tiny cleaning robots skittered about, picking up crumbs. The statue watched, its gemstone eyes glittering in an effect that could have been a trick of the light or machinery that hadn"t been maintained in centuries. Perhaps the legend that it used to speak at odd intervals was true.
Captain Rona watched the brightest star on the display screen, as he so often did lately. Just as often, he would recite the Solar Litany to himself. Sol, the residence of gods. Sol, where all our comfort lies. Sol, our final Destiny. Sol, the hope of Veroshi. Close...So close. If all went well, the Hoshrin would arrive in a little less than a century. After ten thousand ship"s years of travel, that didn"t seem like a lot. However, as far as he was concerned, it was more than a lifetime.
He remembered what he was supposed to be doing and finished filling out the captain"s log. It was basically a summary of all the reports he received from various department heads. He told himself it was a good day when he had nothing of his own to add to the log. The gods couldn"t leave their Empire and rescue the Veroshi if they ran into trouble. Still, the Priestesses liked to tell him that the gods would want an accurate captain"s report when their worshipers reached Earth. He just wished he could find a way to make it interesting.
The turbolift door swished open and he sensed the sudden alertness in the bridge staff closest to it. There weren"t many people who could have that kind of effect on other Veroshi. He turned to greet High Priestess Rawn. She was staring at the display screen.
"It gets brighter every day," she said with carefully contained excitement.
He knew what she meant. "So it does. We haven"t received a reply from our gods yet."
"We will," she said confidently. "It"s just a matter of time. I was just discussing the possibility of sending another message with one of my Acolytes."
Rawn barely flicked an ear. For the past ten ship"s years, she had wanted to send another one every few months. The one time he had asked her about it, she had said that it was important to send news to the gods even if it took them years to receive it.
"The technicians did a complete maintenance check on the radio equipment just yesterday. It"s working fine."
"Too bad we can"t hurry things along," Rawn said wistfully.
"I understand, High Priestess. I feel the same way, but we can"t rush things when we"re this close. At one-tenth lightspeed, we"re moving fast as it is. We will have to go through a few more braking cycles before we reach the outer edge of the star system, just to be on the safe side."
He could tell she didn"t really understand, any more than he would understand if she tried to explain some of the fine points of being a Priestess. It didn"t even occur to him to be frustrated with her for not paying attention to their science lessons when they were younger. He handled the logistics of running the ship; she handled the spiritual health of the Veroshi people. That was just the way it was.
"We"ll make it. As you always say, it"s just a matter of patience. In the meantime, you can borrow anything you need to prepare your message."
He said exactly the right thing. Her wings went up by a couple of centimeters and she smiled.
"I"ll bring it here when I have it ready."
They kissed each other"s cheek. Rawn went back to the turbolift and Era went back to his log. A visit from his sister always brightened his day. He made a little note that Rawn had come to him to get permission for another transmission to the gods and saved it.
Rawn took Era at his word. The next day, she borrowed a hand-held camera, got a technician to teach her how to use it, and went to the weekly Puppies" Hour for very young puppies. The excited puppies crowded around the High Priestess and peppered her with questions while their teachers tried, mostly futilely, to calm them down.
"I"m just here to record your activities to send to the gods," Rawn told them, holding up the camera. "If you want to show them your best behavior, I"m sure they would be impressed."
That worked better than anything the teachers could have done. The puppies went to sit at their tables, still whispering excitedly to each other. Rawn sat back and recorded them as the teachers told them the story of the Launch of Hoshrin.
"In the Last Days of Vrona, which was our homeworld-"
Immediately she was interrupted by a puppy up in the front. "What"s a homeworld?"
"That"s the world we came from. You remember what a world is from your astronomy lessons."
The puppy nodded enthusiastically. "A planet!"
The teacher continued, "Anyway, in those Last Days, the sun was bloated red in the sky. There were numerous wars over water that became scarcer daily-"
"What is war?"
The teacher clearly didn"t have a clear concept of war herself. "It"s a very nasty event. Anyway, one wise woman named Rora had a vision from the Spirit of the Universe. In it, she saw a healthy world. The Voice of the Spirit said, "This is the planet where your children will reside without fear of war or lack of any need, for their gods shall reside there. Build a great ship that will sail the Starways until these Faithful Ones you shall create shall be greeted by the gods." Rora said, "How will my children know their gods?"
"The Spirit sent her an image of a god, and she saw that it was monstrous, for it resembled one of the flying monsters of legend. And she said, "How can such a creature be a god?"
"The spirit said, "It is not the outward appearance that is important, but what is inside. These gods shall protect your children."
"So Rora began work on the great ship, which she named Hoshrin, for it was a ship built on faith. Her peers all jeered, saying, "You should fight for one last drink of water before we are all killed by this star which has betrayed us." Because Rora was spirited, she taunted back, "You should fight for the right to leave on this Faith-ship, for you shall die, else." And they all took her at her word, and battled each other to extinction.
"In time, the Hoshrin was completed, and Rora found a way to take enough water vapor from the air to stock it for its long journey. She also gave birth to her children, the first Veroshi, and placed them on the Hoshrin with enough grain and livestock to live on and also plant the first crops.
"The Spirit of the Universe came to her again, saying, "You have done well, my daughter. Now, you must give instruction to the Veroshi. Listen well!"
""The Veroshi shall make three stops at habitable star systems before reaching the blessed planet I have shown you. They must not settle in any of these star systems, for, if they do, they will perish without the protection of their gods.
""At one of these planets, they shall find the playful Miriana. They must allow some of these Miriana to inhabit their oceans, enough to sustain a healthy population. Thus shall the gods know that the Veroshi are worthy of being protected. Make a picture of these blessed creatures, that the Veroshi may know them.""
One of the puppies giggled. "The Miriana smile all the time!"
"They can"t help it. Their faces are set that way. Anyway, the Spirit continued his instruction, saying, "Do not neglect the teaching of the sciences to your young, and do not cloud the sciences with petty superstition, for pure sciences shall sustain you until you reach the blessed planet." This and many other things the Spirit told her, and all the Spirit"s sayings may be found in the Scriptures. Then, the Spirit blessed Rora, saying, "Your spirit, and the spirits of your children when they die, shall rest on the Hoshrin until the Day of Fulfillment comes. On that day, you shall be resurrected, and live in peace with your gods." Then, the Hoshrin was launched. The dying star of Vrona heralded this by throwing off its outer layer, and Vrona died, and the Prophet Rora with it. For many thousands of years, now, we have kept the Teachings of the Spirit through Rora, and we shall arrive at the blessed planet in due course."
The teacher glanced back at Rawn, who nodded her approval. Even with the interruptions, he had done a creditable job of reciting the traditional story. He reached for a worn-out old songbook.
"How about you pick out your favorite songs to sing for the gods?" he said.
They cheered and passed the old book around, picking out the ones they liked. After a little debate and an assurance from Rawn that she had plenty of time on the tape, they settled on six general favorites. The teacher turned to the xyloflute, an instrument that was like a cross between a xylophone and a miniature pipe organ, and tapped it with the sticks a few times to make certain it was in tune. It made a pleasant piping sound.
He played a short introduction, and then the puppies sang. Like children everywhere, they didn"t always hit the right notes, but they put so much enthusiasm into it that it didn"t matter.
"We shall see the wonder of a glorious new world
Where our gods run in vast forests as in the days of old,
Where our new city gleams with sapphire and gold,
Our faith is ever true!
The Amazon runs with wolves to track the enemy
With her brother the Defender to clear the foes away.
The Shadow spies with hidden eyes to point them on the way.
These Factions will stay true!
Enforcers are the terror-beasts whom no man dares to cross.
Guardians protect their friends who are their Special Ones.
Scientists discover the secrets of the universe.
These Factions will stay true!
Aquarian in her deep sea shall guard our Spirit Stone.
Cherubs shall be the bridge between the gods and Veroshi.
Commandrices will rule each Faction for the good of all.
These Factions shall be true!
One First God, one Empress, one Woman to rule them all,
One great Goddess to rule an Empire eternal,
One immortal Goddess to keep us safe from thrall,
To her we shall stay true!"
As they finished their hymn and flipped through the book for the next one, they whispered excitedly to each other. One small puppy had the courage to ask, "Was that good, High Priestess?"
"That was wonderful, sweetheart."
The puppy toddled over and climbed up on Rawn"s lap. Rawn tried to aim the camera to take the little one in without being too obvious about it. This was what she wanted, the little spontaneous moments that puppies could create.
"I want to be a Priestess like you!"
"That"s nice, sweetheart. What"s your name?"
"I"m Rossa." She noticed the camera lens. "Can the gods really see us?"
"They will, Rossa. I"m making a recording for them to watch."
"I want to tell them something."
Rossa looked up at the camera lens. "I want to see you, gods. That idol in the Temple is nice but it"s just gold. I can"t hug it like I would hug my brothers and sisters. Can you come out and visit us?" She looked at Rawn. "Will they get the message?"
Rawn allowed her wings to droop a little bit. It would be several years before the Grebsas would be able to answer, and they were unlikely to answer in the form of an actual visit to the Hoshrin before they reached Sol. She did not want to disappoint the puppy, though.
"We will send it soon, but it will be a while before they can answer. We will have to be patient."
Rossa let out a big sigh and slid up Rawn"s lap to rejoin her age-mates. She quickly perked up, though. For a few minutes, she had been the center of the High Priestess", and presumably the gods", attention. That would have to be enough for now.
The pod leader"s name was, approximately, Squee(!)hweeel. She didn"t take her official position as liaison to the Veroshi seriously, as evidenced by the fact that she had just squirted the camera lens as a joke. Rawn was used to the Miriana"s hijinks, though. She just wiped the lens off with a handkerchief.
"Lens be waterproof?" Squee(!)hweeel asked.
"Yes, Squee," Rawn used a shortened version of her name. "If you don"t mind, I would like to get some video of you and your pod to send to the gods."
On the way from the Puppy"s Hour to here, she had stopped to get a new waterproof camera and some diving gear from the technicians. She had made another stop at her quarters to change out of her Priestess" robes. The people who had seen her flying to the ocean had said nothing. The Healers had suggested that she swim daily. As far as they knew, she was just going to do that. Squee squeaked a translation to her podmates, who leaped in enthusiasm at the prospect of showing off for a new audience, albeit one they had never seen.
"No, we don"t mind. Why should we? You"re always telling us your gods will accept us, too. It"s fair that they know us first."
Rawn tapped the record button, put on the diving gear, and slipped into the water. The puppy was right about one thing. The Miriana were always smiling. They looked like cheerfully colored mer-foxes. If they ever had a chance to see a picture of a mermaid, they would have commented on the impracticality of the species design between squeaks of laughter at how funny it looked: not streamlined the way a Miriana was, obviously unable to handle the pressures at the depths that Miriana routinely dove to, and furless besides.
She recorded a few of their surface antics. They leaped, flipped, and walked on their tails, barking, clicking, and squealing to each other in their own language. Then, she spoke briefly to Squee and adjusted the mouthpiece to her liking. She dived under the surface.
It was as close to a genuine ocean as a reproduction could be. Of the life-forms in this ecosystem, perhaps half were descendants of the survivors of Vrona, and half were taken from the Miriana"s old homeworld. The representatives of the two worlds had adapted to co-existing, or, at least, had learned not to eat each other with only a handful of exceptions. A school of rainbow-colored fish swam past, and then Rawn got a clear view of the Miriana.
They were swimming in an intricate and graceful dance comparable to the Wind Dancers at their best. Some of them had pups beside them, keeping up as well as they could. Rawn tried to picture a few large sea creatures swimming on the perimeter. The Scriptures indicated that the Grebsas would start work on a protector for the Miriana as soon as they heard that the Veroshi"s aquatic friends were doing well. It wasn"t clear whether the so-called "Aquarians" would be a new Grebsa Faction, but Rawn didn"t see why they wouldn"t be. The Grebsas wouldn"t want them going renegade in a few generations the way they inevitably would if they weren"t part of the Network. Well, they could worry about that when the time came.
When they got tired of dancing, Squee swam over and spoke against Rawn"s ear.
"We are going to go hunting. Would the gods be interested in seeing this?"
"They might be. The gods teach that even small scraps of information can be important."
The Miriana began to swim outward from shore. Rawn followed, hoping they wouldn"t go too far. The scuba gear didn"t give her an unlimited amount of air. As it turned out, she didn"t have to worry. The pod found a large school of fish that resembled big-mouthed bass. Several Miriana swam out to cut off the fish in front and herd them around in a circle. With excited squeals and yaps, the rest of the pod joined in, and the fish were soon moving in a formation that resembled an underwater tornado. The Miriana snatched fish out of the tornado with quick darts and Rawn got a quick lesson on how messy their mealtimes were. To be fair, they didn"t have any way to cook it underwater. She could only swallow several times and hold the camera steady. She told herself that the gods would be used to the sight of blood.
Finally, she decided she"d had enough and signaled to Squee that she was going back to shore. Squee waved an acknowledgment and Rawn swam away with some relief. She hadn"t felt that nauseated since the last time she got guilty-sick. Still, she felt that she had gotten some good footage for the gods. She hoped they would get something useful out of it.
Even with the new required disclaimer that the footage of the aliens had not been authenticated, the recording gained new life through Solarnet and raced its way through the Solar Empire. Zera found herself scowling at a self-styled evangelist on the Promenade who was denouncing the Veroshi as a government-sponsored fiction designed to keep humans occupied.
*I"m tempted to revoke his license and a few other things,* she told Brio.
*Some days, I feel the same way. There isn"t a corner evangelist in the universe who has an imagination or a sense of humor. Just ignore him. Whacking them just validates them, at least in their own minds.*
She walked on, but couldn"t resist passing just close enough behind the evangelist to briefly wrap her tail around his neck. He stammered and lost his train of thought. That got snickers out of a few of the nearest grunts.
*Kittenish, Zera, real kittenish,* Brio scolded, but she could hear the amusement in his mental voice. *We"re supposed to discourage pranks, remember?*
Zera sent an image of herself as a kitten, biting playfully on one of the evangelist"s legs while he hopped around on the other. Brio snorted. *You are kittenish today.*
*Could be a symptom of what I"m feeling right now. I was just going to see Srebeth about it.*
*Well, when you"re done, come on up to Ops. We need you to interpret something we found in the Message.*
Zera entered Sickbay and pinged for Srebeth. The doctor came over, making certain to stay in Zera"s line of sight. Only a flaming idiot would startle a Grebsa in her condition. Srebeth did not act at all intimidated, even though she was about half Zera"s size. Neither did she gloat about seeing Zera back in here after the way she had stomped off. She just directed her over to a slot.
*How are you feeling?*
*I feel hot all the time and I itch a lot. You saw what I did to that guy who tried breaking into the shop. And that evangelist is getting on my nerves, too.*
*Yeah, he gets on everybody"s nerves. He got nabbed for trespassing in First"s City, from what I understand. I"ll have to take a blood sample. You should just feel a little prick.*
As Srebeth took the sample, Zera flicked her tail. Most Earthbound humans were so terrified of First’s City that trespassing was almost considered sacrilege. What could have prompted that evangelist to do something so foolish?
*He"s lucky he didn"t get pulverized.*
*I think your Commandrix was feeling generous that day. That guy still has a limp. I"ll have a diagnosis for you in a few minutes. Don"t go anywhere.*
Srebeth took the blood sample into the lab next door. Zera spared a skeptical sniff for her comment. Commandrix Ariana"s theoretical generosity probably had nothing to do with it. If that man had gotten away with a mere limp, he hadn"t gotten far enough into First"s City to compromise any of its secrets. Quite possibly, he hadn"t gotten into the city at all. The boundary had always been a little vague.
Zera cleaned her paws while she waited. The outpost"s water-rationing system made it difficult to get a decent bath. Perhaps she could get Brio to squeeze the techs for a complete overhaul of the plumbing system, but it didn"t seem worth the effort when she had a perfectly good tongue.
Srebeth came back with the results, only confirming what they both already knew.
*I don"t blame you for forgetting your pill, Zera. It happens. I can give you a contraceptive if that"s what you want.*
*That would probably be for the best.*
Srebeth looked to one side as if mind-speaking with someone else. Her ears flicked back a few times, giving Zera the impression she was arguing with somebody. Then, she sighed.
*I"ll go get the pill. You should take it within an hour of mating for maximum effectiveness.*
Srebeth got Zera her pill and let her go. Zera dropped it off in her quarters on her way to Ops. Brio was standing on the catwalk in front of his office. He only did that when something interesting or threatening happened. She pinged him and perhaps he picked up on some of her concern.
*It"s all right, Zera. We just need you to translate something for us. We think it"s a message from one of the Veroshi leaders.*
She went over to her station and accessed the file they wanted her to look at. A lovely Veroshi in flowing silk robes and a headpiece that made the Catholic Pope"s look like an ordinary sock hat appeared on the viewscreen. Zera thought she must be some kind of Priestess.
The Priestess spoke in her own language, "Greetings to the Gods and Goddesses of the Great Grebsa Network. I am High Priestess Rawn.
"For many generations, we have followed the Words you spoke to us through your Prophet Rora. Now, we are only a century from the promised City, where we shall serve and worship you and you shall protect and love us.
"I wish I could be with you now. I know from the Scriptures how difficult your lives are, and it breaks my heart. Please, stay safe. The day is coming when we will be able to be with you."
Rawn"s eyes filled with tears. She paused to swallow a lump in her throat.
"We are forever your faithful ones. We love you and we pray daily that our spirits will reside with you. We will continue to prepare for the day when we can join you on Earth. Farewell for now."
The image faded. Zera stared.
*Does anyone know anything about a prophecy?* she asked.
*Just tell us what the message says,* said Brio.
She repeated the Priestess"s message, word for word. She could sense Brio"s startled hesitation before he answered.
*This may complicate things. There are still humans who would take this sort of thing badly.*
*That evangelist for one,* said Zera. *I really think we should send the Veroshi a return message. They deserve a chance to decide we aren"t gods, at least.*
*I"m wondering how they knew we"re called the Grebsa Network.*
She snorted. *Simple. We’ve been sending out radio signals for as long as we"ve had the technology. It"s very possible that the Veroshi picked up some of those signals and interpreted them in their own way.*
*Nice way to represent ourselves. All right, Zera; Tranna’s coming today and we can see what she wants to do.* He must have sensed her flash of frustration at being left out. He added, *I am counting on you to be in on the planning. You"re still our expert on the Veroshi.*
She sent him a flirty thought. He laughed mentally.
*I wish, but my quarters couldn"t handle it. How about you pick on Jerran? I think he has a crush on you.*
Jerran"s roaring mental exclamation made both their tails spring into curls. Like most Scientists, he would prefer that they believe that he and all his relatives came from test tubes. He took his share of teasing for it.
*Command-Second Tranna"s shuttle has docked, Captain,* the Grebsa at traffic control reported over the Network.
*Very good. Look sharp, everybody, Command-Second Tranna is "officially" here for an inspection.*
That got a round of amusement from the Ops crew. They all knew that Tranna would deal with problems if she spotted them. However, they also knew what a fiction the inspections were. No self-respecting Grebsa would need inspecting and Tranna had her own reasons for coming to OSO-30.
Command-Second Tranna waited for the pressure in the airlock to equalize itself with the station. Two lieutenants fidgeted beside her. Officially, they were here for an inspection tour of the Outer System Outposts, though that was purely for the benefit of the humans assigned offworld for menial work. If Tranna was displeased with progress here, she was as likely as not to blame it on their laziness. If she was feeling generous, she might order double shifts. If she wasn"t, well, there were more unlucky sops in the labor pool where they came from.
The door finally rolled open and she galloped out, pretending to be in a growly mood. Her lieutenants followed, glad to finally be off that shuttle. Humans scattered in front of them. She largely ignored them, since they were unsatisfactory as prey and she didn"t feel like messing her claws. Still, when one looked like a hawk-winged lion-demon, one was ... respected.
The turbolift deposited Tranna in Ops. She glanced around briefly. Winged demons sat in their two-legged pose, working at their control boards. Although they looked like particularly frightening beasts, they did have hands instead of paws. The place was set up in the standard circular layout and a little cramped by Grebsa standards. They could have reached out with their tails and touched somebody on the other side of the room. Of course, if they did, they could very well get their tail yanked for being frivolous enough to flirt on duty. Such things were typically taken in good spirits.
*Welcome, Commander Tranna,* Brio said.
*Greetings, Captain Brio. I think my arrival cost one conscript his marijuana plant.*
He curled his tail. *Did you get his name? He obviously has way too much time on his hands.*
*John Daniels, I think. I just saw his name badge in passing and that only because he dropped the pot.*
*I"ll have him put on report. A few weeks’ worth of double shifts will suffice, I think.*
*I do like it when a human volunteers for extra duty,* Tranna said with all the sarcasm of a drill sergeant.
Jerran cut in, *Sorry to interrupt, Captain, but the latest results from the telescope turned up something interesting.*
Brio promptly turned his attention away from Tranna, not quickly enough to miss her rolling her eyes. An "interesting" item probably came in once a week on one of the Outer System Outposts. OSO-15 had reported catching video of a star going supernova just a few days ago. If it kept the Scientist Faction happy, neither Tranna nor Brio would get in the way.
*Put it on the main screen.*
The image of a starfield replaced the tumbling rocks. To prove that it was a recording, status bars ticked off their data along the top and bottom of the screen. After a few seconds, the starfield wavered as if the screen was malfunctioning, and then the image solidified into an unmistakable starship.
*Ha, that’s why you couldn’t find your alien ship, Jerran. It was cloaked,* said Zera.
Jerran sniffed and didn’t answer. Ignoring them both, Brio turned to Tranna.
*Should we send our Message?* he asked.
Tranna pretended to think for a few seconds. Some two centuries ago, the Commandrices" Council had ordered the recording of an Extraterrestrial Welcome Message, which was usually just referred to as the "Message." It started out with some obvious stuff like a tick of prime numbers and progressed to language lessons, music recordings, and information on the Solar Empire. Some of it might be considered a warning to anyone who might be hostile. The Grebsa Lords of Sol System were hardly peaceful.
*All right, send it. How long would it take to get a response? Seventeen years?*
Jerran said, *Maybe a little more. It mostly depends on how long it takes them to decipher our message and send a reply.*
*And, of course, we don"t want a panic among the human casual workers. Triple encryption on everything related to this alien starship, then, and heads will roll if I hear rumors about this.*
*Not that rumors don"t go around two or three times a year anyway, considering where we are,* added Brio.
Zera called up the Message and sent it off in the direction of the alien ship.
Rossa felt a little at loose ends after school, so she wandered down to her mother’s workplace. The Healing Center was a bustling place but there was an underlying order that Rossa liked. Her mother had always said that she could come here whenever she was feeling sick and could play with the puppies in the orphans" room or day care center when she was just plain bored. There were always other puppies here, getting checkups or recovering from various injuries and illnesses.
She found the orphans’ room with only two wrong turns. The Center was a big place and a bit of a maze for a little puppy. An adult was always nearby to set her back on the right path. Her mother worked in this room as a supervisor and, selfishly, she hoped that Doro and his sibs hadn’t been adopted yet. Puppies never stayed in the orphans’ room for very long and she liked Doro.
Her mother was comforting three crying puppies when she flew in. Rossa’s ears quivered with impatience at having to wait to tell her mother about recording a message for the gods. Maybe the High Priestess could come here with her video recorder. Whatever was upsetting these triplets, a chance to show off for the gods might cheer them up.
That would have to wait for the next Children’s Hour. The High Priestess was probably busy doing, well, whatever it was a High Priestess did when she wasn’t conducting worship. Rossa’s mother gave the new orphans some treats and encouraged them to make new friends while they were here. Taking that as her cue, Rossa toddled over.
“Mommy, the High Priestess let me record a message for the gods! She says she will send news to them! And I think she could come to the orphans’ room so the gods can see them, too.”
Some of the nearby orphans’ ears picked up when they heard that. Soon, Rossa’s mother was surrounded by puppies begging to be allowed to record something for the gods.
“We can ask the High Priestess about it during Children’s Hour. How about that?” she said.
The puppies cheered and another adult Veroshi came in.
“Hello, Veru,” he said to Rossa’s mother. “Cook wanted me to see how many you would have for supper today.”
Veru quickly counted heads. “Rossa, do you want any supper here or would you rather wait until we get home? I think Cook’s making ostar nuggets.”
Rossa was a little hungry but didn’t want ostar nuggets. “I’ll wait.”
“Ten for supper, then.”
Rona gave Engineer Sarra a hand with the invisibility shielding. It hadn't worked for close to ten years now and they had never had the replacement parts to repair it. That never stopped the engineers from trying to improvise something. Perhaps it didn't matter much at this late stage. At least the gods would be able to see them coming.
“Arra, it's worthless,” Sarra sighed.
“Maybe not. The Grebsas' Scientist Faction might be able to make something of it.”
“True.” Sarra gave her captain a shy smile. “We're more technologically advanced than they are, aren't we?”
Rona fluttered his wings in a Veroshi shrug. “Perhaps we are. And maybe they know more about certain things than we do. We won't be able to prove it either way until we actually get there.”
Sarra took the point but wondered why the gods didn't come out to meet them. It didn't seem fair. They had proven their faith just by making it this far, hadn't they? Either way, Sarra was too timid to risk the consequences of questioning the gods to another Veroshi's face. Rona was High Priestess Rawn's sister and he might mention it to her, if only as just a casual thing.
They finished the work and packed up the tools.
“I hope that works,” she said nervously.
He understood. The last attempt had nearly killed two engineers, at a time when they couldn't spare any. They were about to enter the debris field that surrounded most star systems.
Sirens started shrieking. Wide-eyed, Sarra looked to Captain Rona for guidance.
“Let's get to our stations,” was all he said.
He headed up to the bridge as she took herself off to the engine deck. The senior officers were shouting questions and answers at each other. Some of them were variations of, “Are you sure?” They began to quiet down as soon as they noticed the captain was on the bridge.
“What is happening?” he asked in the Command-tongue.
The science liaison was the first to report. “We detected a singularity about half the size of Sol. It's moving along a parabolic course that will take it into the Solar System.”
Rona gulped. He knew what that meant. The Solar Empire was in trouble.
“Can we send a message to the Grebsas? Will it reach them in time for them to save themselves?”
“We can send them a message and it will reach them before the singularity does. Whether they can do anything about it is a different matter.”
Rona got the unspoken message. They were in a position to intercept the singularity if they chose to do so. He could order that on his own...
...But would Rawn understand? And what could they do about it if they did? It certainly wouldn't do them any good to intercept the singularity, only to get sucked into its gravity well.
“Can you give me some options?”
In other words, What in the stars and all the heavens can we do about this thing? If she heard the nervousness in his tone, she gave no sign. The turbolift door chose that moment to slide open.
“What is happening?” asked Rawn.
Normally, she would be conducting a service at this time of day. Perhaps the congregation had scattered at the sound of the alarm.
“We detected a singularity on an intercept course for the Sol System,” Rona told her. “We were just discussing what to do about it.”
She knew what that meant, too. “Can we stop it?”
He indicated for the liaison to give her report. “If we have enough mass, we could fly alongside it long enough to change its course. Or we could use our tractor beam to try to force it away, but that will force us into low-power mode until we reach Earth. We can contact the Grebsas and hope they can deal with it. Perhaps we should warn them in any case.”
Rawn's ears flickered backward, forward, and backward again. Every tradition stated that the gods would protect the Veroshi once they reached Earth. But what did one do, when the gods needed protection, too?
Isn't that why gods have followers?
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