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´╗┐Title: Zeta Exchange - A Terran Empire story
Author: Wilson, Ann
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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ZETA EXCHANGE

A Terran Empire Story

by Ann Wilson



Copyright (C) 1992 by Ann Wilson



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?"

"Fine."

"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 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 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 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, 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, 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.  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?"

"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, 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 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 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





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