copyright (c) 2006, Don Sakers

Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet

By Don Sakers

Part 9

From Encyclopedia Umoja, 2068.08 edition

IDARA (pl., Idara):

The word translates as “tribe,” “division,” or even “team.”

The Idara were originally a mix of geographical and administrative divisions in the <Nexus> hierarchy. The names of the Idara were derived from the <codenames> of first-generation <Nexus administrators>. For example, the Idara name <LaVerne> derives from <Nexus codename> <LA.Verne>, <Tattersall> from <Tatters.All>, and <Ellenndan> from <Ellen-n-Dan>.

By the third generation, <Nexus> members were usually closely affiliated with, or sponsored by, existing Idara. In some cases, this affiliation was familial; otherwise the affiliation, similar to <adoption>, was signified by adding the Idara name with the honorific “kwa,” as in the example <Kian Pace kwa Lütke>.

Originally, the individual Idara had geographical or administrative specialties. For example, <Idara Schmidt> had an expertise in finance, <Chlad> focused on geopolitics, and <deVigny> was based in <Osaka>. In time, these specialties faded and various Idara began to broaden their focuses. By the 2060s, particular Idara sought out promising cadets, and there was considerable competition among candidates.




United Nations of North America

August 29, 2068 C.E.

“…the pillars supporting the sky crumbled and the chains from which the earth was suspended shivered to pieces. Sun, moon, and stars poured down into the northwest, where the sky became low; rivers, seas, and oceans rushed down to the southeast, where the earth sank. A great conflagration burst out. Floods raged. Wild beasts and terrible birds made men their prey…”

T. Chi


As Ray promised, Rita wakes up feeling rested and refreshed. In dim light, she sees a few other sleeping forms here and there; voices from the main room, however, tell her that most folks are awake. She scoots cautiously off a mattress and stands. Daisy’s tiny simulacrum appears and gently greets her.

“Good morning, Rita. It’s Wednesday, August twenty-ninth, twenty-sixty-eight. The time is eleven-fourteen. There are bathrobes in the closet to your right. There is one free bathroom.”

“Thanks.” She slips into a robe and dashes for the bathroom.

A few minutes later she emerges and finds the others lounging about the main room, all in various states of undress: white hotel-issue bathrobes, wrapped towels, stray bits of underwear. Newschannels play on several small datascreens, but the central focus seems to be a large wallscreen that displays a classic cartoon in flat low-res.

Jannet slips an arm around Rita’s waist and gives her a peck on the cheek. “Good morning. Did you sleep well?”

“A lot better than I expected.” She seeks out Ray, smiles at him, and touches the databand carefully-arranged in her hair. “Thanks. That delta-wave induction is great.”

From across the room, Girald leans forward with a leering grin. “So Rita, what did you think of Jannet’s special moves?” He wiggles his eyebrows.

Thea snaps, “Girald!”

Blushing despite herself, Rita says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

At the same time, Jannet launches herself over a couch toward him. “That’s it, Girald. I told you the last time —”

Girald scampers out of her way, ducking behind a chair and glancing around as if to scope out a quick exit.

Jannet lowers her face and glares at him. Girald lurches, starts to fall—and then rises half a meter into the air. As if pulled by unseen hands, his undershorts leave his body, and he lands in a heap on the floor.

Hands on her hips, Jannet stands above him. “Let me make it as clear as I can, Girald. I’m the one who decides when to tell somebody about me. Not you. Do you understand?”

Girald squirms, rubbing his right hip. “All right, I understand. I’m sorry. I just wasn’t thinking. It won’t happen again. I promise.”

“It better not. All right, you can get up.” Jannet turns to Rita. “Hon, I guess we better have a talk. Come sit down with me.” The others busied themselves in the kitchenette, leaving Jannet and Rita in temporary solitude on a couch in the corner of the room.

Jannet takes a deep breath. “Rita, I never know what to say about this.” She exhales. “Let me just jump right in. Have you ever heard of something called ‘psionics?’”

Rita nods. “Of course. Who hasn’t?”

Jannet opens her mouth, then closes it, staring at Rita. “You’re the first person I know who’s heard of psionics.”

“Really? Maybe I know it in a different context. Are you talking about psychic abilities? Clairvoyance, psychokinesis, that sort of thing?”

Again Jannet’s jaw drops. “I’m amazed. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Where did you learn about them?”

Rita can’t help but chuckle. “Same place as a everyone else: Miracle Worker.”

Jannet’s look of confusion is priceless. “I thought I was going to be answering questions, not asking them. Rita, who or what is Miracle Worker?”

“It’s only one of the most popular virtie programs in the country. New episodes come out every Thursday at eight. You’ve never viewed it?”

“Never. Didn’t even know it existed. What’s it about?”

“The main character is Penelope Connor. She was born with psionic powers, and when she was old enough she became an Arm of God. She goes around the country, and in every episode she meets someone with a problem. Penelope helps them solve their problems. It might be a fellow with a bad temper that might make him lose his job, or a teenager who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd at school, or—well, it’s really a soap opera, I guess, but the stories all have a moral and they make you feel good.”

Jannet, wearing an overwhelmed expression, nods. “Penelope Connor. And she has psionic powers?”

“Clairvoyance and psychokinesis, mostly. Both have limitations. And every once in a while she has a flash of precognition, which is the ability to see into the future a little bit. But every few weeks she runs into other people who have different powers: psychometry or telepathy or personality projection. One little girl Penelope helped was a pyrokinetic.”

“Rita, I don’t know what to say. Have you ever considered that psionics might actually exist, outside of virties?”

“It does. Miracle Worker is based on a real person, a girl. She was exposed to mutagenic drugs when she was still in the womb, and she was born with psionic powers like Penelope’s.” Rita lowers her eyebrows. “You’re trying to tell me that you’re psionic?”

Jannet raises an eyebrow. “I think I’m related to that real-life girl.” She grins. “One of the most popular virties in the country, you say? Sweet Deimos, Mother is absolutely going to plotz.” She takes Jannet’s hand. “I don’t know how my own abilities correspond to Penelope Connor’s. With clairvoyance, I can behold things that are hidden, like on the other side of a wall; or invisible, like datastreams and microscopic organisms. Mother can observe individual molecules; I’m nowhere near that good. Yet.”

Rita gestures in the direction of the others. “And I guess you have some form of psychokinesis. You pulled Girald’s pants off, didn’t you?”

“Yes. Then I scrambled his databand output and knocked him down. I can handle one or two people, although it’s a strain. Mostly I use it for smaller things. You’ve noticed I don’t wear a databand.”

“I thought it was really fine, or maybe implanted like Ray’s. I figured you would tell me if you wanted me to know.”

“A standard databand doesn’t like my brain. I keep a small unit in my pocket. I read it clairvoyantly, and input with pk.”

“Anything else I should know?”

“Mother swears that sometimes she can see into the future, but it hasn’t happened to me yet.”

“What about your brother? Does he have the same abilities?”

“Basically the same. Jaison hasn’t practiced as much as I have, so sometimes I’ve got a little more control and such. But the biggest thing is that Jaison can teleport.”

“Teleport.” Rita blinks. “As in, now he’s here and, snap!, now he’s not?”

“It’s not all that easy, and it’s a lot less useful than you’d think. Teleporting takes a lot out of him, so he doesn’t do it very often. Plus, he has to be pretty familiar with the destination, or he’s liable to go astray.”

“Still, that’s a pretty amazing talent.”

Jannet glances toward the bedroom, then leans closer. “Jais is still asleep, so I can tell you this. Just between you and me, it might have been better if I’d been the teleport. Jais is my borther, and I love him all over the place, but sometimes… well, he isn’t as serious as he could be. About Nexus business and all that stuff.” She looks away. “Not that my mother sees it that way. As far as she’s concerned, Jaison is the only one who counts.”

“That can’t be true.” Rita puts her hand on Jannet’s shoulder. “She named you to take her Council seat, not Jaison.”

“That’s only because Jaison wouldn’t put up with it. That’s one thing I’ll say for him, he’s always supported me. He told Mum that she’d be crazy to give him the responsibility. Said that I was the only logical choice.” Jannet smiles. “In a lot of ways, being a good brother is what Jais does best. He admits it himself: he’s a clown and a dilettante. But he always sticks by me.”

“Then you’re lucky you have him.”

A knock comes at the main door, and Tadj jumps across the room to answer it. “At last. Breakfast is here.”

A hotel bellhop enters, followed by a parade of well-laden food carts. All is temporary chaos, with carts and people scrambling to avoid each other while the bellhop serenely and unhurriedly arranges platters and dishes on every horizontal surface in the kitchenette. Then, with a flourish and a bow, he is gone, taking his carts with him.

Jannet pats Rita’s shoulder. “Thanks for listening. I’m starving; let’s eat.”

With Jaison and a couple other laggards awake, Rita counts twelve people, besides herself. Breakfast consists of enough food and drink for a crowd thrice the size. The Junior Delegates eat like they dance: constantly in motion, with a dozen conversations, verbal and virtual, going on at once. Screens play a variety of channels, both news and entertainment. Rita stays close to Jannet, her stillpoint in the happy, churning confusion.

As they eat and chat, the young people dress, with much mutual criticism and support. It is easy for Rita; she wears the same clothes she wore yestereday, her usual drab teacher’s attire. She slips her Guardian Angel into a pocket; sooner or later she knows she must go back to using it, but for now the databand is much more exciting.

The others take forever to dress, mixing and matching clothing and jewelry and body art, trading tops and earrings and animated tattoos, altering hair and eye and skin colors on the fly.

Gradually, somehow, order emerges; outfits and ensembles coordinate (or clash, depending on the effect desired), data screens are switched off, coffee cups are drained, and people gravitate to chairs and couches, waiting for the stragglers to finish. Girald, standing by the kitchenette counter, reaches for a pastry; a passing Thea smacks his hand. “Gods, Girald, leave some for the staff. You know they’re on tight rations here.”


Finally they leave the suite, in a phalanx with Jannet and Thea at the head and Kian, the large man who welcomed Jannet to the dance last night, bringing up the rear. They fill two elevators and make rendezvous on the street level.

The lobby is busy and crowded, with constant streams of people moving in both directions while others stand in conversational knots impeding the flow of traffic. The Junior Delegates again fall into formation, this time with Kian looming at the front, parting the sea of bodies by sheer physical intimidation. Rita sticks close to Jannet as they pass through a subway station and into a waiting car. Along the way, the others keep up constant nonverbal commentary via databands: move left; dodge the corporate types; find somewhere else to chat, grandpa; cute one at five o’clock, and so on. After a few moments, the doors close and the car surges forward. It seems only a minute before it stops at the huge station beneath the Convention Center. Rita and the others pour forth into the vaulted space of concrete and steel.

A solid mass of humanity blocks the entrance to the Center. As Rita glances at the elegant inscription above the doorway, her databand shows “Terran Council Assembly Hall,” and below that, someone’s scribble: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Jannet skids to a halt, grabbing Rita by the arm. “Whoops. I forgot about that.”

Past the crowd, a pair of Holy Guards stand next to a large sign: “North American Citizens Not Permitted Beyond This Point.” In smaller letters, it directs: “North American Delegates, please enter through checkpoint around the corner.” Both guards wear opague dataspex; one rests her hand on her holster.

Jannet shifts the group to the far wall, where they circle around her and Rita. Rita sighs. “Well, it was a good idea, but I guess I’d better let you all get inside.”

Jannet shakes her head. “Hardly. You’re coming to this meeting.”

“I can’t. They’ll never let me through. All the other entrances will ”

Elaine Stockard folds her arms across her chest. “This is so typical of North America. No news allowed out, except sanitized reports by official channels. Who cares what the World Charter of Rights says?”

Ray smiles. “Don’t worry, Rita, we’ll get you past them.”


Jannet glances at her brother. “What about it, Jaison?”

Jaison looks at the Holy Guards, then up at the distant ceiling. “What do you think,” he says as if musing aloud, Thirty, forty meters? Maybe a little bit more? Fifty at the most, wouldn’t you say?”

Jannet frowns. “Like it really matters. I wasn’t asking the distance, I was just asking if you thought you could do it.”

Jaison shrugs. “Why not? I had a good night’s sleep and an really yummy breakfast. Sure, I’m game.” He holds out a hand to Rita. “Come on, you’ll enjoy this.”

Rita blinks. “What?”

“We’re going to get into the meeting hall the easy way. The rest of these bozos have to go the hard way.”

Jannet grins at her. “It’s okay, Rita. We’ll meet the two of you inside.”

As the others move into the crush around the entrance, Jaison leads Rita past shops and public comm kiosks to a less-busy area of the station. Between a newstand and a flower shop there is a narrow niche, barely wide enough to stand in. Jaison stops and takes up a position with his back to the wall.

“We’re going to have to be pretty close,” he says. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Wait. You’re going to teleport me?”

“I’m going to teleport both of us. Stand in front of me. No, with your back to me. Right. Now I’m going to put my arms around you.”

“This won’t hurt, will it?”

“Which, the teleporting or the hug?”

Jaison’s body presses against hers, and his arms close about her. The sudden intimacy is at once comforting and awkward, and she can’t stop herself from giggling. Jaison chuckles.

“Okay, just a few seconds more. Pretend I’m Sis. Lean back against me.”

Rita is suddenly aware that she’s shaking. “Sorry, I’m nervous.”

“Nothing to be nervous about. We’re just breaking the physical laws of space and time, that’s all. Take a deep breath. It might help to close your eyes.”

Rita closes her eyes and inhales deeply. With his head pressed against hers, Jaison whispers a countdown. “Five… four…three….” He stops.

Rita opens her eyes, and the subway station is gone. She and Jaison stand in the shadows of great black curtains, looking out on a immense, brightly-lit space, the floor of the Convention Center’s main hall.

She tears away and turns on Jaison. “You did it before I was ready!”

He laughs. “It’s usually better that way. You have no idea how people react. Girald’s first time, he threw up all over me.”

“That’s why you had me stand with my back to you?”

Jaison shrugs. “Here, I’ll take you to our usual seats.”

The cavernous hall is bustling with people, hundreds of them, all different. There is a profusion of skin tones, body shapes, hair colors. Costumes and fashions are a kaleidoscope, and in fifty steps Rita hears more different languages than she’s known for years. Her databand struggles to display fragments of conversations, translated in realtime.

The layout of the room reminds Rita of the old Senate chamber in DC. Except here, desks and chairs are arranged in a series of concentric rectangles, with a large raised empty stage in the center. There is room for far more than the 101 Delegates, not even counting the already-crowded press gallery in the back. Rita gathers that each Delegate is accompanied by numerous staff, advisors, guests, and assorted hangers-on.

Jaison waves, indicating a vast sweep of seats. “These sides are Nexus. We like to stick together. Oh, Administrators are in the inner range. Everything else goes roughly by geography: North and South America, Europe and Asia, Africa, Australia and assorted fiddly bits, and off-Earth over there.” He takes her to a double-row of desks in the outermost rank. “We Juniors generally hang out back here. A lot of these oldsters are pretty status-conscious. We find it best to hang back and let them pretend to be in charge.”

He plops down in a seat and puts his feet up on the desk. “Park yourself. The others will be along in a little bit. Usually there’s only one layer of security to go through, but your government insisted on having their own folks as well.” He cocks his head at her. “They keep a tight rein on what you get to see, don’t they?”

Rita nods. “I think I’m just beginning to realize how tight.” In all the time that she’s taught about the Terran Council, she’s never seen a realtime meeting. Only video, edited and sanitized.

Jaison looks around. “You know, the reason they go to all the trouble of taking this show on the road is so that every citizen can have a chance to see the Council in person.”

Rita nods. “I know. I teach that every year.”

He smiles. “Waste of time, huh?” Without giving her time to answer, he shrugs. “Don’t worry. Most of what these people do is a waste of time. I just stick around for the parties.”

It isn’t long before Jannet and the others show up. Jannet stands over Jaison and gestures with her thumb. “Up. Out of my seat, Bro.”

With exaggerated effort, Jaison lumbers to his feet. “Just keeping it warm for you, Sis.” He looks across the room and grins. “I think the delegate from Rangoon brought those cute twins along. Maybe I’ll saunter over and say hello.”

Girald snorts. “I wish you beter luck with them than I had.”

“Yeah, well, not all of us are like you, Gir.” Jaison saunters away.

Jannet takes her seat and pats the empty chair next to her. “Sit here, Rita.”

“Is that okay? I thought these seats were only for Delegates.”

Jannet nods. “And our entrouages. Today, you’re an official member of the Mars Delegation. To our left is Central America,” she gestures to Girald, three meters away, “And on our right is the honorable Delegation from the Schmidt Foundation.” With the last, she waves at Ray.

Rita perches on the edge of her chair while Jannet rearranges flatscreens and datapads on the table before her. She hands Rita a pad. “Here’s today’s agenda. There’s nothing very momentous, I’m afraid.”

“To you, maybe not. Remember that this is all new to me.” Rita skims the agenda; most of the names and terms are unfamiliar. Then she stops at a name she knows. “Oh, Dr. Khria is addressing the Council today.”

Jannet glances at the screen. “So he is.” She looks quizically at Rita. “I’m surprised that you know him.”

“Well, I don’t know him, but of course I know of him.”

Jannet raises an eyebrow. “Dr. Darineb Khria, right?”

“I don’t think there’s another one.”

“Rita, you know a lot more than you let on. How do you know about Dr. Khria?”

“He’s the President’s Science Advisor. He’s always in the news. How do you know him?”

Jannet chuckles. “That son of a bitch.” She smiles at Rita. “On the outside, he’s a big-name scientist. Has his fingers in every pie. But he’s also on the faculty at my school, which is where I, personally, know him from.” She leans toward Ray. “Hey, Schmidt! Guess whose Ethics professor is also the American President’s Science Advisor?”

Ray cocks his head. “Not Creepy Khria?”

“Look at your agenda. Fifth item down.”

“This is too good. I have to tell the others. Thea’s going to birth a bovine.”

Rita furrows her brow. “I take it Dr. Khria isn’t exactly popular with you folks.”

Jannet sighs. “No offense, really.” A few meters away, Thea suddenly sputters and starts choking on her drink. “At school, he’s considered something of a kook. He’s got his own movement, with disciples and all.” She wrinkles her nose. “The idea of Doctor Khria being a Science Advisor…well, I’m afraid it doesn’t reflect well on your country.”

Rita sighs. “I was taught — I teach—that Doctor Khria is a great man. Very intelligent, very spiritual. He helped save the country after the Impacts. Without Doctor Khria, things could have…been a lot…worse. Or…so they say…” Under Jannet’s tolerant gaze, Rita runs down. “I guess you’re thinking that things could be a lot better, eh?”

Jannet shakes her head. “I was at home on Mars when this all happened. It would be presumptuous of me to try to make judgements about how people on Earth reacted.” She looks around the hall. “You need to make your own judgements. But while you do, remember that not every nation on Earth reacted the same way as yours.”

Rita nods. “So I’m learning.”

Very soon, the meeting starts. A slender, white-haired Oriental woman walks onto the central stage and bows to the four compass directions in turn, then stands up straight. Above her, an enormous cold-light hologram displays her tranquil face at ten times life size. Rita’s databand identifies the woman as “Ogano Carroll, Secretary-General. Age: 74. Affiliation: Nexus.”

“Councillors, Guests, People of the World, welcome. I am pleased to call this session of the Terran Council to order. It gives me particular satisfaction to welcome Delegates and observers from North America, whose government is generously hosting this meeting.” Her eyes narrow slightly. “I only wish that more guests from this great nation were able to witness these proceedings.”

Several routine reports follow: Finance, Health, Trade, Justice, and the like, a series of giant talking heads succeeding one another. The speakers use English, Spanish, and Kiswahili almost indiscriminately, often blending the three into the hip international patois that the news services have dubbed “Anglich.” Rita’s databand whispers a running translation, but despite her best efforts, she doesn’t have the background to follow the reports fully.

When the reports are finished, the Secretary-General takes the podium once more. “For the next item, I recognize the Delegate from the Clarke Belt.”

There is scattered applause. Jannet leans toward Rita and whispers, “This ought to be good. Kyle isn’t Nexus, but he frequently votes with us. He’s good people.”

The pale, baby-faced man who takes the stage is in a wheelchair, the bottom half of his body swathed in blankets. His arms are supported by powered braces. Rita’s databand reports: “Kyle Fischer, Delegate, Clarke Belt Settlements. Age: 48. Unaffiliated. Physiologically adjusted to one-tenth standard gravity. Powered assists necessary for mobility on Earth.”

Fischer smiles. “Councillors, thank you.” His thick accent, unfamiliar to Rita, makes his words difficult to understand; but the databand’s translation is both clear and unobtrusive. “Two tendays ago, I came before you to report on deplorable working conditions on various orbital settlements owned and operated by ADM Corporation in the Clarke Belt and certain High Earth Orbit and Lagrange Point settlements, as well as the rice fields of the lower Mississippi and soy agriproduction areas in Saskatchewan. At that time, the Council authorized an Interdict against ADM until conditions improved.”

An icon flashes at the lower right of Rita’s visual field, offering more information—probably a recording or transcript of the original debate and motion. Rita dismisses it with a quick movement of her eyes.

Fischer continues, “As is customary, the Interdict took effect immediately upon Council approval, and was supported by a majority of governments. Thirty-six percent of ADM’s cargoes and infrastructure were immobilized, sixty-two percent of their locations were severed from world Networks, and fully ninety-four percent of the AI community ceased dealing with the corporation. ADM’s international and interplanetary operations were brought to a virtual standstill. Exact figures are available, but on average the company lost in excess of twelve billion rands for every day of the Interdict.”

Figures flash across datapads before Rita. She glances at them, then turns her attention back to Fischer.

“I am happy to report that ADM, after some initial hesitation—“ there are chuckles througout the hall “—decided to cooperate fully with the Council in bringing working conditions up to international standards. Council observers have verified compliance in all off-Earth facilities.” His smile wavers. “All the information is included in the summary reports you received yesterday. The government of North America has been less than cooperative in allowing observers access to the facilities in question. ADM continues to work with the Council to find a solution.”

The Secretary-General stands. “Delegate, what is your recommendation?”

“My team recommends that the Concil lift the Interdict on all of ADM’s operations outside North America. We recommend that a provisional Interdict remain on the company’s North American operations, and that our team be given the authority to lift that provisional Interdict as soon as circumstances allow. Subject to later approval by the Council, of course.”

The Secretary-General does a slow turn, addressing the entire Council. “Delegates, you have the team’s reports. I will now open the floor to discussion.”

The Terran Council’s method of discussion is vastly different from what Rita’s accustomed to. As speakers take the podium and address the Council, one after another in orderly fashion, the air around them fills with glowing print: their own words, instantly transcribed, surrounded by color-coded comments from other Delegates. With a mere flick of her eyes in the right direction, Rita follows one chain of comments as if down a rabbit hole and through caverns measureless. The chain branches, intersects other chains, leads back to the current speaker before skidding off on a tangent.

Rita looks out over one hundred one Delegates, and it seems that nearly all are enraptured, eyes rapidly flicking this way and that, lips moving silently, fingers twitching on phantom keyboards as constellations of words pivot about them, stately epicycles of thought made visible by the agency of their databands.

Rita is not a Delegate, so she cannot contribute to the discussion; yet she is amazed at the sense of coherence that underlies the seemingly-chaotic debate. In far less time than one Senator would have taken to give a single speech in the old Congress, the group seems to come to a sort of consensus. The Secretary-General stands.

“The motion is made and seconded, to accept the team’s recommendation, with the stipulation that the provisional Interdict on ADM’s North American operations will be revisited by the full Council in eight days, if the team has not lifted it by that time. Signal assent or dissent now.”

Jannet leans toward Rita. “The Nexus holds a majority, 57 to 44. We’ll pick up four from the off-Earth Delegates and six or seven Mercantiles, plus Space, Trade, Health, and Logistics. Probably a few more here and there.” She pauses. “Elaine says we’re sure to get 82, maybe 83. She’s a lot better than I am at estimating this kind of thing.”

In just a few minutes the Secretary-General announces, “The vote being 83 to 16, with two abstensions, the motion carries. The full Interdict on ADM Corporation is immediately lifted.”

An eerie sound briefly fills the hall, as the Delegates repeatedly rap their knuckles against their tables in applause.

“Our next speaker is no stranger to this Council. He is Professor of Ethics at the Marrel Academy and Advisor to the North American President. Delegates, I welcome Dr. Darineb Khria.”

As the Secretary-General returns to her seat, a hush falls. The stage darkens, and Dr. Khria’s image takes form as a large cold light hologram.

Khria is a wrinkled, brown-skinned man of indeterminate ethnicity with a black bushy beard and a close-trimmed moustache. A short white turban clings to his head. His wide-open eyes are clouded milky white.

In lightly-accented English, Dr. Krhia says, “Delegates, I apologize that the press of business keeps me from appearing before you in person, and I thank you in advance for your forbearance.” His voice, as always, has a reedy, otherworldly quality about it. “I come to you with a mystery, an enigma; I hope that together we can take steps to begin discovering its meaning.”

Khria’s hologram shrinks, and another image takes form. It is a museum artifact, a primitive statuette roughly the shape of a flying swan, its narrow neck extended and its outstretched wings bent slightly downward. It gleams with a red-gold fire, and as the image rotates various embedded gemstones flash in the light.

Rita gasps, for she knows this artifact.

Khria continues, “This object is undoubtedly familiar to most of you. It is a prehistoric relic, discovered near the Philippine village of Dymalinao nearly a hundred years ago. Archaeologists named it ‘The Dymalon Cygnet.’ Various forgeries of the statue featured in the classic detective virtie of the same name.

“The original Dymalon Cygnet disappeared in the 1980s, before reliable dating technology was available. However, the strata in which it was found date to about 1250 BCE. I ask you to keep that date in your memory.”

The Cygnet’s image shrinks and Khria’s grows. He frowns. “The next bit is somewhat technical; I implore you to bear with me. In 2042, astronomers detected a source of periodic gravitational waves on the outskirts of our solar system. The astonishing thing about these waves is that, when analyzed, they were clearly repeating, in sequence over and over again, the first 256 prime numbers.”

Khria turns his head. “The significance may not be im-mediately apparent. It certainly took me a while to catch on. The fact is, we know of no natural phenomenon that would produce such a sequence. As far as we can tell, this signal must be the product of some sort of intelligence.”

He pauses, as if to let his news sink in. “The source is at a distance of approximately 50 astronomical units or 7.5 billion kilometers…well beyond the reach of the planet Pluto even at its furthest remove. An unmanned probe was launched in the mid-2050s, but it was lost a year later during its swing around Jupiter. After the Impacts started, the governments of Earth were too busy to follow up. It was not until two years ago, in May of 2066, that a fusion-powered probe was launched by the Northern Hemisphere Economic Co-operative.” He pauses for a moment. “That probe has reached its destination.”

Khria’s image shrinks again, and a bright starfield fills the area above the stage. As Khria continues, a single point at the center of the image grows brighter. “An object was found at the source of the gravity waves. Here are the probe’s images of that object.”

Under magnification, the object swells from a bright dot to a distinct shape, fully lit and sharp-edged against the blackness of space. It is a virtaul duplicate of the Dymalon Cygnet.

“This is Object 2068-11387. It is roughly seventy-five meters in length, about the size of a large airliner. As far as we can tell, it is exactly what it seems to be: a derelict spacecraft. For obvious reasons, our team has christened it The Dymalon Cygnet.” He is quiet for a few moments, letting the implications sink in.

“This Dymalon Cygnet is in an orbit with a period of several thousand years, extending to the limits of the Solar System. Currently, the Cygnet is on its inbound leg, approach-ing the inner system.” Khria takes a breath. “Plotting that orbit backwards in time, we discover that the Cygnet was last in the vicinity of Earth about the year 1250 BCE.”

At this, the hall erupts in bedlam. The Secretary-General stands and bangs her gavel to restore order. “Please continue, Dr. Khria.”

Khria bows his head. “Thank you.” He raises his face, his eyes as boundless as the starwhite nebulae of deep space. “I think you will agree that we have a conundrum here. A derelict spacecraft, last in our vicinity in prehistory, at about the same time that a small replica of that ship was buried. A mystery that demands investigation.”

The musuem artifact’s image expands, hanging above Khria’s head as if in flight. “The artifact went missing in the 20th century; we have only copies. If we are to find an answer, we must send a crewed expedition to the vessel.”

Khria leans forward. “This is why I come before you, Delegates. The cost of such an expedition is tremendous. No single nation could afford it. Yet the Terran Council could put together a consortium of nations to sponsor an exploration ship and crew. I urge you to provide your support.”

Images, both ship and artifact, disappear. Khria continues, “I am transmitting full details to the Council. Please take your time considering this matter. I know that the Council will make the best decision. Thank you for your time.” He closes his eyes, and his own image fades to nothing.

Secretary-General Carroll takes the podium once again. “I propose an hour recess for informal discussion, after which I will entertain a motion regarding Dr. Khria’s request.” She cocks her head slightly. “Seeing consent, I declare recess.”

All at once a hubbub of conversation fills the hall, while the Delgates stand and move into clusters. Some head directly for coffee and other stimulants, others disperse to join queues at the various restrooms. The Junior Delegates, unsurprisingly, surround one of the many refreshments tables.

Grabbing a pastry, Thea says, “So what did y’all think? Creepy Khria seemed a few steps above his usual lunacy.”

Tadj nods. “I was surprised. He actually made sense.”

“Very persuasive,” Jannet says, gesturing with a bit of celery. “He sure gave us—gave everyone in the world—a lot to think about.”

Rita smiles. “I told you all he’s a very spiritual man.”

Even Girald, standing back as if to distance himself from the feeding frenzy, gives a rueful smile. “I have to admit, that was a dramatic presentation. I’d love to get out there and see exactly what’s going on with that spaceship.”

Ray frowns. “Are you all awake? Did you hear the same speech I did? He wants us to finance a manned expedition out beyond Pluto, costing what?…fifty billion rands at a minimum? Because this extraterrestrial spaceship has a fleeting resemblence to some prop from an old virtie?” He shakes his head. “Let him send an expedition, if he’s so hot about it.”

Thea puts a hand on his shoulder. “Ray, hon, you have to admit that it’s a mystery.”

“One that’s been around for more than three thousand years. It can probably wait a little while longer.”

Elaine looks up from a tray of dainties. “I don’t think you’re being entirely fair, Ray.” She snatches her choice from the tray and with one fluid motion pops it in her mouth. “That ship might have advanced technology that we could learn from.”

“And the connection with the Dymalon Cygnet artifact is intriguing,” Thea says.

“If there even is any connection,” Ray counters.

“Oh, come on, Ray,” Girald says. “The ship and the artifact—they’re identical.”

Ray looks exasperated. “They look the same, in one set of holos that Khria probably chose for the maximum effect. From another angle, they might look completely different.”

“Well,” says Tadj, “We’re not going to solve it right now. Khria sent a lot of data, and we should look that over before discussions start in earnest.”

Ray spreads his hands. “Fine. That’s all I want…some reasoned analysis before everyone falls over themselves doing what Khria wants.”

Frail, pale Noura DiClementi purses her lips. “You know, I’m much more interested in the personality dynamics here. When have you ever known all of us to be in such agreement like this, except for Ray? Usually it’s Girald or Elaine who don’t agree, and half the time Girald does it just to play devil’s advocate.”

Thea turns to Ray. “Is that what you’re doing, Ray?”

“No. I’m being the sole voice of reason while the rest of you act like lemmings, is what I’m doing.”

Jannet raises an eyebrow. “Do you think you’ve hit on something significant, Noura?”

Now it’s Noura’s turn to frown. “Maybe.” She looks from Ray to the others. “I just don’t know. And I wish I did.”

Tadj piles food on a plate. “Come on, let’s get back and look at what Khria sent. Like Ray says, reasoned analysis.”

The others troop back to their tables, but Jannet stays behind for just a few moments, watching her retreating friends.

Rita meets Jannet’s eyes. “You’re worried.”

Jannet shakes her head. “Not worried, really. Concerned. Noura’s right: Ray and I don’t often disagree, especially about things like this. And it does seem odd to take Crazy Khria so seriously.” She smiles. “Forget it. Let’s get back and start in.”

The recess passes quickly, and the rest of the afternoon is taken up with debate on Khria’s request. Chains of discussion fill the hall with color-coded streams of argument. After trying to follow one narrow topic after another, Rita founders until Ray shows her how to take a figurative step back and view the debate as a whole, watching opinions ebb and flow across the entire Council.

At first, opinion is solidly Doctor Khria’s side. Gradually, though, opposing voices arise. One of the first belongs to Søül øƒ å Thøúsåñ Tëårs, the Delegate from the AI Community. Its comment is registered in the typically-obscure form of all Artificial Intelligences:

Wørl’s cüpbøår îs bårë ƒør thîs;

Çrümbs ¥îël ñø süççëss.

Pürsüë å prîvåtë vëñtürë.

A glossary quotes figures. Sixty billion rands for a well-equipped expedition to the Dymalon Cygnet. Less than ten billion available to the Terran Council in discretionary funds. The world economic impact of extracting an additional fifty billion rands from member governments, including a significant chance of triggering a global recession. Further analysis details how various private consortia could accomplish the same mission for substantially less.

Then, the Junior Delegates begin to receive calls from their seniors. Ray Schmidt is first; he excuses himself from the group, then returns with a puzzled look on his face.

“What’s up, Ray?” Jannet asks.

“That was Mama. She wanted to make sure that I’m voiting against Khria’s motion.” He shrugs. “I told her not to worry.”

Girald chuckles. “So she didn’t think she could trust you to vote in the best interests of the Schmidt Foundation? I’m shocked, shocked. That Erin would doubt her little boy’s loyalty —” He stops suddenly. “Priority call. Hold on.” Girald turns his back, and the others politely look away.

After quite a few minutes, Girald turns back, looking sheepish. “Apparently the oldsters have been talking to each other. Gramps just instructed me not to vote for Khria’s expedition. I suppose we’ll be hearing from the rest of them shortly.”

Girald is right: one by one, the other Juniors take calls from their elders. They are unanimous in opposing Khria’s expedition. The last call comes from Jannet’s mother on Mars; Jannet receives the message stoically, then turns to the others and sighs. “I wish she wouldn’t talk to me like I’m a six-year-old.”

Thea puts a hand on Jannet’s shoulder. “We appreciate you, hon.”

“I know.”

“What did she say about the motion?”

“Same as the others. Vote against it. Do whatever Erin tells Ray to do—and under no c ircumstances am I to use my own judgement. In fact, if the responsibility is making me too uncomfortable, I can turn things over to my brother.” She glances toward Jaison, who is flirting with Rostya Kasmanski, the tall, willowy Delegate from settlements in Jupiter Space.

“Never mind,” Thea says. “You know Jaison wouldn’t hear of it. Elaine, what’s the vote look like?”

Elaine closes her eyes and strokes her forehead. “If we’d voted right after Khria’s speech, he would have won by a landslide. But he’s losing votes as time goes on. The AIs are dead set against the idea, and I think our oldsters have been talking to others besides us.” She opens her eyes. “Girald, I suspect that your grandfather wants to put together a private expedition, probably with Nexus support.”

Girald shrugs. “Could be. Gramps always has some kind of deals going on in the background.”

Elaine nods. “There’s also suspicion that Boeing and Mitsu-bishi are lining up non-Nexus partners for an expedition of their own. And there’s no telling what China has in mind.”

Tadj chuckles. “People are starting to realize that there’s possible profit to be had here.”

Girald snorts. “Gee, do you think so? A genuine alien spaceship, probably packed with advanced technology way beyond our wildest dreams? You can bet that everybody and their sixth cousins are going to want—”

Elaine interrupts him with an upheld hand. “That’s it. The Bank of China has just switched sides. The vote’s sure to go against Khria. They’ll be calling the question in a matter of minutes.”

Sure enough, within ten minutes all the Delegates return to their seats and the Council votes. As Elaine predicted, the vote goes against Doctor Khria’s proposal. Jannet leans over to Rita and says, “Now watch, somebody will call to adjourn so they can all get on with the business of setting up private expeditions. That’s all anybody’s going to talk about for the next few days.”

A nagging memory tugs at the fringes of Rita’s mind, but it isn’t until the session is formally adjourned that she recalls it. “Jannet, what about the millions of North Americans who disappeared last year? I thought someone would bring that up before the Council.”

“Not while we’re meeting in North America,” Jannet says. “That wouldn’t just be tacky…it might be dangerous.” She takes Rita’s hand. “Look, we’re all going out for dinner. Tadj found out about this place where they have thousands of kitschy paintings on the walls and little knick-knacks in display cases, so it’s like you’re eating in a museum, and the food all looks like classic works of art.”

Rita recognizes the restaurant; it’s one of the highest-priced in Denver. “Oh, I…don’t think…I could….”

“You’ll be my guest. Or rather, a guest of the Mars Delegation, on my expense account. Come on, Rita, it won’t be the same without you.”

Jaison steps up. “You know you want to. When are you going to have another chance to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling in fajita form?” He opens his arms. “Come with me, and we’ll meet the others outside.”

Jannet puts her arm around Rita’s waist. “You’re taking both of us this time, big brother.”

He rolls his eyes. “Fine.” He takes Jannet and Rita in his arms, waves at the others, and then they are in the subway station.


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