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Chapter 17

Jope +20L

          Na and Ulixis lounged in the vacuous reaches beyond Outpost, gazing in shared relief at the distant orb that was Omen. In the opposite direction, the black bolt retreated step by step toward the galactic core. Na broke the reverie.
          "At least our ordeal has brought together many of Omen's divisive factions and special interest groups."
          "A common cause can have such a unifying effect," Ulixis replied thoughtfully. "History shows how destructive factionalism – Us against Them – can be."
          "We were wise not to partition the colony into competing nations. That would have only fueled discord. Even before the invasion, we generally managed to avoid overt violence amongst ourselves."
          "Yes, nationalism was pernicious in ancient times on Jopitar. Brute force has never been an effective tool for dealing with conflict within a cohesive group of equals." Ulixis reflected soberly on her study of conflict between groups on various worlds. "Of course violence can be very effective in imposing the will of one group on another, when the targeted group is viewed as somehow inferior, or dangerous by virtue of being different, even when the dominant group pays lip service to a doctrine of nonviolence."
          Na thought it ironic that the same perspective could be applied to their encounter with the alien race. "I understand that Synno has publicly apologized, both to Hue Yu Na and to the general rey population, for the bigoted remarks zo made during the advisory council meeting. Zo went out of zor way to exhort all octos and reys 'to embrace one another as equals, each blessed with unique strengths and weaknesses, both as individuals and as distinct species.' "
          "Implying I suppose that metons are merely derivative octos or reys," Ulixis replied with unexpected bitterness. "I was flabbergasted when Synno made zor earlier slurs. I had assumed that such speciesism could not exist in our society."
          "There's another positive consequence of the invasion. The popular perspective on safety and risk seems to have become much more rational. The bureaucrats won't recover for many jopes." Both kooom-chuckled neutrino static.
          Ulixis turned her attention to a radiant orb high above the ecliptic plane. The heart of one of the three remaining alien complexes, the enigmatic object had recently begun to gently pulsate in visible light. Its reflectivity was now somehow cycling between that of soot and the purest snow, roughly once each noc. Extremely faint, wispy tendrils spiraled inward from the five smaller bodies orbiting nearby, draped in black awareness and visible only in the far infrared. The bright central object seemed to be feeding off the others, slowly growing in mass and complexity. Ulixis and Na were located in a weak side lobe of a communication beam directed from the strange entity toward Loslo. Ulixis could just detect convoluted amplitude and frequency modulations in numerous bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, though it was complete gabble to her.
          "Strangely beautiful, isn't it?" Na injected, reading Ulixis' mind. She had left her guard circuits down, as she so often did when alone with Na.
          "Indeed. If you like tainted white noise. What's the latest on the communication effort? The pattern seems nothing like before." Na still maintained a link with the Beta team.
          "There has actually been significant progress, since our friend out there decided to participate." Na gestured electronically toward the alien beacon. "Hue and his crew have been very helpful, especially with creative global insights. They have finally been granted their own official designation – the Gamma team, I believe."
          "So what are the aliens supposed to be saying now?"
          "Much of the content thus far has been a kind of lexicon – imagery matched with symbolic patterns. Once the image format was recognized, the rest was straightforward. Except that the images are bizarre, abstract, difficult to pin down. Remarkably, a majority of the transmission appears to be abstract music. They seem to be singing to us! Very lyrical, poetic text is embedded within the musical composition."
          Ulixis was vaguely dubious. The interpretations always seemed too simplistic, even when there was clearly some truth to them. What unknown or unknowable emotional content might be buried within notes and rhythm?
          Na continued. "A few of the reys find the rendered music hauntingly beautiful."
          "There is no accounting for aesthetic taste," Ulixis teased.
          "More recently, the alien has apparently been trying to describe itself to us. It seems to refer to itself as the 'self-conscious being of the vacuum.' Which is ironic, considering that it feeds on black holes. A few octos have suggested that we simply call it the voidling. This name is catching on fast."
          "And what does this voidling call us?" Ulixis' curiosity was piqued.
          "The translation I find most compelling is 'self-aware parasites of matter'."
          "Why the distinction between self-conscious and self-aware?"
          "The alien symbols are nearly identical, but not quite. We posit a more positive self-reference."
          Ulixis winced mentally. What if the voidling did the opposite, out of respect? How many nuances were they perverting, or missing altogether? "Has anyone tried asking the voidling why it called off the attack on Malzen≠≠gren?"
          "Yes, it apparently decided at the last moment that the planet wasn't 'infested' after all."
          "Perhaps when it discovered that Malzen≠≠gren is a carbon planet. The voidling may simply be more familiar with such worlds, and so feels less threatened by them." Ulixis noticed a distant flash as a wayward piece of space junk slammed into a dwarf planet a few hundred bevurets from their location. "It is interesting that you have chosen to take active leave from the Beta team at such an exciting time," she gibed.
          "You know I wasn't contributing very much. Deciphering foreign code isn't my forte. Besides, I made room for someone more capable than me."
          Ulixis sighed inwardly. She had heard this before. "Well, I feel no penchant for it either."
          "Though your presence at the advisory council meeting was invaluable. I wonder if anyone else would have stood up to Synno the way you did, without hesitation yet so diplomatically, before things got out of hand."
          "I am hardly indispensable." Ulixis reflected on the occasion. "Synno felt we had no hope to understand the aliens, because they are so different from us." Ulixis paused thoughtfully. "Yet we presume to understand Dama, at least on some level. And who, or what, could be more different? Or do we really understand Dama at all?"
          "Synno was clearly wrong about the voidlings. We metons, octos, reys and voidlings alike are all exogenous creatures, and share the same physical universe. This inevitably imposes common outlines on our conscious experiences, which evidently overlap enough to allow us to communicate. The situation with Maddee is completely different. If the physical world is in fact a facet of Maddee's mind, then we experience Xem directly. You, me, everything we see and create, even so-called artificial entities, are all natural, vital aspects of Maddee. To the extent we are reflections of Maddee, can't we hope to understand Xem?"
          Ulixis contemplated how comforting it must be to know with certainty. Then she was abruptly revolted by the idea. "I wonder what Dama-Maddee chooses to call Him/Her/Itself? Or is this question utterly irrelevant?"
          "Perhaps something like the ancient name – 'I Am.' I always liked that."
          Ulixis turned her gaze to an unseeable distance, a sprawling dark nebula that hung beneath them and the Los ecliptic plane like a bottomless pit. She decided to change the subject and mood. "Tell me, Na. What is your dream? Your passion?"
          Na paused for only a moment. "To explore." Then he koomed broadly. "To experience all the positive variety, fullness and limits that creaturehood offers." He didn't mind being set up. "And yours?"
          "I suppose it has been to help establish a new colony. This colony. And yet …"
          "Something is missing here?"
          "Well … yes. We are so … restricted."
          "In what ways?" Na was surprised and puzzled. He had never seen this side of Ulixis.
          "I worry that I have no right to complain, especially now. We almost lost everything. Yet the recent events have actually drawn these feelings out of me. I hardly know how to explain. I am – we are – metons. Yet this colony is set up primarily for the organics. Which is fine in itself. We owe our existence to them, we were organics once ourselves. But I dream to go beyond the organic stage. I want to explore the full potential of meton existence, of a true meton civilization. The possibilities for various types and levels of shared consciousness especially intrigues me. And I long – this sounds so strange – to have my own meton young."
          "Do you mean clones?" Na tried to hide a wave of revulsion.
          "No, of course not. That route is inflexible, self-centered, a dead end. I mean children who would be of us, yet separate, analogous to the organics. They could inherit our basic tendencies and traits, but not the particulars."
          Na didn't interrupt, but let Ulixis pour it all out. She seemed really serious about this.
          "We could easily modify ourselves, introduce some variety of design and function, some real differences between the equivalent of meton sexes – male, female, or whatever – and make these distinctions relate to something more than just our biological heritage. The female form could be enlarged, and given the equivalent of a womb."
          Na imagined Ulixis with a 50% greater girth. This pleased him, as it reminded him of the size difference between rey females and males. The vestigial organic nerve patterns persisted.
          "A way could be introduced for male and female to imprint a blended genetic template there, to conceive an embryonic meton within a protected, intimate environment. There could be an extended period of infancy and childhood – say, three jopes – to allow adequate monitoring of development, permit significant individual learning, encourage the blossoming of a unique personality."
          Na finally decided to state the obvious. "But meton offspring are strictly forbidden."
          "I know, and I respect the taboo," Ulixis replied sadly. "The octos have good reason to impose it." Her pent-up anger and frustration abruptly flared. "But we do not. The metons do not. The risks and benefits to each race are totally different. Still, how could I ever break the covenant? I feel so hemmed in."
          Na looked outward, at a distant smudge of light framed by a swirl of hot blue stars, and felt an old, deep inner stirring. "We could leave this galaxy altogether," he responded fancifully. "The restrictions couldn't be binding in another star system."
          Ulixis fought back a moment of terror, as she imagined her familiar stellar whirlpool an insignificant speck in an alien sky. Na hadn't mentioned his old dream of intergalactic travel since the time of Nemo's death. "I know rationally that other spiral systems have similar stars, similar planets. Yet I have trouble convincing myself emotionally that they are not somehow terribly different."
          "They are the same," Na said softly but firmly, surprising himself. Then why was he so drawn to the idea?
          "There is something else I have not told you," Ulixis again changed the subject. "And please, do not kooom. I have been composing a story, ever since we first arrived at Omen."
          This was the first Na had heard of it. The yad was turning out to be full of surprises.
          "It has been important to me, but I am such a slow writer, I did not have the nerve to bring it up until now. It is a fictional account of how the simions may have broken free of their home planet Aerth, with a special emphasis on possible transformations in their culture, philosophy, and religion."
          The very name simian suddenly struck Na as so alien. Didn't they sweat to cool down?
          "Weaving the story helped me deal with feelings of homesickness for our own birth world. In retrospect, it is as much about myself as the simions. The work is almost finished now, and I do not know what to do with it."
          "I'd like to read it," Na offered. "Or would you recite it to me?"
          Ulixis koomed. They had nothing planned for a few yads. Sometimes Na knew exactly what to say.

Jope +23L

          The following three jopes were full, and passed quickly. The Omenites continued to develop relations with the voidling, and an uneasy peace was established. The dark stranger had made a single demand: that the parasites of matter keep out of its territory, a sprawling complex of black gravity pools and interconnecting spacetime lowlands. In return, the voidling would respect the colonists' peculiar domain. These terms were easy to accept. While the black hole environment was of interest to the colonists, it was also quite hostile to them, and could easily be monitored remotely. Dynamic territorial boundaries had been negotiated, defined in terms of spacetime topology. A buffer zone was included, to minimize the chance of accidental incursions into each other's space. The three alien beacons remained, serving collectively as a kind of foreign consulate.
          Na was flying out from Omen, to a work assignment inside Loslo, when Neris caught up with him. Neris had already been a meton for four jopes, since long before the coming of the voidling. The transition had been comparatively easy for her. Raised in a simulator tank, she had always been familiar with the metons, and had never felt truly wild.
          "Blessed rising, Father," Neris called.
          "Blessed meeting, daughter! What brings our paths together?"
          "I was hoping you would have the latest news on communications with the voidling. It's impossible to obtain up-to-date information through standard channels. I understand we have asked once again about possible previous encounters with other octan colonies?"
          "The response was the same as before. The voidlings still seem confused by the question. They don't understand how there could be other colonists. They insist that we Omenites are the colonists, the self-aware parasites of matter."
          "Doesn't the local voidling collective and its immediate derivatives occupy only a small corner of the overall voidling habitat? I have heard that they occasionally touch or meld with other collectives. So they must understand the concept other."
          "Yes, but none of the other collectives has ever referred to distinct, self-aware creatures like us. Of course, they all occasionally need to eradicate 'parasitic infestations.' The local voidling seems to believe that our colony originated right here, in the Los system."
          "Perhaps we could send them a string like 'Suol begat Jopitar, Jopitar begat metons, metons traveled to Omen,' etc. Wouldn't that help clarify things?"
          "We have repeatedly tried to explain that we first came from a different star, but Synno and his allies on the Council insist that we never disclose the location or any other details of the suolar system. This may be hampering communications. The voidling provided our common symbols for the Los system, and they may require spatial coordinates to meaningfully define other stars and planets."
          "I also wanted to ask about your work on the Metonite Project." Ulixis had not abandoned her dream of an independent meton civilization, but vigorously pursued the idea. She had organized a meton task group two jopes earlier, to fully explore the possibility and its ramifications. Many octos had initially reacted with horror and outrage. Some still found the project more threatening even than the voidling.
          "Tempers have cooled considerably, since several organics were invited to join the task group. In retrospect, we should have done that long ago."
          "I'm interested in joining one of the developmental teams, but need to find a good fit. Didn't you volunteer to head the team assigned to design an intergalactic transport ship?"
          "Yes, and it's been quite a challenge. The vehicle must be capable of transporting thousands of metons, on an ultra-Niestiik [approaching light speed] trajectory, all the way to another galaxy. Ambient light photons and dust particles are transformed to lethal bullets at such high velocity, so a shielded vessel is needed. The protective craft must be self-conscious, of course, to ensure efficient and reliable operation."
          "A crafton, right? Isn't that what such an entity is commonly called?"
          "Yes, I'm afraid so. I dislike the term, finding it both ugly and ill fitting. The tag is popular with the organics, though, so I use it for political reasons."
          "How would a crafton be so different from the conscious moons of Omen or Outpost?"
          "The design must be fundamentally different. The conscious moons aren't equipped for self-propulsion, and rely on metons for many routine functions. This particular crafton would be unusually large. I fancy calling it a megon. Listen, I'm heading for Loslo now, to simulate construction based on some preliminary design work. Why don't you join me?"
          "I'd love to! Thank you so much."
          "I warn you, the job may get pretty tedious."
          "That's all right. I feel I don't really understand a thing, until I know its details."
          "Well then, follow me."

          A few rohs later, Na and Neris decelerated as they approached the repaired north pole of Loslo. Na felt the tap of a metallic tentacle against his smooth skin. Curious, he turned his attention to Neris. "Yes, daughter?"
          "Father – I have been meaning to ask you this for some time. How well did you know my mother before leaving Jopitar?"
          Na was puzzled by the question. "Why, Ulixis and I had just met, following our meton transformations."
          "No, I mean my biological mother."
          "Oh. I never met her. She was supposedly found, badly injured, by an octan cruise ship back on Jopitar. Her eggs were removed just after she died. I didn't even know I carried the eggs, until shortly before we founded this colony. Surely, you must have asked others about this?"
          "Yes, when I was a child, but I never quite believed the story. I wanted to hear it directly from you."
          "Hasn't Ulixis been a good mother?"
          "Of course she has. Still, she was never a rey. I have only begun feeling close to her since becoming a meton." Neris impulsively scanned the deep sky in the direction of Jopitar. "I wonder what kind of relationship developed between the reys and octos back on the home world."
          "You do realize that was more than sixteen kilujopes ago? Maddee knows."
          "It's just that, unlike here, the octos had a long history of looking down on reys as inferior beasts." A flash caught Neris' attention. Emerging over the far limb of Loslo was a gang of creatoids, busy vaporizing a swarm of orbital debris. "Were you aware that many young octos and reys have started using the combined term Damaddee, instead of either Dama or Maddee?"
          "I had no idea. I should probably pay more attention to popular culture." Na decided it was time to change the subject. "Listen, we will be entering Loslo soon. Have you ever used the Loslo virtual reality apparatus?"
          "Many times. You may recall that I was involved in the crash wartime effort to develop advanced remote experience and control techniques."
          "Of course, how did that slip my mind?"
          "What a frenetic period! The work ultimately led to the Loslo Reality-2 system, following the peace treaty."
          The Omenites currently distinguished three levels of waking reality. Level zero was the most basic, and referred to the ultimate content of the physical world. This incredible tangled web of abstract physical relationship was thought to be one aspect of the mind of Dama, the self-sufficient panuniversal Spirit that embodied consistent logic and realized all consistent possibility. Level-one reality encompassed the everyday experience of animals and other exogenous creatures, their interpretation of level zero in terms of animal needs and desires. Though grounded in level zero, the conscious content was radically different. Level-two reality was an extension of level one, through virtual experience. It had originated with training simulators, used to practice dangerous tasks in a safe environment. As simulators were networked together, and more of a user's sensory awareness was assimilated, reality-two evolved into a complex world in its own right. Many now considered level-two experience just as valid as level-one.
          "Do you have any regrets on your involvement?"
          "Quite the contrary – I am proud I played a part. The technology was developed far beyond anything previously available. Of course, we had to defer dealing with serious ethical issues involving privacy, individual rights, and social responsibility."
          "What else could you do? The invasion consumed everyone."
          "Since the peace treaty, several colleagues have worked hard to address the oversights. I think they have done a remarkable job, developing mechanisms to minimize violation of rights, while still promoting freedom of expression and interaction."
          A port opened in Loslo's skin directly ahead of Na and Neris, and they dove straight down a shaft into the deep interior. Close by the end of the passage, the pair snuggled into a cozy compartment, and plugged into the reality-two complex. Na activated the planning medium, and Neris immediately found herself floating in an endless space colored a deep navy blue.
          "This is my preferred starting place, my empty 'desk top' in the old computer jargon," Na remarked.
          "A bit old-fashioned, isn't it?"
          "I find modern backgrounds too distracting."
          Considerable skill and experience were required to use the reality-two milieu to its full potential. Appropriate conscious triggers had to be issued to initiate, modify, or redirect a session. A user could visit reconstructions of any site for which records existed, or create fantasy worlds. An external reality generator equipped with vast, comprehensive data banks could be tapped to supply provisional details of an experience, freeing participants to concentrate on their own behaviors. Other real or imaginary beings could be invited, permitted, or conjured to engage in a session. A user could present as a meton, octo, rey, ent, or any other compatible creature or entity. Virtual reality could be framed in a level-one format, or it could transcend level one, by including novel constructs and dimensions not overtly found in everyday life. One could even explore an incorporeal world whose dimensions ranged over all possible values of abstract quantities. Experience was limited only by the physical brain structure of a participant.
          "Tell me, Father – do you have a special place here that you like to visit?"
          Na koomed deeply. "Yes, though it changes over time. Lately I'm fond of a frozen mountainous paradise, floating at the core of a globular star cluster, and inhabited by great leather-winged creatures cloaked in silky brown fur. I morph into one of these organics, and join them in flight, through a cold moonlit sky. What about you?"
          "My getaways tend to be less physical. Sometimes I like to lose myself in a dictionary of an ancient language. The Jopian Kuku dialect is currently a favorite. I experience the dictionary as a semantic world, in which each dimension spans all possible values of a given letter in a word. Valid letter combinations might glow a soft yellow, while meaningless sequences are stained a dull blue. As I move through the space, any meaning associated with my current position automatically pops into my mind. I sometimes alter the colors or textures of related words, to indicate connections."
          Na koomed again, but inwardly. "How exotic. Well, let's start. First, we need to select a target." Na summoned a list of all intact, available, reasonably accessible, and (nearly) round moons and dwarf planets between 512 and 1024 kilurets diameter. An array of detailed 3-dimensional images of 15 bodies materialized around him and Neris. A young octo couple also appeared off to the side, apparently to watch. Na didn't mind, so they remained visible.
          "Next we need data regarding 12 specific characteristics, including diameter, mass, and various structural and compositional indices," Na continued. Each extended body was instantly embedded in a 12-dimensional parameter space. Most metons could directly visualize spaces of up to 16 independent dimensions. Organics could manage only three at a time, so the octan couple had to be content with selected projections of the data.
          "What are we looking for? Ideal size, balanced compositional mix?"
          "That's right. Plus uniformity, structural integrity. See that large moon over there? Its subterranean sea is a contraindication. While such defects can be corrected, they complicate and prolong construction." One of the icy megon candidate moons investigated by Na and Neris
          Na eliminated all but three of the orbs from consideration. "Now comes the fun part – exploring the interiors of these selections. Let's go!" One of the bodies rapidly expanded into a huge, warty ball. First Na, then Neris dove into it playfully. They rooted about, tasting the composition, and feeling the density and texture of the rocks with their minds.
          After repeating this process with the other two candidates, Na selected one of them – a moon 780 kilurets wide, orbiting in the stark deep freeze around Outpost. Neris indicated agreement. They both settled back, pleased with the choice. Rich in silicate minerals and carbon compounds, the moon also had an ample supply of metals and ices. There were several small structural defects, but all could be easily resolved.
          Meanwhile, the octan couple was losing interest in the activity. They glanced slyly at each other, and abruptly disappeared. Neris chuckled to Na. "They've probably decided to pursue a private sexual fantasy."
          "No doubt. Sex is such an odd beastie. The sex drive would be so much more rational if it only evoked an explicit desire to have offspring."
          "Yes, but we both know how inefficient that would be. Imagine creatures fumbling in the dark, trying to figure out how to reproduce. Evolution generally finds it more expedient to instill a primary desire to perform certain physical mating acts, which only secondarily lead to procreation." Neris thought briefly to herself. "Of course, sex can also serve purposes other than procreation. It certainly helps bond a rey tribe. And many higher social animals have evolved an instinct to have young, in addition to an instinct to engage in sexual activity. Sometimes, the two drives can become linked."
          "But the craved sex acts must even then appear ludicrous, or at least boring, to any detached observer! While primal sexual desire may be appropriate for lower animals, do you ever feel it is somehow unbecoming for sapient creatures like reys and octos?"
          "Not really. As a sapient rey, I was able to understand the origin of my sexual appetite, and to impose reason on its expression. But I always tried to then simply enjoy sex, as a natural part of physical existence."
          "Sometimes I wonder how I would have handled virtual reality as a virile young male rey. I fear I would have become hopelessly addicted to cyber-sex, in the absence of imposed limitations." At present few restrictions applied to virtual experience, though counseling was discretely offered to individuals tending toward repetitive self-destructive behavior. Most users resolved obsessive cravings by acting them out in an accepting fantasy setting, often with the guidance of psychological tools.
          "Dear Father, I find it so easy to forget that you too were once a creature of flesh."
          "That was a long time ago, Neris. Now, are you ready to build a megon?"
          "Indeed. I assume we will perform a time-enhanced simulation. What time-compression factor do you intend?"
          "Let's try x218. That should be slow enough for us to monitor important developments, but not so slow that we will get impatient. I am planting two creatoid seeds now."
          An identical pair of generic, cylindrical creatoids sprang out of the rocky equatorial plain on opposite sides of the moon, and began reproducing. Within six nims, a pulsing swarm of silver creatures nearly obliterated the surface.
          "This pace is making me giddy! How much simulated time has passed?" Neris queried. "I haven't been keeping track."
          "About one-third jope." Na showed Neris how to access a clock display. "The average density is approaching a critical value. Watch for a change."
          The undifferentiated organisms abruptly began to metamorphose, transforming into dedicated work units. Most became worm creatoids, while a small minority became diggers. The conscious machines simultaneously organized into symmetric patterns over twelve sectors.
          Standing on end, the worms within each sector arranged themselves in concentric pentagons. The diggers clambered atop the worms, both to get out of the way, and to distribute themselves in a more sparse design. As soon as the creatoids were in position, the worms attacked the crust in unison.
          The worms burrowed downward with vigor. They ingested the rock in a feeding frenzy, savoring an ultralight spice of natural, energy-sustaining radioactive minerals. The raw stock was converted into a stringy siliceous mix that the worms excreted behind them, transforming the moon's fractured crust into a stout, solid medium. An amorphous matrix of fibers slowly crystallized within, adding further strength and resilience. The random filaments would spontaneously coordinate over time, forming a flexible, pervasive neural network. The vital hull of the crafton grew from the outside inward.
          Na and Neris were able to watch the underground activity, by consciously altering both their perspectives and the transparencies of intervening material. Neris feigned disgust. "So, our crafton is to be composed of worm feces?"
          Na koom-grinned inwardly. "Hush, and pay attention."
          The diggers were temporarily stranded on the surface, sunken partway into the fresh, glossy plain. Many of them passed the time preparing clutches of constructor creatoid eggs. After several yads simulated time, all the diggers shifted into action. Most began to individually excavate round shafts, tapered to converge at the moons center, straight down. Diggers at all but one of the sector hubs labored together to clear wider passageways into the moon. The work was dark, gritty, hellishly oppressive and claustrophobic, but the creatoids loved it.
          The shaft diggers planted constructor seeds at regular intervals. Within several nocs, these had hatched and matured into comparatively small and flexible forms. Those near the surface quickly built protective iris diaphragms for the shafts. They then began reworking the outermost rets of crust, transforming it into a tough, sensor-studded layer of skin.
          Excavated material shot out of the shafts, as the diggers advanced relentlessly. Selected material was captured at the surface, but the rest was deflected away in huge streams. The virtual moon slowly spiraled outward from a virtual Outpost, toward an eventual imaginary orbit around Los.
          The digger force bore through the crust in step with the worms far below. At intervals, the shafts were shifted and linked in an intricate fashion, providing alternate travel routes, switch points, and rest stations.
          "How would this design handle a collision with a small asteroid or comet?" Neris wondered aloud.
          "The shaft pattern produces a crumple zone, which should preferentially absorb shock and shatter during an impact. Note that the shafts are not joined across sector boundaries, to help localize damage in any mishap."
          "I see there is no direct line-of-sight access along the shafts into the crafton interior."
          "That's right. This is primarily a radiation safety measure."
          "How thick is the hull going to be?" Neris noted from the clock display that the diggers had been toiling for about 0.1 jope, simulated time.
          "The design team has tentatively chosen 48 kilurets. The worms should reach this depth momentarily. There! It's time to remake the moon's interior."
          The converging worm bodies were now just touching. To avoid future interference, they divided into six cohorts, which advanced in a shifting pattern of telescoping and twisting rings. Two of these cohorts deposited an extremely strong medium, laced with a variety of fibers and primitive seeds that would mature into a maze of nerves, nerve trunks, sensors, and conduits. This synthetic connective tissue would provide the framework for an elaborate system of halls, passageways, rooms, and crafton organs, extending from the hull to the crafton's solid core. These worms also laid eggs for a hoard of microcreatoids – simple, flexible units barely one ret in diameter, that would inhabit open spaces in the walls, and perform a wide range of housekeeping functions.
          The majority of the worms in the other four cohorts converted the rock to a comparatively bland but sturdy amalgam, much of which would be cleared away later by diggers to create open spaces. The remainder produced specialized parenchymal media, which would mature into an assortment of dedicated structures.
          "Why aren't the worms creating open spaces?" Neris queried.
          "Structural integrity is improved using a two-step process. First, the worms convert the original rock to a more stable material. Then, the diggers hollow cavities out of this medium. Look, here come the diggers now."
          The diggers had paused at the inner hull just long enough to fabricate additional digger and constructor eggs, then resumed their advance. As they penetrated the interior, diggers at the sector hubs continued to clear the major access ports as before. The isolated diggers changed task – they lay their eggs, then began to excavate a labyrinth of open spaces. The digger offspring joined their parents in the effort.
          The basic architectural elements in the interior design were the blok and the collyph. The blok was a long, tapered volume with an oval cross section, associated with and centered on a primary hull shaft. Selected bloks would be hollowed out by the diggers to form continuous halls some 256 kilurets long, stretching all the way from the hull to the core. Other bloks would be configured as a series of abutting halls, or honeycombed with rooms and chambers surrounding a central corridor. The remainder would contain the various crafton organs.
          Collyphs were the main structural components of the foundational framework – towering, interconnected columnar structures that separated the bloks and supported the bulk weight of the overlying hull and interior elements. They were flared at both top and bottom, to graciously accept their gravitational burdens. A network of ports and passageways through the collyphs interconnected the bloks.
          "I see no sign yet of the Drac bubble generator or the Xam drive," Neris noted.
          "Watch the worms under the passage-free south polar hub. Their exudate is laden with tubules that will grow, multiply, and interconnect to form the requisite network of cryogenic channels, plasma chambers, and quantum interference circuits. The system will eventually be integrated directly into the crafton brain in the outer core."
          Na became impatient with the simulation. "If you don't mind, I'd like to hurry through the next 5,500 yads at quadruple speed. This will take 2.4 nims, real time."
          "That would be fine with me." The pace of the interior construction was becoming tedious to Neris, as well.
          The creatoids whirred forward, sowing digger, constructor and microcreatoid seeds at appropriate intervals. These seemed to instantly sprout mature adults, which joined in the construction melee. As they progressed toward the planned core, members of various worm cohorts became superfluous. These creatoids instinctively retired, and sank into the synthetic stone, to await a future need.
          "I haven't spotted any design flaws yet," Na noted. "Let's go in for a closer look." Slowing to non-enhanced (x1) time mode, Na let the simulated moon balloon to true relative size. He and Neris stared at the hypothetical body for several nocs in silent awe. The surface creatoids were still hardening the crafton skin, as the pair headed for the main access port at the north pole.
          Na and Neris entered the gaping pentagonal opening at a brisk pace, and headed down through the gaily-lit hull, painted brightly in ultraviolet and infrared tones. Expansive iris diaphragms opened smoothly at their approach, then closed silently behind, until at last they reached the interior. The diggers here had not followed the blok-collyph pattern, but had extended the broad passage intact all the way to the core. The walls of the colossal cavern seemed to converge to a point at infinity directly beneath them. Massive, elegantly arched entries opened into neighboring bloks around the periphery, reminding Na of the nave of an ancient simion cathedral back on Aerth.
          Neris gazed into the void below, gently (less than 2% Earth gravity) but inexorably pulling her downward. "This experience vaguely reminds me of life as a rey."
          "Only now, there is cold, solid rock at the bottom of the abyss."
          "Well, simulated solid rock." She and Na kooomed static together.
          A nearby secondary tunnel caught Na's attention. "Let's check progress down in the core" he suggested, then playfully slipped through the narrow opening into an adjoining standard blok. Neris followed close behind, then willed herself downward 256 kilurets. She instantly materialized with Na near the blok base, just above the wrinkled, charcoal-grey exterior surface of the outer crafton core. The worms had reorganized and entered the core just a few thoms earlier. Now they labored in the heavy darkness a few kilurets below, both extending the weight-bearing collyphs toward the inner core, and filling the intervening space with a solid, complex neural mix. This medium would mature into the vast crafton brain. Already the superficial layers were performing basic functions, linking with the expansive neural network distributed throughout the crafton, and assuming responsibility for coordinating creatoid activities. Many creatoids were surrendering their limited individual identities, and merging with the overall crafton awareness, forming a global, unified conscious field. Within 1,000 yads the brain would extend halfway to the center of the moon. At that level the collyphs would intersect and fuse, squeezing out the final wedges of brain parenchyma. A fraction of the worms would persist deeper still, eventually replacing most of the inner core with a homogeneous alloy of great strength. One by one these worms would stop, and transform into conscious sensors, linked to the crafton brain by slender nerve roots, at one with the crafton consciousness.
          Na and Neris surveyed their surroundings. The walls of the blok at this level were still roughly hewn, and both digger and constructor creatoids scurried at work in the clamorous silence. The bloks had not yet been flooded with xenon gas, so there was no synthetic sound.
          "What about time delays?" Neris queried. "How can so large a brain and body remain synchronized?"
          "That was a thorny issue. The problem is much less severe than with an organic of the same size, since crafton nerve pulses travel so much faster – near light speed. The minimum global reaction time should be similar to that of organics, though much slower than that of metons. Still, the volume of brain responsible for a single thought element must be localized, to a region smaller than the distance light travels during the minimum processing time interval. Different elements are then integrated, with synchronizing time delays, in a hierarchy of …"
          Suddenly Na noticed a message blinking in the vacuum before him. It was an obtrusive reminder to develop a detailed quality assurance plan for the construction project, in accordance with new regulatory requirements. Na cursed to himself in muted disgust.
          "Could I be of help with this?" Neris asked. The message was visible to her, as well.
          Neris' offer caught Na by surprise. "Well, yes. That would be very helpful. I'm afraid I have little tolerance for some of the bureaucratic rules. I know I follow good procedures, and don't understand why I have to waste so much time proving it to others."
          "The organics simply want assurances. We both know you do competent work; they do not. You must realize there are octos, reys, and synons alike who cut corners, or have hidden agendas. I have some experience with quality assurance, and developing a plan will help me understand the overall project better."
          "Terrific! I'll notify the rest of the design team."
          "I think I've observed enough of the simulation. I'll get back to you when I have a concrete proposal. Thanks again for including me."
          After Neris disappeared, Na found that he had lost interest in continuing the simulation. He cut it off, and reconnected to a reserved set of twenty synthetic eyes distributed over the surface of Loslo. He instinctively blinked as he was immersed in stark, vivid reality-one. The remote eyes felt as natural as his own. Na located the moon he would propose for crafton conversion, circling distant Outpost in silent indifference, and studied its blurred surface at high magnification. He wondered if the simulation had missed some hidden flaw, had oversimplified the reconstruction process, had underestimated the role of fatal chance. Then he abruptly reentered reality-two, and found himself floating in a sea of gray darkness.
          The scene slowly morphed, into a dense tropical rain forest of old Aerth. Na hung as a grey giant sloth from a stout cinnamoon branch, solitary in deep green shade, high in the leafy canopy. The lofty shadows were somehow comforting. Far below, the damp jungle floor was crawling with sinuous pythons, waiting to devour any unfortunate creature that happened to fall from the trees. Then Na sensed a new flashing signal, this time in the corner of his mind. It was Ulixis, seeking his attention. Na reluctantly allowed her to appear. Ulixis materialized as a brilliantly colored toucan, with an oversize rainbow beak.
          "How is the design simulation coming?" Ulixis asked brightly. Then she noticed Na's depressed air. "Is something wrong?"
          "Oh, the simulation went well enough," Na responded in obvious conflict. "But then, some bureaucrat launched an unsolicited regulatory notice into my mind. Can you believe it?"
          "I doubt it was terribly luminous," Ulixis squawked gently. "And after all, you were conducting official business."
          "That's not the point! A preoccupation with physical safety has been creeping back into the collective psyche. And the puncil-pushers have been taking advantage of the trend. They haven't gone away after all; they've only been hiding."
          Ulixis couldn't understand why Na refused to come to terms with this issue. She didn't interrupt, but listened patiently to his ranting.
          "A majority of the organics disdain pure theoretical work, and seem to reject simple curiosity as a justification for anything. They show scant interest in any program or project not explicitly intended to promote physical survival or security. But whom are they fooling? Physical survival in itself is hardly a viable purpose for living. I am already on my deathbed. Already dead, and not yet born, simultaneously. You are, we are all. Our sense of perpetuation along lines we call time is merely a byproduct of the way we're constructed. We both rationally know that time is actually a set of branching dimensions of possibility, not unlike space. To Maddee, the whole of reality must be a seamless fabric, constant and eternal, with no past or future. And is Xyr purpose merely to survive? Of course not! It is to know, to Be, to realize all consistent possibility. Why can't we emulate Xem?"
          "Is not some level of tension between the two points of view natural and inevitable?" Ulixis finally broke in. Conversing with a sloth felt so strange. "There will always be individuals who prefer practical, applied work, and others who are attracted to more academic, esoteric pursuits. We physical creatures are so diverse, with such a wide range of abilities, inclinations, and life spans. Even our sense of curiosity probably evolved as a survival strategy in a hostile, changing environment. What is needed is a sense of balance between the extremes." What was wrong with Na? Any physicochemical or psychic imbalance should have been eliminated by all the psychiatric counseling he had undergone. "Surely you cannot expect the public to support your pet projects, simply because you personally find them interesting?"
          "Of course not. But public support is a reflection of private values. And right now, the public seems primarily interested in preserving its collective hide in cryogenic stasis. No transcendental goal has managed to kindle the collective passion. Even the Metonite Project has generated widespread interest and enthusiasm only among metons."
          "Why ever should the organics be moved by this venture? Most of them are busy enough raising families and making ends meet. Our project must be totally irrelevant to the vast majority. Na, I realize that much of our colonization effort has been a tedious struggle for you. With the crafton program, you are finally engaged in an enterprise much closer to your core: travel, navigation, exploration. Why can you not simply embrace it, and those who share your zeal?" Ulixis glanced downward, at the snakes below. "Why can you not trust life enough to follow your own path, and let others follow theirs?"
          Na chose not to respond immediately, but averted his eyes in quiet contemplation. A flicker of Ulixis' inner thoughts leaked through, and Na's anger flared anew. "I don't want any more physical tinkering with my brain!"
          Ulixis blanched, a bit embarrassed, then became angry herself. "Your negative attitude and moping about have been affecting all of us. You need to do something about it."
          "I am very much in touch with reality, thank you. I may not always deal with it effectively, or in a manner you like. But I am who I am, warts and all. And I expect you to respect my personal decisions concerning neurotherapy. I want to stay in touch with my dissatisfactions. I'm not even convinced the neurotherapists understand all the long-term consequences of their procedures."
          "Na! Neurotherapy has been practiced and refined over countless kilujopes."
          "On octan psyches. Have you forgotten, my neural patterns are different? I am still essentially a rey, in a meton shell."
          "I just get so frustrated. I only want you to be happy."
          Na koomed outwardly. "Of course," he cooed. But inwardly, Na grimaced. Maybe he wasn't meant to be happy. Whatever being "happy" actually meant. As if anyone was meant to be anything.
          Ulixis relaxed a bit, and let herself absorb the magnificent wet beauty of the surrounding jungle. An endless tapestry of intertwining trees and fruited vines, rich with exotic insect and bird life, hung from a pearl-blue sky. "Sometimes I fear the bureaucratic excesses of the organics are a defensive response to us," she mused softly as she pecked at a juicy papaw. "An easy wall of certainty against meton powers, which must so often be overwhelming, even terrifying. Perhaps this is reason enough for us old-timers to move on." She paused, momentarily perturbed. "We will still need to deal with the thousands of middle-aged octos and reys who are bound to apply for early transformation to meton form, should our odyssey be approved at the general election."
          Na bolted upright on his branch. "I almost forgot! Isn't this the final yad of the election?" The Omenites practiced a blended form of representative and direct democracy, adapted from the traditional Jopian model.
          Ulixis chuckled. She was pleased to see this spontaneous burst of enthusiasm. "Be calm. There is still plenty of time to vote. Have you made your final decisions?"
          "Yes, though I had some trouble ranking the Galuxis and Cosmuso Party candidates."
          "What about the National Omen Party?" Ulixis teased.
          "That isn't funny, Ul. I get shivers imagining them in control. Of course they're bound to win a few seats in the districts still recovering from the voidling assault." The sloth faded, and Na reappeared in his level-one spherical body form. "Thanks for listening to me earlier. Sometimes I feel I will never fit in anywhere. I realize there is no rush, but I'm going to vote right now."
          "If you must," Ulixis sighed. "I think I will tarry here a while. I like your taste in terrestrial worlds."
          "Join me when the final election results are announced. I plan to attend the Loslo-37 election party, in the Great Hall."
          Na aborted the current program, and the lush scenery dissolved from his mind. Although he could have immediately entered a voting routine, he decided to vote in the Great Hall instead. Na returned to reality-one, disconnected from the virtual reality system, and sped away along a series of shafts to a huge chamber on the opposite side of Loslo. As he entered, he spotted Hue Yu Na, who had only recently become a meton.
          "Joyful meeting, Hue Yu Na. How are you adjusting to metonhood?"
          "Greetings to you, Elder Na. I still occasionally become dizzy from all my new senses, though otherwise seem to be progressing reasonably well. What an awakening! Such freedom! But tell me – am I truly still myself?"
          "You know the philosophic arguments as well as I. Are you here to vote?"
          "Yes, my first time as a meton. I voted one coile – I mean, roh – ago. Now I'm passing time until the results are announced."
          "Is it true that most reys still only vote for the local tribal representative to the Planetary Council?"
          "I'm afraid so. It's necessary to vote for all other offices and referenda through a creatoid. One rendezvous with each tribe during the final few yads of a voting period, but the balloting procedure is quite awkward."
          "What about the tribal rep? How could the balloting be secret, if a creatoid isn't involved?"
          "It's not – a delegate is selected by consensus during the community chorus. Most reys favor this approach."
          "In my birth tribe, we weren't even aware that the octos existed. All politics was internal, and the tribe was governed by a group of elders. Decisions were made by consensus, but only among members of that group."
          "Most of the Omen tribes still follow that model internally. But enough of this chitchat; you're probably anxious to finalize your vote."
          "Yes, it is getting late. May I rejoin you later? My partner Ulixis will likely fly in for the festivities, and we could introduce you to several of our meton friends."
          "That would be most welcome. Until later …"
          Na scooted down the hall, weaving through a growing crowd of metons, toward a bank of voting stations along the wall. Rather than open a wireless link, he tied directly into a secure, shielded port, and initiated a voting routine. The modest line supported only a limited level of virtual experience, but was adequate for Na's purpose.
          A registrar module scanned Na's mental signature, and verified his identity. A personal virtual ballot appeared, with a list of current elective positions, and several referendum proposals and options. The eight leading contenders for each office on election eve were automatically displayed. The President of the Planetary Council and a few key Council positions were up for election this round, together with a proposition providing alternative levels of support for the Metonite Project. Na had previously entered his own tentative top eight choices for each office, and ranked the referenda options, in order of his personal preference.
          Na confirmed the highest level of support for the Metonite project, and the option rankings for the remaining referenda. He then cleared his previous ranked lists for all the elective offices, and replaced them with the current top eight contender lists. After eliminating a few extremist candidates, and reordering the other candidates, he wrote in Tenosvens Laida, a prominent meton diplomat, as his first choice for Council President. Though widely respected, Laida had little chance to win the seat; metons were simply too intimidating to a majority of organic voters. Most elective Council seats and regional offices were currently held by octos, though there was a sizeable block of synoct representatives, and metons were frequently appointed chief advisors to Council members. Reys were politically under-represented outside their own tribes. The wanderlustful creatures were neither physically nor emotionally suited to bureaucratic office life. Reality-two techniques were being developed to encourage more rey participation, but had thus far achieved only limited success.
          Na formally submitted the ballot as his final choice. The entire procedure had taken only a few nocs. He then closed the voting program, and re-entered reality-one. Na spotted Hue some distance away, and maneuvered to his side.
          "That was quick," Hue said, surprised.
          "I have more practice than you. Also, I decided on my final preferences some time ago. Now, we must wait."
          "I understand that voting was quite different in the early Jopian democracies. Is it true that they didn't use ranked voting?"
          Na reflected on the history of democracy back on Jopitar. "Balloting and vote counting were done manually, one vote per citizen per office. For simplicity and economy, only a simple plurality was normally required to win an election. In retrospect, this policy was utter insanity. It frequently led to blatantly undemocratic government by a minority bloc, when the majority vote split among two or more similar candidates."
          "Wouldn't the scheme have favored a system with two entrenched political parties? Voters must have been reluctant to throw their votes away on emerging third-party candidates. I imagine that voter choice would have been influenced as much by perceptions of how others would vote, as by personal preference."
          "That's exactly what happened! Established political parties argued strenuously against ranked voting, claiming it would be too expensive, insecure, and complicated. Of course, they also knew it would erode their own political power."
          "Radical minority parties must have been sorely tempted to covertly sponsor mainstream third-party candidates, to improve their own electoral chances."
          "Indeed. Major parties finally began to accept voting reform, only after an extremist religious candidate won a presidential election in a prominent nation-state with barely 25% of the popular vote; the majority had split among three nearly identical moderate candidates, plus a few minor contenders. Oh look, here comes Ulixis."
          Ulixis sidled up to Na, and addressed Hue.
          "Fond meeting, Hue Yu Na. You look fine in your new body."
          "Fond greetings to you, Ulixis. And thank you."
          "Any word yet on results?" Ulixis asked.
          "Results won't be released for another few nims," Na replied. "This waiting is excruciating. What will we do if the electorate refuses to support the Metonite Project?"
          "The latest indications have been favorable," Hue injected, "but public sentiment has been quite volatile."
          "Of course, a group of us could simply leave on our own, and construct the needed transport in a nearby star system," Ulixis mused. "But I for one would greatly prefer to have the blessing of the home world. How do you feel about this, Hue?"
          "Societal approval would certainly smooth the way. Still, I believe the project should go forward, even if it must be reorganized and launched elsewhere. The prospect of a meton civilization is the main reason I chose to become a meton at this time. I cannot stop pondering the possibilities and opportunities such an order would offer."
          "Indeed," Ulixis replied. "I have long contemplated how the basic meton design could be modified and augmented, in so many ways that are unacceptable in this mixed meton-organic world."
          "I would like to join one of the teams investigating how language and communication might be enhanced," Hue offered.
          "That can be arranged," Ulixis declared softly. "Your expertise in language is well known. In any case, there should be plenty of time to explore the possibilities on an intergalactic journey."
          Communication channels suddenly began clamoring, and a large ultraviolet display on the far wall lit up with electoral results.
          "Results are coming in," Na shouted above the fray. "Look – the Metonite Project has received broad public support!"
          "Maybe the organics are simply anxious to be rid of us," Ulixis wondered aloud. She and Na were then abruptly lifted up and swept down the hall, by an excited meton throng.

Jope +25L

          A steady current of metons and attendant creatoid cargo barges streamed through the main entry port of the mammoth crafton. After many thoms of preparation, the would-be explorers were anxious to secure private quarters and work space. The parent body was not the moon Na had originally suggested; the homebound Omenites considered that pristine real estate too precious to give away. The metons had instead settled on an unusual rogue asteroid, found by chance falling toward Los on a nearly parabolic orbit from the frozen depths of the extended Los comet cloud. Similar to the simulated moon in size and composition, the object was probably itself a former moon, ejected from the inner planetary system by some ancient cataclysm.
          Neris had joined Na over the crafton's north pole, to observe the procession close up. "Poy should be preparing for the transformation right now," she whispered wistfully. Born some five jopes earlier in the heat of the voidling invasion, Neris' great-granddaughter Poy had led a long and full life. For the past two jopes she had been a guiding elder member of a large and prosperous tribe. Now she was ready to become a meton herself. She would join Neris and the others on their brave odyssey. "I am glad she didn't volunteer to meld with the crafton mind."
          "She wouldn't have been selected in any case," Na assured her. "The project board decided long ago to accept only established meton candidates."
          "I know. I just didn't want Poy to be disappointed. And the crafton is so … imposing. I would hate to feel distant from Poy just when she needs me most. Still, I was surprised when Nos Ul-Na was selected."
          "Do you know her?"
          "Yes. Or rather, I knew her, back in organic yads. You must know she was another first-generation rey, of the seventh tribe." All first-generation reys carried the names of Ulixis and Na, their surrogate parents.
          "Certainly. Has she chosen a new name, to mark her transformation?"
          "No. She feels Nos is especially appropriate now."
          "She should bridge the gap between octan and rey metons better than anyone else. I think that's the main reason she was selected."
          "Not to mention the fact that most octan metons would be scared to death to be exposed to intergalactic space as a naked, solitary crafton." Neris surveyed the metons passing below. "Poy has expressed some concern about the predominance of octan metons on the expedition." Of the 85 thousand metons who had signed on, only five percent were of rey origin. This mirrored the proportion of rey metons in the overall meton population (currently about 8.5 thousand out of 170 thousand total).
          "I'm not surprised. I too have worried about it. But an octan majority has been a way of life for the past 15 jopes. Even though octo and rey fertility rates are comparable, the octos had nearly a five jope head start." The first generation of 256 octos was conceived in-vitro in +10L, while the first generation of 64 reys (eight core tribes of eight reys each) wasn't created until +15L.
          "Yes, the fraction of rey metons would be even smaller, if octos didn't so prefer becoming synocts rather than metons." Reys currently made up less than 0.5 percent of the non-meton population (180 thousand versus 40 million octos and synocts). About half of all octos and half of all reys chose to die a "natural" death. Of the organics who did become synons, most (about 80%) octos still chose to become synocts, while all reys became metons. There were no synthetic reys, and no interest among the rey tribes to create them.
          "In any case, I'm convinced we have a sufficient critical core of rey metons to represent their – our – special needs, to effectively apply our unique talents and perspective."
          Neris considered the huge crafton beneath them, slowly coming to life with Nos' being. "Can you imagine an entire fleet of megons?" she mused aloud. Neris also preferred the term megon to crafton.
          Na chuckled, then shuddered as he envisioned a whole megon society, existing for its own sake, not merely to serve others. The octos on Jopitar had shown no interest in constructing megons throughout their recorded history. And no wonder. "The organics must view us in much the way we view the megon. Even the voidling seems relieved that the megon will be leaving soon." This amused Na to no end.
          "Perhaps the symbiotic relationship between metons and megons could be extended," Neris suggested.
          This thought both calmed and excited Na. He imagined a spearhead of conscious megons, swarming with allied metons, pushing into virgin territory.
          Neris caught a glimpse of the vision, and koomed at its overt male character. Then she impulsively turned her attention to a ghostly swirl floating in the crisp blackness above the megon's southern horizon. Some 230 thousand light jopes distant, the large spiral galaxy G-3 had recently been selected as their target destination. "We'll have plenty of time to ponder the possibilities," she reflected soberly. The finality of the trip was beginning to sink in.
          "You're the third person I've heard say that in the past yad."
          "Accelerate for one-third jope ship time at standard Jopian gravity. Coast for nearly 20 jopes at 99.9999996% the speed of light. Then decelerate at standard gravity for a final one-third jope. It all sounds so simple, yet it is so unnerving. A full 445 kilujopes will pass here on Omen. Even our initial acceleration phase will appear to take more than 350 jopes!" Neris fought off a momentary, unexpected surge of panic, then continued in a voice stained with sadness. "We will never be able to return to the place we left. Never again be able to go home."
          Na understood fully how Neris felt. He also knew she was committed to the project, that half of her close friends were coming too. There was little he could do, but listen. He wondered if the team should have selected G-2, the largest member of the local group of galaxies, only 50 thousand light jopes away. G-2 spanned nearly ten times the breadth of local sky as G-3, and contained twice as many stars, though it was a bit less massive overall, and its rate of new star production had slackened considerably over the last few bevujopes.
          Again, Neris read his thoughts. "No, that galaxy is past its prime. And what practical difference would it make? The distance even to G-2 is so vast, our separation would still be irrevocable." Neris cleansed her emotional circuits, and locked onto Na quizzically. "Did you know there are organics who believe the time dilation effect is not real?"
          "And there are those who believe the Dichor ate the poison Baylee and died to save our souls, that anyone who is unaware or doesn't literally believe this myth will burn forever in the fires of Thorm," Na replied authoritatively. "Many people believe only what they want to be true, what best serves their own subjective sense of well being. They have not learned to test their beliefs against a broader, more objective standard."
          "While others like ourselves are guilty of this sin only some of the time?" Neris chided teasingly. Then she became gently serious. "Why do I sometimes sense that you need to feel right all the time, maybe even that you are somehow better than the rest of us, or you are worth nothing at all? That you must be our spiritual leader, our teacher of last resort, or your life is an empty sham?"
          Na was stunned by the sudden shift in the conversation. Was Neris upset about leaving Omen or not? "You aren't the first to suggest such a personality flaw," he acknowledged slowly. "Though you are more direct and open about it than most. I suppose that is something I have always liked about you."
          Neris was as surprised as Na by her own remark, and instinctively tried to clip her bellon. Failing to find it, she koomed inwardly. She really was quite fond of father Na, though he could be a bit overbearing at times.
          Na promptly shifted his attention to a bright pink "star" blazing half way to the zenith, opposite the galaxy center. The apparent supernova had unexpectedly appeared only three yads earlier. Na gestured neutrinically at the enigmatic object. "What do you make of it?" he asked doubtfully.
          "Aha! Then you are stumped as well."
          "Absolutely. The thing simply appeared, from nothing. Its light spectrum is a riddle. There are no identifiable emission lines, only broad frequency bands that don't match any known supernova mechanism. The neutrino spectrum is likewise a mystery. Remarkably, the radiations are coherent [the quanta oscillate in unison, rather than independently] at distinct frequencies. These frequencies even jump around, seemingly at random."
          "A few analysts have suggested the pattern might constitute a message. If so, they have no clue as to the underlying code."
          "Creating such a display is certainly beyond our current capabilities."
          "People have started calling the source object Suolig, you know, on account of its uncanny bearing toward the expected location of Suol."
          "Well, the name fits. If the emissions were intentionally sent from Jopitar, they took only 10% the time to traverse the distance here as did our original voyage, which we spent largely in sleep mode. The home world would have had nearly fifteen kilujopes to develop technology beyond our current level, by the time the transmission began."
          "I wonder if we would even recognize anything there now. I shrink to think that the current inhabitants – if there are any – might appear to us as alien as the voidling!"
          Unfortunately, we haven't yet been able to determine the distance to the radiation's point of origin. Intervening veils of dust and glowing gas interfere with the measurements."
          "Then Suolig is a Mystery. Maddee knows we all need some mystery in our lives."
          The sound of the ancient rey term for the Universal Spirit pleased Na deeply, and lightened his spirits. He emitted a playful burst of radio frequencies toward Neris. "Indeed. Though I prefer to think of Suolig as a problem to be solved," he asserted with a feigned pompous air.
          The two friends kooomed electronic noise at each other, before returning to watch the colorful parade passing below.