THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 731, July 28, 2013
"One of the most unmistakable indications
that a civilization is in decline is when
it is no longer capable of telling
its heroes from its villains."
The MacBear/Lysandra Heptalogy
Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
The world is two miles tall and seven in diameter for young Berdan Geaner, growing up aboard one of the great interstellar vessels of the rapidly expanding Galactic Confederacy, among human beings, porpoises, killer whales, chimpanzees, gibbons, orangutans, and gorillas—not to mention numerous alien species the wandering Earth-born races have discovered.
Berdan's paternal grandfather, Dalmeon Geanar, is a bad-tempered, grimly preoccupied old man, with whom the boy has never gotten along—although they've been compelled to live together since the death of Berdan's parents, Erissa and MacDougall, in a catastrophic scientific accident.
Unknown to anyone, Berdan has known for many years that, in what is commonly held opinion, the old man's cowardly bad judgment was responsible for the death—by slow torture, at the hands of savages—of his wife (Berdan's grandmother, Lucille) during the exploration of a newly-discovered planet. Taking his baby son MacDougall with him, Geaner demonstrated his cowardice again, fleeing his original post aboard another starship, in an attempt to escape the resulting shame and public outrage.
The tale followed them, however, and the son—Berdan's father— ultimately rejected his own father's name, adopting instead his mother's, Bear. A decade later, both he and his beautiful wife Erissa met an untimely end, leaving their child in the dubious care of MacDougall's father.
Years later, pursuing his everyday 15-year-old business, the boy accidentally stumbles across a plot to steal an old experimental "brightsuit", an attempted improvement on the more common Confederate "smartsuit" possessing features that, in theory, would have allowed instantaneous transport through space—without the necessity of a spaceship—employing an inertialess tachyon drive. This propulsive system could also be employed as a weapon, rendering the suit's wearer theoretially omnipotent. The suit was an experimental prototype, many years in design and manufacture, and is now regarded as a dangerous failure.
Berdan's father and mother, MacDougall and Erissa, died testing the only other two examples.
The would-be thief turns out to be none other than Berdan's grandfather, desperate to make some mark in the universe. He's become an agent of a sinister conspiracy known as "the Hooded Seven", said to dwell far beyond current Confederate borders, plotting the downfall of Confederate civilization.
Berdan discovers that Geanar contrived the deaths of his own son and daughter-in-law, altered their test results, making the suit appear more dangerous and less successful than it was. It's taken him all this time to find a market for it and establish contact with The Hooded Seven. Now, following the theft, he's expected down on the recently-discovered planet "Majesty", to await exchange of the suit for whatever reward he's negotiated.
Berdan takes action—a little too late. Through a series of mishaps, he's stranded on the rendezvous-world, a hemisphere away from where he's supposed to be, alone, friendless, yet the only individual in a position (however hopeless) to interfere with Geaner's betrayal of civilization.
Majesty is also known as "Sea of Leaves", a planet covered with a form of tiny-leaved moss, an astounding six miles deep at the equator, thinning toward a pair of barren, polar antipodes. This "biosphere" will tolerate no other plant life, but exists in symbiosis with countless animal organisms living on or beneath its surface, as if it were vast, green, living ocean. Many kinds of Earthian animals have found a home in the moss, as well, including thousands of species of birds, and hordes of large ferocious rats. An unassisted human will sink to a depth in this biosphere sufficient to immobilize him, where he'll die of suffocation, starvation, dehydration, or be eaten by some large, predatory animal form. Human and other colonists live at the poles and on artificial "islands".
Galactic Confederate starships offload passengers and cargo at both Majestan poles. The original "First Wave" colonists' primitive surface transport consists of "crawlers" with huge balloon tires, or even great Archimedes' screws, powered by work-gangs at keel-length cranks. Confederate hovercraft work well on the planet, too. No colonist has ever "seen" to the bottom of the biomass, perhaps because of the leaves' high metallic content that prevents radar and other penetration.
The struggle to survive on the Sea of Leaves tests every resource Berdan Geanar possesses. On one particularly cold and miserable night, the boy strengthens his resolve by rejecting the hated name he grew up with, the name taht his evil, traitorous grandfather imposed on him. Following his dead father's example, he adopts the name MacDougall Bear.
Majesty is a long-lost human colony, one of hundreds founded during a disaster-ridden "First Wave" of emigration from Earth that dispersed its victims widely in time as well as space. Settled for thousands of years, Majesty has been subject to cyclic cultural collapse and has seen many civilizations struggle into being and then pass away. Primitive by any expectations young Berdan-MacDougall grew up with, it's divided into the forever-warring nation-states of Securitas and Antimacassar.
Yet this planet differs from many other of the lost colonies whose re-discovery represents a major objective of the contemporary Confederate "Second Wave". It already possessed an intelligent native race when the first human beings arrived: the strange and formidable taflak.
Just as mankind's ancestors (typified by starfish and sea-urchins) were constructed on a five-sided plan, these creatures display an underlying trilateral symmetry, but have evolved into something approaching human bilaterality. The taflak possess three appendages, each resembling a wooly splay-tipped elephant's trunk, two of which they use for manipulation, while balancing on the third. The taflak cartwheel from limb to limb, the only kind of travel that makes sense on the surface of the "Sea of Leaves".
A single central eye, a large transparent globe transfixing the entire creature, can see backward, forward, and to all sides at once—another biological necessity on the perilous planet. Inside floats a large black ball—optical tissue coating the brain. Through the ultra transparent fluid of the great eye, thin connections, nervous and supportive, reach the three tentacles and vital organs contained in their bases.
Shoulder-height on an adult human male, the taflak are larger than the boy who now calls himself MacDougall. At first they're very frightening to him—until he makes a special friend traveling among them, a young lamviin "taflakologist" who calls himself Epots Dinnomm Pemot.
The lamviin are also a trilaterally symmetrical species, in this case resembling giant, nine-legged crabs, who express their emotions through the highly changeable texture of their heavy fur. Their native world, the desert planet "Sodde Lydfe", was rescued by Mac's culture from nuclear disaster, and has recently joined the Galactic Confederacy. Bright and aggressive, the lamviin have taken to the spaceways as if born to them, spreading across the known galaxy and beyond.
Unlike the boy, whom he dubs "MacBear", Pemot is self-"marooned", on his own on Majesty and hard at work studying the taflak. He has no idea when a starship will appear to pick him up. Until he meets young Mac, he doesn't care.
Pemot is a self-made authority on Earthian history and literature, endlessly quoting (and misquoting) Shakespeare, Wells, Gibbon, and others, to the excruciating boredom of young MacDougall, who couldn't care less about such things, all of which are far more alien to him than the little lamviin taflakologist he sometimes regrets traveling with.
Now at a low ebb in their history, the taflak, too, seem once to have possessed a high civilization. Their tribal legends hint at the existence of the remains of fabulous cities at the bottom of the biomass. Some of them, degenerate and willing dupes of the First Wave of human invaders, oppose the two friends. Geaner makes a deadly opponent, anticipating their every move, until Mac wonders whether his grandfather isn't more than just an agent, but mightn't be one of The Hooded Seven himself.
After many narrow escapes, the chase ends when Mac and Pemot creep up on Geaner who, preparing to ambush them, has been eaten in his sleep by rats. The suit is still with him. Mac determines to take it home to the Confederacy.
Other taflak, because they've suffered at the hands of human colonists, have aided Mac and Pemot in their search for the criminal Geanar and the stolen brightsuit. Now they help the two find their way back to the Confederate fleet. Someday perhaps, clues collected on Majesty will lead them to the faraway hiding place of the Hooded Seven—who may now be only Six.
The world's built inside-out for young Lysandra "Elsie" Nahuatl. Within the fuzzy but ever-expanding borders of the Galactic Confederacy, peace, freedom, and prosperity predominate. Outside— and resisting its expansion—lay hundreds of petty empires and dictatorships established during a disaster-plagued First Wave of human immigration from Earth that scattered its victims in time as well as space.
Some of these so-called "Lost Colonies", whose malfunctioning starships traveled backward in time, are perhaps as old as 5,000 years.
Elsie's own life is confusing enough. At age 15, she hates seeing herself in the mirror. Instead of a blue-eyed beauty, what she sees (in her words) is a "bespectacled nerd" with a dark complection and a broad, flat nose.
The adopted daughter of G. Howell Nahuatl (a special coyote with electronically-augmented intelligence) she's an Australian Aborigine, one of a few individuals of that race whose baby-blonde hair remained that color after she began to grow up. At Elsie's age, she doesn't realize it quite yet—and wouldn't believe it—but the effect is striking.
She's something of a phenomenon—even in her own civilization— having become one of the Confederacy's most respected students of "praxeology", a disciplined, non-quantitative study of the actions and behavior of intelligent species, subsuming all such earlier academic efforts as psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, politics, and economics.
Elsie and her "father" have agreed to deliver and test a special "subfoline" vessel, constructed aboard one of the great Confederate starships, to the vegetation-covered planet Majesty. It's a powerful fusion-driven vehicle with a needle-sharp prow that may be swiveled to steer the ship through the mysterious depths of the "Sea of Leaves". Outfitted with banks of slanted "whiskers", the ship's hull vibrates to produce swift progress through the green-lit upper reaches of the ocean-jungle.
Hiring a Confederate co-pilot, a Himalayan yeti who calls himself Obregon Grossfuss, Howell and Elsie initiate a shakedown cruise. It's hoped by scientists that the craft will help solve the mystery of what lies at the bottom of the biomass, but, owing to the increasing density of the vegetation with depth, the vehicle turns out to be limited. As it penetrates toward the planet's real surface, it encounters many unknown species, threatening and hideous monsters of the "deep". Its three passengers glimpse the outlines of vast buildings and other mysterious works, then the ship is forced to turn back when its life-support systems break down in suspicious circumstances.
Back on the "unreal" surface, an attempt is made to steal the vessel, and yet another to destroy it. Initial indications are that the saboteurs are the native taflak who appear to object, perhaps on religious grounds, to the exploration of the biomass. Elsie and Howell face the problem head-on, searching among the taflak and elsewhere for clues.
Many conflicting parties and points of view compete among the natives—as among the First Wave colonists and the Confederates who share the planet with them. Almost anyone could be to blame—in fact, several groups could be involved—and the two unmask a local plot against them.
Yet it eventually becomes obvious that the real culprits behind the conspiracy to steal or destroy the Majestan "subfoline" are a mysterious anti-Confederate organization known as the Hooded Seven. That's what Obregon Grossfuss tells them as he gloats over their trussed-up bodies. Boasting, he implies that he's one of the principals involved.
Defeating Grossfuss during his final attempt to make away with the vessel, Howell is injured. Grossfuss collapses in a strange manner, and Elsie discovers that the creature—her father had insisted yetis were too shy to do much traveling or socializing—is the empty hulk of a machine. Leaving Howell in the care of Confederate Healers, Elsie strikes out on her own, vowing to track down the parties—perhaps only Six remain—responsible for her father's close encounter with death.
In a civilization that can computer-manufacture any proven design to order, giving the brightsuit prototype to the young man who recovered it seems small reward to its prospective manufacturers. They also offer a considerable sum of cash. Independent of his evil grandfather now, and on his own, life seems good to MacDougall Bear— until he meets G. Howell Nahuatl.
Howell—recovered from injuries inflicted by the artificial yeti, Obregon Grossfuss, an agent of the Hooded Seven—believes his daughter was decoyed away and may now be their prisoner. He learns from a down-and-out helmet-shaped freenie cadging drinks in a coffee-bar, that Grossfuss did a great deal of communicating with the planet "Excelsior", and intends to investigate. He also comes across MacDougall Bear (sometimes known as Berdan Geaner or MacBear), still on Majesty tying up loose ends. He may be a super-intelligent coyote, but he needs the assistance of human hands, and his daughter is off-planet, in grave danger. MacDougall isn't enchanted at the prospect of becoming an assistant to somebody's doggie, but decides to go along anyway.
Everywhere Confederates travel, they rediscover long-lost First Wave colonies whose common characteristic is a cyclic rise and fall of their civilizations. A peculiar exception seems to be the planet Excelsior, where children are educated by teachers and parents in a progressive series of enclaves—a chain of small island continents—each limited, in technology and philosophy, to a given epoch of historic human development.
Until they're five, Excelsiorean babies are brought up in an artificial "Stone Age", chipping flint, making fire with handmade tools, hunting animals, curing hides, fishing. They're given animistic explanations for natural phenomena and forced to placate a plethora of malevolant, and indifferent spirits. For their parents—whose desire to have children is taken as a willingness to recapitulate their own childhood cave-dwelling experiences—it represents a prolonged (if not altogether pleasant) camping vacation. For the children, it represents the beginnings of an understanding of the back-breaking effort—invisible in many another culture—required to keep civilization running.
For individuals from offworld, landing at a sea-borne spaceport nearby, the Stone Age island continent is the planet's point of entry. All outsiders, even those on an important mission, are limited by Excelsiorean law and custom to the appropriate artifacts and weapons—as a freshly fur-clad Howell and Mac discover to their dismay when they're attacked by club-wielding goons apparently at the instigation of the Hooded Seven.
Approaching age six, children are allowed to "invent" their way off the Stone Age island continent, via dugout catamarans across a narrow channel, onto the Bronze Age island continent, where their hard lessons continue. No child leaves until he or she understands— meaning that he or she can re-create—every item of technology and every intellectual innovation it contains. The sun is worshipped in non-mechanized cities dominated by priest-kings living atop gigantic pyramids. The irrigated countryside is stoop-tilled to produce a single staple crop.
Thanks to their Confederate upbringing, Mac and Howell graduate to the Bronze age more quickly than the Excelsiorean children. And they're confronted by more enemies, this time after them for the purpose of human (and canine) sacrifice. Posing as an ordinary dog, Howell, in effect, becomes Mac's assistant, while the shy young man is forced to become the spokesman for the pair. All they want is to find the "civilized" part of this planet, but—feeling too much like Peabody and Sherman—they're forced to proceed toward that goal the same way the natives do, from this continent to the next, aboard square-rigged, oar-propelled biremes and triremes.
At first, as most of them celebrate their eighth birthdays, Excelsiorean children welcome the dawning Iron Age, which, whatever its drawbacks, brings wheeled transport, rudiments of scientific agriculture, more humane medicine, and the beginnings of literacy. Every child struggles to learn logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, blacksmithing, jousting, road-building, and alchemy, but is less happy with the era's ignorant superstition and harsh religious oppression.
Howell and Mac don't care much for this artificial Dark Age, either. They're accused of heresy, threatened with burning at the stake, and chased by sword-wielding knights. In the end, young Mac dons armor to prove his (and Howell's) virtue—and make good their escape to the next continent, a turning-point that finds the enemy on the defensive.
During the young Excelsioreans' stay on the Renaissance island continent, reading and writing—which seemed the least significant of Iron Age advances—suddenly come to the fore. Scholarship and the embrace of foreign ideas blossom among the excited 10-year-olds, as do naive science and invention. Simple machines—all of them designed and constructed by the children—take over the most exhausting chores. Diseases—which the children were allowed a controlled but nasty taste of in previous ages—recede. Art and literature flourish. The "new" idea of representative democracy catches on. Life begins to offer hope of being something other than nasty, brutish, and short.
Not so for the two Confederates, who—having reluctantly become convinced that Elsie isn't here at all—must nevertheless make their way through a convoluted maze of dozens of Renaissance-style secret organizations and societies to track down the agent of the Hooded Seven who's been trying to have them killed and who, they now realize, is an outsider just like them, forced to follow the same complicated pathway to get to the "real" Excelsiorean civilization and thence off-planet.
Mac and Howell's hunt continues on the Steam Age island continent, among 12-year-olds, where life becomes somewhat more pleasant and familiar. Great cities rise up, metal bridges are built. Draft-animals pull lightweight, spring-suspended vehicles through the cobbled streets. Gas lights banish forever the fear of darkness. The telegraph brings news of faraway events, reported in daily papers, or simply messages from across town.
More advanced Excelsiorean children begin tinkering with crude automobiles and flying machines; the less-gifted are expected to catch up. A humane, secular ethic is imparted to a rather cynical population that has now experienced—and learned to reject—every other belief-system. Here, Howell's deductive ability (and sense of smell) bring them within arm's reach of the one they chase—who just escapes to the next continent.
For 14-year-olds, it seems thet there can be no improvement beyond the wonders of the Electrical Age. Adventure and romance are played out—at first in silence, later with appropriate sound and fury— on giant silver screens. Concrete highways span the continent, as do crisscrossing tracks of mighty railroads. Silvery propeller-driven airplanes thrum through the sky, while the air itself hums with music and drama conveyed over that new marvel, radio. The children learn how each of these "miracles" works, and are capable of reconstructing each of them themselves, yet stories begin to circulate of even greater wonders ahead.
Howell is less impressed with this reconstructed 20th Century than he was with the 19th, but Mac, wearing a trenchcoat, slouch hat, and carrying a .45 automatic, is in his element. The adventure takes them across the Electrical Age island continent, to the coast where, according to rumor, their quarry has slipped aboard a diesel freighter and into the next era.
The stories and rumor prove true. For 16-year-olds entering the Electronic Age, radio acquires a face, becoming television. Mechanical adding machines shrink to pocket size and learn, more or less, to think for themselves. Rocket-powered spaceships thrust upward out of the atmosphere, taking the children who built them to the planet Excelsior's pair of crater-scarred moons. For Howell and Mac, it may mean that their quarry has escaped off-planet, after all their trouble.
Instead, he's made his way into the next and final enclave.
Just when it seems that life can't get any more exciting, the children, turning 18—and their grateful, weary parents—enter the Fusion Age. More than just another continent, it's the mainstream culture of the planet. The children's' formal education is over, but in a manner that guarantees they'll continue learning. No Excelsiorean child grows up believing civilization is an unfortunate phenomenon of an otherwise benevolent Mother Nature. They know it's a giant machine that has to be invented, improved upon, and carefully tended—but which rewards its makers and attendants a thousand times over for the effort they invest.
Mac and Howell's efforts are rewarded as their quarry attempts to leave the planet. They confront him. Defeated, he collapses as dozens of small dark forms scurry off into the shadowed recesses. Perhaps only four of the Six are left. Howell and Mac investigate the navigational settings on their enemy's small escape-craft, only to discover that it was headed for an unexplored and mysterious region of non-Confederate space.
Praxeologist Lysandra "Elsie" Nahuatl is at a polar spaceport on Majesty, ready to rejoin the Confederate fleet after an eventful scientific expedition, leaving her adopted father to recover from an injury. There, she avoids being killed by an assassin. With his last breath, the would-be killer, an anemone-like gunjj, gasps in a strange, non-Earthian tongue, "Y fins wodyniir lad sro emyotiin— sothod fo tag sroyd lytem gepo."
As a consequence, the young human boards a different commercial shuttle than planned, having arrived on Majesty by freighter, with the intention of traveling to Sodde Lydfe, home of the nine-legged lamviin race, and of the language she heard the dying assassin speak, Fodduan.
Aboard the shuttle, also bound for Sodde Lydfe, is one Epots Dinnomm Pemot. The lamviin praxeologist is, of course, a native of the famous desert planet. Being the only students of their discipline aboard the relatively small vessel, Pemot and Elsie soon get to know one another.
Born a loyal subject of the island Empire of Great Foddu, Pemot is now an enthusiastic Galactic Confederate, and travels widely in pursuit of scientific knowledge. As a lamviin, however, one of the peculiar trilaterally-symmetrical natives of that hot, dry world, he abhors the cold, damp atmospheres of most other places and longs for a vacation back home where it's 130 degrees in the shade—and there isn't any shade.
Inevitably, Elsie tells Pemot of her adventures on Majesty, where an agent of a mysterious cabal called the Hooded Seven tried to have her and her father killed—and of the most recent attempt on her life. Pemot is jolted. He tells her he's just left his young friend MacDougall Bear on the moss-covered planet, following struggles of their own against the Hooded Seven. Unnecessarily—Elsie speaks fluent Fodduan—he tells her the meaning of the gunjj's last words. "I am supposed to die for the emyotiin—give me now that final payment."
Pemot explains—this time the information is new to Elsie— that Sodde Lydfe, at the edge of Confederate-explored space, has recently been visited by a new race from beyond Confederate borders, the shy, reclusive emyotiin. He and Elsie transfer to one of the great ships of the Confederate fleet, travel toward the general region of Sodde Lydfe, then Elsie purchases a small, used survey vessel— which she names the Bobbie McGee, after what she imagines is an "ancient Earthian folk song"—to take them the rest of he way to the desert planet.
Sodde Lydfe is just emerging from the technological and cultural equivalent of the Victorian era. There, where the natives have three sexes, the "horse" carriages three wheels, and the city blocks, between cobbled streets, are triangular, they attempt to see the visiting emyotiin, only to be put off time and again. Meanwhile, the assassination attempts continue, this time aimed at Pemot as well as Elsie. Bucketeers—the city police of Mathas, capital of Great Foddu—are summoned to quell the disturbance. Naturally, they arrest the two praxeologists.
While the Bucketeers, and everybody else, believe contact with the Confederacy has brought lasting peace to Sodde Lydfe, there appears to be some involvement between the Podfettians—ancient enemies of the Fodduans, with whom a nuclear war was recently prevented by the Confederacy—and the emyotiin. The two praxeologists have stumbled onto a plot to accomplish by stealth and sabotage, backed with emyotiin money and technology, what the Podfettians couldn't manage with crude A-bombs: the conquest of Great Foddu.
Elsie and Pemot are kidnapped from the jail and taken by dirigible to the Hegemony of Podfet, where they're interrogated by an imposing but odd Podfettian who demands to know more about their experiences on Majesty.
Elsie and Pemot break free and confront the giant Podfettian, only to discover that he's a lamviinoid robot of greater sophistication than any nation-state on Sodde Lydfe is capable of. They escape and return to Great Foddu. Pemot consults with his elderly uncle, Agot Edmoot Mav (by Fodduan kinship reckoning, almost every male lamviin in Mathas is his uncle), an enthusiastic space traveler at home for a rest and Confederate geriatric rejuvenation. Mav was once a Bucketeer, later Great Foddu's first private detective, was involved in First Contact with the Confederacy, and still has impressive political connections.
On orders from the Triarchy themselves, the rest of the Podfettian henchmen in Mathas are rounded up. The alien newcomers who hired them are prevailed upon by the highest Fodduan officials to grant Elsie and Pemot an audience. When that day finally arrives, the emyotiin are gone, their embassy is empty. They've broken contact with the lamviin for no apparent reason.
Now, thinks Elsie, perhaps there are only Four.
Searching for his daughter Elsie, and perhaps some clue to the nature and whereabouts of the Hooded Seven—or is it Three, now?— the electronically enhanced coyote G. Howell Nahuatl encounters Epots Dinnomm Pemot on Sodde Lydfe. Taking her scoutship, Bobbie McGee, Elsie has moved on, pursuing a clue left by the vanishing emyotiin. MacDougall Bear is long overdue to rendezvous with Pemot.
The coyote and the lamviin join forces, and board a shuttle to join the fleet. When their travels bring them past the weird world "Zikiti", where they must refuel, Howell is inclined, at first—not very politely, as his companion points out—to refer to the place as the "floppy disk planet".
This is because Zikiti, smaller than Earth, yet denser, possessing a surface gravity similar to the Confederate homeworld, and enveloped in a deep atmosphere of heavy, inert gases, has been stripped, by some long-ago stellar catastrophe, to little but its rusty iron core, which seems to serve as a medium for transient and bizarre electromagnetic phenomena. Howell isn't the first observer to remark that these mobile, complex fields of magnetic "information" bear some resemblance to living organisms.
In fact, a scientific team stationed on the otherwise uninhabited (and uninhabitable) planet, is investigating that very possibility. Plans call for the metallic globe to be broken up, soon, as a source of valuable ores. Yet, against the possibility that something unusual, interesting—and possibly even more valuable than metal—may be discovered on Zikiti, Confederates would prefer to do so with a clear conscience.
Howell is a more or less ordinary coyote whose intelligence was augmented by sophisticated electronic devices implanted on the surface of his brain, and whose original owners, early in his rather odd life, were unwilling, initially, to recognize the inconvenient fact of what they'd created. Perhaps this makes him a more sensitive observer than most. When, at his lamviin partner's urging, the coyote suggests that some of the electronic "life-forms" might be intelligent, he's ridiculed by the scientists and asked to leave Zikiti. Instead, the two friends find a quiet, isolated spot and begin doing a little science of their own.
They discover that Howell's intuition was correct.
Perhaps it began billions of years earlier when a micrometeorite impacted on the planet's oxidized metallic surface, or with a brush of lightning across the reddish-brown "soil". In any event, the first simple, self-replicating electromagnetic pattern was born, "lived" to create others, and began evolving in size, complexity, and capability. Eons passed. Now Howell and Pemot discover that there exists, within the few thousandths of an inch of receptive material that coats Zikiti, an admirable and accomplished—but completely invisible— civilization. A civilization that will be destroyed if its planet is "broken up for scrap".
In the beginning, even for remarkable creatures like Howell and Pemot, it's difficult imagining the Zikitian point of view. Living in a two-dimensional universe like the legendary Flatlanders, surviving by manipulating energy fields, feeding on lower electromagnetic "organisms", they themselves, for the most part, cannot conceive of the "higher" plane of reality on which Howell and Pemot exist. Those among the Zikitians who become convinced are treated as dishonest or unbalanced. Nor can the two Confederates convince anyone among their own kind that the Zikitians exist.
At last they encounter a bright, daring (or perhaps, he suggests himself, an insane and foolhardy) Zikitian whom Howell names "Anton Mesmer"—for his "magnetic personality". Perhaps with a kind of theological insight—and just ahead of a ferromagnetic lynch mob inent on erasing him—Mesmer suggests that he be transferred from the thin-skin of his world onto some portable ferromagnetic medium (Pemot provides an antique diskette) and thence into the onboard computer of a small spaceship they've rented. Here, the coyote and the lamviin learn that Mesmer can be helpful operating the ship's electronic facilities.
The Confederate scientists are then compelled to recognize the existence of the Zikitians, Zikiti is saved—its nature as an intelligence-harboring planet makes it more valuable in any case— while Mesmer decides to leave his homeworld and accompany the coyote and the lamviin in their search for Elsie, Mac, and the Hooded Seven.
Rumors bring Elsie and Mac—quite independently—to the ocean- covered planet "Phalumwa", where, they've both heard it said, the Hooded Seven, known on Sodde Lydfe as the emyotiin, have contacted the native Phalumwavians and are calling themselves "Funnfarhi Haehfa".
Phalumwa is an extremely strange place. The "atmosphere" of the "ocean" planet consists of a crystal-clear, oxygenated fluorocarbon liquid that humans and other Earth-creatures can breathe with minimal discomfort. ("The first breath," Mac declares, looking not at all pleased, "is the hardest.") Thus, while visiting the planet, they can swim beneath the surface without special equipment, or even fly—the illusion being enhanced by "lakes" and "seas", bodies of genuine water, a heavier liquid, scattered about the landscape—if they prefer to look at it that way.
In fact, the planet Phalumwa, "built like a parfait" says Elsie, is three-layered. To begin with, new Confederate outpost communities occupy otherwise uninhabited dry plateaued mountaintops high above the planet's fluorocarbon oceans. The subfluorocarbon world is inhabited by the Phalumwavians and similar creatures. The natives themselves are small organisms somewhat resembling squid, with four stubby, truncated limbs. Like squid, their digestive and excretory organs are located in the center of their ventral surfaces, but their "eyes" consist of light-sensitive tissue coating thousands of slender, transparent tubules sprouting from their arm-ends, which the creatures employ for manipulation. On their own, they've reached a point where they're about ready to invent the fluorocarbon-powered equivalent of the steam engine.
However, it's the real water scattered about Phalumwa that may hold the key to Elsie and Mac's search. It soon becomes obvious that the Phalumwavians know nothing of the Hooded Seven. Unknown marine creatures inhabit the seas beneath the fluorocarbon oceans. Like Earth, it soon appears that Phalumwa may have given birth to more than one intelligent life-form.
Phalumwa's double atmosphere filters out both ultraviolet and blue-green sunlight, making everything appear reddish-orange in the subfluorocarbon "land" valleys. Water, of course, filters out infrared and red-orange. Thus the water-seas appear to be dark, oppressive sink-holes, their black, mystery-shrouded depths filled with blind and eyeless crawlers. It's into these horrifying depths, teeming with unnamed and unnamable terrors, that the two young Confederates must descend if they're to follow the twisted path to the truth about the Hooded Seven.
Even without such exotic difficulties, Mac and Elsie don't hit it off well, despite their mutual acquaintances and a common goal. Rather the contrary: attempting to investigate exactly the same phenomena and interview the same people, they get in one another's way, arguing and learning to detest each other throughout the length of their overlong unpleasant stay on Phalumwa. On several occasions, matters almost come to blows, with the smaller, slender girl quite willing and able to contribute her share to the mayhem. Each has his—and her—own way of doing things, and neither can see any sense in the other one's approach to problems.
But the undeniable fact is that Mac and Elsie need each other, and each is mature enough—and a hardheaded realist—to recognize the fact. A booby trap, designed to appear set by one of the young Confederates to snare the other, fails to fool them, and they realize that, in addition to mutual acquaintances and a common problem, they share an enemy.
The "villain", tracked down to his underwater lair, turns out to be an ancient Earthian porpoise, Mereel Ockockock Whoot, a Tursiops truncatus from the First Wave, brought along as an experimental animal. In free-fall, Mereel overcame his human captors, crashed an escape-ship on Phalumwa, and has lived for the last 3000 years in the black Phalumwavian depths, among the blind but intelligent marine creatures, where he's worshipped—"in the kingdom of the blind," etc.—as a god.
Among fluorocarbon-breathing "land" sapients, Mereel is feared as "N'da Bhobas", a demon of the sea. For centuries he's been preying upon them as they make war (they call it "fishing") against his adopted people.
The complicated atmosphere of the planet has a rejuvenating effect on the porpoise, rendering him immortal, but Mereel is lonely. He hadn't known that humans (and free porpoises) had at last come to Phalumwa, but he does know about the Funnfarhi Haehfa, presumably the Hooded Seven, who've contacted his own people. He can't say who set the booby-trap that almost killed Mac and Elsie, but suggests that anyone who can disguise himself as a sea-sentient (for the advertised purpose of not alarming primitive people) can disguise himself as a Phalumwavian.
Mereel gives MacDougall Bear and Elsie Nahuatl what directions he can, then, after accepting their offer to arrange negotiations with the Phalumwavians to end the "war", hitches a ride with the pair to visit with Confederate porpoises on the plateau. Surrounded at long last by his own kind, he sends the two adventurers—bickering as usual—on their way.
The Tom Tinker Maru, seven and a half miles in diameter, two miles tall, complete with indoor ocean, artificial mountain ranges, trackless forests, residences, shops, schools and factories—not to mention tens of thousands of individuals who own and operate them— has disappeared.
Despite its ability to exceed the speed of light many times over, inertia-dampening fields that render it immune (among other things) to thermonuclear weapons, an auxiliary fleet of hundreds of heavily-armed vessels, and its own vast planet-wrecking armament, the starship's last message is desperate.
UNDER HOSTILE FIRE. DO NOT—
Whatever the last sentence was supposed to be, it's unlikely that anyone will try in any case, for the message, static-filled and feeble, never reaches the great Confederate fleet. It's intercepted, however, by the tiny scout vessel Bobbie McGee, with MacDougall Bear, Elsie Nahuatl, her adoptive father G. Howell Nahuatl, and the lamviin, Epots Dinnomm Pemot aboard. Anton Mesmer, a "living computer program" from the ferromagnetic planet Zikiti, is doing the driving.
The quintet are having troubles of their own—aside from the inevitable angry sniping between the two young humans—having just driven off a swarm of giant "space virus" and sustained serious damage to their own communications equipment. Thus, without even trying to alert the fleet, Bobbie's crew dashes off toward the source of the signal.
Instead of a starship in distress, they find an enigma.
A vanished people—and an unsolved mystery—are manifested by planet-wide ruins on a world that Elsie decides to call "Sunday", for its quiet, deserted streets. Searching for traces of the lost vessel, they discover no life-forms of any kind on the barren planet. The place is devoid of creatures, as Howell puts it, "from prions to primates". A search is even made for Mesmer's sort of beings, without result.
Nor are there any remains, aside from the ruins and a rich oxygen atmosphere that will now be reabsorbed by the planet's crust, of any of the life that once flourished there. Bobbie's instruments and a search on the ground disclose not a bone, leaf, feather, petal, or scale. The place is as perfectly lifeless as Earth's moon before the real estate boom.
Yet no evidence of any devastation lingers, either, conventional or nuclear, nor any indication that natural diseases or germ-warfare were responsible for the planet's deserted condition. Nor could the population have emigrated. They weren't quite technologically advanced enough, and the effort would have had to include every animal, plant, and microorganism that ever existed on the planet or beneath its surface.
Geologically new valleys—the soil slumps downward oddly—must once have covered huge deposits of coal, petroleum, or other fossil fuel remains, now mysteriously vanished like everything else organic. All that's left now is massive, undeniably humanoid architecture— cities, dams, highways—and inscriptions everywhere in at least two degenerate dialects of the English language. Apparently this was yet another of the lost colonies of the doomed First Wave of human emigration.
In the midst of their investigation, the Confederates suddenly find themselves under attack. MacDougall and Elsie discover, in this moment of truth, that they don't really hate one another. Quite the contrary. With Mesmer's assistance (it's his first space-battle, not counting the struggle with the giant virus), they and their friends drive off the majority of their attackers, disabling one vessel, boarding and capturing it—and thereby coming face-to-face with the Hooded Seven.
At first they're confronted by a completely alien—yet humanoid—creature (impossible, Pemot maintains, since evolution isn't that convergent) whom Howell unmasks as another robot. Nevertheless, the device asserts that the species who created it is too hideous—at least to the Confederate or human point of view. The Hooded Seven fear that prejudice will overcome reason. All five Confederates protest in vain—and poke around the captured ship, the living-quarters and crew-spaces of which appear to be fashioned for beings just a few inches tall.
It's Mesmer, invading the vessel's computers, who discovers the secret of the Hooded Seven. They are a species in the galaxy already known by various names among the non-human races they've contacted. Robots, tailored to whatever species they have to deal with travel and speak for them.
Elsie and Pemot recall that, among the lamviin of Sodde Lydfe, they were known as the emyotiin, until they broke contact for no apparent reason. On Phalumwa they were called the Funnfarhi Haehfa. To the young Confederates, they've appeared to be terrible villains, conspirators at the bottom of every vile plot that Mac and Elsie have encountered.
In fact their remote ancestors are from Earth, and for centuries, as a people, they've been torn by indecision whether to contact or avoid the other species born on their home planet. They dwell at the bottom of Majesty's moss-ocean, brought to that planet by First Wave colonists.
The Hooded Seven are millions of mutated intelligent "hooded" rats, a well-known laboratory species. Their legends maintain that they're descended from seven venerated individuals who escaped the human colony, finding sanctuary in the Majestan ocean-jungle. All too aware that they're the smallest, physically, of any known sentient species, they ride inside sophisticated robots, disguising their disadvantage. They believe the taflak had a higher civilization that ended in an atomic war, causing Majesty's wild plant-growth and their own high mutation-rate.
They never intended any harm to the Confederacy, or to Mac or Elsie in particular. The various events that set those two on this quest in the first place were regrettable accidents, due to far and misunderstanding—or the actions of overzealous hirelings and a few hostile and irrresponsible individuals among their own number. Elsie and Mac know that things often work this way during "First Contact" with a new intelligence. After more explanation—against an initial inclination to the contrary—the two Confederate youngsters come to believe them.
A fastidious and tidy people, possessing all of the historical and technical records that the First Wavers brought with them—plus much taht they've gathered since, themselves—they'd very much like to initiate relations with the Galactic Confederacy. They, too, are terrified by what occurred on Sunday and have themselves been losing starships. But they know too graphically how humans feel about rats. They're afraid of the disasters they're sure that open contact would bring.
The oddly-assorted Confederate contingent—consisting of a fair- skinned, blue-eyed boy, a golden-tressed black girl, a coyote, a furry, crab-like alien, and a complex pattern of purposeful magnetism—aren't at all disturbed by the notion of diplomatic and trade relations with a planetful of intelligent rats, nor at initiating it on behalf of a civilization composed of gorillas, chimpanzees, gibbons, orangutans, sasquatches, yetis, porpoises, killer whales, gunjj, and freenies.
They are, however, annoyed at having finally solved the mystery of The Hooded Seven, only to be offered the vastly more threatening problem of what happened on Sunday—and to Tom Tinker Maru. With a good-natured chuckle, Howell points out that this is the nature of all scientific inquiry (and real life), that good answers only generate more questions.
And yet their galaxy-wide search for answers will have to take a back seat—at least for a little while—to solving the extremely personal mystery that Elsie and Mac have discovered now exists between them.