Nate lands on the planet Amplevena, home of the Ampites and the Levenoids, two warring ethnicities of the same species. The beings are asymmetrical masses with hard and soft appendages that roll-crawl across the landscape. There are three sexes. They speak to each other with voices that sound much like scraping a chalkboard.
The igneous bedrock of Amplevena greatly resembles twisted, intertwined ropes. It is very hard. This is the source of the magic field of the planet, which has two distinct domains of different properties. Though the domains change the shape of their borders over time, they always retain equal surface areas. Each nation on the planet has adapted to one of the domains and cannot usually use the magic of the other. Because they are vulnerable outside of their preferred domains, the beings reside exclusively in their own zones. The domain containing the north pole is home to the Ampites and the domain containing the south pole is home to the Levenoids. Wherever these two domains meet, there are brilliant and beautiful auroras.
Drawing on the magic of their domain, the Ampites are able to materialize streams of binding slime that they shoot at their enemies. They travel using travel-coins. Each township distributes coins stamped with the town name. Flipping these coins anywhere in the universe (including in the Levenoid domain) will teleport both coin and flipper to the town stamped on it. Another type of travel-coin teleports coin and flipper to the last place that particular coin was flipped. The Ampites wear clothing that covers every joint and they prefer the color black. They insist Nate cover his joints as well. They are callous to those who are suffering and do not believe in charity or safety nets of any kind, invoking the principle of personal responsibility. Their monarch allows a high degree of personal liberty.
The Levenoids cannot manufacture travel-coins. Instead they travel from town to town in their domain on streams of magic called sky-roads. They are capable of encapsulating enemies in impervious, floating bubbles that continually zap them inside. The Levenoids wear clothing over their convex parts and appendages, considering concave regions and orifices to be non-existent non-things that therefore require no cover. They hate black and prefer the color orange. They insist Nate cover his beak, wings, and legs, but Nate says, “No thanks; I’ll be fine.” They live under a democratic government that charges a 100 percent tax rate and then distributes wealth only to those who voted for the winning party. Parties compete for votes by promising to distribute the wealth to those who will vote for them. The Levenoids believe that everyone should pay their “fair share” (100 percent) and desire to spread their philosophy to the Ampites and to the galaxy beyond.
To pressure the Ampites to comply, the Levenoids find a way to change the borders of the two domains. By giving up undesirable and uninhabitable areas they didn’t want anyways, they are able to take the best towns and farmlands from the Ampites. To fight back, the Ampites (with Nate’s help) must cross Levenoid territory in order to coordinate border shifts of their own. Since the Levenoids are dependent on sky-roads for trade and communication, Nate plans to divide their land up into non-contiguous bits and sever the sky-roads.
To minimize the chance of running into the enemy, the team crosses hostile, uninhabited areas. There are vast deserts with no water, vast glaciers with no food, jagged mountain ranges, and valleys filled with clouds of hydrogen sulfide. There is a field of boulders stacked on top of one another. No one knows how deep the boulder caves go or what monsters live beneath. Every sunset, the boulders suddenly shrink with a snap, settling and killing anyone caught in the field. Every sunrise, the boulders suddenly expand in the same way. The team uses travel-coins to escape.
Crossing the glaciers, the team encounters many challenges previously considered legendary. They come across pools of warm water on top of the ice filled with attractive Ampites eating tasty food and beckoning them to join. Nate speaks his suspicions and is able to stop every one of them except the one closest to the pool. He loses his footing on the ice and slides in. Suddenly, the illusion vanishes and the Ampite is alone in freezing water unable to climb the steep, slippery sides. Not believing in charity, the others are unwilling to rescue him. Soon the pool freezes over and there is no sign it was ever there. Elsewhere, strange crevices filled with teeth open up in the ice. Long tentacles reach out to pull them in. Additional crevices open wherever they happen to stand. Nate saves as many as he can since they will not help each other. While camping on the ice under moonlight they see a puff of condensing vapor appear as if someone is exhaling – but no one is there. One of the Ampites investigates closer and accidentally breathes in some of the vapor. Several minutes later, he suddenly develops wild insanity. After several hours of being restrained, he makes a full recovery except that he has no memory of the event. In addition to strange crevices, siren pools, and the breath, they encounter Larpa – large beasts covered in frost and lichen that move just too slowly to be perceived. They meet Nerlenders – mermaid-like beings that slither over the ice and carry spears. They encounter ice snakes – white snakes whose venom somehow causes rapid frostbite of the extremities.
Just before they can get back to their side of the border they are stopped by a Levenoid. Nate tricks him into using one of the travel coins to see where the others have been. The Levenoid brings Nate with him as insurance and they appear in the snapping boulder fields just before sunrise. Unlike his captor, Nate is able to fly away when the boulders start to pop.
With the Levenoids finally defeated and the heroes honored by the king, Nate gives a speech. “I helped you not to help myself but because I am a hero. Helping is what I do – and I help knowing that one day when I need it, others will then be able to help me. You who pretend to be heroes because you fight the Levenoids but ignore the poor and disabled in your own country are no heroes at all. It is true the Levenoids have taken things too far in mandating we pay what they decide is our fair share, but certainly we should pay more than nothing. There must be balance.” The Ampites are inspired by Nate and begin to gradually do as he suggests even before he leaves the planet. Unfortunately, not one of them has any interest in exploring other planets or in being Nate’s “friend.” He is as lonely as ever.
155: The Travel Box
Exploring a newly-discovered cavern, the Snaxi open a door to a large rectangular room at the center of which is a box. Pulling on the box causes it to stretch in the direction it is being pulled without affecting its other dimensions. It can be made into any rectangular shape with very little effort. They bring it back to the lab. Working with Nate, they finally figure out how to open it, revealing a large number of smaller boxes inside. Reaching in and pulling open any box reveals a gateway to another world. A team is assembled to survey these other worlds. Not wanting Nate to escape from Snax, he is told to remain in the lab.
One world is peppered with volcanoes and populated by dinosaurs. Another is nothing but snow and dry ice. Another box leads to a museum filled with many strange artifacts, but there appear to be no people around. Another leads to a sandy beach with scattered cottages made from slabs of coral. On the beach is a small metal ovoid object impenetrable by scans. This they bring back to the lab. One box looks to have stars inside. Thinking it leads to outer space, the Snaxi skip it.
While Nate perches on a table in front of the open travel box, suddenly the box with the stars opens wide and pulls him in. He falls between twinkling, floating gemstones into a dark cavern and the opening above him shrinks down to the size of a keyhole. The gemstones interrogate Nate about why he is using their travel box and invading their space. They even zap him a few times and are surprised to find him immune to electricity.
Nate and the gems talk for a long time. He learns that they can shoot lightning, create forces to push and pull on other objects or to propel themselves, and are capable of detailed scans. He learns that individual gems are weak, but together they wield not the sum, but the product of all their individual powers. The gems explain how they control the entire box and plan to shut the gateways, trapping the Snaxi in whatever world they happen to be at the time. This is when Nate takes his Amplevena travel-coin from his belt pouch and flips it across the room. Before the coin can reach the top of its arc, taking itself and Nate to Amplevena, he takes flight and grasps one of the gems in his talons.
After handing the gem over to some Ampites for safe keeping, Nate uses the coin to return to the cavern. He tells the other gems that he will return their brother only once he and all the Snaxi are safely returned to the laboratory. The gems threaten Nate and refuse to cooperate, so Nate flips the travel-coin again, this time grabbing two gems in his talons. Only after Nate has done this several times, kidnapping enough of them to make them too weak to control every box gateway, do the gems begin to negotiate. They transfer Nate back to the laboratory and he calls the Snaxi in. Once they are all safe, Nate returns to Amplevena, collects the hostage gems, and returns to the laboratory, setting the gems free so they can reenter the box.
Instead of joining their brothers, they pull their brothers out from the box where they had been imprisoned by the true owners of the box – as was their plan all along. They knew from their scans that Nate had a device that could rescue enough of them to pull the rest out and formed their plan while the Snaxi explored. “This world is ours now – and soon every world will be.” Swarming the lab, they electrocute Snaxi and short-out equipment.
Nate foresaw this. From talking to them before, he had deduced that they were prisoners and likely for good reason. From learning about the detail of their scans, he knew that the gems must have known how his travel-coin worked. Before he ever flipped the coin the first time, Nate had already planned out what he needed to do. Now he quickly squishes the travel box into his pouch and flies off. The gems chase Nate around the base until they finally have him cornered. “No closer, or I drop the box into the furnaces and you will never be able to leave this world,” Nate threatens.
“Give it to us!” the gems demand.
“No,” Nate replies.
The gems rush him and he drops the pouch into a duct. The gems dive after it only to find the pouch contains an ordinary camera – and that they are not in the furnaces at all but trapped back in their cavern-prison. Nate had made a switch and hid the open travel box in the duct! He closes up the box and returns to the main lab.
The Snaxi are upset that Nate has a way to escape Snax by using the travel coin. Nate explains that he could have left at any time in the past year, but remains here because he wants to be here. The Snaxi still feel a need to control, so Nate hands over a fake coin he made months ago, expecting a situation like this might come up. “It’s okay; I’ll just steal it back when I need it,” he says before returning to his perch.
164: The Thief And The Hacker
Every sentient being in the galaxy has physical weaknesses and things that offend them. If these attributes were widely known their enemies would use this knowledge to hurt them, yet so long as they are secret their friends and trading partners will hurt them unwittingly. In the name of peace (and profit) the priestly order of Bdulepa takes the risks of first contact and learns all they can. They then tell others (for a price) how to go about initiating trade and communication with new races. So that information remains limited in the number of people who can have it, it is quantum-entangled. Only a certain number of copies may exist. One person telling another will cause the first to forget. Writing down the information will cause the writer to forget. Two people reading the same document will cause at least one of them not to be able to understand it. Reading the information off a computer will cause the computer memory to be wiped. The order even has a way of repossessing information by making another copy of one of their special copies, thus pulling the information right out of someone’s mind who may be many thousands of light years away. This only applies to copies of information originating with the order, not information gained independently of them.
The order has many layers of security to protect their files from both hackers and thieves. They usually keep seven copies of each file in separate space stations scattered around the galaxy. Those involved in creating the files forget what is in them as soon as they are done. There are also priests that do not know the contents of the files but know where to find them. This knowledge is also limited by entanglement. There are also priests who know which priests know what. This knowledge is also limited by entanglement.
The original members of the order of Bdulepa were all Brain Bellies, but they have now inducted Branchwalkers, Jinf, Harvesters, Superheroes, and even Humans into their ranks. Nate applies to become the first eagle from Dahk to join as part of a plan to steal files on a race of robots terrorizing both the mouse-like Ellians and the kangaroo-like Pozrians ten years in the future. He can find nothing on them elsewhere.
While Nate stays at one of the order’s many space stations, it is attacked by pirates. Simultaneously, pirates attack several other space stations elsewhere. Nate helps to defeat the pirates but finds that the attack was merely a distraction so they would not notice their system being hacked. By the time they are able to fight the hacker, the only way to stop enormous amounts of data being stolen is to delete it.
Nate finds evidence that the hacker had help from someone on the inside and the priests find evidence of Nate’s preliminary preparations to steal physical files. Despite the tension and mutual mistrust, they continue working together and Nate realizes that the hacker never really wanted to steal anything; it was all just a way of getting the order to delete one fifth of all their files across the entire network (including those on the robots). By digging through files (some of which he must later forget) and interviewing priests (who immediately forget what they have told him), Nate detects a disturbing pattern that no one would have seen unless they were looking for it. As the galaxy becomes ever more connected, economic and political power becomes ever more consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer – but who ultimately benefits and who is driving this? Someone has been slowly taking over the galaxy for thousands of years. People have been getting ever stupider and more immoral, making their societies weaker and more vulnerable to invasion. Each large empire has merely been a step closer to the ultimate empire that is soon coming from outside the Milky Way. Who is coming? When? This information was deleted.