Breaking new ground and taking new steps in the all-encompassing quest to ensure safety and freedom for the Khybor race proved to be an inherited trait among Elin Leto-Treat's descendants. Reena, daughter of Errion, daughter of Kheeran, daughter of Elin, discovered the "trick" for using the Skip to traverse long distances in known space via the artificially generated Wrinkles. At first, no one was sure why they needed two steps to go from Norbra to their allies on remote colony worlds the Central Allied Worlds now ignored, having essentially written them off. At first, no one was overly concerned about the explanation. All that mattered was that a Skip pilot could go through the Wrinkle, spend a minute or two to catch her breath in the far-distant galaxy where the Wrinkle opened up, then create a new Wrinkle that allowed her to feel for her chosen destination. In less than ten minutes from the time she opened the first Wrinkle, she could pilot her ship and whatever vessel she towed through to the next solar system.
Distance meant nothing, using the two-step method Reena discovered. They could even go from Norbra to Vidan, or from Vidan out to the furthest colonization rings. The ability to reach to the furthest colonization rings appealed to them. The growing silence from the newest and most unstable colonies worried the Khybor leadership. It smacked of "survival of the fittest" and "contribution determines worth" philosophies promoted by the loud and powerful and political.
The irony was that the Set'ri and their loud supporters and uneasy allies, who were essentially genetic terrorists, had abandoned Vidan a full generation before the Central Allied Worlds moved the core of galactic civilization and government out to the third colonization ring. The birthplace of the Human race had to all intents and purposes been abandoned by those who considered themselves the arbiters of what it meant to be a "true" Human, and those who made themselves rulers over all Humans. Vidan retained some prominence as the center of scientific research and literary or artistic endeavors. Some groups advocating a simpler, cleaner, more natural lifestyle were making efforts to rid the world of the taint of technology and industry.
If Khybors wanted to return to Vidan, they could have. No one would have fought them. However, Khybors had learned long ago not to look back, but to look forward. Outward. Safety lay in being able to keep moving, several steps ahead of their enemies, who would hunt them down until they were exterminated or thoroughly subjugated. That had been the dream of Elin's ancestors, and had been bred into her descendants.
Discovering the "why" of the Skip talent and related technology, tied to the khrystal in Khybors' blood, could wait for much later. "How" mattered more, as they rode out the current wave of false peace, continued the ongoing quest to create a safe haven for Khybors, Wrinkleship pilots and their allies, and prepared for the next series of attacks from those who refused to admit they were Human. The ability to flee beyond the reach and detection of their enemies was a gift from Fi'in, and needed to be protected.
Reena's daughter, Leriel, made the discovery that promised to change history, and perhaps ensure the safety of Khybors and their allies, once and for all. If they could take advantage of it, and answer the questions that arose with it.
Leriel was the youngest member of Elin and Rorin's family to command an exploration team. She took everything so seriously, some of her older brothers and male cousins joked that she had been born an adult. When Leriel returned to Norbra from her newest exploration assignment, five days early, alone, the commander of the watch shift sounded the alarm the moment her Skip ship's identity code came through. Leriel sounded so annoyed when she finally made audio contact, Errion had to laugh despite her concern.
"They're fine. Everyone is fine. The team is fine," Leriel kept saying in response to the questions thrown at her as her ship entered the atmosphere. She wouldn't say anything more as she approached the landing field on the blind side of Norbra, where CAW observation posts couldn't spy. Errion also became annoyed by the constant, repetitive questioning, by the time Leriel had landed. Khybors, more than anyone in the universe, should know how to be patient. She often said the two most valuable gifts Fi'in had given Khybors with khrystal were extended lifespans and patience. Khrystal ensured they would outlive their enemies, and those enemies' children and grandchildren--thus they needed patience to see the reward for their struggles. Her granddaughter would give them the information when she was ready.
"We've been wrong," Leriel announced, the moment she stepped into the main room of the command building. "So many things."
Then she grinned and plunked her helmet down on the nearest table for punctuation.
"As in?" Anson, Leriel's father leaned back against the door leading into the room where the technicians monitored the landing field and the air space above it.
"We need to change the name of our ships. We're not taking a little skip when we slide through the fabric of space."
"I wouldn't call that a little skip, kitling," Reena said.
"Compared with going to an entirely new universe, maybe a different dimension?" The young pilot grinned when her elders exchanged glances.
Keefan, Errion's husband, stepped up next to her and rested a hand on her shoulder, deepening the constant subliminal link of their marriage bond. She felt his amusement, the ideas now spinning through his mind. "So... I'm assuming that means your team finished those star charts and comparisons, far enough to be sure?"
"Absolutely no matches, no matter how many probabilities we run. We're not skipping a few lightyears into unexplored space with our ships. We're leaping sideways. Through the fabric of space itself. No wonder our Wrinkleship friends can't follow us." Leriel's excited flush faded into pale weariness, which contrasted strangely with the determined gleam in her big, dark eyes. "You know what this means, don't you?"
"When we flee," Rorin said two hours later, to a hastily assembled gathering of most of the leadership of the colony on Norbra, now including four generations of their descendants, "we can be sure our enemies won't find and follow us. Ever."
"The question now," Elin added, "is where we go. All the places we've gone through our artificially generated Wrinkles, are they the same alternate universe, or do we find a different universe, a totally new dimension, every time we make a new hole in the fabric of space?"
By the time Leriel returned to her team, less than one planetary day later, they had a new algorithm to verify that none of the stars seen in the other dimension were known in the CAW. That was then passed on to the other six exploration teams. By that time, everyone was starting to pick up the new name she had created entirely without thinking. They were Leap pilots, not Skip pilots.
The Khybors agreed not to use the name with anyone other than Khybors, and nowhere that outsiders could hear. Revealing the existence of the Skip technology and how integral khrystal was to operating Skip ships, when to reveal it, how much, and how deeply that truth would be wrapped in deception, was still under discussion. Once the Central Allied Worlds knew what Khybors could do, someone would find justification to implement the purge of Wrinkleship pilots. Protecting their pilot allies was just as important to the Khybors as finding a galaxy so far away from the CAW that their enemies wouldn't find them for centuries. Preferably never.
The plan for the evacuation of Khybors and their allies took another cautious step forward. They were grateful for every bit of progress, but they knew better than to celebrate anything until the war had been won, once and for all.
Then Leriel's team made another huge advancement: they discovered a planet inhabited by Humans.
Six lunars of cautious approach and observation and sensor sweeps resulted in the conclusion that these people had technology at least four generations behind what the CAW possessed. While the people of this planet had the ability to reach into space, their ships were rudimentary and incredibly slow, using fission-based power. All evidence indicated they lacked the ability to get beyond their solar system. Their sensor and security systems focused outward, indicating they suspected they weren't alone in the universe, and lacked the sensitivity and strength to detect the Khybor scout ships on the edge of their atmosphere.
The planet's communication systems were easy enough to tap and record and analyze. While the Khybor leadership debated how to make contact and created policies to deal with a situation they had never anticipated facing, scholars and linguists worked on learning the three main languages on this world.
There was a slim possibility that this planet was populated by descendants of cold sleep colonization ships sent out centuries ago. Perhaps the sleeper ships had somehow slid through the fabric of space into another dimension or universe, which could explain why no one had heard from the colonists after they landed and sent out their locator and communication beacons. After several centuries, the language could have drifted, especially if the colonists came from one of the people groups and cultures that had vanished from Vidan. Enough waves of conflict had blanketed the supposed homeworld of all Humans, much of Human culture and even genotypes had been lost. All that remained of them were bits and pieces of literature and displays in remote museums. The scouts and scientists studying Leriel's world had to proceed slowly, to determine what or who they faced before making contact.
The possibility of harming the culture of this world wasn't the largest concern. If this was a lost colony, the Khybor scouts had a duty to report what they had found to the CAW. Yet how could they do that without revealing the existence of Skip ships, and starting the purge of Wrinkleship pilots before the evacuation plan was ready to begin?
"There's only one thing to do," Rorin said, after only a few hours of debate over the possibilities and problems. "We step up the schedule and prepare to evacuate our friends years sooner."
"Problem," his son, Banjer said, speaking to the meeting of the colony leaders from his cold sleep cradle.
He regularly spent one lunar out of every six in cold sleep, rotating with his team of seed minds, merged with the newest child-brain being developed. Two years of growth and regular merging, imprinting Human brain patterns, went into the process of culturing a child-brain to run one of the massive colonization and exploration ships being built in anticipation of the evacuation.
"If we've found an entirely new civilization, what are the chances there are other worlds full of people waiting to be discovered, in all the universes we've already reached, or will reach in the future?" he continued.
"We need to establish rules and procedures for how to approach and deal with these worlds," Elin said.
"While we work on contacting and organizing our friends." Rorin looked around the concentric circles of chairs, at all the faces, young and old, of the people who held the survival of the Khybor race in their hands. "The only thing we can rely on is that something unpredictable will happen to shatter our plans. We need to have contingencies to cover every possible disaster, and then more contingencies to cover them, and another layer of contingency plans beyond that. Because it's always what we can't dream of that will trip us. It's not the big mistakes, but the tiny ones that everyone ignored because they were tiny. Redundancy is the key to survival."
"We need to work on the assumption that we're going to run out of time," Ricker, Banjer's older brother added. "We can beg Fi'in for enough time, but we need to plan as if we won't have even half of what we need."
The other exploration teams had been spending their time mapping the stars of the theoretically new universes, to determine if they were in the same universe as the CAW, or another dimension altogether. Now, they changed their sensors to the task of specifically seeking out any signs of Human technology and habitation, and maybe even space travel. It would do them little good to evacuate their allies and families to the longed-for safety from genocide, only to put them in the path of people who would also consider them abominations.
Working on the principle that something would go wrong and they would run out of time, Elin and Rorin stepped up the pace of the plan they had been implementing in small stages for decades. They needed to know the location and status of everyone with even the slightest trace of khrystal in their genetics. If the worst case scenario hit them, they needed to be able to locate and snatch away to safety anyone threatened by genocide or slavery. All this time they had been working slowly, quietly, to avoid alerting the enemies of Khybors or any augmented Humans that they had defenders and the ability to flee to safety. After all, barring accidents and murder, they had multiple lifespans to complete and implement their plan. Those who could be removed to safer surroundings, without generating questions and problems, were moved. For those who couldn't simply vanish without generating too much interest and too many questions, accidents had to be staged and deaths faked to steal them from under their enemies' noses.
Scouts went out to every known Khybor outpost, every colony, every space station, even the ones that had been wiped out by attacks or abandoned during the waves of prejudice over the decades. Khrystal made it possible for Khybors to cling to life, and not just survive but thrive. Norbra's Khybors needed to be sure no one remained in any of those places.
Elin held out hope until the report came from Ayvystal. Several decades ago, the Khybor science outpost had been researching how to extend cold sleep without physical damage, while allowing the minds of the sleepers to have some awareness. Set'ri had bombed the planet from long distance and from orbit, until nothing remained of the outpost. Incomplete messages from the Sentinels entrusted with the security of the scientists had taken years to reach Norbra. The messages had been damaged by the electromagnetic pulses that accompanied the bombing, scrambled so they were nearly impossible to decipher. If anyone had managed to hide or escape, there was no clue how or where they had gone.
Physically searching the decimated colony site was impossible because of all the military observation posts and satellites heavily seeded in that particular sector of CAW space. The Set'ri had a reputation for hanging on for decades after an attack, whether a single settlement or an entire colony, to make sure nothing and no one survived. Better to leave Ayvystal in peace, and keep any clues to the existence of survivors hidden and safe. They could only hope someone was aware and receiving the coded messages now being sent repeatedly throughout the CAW, and could respond before the evacuation completed.
What mattered now was finding all who could be found, determining how to evacuate them without attracting the attention or suspicion of their enemies, and helping them fade from notice, slowly and silently.
Scouts went out to the colony worlds that had fallen silent and had disappeared from the regular status reports. Norbra had learned how to tap into the tightly locked governmental newsfeed channels, and could access information that only the highest levels of the government received. The silencing of colony worlds, more with each decade, hinted at growing problems within the CAW. Norbra's scouts went out first to the colonies where Khybors and other augmented Humans and suspected mutants had settled, then checked the status of colonies that needed regular shipments of essentials such as food, fuel, repair supplies for environment domes, and other items to shield them against hostile environments.
The scouts orbited each colony world and monitored their technology levels and communications for a lunar, minimum, before trying to make contact. If there were no energy emissions, no traffic on communication bands, no signs of transport traffic of any kind, they went in sooner. On far too many worlds, they found signs of abandonment, but few clues if it was voluntary or forced, if the people had fled for their lives, if sickness or difficult environmental conditions had driven them away. The colonies that weren't emptied of people but had been clearly abandoned by the CAW, cut off as if they didn't exist, made establishing a pattern easier. The resulting assessment after nearly a year of scouting and investigating worried Norbra's leadership. This was a development they had feared and changed their projected timetable.
The CAW was shrinking. Colony worlds were being abandoned in truth, not just in rumors. They were evacuated when the authorities stopped shipping the necessary components to maintain life, or they were abandoned to survive on their own because the colonies weren't profitable. The news went out to the allies of the Khybors, and the colonists were offered options and what assistance Norbra could give them. Many of the colonies that were managing to survive on their own preferred the silence. They preferred that the Central Allied Worlds forget they existed. Being forgotten meant safety. Some of the older generations chose to take the transportation Norbra's people offered, to move to other worlds, further out from the reach of the CAW, to ensure their safety if another revolution swept through the galaxy.
Norbra put into motion the next steps in the plan for survival and safety.
The Central Allied Worlds didn't know Wrinkleship pilots had a leadership council. The pilots had learned generations ago to present an image of anti-social beings who preferred a solitary existence and rarely socialized with their own kind, much less "normal" Humans. As a safety precaution, the Council rarely communicated with even their allies. If the military and the government branch that oversaw the maintenance and education of Wrinkleship pilots ever learned they were organized and had their own private channels of communication, that could be justification for another attempt at mind control.
Zeph, the liaison between Norbra and the Council, had been gone for nearly a Norbran year on a long-distance, long-term towing assignment. Errion's children had grown up with Zeph, spending long hours in his passenger cabin talking and learning about the star systems beyond Norbra. He was considered a member of the family. Errion went out with her squadron of Skip pilots to find Zeph and speak directly with him, to approach the Council for the next step in the evacuation plan.
"I'm not speaking out of turn when I tell you this," Zeph said, when she presented her request. "The Council has us checking on everyone's status. Six ships have gone completely silent in the last year-cycle. Granted, all of them were on the verge of tipping over the edge. Either heading out until they run out of fuel and energy, to fade out completely, or signing on with some rebel cause. There are a dozen wannabe rebellions trying to spring up and rewrite the CAW, every time you turn around."
"What's happened to make them go silent if they aren't crazy, they aren't rebels, and they aren't suicidal?" Errion didn't even try to fight the chill that worked outward from her gut. She could guess. It fit neatly with some of the hypotheses her brothers and uncles and the stat-crunchers had come up with. She just wished the most pessimistic among them weren't being proven right.
"Rumors say some pilots have been ordered to ignore colonies calling for assistance, and to keep silent when their routes are changed and no one is assigned in their place. If they don't shut up, they get assigned again, or runaround answers, or none at all. Some go silent."
"You'd feel better if they got reprimanded and ordered to mind their own business," she murmured.
"Got it in one."
"Any word on how they are being silenced?"
"Rumors are that they're being shut down. Their ships are grounded, their power plants deactivated, or simply grounded by denying them resupply..."
"Or?" She shuddered and sent up a silent prayer to Fi'in that Zeph wouldn't say what she didn't want to hear.
"Or they're being removed altogether from their ships. What's worse? Being decanted and dumped out to die, or your life-support module dumped in a dark warehouse somewhere, with other pilots slowly going insane in the darkness for company?"
"Zeph... Are any of the silent ones your friends?"
"Doesn't matter, does it?"
"Promise me. If it meant anything when your cubs and their cubs called me Uncle. Promise me that if someone manages to get me out of my ship, you find out where they put my module and you bomb the place. Show me mercy and end me."
The words stuck in her throat, but she knew, from all the stories she had heard from Wrinkleship pilot friends over the decades, there was no hope once a pilot had been separated from his ship. Separation almost guaranteed descent into insanity, if only from hopelessness and silence.
From the expressions in the meeting room when Errion made her report, all those who had friends among the Wrinkleship pilots agreed, reluctantly, with her promise.
The next step in the plan to evacuate beyond the CAW's reach was to build stations in the verified new universes to service Wrinkleships, providing fuel, medical services, repairs, and technology upgrades. This plan was much better than trying to establish stations beyond the reach of the CAW for another century or two, and yet had its own drawback. Once they crossed over into the new universes, towed by Leap ships, there would be no returning.
As preparations were made to choose the locations for those stations, the CAW military leaders approached Norbra to participate in building a new space station. It would monitor traffic through the main Wrinkle that gave access to Norbra's solar system. The politicians insisted that Khybor participation in both building and manning the station would ensure that the "sad state of affairs" facing a number of other far-flung colonies and solar systems, wouldn't escalate and threaten Norbra. The CAW Congress claimed that offering Khybors partnership in the station was to prove the high respect they had for all the services, especially ship design and khrystal-enhanced medical services, that Khybors offered the CAW.
No one truly believed that defending the rights and freedom of Khybors and giving them power over their future was anywhere among the real reasons for building the station. Someone had sensed a change in the tide of opinion and history and political power regarding Norbra and Khybors. Someone had said something, it didn't matter if it was innocent or careless or deliberately provocative, that started a ripple effect. It triggered suspicion strong enough to move enemies to take a strategic step against them.
Rorin volunteered to be a monitor for the Khybor side of the project, to inspect the growing station. He would meet with the representatives of the military and politicians and scientists, who would use the station as a gathering place for symposiums and negotiations even before it was fully operational. Establishing the station there would automatically divert much of the communication traffic in the neighboring systems through that hub. Rorin's position of authority would allow him to establish a tap into the communications hub from the beginning, and allow him to gather up news, information, and messages vital to the long-range evacuation plan.
This was the perfect opportunity to obtain inside information on the station, and determine how it could be destroyed when the day came. They could in effect jam the Wrinkle to prevent transport through it, and create enough confusion in the debris field and energy clouds to cover their wholesale evacuation of Norbra. To prevent the enemy suspecting what they were doing, Norbra would have to wait until the very last moment to be evacuated. One mistake, one miscalculation, could turn the safe haven of their world into a slaughterhouse for the core of their race.
The plan to protect Norbra in the days leading up to the evacuation required a large amount of misinformation be spread, taught, and believed about the Skip ships and how pilots created Wrinkles. They had to ensure that no one understood that the ability to generate Wrinkles meant Skip pilots could go anywhere. They had to teach new Skip pilots they were limited to the existing Wrinkles, and teach enough lies to cripple the CAW when Khybors left and took the truth with them. Blocking the Wrinkle leading to Norbra with the destruction of this station would be a major safeguard and defense in the evacuation.
The station project opened access to information and reopened channels to allies who been silent for too long, because making contact had been too dangerous. Allies monitoring several research facilities on Vidan sent devastating news. It emphasized the truth of Rorin's teaching that they should prepare as if they had half the time they needed, and their enemies were ten times more brutal than they currently believed. Elin and Rorin had taught their descendants to always trust Fi'in, while at the same time anticipating the worst cruelty the Human mind could create. Despite that, the news about the survival of a project that should have been buried, all data related to it destroyed, infuriated and sickened the Khybor leadership.
The nanite project had been revived, despite its brutal history. The attempt to link Human minds with machines had killed many conscripted experimental subjects, and physically and mentally damaged the rest. The only known survivors were the crew of the Nova Vendetta, who had accidentally discovered the key to success: khrystal buried deep in the genetics before the nanites were introduced into the blood. Before that, four scientists invaded Norbra and nearly killed Errion's uncle Banjer with nanites, when he was a young man. Allies of the Khybors, and political powers who were desperate for their cooperation and access to their skills, claimed the records and samples of the technology had been destroyed for good, this time. Knowing how unreliable politicians were, Elin's descendants had dreaded the revival of the project, and anticipated the devastating news that reached them now.
According to the information on the project, smuggled out of the secret research facility, khrystal was now considered the vital missing element in merging computers with Human minds. Once again, the goal was to create a bridge between Human brain and starship computer to run a ship and find Wrinkles, without depending on Wrinkleship pilots.
That news from several sources among the scientific community involved in research-and-development was followed by an even more devastating development. The space station's skeleton had been nearly completed when the reports reached Norbra from multiple investigative sources. Children who were merely suspected to have khrystal in their genetics were vanishing. Unborn children were being harvested, their mothers forced into premature labor by physical assault, poisoning, or being drugged by medical personnel allied with the researchers. The grieving parents were told their children had died, but were then denied the bodies for burial. Children were being taken from preschool and daycare facilities by authorities with falsified credentials, and never seen again. The outcry began slowly, little more than a whisper, until the numbers grew, the voices gained volume, and the harvesters targeted the wrong child. His family had the political power, wealth, and influence to get immediate action and ram through the bureaucratic blockades. They were lucky, in that their kidnapped child was found alive. Investigations revealed that most children didn't live more than two or three days after they were taken. Most harvesters drained the children of blood to get at the khrystal, then tossed the bodies into bio-material recycling facilities. The story went public and set off ripples that created shockwaves.
Connecting the revival of the nanite project with the growing demand for khrystal, especially when decreasing numbers of Khybors excreted khrystal for medical purposes, didn't take much time or thought. The bitter irony was that despite multiple incidents in the past where khrystal taken from unwilling donors had resulted in monstrosities and suffering, the same tactic was being tried. Someone had postulated the theory long ago that khrystal taken from the bodies of children too young to have conscious control of it, or from unborn babies, would be malleable and easily controlled. Despite evidence to the contrary, that theory seemed to have adherents again. Or at least people desperate enough to justify the deaths of hundreds of innocents.