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by William Alan Rieser


The Earth ambassador's craft slid smoothly into the docking tube of the Jekorfan Confederation satellite. Its receptor was already in place on the black transfer mat as Langford Joh stepped abruptly onto the gangplank and allowed himself to be manipulated by beam deposition next to the sturdy, patient biomechanical.

"Is this some sort of private joke?" he asked rudely, looking askance at the simplistic assistant with undisguised contempt. "I don't like being disturbed when dream painting."

"We are aware of your discomfort, ambassador," said the receptor smoothly. "We apologize for the interruption in advance. But we know of your interest in Manic and were advised by the Council to contact you, considering the discovery."

"What discovery?"

"Several 4th quadrant League representatives await your pleasure, sir. They are within and will answer your questions."

"Take me," said Joh impatiently as the receptor punched coordinates on the mat's tablature. They were transferred immediately to a conference enclosure deep inside the great satellite where the reps were congregated and bunched around a projected gas display. The group was consumed with a vision of the Manic nebula system and did not notice their arrival.

"The Earth Ambassador," announced the receptor, turning several heads. "The Honorable Langford Joh."

"Ah, Joh," said Caron Phel, the spidery League liaison who warmly embraced and greeted his friend as the receptor departed. "Glad you could make it."

"What's going on, Caron?" asked Joh. "This is most sudden."

"Indeed," interrupted Byl Troif, a thin, leafy League rep from the militant division of the confederation's single nadir planet, Suul, reputed to be approaching nova. "Manic has gone positive."

"After two millennia of intense observation," added Auby Jamp, a rep from Cygnus and a well known historian. "My family alone has been delving the Manic nebula for centuries, aside from the adjustable confederation probes."

"The Manics are primitives," replied Joh, staring at Troif's foliant physique while Jamp, essentially a mobile stalactite, leaked his essence on the floor and recollected it with spongy, tubular tendrils. "They have no technology."

"Nevertheless," said Caron, "something is dissipating the nebula. If it isn't the denizens themselves, then it is an unknown form within their core planet. Your theory, of course, and we have come around to your way of thinking. We've traced the influence to Manic 3, the one we've always suspected to be their point of origin."

"Even so, what of it? Why is the nebula dissipating?"

"We think," suggested Troif, "a new comet is approaching. The source is unconfirmed but the trajectory seems to indicate a direct collision with Manic 3."

"And you believe the Manics have not only detected it but are doing something about it?" asked Joh, raising his eyebrows in derision. "Surely not!"

"We have not conceived another conclusion," said Jamp awkwardly. "That is why we asked for you. The Council President concurred with our view. Can you suggest another explanation?"

"Show me the macro-tactical display," answered Joh, dismissing their anxieties with his brusque mannerism. "It's probably a fluke, like the other false alarms."

"All legends have some basis in truth," intoned Burruk Tahm, a respected, elderly rep from Andromeda, his bright exoskeleton flashing around the enclosure with excitement and paranoia. He was a plated ammonia ball with a tendency toward understatement and foul emissions.

"Which one?" asked Joh as he analyzed the floating galactic map, depicting the path of the new comet and its probable impact on Manic 3. "Are you referring to that absurd tale about the Manic civilization once being the masters of this part of the universe or the one about their being enslaved and converted by a vicious, impious cloud? Or have you uncovered a scholar among the brutes?"

"We are not prejudiced," said Tahm with some mirth. "Any of the legends will suffice. There are so many of them."

"Which ones would apply to this scenario? How long did it take the confederation to match their language to the translator? Three centuries. Why? Because they couldn't remember enough of their own language to make communication possible. We had to find the correlations, remember? We had to teach them, the barely sentient remnants, how to speak again. Such beings are unlikely to detect or predict comets."

"But that learning curve was, in itself, indicative," said Troif. "It proves that they were once superior, regardless of what has happened to them since."

"It just means that they have been retarded somehow," added Jamp. "After all, it is inescapable, the fact that their species has colonized five of their thirteen planets. To do that, they must have been much more than they are at present."

"And now you are assuming they have the resources to envision a comet far in advance of our own sensors?" asked Joh. "Nonsense. There must be another interpretation, something like the dimensional rip that caused the last fluctuation, the one that got everyone so excited during the eclipse last year."

"Perhaps you should consult the parameter analyzer at this time," said Caron Phel reasonably. "We should know by now if the dissipation is real or illusory."

"Good idea," agreed Joh, pressing a request button on a nearby console.

"20% reduction in coverage and shrinking," said the panel audibly. "Nebula configuration confirmed. Artificial."

"Damn," said Jamp. "How can that be?"

"Primitives couldn't erect a shield like that," said Troif with passion.

"No, they couldn't," agreed Joh nodding his head. "Tell me, Jamp. You are the historian amongst us. Wasn't there a legend about underground Manics, a group of scientists?"

"Yes, the Ghyr-Manics. Supposedly, they took everything worth saving where no enemy could penetrate."

"I distinctly remember something else, though. Something symbolic."

"Well, the Ghyr-Manics are the ones alleged to have invented their talisman. All Manics wear the tattoo on their chest and it is inscribed on every clay ribbon on each of their planets. No portion of their landscapes exist without the symbol."

"It goes beyond that," said Tahm. "I have looked into their mists myself using birefractive focals. You can't tweak a lens without encountering the emblem on their huts or the signposts of their methane gardens. Their females sport the icon on their bodies in places that we would consider shameful. Even the capitol leader, Arax, had it inscribed on all five fins. His son wears it proudly on his proboscis."

"You are talking about that laughable, ugly fetish of theirs, aren't you?" asked Joh. I'm working on a painting of the symbol for aesthetic purposes. It's hieratic maze has some intriguing features.""Fetish in English," coughed Tahm. "Caduk in Andromedan, Lurin on Cygnus. What difference does it make? They all mean the same thing."

"And what is the latest thought about that symbol?" asked Joh without passion because he knew what they would say.

"It's their sacred ornament," answered Caron. "They clearly worship it and nothing else. You ought to know. You were among them."

"But why?" persisted Joh.

"Because it represents a kind of magic solution to them for all their problems," insisted Jamp. "Whenever the Manic have difficulties, they invoke their symbol, the Prail."

"That maze," interrupted Tahm. "could be the name of a person or a device. We do not know. Whatever it is, they believe in it."

"Undoubtedly. Interesting that I was dream painting while this unfurled. I must have remembered my tour on Manic and unconsciously thought of the symbol. I recalled the absurd differences between all our species and somehow put them inside the symbol. You have to admit, from the Manic point of view, we make a rather bizarre menagerie, even if they don't seem to pay much attention."

"You do enjoy your post, yes?" asked Tahm with a flash that indicated to Joh that his answer should be carefully phrased. "You appreciate our separateness?"

"And our similarities," said Joh to the relief of those who were tense in expecting a politically harsh reply. "Entities are what they are."

"It's such a blah symbol," said Caron pointedly, bypassing possible controversy. "It doesn't suggest anything to my mind. We've never seen the thing work, have we?"

"I don't think any of us has actually witnessed the real Prail, just the icon and their bizarre rituals," concluded Jamp with frustration. "I can never tell what they are doing when they mill about together like that. They are so amorphous. No two Manics look alike and their rites are ridiculously confusing."

"That does not mean it isn't real," said Tahm in his ponderous brilliance, shaking one of his lesser plates. "Symbolism does not imply fabrication. We don't know that they lie about anything. To the Manics, lying may be superfluous."

"Filter a typical image on the display," said Joh and they all paused to look at it.

Had it been representing a mineral, it could have been something like an elongated crystal because of its obvious facets. But, other than triangular depressions and a maze of intersecting lines, the depiction was simply a bland graphic of a gray, equipment locker. The only thing that made it attractive at all was its neat regularity of features, its symmetry. They had all seen it many times and were under-impressed.

"30% reduction," continued the panel without being asked.

"At this rate," said Joh, "the Nebula will be gone in two hours. I agree that there must be something on Manic 3 causing this to happen. Yet, these primitives have shielded our sophisticated inquiries. Do you want to wait and see or do you want an invasive query now?"

"Have we got a probe to do that?" asked Jamp. "The nebula has always diluted everything we put inside it."

"Maybe it can't do that while it is dissipating," said Joh. "The dampening must be less, don't you think?"

"I'll order some spore probes," said Caron who then spoke privately into his communicator. "Perhaps they will get through and divide the mists."

"There they go," said Tahm a moment later as they observed bright particles enter the Manic system to separate and accost the three main planets. "We should see something soon if they are going to function."

"Incoming," said Caron. "It's from Admiral Muid."

"Put him on the display," said Joh rather gently, sensitive now to the anxieties and fears of the others.

"Gentlemen," greeted the Admiral. "Your probes are indeed working, amazing as that seems to me, but they do not have enough power to reach you even though the nebula field is diminishing. I'm going to relay the transmissions to you from here on the point ship. Maybe you can make out what they are showing. We are mystified."

"Thank you Admiral," said Joh. "Your cooperation is noted."

Looking at the triple transmission was very confusing. Few of the reps understood what they were seeing, but Caron suspected that Joh had an inkling of what the shapes meant by observing his grimace. To the others, they saw geometric blocks of varied colors blending their shapes and intensities into their surroundings.

"Those three-dimensional figures are all Manic residents," explained Joh carefully. "I became familiar with them five years ago when we broke the language barrier. They often assume inanimate configurations during a crisis. Usually they are red or orange. The fact that so many colors are being seen means they are alarmed, especially the dark colors."

"That is not inanimate. I distinctly saw them move," complained Jamp. "In fact, they are moving simultaneously on Manics 3, 4, and 6. Am I supposed to believe that they have an interplanetary communication? Since when?"

"They do seem to be moving, Ambassador," agreed Tahm. "What do you make of that? Have you seen this before?"

"Once," admitted Joh. "It was during a solar avalanche when a flare triggered several thousand of their volcanoes to erupt at the same time. They are not moving the way you think. It is a preservation technique of theirs; an enforced hibernation of sorts that protects them. If you look more carefully, you can just make out that they are blending into their environment by becoming two dimensional. See that red fellow there. He just turned quite blue and became indistinguishable from that nearby mercury tree. Another, the yellowish one. Did you observe how it browned and disappeared into the lace bush. It's all absorption and they have a unique method of doing it. Rather fascinating, considering how much difficulty they have adapting to the choices we gave them. But I have never seen it done on more than one of their planets at a single time. This is different."

"And when you witnessed these things," asked Jamp, "how long was it before they reverted to normal?"

"Four days until the magma began to solidify," responded Joh.

"Look at the images now," said a startled Troif. "They seem to have succeeded. Not a Manic to be seen. I think they're fully blended for the duration."

"50% reduction," droned the panel. "The rate is increasing logarithmically."

"I am not understanding this at all," said a subdued Jamp. "If the nebula is completely removed, what will that accomplish?"

"I don't know," said Joh. "It's a first for me as well as the rest of you. But, if ever we are to comprehend the meaning of their Prail, I suggest we scan for it. Let's assume it will make an appearance, that this dissipation is a preamble to that. It seems to me we should investigate the possibility."

"Admiral Muid," said Caron quietly. "Are you listening?"

"I am in agreement," he replied. "Scanners are activated in low orbits for maximum resolution. If anything happens, we'll know it."

"78%," continued the panel. "82....88....96. The nebula is terminated. No residual molecular presence."

"What?" said Jamp. "That's impossible."

"Not if the entire nebula was a simulation to begin with," said a smirking Joh. "I'm beginning to think our Manic friends are nothing like what they have been showing us. It's either that or we are about to be introduced to the real Manics, the legends."

"Surface activity," warned the panel and the scanner audibles simultaneously.

"Identify!" yelled Jamp loudly at the sonic interpreter.

"This is Muid," came a scratchy response. "The scanners are not recognizing what they are picking up but the objects are projecting unusual fields of energy. Yes, there are a lot of them, all on one side of the planet facing the comet. Correction. All three planets are acting in conjunction. Whatever it is, the action is coordinated."

"Amazing," said Troif as a host of tiny silver spheres began to appear in the atmospheres of all three planets being displayed by the scanners. "They look like they are being positioned with precision and equidistant to each other. If this is Prail, it is more than we bargained for."

"Be patient," counseled a resigned Langford Joh. "We have only to let it happen. The Manics are about to instruct us. They are finally going to show us something beyond what I must now consider centuries of consummate acting. To think that they have duped us for so long."

"We don't know that yet," cautioned Burruk Tahm. "But I agree that something new is happening. Anything else on the spheres?"

"Pure magnesium hulls," commented Admiral Muid. "Impenetrable fields. They are now locked in position approximately fifty thousand kilometers above the surface. All quantum readings are negative. I repeat, the fields are impenetrable."

"Rather like the nebula itself, aren't they," suggested Caron Phel. "Significant that the populace has managed to totally camouflage themselves, though they must be aware we are watching them."

"True. They know," said Joh. "This is not only for their benefit, but ours. Admiral Muid, I assume your craft is safely out of any possible field projection between the spheres and the comet."

"Affirmative. We are parallel to the Manic 3 moon."

"What are you doing there, please?"

"I am not permitted to say."

"I think you should," said Joh. "You may be in for an unpleasantness if you don't confide in us."

"I can't."

"Then we strongly recommend you vacate the premises quickly. The inhabitants are aware of your presence. We have no clue as to their attitude, but considering the awesome demonstration we have all just seen......"

"I have just received new orders. We are leaving."

"Understood, Admiral. Will you be able to maintain the scanners."

"Until we reach Jopek if there is no further interference."

"We'll keep the channel open. Good luck."

"What was that all about?" asked several reps. "Do you know something that the League does not?"

"Well, have you asked yourselves why the Council persists with this system when there are so many others worth pursuing? You must admit that Manic has contributed absolutely nothing to the confederation."

"I have asked and been told zilch," said Caron.

"I as well," admitted Tahm.

"A rumor only," said Troif. "Something about rare minerals."

"A molybdenum deposit, gentlemen," said Joh. "A rather immense one, too. Why else would the Council order a point ship and an Admiral to hide within the nebula. They were here before it began to dissipate."

"He's right," said Jamp. "Dangerous politics, Joh. You were wise to warn the Admiral away."

"It wasn't me. Muid is relaying this transmission to the Council also. You are all aware that molybdenum is coveted by our enemies in the 5th quadrant for weapons manufacturing. I think that is what this was all about, to see that Manic is not approached by them. But the situation is now changed. Can we examine the comet more closely from here?"

"There is a League scanner on Kotha," said Caron. "The comet is passing nearby. We should be able to get a better look at it. I'll make a request."

While the liaison was contacting Kotha, Tahm spoke privately with Joh.

"What if we are mistaken about this comet? What if it comes from the enemy?"

"A distinct possibility, representative Tahm. But we still know nothing about our friends on Manic. Are they in danger? They seem to think so. In fact, it appears our formerly vapid colleagues have assessed the situation better than we. We have no treaties with them and are not bound to provide assistance, though that would be the right thing to do if it is a 5th quadrant intruder. A ticklish situation, eh?"

"Formidable, unless the Prail is real."

"That remains to be seen. For the moment, we have these weird spheres with their strange emanations."

"Kotha has complied," announced Caron Phel. "Images are imminent."

The reps turned their attention to the new display and saw a fireball hurtling at tremendous speed toward the Manic system. It was neither a craft nor a weapon but a new comet as previously thought. Most sighed with relief that they had not been wrong.

"Incoming," spoke the panel again, followed by Muid's voice.

"I just thought you should know. The spheres are increasing their energy fields. There is also a new object on the surface of Manic 3, possibly on 4 and 6 also. It has appeared suddenly on the capitol mesa. It should be visible to you momentarily. We are estimating its size as 35,000 kilometers. Very large object."

"We are just seeing it, Admiral," said Joh. "It looks very much like the Prail to us. Any comments from the Council?"

"Just awe, Ambassador Joh. I'll keep you posted."

"Thank you. Gentlemen, is that or is that not the Prail?"

"Didn't imagine it would be that big," said Jamp.

"What else could it be?" asked Troif. "It doesn't look any different from the icon we looked at earlier. Can we put the images alongside each other?"

"Ten seconds," said the panel which automatically compensated the display. They soon saw that the icon and the mesa object were identical.

"Rather complex for primitives who live in scattered villages, wouldn't you all agree?" said Joh with rare humor. "No, gentlemen, the real Manics are coming out of their closet. Any wagers on the outcome? Will it be a 35,000-kilometer beast of fury or thousands of angry little Manics?"

"You think they are inside that object?" queried Tahm.

"I don't know," said Jamp. "It would have to open. There are no seams."

"Plenty of lines and facets, though," added Troif, riveted by the image.

"Perhaps they all blended into the surface in order to become the Prail," offered Joh. "That would be interesting, especially if there are three of them."
"Kotha is signaling again," said Caron. "They are telling us to look at the comet. Apparently it has altered."

"No. It couldn't be," screamed Byl Troif, upset by the development. "Where is it now? I don't see it."

"Calm down," said Joh. "Caron will have it for us. There. He's got it. That is, he's got them."

This time they saw that a dozen craft were heading on the same trajectory formerly seen occupied by the comet. Somehow the intruders had masked themselves into a giant fireball and had now changed their configuration radically. They were 5th quadrant enemy cruisers and they were approaching Manic without opposition.

"Exactly what the Council feared," said Joh. "They are after the molybdenum."

"And there is nothing the League can do to prevent it," said a disappointed Tahm. "I know those markings well, the Vagh. They will despoil the system to extract their minerals. The Manic haven't got a chance against Vagh weaponry. They'll be decimated."

"Is there nothing we can do?" asked Jamp.

"Like what?" shouted Troif, still perturbed, being a former military consultant. "The Manic already know something is coming."

"Yes, but they don't know the Vagh as we do," insisted Tahm.

"We can't act without the League or the Council," said Joh. "As you saw, the Council opted to withdraw the point ship. I don't think they knew the Vagh were coming, but one ship against a dozen cruisers couldn't do much anyway. Admiral, are you aware of the latest?"

"Nothing I can do," said Muid. "I've been ordered out of it. They have been informed of developments."

"Well, there it is," said Joh. "It's up to the Manics."

"The Vagh are decelerating," said Caron with disgust. "Approach distance."

"Major configuration change on Manic 3 surface," announced the panel without expression. "No similar objects on other planets."

"There can only be one Prail," said Joh, chuckling inwardly. "I should have known that."

"Look at the thing," said Jamp. "It's rising from the surface and changing as it comes. What is it showing us?"

"Not 35,000 angry little beasts, Joh," said Tahm. "More like a mechanical, but gigantic."

"The crystal shape has been abandoned," commented Troif. "It's sprouting thousands of appendages from its thick, sparkling trunk. It's joints appear to be spirals or coils of energy. Are those eyes, the red spots?"

"I think so," said Caron. "For aiming, probably."

"Aiming what?" asked Jamp. "The spheres?"

"That's it!" said Joh. "That's exactly it. "Don't you see? It has deliberately armed itself and is preparing to fire against the intruders. And the spheres are also providing a huge defense shield at the same time. Brilliant. Spectacular. These are not helpless, mindless, defenseless aboriginals. They are advanced beings."

"Oh, oh," interrupted Caron. "The Vagh are attacking in formation. They are targeting the spheres for a frontal."

Everyone waited for the energy blasts to make contact. There was a hush in the enclosure as each rep held his breath. No one moved in the silence. Suddenly the screen whited out and nothing could be seen.

"We've lost the display," complained Caron.

"I'm getting it here," said Admiral Muid. "The spheres have survived. The Vagh cannonade had no effect. Wait, there's more. The Manics are returning fire. Damn. The Vagh shields are also holding. If I didn't know better, I'd say these two adversaries know each other."

"Is that possible?" asked Jamp.

"That depends on the age of both civilizations," said Joh. "All we know about the Vagh is that they are ancient. Perhaps the Manics do know them. They certainly know how to prevent their weapons which is more than I can say for us. When was the last time we repelled a Vagh broadside?"

"Never," said Troif with knowing fear. "Deadliest barrage in the galaxy."

"The display is back," said Caron excitedly as it burst into life.

What they now viewed was extremely puzzling. Every silver sphere issued a bright, red beam of staggered pulses, pointing directly at the Vagh intruder vessels which had stopped firing as though paralyzed. At first, they thought the giant Prail apparition had disappeared and they concentrated on the intricate light mechanisms being coordinated from the three Manic planets. The Vagh definitely appeared to be helpless. Then they saw it, the lumbering, massive Prail as it came out of the blackness of the void and descended upon the enemy cruisers. One by one, it sucked each craft into an opening in its side. As it did so, the spheres began to diminish and disappear into the surfaces of their planets. Soon the Vagh were gone and the Prail simply vanished.

"That's it?" said Troif with confusion. "Armaggedon goes poof in an instant?"

"I don't think I understand what we just saw," said Jamp with a frown.

Tahm folded up his plates, which went dark as Caron's spidery legs bunched together like they always did when he was at a loss. Joh folded his arms with amusement and bent his head low to stare at the floor. Then the panel projected a new resilient vocal resonance into their enclosure, one that was to occupy their thoughts for many days to come. With hindsight, they realized belatedly that it had been transmitted without the benefit of their supposedly incomparable communication equipment. In fact, after analyzing it thoroughly, they came to the unenviable conclusion that no electrons, photonic or otherwise, had been involved at all. The voice said:

"Now that you know, please don't refer to us as Manics again. Our name is Prail. And Langford, it is time for you to go home and finish your infantile painting."

Story copyright 2002 by William Alan Rieser

Illustration © copyright 2002 by Romeo Esparrago

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