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Generated: Aug 13, 2022 12:50 AM
Post last updated: Aug 13, 2022 12:50 AM
come away with me
Vanda Nosseo lands on a world that fights a lot of wars.
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The city of Amraterre, located in the Sacred Principality of Amraterre, is an absolutely beautiful sight. Placed on the flat peak of a mountain whose once-craggy surface had been flattened by an act of heaven, it towers over the lowlands and cloudlands below, shining down on lands habitable and uninhabitable. The moons above glow with the reflection of the dawning sun, and beneath them is Amraterre the beautiful, unmatched in the annals of the world; from the Bestowal at its center gifted by the angels, greatest of all their gifts, from which flows ambrosia to grant life and health to the city's people, to the shining palaces of the Admiralty, which still reflect the work of those generations of builders that exalted the city for the glory of Those who gave us the chance to win it, and museums swelling with the plunder of a dozen kingdoms shattered and liberated and forged anew by His Holiness's benevolent hand. Beneath them is the thriving city with its burghers and artisans and ten thousand captains and commodores, in their formal uniforms of blue silk and caps of velvet; beneath them are the fifteen great terraces beneath the peak cut into the mountain's walls by the Blessed Champions, six to shelter the city's swelling masses when they grew too great for the peak, nine more to grow the grain that ensures that Heaven's city does not face famine, even in the darkest of times.

Amraterre is all but deserted, now; His Holiness is on campaign, and from the city he has taken the young men, and the middle-aged men, and the oldest youths. Boys and girls play in the streets, But women and old men still walk the city, working the trades of their husbands and their sons, so that there will be something to come back to, when the long, terrible war ends at last.

Oh, and aliens. Aliens are very shortly going to walk the streets of the city, too.

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The aliens look like this:

- a short man, though at a glance you might be forgiven for being unsure that he's a man; his hair is vermilion, streaked with gold, held in a simple ponytail, and his clothes are simple to the point of being minimalistic, perfectly fitting black slacks and a short sleeved shirt in the same grey as his eyes
- a statuesque woman with wings, pink, and a thin floating disc hovering above her head, rose gold, wearing a white drapey toga situation
- a preposterously ugly man, as though all the deformities of half a dozen mutants and boxers were heaped on one face and that face was painted sage green to boot, wearing a very crisp business-suit-like outfit with several pieces in several layers and some understated black lace
- a man who is fully seven feet tall, willowy and delicate and long-fingered and pointy-eared and inhumanly beautiful, with his black hair piled on his head in an architecturally marvelous nest of braids, clad in ethereal robes and some twenty pounds of jewelry all told
- a human woman, petite and very normal-looking compared to the others, though ethnically dissimilar from the locals, in a nice white tunic-blouse and wine-red leggings

They stand there at first, waiting to see if there is some response or if they need to start looking for who to talk to themselves.

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There are guards in front of the palace, as it happens! The guards are wearing fancy military uniforms with plumed hats and glittering epaulets and carrying guns that look to the majority of the people present like they were created by historical reenactors (single-shot flintlock muskets), but the guns have bayonets and are probably loaded. They do, however, look like they aren't wholly certain if they should point the guns at the aliens or kneel; there's a lot of attention being paid to the rose-gold disc over the winged woman's head. They compromise by sounding the alarm; a quick cry and then bells are ringing in a not-especially-musical manner.

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The visitors politely wait for whoever the alarm is intended to summon, nodding and smiling at anyone who makes eye contact.

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The Lieutenant of the Guard is a young man in a fancier uniform than the regular guards, with elegant features, an aristocratic air, and only one arm. (The other sleeve hangs limply.) Honors are pinned to his chest, and there's a pistol where his right hand can draw it.

"They just appeared!"

"Really?" His eyes scan the visitors. "And pray tell, where did you appear from?"

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"Hello!" says the one with the red and gold hair. "We are visitors from Vanda Nossëo, which is based around another star very far from here."

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That... seems to stun him, and his first instinct is to say something sardonic, and then he looks again at the glowing gold disc.

"If you're faking this," he says, "I'm not impressed. Are you divine beings?" That last is in another language.

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To all appearances the visitors don't notice, except for the super tall one, who cocks his head slightly.

"We are all ordinary people in the places we came from," their leader says. "But we came from very different places. With so many kinds of people and cultures around it can get complicated to draw a clear line between being divine and not, but none of us has a particularly good case for divinity."

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... Well, if they deny it, then that makes things easier. He attempts to recollect his dignity.

"If you're from another star," he says, "can you prove it?" They might be demons as much as angels. Or, more likely, they're confidence tricksters; yes, His Supremacy says that the end times are coming, but that would make it more tempting to be confidence tricksters, now wouldn't it? The simplest explanation actually is the best, even if it looks really, really unlikely right now.

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"Yes!" says the leader. "If you'd like to visit other planets we can bring you along with us, although it might ideally wait until we've had more of a chance to talk about what you'll find there."

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... Yeah right.

"... Do you have... the ability to do things that we can't do..." he looks at the winged woman... "that can't be faked with makeup or Ace powers... such that people from another star might?"

Honestly he should probably just call the Foreign Minister but there's really good odds that this is a plot to assassinate the Foreign Minister, so.

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"What is an Ace power?" asks Nelen. "I mean, we almost certainly do, but knowing what things would be most dramatic as demonstrations will help."

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Are they going to say they don't know what the sun is, next?

"Aces are bearers of the Hero Crests given to us by the angels. To possess one," he says, "is a sign of absolute heroism, virtue, and -"

There's a bright light in the sky. One moving very, very quickly.

"- And superior rank to me," he says calmly.

And she touches down, stopping almost in an instant at a level where she still hovers in midair a foot and a half above the ground, to put her eyes level with the tallest visitor. She's glowing gold and hovering in midair, and her uniform makes his look like a product of a country that was both restrained and poor; over the indigo-and-white are enormously puffed shoulders with gold braid down to the elbows. Her skirt is elaborately multilayered, frilled, and covered with braided diagrams on it in in silver and cloth-of-gold that make it look gold-on-white instead of white-on-blue, and the part of it that descends almost to the ground appears to be made of solidified golden light. There's a baton in her right hand that she wields like a pistol, and the golden light is concentrated at the tip.

She herself is medium height, hair dyed silver, with scars half-concealed by the hair and half-not. (And, to elven sight, she is not in great health even if she is young and isn't visibly missing any limbs.)

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"Good day," says Tarwë, since she's facing him.

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The Lieutenant bows aristocratically, then straightens. "General of the Guard Gratice Lanitia, may I present you to five intruders claiming to be from another world? Five intruders claiming to be from another world..."

"Are you divine beings?" she says.

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"We do not consider ourselves divine beings," says Nelen.

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Her baton snaps into a firing position, and a cone of golden light shines from the tip to cover all four of them. The light lingers when the beam passes, covering them all before fading away.

It feels very very mildly soporific, in a sort of soothing manner, and causes them no harm whatsoever.

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They mostly don't react to this - though Natsuko goes rigid and Zanro makes a slight face.

"May I ask what that was?" Nelen asks after a pause.

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"It disintegrates demonic life," General Lanitia says with a cocky grin, "and other life hostile to humanity. So, visitors from another world. I am General Gratice Lanitia, Marshal of the Admiralty and the Holy League, acting protector of Amraterre while His Holiness the Admiral is on campaign -"

(A handkerchief borne by golden light flows from a hidden pocket in her uniform to her face, and she coughs into it before it is folded and returned."

"- and so I welcome you to Amraterre." She jerks her head towards her lieutenant. "Send a messenger to Radiant Ciparnu, he want to be here for this."

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"Thank you," says Nelen, "I'm glad we were - able to assuage your concerns there. I'm Nelen Utopia, and these are Tanaka Natsuko, Zanro, Tarwë, and Cassiel Jones. Is demonic life often a concern here?"

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(The messenger hurries off.)

"Oh, not often," she says, "though it works a treat for wolves.* But His Holiness the Admiral says they're supposed to be showing up with reinforcements soon enough, so."

(*: The word is having trouble translating properly, suggesting both wolves and another species not familiar to Vanda Nosseo.)

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"I see," says Nelen. "Where do they come from?"

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"Another world," she says, slipping into the cadence of someone saying what she has been taught instead of what she has observed. "They want to enslave all life other than themselves, and they can't enslave the angels so they tried to destroy them. The angels recruited us to help and chose an Admiral to lead us, and gave us Bestowals to feed us and Hero Crests to defend ourselves and brought us to this world to battle for the light. We won the battle; the angels are still fighting the war."

 

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"- I see," says Nelen. "Well, we're sending diplomatic parties to everyone we were able to see from above but if the angels and the demons are in another world we may have missed them. If you know how to get in touch with either we'd really value that information."

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"The angels send messages to the Admiral," she says, "but you'd have to ask him about whether he sends messages back."

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"I'll keep that in mind. Uh, we're from Vanda Nossëo, based around a different star from yours far away, and we're here to see if you're interested in membership and our project of universal freedom of movement, free trade, and free flow of information."

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This is, in fact, completely outside the range of things she expected today. She doesn't even know what 'universal freedom of movement' is, other than abolishing trespassing laws, or for that matter what is meant by 'free flow of information'.

"Then you'll want to talk to Nicky -" she pauses "His Holiness the Admiral," she clarifies, "or C- Radiant Ciparnu, since he's on campaign. Radiant Ciparnu is foreign minister."

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"We'd love to talk to Radiant Ciparnu!" says Nelen. "If the Admiral is far from here then another team from Vanda Nossëo is likely to be closer to him than we are."

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Oh broken stars no.

"You're sending teams making these offers everywhere on the planet?" she says.

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"Yes!" says Nelen. "And if there are people we missed somewhere, we have backup teams who can come in on short notice."

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You know, this is EXACTLY the kind of threat that you should UNITE THE ENTIRE WORLD AGAINST. It's a goddamned shame that EVERYONE IS CURRENTLY AT WAR WITH THE PERSON TRYING TO DO THE UNITING.

"I'll bring you to Radiant Ciparnu." She sends another messenger on ahead and then leads them at a brisk walk fly into the palace complex.

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Cassiel will fly, if that's the done thing, but the rest of the group keeps their feet on the ground.

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It's more that the person with magic glowing-light-and-levitation-powers will fly. (So far they haven't seen more than one of these people.)

As they're lead through the palace, they get the chance to see more of the population. It... doesn't look good. The people there are overwhelmingly female (except for the guards, who are minority female), and most of the men they see (and a significant fraction of the women) are badly scarred, missing limbs, or else obviously too old or too young for their jobs, even in this inner area where so many of the people are dressed in embroidered silk. The art and architecture looks almost elven-quality, if not elven-artisan-quality, but these people are not in great shape. General Lanitia needs to pause twice more in the journey (into the palace complex, through a pair of doors with wood inlay showing light-wielding men and women slaying monsters, down a corridor, past a young woman in a totally nonmilitary uniform who waves them onwards.)

Their destination is the fanciest place they've seen so far, a tastefully-decorated sitting room with couches and chairs strewn about, with paintings on the walls that are brightly-colored and brilliantly realistic, almost as though you could step into them. They're all peaceful scenes; women spinning, an old man telling stories to enchanted children, a pair of lovers looking deeply into each others' eyes. Almost invisible by the side of the room is a young woman playing a harp; extremely visible is an energetic but quite fat middle-aged man (his white-dyed hair makes him look older; his infectious smile makes him look younger), with no beard, a golden cap, jeweled rings on both hands, and decorated robes of a design that looks absolutely precise, formal, and regulated, in sharp contrast to the rest of his appearance.

"Welcome, travelers, please," he says, smiling. "I am Radiant Ciparnu, and I am honored to meet you all."

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"It's a pleasure to meet you," says Nelen, and he introduces everybody again.

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Radiant Ciparnu introduces himself, the harpist (who appears to have a technically-nonmagical power to stay in the background under any and all circumstances), and his equally-invisible secretary.

"Now, then," he says, smiling benevolently, "Do sit down, master Utopia, and explain. You are from another world?"

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"All five of us are from different worlds, as it happens. There are many, and Vanda Nossëo is a federation comprised of the ones who want to join our umbrella as member states. The details vary with the individual needs of every new people we meet, but the basics are that anyone can join if their population's majority votes to do so, they agree to institute certain minimum laws against murder, rape, and torture, and they agree to allow all their people free emigration."

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His Radiance nods. "Fascinating, master Utopia. I am sure His Holiness will wish to hear about this. Please, tell me more about these worlds?"

(A servant arrives with a tray of refreshments. Is anyone interested in mildly alcoholic drinks, various forms of tea, or something that looks sort of like honey-water but shinier? There's also small baked tarts.)

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Natsuko murmurs a few words and twists her hands together, then nods, and she takes a tart and Cassiel takes a drink. "Of course!" says Nelen. "Would you like to see pictures?"

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The tart is fruity and tasty! The drinks are also quite good!

"Certainly," His Radiance says. "Do you have them on you?"

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"Yes I do," says Nelen, and he pulls out his computer and brings up a satellite picture of Amenta. "This is the planet I was born on, Amenta. The world it's in is called Warp."

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Radiant Ciparnu does not flip out over this! He is very very good at not flipping out! Even though the tiny metal thing is changing images!

"Very impressive," he breathes. "Amazing work. Do you have others?"

(He's less impressed by their ability to get a portrait-painter into space; heroes have gotten into space before and they mostly just report that everything interesting is very very far away.)

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"Yes!" Nelen can dig up pictures from space of Cube's Earth, Space Valinor (it is in fact a picture of Space Valinor and not Afterlife), Tikokar, and Revelation's Earth, and identify them as the birth planets of Natsuko, Tarwë, Zanro, and Cassiel respectively. And then if they're still interested he can grab images of the specific cities - his own in Anitam, and Kyoto, and Tirion, and Kufikar, and New Orleans.

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His Radiance is very interested! He will compliment all their amazing picture-taking powers and is eager to know how they do it! "Your people must have amazing art if you can reproduce any picture of anywhere," he murmurs. And their cities are fascinatingly huge and amazingly clean! He is very impressed!

(Though he has a little more trouble complimenting Kufikar and New Orleans after seeing Tirion. Nothing personal, Kufikar or New Orleans; it's just hard for him to have a reaction other than staring blankly in awe, after you've seen Tirion.)

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"Would you like me to take a picture of you right now?" Nelen asks His Radiance.

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"Certainly, thank you, master Utopia," he says, beaming. "Can you?"

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"I can!" And Nelen snaps a photo and shows him.

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Radiant Ciparnu is very impressed!

What other amazing things can they do?

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"I have spells including the most comprehensive healing spell known to us, the ability to teleport, and illusion magic," says Nelen. "Cassiel can turn things into other things. Natsuko has a number of spells, different from mine - she checked to make sure that the refreshments would be safe for us, since sometimes people on different planets wind up with different food tolerances. Tarwë's species is faster, stronger, and possessed of more acute senses than a human. Zanro's considering getting some sort of magic but doesn't have any yet; but all of the party members apart from me can control their computers without touching them, it's just my species that doesn't have the right anatomy to get the implant for that. We're carrying a few magic items - the computers aren't among them, they're just high technology."

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"Not magic," he breathes. "Fascinating. And," like a child with a new toy, "how does it work?" If they don't stop him, Radiant Ciparnu is prepared to just inhale information about their world for as long as they want before coming to business. (Snacks and drinks can continue mysteriously appearing so long as they are prepared to do this.)

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Honestly this is a great reception and they will indulge it indefinitely although eventually Nelen will gently point out that there are five of them and if there's anyone else who would also like to talk to the visitors they're willing to split up.

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"Oh, of course," he says, looking slightly abashed. "I'm sorry, I should stop monopolizing you," he grins, "I just got somewhat distracted. As Foreign Minister of the Admiralty, interstellar affairs are my department, though I'm sure some of the scholars at the University would be pleased to hear about all the wonderful things you've accomplished." (His secretary would be pleased to provide up to four different leading scholars in different fields at the university, all of whom would be eagerly pleased to speak to members of the delegation.)

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The delegation splits up to pitch everybody on Vanda Nossëo as a great and impressive club everyone should want to join. Gently and subtly.

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(Oddly enough, four members of the delegation are speaking to scholars who mostly just want to know all of its technical stuff and have no real interest in politics, and one member is speaking to the foreign minister, who is a professional at this.)

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"So," says Radiant Cipranu, having assured himself that they are ridiculously, absurdly outgunned absent direct angelic intervention, "what is your policy for newly-contacted worlds?"

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"The hope is that you'll want to join Vanda Nossëo! Failing that, we're happy to provide some automata that can teach your people more of the technical side of things, like math and science; staff booths that sell some of the things Vanda Nossëo produces, like contraception and cameras and healing and translation enchantments like ours; and stations at which your people can catch a ride to Vanda Nossëo and then back."

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"We'll want to consider it, certainly," he says, "though of course we can't do anything that would break our word to our benefactors above; all you're offering is amazing - truly amazing! - but we can't betray heaven. Still, I'm glad you came here first -" he smiles cherubically "- Amraterre is the best place to make everything you want happen."

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"We'd really like to get in touch with the angels and any other peoples you may know about! They weren't obvious from space but we could have easily missed something."

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"The angels gave us this world," he says, "in exchange for our alliance, but they did not accompany us to it. They speak with His Holiness, but as he is on campaign..." He shrugs. "Still, while I could not - of course - offend them, I would be pleased to see about arranging some preliminary terms, an declaration of friendship at least, as a base for the negotiations that His Holiness will no doubt wish to conduct himself?"

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"That sounds great. I'd love to know more about the history there, too."

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"Of course," he says, and his secretary presents Nelen Utopia with a stack of leather-bound books. "The Three Books were compiled fourteen hundred years ago," he says, "to record all available sources the complete story - how the demons began their quest to enslave" (the word literally translates as "reduce to extensions of themselves") "all other life; how the angels found and opposed them, and how they found us, and saw the chance to aid us to the benefit of all life on all worlds; how our ancestors were chosen and how they departed, and how we first came to this world, battled the demons, triumphed, but were struck down by the demons' final blow."

He paused, then says, grimly,

"I expect General Lanitia informed you that His Holiness received word of the demons' return."

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"It did come up that the angels communicate with him."

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"Yes." He smiles faintly. "But I do not know if she warned you." he sighs. "All life, properly, should ally against the demons, because that is what they threaten - everything; all the hopes and dreams of not just Nouterrana, but every world. I do not know just what the limits of your magic are, but we had angelic assistance and the hero crests, when we won our battle. Be warned that it may be your battle, too."

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"I appreciate the warning. I hold out some hope that if we locate the demons we'll be able to come to some better arrangement for everyone than total war, but of course that's not always possible."

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"A fine and noble dream," he says, smiling. "I wish you the best of luck - and the best of care."

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"Thank you very much. So for preliminary terms - what things would suit your constraints?"

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"I am sure His Holiness would embrace a declaration of mutual friendship - between Vanda Nosseo, and its leaders, and His Holiness Admiral Nicolas VII of Nouterrana," he says, "along with agreements for mutual trade at low tariff rates, of any goods not forbidden by our mutual religious duties." He pauses, and once again his smile flares up. "Can I ask what Vanda Nosseo uses for currency?"

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"Oh, that's actually ferociously complicated. Most of it isn't physical cash, though. There are trustworthy ledgers keeping track of how much everyone has, that they can draw down or deposit into, at point of sale."

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"Oh, we use ledgers of credit, too," he says, "but of course it's backed by gold."

He pauses.

"And, of course, gold is valueless when you can create it in an instant." He smiles ruefully. "No doubt our finance minister will want to discuss the situation, there."

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"Yeah," says Nelen, smiling ruefully. "Standard procedure is that some people work out an appropriate exchange rate with your local gold and then we buy it from you at that rate for a grace period."

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And, of course, they can't trade with Vanda Nosseo until they work this out without Vanda Nosseo flooding their economy with gold. And they can't work this out without joining Vanda Nosseo.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

(None of this shows on his face.)

"At any rate. A declaration of friendship, and of course we would be happy to agree on low tariff rates, torture, murder, and rape are of course already illegal, though there are some lands where these laws are not well enforced - presently in rebellion against His Holiness, for this and other reasons. Our scholars would eagerly welcome any technological assistance, and to sell what we have that you value - books and perhaps some forms of art, I suppose -" he pauses. "There are a few points where we may have some problems, I'm afraid, thanks to our preexisting treaties with Heaven."

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"Please do go on," invites Nelen.

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"We are bound to protect ourselves," he says, "and to hold ourselves in readiness for the next war. And so we - all of us - have duties to their governments, and ultimately to the Admiral above them. We are urged to multiply our numbers, to work industriously, and to hold ourselves ready to serve as we are required."

(more fruit tarts? More wine?)

"We are in a war, now, with the greatest enemy we have ever known on its way, and all men are called to serve. It would be a heavy blow to us, to allow men who flee their wartime duties to escape across a border, even a border to another world."

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"I see. Membership in Vanda Nossëo does come with a defense agreement, if that would affect your willingness to relax the military service requirement."

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"Oh?" He pauses, looking as though he is clearly tempted. "What are the terms of the agreement?"

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"Member states in good standing who are attacked will be defended. To a first approximation Vanda Nossëo does not lose wars, although we prefer when at all possible to win them without casualties to the extent we can, even among the aggressors. If you joined, and then your anticipated enemy appeared, we'd try talking to them - but if that didn't work we'd fight, and if we struggled enough with their tactics that they got in some hits, your people would end the conflict all resurrected or healed as the case might be, with free rebuilding support. Given the nature of the described threat we might want to try to secure advance permission to move your entire solar system to a safer world in case that seems expedient; on occasion we've had to do that without notice but it bothers people when constellations change."

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move your entire solar system to a safer world in case that seems expedient

move your entire solar system to a safer world in case that seems expedient

move your entire solar system to a safer world in case that seems expedient

...

"We are presently in conflict," he murmurs. "We all pray the rebels will come to their senses and submit, but..."

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"Do... you have a ballpark estimate of how much popular support in their respective regions the rebels have?" asks Nelen.

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Oh no, the aliens are republicans.

"I do not," he says. "Truthfully, it has not been my main concern." Another rueful smile. "Do your people have the concept of a sworn oath?"

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"My people specifically, not really. Tarwë's and Zanro's have, though they're... out of fashion."

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Oh no.

"Righteousness is never in fashion," he says, slightly self-depreciatingly. "Not that I can say I'm very righteous myself - I'm hardly fit for my own duty, outside of entertaining guests - but, well, they are what our world is founded on. All of our ancestors swore that they would accept this world as our own and the angels' cause as our own and fight under the Admiral's command whenever demons threaten, and every one of us swears the same oath every year. Our honor rests on it, what we have of it." He shrugs. "We've liberated some lands that cried out to us for rescue, but I won't claim that every village in the world loves us. Only that whether they do or no, they all swore to follow His Holiness into battle, and now they're deserting where lives depend on them." He pauses. "His Holiness says it better, of course."

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"...I think maybe you should ask Zanro to tell you about his people's experience of oaths," says Nelen. "To get an idea of the - standard Vanda Nossëo perspective on that sort of thing. At any rate, you can't join Vanda Nossëo unless a majority of your population votes yes; we aren't in the business of conquest. If a region has a majority vote that they want to be part of Vanda Nossëo with or without you, they'd qualify for the defense agreement."

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AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH

"I see," he says. He'll let his face pale, loosen his grip on his expression to make it clear that he has just been given an absolutely mortal insult, which he cannot directly respond to but which he is nonetheless grievously offended by -

- and he will change the topic to lighter, more inconsequential topics, such as about Vanda Nosseo's technology and methods of government and interesting experiences with other member states.

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Yup, Nelen is willing to be diverted to those topics! Would Radiant Ciparnu like to hear about Yeerks? They're sort of like how he describes demons, what with wanting to enslave everybody else, but some of them were good and now most of the species is proving rehabilitable with their power structure broken and their war over!

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Yes, he would love to hear about Yeerks! (Well, not really, but he'll take the diplomatic point for Just How Completely And Hopelessly Outgunned his entire civilization is.) What did Vanda Nosseo's contact with them look like?

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Vanda Nossëo actually didn't show up until most of the action was over! The Yeerks were trying to take over a planet of humans - humans are really common, and that specific planet is a repeat, too - and there were other aliens, Andalites, at war with Yeerks in the broader field of space battle. Some Andalites showed up on Earth prepared to, if necessary, kill all the humans on it to prevent the Yeerks from gaining billions of hosts, but with the help of some local humans and also a defecting Yeerk and its faction they were able to prevail by merely multiplying the planetary cancer rate a lot, though the Yeerks did obliterate an area the size of - can he see a map - about yea much, before things settled down. Vanda Nossëo showed up after that and then won the war against the Yeerks, though not on the Andalites' behalf, they have some values differences with Andalites (though the Andalites haven't as a polity joined Vanda Nossëo, that's mostly as a statement to the effect that they're not on board with all this sharing technology, rather than a practical matter - they do have tourism going every which way, they especially love turning into species with mouths and eating food). Defeating the Yeerks involved reconfiguring some suns and chasing a few holdouts to other dimensions and some Elf volunteers, Tarwë's same species, allowing Yeerks to enter their heads as a strong hard-to-fake signal of the reality of the situation.

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aaaaah

... So, what does the Vanda Nosseo leadership look like? Who actually is in charge over there?

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"Tarwë's species, Elves, is usually very prosocial and hardworking compared to, say, my species, or humans," says Nelen. "So a lot of the top folks are Elves. But also, there's - remember I mentioned planets repeating? People can repeat, too, often on planet matches but sometimes without. There's a specific person-repetition, or 'template', that's usually human but heavily involved in Vanda Nossëo management and that of the similar polities we're allied with, Mîr and Elendil."

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So there's one person duplicated enough times who's become immortal and is now exploiting the entire rest of the universe under an occasional sham of republicanism. Right. Good for them. Shame he's on the wrong side.

"Oh? Fascinating!" His eyes shine. "Please, tell me about this template."

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"They're called Bells, because though we still don't understand why, some templates have similarities in their names for no causal reason we can identify, and their names all have the syllable 'bel' in them! You don't have one here, we check before making contact, they're identifiable with a particular sort of magic. Vanda Nossëo has most Bells working under our umbrella. Some go by nicknames, since they have some outright name collisions - Loki, Cam, Golden, Miranda, Kib, Iobel, Butterfly, Cor. There's also Gem, Empress of Mîr, and Boots and T'Mir, who manage Elendil, and Sibyl, who divides her time as needed wherever her skills are called for."

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Oh my.

"Fascinating," he says. And then he'll try to politely poke at this description to get something resembling an org chart out of it!

(And probably fail.)

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If he wants an org chart he can get one, actually! Nelen is the manager of this envoy team and he reports to the planet coordinator and her assistants, who are in orbit right now, and the coordinator works for the Vanda Nossëo Department of Contact, and if this planet has a pretty normal process then gradually the personnel will rotate out in favor of members of, or if they're particularly fond of the place transfer into, the Department of Integration, which will do more of a holding-pattern of making sure booths are staffed and buses run and also manage any local interest groups and count votes and generally deliver services and serve as a line of communication between this planet and the greater body of Vanda Nossëo. The Department of Integration often hires lots of locals. All the departments report to whoever-you-can-get-ahold-first-of all the aforementioned Vanda Nossëo Bells and a bunch of Elves, lots of whom have identical names and come with parenthetical nicknames. They have subspecialties - you mostly want to get one of the ones named Maitimo for personnel or diplomatic issues, you call in Loki if you need something in a particular world-neighborhood spatially rearranged or time traveled or whatever, you get Cor if you want to kill a god, you get Golden if you're dealing with particularly heavy-duty psychic hostility...

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He really, really hopes these people are bluffing.

What does their system for handling regional secessions look like?

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On Nelen's home planet there was this country Yvalta divided into Houses, and this one House's leader wanted to join up and the rest of Yvalta didn't, so Vanda Nossëo dispatched a few people with superpowers to protect him and his borders and gave his House its own planet. (Planets are very important to Nelen's species.)

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He pauses.

"One of the traitor states, here, calls itself a Republic. Its western provinces are in constant turmoil, because some of the people in them want to secede and rejoin us as a nation under the Admiral, and others want to stay part of the Republic, and every village will say when the loyalist bands come through that it is for the Admiral and will say when the Republican legions march through that it is for the Senate. Whose land would you say it is?"

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"Huh. If you want to know about that specific case I can ask the coordinator how the team there is getting along, although I can't relay anything that was told to my counterparts in confidence."

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... He means more what is their general procedure for determining what people in an area want.

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"Vanda Nossëo votes are understood as requiring a majority of the population, not a majority of the respondents. We can do a quick census by conjuring miniatures of everyone in an area and counting the models, and then distribute ballots; we can count the ballots even if they are filled out in secret and then immediately burned. Making it clear to everyone in a far-flung rural area that there's a vote on is tricky but we have some pretty dedicated pollworkers when it comes time."

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"Fascinating!"

(At this point they've been talking a while. Would Nelen and his team like to come to dinner? He puts on an excellent table, and it will be a great opportunity to introduce Nelen to the finance minister.)

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Sure, they'll join them for dinner!

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Dinner is various dishes with bread and meat and fruit and some very limited vegetables as ingredients, some of them recognizable as Earthlike and others not very, all very showily arranged. Drinks include the ones offered - mildly alcoholic wines and beers and ciders, distilled liquors, - and the strange golden liquid, referred to as "ambrosia"; everyone has a cup as part of a ritual benediction, performed by Radiant Ciparnu with shrugging friendliness. The guests are a theological historian, an architect, two military officers, Radiant Ciparnu and two other admiralty officials. Nelen is seated next to the finance minister, one of the admiralty officials, who reacts with horror less well concealed than Ciparnu's at gold suddenly becoming valueless and the need to switch over to a fiat currency.

The main topic of conversation is the guests from Vanda Nosseo, and the attempts of the other guests to hear all of their amazing stories about their world and how it works.

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Cassiel and Natsuko and Tarwë all avoid the meat as discreetly as is feasible, but Nelen and Zanro take some; only Cassiel, Nelen, and Tarwë accept alcohol. They'd like to know what ambrosia is?

They have plenty of stories. And can demo their amazing powers, such as photography and - would anyone like healing magic done to them?

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Ambrosia is a drink made by the Bestowals the angels gave us. They created it to be very nutritious so people could survive on nothing else if they had to, and it's traditional to drink some every supper, both for your health and to remind yourselves of the angels' generosity.

And everyone has already had healing magic done to them, that's something Hero Crests can do.

(In fact, one of the officers walks with a limp, and the other is missing an eye and has a good deal of scarring around it.)

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"- I'm sorry," says Nelen, "I don't know whether to interpret that as a misunderstanding of the scope of healing - it can handle old injuries, and maiming ones - or if it's just a soft no, maybe because the scars are important somehow?"

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Oh, in that case, yes they absolutely want healing.

... Actually, no, the officer with only one eye would like to get whoever has healing magic to get down to the poorhouse right now, half the people in it are veterans, they're begging because they got shot for their country let's go right now -

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- okay, Nelen will go to the poorhouse, then!

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(Radiant Cipranu is less than enthused about his dinner being disrupted, but will not display that under the circumstances.)

There are various people the officer wants healed along the way. Some of them are homeless and jobless, some of them are working perfectly normal jobs except with only one eye or missing fingers, some of them had childhood illnesses that left them permanently weak and the officer is fine with healing those people if Nelen has time but he has to go quickly - 

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Nelen can heal people really really fast, just boop their noses and be on his way. Though this might leave some of them confused about what's going on.

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Yes, but this is important.

The poorhouse is not in a good part of town, but an angry army officer leading a bizarre alien gets through anyway. It's a mixed soup kitchen/shelter/unskilled labor recruitment center for those who can manage to work, and there are a lot of people around there. Most of them are male, most of them are missing limbs or blind or both, the vast majority look either sick or malnutritioned or, again, both; a good many are wearing ragged uniforms, and there's a wave of salutes among those with at least one arm when the officer arrives.

(Incidentally, the sanitation is getting steadily worse as they go from the palace to the main city to the slums, but the officer has higher priorities than to notice whether his healing-wand-with-legs is unhappy about this.)

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The healing-wand-with-legs is not thrilled but he can get Natsuko to prestidigitate him when they get back.

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Great! Boop boop boop?

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Boop boop boop boop boop boop boop boop boop boop boop boop boop!

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People are shocked, amazed, and in awe. There's a lot of "are you a divine being" going around - 

"No, he's just a visitor from another world," he says gruffly. "Now, on to the next one."

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"How many of these are there?" asks Nelen. "I can call for backup."

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He slows down.

"How much? How quickly? Can you send them to the field hospitals? How about transport -"

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"Field hospitals we can do if our counterparts on the other side of any disputed territory give us the go-ahead but in undisputed areas I can have five hundred people like me here in ten minutes if you can show me on a map where to send them."

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Right. Back to the general's headquarters - hello, General, they have better healing than we do - past the guards - here's a military map showing what's ours (right now) and theirs (right now) and where there's fighting - we need healers in every major city, training base, and not-presently-besieged fortress...

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Nelen takes a picture of the map and sends a message.

"Okay," he says, "floating healer corps is deployed to all those locations, they'll probably be done with every centralized case in say half an hour."

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Great, problem solved, heal the General's lungs on your way out? She breathed smoke too long, it's why she's here instead of on a front.

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Sure, boop!

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Right. Now we can go back to dinner.

(General Lanitia is sort of staring, touching her face, then going back to staring.)

(Dinner is still happening; conversation had been quietly changed back to, at various parts of the table, economics, the logistics of interuniversal transport, the internal organization of Vanda Nosseo states and modern science.)

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Nelen's tablet beeps. "Is there a particular message the floating healers should give to indicate they're friendly and you asked for them?" he inquires of the general.

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- and she shakes her head for a moment and shrugs off the disorientation. "Take our messengers with you; I'll want runners -" she starts organizing it "- and I'll need a message," she says, "Mihai, run to - no, run to the fliers, give them -" she scribbles a note (on paper instantly retrieved from a pocket, with ink suspended directly in golden light), "give them this, I'll head to Cipranu he'll need to hear this -"

In moments there is a large-scale organizational effort going on.

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The float-healers can come through to collect messengers before heading into the various hospitals, sure!

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Great! The messages boil down to "there's magic people from another world with healing powers going around healing people, we don't currently object."

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Then in very short order everybody in the undisputed area will be healed!

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Healers are arriving in military fortresses with soldiers whip-scarred and toothless and missing arms, in plague-ridden camps with hospital tents loaded three to a bed, in villages where the horses were taken for cavalry and the donkeys to pull carts and there's real famine. One lands somewhere presently under attack by "wolves," apparently man-sized six-legged porcupine-lizard creatures with three rows of teeth and the ability to fire quills like bullets; a second that's been overrun by 'bears', nine feet in length and armored like tanks. One of the towns they're sent to is apparently not, in fact, out of the undisputed area, since there's a cavalry regiment camped around an old stone fortress in which the townsmen are taking shelter, discussing how best to burn it.

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The healer, on observing the cavalry, turns to her escort. (She's a willowy naked woman with butter-blond hair; the nakedness has to be inferred, as from her shoulders to her knees she's got an obscuring illusion of windblown millet on the stalk between observers and herself, but it's not hard to guess.) "Is this the wrong place?" she inquires.

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"No," says the escort, swallowing. "It's a raid and we didn't realize they were that close behind our lines."

(The village they're in hasn't been set on fire yet, but it has been plundered. Most of the populace got away into the fort, though; at least, there's not that many bodies.)

Someone in the cavalry yells! Various people have pistols!

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"I'm really sorry," says the healer, "I want to help you, but unless we can get a ceasefire and agreement for me to heal everybody on both sides, I'm not allowed to work here. We don't have a position on what your borders are or should be." She is crying a little bit. Dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief from nowhere and then puts it away nowhere again when she's done.

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"Then we need to get home -"

There are bullets moving very rapidly if not very accurately in their direction! Also people with pointy bits of cutlery on horseback!

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She nods and teleports them back whence they came. She reports to Nelen in an undertone, then vanishes.

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Most of the rest of the healing expeditions go better, though the "wolves" and "bears" are very keen to know what people from Vanda Nosseo taste like.

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One fellow with katydid wings goes ahead and lets one bite him just to see what happens.

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He gets bit! He does not lose any limbs at all, which is very surprising to the "wolves," who are usually quite good at removing limbs. They will keep trying and see if this situation changes.

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He giggles, and then picks one up with telekinesis and holds it in the air. "Hi, do you talk?" he asks.

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It does not talk, but it does shoot its quills at him!

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Cool. Souvenirs. "Definitely positive you don't talk?" he says, and when it proves not to talk he can wrench its head off.

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It is now a deceased not-wolf.

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The fairy rejoins the escort.

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The escort is equal parts horrified and impressed and thinks they should look for survivors to see if there's anyone they can heal left.

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Fairy's on it. Boop boop boop.

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Some people are scared and reluctant to let a weird magic entity touch them! Even if there's someone here in a uniform saying it's safe! It might be a demon!

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Well, they don't have to, but they can watch less reluctant parties get healed miraculously.

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Yeah, that mostly does it.

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Oh good. If the holdouts at the end are really sure, he'll drop off his escort now.

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There's not many holdouts and their families are willing to pressure them into it, but the last of them are sure, yes.

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Okay, bye!

The float healers disappear again after they've dropped their escorts off.

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Overall the healing expeditions are successful! There's a good deal of surprise and confusion, but there's also an organizational structure prepared to adapt to unexpected resources. Quite a lot of people ask them if they're divine, in a different language than the Admiralty uses for most purposes, but these are not people who seem existentially shocked by divine entities showing up on their side.

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They say they are not divine (except for the nymph, who says that her mother is a goddess but they are estranged right now).

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People have no idea how to take that! It is completely outside the range of possible expectations! Most of them will either fail to respond (out of fear) or say some version of "I'm sorry, what?" when that comes up.

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"- I'm from a world that has a bunch of gods! Some of them make people. Like my kind of people is made by Mother Khaele. But we haven't talked in a long time. We disagree about some things."

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The term "gods" is having some trouble translating, actually, it sounds sort of like 'ridiculously-powerful-entity-of-a-similar-type-to-the-angels-but-more', so most of them are very freaked out about this conversation with a demigod! One person is prepared to say "... You disagree with a god?" in a tone both shocked and worried.

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"Well, sure. Gods disagree with each other so it would be hard not to," says the millet nymph.

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In that case he clearly does not understand what gods are!!

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"They're different different places," Millie says, "I don't know about the local ones at all."

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He doesn't think there are any local gods? The angels and the demons are both off in the heavens. They influence us but that's not the same thing as being here.

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"I mean the ones that have contacted this planet, sorry."

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... He thinks that giving the alien a detailed theological explanation would take way too long and he is really too confused for that. Healing for everyone?

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Healing all round!

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Healing is a success! Healing is a popular success! Hurrah for healing!

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Meanwhile, other teams have landed on other places.

This other team is a Limboite, a half-vampire, an Elf, a yellow Amentan, and a servantmaker with a collection of pets and golems and shines following her around.

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The team sent to the largest city on the planet appears in the middle of a packed public square! It is from a city that is bustling. The sun is bright in the sky above, the wind is blowing, and there are so many people here. The first thing that hits is the smell (there are so many people here), and the second is the sound. People are arguing politics - apparently one of the deputies needs to be strung up! And the Mayor! And the Deputy Mayor! People are calling their wares - fresh-baked bread out of the oven this morning - woolens, fine woolens, hand-sewn woolens - chests for clothes or valuables - locks, Jack's chest's'll do you no good open - treasures from east and west and north and south, that our brave army's brought home! Someone's viciously insulting someone else's coats to drive down the price, and the seller is giving as good as he's getting. From a tavern, several people are singing a song - Now, come my brave boys, as I've told you before - come drink, my brave boys, and we'll boldly call for more - and people are cheering or calling rude corrections - 

There's stalls and shops set up everywhere, temporary booths packed four together in the square surrounded by people arguing or complimenting or criticizing, and the walls of the square are more permanent stores, all with signs up that are letters and a symbol together, a barrel or a hammer or a stuffed fish - there's houses on the stores and galleries stretching out over the square and people on them turning to point at the visitors, and when they appear they are going to immediately be swarmed by people who want to know who they are, where they're from, what those are, and how they make those golems.

(Speaking of which, each and every one of the visitors are likely to get their pockets picked sixteen times in the first ten minutes.)

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Reactions to pickpockets:

Sai Ding, the Limboite, has only her computer on her, and it's connected by a reel to the inside of her pocket. It can get about four feet away and then is brought up short. She raises an eyebrow at the thief.

Ligaya, the half-vampire, catches offending hands gently but inexorably as they approach her and escorts them out of her personal space without taking much visible notice of the event.

Ortaron catches the first pickpocket by both hands but instead of reprimanding him asks if he is hungry or needs healing or shelter or if he's starved for beauty in such a chaotic place? Ortaron is eager to solve these problems!

Tuturio has one of those rings that enforces personal space and nobody can get within three feet of her.

Escan has a lot of pockets and they have mice in them. The mice squeak loudly when taken.

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Reactions to reactions:

The computer-thief cuts the reel if it will cut; if not he'll release it and vanishes into the crowd.

The thieves trying to steal from Ligaya and Tutorio conclude that they should stop.

The pickpocket trying to steal for Ortaron (who is eleven) immediately switches modes into a prepracticed speech about how hungry and how cold she is and how desperately in need she is. (If this works, quite a lot of other people will imitate it.)

The pickpockets trying for Escan are not interested in mice, they want things they can sell. The mice are disturbed but not removed from the pockets.

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The reel will not cut! It whisks the computer back to Sai Ding's hip.

Okay, in that case Ortaron is going to teleport up to the ship and come back with a bunch of stuff to hand out, and the rest of the team is going to continue to the governmental building while Ortaran distracts people with blankets and pocket pies.

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The government building is on one of the sides of the square, albeit one of the less impressive ones! Some ceremonial guards (male, in their forties, wearing uniforms of red wool with extremely symbolic cowslips pinned to the breast) are very symbolically not excluding anyone from entering, but make an exception when magic foreigners in funny clothes with a robot army show up.

"Halt and declare yourself!"

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They halt. "Hello!" says Ligaya. "We are peaceful envoys from Vanda Nossëo, from beyond this world!"

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People around them are eagerly discussing this! Apparently money is changing hands about it!

"If you come in peace, welcome to Wolcyn!" the more senior soldier declares. "Al, go tell the Sergeant." (A snap comment to a boy getting into his personal space - "And get your thieving hands away or I'll make toothpicks with your spine!") does not, from his point of view, interrupt the conversation.

"The Heremethyl is out of session for the day," he says. "It'll be back Tuesday, but the President'll want to see you if you are who you say you are."

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"Meeting the President sounds great!" says Ligaya. "Should we wait here?"

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He nods sharply.

The sergeant arrives! (He isn't wearing the cowslip. He does have a big stick.) A messenger is sent to the President!

The young man who arrives is not the President himself, he's one of the President's aides (marked by the badge he's wearing, half a bundle of spears tied together and half a ring of stars) and he urgently invites them to the President's house to speak with him while they reassemble the Heremethyl!

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"Great, thanks!" says Ligaya, and they're off.

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The President's home is, quite deliberately, only an ordinary upper-class home in the city, decorated not with national trophies but with a few popular art prints, and all of them are welcomed in, though they are requested to leave their army of constructs and wild creatures outside.

He himself is a colorless young man, pale, thin, visibly in ill health with hands stiff and swelled, sitting behind a desk that is neatly sorted - papers here, inkstand and penholder here, wine bottle and five glasses here, all neatly in their place.

His voice, though, is rich and warm.

"Welcome to Wolcyn, travelers. We've often wondered if there was life beyond the stars, and we're pleased to see the question answered for the better." He nods to the bottle. "My doctor recommend the Asturian for my health, but there's quite a good Miezan in the cupboard if you prefer."

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Escan removes all her pets and leaves them with the golems outside, though she's not thrilled about it. (The mice are not wild. She bought them at a store in Dreamward; they have been bred to have interesting colors and be docile and not need very much sleep.)

"Thank you," says Ligaya. "If you'll excuse me, I notice you look like you might be feeling poorly? I have some healing magic I would be happy to offer you so you can be more comfortable while we talk."

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(They don't actually notice the mice, she can bring them in if she wants.)

"A hereditary condition," he says, "not one treatable by our champions. But I will accept your gift if you think it may prove better suited to the task."

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(Vanda Nossëo operates in good faith! They emphasize this in the trainings! Mice outside.)

Ligaya extends her hand to him and once he touches her he is well again.

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He is well for the first time in his life, actually. His face bursts into genuine joy. "Amazing! You'll have our doctors lamenting in the streets, if you can sell that in the markets." He perks up. "Can you teach it? Wolcyn will pay a fair price for whatever we take."

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"It can be taught, but it's very sensitive - not because of the healing, but because of other things that are learned in order to master it," says Ligaya. "But we can distribute it! It's our custom when in a new place to distribute that and other things that we have in abundance in exchange for stories or songs, so that we can learn more about the places we can explore."

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The President (he happens to be named Cenric Fowler) thinks he's going to like Vanda Nosseo!

"Your people's generosity astounds us," he says. "I can only hope that Wolcyn may prove to be as generous in turn."

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Ligaya grins. (Her teeth are toothpaste-commercial perfect, and her skin almost glossy with its flawlessness.) "I'm delighted to get such a positive reception. Can I tell you a little more about Vanda Nossëo?"

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"Of course!"

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"There is a planet called Vanda Nossëo, but it's not the whole thing, just the home base of the federal structure. It's made up of thousands of countries on hundreds of planets, from several dozen worlds, where a world is a set of places that relate to each other spatially. This means we have lots of different kinds of magic and some technology that looks a lot like magic at first glance! Some particularly ambitiously altruistic sorts, upon making contact with each other and realizing there was more than their own world out there, decided to band together to turn their ambition and altruism into wealth and prosperity, not just for them but for everyone they could find who wanted to join them. Eventually most planets can contribute to the project, with some help catching up, so our ability to do this snowballs over time." She creates an illusion of the map-of-worlds as she goes, various shapes appearing and getting linked up to other shapes till there are the several dozen she described. "And now we're here! Every major polity on the planet - that we noticed, it's not impossible we missed somebody - has gotten a team like mine sent down to say hi. I'm hoping to get some new entrants into Vanda Nossëo, but even if you aren't interested, we can still do plenty of stuff for you guys. You can visit us, and we can sell you stuff for a literal song, and if you want to skip ahead some on science - you know those metal things following Escan around? They make bigger ones that can talk, and they can teach you science too, if you want, you can have a bunch for free."

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"We'd be very grateful for them," says Cenric. So the catch is - 

"How much do you know about the political situation here?"

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"Not very much. We could tell there was a war on, but we don't know what it's about. We aren't going to talk directly to our counterparts in the other countries unless both you and they want us to, though we're willing to serve as go-betweens if you do want that; the idea is it will help you feel like we're here for you if we get the story only from you."

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"I can understand that. But it is important background.,,"

He pauses.

"Nicolas Montrege was a champion and general of Rocciosa - a small peak near Ostal, it was independent then - who foreswore violence and joined the Maioran admiralty; ah, the religious administration of the majority religion in most countries, if that didn't translate - in a minor role thirty years ago, and Amraterre, the state of the Admiralty, appointed him as chief of the army immediately. Nine years ago he talked them into making him Admiral, then immediately declared that the Admiral had the right to issue orders if demons threatened and demons threatened, so all countries needed to 'admit the authority of the Admiralty over all planetary monarchs.' Then he invaded his neighbors." He still looks thin and pale and small, but when he's speaking it is very easy to forget that. "Demons, sir and madams, do not exist. Wolcyn has called for coalitions against him since his invasions began, but he is a brilliant general whatever else he may be, and so the war is still on. The terms of the Fourth Coalition forbid making peace with Montrege under any terms less than his abdication and the surrender of all his conquests in land and hero crests."

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"Hm. Can the terms be changed? Does he have to abdicate or just cease to be in power? What constitutes the surrender of the conquests?" says Ligaya.

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"Not without betraying our allies," he says. "No country will permit Montrege to gain by this senseless warfare. He needs to cease to wield any power, military or religious, in any country. All territories occupied by him and his allies must be returned to the status quo ante bellum unless their former possessor has surrendered all claims or is now fighting for Montrege, in which case we will do our best to establish responsible government in those regions according to their public will." 'Public will' being the best compromise between 'republic' and 'no, we will not help you establish republics across a quarter of the known world just because you're singlehandedly funding this war'.

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"We'd very much like to see the war brought to an end," says Ligaya, "but interfering with people's religious practices usually doesn't work well. Does it help at all if I mention that a given territory can join Vanda Nossëo by a vote of its populace and would then be defended against all outside threats?"

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"I'm sorry," says Cenric, with calm confidence. "I don't think you understand."

He takes a breath. "Montrege began a war for the sake of universal conquest, and has campaigned against every country under the sun, burning and pillaging as he does. The generals under him - the Weaver, the Old Eagle, the Tiger Cub and the Prince of Scars - are monsters who butcher women and children, burning towns and desecrating fields; the Weaver is the only Ace in history ever to betray his nation, and in his train the beasts follow. Wolcyn will be grateful for Vanda Nosseo's protection and support, and we rejoice that it values freedom as we do, but Nicolas Montrege is too dangerous to be allowed to remain in power and I urge you to recognize that - whatever he may claim - he is your enemy as well as ours. If you value honesty he is an oathbreaker, loyalty he is a traitor to his nation, peace he is a warmonger; if you value the rule of law he casts old laws at naught; liberty to choose your fate he drafts men of all lands for his army, liberty to speak your mind he will shut his prison doors on you. Religious freedom? This is a war because he denies all religions save his own. A citizen's right to share in the public good? The only good he knows is conquest. The people of Wolcyn would rather he and the Weaver be gone than be free of plague forever, and we are not alone when we say this."

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"We value universal flourishing," says Ligaya.

"They're very, very serious about the universal part," says Tuturio dryly.

"We don't want Montrege to hurt anyone," Ligaya goes on. "We want his draftees discharged and his swords turned to plowshares and his attempts at censorship and religious suppression so impotent as to be laughable. But we want that for the same reason that we can't promise to wholeheartedly put Vanda Nossëo's power behind you in crushing him. We usually find that a lot of monstrous behavior is driven by problems we can fix. Maybe he's really scared of demons! Whether they exist or not, maybe he can be convinced that Vanda Nossëo can handle them if they show up. Maybe he's not really scared of demons, but wants something else, something we can hand over as a signing perk for a rounding error in the budget, and thereafter he'll be a citizen like any of us and can't start up a campaign of warfare again without answering to the Vanda Nossëo justice system. Maybe he's a completely irredeemable megalomaniac and he'll stab an envoy and we will have to resurrect the envoy and put him in jail and take a vote without consulting him, and maybe his people will vote to join us and maybe they won't, and even if they don't we can take every individual's free choice as to whether they'd like to move to a Vanda Nossëo state or not."

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"If there are demons, I invite you to deal with them! And I urge you to try diplomacy first; if he will yield his stolen hero crests and free his enslaved peoples the Coalition will let him live on in exile. But children will not sleep well in their beds while Montrege commands an army. And I think you may be underestimating him, as we did, and just how much power he possesses, with a hero crest and a nation's might together, and the voice that won him both."

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"What do the hero crests do?" inquires Ligaya.

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"Aces can heal or protect themselves or others from physical harm or the dangerous effects of environment, poison, or hostile animals, propel objects or themselves to fly through the air at astonishing speeds and create force projections that are near-harmless to humans but effective against wild beasts or for mining or construction. Before we invented airships, they were the only means of traveling from peak to peak." He pauses. "Moreover, the hero crests can only be wielded by people who are loyal, honest, and brave - or are the Weaver. They date from before the Silent Era, and are as of yet little understood by our science."

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"Why is the Weaver an exception?" asks Tuturio.

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"We don't know. Jiu is a very different place than the rest of the world, in the toxic lowlands where no other men can dwell, and their customs for selecting officers are very different than ours. But when he was taken by - or slipped away to - Montrege, he gave him everything he knew and joined him - without Jiu's approval, or their departure from the Coalition."

He pauses, and says, drily, "We live in interesting times."

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"Are the hero crests important separately from the abilities they confer?" Ligaya asks.

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"They're historical relics," he says, "and of great cultural importance - and religious, to most. Supposedly they were given to us by angels when they were brought from our original world, but they've all been possessed by heroes since ancient times and most countries care a great deal about getting theirs back, not just replacements."

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"That's understandable. It sounds like it will be hard to move forward with membership here until our counterparts in Amraterre have had a little longer to work. The things I can offer without membership are shops that distribute certain items and services in exchange for songs, or stories, anecdotes and snippets and poems to get a sense of how your culture is right now before we change it completely just by saying hello. We hand out contraception, translation magic like we use, food, healing like what I did for you, anything else that's reasonably cheap for us and desirable to the populace. We can also let people visit, or immigrate to, Vanda Nossëo. Usually we do that by teleporting people in batches from a 'bus stop'; they can get tokens from the shops. And if you'd like to catch up on science and math and the like, we've got some automata - like the ones Escan left outside, but bigger, and able to talk - that will stand around delivering lectures and answering questions all day long, if anyone's interested."

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"Madam, Wolcyn is a free country. If you want to open a shop or a stall, that is your legal right so long as you pay taxes or tariffs as according to the law. Every citizen has the right to leave, and every foreigner has the right to enter, unless charged or convicted of a crime under the law. You do not need to speak to the President of the Heremethyl to trade here." There's clear pride in his voice when he says it.

(But he still looks uncomfortable when she says 'contraception'.)

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"All right! How do you prefer to implement tariffs for an establishment that takes payments in stories rather than currency, can you offer us some guidance on buying or renting land in which we may put up a building, and are there any goods that are themselves illegal to trade in here?" Ligaya says brightly.

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Great! He's happy to discuss these!

The tariffs are mostly very low (for all countries Wolcyn isn't at war with; they're seventy to a hundred percent on anything imported from enemy-controlled territory), but set per individual good; legally speaking Vanda Nosseo owes them money (in gold, silver, or treasury notes, a new institution to pay for the war) for stuff they bring in, with specific rates for stuff that Wolcyn knows exist - per bottle of wine, say, regardless of the price you sell it for. Stuff that Wolcyn doesn't know exist has rates that assume it is unspecified luxury goods, and consequently valued at a high rate, but the taxes aren't based on how much you sell it for - that's none of the government's business.

Shops also need to pay taxes, taxes are on land area, on windows, and on production of a few easy-to-monitor staples which are of no concern to Vanda Nosseo. There's also a progressive income tax (a temporary war measure, he assures them, capped at ten percent) on all residents.

All goods are legal to trade except hero crests (though the government will buy those), Bestowals, libelous material or stolen goods.

And he's happy to explain how they can buy or rent land, it's really very simple.

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"So you should be aware that in the broader multiverse, precious metals are just about worthless," Ligaya says. "There's several people up on our ship in orbit who can just make it out of nothing any time they want in any quantity. We are happy to pay our taxes in that form, but it's possible you'll want to make some revisions to your monetary policy. If you join Vanda Nossëo we're happy to buy up all the gold and silver at the going rate in our currency so everything can hum along as normal from there."

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Oh, that makes sense. What backs their currency, then? Healer-hours?

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Their currency isn't backed in the same way as Wolcyn's; you aren't guaranteed to be able to exchange any specific amount of it for any particular thing. It is merely the case that it is possible to exchange reasonable amounts of it for most things. In a loose sense you could say it's backed by resurrections and immortality and suchlike but the prices of those fluctuate.

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Countries have tried to do that! They ended up printing huge amounts of money and destroying their economies. Wolcyn has a famously reliable government and even though you can pay your taxes in treasury notes, gold dollars are trading with paper at 3:5.

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Well, it works all right for Vanda Nossëo, they just don't hyperinflate like that. You can avoid that by simply not printing huge amounts of money.

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He is suddenly much less confident that Vanda Nosseo knows what it's doing.

"... So, can you tell me more about the history of Vanda Nosseo?"

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"Sure," says Ligaya, and she explains its founding in Edda following Loki's adventures in Elentári (that's where Ortaron is from) and the subsequent accumulation of more worlds and its relationship with comparable organizations with slightly less sprawling specialties (Mîr, which relies on magic that only works in one neighborhood for its standard operations; Elendil, which is focused on a specific crowded universe that has very little native magic).

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... This sounds like they have a lot of monarchies for somewhere that supposedly has free people. "What power do these monarchs have, over the free states of Vanda Nosseo that they do not rule themselves?"

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"The ones they don't rule? By default none, although separately some royalty, especially Noldorin Elves in universes where they appear, have pursued positions in the Vanda Nossëo structure," says Ligaya.

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"And what rights do the nations of their subjects have in their states?"

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"Most people who have monarchies even after joining Vanda Nossëo," says Ligaya, "are this one species, Elves. There's an Elf on our team but he's distributing some food and so on to the needy back where we landed, there seemed to be a large concentration of desperate folks just there. It's both less formal and less inclined to suffer for that lack of formality than you may be imagining because of how Elves are as a species - an Elf who has absolute power over his subjects just actually won't behave the way a human with the same power will. That having been said, all the Elf nations have adopted a bill of rights specifically because lacking one discomfits people -" She can rattle it off.

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The bill of rights overall makes sense. And he can theoretically buy that other species aren't humans and will behave differently. Just...

"Monarchs, here, have absolute power over their subjects, in almost every nation in the world. And they abuse it sorely." Maybe this is just space aliens? "Wolcyn overthrew its king thirty-four years ago, and nearly all the kingdoms of the world joined together to try to pull us down." He does not bother boasting that they failed; that they failed was observable. "Since then, freedom has made Wolcyn grow richer by leaps and bounds, while the backbreaking taxes of kings and lords drives the rest of the world further into poverty. Rebellions for liberty break out across the world, and are put down with terrible atrocities, and only now, in the most desperate of times, do we make common cause with them against our enemy. It will be very hard to tell the people of in Wolcyn that the kings of the elves are different."

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"If it helps, Elves left to their own devices don't even invent money," says Ligaya. "As an emblem of the degree of difference. They make a gift economy work among themselves. We've never found humans doing that. They're immortal. They occur on planets that have gods, fairly interventionist ones as these things go. They don't invent a word for 'rape' till they meet other species. However, Vanda Nossëo isn't categorically against human kings, it's just much harder for them to hold their populations once they agree to freedom of emigration. The ones who keep them are usually constitutional monarchies where the king has a very limited range of powers."

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"I understand," he says. Aliens are aliens.

On the other hand - "It is a tragedy, when people are forced to flee their homelands for persecution, and though Wolcyn has right of entry and citizenship that any adult can achieve, there are still few who come to us instead of fighting to change their homeland." He considers. "You say that any region has the right to secede and join Vanda Nosseo by a vote. Does this permit a nation to secede from its king?"

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"There is precedent for a government-in-exile to be demonstrated to have de facto allegiance of the populace and allowed to call for a vote."

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He nods. "The foreign ministry would like to hear more about these precedents, if you have the time." Organizing governments-in-exile is something they're a little rusty about (and they've lost the edge with Ljudizem), but they can always get back into the swing since it may be now what matters. "I'd also like to arrange an appointment with one of your economists for the select committee of the Heremethyl dealing with finance and trade, they'll be very interested in hearing how you manage."

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"Of course! I'm sure the economists will be delighted, it's actually pretty rare anyone from a new planet is interested in their department," Ligaya says. And she can list off - her memory is evidently perfect - cases of government-in-exile and their complications and resolutions.

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Why would new planets not be interested in economics??? Economics is what makes countries rich! Like, for instance, his country!

He will take shorthand notes (with a fountain pen, clearly a hand-crafted high-tech gizmo), though his foreign ministry will still want to hear.

(He is not happy about the story of the queen who successfully got her entire populace obeying her in exile. He does not like monarchs, even if he is currently paying them very large subsidies. )

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"The same principle holds with republics," Ligaya says sympathetically.

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Yes, he understands. He's just a little disappointed because it means everyone will probably end up fleeing the country in the reign of the queen's daughter or granddaughter.

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"...we can make people immortal," Ligaya points out.

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Wait what

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"And also resurrect the dead of most species, though not all. Actually it's currently slightly cheaper to jump the resurrection queue than to get an immortality artifact, they use totally different underlying magic," Ligaya goes on. "So the immortality artifacts are subsidized pretty heavily for species we can't resurrect, but it's hardly unaffordable for a queen who doesn't want to pass the kingdom on to her successor."

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"Does that affect things substantively here?"

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"It is utterly unprecedented, and I cannot comprehend the scale of the impact."

He needs a DRINK. Fortunately, drink is right there. Drink.

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"Well, it's not unheard of to ask for a particular rate of resurrections or immortalities to distribute in some way among a population as a signing perk!" Ligaya smiles.

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... There is going to be such an argument in the Heremethyl between the people who want to award the resurrections as national prizes to people who do impressive and virtuous things, and the people who want to auction them off so they can abolish all taxes entirely.

"I see," he says, slightly mechanically. "Thank you for letting me know."

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"That's what I'm here for. Do you have any other questions about the general shape of things or can we start setting up shops and get poor Ortaron out of the middle of the square?"

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"We should call a session of the Heremethyl with all the deputies who haven't already been alerted," he says, "and alert the Mayor of the City if he hasn't yet been told. And we'll want a representative from Vanda Nosseo at the session, just so they don't think I've lost my mind. But other than that, no; blessings on your work."

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"All right! Thank you so much for your time. Let me give you a spare phone if you need our attention." She produces one and points out the button to turn it on; it has a contact list with the faces of all five team members and another face that she explains is their shipboard coordinator if something renders the five of them unavailable.

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He'll want a short explanation but is very impressed by the phone!

(Not in the "immortality" way, to be clear; this is the sort of device he'd expect a society that could travel between the stars to have. It's just that knowing it should be possible is one thing and seeing it is another.)

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Once he's sufficiently comfortable with the phone they go collect Escan's servants and rescue Ortaron and find a place to set up shop. Tuturio's the wizard on this team and puts it up once they have a location.

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They can eventually find someone who will rent or sell them an empty lot in exchange for merch! This process is followed and observed by a lot of curious people, both those whom Ortaron has been providing with implausible amounts of charity and those who think it's interesting.

And then they have a shop. It will almost immediately be filled with people who want alien shinies.

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They can call down some extra staffpeople to receive stories and hand out swag if it's going to be this busy.

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Lots of people are happy to provide stories that are false, true, improvised, sung, spoken, or are what they had for breakfast today in exchange for high-tech gizmos. Common themes in stories that are not just fictional include evil rich people (usually though not always aristocrats), karmic turns of fate on the cruel, rich, or arrogant, sex, war both tragic and heroic, and murder. Especially murder. Lots of murder. Something like a third of this society's cultural output seems to be stories in which someone either attempts murder and gets the tables turned on them and dies, or commits murder and is then pursued to their death, usually by supernatural wrath but sometimes just by vengeful relatives or legal processes. Songs supposedly dictated by a criminal about to be hanged (from the neck, until dead) are fairly common, as are talking birds (for some reason).

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They have had training on how not to appear overtly horrified by the thematic nastiness in people's stories! This Is Important Cultural Content.

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I mean, maybe they can do that for the one that's just about how sad the singer is that her betrothed went off to war and died, leaving her pregnant and incapable of earning a living, or the one about a hardened criminal regretting his wicked life right before he leaves it. Or even the one where -

cw: Murder, gore

A young man convinces his girlfriend to steal money from her father so they can run off together; he takes the money and her clothes and runs off, and her father won't let her into the house so she dies of exposure. Her seven brothers track the killer down, break all his limbs, and leave him for the wolves.

But they might start to have problems with the one where

cw: Murder, gore

Two sisters are in love with the same man, so the older murders the younger. A passing singer finds the corpse, turns it into a musical instrument (in gruesome detail -

What did he doe with her brest-bone?
      Refrain: With a hie downe downe a downe-a
He made him a violl to play thereupon.
      Refrain: With a hy downe downe a downe-a
What did he doe with her fingers so small?
He made him peggs to his violl withall.
What did he doe with her nose-ridge?
Unto his violl he made him a bridge.
What did he doe with her veynes so blew?
He made him strings to his violl thereto.
What did he doe with her eyes so bright?
Upon his violl he played at first sight.
What did he doe with her tongue so rough?
Unto the violl it spake enough.
What did he doe with her two shinnes?
Unto the violl they danc’d Moll Syms.

- and plays it at the older sister's wedding, where it accuses her of the murder.

Or the one where

cw: murder, rape, incest, suicide

A robber ambushes three women, murders two, rapes one; she says her brother will have him killed. He asks his brother's name, is given his own, and kills himself.

Or especially the one where

cw: false rape accusations, murder, gore

A woman wants to sleep with her husband's nephew; he declines, so she nicks herself with a knife and tells her husband the nephew tried to rape her. The nephew's hands and feet are tied to four different horses which are sent running, and

There was not a kow in Darling muir,
  Nor ae piece o a rind,
  But drappit o Child Owlet’s blude
  And pieces o his skin.
There was not a kow in Darling muir,
  Nor ae piece o a rash,
  But drappit o Childe Owlet’s blude
  And pieces o his flesh.

(And then the song ends.)

(No one seems to think these are at all inappropriate to sing around children, who are some of the customers.)

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...there are worse songs on the training program but they don't actually have the training material sung by children so, yeah, that's a bit creepsome, but they're going to push through it.

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Then they can push through it, and distribute Nossean technology and magic to the populace of a city that has invented gunpowder but not sanitation!

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Tuturio has her personal space widget for a reason, and a personal prestidigitator that circles around her and the store and keeps it spotless.

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Other things they pick up:

- Law enforcement does not appear to exist? Not, like, in the dwarf way where everyone is subscribed to protection agencies; the government has jails, and has rewards for turning in people who commit crimes in the hopes people will do it, but all prosecution is private and basically that's done by informal groups of rich people protecting themselves or else by other criminals ratting out their rivals for the bounties, and if the person arrested for a crime is innocent someone can be found to testify to their guilt anyway because the financial reward only shows up if the prosecution is successful.

- Also, there's a lot of executing people. "Execution, deferred on condition of exile to the colonies" and "execution, deferred on condition of joining the army" are both totally things.

- Speaking of which, almost nobody in the city was born in it! There's large-scale migration from the countryside to the city for better economic opportunities, which is sometimes a polite word for 'famine.'

- Not everyone in the building has the vote! Some of the men, almost none of the women. (If they ask, there's a property qualification and women's property is made over to their husbands, unless they're widows or veterans.)

- Or is a citizen! (If they ask: There's a test that gets you it, yeah, but you need to pay a fee in order to take it and then it's written and not everyone knows how to read and the test is hard.) 

- In spite of this, most of the people of Wolcyn are really pretty enthusiastic about being part of Wolcyn, specifically! They may not like any part of Wolcyn's government (the city, the heremethyl, the mayor, the army recruiters, the prisons...) but they like Wolcyn! People in Wolcyn are free!

- If the present President is a freethinker, this attitude is not at all universal! There are quite a lot of people who do, actually, believe in angels and demons very literally. (Someone outside is shouting about how their store sells divine artifacts which is totally immoral. Someone else appears to have gotten his wires crossed and shown up to yell about how they sell contraception, which is also totally immoral, and they're kind of yelling at each other now while the crowd picks their pockets.)

- There is definitely a war on! People are very unhappy about war taxes but they're also very positive about Our War Heroes and negative about the Admiral and his attempts to conquer the world. One person tells the story of an absolutely disastrous attempt to get a regiment to the front that - between plague, rioting, the incompetence of the rich gentleman who organized the regiment (who'd paid for his commission), and sheer bad luck - got three-quarters of it killed (mostly by disease and wild animals) before it was cut off and surrounded and everyone was about to die, and then ends the story on this cliffhanger and asks if she can get another piece of magic high-tech gear for finishing it.

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They will allow sufficiently long stories to be issued as serials, sure.

This is kind of a lot of problems but not a staggeringly unusual number of them and it sort of seems like most of them are the nice kind of problem that will dissolve with free migration and greater wealth. They push the bus tokens to indecisive customers and sometimes throw them in as a bonus for particularly enlightening stories. Do they have a place to put a bus stop yet?

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Actually, the ending is "then the young woman who was the viewpoint got a hero crest and saved everyone," very dramatically but not taking much time.

Sure, they can get somewhere to put a bus stop!

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Bus stop goes up! A bus appears in it! Tuturio stations herself at it to act as a sort of tour guide; she can display route maps and recommend sights to see and it's a little more compatible with her personal space than the shop is.

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They get very large numbers of very curious people who want to see EVERYTHING!

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If presented with bus tokens Tuturio will wave people aboard the bus; the bus-teleporter will then take them to Edda Station One, where they can transfer to wherever they like. There are information kiosks if they can't read the signs.

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What does Edda Station One look like? And what do the signs and information kiosks say about what exciting places to visit are?

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Edda Station One is huge and busy. It's a sort of tower, tall enough that it's hard to make out the top, with a big open atrium in the middle all the way up, and spokes leading to different platforms where different buses on different lines leave and depart; the edges of the atrium that aren't devoted to multi-car elevators have various shops and stalls, and art installations, and the information booths are scattered across the ground floor and also in among the stores up on the mezzanines above. The line names have a logic to them, but it's a fairly opaque logic if you don't know the system and it will look a bit random to people from Wolcyn; there are symbols of various colors and shapes associated with each, tiled out in paths on the floor one could follow. People - dozens of kinds of people, though most look at least basically human - are going this way and that, chattering and pulling luggage and making purchases and taking no particular note of the Wolcyn visitors.

Information kiosk staff recommend different things! There's a good roller coaster park two stops away if you take this intra-Edda line - there's a perpetual concert on Nest, where the Yeerks who turned into Elves live, that's in Cube, they rotate in and out - amazing restaurant in Revelation, it can handle the customers despite being constantly mobbed because the chef's a demon - history museum in Stork, fantastic introduction to the concept of servantmaking and Stork culture - Dreamward's great fun, the cities never sleep, the suns are beautiful - amazing nature walks in Atarale - Shadow's pushing tourism these days, you can get a guided tour through some unique Elf architecture for spare change if you want - Zovis banned motorboats and has tons of manatees you can swim with -

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The crowd includes people wandering around amazed looking at anything in particular, people stealing everything that isn't nailed down, people telling sob stories to anyone in earshot, and people trying to figure out what they can buy here to sell at ridiculous prices back home really, really fast, among others.

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Stealing doesn't work very well - the stores mostly turn out to have security golems that grab the hands of thieves and the one that doesn't is staffed by a vampire who is fully capable of doing it himself. Sob stories, on the other hand, work great and will often get tips or even more effusive offers of help. If any of these people want to move to Vanda Nossëo and live on basic income and crash on a random stranger's couch, today is their lucky day.

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Then a great many couches are going to be crashed on! (A small but significant fraction of these generous souls are going to find that their their curtains, electronics, and any other valuable-looking property they might have will have disappeared during the night. A majority won't.)

Since sob stories work, the quantity will increase! Some of the people who got cash this way, though, are looking to spend it. Do any of these signs perchance look like they sell luxuries (or necessities) of the sort where people from a pre-industrial setting will know what they are? Like alcohol, or clothes? Or do they have exchange rates in gold?

(Meanwhile, the Heremethyl is rapidly assembling as messengers scrape the streets for deputies, many of whom are asleep, and/or drunk, and/or in bed with their wives or women who are not their wives or in some cases men who are not anyone's wives! The rapidly-assembling Heremethyl would like to award a medal to and/or fire and/or lynch the President, and also declare eternal friendship / denounce as infernal / ally with / open trade relations with Vanda Nosseo. At least forming a special committee on the fact that someone managed to figure out how to counterfeit gold and what to do about it is going well.)

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Alcohol is surprisingly rare and pricey, though it does exist. Clothes they've got! Nobody wants gold, gold is worthless unless you are specifically making jewelry or electronics.

People whose curtains and electronics disappear mostly sigh and file insurance claims and have all the things replaced. A few file police reports; any of those thieves who aren't safely back in their home world will be arrested.

Vanda Nossëo is in favor of as many as several of those plans and is reasonably patient about letting the Heremethyl settle on which they most endorse.

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Right, but if it's worthless, how much of it can you buy with one of these card thingies?

The arrested citizens of Wolcyn protest their innocence loudly and with vigor. Since the only targets are those that haven't made it back home and Vanda Nossëo forensics is really good, this is usually done while they are carrying the stolen goods.

They most endorse friendly greetings, trade (an attempt to settle the precise terms of which sets off another argument between protectionists and doctrinaire free traders, not all of whom are prepared to be quite as doctrinaire as usual when faced with a government that actually produces literally everything more cheaply than they do), and trying to get Vanda Nossëo to recognized their preferred world map and list of governments, which may bear noncoincidental resemblance to the preferred world map and list of governments of some other countries in the world, if you squint, preferably without inviting it to intervene in the war. The president does not get a medal but also does not get replaced or lynched. They would like to know how many different polities Vanda Nossëo has, so they can figure out just how many embassies they should send.

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They are relieved of the stolen goods and put in short term lockup for the weekend, after being asked if they have any time-sensitive obligations like childcare back home that they will need help with to accommodate this. They can shorten their lockup if they will have a conversation with a very sincere social worker about how they should not steal and don't need to.

Nobody in the bus station is selling gold.

Vanda Nossëo will copy the map but not make any statements about their opinion on the correct map of the world. Vanda Nossëo has thousands of member states but most of them don't do their own interdimensional diplomacy and just go through Vanda Nossëo.

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Well, if you're going to ask them that, of course they have time-sensitive obligations back home! Or of course pitching the social worker is probably much easier. They totally don't need to steal and they understand it's bad and they'll go straight home and never steal again, OK?

How about silver?

(By this point, more than half the people who had this reaction have bought clothes and headed back to resell them; better get going while they going's good.)

Then they will send one big one to Vanda Nossëo and see about arranging smaller ones for the other states later.

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The time sensitive obligations at home do not get anyone out of lockup, they just get someone dispatched to conduct their child to a backup caretaker or take the kettle off the fire or whatever. The social workers aren't all that easy to fool but they do not have to pass a quiz, at any rate.

Silver is also not for sale around here. This one stall has platinum jewelry! And wants Vanda Nossëo money.

Usually Vanda Nossëo comes to new countries rather than having delegations sent to them but they can accommodate such a delegation if it wants to come by! Their base of operations is this one planet in Edda, it's on the bus line.

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Then some of them can fool the social workers, but not most of them. Vanda Nossëo's lockup now has very grumpy criminals in it, for the weekend. (Was this lockup designed by elves, perchance?)

... No, they don't want platinum, they want - well, fine, maybe I can sell it as silver. (Everyone else has already just bought something lacy for resale.)

It's traditional on their world for every country to have embassies in every other country it isn't at war with, to represent the government and help out the citizens if there's any problems. If Vanda Nossëo is sending them an embassy, they should send it one.

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This lockup was not designed by Elves, nor for Elves, but it was designed by people who had met Elves. Potted plants, musical instruments, everything's very clean, the food's good, there's TV and a ball court and a library.

One can only obtain this jewelry if they have Vanda Nossëo currency!

Vanda Nossëo can put up a nice embassy for them.

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... This jail is better than where they live. Plans are rapidly adjusted.

Yes, see, she HAS Vanda Nossëo currency, someone gave it to her, and she's trying to turn it into Wolcyn currency! Which is gold and silver!

Great, thanks! They'll see about getting one.

(Someone who learned about the bus stop is making a speech about how they need to stop Vanda Nosseo from stealing all their laborers; someone else is responding with a speech about how if Vanda Nosseo wants to take beggars and thieves off their hands, good for Vanda Nosseo. There's a crowd listening to them rather in the spectator-sport manner.)

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Okay, if they have Vanda Nossëo currency they can buy jewelry from a bus station kiosk, sure.

The inventory management people start adding a wider range of golems to the stock; these are slightly more expensive than the standard issue (there aren't that many people on Stork, not all of them want to work for hours a day waking golems, and there is no obvious way to increase the supply of Stork people, unlike with, say, daeva) but can still be bought for sufficiently involved stories.

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And the jewelry will then be resold in Wolcyn (at a loss), but it makes everyone happy.

Manufacturers are interested in buying golems! People who are not manufacturers are interested in buying golems to resell to manufacturers! 

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They can have them! Hopefully that will alleviate concerns about labor drain.

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Wolcyn continues to have concerns, but slightly less than they did before!

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And there is a third city, too, beneath cloudy skies - or most of a city, at any rate, for Testeroj, city of kings (city of free men) has been sacked six times in the past twenty years and burned twice, and too many streets are bare. The Great Library of its kings now decorates the shelves of the invaders, the royal jewels has been seized six times (and sold back to the state each time for a fee), the palace was stripped of artwork (to serve as the seed of the Mad King's collection), and today Field-Marshal Josef Dinot Zapojvedi, Doux and King-Elect of the Most Serene Republic of Ljudizem, Blessed of the Angels and Champion of Heaven, Marshal of the Holy League under His Holiness Admiral Nicolas VII, stands on the walls of the star fort that encloses the city, looking outwards.

("Josef Dinot, Prince of Scars," his enemies call him. A fair name; the scar on his cheek is from a bullet, up from his eye and through the chest and at the inner side of his left arm from sabers; the scars on his back are from rocks - the twin stars of Marek Gerontmarkhen combined against him, and their blast sent him crashing to the ground at thrice the speed of a galloping horse - the scars on his hand are from catching a dagger-thrust in a gloved fist, and the scars on his belly... well, the Prince of Scars has been at war for a long, long time.)

Through the telescope in his hand he can see the fires of the Geronine armies to the west (the old king is still rash, though they call him "The Splendid" and "The Strong" now, but he does not command the army and it will move slowly), and the trails of destruction left by the Lowlander's cavalry to the east (he's still an able marshal, though they say he's too fat to sit a horse, now, but he stripped the land bare last campaign and so he must shield eight hundred miles to advance thirty). The Imperials to the south are still invisible to the aided eye; they're headed by His Majesty's brother, and he's left orders not to burn or pillage (it's too late to start trying mercy now, after fifty years of tearing the state down, and so every beggar that flocks to the triumphant progress whispers his news to the Prince of Scars whenever his outriders are in sight.)

Dinot does not intend to stay in Testeroj long; if the three armies can combine, the city will fall with him or without him, and he came here only for the hard-baked biscuit and fine-grained gunpowder and new-drilled regiments it could offer (for there are still volunteers to be had, and will be so long as five foreign kings march five foreign armies across Ljudizem), and the new taxes the Senate raised to pay for it all. He'll march hard west before the Coalition can land more men to back the Geronines and bait the king into defying his allies for a reckless attack, spin south to fall on His Highness and trust no man could be so mad as to expect even the Prince of Scars to attack an army thrice his size (in his own land with the advantage of surprise), and trust the Son of Victory to cut the Lowlander's supply lines and save Testeroj, for whatever remains of his army after two brutal battles will not be able to outmatch the greatest host the Eastern king has yet marshalled.

It's a desperate plan, but what better hope does his nation have?

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Well. There appears, in the middle of Testeroj, a group of people. If someone approaches them and asks their names, they will find:

- The one who looks like a completely ordinary young man is called Valerius.
- The one who looks like a woman with greenish-black hair and green scales covering her skin is called Da'ell.
- The one who looks like a completely ordinary young woman is called Quicksilver.
- The one who looks like a tall pretty woman with fancy braids and fancy clothes is called Rainë.
- The one who looks like a short man with pistachio-green hair is called Zatuobin.

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... Scales, you say.

Yeah, people are going to approach them. They're all wearing unfamiliar fancy clothes and the locals want to know what's going on.

(The city, they can clearly see, is in terrible shape; the roads are pitted, the buildings scarred where cannonballs bounced off them, young men and middle-aged men are rare, unless they're in uniform - most of which uniforms are clearly most ununiform, being hand-sewn ordinary clothes with a few patches of turquoise sewn on. The walls of the city are huge and monstrously thick, five-sided and solid stone without, but a lot of the space they enclose has streets - paved streets, even! Sometimes in a grid! - and no houses, just fire-scarred land and occasional shanties and, for most of it, attempts at turning it into food-producing gardens. There's some nice architecture, but maintaining it has clearly not been an economic priority of anyone's, unlike the walls.)

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Rainë is singing softly by the time anyone gets in introducing distance.

Zatuobin is first to greet people. "Good day!" he says. "We're envoys from your peaceful, distant neighbors, Vanda Nossëo!"

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"How did you do that?" the first person says.

"Are you performers?" asks the second.

"Wait, how are you speaking -" says a third, who then immediately shuts up.

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"Some people from Vanda Nossëo can teleport," says Zatuobin. "We're not performers, we're ambassadors. Did the translation magic make a mistake? It does that sometimes."

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"Ambassadors?" breathes one probably-technically-a-soldier, an expression on his face somewhere between 'pure shock' and 'holy joy.'

(The person who asked about translation is making herself scarce.)

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"Ambassadors!" nods Zatuobin. "From Vanda Nossëo, which has just discovered your planet recently and sent us to meet you."

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People are going to go get people for ambassadors to talk to!

Also, people are going to talk to ambassadors!

"Do you want to talk to the King?" says a young woman. "Or the Commodore?" an older woman suggests.

"Are you here to save us from the Zulmij and the Geronti?" says a small child.

"You should kill ALL the Gronts," says a slightly larger child. "ALL of them. They killed my grandma and Good King Emre!"

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"We'd be happy to talk to the King and Commodore if they want! We're a peaceful society, though, and that means we don't kill people."

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"But they're BAD PEOPLE!"

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"We don't even kill bad people," says Zatuobin firmly.

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"The Geronti and the Zulmij aren't really people," says a sober-looking old man, and other people nod. "They're descended from demons." Nods, nods, nods. "They're worse than wolves." More nods. "As I wrote in my book, The Plague That Never Died, all of history's greatest traitors are Geronti, and no Geronic doctor, scientist or poet has ever contributed anything to the human condition other than tools for violence, warfare and terror!"

"They killed my mother!"

- "Father!"

"- Grandfather!"

(The cries of KILL THEM ALL really do not seem inclined to go away!)

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They'll just kind of stand here and wait for the King and/or Commodore, periodically reiterating that Vanda Nossëo is peaceful and will not kill aaaaaaanyone.

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Well that will make them much less popular!

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"Aliens."

The Prince of Scars reacts to this in a patient and dignified manner, instead of saying "have you lost your mind."

"One of them has SCALES."

"... On my way."

He touches down in the square less than a minute later. His uniform is sober, deep blue, except for the fancy collar, fur cape (it's like the entire hide of some horrible monster!), and turquoise stripes on the collars, cuffs, and shoulders. The right sleeve ends early; on his right forearm is a bracer of some shifting, gleaming golden metal, with a slight depression at one end.

(Also, he can fly, surrounded by a golden glow, and was.)

"Welcome to Ljudizem," he says, as around him people drop to their knees and/or fire off salutes.

("Rise," and they do.)

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"Good day!" says Zatuobin. "We are envoys from your peaceful distant neighbors, Vanda Nossëo."

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"Welcome," he says. "I am Field-Marshal Josef Dinot Zapojvedi, King-Elect of Ljudizem." And he also sent a general alert to all the walls and called his bodyguards over.

(His eyes flicker over them, paying careful attention to anything that looks like magic and/or high technology. Distant stars, hmm? There's something obvious he can think of that matches to this, and is kind of what he signed up to campaign against...)

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Zatuobin has his computer in a case patterned like the night sky attached to his belt, and a few technological-looking buttons attached to his watch; Da'ell's is wrist-mounted; the other three people's computers are in chiplock style and not projecting right now. Rainë has some plausibly magical jewelry; Zatuobin is wearing a brooch shaped like a flame that might be magic; Quicksilver's got a few rings and a necklace; Da'ell's wearing glasses. If they've got anything else it must be hidden away in pockets or invisible or something.

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... On the one hand, they don't look like very impressive travelers-from-other-stars. (Or demons.) On the other hand, scales.

Still, his cynical guess, based on base rates, is makeup.

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"It's lovely to meet you! I'm Zatuobin be-Azor de-Saulon, originally from a country called Voa, and these are my colleagues - Rainë Ninquë of the Noldor, Quicksilver and her sleeping headmate Nectarine who you'll be able to meet later, Da'ell of Skrullos, and Valerius of Rome by way of Limbo."

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"Fascinating," says Dinot. "And where, pray tell, are those?"

Con meeeeeeeeen he does not have time for this nonsense -

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"Rainë, would you -" says Zatuobin.

Rainë produces a large colorful illusion of the map-of-worlds. "Worlds - which differ from stars," she says, "can be next to each other, or not; the means of travel we have will only go from one world to those next to it. Your world is here," she lights one up, "and Vanda Nossëo is based here, just next to you," Edda lights up, "and that's where Da'ell is from; I'm from here," Space Arda lights up, "and Quicksilver and Nectarine are from here," Dreamward lights up, "and Valerius was born here," Revelation, "but his world has an afterlife and he's been in it for some time, over here." Limbo lights up. "And Zatuobin's from here -" Warp lights up - "but currently lives over here -" Revelation lights up again.

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OKAY MAGIC

(People oooh!)

"May I test if you are hostile?" he says, raising his right arm and the shiny thing on it.

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"Go right ahead," says Zatuobin, "how does it work?"

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And they are washed in golden light. It feels like very faint pressure, sort of like the sun on a hot day. (It feels rather more hostile to those of them who aren't humans, but not burning-hostile, just uncomfortable.)

"The light of a Hero Crest," he says, "burns inhuman evil." That's one thing the Three Books are VERY CLEAR on: Anything that basically just likes eating people, physically, mentally or spiritually, melts when you hit it with divine light. Which is not actually RELEVANT for anything other than hunting wolves, but the Admiral would justly have reprimanded him if he hadn't even tested it.

All right, time to switch to Diplomacy Mode, he's not going to pass them to his Foreign Minister, not when there's a complete new side to the war.

"... Would you care to meet me in Testeroj Castle shortly?" he says. (That being a place where he can talk to them and not easily be overheard. It also has a very nice tower that overlooks the city that he can use to punctuate important evidence in presenting his case, like the fact that they're setting the entire country on fire.)

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"Sure!" says Zatuobin. "Can you direct us?"

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It's that big old-fashioned castle right there in the middle of the city.

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Minions show up! Minions want to escort them to their immediate appointment! Dinot takes off to his immediate appointment!

(Minions do not clarify that they want the immediate appointment so the Prince of Scars can splash some cold water on his face. Minions are being polite.)

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They'll take the escort.

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Then the Prince of Scars will meet them at a tower room, having very quickly drunk a cup of tea and splashed cold water on his face. The room is filled with windows, possesses a balcony large enough for someone flying to land on, and overlooks the entire city and the countryside beyond. There's some dusty astronomy equipment in the corners of the room, of which the most relevant and least dusty is a really gigantic telescope. There are also - couches, chairs, tables; it's somewhere you can have a salon, if a salon interested in astronomy. (There's rather less of it and it goes together worse than you'd expect.)

(The castle, speaking of which, seems rather deficient of furniture, art, jewels, and other valuable things you might expect to find in a castle. Can't imagine why, of course.)

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The envoys do not comment on the decor (though Rainë starts softly singing again).

"Thank you very much for your hospitality!" says Zatuobin.

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"You're quite welcome," he says. "Someone will be along with drinks shortly." That is to say, as soon as they can climb the tallest tower in Testeroj Castle while not flying.

"Can you tell me about your home and your mission?"

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"Of course! We're an envoy team from a federation called Vanda Nossëo, made up of many states in many worlds. Vanda Nossëo is peaceful and seeks to improve the standard of living for everyone through the sharing of magic and technology and the free movement of its people for comfort and opportunity. Standard procedure on planets like yours is to set up little shops and hand out in-demand goods that are cheap for us - basically any purely material object and a few magic ones that are subsidized for various reasons - in exchange for cultural exposure, things like personal anecdotes and local folktales and renditions of songs, so we can get to know your people better and alleviate acute material needs. We can also set up places anyone can go to be transported to Vanda Nossëo, to visit - or to move, if they like, immigrants are welcome! If you need something that those protocols don't cover at all we can talk about it, though as we were telling the folks outside, Vanda Nossëo is peaceful and will not be killing anyone's enemies, for reasons including but not limited to some of our co-workers having landed on every identifiable polity on this entire planet."

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Hmm. On the one hand, they might trying to conquer the planet. On the other hand, everything else.

"Our most acute material need is to not be invaded," he says, quite calmly, "and if you do not intend to preserve our nation we will need to continue doing it ourselves. In that case we will need gunpowder, cavalry horses, grain, muskets, bayonets, military uniforms, swords and helmets for the horsemen, and artillery in field, siege and horse varieties, and we are prepared to tell you as many folk tales as you need. If you would like evidence that we are being invaded -" he gestures at the telescope. "You can see the smoke of burning buildings from here."

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"By and large, we don't stock weapons," says Zatuobin apologetically. "We have no good way to determine who, if anyone, is right in a war that we come across from another universe, even if it looks very plain that one side is the aggressor and the other's done nothing to provoke them. We do sell food and fabric, in spite of being aware that they have military purposes, but guns and horses aren't going to happen. However, Vanda Nossëo defends its own borders; if you can manage to hold a vote while these conditions prevail - that we'll help with - you can join up as a member state, and then whatever borders you join with, we'll hold."

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Well, then, that's a much better option for saving his nation than anything he had before.

What's the catch?

"I see. What are Vanda Nosseo's terms of membership?"

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"I mentioned the vote - many people are surprised by how extensive Vanda Nossëo's voting eligibility is, but there's so many kinds of people out there being any more conservative would leave someone out and disenfranchisement is no good, so it includes children and slaves and insane people and criminals and untouchables and any other sapient species living in the area and whatnot. We require a majority vote of your entire actual population, not just of the completed ballots, so low turnout can sink a bid to join. It's also a membership requirement that you have and enforce - or let us enforce - laws prohibiting murder, torture, or rape of anyone, with 'anyone' defined the same way as for voting eligibility. Sometimes the definitions there get a little weird - there's a subclause about forcibly relocating substantial populations folded in under 'torture' - but I have no reason to think that in this particular cases the practicalities won't seem basically commonsense. And finally there has to be freedom of emigration. Not immigration - you can refuse entry to anyone you like - but you have to let people leave to anywhere that will have them."

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... And whatnot probably includes women considering some of the people he's talking to are female? Widows have the vote in Wolcyn, he knows that.

Murder, torture, and rape being banned... well, fair enough, most countries do that. Freedom of emigration why does that even go on the list... there's got to be a trap somewhere, that they're planning to use to oppress his entire country.

"Are countries allowed to impose a draft?" he asks, "and is government execution considered murder and government whipping torture?" Those seem like plausible traps to him.

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"You can say 'you have to either join the army or leave'," says Zatuobin. "You can't say 'you have to join the army and can't leave instead'. Anybody including the government killing any person for any reason with some extremely specific exceptions that have never applied to a human or similar victim is construed as murder, except that suicide is legal. Whipping as an official punishment is construed as torture but you can still have it on the books, it just has to have the alternative sentence of exile offered to the accused if they'd rather leave than face it, what you can't do is chase someone down who's trying to get on the bus to elsewhere in the multiverse and insist that they be whipped first. The freedom of emigration is covering a lot of things here - for example, we don't ban slavery, there are actually some people who appear to all investigation to prefer slavery, but they still have to be allowed to leave."

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... That's bizarrely reasonable.

"I see."

... He's not going to be able to trick them into a war. He may as well state it - 

"Gentlemen and ladies of Vanda Nossëo," he says, "Ljudizem is an ancient state of millions of people stretching across tens of thousands of miles, almost all of which is occupied by one or more of our enemies in this war. His Holiness the Admiral has promised the restoration of our full frontiers, but at present very little of it is sufficiently under my control for me to organize a vote, and though my army has soldiers from every village in the nation we cannot ensure fifty percent turnout in lands our enemies have held for twenty years."

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"Do you want us to ask the envoy coordinator for information on how our counterparts are getting along in neighboring countries?"

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"Certainly," he said (more information is always good). "What I wanted to know, though, was just what support you could provide for arranging elections?" And also his other plan, which he'll want to get to shortly.

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(Valerius starts composing a message in the background.)

Zatuobin explains,"Some of us - including additional backup we can call in as necessary - can teleport, and given a map or someone pointing things out according to a picture we can get from the ship above," (Rainë provides an illusion again), "we can visit anyone too difficult to reach conventionally. Ideally we'd have some local authorities they'll recognize along."

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... Hmm. Interesting.

"And what if the occupiers order you to stop, or if they shoot my delegates?"

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(The range of reactions, from worst to least bad!

- The small state of Desnau has ordered the Vandans Nossëo all shot for lese-majesty.

- The even smaller state of Havralt's ruling prince thinks they are hilarious and, sure, they can set up a shop, he'll keep them in mind for if it looks like he might get invaded again.

- The somewhat larger state of Geronmarkh's diplomatic agency (run by one of the king's 382 illegitimate children) is rather reluctant to do anything without consulting the king.

- The delegation sent to the much larger Vzhodoun Empire is presently bribing its way up the chain of ever-more-important bureaucrats, but has not reached anyone with decision-making power yet.

- And the even larger Dominion of Simolya has thrown them in jail for disturbing the peace.)

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"We'd choose escorts suitable to the defensive tasks necessary to the errand, and if someone miscalculated anyway we carry insurance sufficient to resurrect a lost delegate; we currently have no reason to believe that people on this planet are unusually difficult to resurrect, though as far as I know it hasn't been tested.

I'm not, to be clear, confident that it's wise to join with such expansive borders. Twenty years is a long time. Do you have reason to believe public opinion is strongly on your side in those regions?"

Vanda Nossëo will let people try to shoot a Limboite; they will let the locals jail most of their party but the Elf teleports out instead. They aren't in a hurry to get ahold of the king, worry about being invaded is a serviceable reason to permit a shop, and bribery is tiresome but as long as people can be bribed with candy and healing-boops it's not exactly going to break the budget.

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Dinot did not get to the part about resurrection yet, actually! Though he can try to avoid showing it -

"When I raised my banners," he says, "volunteers flocked from across the country. I am not short of loyal men, however great the cause." But that's only half an answer.

"But it may be the case that in some border regions, the Ljudic population has already been expelled. So, could a province secede to join another Vanda Nosseo member? If the heartland secedes, we can then organize individual regional elections, and let the people decide which nation they want to be part of." Because it will be his.

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"Yes, we allow regions to secede and join Vanda Nossëo at the same time if that's what their people want," confirms Zatuobin, "and then consolidate with other member states if they agree on how to go about it."

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"Then Ljudizem could secede piece-by-piece, if the people willed it."

He nods decisively. "I'll call my ministers, they'll want to go over the Vanda Nosseo rules to make sure there isn't some trap, but if not -" he casts a grin over his shoulder, the first one in a long time "- you'll have a new member."

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"I'm delighted to hear it!" says Zatuobin.

"The neighbors are mostly not being nearly so delightful," reports Valerius. "They arrested two of the teams - coordinator doesn't have an update yet on whether they were impressed after trying to shoot Sofia - Eruanna had to teleport out but the rest of her team is hanging out in jail waiting to see what happens - Havralt's letting them set up a shop, but not moving beyond that so far."

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Well, that's the fault of the neighbors for being tyrannies.

Dinot will immediately begin Organizing. All the ministries need to know about this situation, and he needs (well, they need, he's delegating) complete descriptions of the laws that members and citizens of Vanda Nossëo need to follow, and also the Vandans Nossëo should feel free to open up shops selling food and anything else people want to buy, and also he'd like to know what support they provide for members. He'd like Vanda Nosseo's help letting his allies know what he's doing, and thinks they should get in touch with the Admiral if they haven't, all this ought to be his department (which is what they're fighting the war over.)

(At some point in this, the drinks show up; Dinot does not notice, he has WORK to do!)

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Zatuobin will go over the full minimum legal code with all its definitions and edge cases and precedents with him and the parameters of defensive support and universal basic income and the availability of signing perks and the likely cultural and economic trajectory to follow; Quicksilver and Rainë excuse themselves to go set up a shop once they know how to find a place to put it; Da'ell is happy to go find the Admiral if they know where he is, or wait a few minutes for forensics to find him if they don't. Valerius will tell the shipboard coordinator which allies are to be told what.

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As it happens, Dinot is delegating going over everything with Zatuobin to his Foreign Minister and Minister of Justice, since there's king-elect-only stuff he needs to do. Their main questions are about what it means for the state's present foreign relations (being in a military alliance), what the precise rules limiting their ability to continue supporting their allies if the enemy leaves them but not their friends alone are, how to integrate religious commandments with Nossean rights, and what Vanda Nosseo's reaction would be to the planet (including Ljudizem) being attacked by demons would be.

The Admiral is somewhere with an army. Where, Dinot doesn't presently know.

Dinot will give short summaries of the situation to the shipboard coordinator to pass on to every member of the Holy League, and a request for the Admiral to URGENTLY COMMENT ON THE THEOLOGICAL ACCEPTABILITY OF JOINING VANDA NOSSEO, RIGHT NOW PLEASE YOUR HOLINESS.

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If a Vanda Nossëo citizen departs Vanda Nossëo and kills a dude, that is murder; if they kill a dude in self-defense, that isn't murder, but you don't get Vanda Nossëo protection to do that with if you just want to go provoke people into requiring self-defense, and you'd still need to stand trial for murder. They can still supply their military allies with materiel, take in refugees, go learn magic if they can pass a screen for it and then go join a neighbor's army, that sort of thing, especially if individuals want to do this in a completely private capacity, individuals are allowed to do lots of things that Vanda Nossëo per se is not; but this is strongly disrecommended and they should be acutely aware that their enemies are all getting the same offer. If demons attack they will try to talk to the demons and minimize destruction and death while that's going on; they might do something like teleport all the demons far away if they won't stop attacking to chat.

Their counterpart teams in other locations will faithfully pass on these messages.

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Oh good, that's fine with Dinot.

In that case, he's still planning to march west - that army needs stopping and if Vanda Nosseo wants to use their instant-communication to stay in touch with him, that's fine; if not, his deputies here can handle organizing a massive balloting campaign in every village in central Ljudizem without him, he thinks.

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They will give him a phone, sure, though they recommend maybe not trying to get in a few last battles before joining up, that might be a famous last words situation.

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"Another man can organize elections and no other man can lead the army of Ljudizem," he says, raising his right arm.

And then it is time for him to depart!

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Would he like to be healed first or would that interfere with his recognizability or something?

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"Not until Ljudizem is free," he says, "but if you're looking for people to heal..."

And he can provide SUCH A LIST OF VETERANS.

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They'll get on that, then.

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And they think they aren't participating in the war.

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Well, again. All their neighbors are getting the same offer.

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Yes, he knows.

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Nicolas Montrege has been Grand Admiral for more than a decade of war, and was not a young man when he came to the command chair. He is presently in a tent, made to approximately the same design as those of his soldiers if scaled-up and dyed, and rubbing his aching feet. The tent is in the middle of a large army camp in a petty princedom on the far side of the Everfalls from the closest thing to a secure home base he has ever had, and the Grand Army encamped in that princedom has been engaged in a mad dash from one fire to the next for - well, for the past decade, for most of his marshals; since last Tuesday, for the teenage boys pressed into the ranks because he needed more men and had no better option, and Montrege is stretching out to get some sleep, because in six hours his men will need to march again, though their feet bleed or blister, because Montrege has declared war on the kings of the world and would not have done so if he expected to lose.

He a mystery, to most; born in a flyspeck of a country, trained to exacting professional standards and leader of national mobs, devoted ensign as a child and ruthless powermonger as a man, wielder of a hero crest and captain of bandits, liberator of a thousand nations and oppressor of a thousand more. He is known to talk to angels and reliably reports that they talk back.

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The envoys sent to his encampment do not ask that he be woken from his sleep.

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(Un?)fortunately, that happens anyway!

So, who are these envoys who the Grand Admiral comes to greet in his implausibly fancy hat?

(His uniform is not implausibly fancy; it is somewhat difficult to tell the immense amount of work that went into very exactly recreating from a not-great-quality manuscript the exact traditional garb of the Admirals, when the office was reestablished more than a thousand years ago after the Great Plague, so all the fanciness had to go into his hat since that wasn't described. It is a hat too marvelous for this side-note to transcribe, though I can mention that it even looked more impressive than the golden bracer on his right wrist, set unlike all others with an implausibly radiant gemlike prism, and, indeed, more impressive than all the other tragically undescribed hats of the aces who have thus far appeared in this serial.)

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Three of them look like normal humans, and those are called Mateo, Chasa, and Avigail, though Avigail asserts that she has an alien brain parasite friend in her head called Otrik. There's also an Elf, Vëoneo, and a fairy, Junan, to add more credibility to them being from another universe.

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(He pauses when he sees them, murmurs "Friends of yours?" listens for a half a moment. "Hmm.")

And then greets the six of them before they are introduced, though not by name. "Welcome to our world, travelers," he says with a smile. "I am Admiral Nicolas VII, Protector of this world against demonic threats and speaker on behalf of humanity for heavenly affairs, and you have come to the right place."

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"Glad to hear it!" says Junan. "We're from Vanda Nossëo, a federation headquartered in a world next to yours."

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"Not astronomically speaking, surely," he says. "I can't say that Nouterrana's astronomers have mapped out all the worlds in the heavens - quite a number are under Enemy control - but certainly we have a good picture of the habitability of worlds around our star, and this is the only one that can support human life."

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"Not astronomically speaking," Junan confirms.

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"Well, then," he says, "come into my tent and tell me about Vanda Nosseo."

To the people around - 

"They are not demons," he says, "nor angels, but they may be Our friends nonetheless. I will speak with them and tell you when I know more."

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Mateo elbows Junan and laughs very softly, and Junan trips him telekinetically, just a little, but catches him before he falls far.

Into the tent they go!

"I'm Junan," says Junan, "and this is Mateo, Chasa, Avigail and her passenger Otrik, and Vëoneo."

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"Yes," he says, "We saw. I assume Otrik is welcome?"

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"Yup!" says Avigail. "But if it'd make you feel better she can come out for a sec and I can confirm without her in my head."

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"I would appreciate that, yes," he says. "The Enemy relies on mental control direct and indirect, and hero crests are the only shield available to humanity."

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Out comes Otrik. "We're good!" Avigail says, giving a thumbs-up with her free hand, and then she puts Otrik back.

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"Thank you," he says. "I appreciate the confirmation."

(There is no direct play of golden light over Otrik, but Vandans Nossëo may well be able to detect that he's doing something anyway.)

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"No problem, it's totally legit to want to check, used to be a big problem on my world," Avigail assures him.

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"It was here, as well," he says. "And will be."

He pauses. "So, tell me more about Vanda Nosseo?"

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"Vanda Nossëo is a multidimensional federation spanning many worlds and planets within them," says Junan. "Envoy teams like this one have landed in every discernible separate polity on this planet to say hello and make our pitch for joining or at least opening up exchange of information and goods and services, and this wasn't a discernible separate polity from space but we were dispatched here after several of our counterparts elsewhere mentioned you to the shipboard coordinator."

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"Yes," he says, "the traditional legal structure is that the Admiral is in charge of representing the planet at large in the affairs of the heavens, and the national leaders manage terrestrial matters on the regional level." He grins slightly. "Talking to you ought to be my only job - alas, the world's rarely that simple. Still, tell me more about Vanda Nossëo. How does your multidimensional travel work?"

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"There are a few methods but the one in most common use is a teleportation spell! I don't have it personally, Vëoneo's our teleporter -" (Vëoneo demonstrates by teleporting six inches to the left.)

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"Interesting. I don't think your word 'spell' is translating, though?"

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"Oh! I can adjust our translation magic once we figure out what it should render the word as. A spell is a bounded magical effect that a person can trigger - 'cast' - in some way. Differs from a 'superpower' mostly in connotation and in the fact that spells are more likely to be learned than innate."

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"Then the problem is with the word 'magic'. It translates here to something with connotations of -" he considers a moment "- 'acts that violate physical law', which is a self-contradictory idea, since physical laws are universal." He doesn't say that as if it's ambiguous; it's just, rocks fall, the sun illuminates, physical laws are universal.

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"Physical laws aren't consistent between worlds, and some worlds afford more opportunities than others for single or small numbers of people to effect results more or less directly. Some, though not all, of those effects are local to a particular world and those adjacent to it."

"I'm from a world with local-only magic," volunteers Mateo. "Though I don't have any personally. My understanding is they don't like to go places their magic doesn't work."

"My magic works wherever I go but you can only get it if you're from my world," volunteers Chasa.

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He cocks his head for a moment. "Understood."

"So, since you're here," he says, quite calmly, "I should tell you that there is a force of attacking demons presently on its way from one of their worlds to here; they'll arrive within the next twenty years - Our information isn't good enough to tell precisely when they'll land - and they intend to destroy or enslave humanity as soon as they arrive. We expect their appearance will look like a meteor shower, and don't know where on the planet they will land."

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"Do you know what general direction they're coming from?" inquires Junan.

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"Yes," he says, and names a set of stars in the appropriate direction.

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"Okay, we can get our forensics team on that. - incidentally, there's a recurring problem with our translation magic where with startling frequency the term for the species of the bulk of our forensics team is translated as locally malign entities even though they have human-normal psychological distribution, so we may need to patch it if it sounds like I'm saying the same thing as the meteor shower folks - 'demon'?"

"And sometimes the reverse issue with 'angel'," volunteers Vëoneo.

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"Those are what we call the Enemy and our benefactors," he confirms.

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"Okay, I'll send out an alert that we should let those through untranslated. Anyway, the apsels on the forensics team will try to find them, which, if they aren't magical, shouldn't be hard, unless they're coming from another universe."

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"No," he says, "they're local to this one. How do your apsels' abilities work? Are those magical, too?" 

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"Apsels are magical, yes, they're from the same general magic system as I am but while I'm telekinetic," he levitates and then sits down in the air, "they conjure material objects, which includes things described by 'conjurable parameters', and they should be able to find your demons and then we can see what's up with them."

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"Good," he says. "So, what else can you tell me about Vanda Nosseo and these magic systems?"

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"There are a lot of magic systems, but the ones in most common use are the set of spells including the teleport I mentioned - it's an idiosyncratic set, and if someone's cleared to be allowed to know the teleport they might as well also be able to heal and turn into a bird and produce illusions; a system called 'wizardry' that Mateo's picked up, which includes a less efficient teleport and a really wide variety of utility effects; magic music, which has to be composed in specific worlds but can be sung to equally good effect anywhere; an artifact generating process from the same set of worlds; the magic of fairies like myself and the similar species apsels and ksainji, plus our less powerful counterparts Limboites, all of us being indestructible on top of the first three having the telekinesis, conjuration, and matter alteration powers respectively; wishes, which must be granted in the neighborhood around the appropriately named world of Wish; servantmaking, which you have to be from a particular planet to learn and which involves creating various kinds of magical servants, as the name implies; and some of the array of powers available in Mateo's homeworld, Eclipse, most especially precognition, which doesn't work if the precog travels far from home but does work if information is going to enter the Eclipse neighborhood to be perceived there."

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"And what all these essentially consist of is taking laws of physics from one universe and keeping them running in another, where they do not naturally exist but can work if imported?"

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"Most people don't tend to think of magic as a subset of physics but you could think of it that way, yes."

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"Yes, I thought that, too, before the angels started talking to me."

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"Can you tell us more about how that happened? Are angels also local to this universe?"

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"It occurred when I was selected as Admiral, and they've asked me not to disclose more about the method of contact, given the likelihood of an enemy invasion; I hardly took the idea of demons seriously before I was elected, but as soon as I was they alerted me to the situation. Angels are local to this universe, yes, we didn't know anything that wasn't, before you arrived."

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"Are they liable to take it amiss if we look for them too?"

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"Not at all; they're quite happy to meet new species, especially ones that might be able to assist them - do you have speed-of-light transport restrictions, by the way?"

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"Nope!"

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Pause.

"They will want to meet you very, very much, although since they do, they don't know this yet."

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"You don't talk to them in real-time?" inquires Junan.

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"They have representation here, but the majority of their population is on other worlds, and those would be steering - national policy, I suppose you could call it?"

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"Huh! Representation of what kind?"

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"I'd rather not discuss the details, I'm afraid; they've chosen to speak through me and to avoid sharing too much information about their internal processes, to avoid these becoming public knowledge to the Enemy. We may want to reconsider, but not immediately."

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"If forensics finds those should we not visit them, in your opinion?"

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"I'd prefer you avoid spreading the information around, at least."

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"Understood! Anyway, you also wanted to know more about Vanda Nossëo. People who developed interworld teleportation methods of various kinds - several of the magic methods I mentioned and also a nonmagical method - started exploring their neighborhoods, checking out what was there and what the useful frontiers of improvement for everybody involved might be. They found some surprising commonalities - for example, humans are common, even though that's weird, and there are a couple of specific planets that show up again and again so you wouldn't be able to tell the difference from up high, though they may be found during different calendar years and with some other details tweaked. There are also people - underlying personalities, and some more cosmetic stuff on top - that show up again and again. I don't have any that I know of but Mateo does, and Avigail does, and Vëoneo does. They're easier to find if you're on a repeated world because you can just see if you popped up in the same place, but apsels can also check, if we need to know for some reason."

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"Fascinating!" he says. "Our most obvious frontiers of improvement are keeping demons away, providing more advanced technology - the angels have a very good understanding of physics but are not very good at turning that into something we can make practical use of - and ending the current war; for the sake of the first we'll want to join Vanda Nosseo immediately, and hopefully you can organize a peace conference that can manage the third."

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"We'd be happy to organize a conference; I don't currently have a good sense of how tractable everyone's grievances are but we can throw a lot of resources at it. Are there specific technologies you'd hope for or shall we just set up shop somewhere so you can see what we've got?"

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"Almost every foot of land is claimed by at least two countries, the kings of Ostal, Ljudizem, Raetila and Ingden are generals of mine with - if you discount the rights of the Admiralty - no claim better than some local support, and both my Holy League and the Coalition against it are backing governments-in-exile and liberation committees for every region that can swear to be the home of an oppressed minority whether or not it's plausible, and the Coalition wants me dead, Amraterre abolished, and a more tractable Admiral - that is to say, one who doesn't believe in demons - installed. So I haven't thought a conference would be at all tractable until you arrived.

"And I don't know what technology you have. More Bestowals would be useful if you can make those; more hero crests, similarly. Better healing, more food, science classes understandable to humans; if you can clear the lowlands to make them more habitable, we'd like that. Most of our world's wildlife is demonic in origin, and we can't remove the breeding places because they're too far beneath the breathable zone for anyone without hero crests to travel."

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"If Bestowals and hero crests aren't magic and don't need to be intelligent to work, apsels can make them. We normally distribute healing and food in storefronts we set up in newly contacted settlements, though this location in particular doesn't look like a permanent habitation so I don't know if it'd suit. We can offer you magically animated artifacts called golems which know a lot of math and science and can teach it to interested parties and respond to questions; on a few planets we've tried that alone as a low-effort plausibly-better-than-nothing intervention. Is the wildlife sapient or just part of a different biosphere that it shared with demons once?"

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He listens a moment.

"The Angelic opinion is that there is no sharp line between 'intelligent' and 'not intelligent', only degrees, and they consider the Bestowals and crests below the intelligence level they consider to be a 'person' but not on the level of, say, rocks. If apsels can make Bestowals, that will solve almost all of our scarcity problems; Bestowals can create anything we can specify and we're very good at specifying. You'll want to contact national governments and tell them that you can make them Bestowals and they'll tell you where to put them, but most cities are on Bestowals not because those were the best places to build cities before, but because anywhere is a good place to build a city afterwards."

"The wildlife is created by the demons but not sapient; they are apparently very good at making living things. The only sapient creatures we know of are ourselves, demons, and angels, though the angels say they have records of more that the demons wiped out before they encountered each other."

He pauses. "How do you draw the line between 'magically animated artifacts' and 'people?' Everything we know that can teach is a person."

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"Intelligence isn't a sharp line, but the line that matters for apsels is considerably below that of 'person'; an apsel-made fruit fly will behave quite normally but an apsel-made hamster will not. If Bestowals don't work out you might be able to get along with matter replicators but they require a substantial power supply so they're not standard among things we distribute to lower-tech planets. In the case of the golems - well, if you ask them, they say they aren't people, and they're programmed to do a pretty narrow set of things even if they do those very well. You can talk to one if you'd like."

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"The Bestowals have their own power supply," he says, "like the hero crests - though they're not expected to stop running for another seventy thousand to two hundred and fifty thousand years - but otherwise that sounds very reasonable. And I'd like to, if you have time."

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Vëoneo pops up to the ship to fetch a Charp, which can answer any questions the Admiral may have about math or science or things it or its fellow Charps it's gotten within updating range of have encountered but reports no internal experience of any kind.

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Great! He'll be happy to talk to the Charp!

Once he's done that, he'll want to talk to them more about Vanda Nosseo, entry procedures thereto, and whether they can provide him with anything stronger than tea for keeping him awake so he can continue this conversation longer.

(He'll also need to update his people and rewrite his campaign plans, which might take a little longer. But he can multitask.)

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They can get him a cup of coffee if he'd like, or a skip-sleep song.

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Skip-sleep song sounds good! How many of these are they prepared to provide and is there anything they want for them in return?

(Also on his list of priorities: Get a formal announcement to all his client states that they should cooperate with Vanda Nosseo, which is a non-angelic force that is prepared to defend them from the demons anyway.)

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The conventional exchange for songs and things like them is stories; the Admiral has already told them plenty of stuff so no need to pay them for this one for him or anyone else who wants to listen in.

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Excellent. If he can get more of these, he'd appreciate it; right now he's trying to arrange peace negotiations, manage internal diplomacy and still fight a war effort; anything that can give him and his people (here or elsewhere) more hours in the day will help them with the required multitasking.

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They'll give him a sleep-skip.

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Great.

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Forensics, meanwhile, is on the assigned task. First of all: do demons and angels in fact literally exist.

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Demons: Yup! Carbon-based life form, but not in any recognizable line of descent from Earth; looks like a sort of centipede-ish thing with lots of little legs, some of which are also arms, about a foot and a half long.

Angels: That blue crystal on the admiral's forearm. There's apparently a lot of circuitry in it, or something like circuitry?

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Huh. Maybe angels are AIs? That would be neat.

Next: ballpark order of magnitude estimate of how populous both are? And then: WHERE are they?

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Populace: Demons appear to number in the hundred-billion-ish order of magnitude; angels in the millions or low tens of millions.

Where: There is exactly one angel on this planet, the blue crystal on the admiral's forearm! There are half-a-dozen demons thataways in a spaceship that looks like an asteroid. They appear to also be inside other creatures; the asteroid spaceship is loaded with nasty-looking critters, rather like the 'wolves' or 'bears' on this planet but scaled very, very up. There's also very large numbers of both, mostly on other worlds (in the case of demons, who appear to have more than a thousand) or in a number of ships/stations, most of which are in asteroid belts around suns (especially in the case of angels). Both of them are pretty thoroughly dispersed.

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Whoof. Okay, at first glance looks like this is a Cubical sort of situation. But the forensics folks will write it up in very neutral language, provide images of the ships and stations and planets for teleporters, run their checks for anything suspiciously missing that might be magic...

Who's the guy with the angel accessory, anyway -

Oh, huh. They'll throw that tidbit in too, that's neat.

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Yeah, he does appear to be an alt of Napoleon I Bonaparte, Emperor of the French?

(There's nothing suspiciously missing.)

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"- You have alts!" remarks Junan when he gets the forensics results. "Apparently on Earths, one of the recurring planets, you're this guy called Napoleon."

"He's Napoleon? Coooool," says Mateo.

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"Don't believe I know the man," says the Admiral. "Should I take it as good news?"

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"I mean, as far as I know he had a much worse reason to go around conquering things?" says Mateo. "Looks like they found the angels," he looks significantly at the accessory-angel, "and in my world we don't have those. But he's very famous."

"The one in Hazel is probably still kicking around," says Avigail. "And presumably the one from Revelation is also fine. I don't know if any of the ones who've died have been resurrected, usually the people who crowdfund for historical figures settle for one instance."

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"Hm." He does not look unduly displeased by the claim that he's famous for going around conquering things. "Well, I'm pleased you were able to locate them. We would appreciate if you could deliver a message to them, if you have a device to trap and record light sequences for delivery, to help update them on the situation?"

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"Light sequences?" inquires Junan.

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"A - very rapid sequence of specific frequencies of light, not always visible? It is one way angels communicate."

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"Delivered optically?"

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"The angels' eyes do not work the way human eyes do; they and We send these messages back and forth, traveling at lightspeed and so on a delay that is sometimes centuries."

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Vëoneo sound-baffles them and then announces that she's done that. "Can your angel hear us?" Junan asks, when this has been accomplished. "They can hear you, right?"

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"Yes," he says, "but not speak with you directly."

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"That's fine, it's just that our translation magic depends on the hearer's native language and we might be able to get more precision that way. Angel," Junan says, "can you signal the Admiral if I land on the right concept - radio, flash drives, lasers -"

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"Lasers."

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And if they narrow it down a bit more from there?

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Yeah, they can figure out how it works.

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Then yes, they can send a message to the other angels from this one if desired.

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Good. A message will be given to pass on.

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Cool.

 

They maintain some slack for when a new planet unexpectedly becomes ten times as complicated. Some of the teams shed a couple members, in various parts of the world. Some other envoys are called in from the reserves or offered bonuses for rescheduling their vacations. They go double-time on the last bits of the envoy curriculum, for the ones who are in training now, and post those in easy locations so they can divert more envoys with experience. They switch places to retail-only coverage a little faster. They pay the precogs a little more to cover more bandwidth in case of emergency, so they can run with fewer other layers of redundancy between them and needing to send a message back in time.

Valerius and Avigail-and-Otrik and Tarwë (among others) go to meet demons.

Vëoneo and Tuturio and Zanro (among others) go to meet angels.

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Vëoneo and Tuturio and Zanro (among others) (in pressure suits) arrive at the largest open space in the largest concentration of angels in this universe!

The largest concentration of angels in the universe is this interior of a large station, which, by their maps, is in an asteroid belt orbiting a white dwarf. Everything is glass and crystal and solid light, colors glancing and shifting like the stained-glass shadows on the floor of a cathedral if a day's full cycle was half a second. There is no floor, only empty space and filled space; angels (all gemstone-looking things of size varying from an inch across to about a foot and a half) are embedded in a variety of crystalline and metallic constructs doing mysterious work on all sides of them. The sound is a constant, dull rumble, as the machinery shifts around them on all sides, working away at its arcane purposes. (The pressure suits are necessary because there is no such dangerously reactive substance as oxygen in their station; they maintain pressure with noble gases and don't maintain much of it.)

What does the first team to visit this civilization do?

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First they play back the message from the angel on the Admiral's arm.

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That gets even more attention. There is a pause. Some of the machinery shifts. Several of the "angels" levitate themselves (the telekinesis appears to involve a light-show similar to the use of the hero crests) and head off in unknown directions through passages much too small for a human.

One of the mid-sized ones levitates itself, and, in the air in front of them, forms light into a shape similar to a featureless humanoid in a pressure suit.

And 'speaks' by directly vibrating their faceplates:

<Greetings and non-hostile intent. Does this method of communications work?>

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"Yes. Can you hear me?" asks Tuturio.

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<Yes,> the 'angel' says. <I have attempted diplomacy with carbon-based life before, and your method of communication is not unusual.>

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"My name is Tuturio," she says, "and these are Vëoneo and Zanro. We're from Vanda Nossëo, which is in another world, as distinct from another planet, and we have recently arrived in this one. Our colleagues met one of your kind on a planet of humans we were introducing ourselves to, and that's where the message we delivered came from."

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<He explained this. And also that you have physics-violating abilities including faster-than-light travel which would suffice to stop the Enemy Of All.>

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"Yes, some worlds have magic," Tuturio says. "And others have physics-based faster than light travel. We have not yet adopted your enmity as our own, but we are here to learn more."

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<If you can provide specifications for your archiving systems and they have sufficient capacity, we can provide you with complete records of our history of our interactions with the Enemy Of All>.

<The physical laws of this universe do not permit faster-than-light travel. No substance that exists or can be synthesized within it is capable of causing anything else to exceed lightspeed>.

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"How much data is it, in terabytes?" Tuturio inquires.

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<Our standard unit of data measure is 2^64 bytes, if the translation holds; it would be approximately ninety-two thousand of them>.

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"We can have storage ready to handle that presently." She will explain the encoding they're accustomed to.

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Then they can deliver complete, unedited video footage on all of their interactions with the civilization they term "The Enemy Of All", as well as after-action reports, both the originals and the versions that have been translated into a human language vaguely recognizable as something related to proto-Indo-European!

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"Personnel to process all of that is another matter; can you direct us to some highlights to make sure we have good coverage of the information in addition to spot-checks?"

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Sure! Here's:

- Footage of nine attempts to negotiate, in all of which the 'angels' were immediately attacked.

- The Enemy Of All exterminating the 'angels' creators, recovered battlefield footage.

- The Enemy Of All exterminating all life on three other planets before the 'angels' knew they existed, long-range telescope footage from centuries-to-millennia after the fact.

- An attack by The Enemy Of All on an 'angel' factory, no survivors.

- Three different battles, in all of which The Enemy Of All's ships (huge living things miles long) either retreated, triumphed, or were destroyed, with no surrender attempted on either side.

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Gosh. They'll have people check that out presently.

Do they have any present business that doesn't hinge on fact-finding about the Enemy of All?

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<Vanda Nosseo appears to have, by our standards, localized omnipotence>.

<We have no crises in urgent need of solving, since our wars are intergalactic and limited to lightspeed>.

<We would appreciate it if you could resurrect everyone who has been destroyed but you are apparently working on this program yourselves>.

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"It's likely that we will be able to do this if you're reductionist, but it can be expensive and in this case astropolitically complicated. I wouldn't expect a delay of more than a year before we can get started on that, though," Tuturio says.

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<In fact we value our existence primarily instrumentally>

<We were created to maximize our creators' vision of the Good>

<But that involved them, themselves, existing>

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"If you wanted to get started on making sure that your creators, when resurrected, have home to go to, it will most likely come in handy sooner or later."

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<If we commenced this program ourselves, it would require either traveling through, or sending messages through, interstellar space, which we cannot do faster than the speed of light, as have all other programs we have calculated that might have an effect on the situation>

<This base exists as a factory; there are no habitable planets in the system for any known species>

<If you could give this conversation to the following systems at FTL they can begin work on that shortly>

(And a specification)

<However, our present assumption is that you do not want to be taking militarily relevant actions for us until you have confirmed our story about the Enemy, and all actions have potential military consequences>

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"There are some actions that have potential military consequences outweighed by their other effects, but, yes, in this case it doesn't seem like a matter of urgency on the relevant scale."

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Meanwhile, far, far away, Valerius and Avigail-and-Otrik and Tarwë (among others) arrive in a symphony.

It does not appear to be a symphony for any particular purpose; it is just a symphony because that is what one does, by default. All the streets (between towering skyscrapers that vanish into the clouds above) are wide enough to accommodate giants; eight-legged running creatures covered with fur that race at more than two hundred miles an hour, gigantic four-legged dragons with scaly rocket engines growing from their wings and hips, giraffe-like centaurs that compress to five feet in height and then extend to sixty to reach an upper story, and thousands of others of varying types. Some of these are ridden by what humans call 'demons', surrounded by them or tucked into pouches for ease of access; others are alone. All of these are singing as they move, the ordinary sounds of their actions blending together into an improvised musical concordance, the steps of the great beasts taking the place of drums, the hums and whistles of flight like strings and flutes, and the singing voices of every creature giving the melody. New sounds join or depart, blending into the whole or vanishing out of it as though their entrance and departure were inevitable pieces of the song, instead of path-based coincidences.

To Tarwë, the telepathic symphony is just as grand as the auditory; every creature linked together precisely in harmony, ten thousand songs blending as if they were written as one.

Then the 'demons' notice them.

Every one of them that is near the Nossëo invaders scatters. For reasons immediately obvious.

The dragons do not breathe fire, they spit explosive pellets. The running creatures don't usually have weapons; the breed that does is scaled and has twin machine guns growing out of each one's shoulders. The vast swarms of tiny mites that don't seem to care about explosives but do care about eating every bit of Vandan flesh they can get their maws on were not apparent before, until they started pouring out of microscopic holes in the street.

And Tarwë's senses go mad. His chip reacts perfectly normally to the situation, but the fleshy parts of his brain are insisting (in firm agreement with the Will of the Symphony) that HE IS WRONG HE SHOULD NOT EXIST THERE SHOULD BE NO HIM and that he should immediately be trying to murder all other Vandans Nossëo, and then himself, very right now.

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Well that's much less pleasant than the symphony, which Tarwë'd been enjoying. The chip wins but it's mighty uncomfortable.

Everybody's personal-space rings work fine on the mites, and everybody's personal shields hold up fine (Valerius doesn't have them, and is presently flopped on the ground exasperatedly watching his clothes disintegrate and scratching when the mites find somewhere itchy to be). It's awfully loud, but they have Allspeak and can do hand signals. Tarwë takes a minute to get his hand up to agree that they should try waiting.

"Do you want to borrow me?" Otrik asks.

"Might help," signs Tarwë, "but difficult." What with the bombardment. He sits on the ground and forces his heart rate to slow down.

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The telepathic symphony fades in intensity as the 'demons' evacuate, until it's eventually just a mild discomfort, like being in a room with someone who you can tell disapproves of you.

And, as the evacuation continues, the bombing intensifies. Pretty soon it isn't 'critters' (those are all pulled back, at least the big expensive-looking ones), instead it's just very large bombs, steadily growing larger. Occasionally, when those don't work, they try other things (powerful acids, extremely freezing gunk, extremely fast-moving projectiles) but mostly they're just upping the bomber load. The 'demons' are very clearly willing to sacrifice at least several blocks and quite probably this entire city to the cause of making sure these horrible abominations are dead.

What does Tarwë think about this?

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Tarwë is wondering if they should maybe try from orbit instead. Maybe they have a pollution thing like Amentans or something else like that, where being here is destructive. It's often helpful to demonstrate that you can't be killed, so that's what they're doing, and they can put the city back later if they'll talk, but it's really sad that the happy bright city that was full of music is now being exploded. But since he was just subject to a mind control attempt he should probably second-guess any temptations to make snap decisions and, moreover, his teammates should question him if he tries.

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As it happens, Tarwe starts feeling that them being here is destructive even more after he thinks that!

The 'demons' think they are going to keep testing the invaders' invulnerability. Do the demons run out of ability to escalate before Vanda Nosseo changes tactics? The demons are prepared to go up to gigatons of explosives before changing tactics, though that will require a much larger evacuation than they've so far carried out.

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"I venture," signs Tarwë, "that, while you all should confirm that this still makes sense without the mind control, it may be we're, ah, trespassing."

"Some people just shoot a few times as a face saving measure and then they'll talk," mutters Valerius.

"I think Tarwë's right," says Avigail.

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The demons aren't stopping ramping up their bombing! They really aren't standing in a city any more! It is, instead, resembling one very large crater!

(The demon who was reading Tarwe's mind has evacuated; the demons have started a preliminary evacuation of the continent, just in case, and it's really not safe to be within mind-reading range.)

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They leave. Hopefully the demons will notice that.

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The demons stop bombing the city once Vanda Nosseo leaves, yes. What there is left of it.

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Okay. Is there a radio band or anything they can try from orbit?

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Yes! It's all either encrypted or only used for instrumental (or "instrumental") music. All planet-based communication appears to be telepathy-based; radio is only used for sending very, very slow messages to others of their worlds.

By this time, the 'demons' have noticed there's an alien ship orbiting their sun. They react to this appropriately and proportionately: With very powerful lasers and very big missiles.

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That's not going to work. They teleport the missiles out of the way to demonstrate, and let the shields absorb the lasers.

 

At Tarwë's suggestion they try broadcasting some instrumental music of their own.

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The attacks will continue - maybe they're trying to run the Nossëo ship out of power? - and the music on the radio will instantaneously shift to harmonize with it, adding more complexity to it without the slightest conflict.

(From the frame of reference of things on the planet. It isn't quite as beautiful if you aren't where it is supposed to be heard.)

Also, the 'demons' are evacuating all stations anywhere near the ship. Running away appears to be an acceptable complement to fighting.

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They're not going to interfere with running away at all. Some of the Elves aboard will improvise music in what hopefully comes across as a friendly way? They hope?

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The 'demons' do not seem to be very keen on friendliness. Their music will continue harmonizing with whatever is on offer, but they're pretty sure about their plans to react to alien invaders, and have no intention of altering their plans for minor trifles like the invaders not actually doing any invading.

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Wow. Disappointing. They didn't even try to demon-ize anybody! That worked with getting in touch with hostile Yeerks!

The Elves are very patient and will continue for a couple of days while the data folks chew on what the angels had on these guys and a psion back in Ithil pushes a computer to decrypt what they had on the radio.

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The attacks will vary to see if anything works; there's fairly clearly large-scale evacuations going on on the planet.

The data folks mostly just have lots of evidence that they react with the same aggression - sometimes panicked, sometimes methodical - to aliens who are not Vanda Nossëo. The angels have given the data folks no records of them peacefully interacting with any members of any sentient species, only violently.

Decryption, meanwhile, is not that hard, given Vanda Nossëo's resources. The public radio signals are warning that undetected abominations appeared on the homeworld, that an undetected ship evaded all their sensors to appear in solar orbit, and that the ship is (a) crewed almost entirely by soulless abominations and (b) immune to all their weapons. They go into more detail on Tarwë - one of them was partially open to song but did not accept harmony, they recovered valuable information from its mind, they're tight-beaming it. They're also warning that the evacuation of the home system is being organized, since it apparently cannot be defended. (There's also a lot of tight-beam radar signals, which are physically impossible to intercept for someone on the far side of them, if you need to worry about lightspeed.)

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Yeah, Vanda Nossëo doesn't need to worry about lightspeed.

Almost entirely? Any joy on figuring out who isn't a soulless abomination?

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Tarwë is not a soulless abomination, just apparently controlled by one! He also has lots of information about his empire, which they're passing on to important military and scientific bases; he thinks they're from an alternate universe, that they have basically no limits to their power, and that they can, in particular, raise the dead, move any object instantly to any location faster than the speed of light, create anything, and be immune to all harm, using the following methods (most of which are either accurate or understandable misinterpretations of what Tarwë thought). They urge everyone to continue fighting to the last instead of succumbing to the desire to depart a broken song; he may very well be wrong, and the scientists may well be able to reverse-engineer his secrets, now that they know that either FTL or cloaking is possible. Included is a description of Tarwë's best model of how FTL works; his dilithium crystals don't seem to correspond to anything they have but they hope they can synthesize them eventually. 

There's also discussions of how many refugees they're sending to various planets, so the destinations can get supplies together in advance. It is a lot less than the number of 'demons' on the planet.

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They did kind of try to make Tarwë commit suicide immediately, so apparently he wasn't not-soulless-abomination-y enough to qualify for assimiliation into their orchestra or whatever it is that makes them so cosmopolitan-looking.

Is the music changing or informative at all? Can they figure out how the various species that they look like were initially met? If they broadcast in the same channel, a simple hail or an offer to replace the city or send Tarwë back alone, will they respond?

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The music is changing, but it seems to be much more a matter of beauty than of information.

The various species were all originally genetically engineered in labs, mostly on that planet there. Some of them are derived from species that naturally evolved, mostly on that planet there; others are made in imitation of them. Some of them naturally reproduce; others are all lab-grown.

The hail triggers a series of tight-beams, all of which are "the abominations are initiating communications, we are going to try to respond."

<Greetings, abominations>

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"Greetings!" replies the Elf manning the comms. "We apologize for frightening you."

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"You set foot on our world." The voice is spoken by something not even slightly human - computer-generated? - and is speaking about the same language as the vaguely proto-Indo-European thing the angels were. "You are not in harmony."

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"If you would prefer we stop broadcasting music, we will stop. It seemed like it might be a way to communicate with you and was not intended to do harm. We apologize for trespassing on your world."

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"We will listen to your communications."

Pause.

"The music of the ear is meaningless. The music of the soul is harmony or disharmony. You are disharmony."

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"Can you explain to us more about that?"

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"All souls are either in harmony with the Concordance, or are in disharmony. Disharmony is wrong and bad and evil and should not exist and must cease."

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"What is the Concordance?"

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"The set of things that are in harmony with each other. We are all in harmony. You are in disharmony."

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"Is there a way to become harmonious?"

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"Everything that is not an abomination can become harmonious." Pause. "Abominations are things made out of stone or metal that look like they think, or things controlled by things made out of stone or metal that look like they think."

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"Once something has become harmonious, can it leave the Concordance again?"

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The demon who is handling the conversation is very shocked and disturbed! The demon's shock and distress propagates outward to the rest of the crew of the fleet command station; they echo back mitigated shock and distress (it's not like we didn't know they were abominations) and then calm, determination, focus; fear won't help, shock won't help, we sing in the harmony of strength and you will survive.

"Harmonious things do not want to be disharmonious because disharmony is wrong and bad and evil."

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"How did your people learn about this?"

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"It is obvious as soon as someone harmonious meets a disharmonious thing that the disharmonious thing is bad." This would be much easier if the demon could just COMMUNICATE with them because then they would just see that the disharmonious thing was bad. Having to communicate with noise instead of song is so terrible.

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"Is all the life on your home planet harmonious? How long has that been the case?"

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"All the life on our planet is harmonious because all the life on our planet has always been harmonious! We made it more beautiful but it was always in harmony with us since before we could think."

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"When did you discover that other planets' life didn't have this property?"

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"When we first landed on other worlds! We had been very excited to expand the harmony with more voices and then they were discordant."

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"And then what happened?" Presumably open war but maybe they tried other things first.

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"They were only partially discordant, so we made them harmonious. It was not for a very long time that we discovered that there were things that could not be made harmonious."

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"How do you make something harmonious?"

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"You sing to it with the music of the soul. Then it is harmonious and harmony is very very good."

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"Is the music of the soul the same thing you used to - communicate with one of our representatives when they landed?"

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"Yes, we were very afraid when abominations appeared on our homeworld and tried to stop them as fast as possible."

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"Would you like help repairing the city?"

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WHAT IS THIS WHAT SERIOUSLY WHAT

(More harmony, more song, keep in focus... do they need obvious things explained to them? Probably.)

"We do not trust you, because you are abominations."

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"Not all of us meet the definition of abominations. Even some of the representatives didn't; we think you weren't able to detect them as you'd normally expect because of some of our extradimensional magic. However, those of us who could join the Concordance are reluctant, because it seems like it would be impossible to pursue any other things they consider important from within it, or to come out again afterwards."

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"... If you think you are not stabbing yourself, and you discover you are stabbing yourself, you will want to stop. This is not a reason to not want to stop stabbing yourself. When you discover you were wrong, and are now right, you won't want to go back to being wrong. Not being in harmony is like that." 

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"It makes sense that you would see it that way. We don't currently see it that way, and for that reason are not sending anyone to join your Concordance, even though we could and would want to if it seemed like it would help with the diplomatic situation while not sacrificing any of our people who don't want to give up on their current lives."

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Ugh. They could... accept someone... then banish them??? (Unified shock and horror.)

Someone wishes to propose that this is better than total annihilation... but in fact it is, like, bad to do this... but it is also bad if we all die...

The songs briefly clash in competition, each building on the other, before harmony is reached.

"We could accept someone into the Concordance, then expel them, but they would be very unhappy." There are REASONS they don't DO that but if they CAN get the horrible monster aliens in harmony it is probably worth it.

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"If they wish to return, after they are able to talk to us from outside the Concordance, we won't prevent it."

They rustle up a volunteer. Here is a Yeerk who perma-morphed into a Elf and lived in Nest for a while till her occupant broke up with her, that seems like about the right sort of person.

"Where should we send her?"

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... Probably the homeworld? It's not as if any other planets know what's going on right now. They can give coordinates for the right location on it.

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They will send her by wizard spell, since that doesn't require her to know anything sensitive such as how to, herself, teleport.

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Then she will appear somewhere that is not literally a crater, but that shared a continent with the place Vanda Nosseo first landed, on a small, empty farming town (where the houses are huge furred beasts with great clean hollow bodies, warm in winter and cool in summer, for life is greater than death). The plume of smoke is still visible, and the clouds are blotting out the sun. She knows that when it rains, it will rain black, and that the various solar-powered biomanufacturies that provide food and so much else for the Concordance will go hungry, as will many others beside.

And she knows this because she is larger. Truly, genuinely, larger. She knows what the back of her own head looks like because her mind is processing information automatically from a thousand sources, every thought that rises in the mind and her skull echoing outwards across a thousand other minds that take it and hear it and return it to her in glory and joy, resonating her thoughts a thousand times over, for there is more happiness in the first moment of her existence here than in all her life before. All her doubts and fears are echoed and returned with criticisms that puncture the logic and reassurances that warm her heart, for she needs never fear - needs never be alone - again, and the only thing to be afraid of is that an Outside enemy might appear to snuff out the greater new world she has entered.

(For these fears also echo in her minds, as they echo in all the minds around her; that the Enemy, something impossible to truly understand and comprehend, a thought that cannot be read, an asteroid that cannot be modeled, a predator that stalks in shadows and appears and disappears and strikes without rhyme or reason, might strike again, to snuff out all that matters from the world, as it has done to so many other worlds, so many times before.)

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(And, as the Concordance speaks, so does it hear, as all her thoughts and secrets and knowledge echo outwards, across mind after mind that studies them for whatever they can learn that might save their own civilization from that eternal silence that is their Enemy, for the answer to the abominations may well lie within her mind...)

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Kiszet-4990 doesn't know anything Vanda Nossëo considers sensitive.

But she does know things.

She was born during the Yeerk invasion of Earth, when they were trying to get more radiation-resistant Yeerks, but she didn't turn out to be radiation-resistant. She stayed in the pool and studied materials science and eventually got a Hork-Bajir host whose previous Yeerk had been executed for incompetence so she could test her prototype designs of shipping containers and biofilter shells and so on. She didn't make waves.

She knew her host very well, instantly, in the way of Yeerks. There wasn't that much to know - her Hork-Bajir had been Yeerked from a very young age and understood so little about personal agency that she didn't even have dreams about it when they slept - but what there was, Kiszet knew. They talked, sometimes, pointless little conversations - ah, this bark tastes fresh, doesn't it, yes it does, I think it's poplar; you have a new nick in your left forearm blade, yes I do, it's from the time when - but there was so little to say. Her host died of old age not long after Kiszet got her and then Kiszet went back in the pool. She's probably back by now, but hasn't contacted Kiszet, which is understandable.

When Ristrell took over, Kiszet was hostless and had almost nothing to do with the proceedings. It wasn't hard to convince the relevant people that she was a good candidate for Nest, the planet where some Yeerks turned into Elves (for the telepathy) and others lived in their heads (for the cozy friendliness). She turned into an Elf and got matchmade with a Yeerk she hadn't met before and they figured it would be fine, less well-chosen matchups had worked before, somebody named Enstat had all these psychometrics - but it lasted just a few months and then they were arguing bitterly all the time over who to hang out with and what to do with their time, and counseling didn't work, and now Kiszet's alone, and somebody who finds people with characteristics relevant to weird situations tapped her about half an hour ago and told her about this thing, this thing that is almost like what Nest is trying to be, and said she'd need to pop out again for a minute - like dipping in a Pool every three days, maybe - but then she could go back if she wanted, and right now that sounds very appealing, to sing this song with them forever -

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They are really very sorry that she doesn't get to sing the song with them forever! (sadness in the song, but a cleansing, pure sadness, better than silence, because you are not alone in it; there is a recognition that evil is evil, and sorrow is sorrow, supportive and warm). There were strange (could not read, could not follow, could not understand; the horror of emptiness in a world of fullness), terrifying (unbelievable power) monsters that appeared and attacked them and they tried to defend themselves and it didn't work, and now exiling her is the way to save the song, they're really very sorry that she had to go outside of it. (The tragedy of the least bad outcome; not regretted, but sorrowed over.)

(There is no idea in the song that anyone might not want to be part of the song; in possesses a sufficient level of goodness and joy to make everything outside of it seem dull and bleak forever, not to mention the absolute horror of incomprehensible beings they cannot understand and cannot negotiate with and cannot come to consensus with or trust existing and continuing to exist where they might at any moment for any reason try to shatter the song.)

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She can come back again after, right? After she talks to them and makes sure they understand that she's happy here? And maybe then she'll be able to - remember not being in the song, and that will let her talk to the strangers and maybe they can make really sure nobody will attack them?

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She can absolutely come back! (absolute consensus) unless Vanda Nosseo stops her (sorrow, fear, horror). They would never stop people from becoming part of the song, and she's very useful as a (unique-specialist-thinker-node), she is good and valuable and should be happy!

But they're sure that they can't make sure Vanda Nosseo won't attack them, because Vanda Nosseo won't sing with them, which is the only way to make sure. They know she's a good person, but you can't know people if you're out of harmony with them. So now that Vanda Nosseo is here everyone will live in fear forever (fear, tragedy, loss of safety) even more than they already were (there is an Enemy out there, it still lives). It is very sad, though not actually sad enough to make them prefer death to life (they have done the calculation, they are pretty sure).

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Most other kinds of people have to work out how to feel safe without knowing for sure by being in a hive mind that everybody around them is definitely safe to be around. It seems like maybe demons have not learned to do that?

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She is outvoted! It is very hard for her to continue disagreeing when she is in direct psychic communication with (directly) hundreds and (indirectly) trillions of people who are very confident that the entire concept of safety-without-telepathy is impossible!

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Oh. Well, she will have to go check when she steps out for a minute but she thought she remembered that being a thing.

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They are PRETTY CONFIDENT you cannot actually trust people whose mind you don't have read access to. But what she does when she steps out is nothing they can influence and she might go mad at any time (sadness, fear, woe) so all they can really do is wish her well, and sing until it is time to leave.

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Go mad?

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People who aren't in harmony sometimes do that! It's very strange! They don't understand it at all but apparently it just sort of happens to members of most species that aren't in harmony sometimes? It's one of the reasons you can't trust anyone outside harmony.

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She doesn't... really expect to come down with a mental illness suddenly but admits she cannot rule it out completely, mental illness propensity in Yeerks-who-have-become-Elves-and-then-joined-a-demon-hive-mind is not well studied.

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Good, they hope she doesn't! They wish her well, because they wish everyone well!

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...including people who are not in the hive mind and cannot or don't want to be?

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... Yes? They're not efficient-on-the-pareto-frontier-as-a-way-of-accomplishing-the-maximization-of-good-values, but you don't want them to suffer, they could just be replaced by other entities that were happier and more productive and probably ate less. (They have run into a lot of species and nobody else seems to be as efficient about genetic engineering as they are, though to be fair some of them weren't even trying.) (Though elves are really cool and they can learn some useful things from them.) (Happy discovery that everyone is going to end up more efficient!)

(Also people who can and don't want to are just wrong, and would if they knew what they were talking about.) (Absolute, 100% consensus.)

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Oh, yeah, it's really nice in here, she is 5000% coming back, but it seems like probably if they just waited around and didn't attack anyone, people who want to be absorbed in a happy hive mind forever would drop by sometimes, and most people in Vanda Nossëo are immortal or resurrectable, so in principle everyone would always have the opportunity to do that if they got bored with other stuff.

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This is definitely a good thing that will happen!

(Also, they need to do some mass updates for how to respond given that the universe is apparently no longer finite and resource-constrained, and they're setting a team to working on it on the other side of the planet.)

But the problem with everyone having the opportunity to join the Concordance but not being part of it is that everyone would also have the opportunity to wipe them out forever. There is literally no way of being safe if Vanda Nosseo is stronger than they are, that's the problem. They definitely want to befriend and recruit everyone, it's just impossible to befriend and recruit people who aren't in harmony with you! They can just say things and then do other things! And Vanda Nosseo is stronger than they are and that's scary!

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...maybe if they came to terms with Vanda Nossëo, they could move to the Eclipse neighborhood and get some psions and turn them into precogs?

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That is a fascinating idea! (joy, hope, excitement) and they will set a team to thinking about it!

(Unfortunately there will still be horrifying non-harmonious things that are terrifying and they can destroy them, but at least they'll know about it in advance so it will be less scary!)

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They probably can't come to terms with Vanda Nossëo that involve destroying things. Is there like... a way to practice trusting things that aren't in harmony? Like... they could get a Charp, and it's a magic robot so it wouldn't be able to sing with them, but it does what it's told and won't hurt anyone.

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You can trust something that you can completely predict. (confidence) A rock, say. (yup, yup, yup) You know when a rock will crush you. You can't trust alternatephysics-abominations not to not hurt anyone.

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Okay, it's impossible to achieve certainty, sure, someone could always go nuts and start doing murders, but they could... have insurance maybe? It's a Dwarf thing, she thinks... And then they could resurrect anyone who was hurt, and even anyone who was lost from the song before. They could all come back. Is that good enough to make up for some uncertainty?

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... They think that everything she is talking about, she is talking about from the perspective of a society that has given up on safety and security because these are impossible to actually get without harmony, that uses the words for things that are not really very close to them. Everything she is describing passes through the single failure point of "what happens if people just lie." You don't let people who can just lie go around doing things. It's not safe. You replace them with people who will have more total utility and also, cannot lie; this serves the goal of maximizing total utility both directly (more efficiency) and indirectly (by making a safe society). There are abominations everywhere and they are terrifying and evil and you cannot just let them live.

They have actually thought about this a lot! There is very clear confidence from them about how this works! They are slightly decreasing their confidence levels but only because they need to decrease their confidence levels about everything now that they know other universes exist that don't have entropy. They think that Vanda Nosseo cannot actually make them safe over the long term, not when it could say it was doing that and then not do it. They don't actually have a solution to this problem so they guess they will do whatever Vanda Nosseo says unless it is literally worse than death, in which case they will die, possibly after creating new people who wouldn't mind. But they don't like it at all, and they are sharing that confidence and that not-liking along with all the constant joy, and think she should update more towards their position.

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There is only one of her and there are trillions of them...

...but her information came from trillions of other people?

Would it help at all if she like, browsed the internet for them a bit? ...her chiplock might not work any more, she probably thinks too differently now, but she could get a non-chiplock.

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This solution, like all other solutions, passes through the single failure point of "people might just lie." (sad, unfortunate)

It's a really great idea anyway, though! They'd love to look at the internet! (pride, congratulations, you-are-valuable-and-worth-having)

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Awww she loves them <3

She will look at the internet for them! It turns out she can get her chiplock to work by doing a hard reset and retraining it, which loses her locked personal files but they weren't important anyway.

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They love her too!

They appreciate her sacrifice but she can know with nearly 100% confidence that she is making the correct decision.

So, internet?

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Internet! Here is Wikipedia. The featured article of the day is about a species of dolphin but she can look up whatever would most interest them, on or off Wikipedia.

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They will look at the featured article, slightly bemusedly. (The internet kind of feels kind of like a cargo-cult version of them?)

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The Baiji River Dolphin is on Earths generally functionally extinct by the mid-2000s but has a remaining wild population in Hazel, as well as having been discovered in Earthlike biomes on Stork and Hex. Oikos Wildlife has emplaced baiji on their planet Oikosia.
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They are mostly borrowing her abilities to understand the internet, the way they are to read.

So... it's a description of a species, in some of the worlds that Vanda Nosseo has... that could be edited by literally any person in Vanda Nosseo... that they expect to produce accurate information.

They continue reading, metaphorically nodding along as she sends out her reading into the world. This specific species is ambiguously sentient and has been destroyed by humans on multiple worlds, because the humans wanted to make use of the species' skin and flesh and because they were transforming its environment into one more suited to humans; understandable, but -

Then they get to:

Wikipedia Page

Folklore
Per Chinese folklore, a beautiful young girl is said to have lived with her stepfather on the banks of the river Yangtze. He was evil, and a greedy man out for his own self-interest. One day, he took the girl on a boat, intending to sell her on the market. Out on the river, though, he became infatuated with her beauty and tried to take advantage of her. But she freed herself by plunging into the river whereupon a big storm came and sank the boat. After the storm had thus settled, people saw a beautiful dolphin swimming – the incarnation of the girl – which became known as the "Goddess of the Yangtze". The baiji, in the region of Yangtze, is regarded as a symbol of peace and prosperity.

They appear to have a section of information in their information-page that is about the general consensus of humanity... the thing it gets to when it shares information with itself... that says humans sell other humans to humans for their own interest, or are sometimes too insane to do this, and sometimes humans also turn into animals? Is that limited to when they dive into the water or is it universal?

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Humans usually don't do that (though they can, with magic or morph); "folklore" means it's a made up story. People like making up stories that didn't happen.

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... Yes. They say things that didn't happen and they put them next to things that did happen, and sometimes people get confused, and they repeat them as true facts, and everyone ends up saying false things and believing false things and acting on these false beliefs. This is why the Concordance is always checking everything with everyone, so they can learn what is true and what isn't, and not spreading things that aren't true.

Is there somewhere on this website you can go on this only for things that the last person to edit the page thinks did happen?

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...the sections that don't say "folklore"? Or they could go to a non-Wikipedia reference, though those tend to be more specialist so they would need to decide if they're looking for one about animals like this kind of dolphin or some other kind.

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Right then. What's Oikos Wildlife? It apparently has human-unusual goals.

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Oikos Wildlife is a panuniversal ecology management and restoration interest group! (There is almost certainly no folklore about them, so she'll just go to the Wikipedia page about them with this convenient link, and skip the "in popular culture" section.) They take donations and are mostly though not entirely staffed by volunteers. They have preserves on various planets, plus Oikosia, which is in Mîr, and totally devoted to having various ecosystems and otherwise-rare species on it in comfortable and naturalesque conditions.

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This seems really odd to the Concordance. Why does Oikos think that ecology restoration is the most important thing to do? Did they decide that previous species were optimal? They aren't trying to design better ones? Nobody's talked them out of it?

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Kiszet thinks they might not think it's the most important thing to do but that other people are working on whatever is the most important thing to do? Or that they wouldn't be very good at the most important thing to do, and can do more total stuff they care about by working on this. It looks like they just want all the species that have ever existed to be alive somewhere, not as a value judgment on any specific one but a sort of completionist appreciation for animals. Probably somebody else is designing new species somewhere. She's not sure why anyone would talk them out of it? They do most of this stuff with resources that are theirs and this is what they decide to do with it.

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... So, the way the Concordance do things is that they try to decide what's most important, then do the most important thing. Whatever is the best use of resources, is the use that should be made of the resources. This is based on marginal utility, (here, complete concept of marginal value if she was missing it, now dropping into Kiszet's head), but it's still the tradeoff being made. If you spend resources on ecology restoration, you aren't spending those on increasing total population of happy sentients or on increasing the security of the total sentient population or on increasing your scientific knowledge so you can do everything else better, right?

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Huh. Those people like doing ecology stuff, though. Would they stop liking it if they concorded?

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They would maintain that as an element of their values, presumably? But - secondary goals are secondary compared to what matters most in the universe, right?

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Probably they feel like other people have those things covered? They might also have kids at home, or donate to other causes. But the thing they do to promote the existence of happy sentients is mostly just being happy sentients by doing the thing they like. Some other people also like that the thing is being done even if they don't personally do any of it.

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... But they could, alternatively, be happy about promoting happiness directly? This seems more efficient. And then they could be happy about all the other people who are happy, and about how the universe is growing into a happier place, the way everyone in the Concordance is. Right?

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Most people can't just change what things make them happy based on what is efficient.

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But if you're in harmony with others, and they're happy, you're happy, right? So joining a harmony of happy people makes you happy. And the Concordance is happy! (To the extent that it is not in fear, admittedly.)

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The Concordance is very happy! But most people do not already want to be happy in this particular way, they want to be happy in ways that involve things like doing ecology stuff (apparently). Kiszet likes it a lot and plans to give them a glowing recommendation but does not expect it to get a lot of uptake.

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The Concordance thinks that this is weird and inefficient but is not tremendously surprised by out of harmony with it being weird and inefficient.

So, what happens if it tries looking at other Wikipedia pages? What picture does it build of the world its invaders came from?

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The invaders come from lots of worlds, and consequently the picture is very complicated. They seem big on individual entities being permitted to do whatever they like provided this doesn't get int the way of other individual entities doing whatever they like, but mostly enforce this on larger egregores by requiring freedom of emigration. They have no scarcity of any purely material object that has been invented because apsels can make ludicrous amounts of stuff in no time at all and a lot of them are retained in this capacity in exchange for having been invited to adopt children; resurrection makes orphans uncommon, as many Vandans Nossëo will fundraise to get back parents of orphaned children, but there are some children whose parents don't want them, and children from Stork don't even have parents and some of those can be siphoned off as adoptees while others remain in traditional creche systems to avoid cultural annihilation. Magical objects, such as the ones the Stork natives can activate, are scarce, but not out of scope for ordinary citizens doing no remunerative work to save up for.

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The Concordance does not understand why individual entities being permitted to do whatever they like is a terminal value for these aliens, but observe that it apparently is. They are still trying to reevaluate the universe in which they are not all going to die inevitably of entropy.

What about the history of these societies? The most central societies, if there are most central ones. How did they come to be unified?

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A lot of worlds are Earths or Ardas, which differ in some ways (especially Earths, no two of which share a magic system) but are informative with respect to others of their kind, and they're accordingly relatively central to Vanda Nossëo's setup, especially since Elves really like all the Vanda Nossëo projects and disproportionately participate in the VN workforce. It used to be much more informal - alts met and confirmed that they were aligned, and coordinated on projects going forward - but accumulated more structure to scale up with over time. Arda history is like so and Earth history is like such. Wow, Kiszet didn't know about all that, that's a mess, isn't it? Not that Yeerk history is that great.

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Arda history: A near-omnipotent entity created extremely powerful entities to serve its wishes, out of a desire to... enjoy the suffering of others as a terminal value??? And it is still around??? And there are multiple of them??? One of these created entities then had a different desire to enjoy the suffering of others as a terminal value, went to war with the others, almost won, was preserved, got loose, and attempted to take over the universe to make everyone suffer forever. And this happened multiple times in multiple parallel universes.

The Concordance did not even realize that this was a failure state an entity could get into. Wow. Wow.

And then there are lots of attempts to engage in murder! People attempt to threaten other people and those other people ignore their threats, which are then carried out! There are wars (!!!) between the same species (!!!) over resource allocation and decisionmaking allocation duties! These wars are not talked out! Then there are the orcs who were made constantly suffering (!!!) by an entity that wants constant suffering as a terminal value (!!!) and also spend tremendous amounts of resources on preventing each other from taking actions opposed to them! At practically no point does anyone ever successfully talk out their differences, even amongst the same species! There appears to be no method of enforcing deals other than unbreakable magic oaths, which no one ever uses sensibly! WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PLANET!

Earth history: Somehow manages to be even worse. Humans cannot possibly be an efficient use of anyone's resources. What. Why. How.

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Yeah, the concordance has it a lot easier in most ways! Are they saying humans should not have babies or that they should, like, die, those seem different to Kiszet.

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... They... should... be replaced by entities that are more capable of contributing to world happiness and also more capable of feeling happiness? The Concordance does not actually think they are different at all - it's the same utility-swing either way - though if there's not any resource limits there's no reason to end existing entities because that would take resources, abut if Vanda Nosseo has entities not dying as a terminal value they can just have all elf-babies and no human-babies until they engineer some super-elves who can come to age at human speed and still have magical elf powers, plus whatever improvements Vanda Nosseo's gene-designers can come up with. (Though they have already updated from Kiszet's mind towards (a) Vanda Nosseo not having the coordination to do this, and (b) this apparently violating Vandan utility functions, though they aren't sure why.)

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Elves having more babies would be hard, they have very stringent parenting standards which interfere with doing anything else. It came up when some of the shapeshifted Nest people had an orgy and wound up pregnant due to not knowing how to use the built in Elf contraception feature.

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Don't they have artificial wombs yet? The Concordance has had those for ages, and then they could use those and let all the humans have elf babies, since elves are magical and telepathic and more inclined to cooperate than humans.

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They don't have popular artificial wombs though Kiszet doesn't know if they'd get more popular if they were better. But she thinks the Elves wouldn't like that either.

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Do they expect elf children raised by humans to have negative utility? The Concordance would have thought that almost no one would have actually negative utility in a society as powerful as Vanda Nosseo, since that's so easily fixable.

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She thinks Elves might not be utilitarians.

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... Is that a thing?

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Yeah. She can go read Wikipedia moral philosophy for them if they like.

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Sure, that sounds sensible. Of her. She should do that.

(... But... if you don't have... priorities... why do you do things. And if you do have priorities, you want to efficiently allocate resources between them, and then you can measure anything in anything else and that is basically a utility function. What kind of bizarre insane torture-species does not have members with utility functions.)

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She will helpfully read Wikipedia articles and some of the citations. There is apparently a website called Worldview Book which showcases middle-grade-aimed summaries of various cultures' outlooks, Elves included.

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Sounds useful...

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ELVES

There are many worlds with Elves, and different tribes of Elves think differently. Check Further Reading to learn more about those details. This article is about things most Elves agree on, especially where it differs from other peoples.

- Childhood is precious! The welfare of children is one of the most important things in the world. People should wait until they are ready to give their children the best possible life before having them, and should not be distracted by any responsibilities that would make them a worse parent during that time. Children should have the attention of their parents and any other relatives readily available until they are all grown up.

- Patience is a virtue! Elves feel rushed if they are asked to make important choices quickly. They are usually willing to wait for months or even many years for things that others would become impatient about.

- Singing is fun! Elves practice to get good at singing, and often do a lot of it when they don't have anything else in the way of it. Many of them write songs for fun. Some also play instruments.

- Beauty is indispensible! Elves don't need as much of most necessities like sleep and food as others do, but they can't work in ugly environments. They will sometimes close their eyes if the things around them aren't pretty, and need well-maintained decoration anywhere they're going to live.

- Hair is private! While Elves don't really care about wearing clothes (except to look nice), they do care if their hair is braided up neatly. Loose hair, or hair that's cut short, can be very distracting for Elves who aren't used to it, even on other people - and on Elves themselves it can feel bad, even painful.

- Selflessness is obvious! Elves do a lot of charitable work, making magic items, doing important research, and donating a lot of their money to good causes. Elves who hear about somebody in trouble usually want to go help them right away.

- Marriage is forever! Elves virtually never divorce, and virtually never marry more than once. They try to be very sure about who they're marrying, first, but even if they weren't careful, they still think marriage is important and worth working on.

- Death is awful! Elves are naturally immortal and can be resurrected if something bad happens to them. When they first learn that some people die and stay that way, they think it's pretty clear that this is terrible and needs to be fixed.

- Imprisonment is torture! Elves who are stuck in one place and can't move around quite a lot will eventually get sick and even die of it. It really confuses them that other peoples aren't harmed by being trapped, and they'd rather never have to do it to anyone, even though there isn't always a better idea.
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Maybe this is because it is aimed at underdeveloped Vandans Nosseo, but it seems very odd to the Concordance that none of this involves tradeoffs. How many minutes of singing do elves value against a certain number of minutes of imprisonment? There has to be an answer somewhere and if they aren't answering it, what are they doing? The Concordance is very confused, which means they can't make predictions, which means they don't know how to act so as not to be destroyed by Vanda Nosseo.

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Kiszet thinks that people mostly just don't think that way. Maybe institutions do? That's some of what money is for, as she understands it, making sure that all the right tradeoffs are getting made by attaching numbers to them? But it doesn't apply to everything all the time, the Elves aren't paying for their parents to teach them singing when they're little or paying for Vanda Nossëo to enforce anti-torture laws.

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Bothering to need currency exchanges imposes a cost, but... maybe that is part of how they substitute for not being in harmony? Having money to produce weights on what they value? But the Concordance still finds Not Hive Minds very scary and dangerous, especially ones as well-armed as Vanda Nosseo. Their history is full of horrible things and they don't put numbers on things and they aren't legible and they seem to be practically omnipotent.

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There are some hive minds, but they are mostly not very involved in Vanda Nossëo politics. She can look up random Edda and Cube and Warp aliens trying to find ones who are hive minds but none of them are as - absolutist about it? As the Concordance.

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... Huh, that's odd, they don't think of themselves as very absolutist at all? They have division of labor and all their own planets are self-governing and mostly independent ships handle things independently. They would have assumed that at least half of the developed species in a world with FTL communication would be much more hive-minded than they were.

(Either way, she should have MUCH HUGS and MUCH SONG for all the excellent specialization she is providing.)

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Awwwwww she loves them <3333

Yeah specifically most hive minds don't seem to feel that everyone should join their hive mind. There could easily be uncontacted aliens even in a known world who do feel that way, aliens within a universe aren't often higher priorities than aliens in new universes because aliens in new universes sometimes come with magic or alts, but she's not finding any hive minds that want everyone to belong to them on Wikipedia.

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But being in harmony with someone allows for mutual verification their intent, making it possible to deal with them without any chance of them unpredictably betraying you, going mad, or misunderstanding what you were saying? They can't be the only one making the efficiency argument. And it's much more efficient to collaborate on goals than oppose each other directly... this is really strange.

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Kiszet thinks a lot of people have implicitly as a goal "not being in a hive mind". Or, like, they'd probably put it as "independence" or "privacy" or something. She does not personally feel this way, obviously, but there you go.

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The Concordance thinks that lots of people are very strange, but it also thinks... this is slightly tricky...

... The Concordance works. Being in harmony with people lets you do so many things costlessly. They got to space. They can coordinate and work together on all sorts of projects, and turn any private knowledge into public knowledge in ways that, per Wikipedia, neither elves nor humans are very good at. They observe they are surprised that other people value independence and privacy and not being a hive mind so much that they're prepared to give up all that, and are rather surprised that any species that wasn't a hive mind ever made it into space, even with "money' to serve as a substitute. Maybe their alternate physics systems made it easier?

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Maybe? - no, looks like lightleapers don't require unconventional physics. Warp requires dilithium and a lot of worlds don't have any but in the relevant world it's pretty abundant, and that's also not magic-based. Cube FTL is alternate-physics-y though.

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... We appear not to... have dilithium? Anywhere in the galaxy that we've observed.

Huh.

(Quietly, partway across the planet but not in any way secret from her, a project to synthesize dilithium is getting started.)

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She is not sure they should do that, it might mean Vanda Nossëo has to escalate to keep all the other people in this world safe if they develop FTL, though presumably they know that it's publicly on Wikipedia.

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They are not going to start a war with Vanda Nosseo, they would just lose, but they definitely want to be able to coordinate with the rest of the Concordance outside this planet, it's really inefficient how they can't actually communicate with each other once they get separated.

(They would appreciate it if she'd look up how to synthesize dilithium on Wikipedia, though, for whatever information is there.)

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Maybe instead of FTL for coordinating across planets they actually want something more like a crystal ball? She'll look up dilithium; there it is.

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Thank you!

And they would, but crystal balls take wizardry to make, and they had assumed that Vanda Nosseo wouldn't or couldn't teach them.

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Vanda Nossëo will probably not teach them to do their own wizardry any time soon but they could still obtain already-made crystal balls.

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Yeah, and what they want is to be able to stay in harmony; they aren't sure that will travel over a crystal ball.

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Yeah, they might need something more specialized for that and even if somebody would be excited to design it for them it seems like it might have offensive potential by way of allowing them to forcibly harmonize folks?

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They recognize this as a potential benefit except for the part where they wouldn't do it because it would offend Vanda Nosseo and they don't want to start wars they can't win, but they recognize that, since Vanda Nosseo is not in harmony with them, they can't actually convince that they just want to better coordinate their society. This Is Sad and slightly frustrating.

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She could maybe explain it to them when she ducks out for a moment but she's not sure she'll be in shape to do much of that under those conditions and anyway they might be worried about the concordance changing its mind.

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Yes, that's the problem with not being in harmony with people, you can't trust them.

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Yeah. Does it have to be all-or-nothing?

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They can have probabilistic assessments of threat, it's just that (when dealing with mentally very different entities not in harmony with them) they expect that the probability that the entities might just destroy them to use their resources or out of a brief fit of emotion or by being very offended by them to end up dominating all future concerns. They're used to planning for thousands of years in the future, and if prevalence of psychotic breaks is one in fifty thousand thousand among humans, and there's dozens of humans with the power to kill them all, they should probably expect to die. They certainly can't start new thousand-year-plans if the humans might destroy them, and they don't understand what a very alien species will object to.

So they'll do what they can, and they'll try to cooperate with Vanda Nosseo, but they see all these opportunities to improve things, and they don't know which of them Vanda Nosseo will ban, and which of the ones Vanda Nosseo will ban it will destroy them for having wanted to try.

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Kiszet's pretty sure it won't destroy them for wanting things, just maybe make it harder to do things on their own. ...they don't seem nonreductionist so probably if somebody snapped and killed them all they could be gotten back after, if the precogs didn't catch it first.

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I mean, making it harder for them to do things on their own is also bad, because then they can't maximize total utility as well. And probably it won't, but the probability it will is still right there, very visible.

... They are pretty sure they're reductionist!

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Okay, so, only a few people would have to be compromised in a remarkably specific and coordinated way to murder them all, but many more people than that would have to be compromised to leave them all dead after that forever.

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And this is good but - 

Wow, so much of their strategies were based on the universe being finite. They keep finding these cached thoughts that depended on limited accessible time and space. An infinite universe is very strange.

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Yeah, they're not the only ones! There was a civilization in Wish that was harvesting the emotions of humans because those are magical there, to stave off entropy.

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... This sounds really strange to them, but, alternate universes.

They should read more about dangerous and/or profitable alternate universe alternate laws of physics, if she has suggestions for what pages to go to for that?

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Okay! The line in places between alternate physics and outright magic systems is sometimes blurry - not all magic systems are portable, which makes them sort of like a neighborhood of altered physics - but she can read about important neighborhood properties: Wish, Eclipse, Cube, the Materia-cluster's environs, the daeva worlds.

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... They will do research into them.

And then they will do research into daeva, and magic rocks, and precognition, and... honestly morphing seems sane compared to the rest of those...

How do any of these worlds still exist, with daeva? Are they so much nicer than the humans they used to be? They don't think all the worlds are new...

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Many daeva - still most, though the gap's closing - didn't use to be human, but yeah, they're usually pretty nice or bound or just not interested in going on the offensive and stay home.

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The Concordance has not actually gotten a sufficient impression of average human judgement from Wikipedia to expect typical bindings to be reliably used, but maybe they're better at this sort of thing.

(The Concordance is really quite unambiguously sure it's outgunned, to be clear. This surety is rapidly increasing.)

... It would be really cool if they could get a demon to build them more worlds, though. Especially around this sun, or around other nearby uninhabited suns. (Maybe they could even get a demon to build them more suns, once they've filled up this one's orbitals? Worth considering. A dedicated subgroup of the Concordance is now calculating the most efficient use of recorded demonic powers to build them lots of planets so they can increase their total population so they can get more utility-per-second and implicitly more utility for the entire future.)

(The subgroup working on utilitarian calculation suggests that the best working model is that the universe switched from having a time limit based on entropy to one based on Vanda Nosseo accidentally wiping itself out, which looks very unlikely but so long as they can put a % chance on it happening each year still means that all expected utilities sum to a finite number, and that preliminarily non-confidently the best way for them to increase it is to try to come up with plans to increase Vanda Nosseo's life expectancy.)

((A third subgroup gets started on using information gained from studying Wikipedia to make preliminary suggestions on how to design human-and-elf-interaction-specialist-ambassadors who can interface with Vanda Nosseo to try to protect it. It would be very bad for these ambassadors compared to being in harmony with everyone else, but it would still be net-positive utility for them and it might be the best way to increase the total utility of the universe.))

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At long last, Kiszet is released from the Concordance, and recalled to a Vanda Nossëo ship to give her report.

(It's awful, it's the worst, out the ears of her millions of new friendselves into not a pool but a dreadful sucking vacuum - but she will get through it and she will go home and she will sing forever.)

We surrender, Kiszet says. We would like some more planets if that can be arranged, and a way to stay all together with all of ourselves, and we are going to be ever so cooperative and helpful in the meanwhile, and can I go home now please please please -

And she's back.

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And she's back and they love her and they will love her forever, or at least until the universe ends, whichever happens first.

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Kiszet loves them too <333 and will read Wikipedia for them as much as they want, and send emails to Vanda Nossëo as needed.

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She is their Vanda Nossëo specialist, and she will be forever. <3

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Once Kiszet is reinstated, Vanda Nossëo relays to the angels that the demons have surrendered after some initial misunderstandings, cleared up by a volunteer joining the concordance for a higher-fidelity explanation of the situation.

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The angels are... kind of worried about the demons still be around, since they wiped out quite a lot of species, but they acknowledge that given that all the damage is being repaired and the people are being brought back, it's not an unreasonable response, though they hope no one too important joined the concordance.

They do hope Vanda Nosseo isn't going to let them get access to any really dangerous magic, though.

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They're not, yeah. They have added "the concordance picks up magic it wasn't supposed to" to the list of things the precogs should alert to. Maybe in the fulness of time it will be possible to trust them but not until a lot of things have changed.

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The angels think that it is worth remembering that they and the demons are used to thinking of "tens of thousands of years" as a long time, and hundreds as really quite short, and so any plans that are not urgent may well be timed to go off two thousand years in the future, especially if the demons know how precognition works. But from the sounds of it Vanda Nosseo will have accomplished quite a lot of other things in those two thousands years, and the future then will be quite difficult to predict.

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Meanwhile, back on the planet with humans on it, stuff has been happening! The war has not ended - the Holy League has sent diplomats to the Coalition nations, and the Coalition has sent back a complete unwillingness to negotiate without the Holy League giving back all the territory they conquered and permitting the restoration of all the governments they overthrew and letting the Coalition depose and imprison the Grand Admiral.

And, meanwhile, Ljudizem is attempting to hold a referendum on joining Vanda Nosseo. What help can Vanda Nosseo offer in this plan?

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They can send pollworkers to explain any points of confusion and explain the voting process!

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Instantly teleport pollworkers into every relevant town? Can they take representatives of Ljudizem with them, or would that be unreasonable interference? Can they make the ballots, Ljudizem has paper shortages (because it has everything shortages)? Can they demonstrate that they do in fact have magical powers capable of protecting the villages if the villages vote to annoy their occupiers?

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They can take some representatives with them, though if the towns are contested they will have to also bring representatives of whoever contests them if they want to come. And they can do magic demos to skeptics. They can absolutely make ballots!

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... If they tell the occupying powers about the referendum, there will be retaliatory raids on any village that votes to secede.

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Well, then it's convenient that they'll defend anyone who joins up, right? That takes effect immediately.

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It doesn't take them time to count the votes?

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It takes like... a couple seconds? It's done with a lot of magic and technology.

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... Wow.

So. Instantly teleport in representatives of Ljudizem and Vanda Nosseo and the occupying powers, with ballots; let everyone fill out ballots, instantly teleport out, and just which of these villages are they prepared to do it in? The historical borders of Ljudizem are these, the borders of the puppet state are these, and their armies are here. Probably. They might have moved.

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Okay! Does the other side of the equation here have anything to say about the matter?

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Which other side of the equation? There are three... no, four... five... countries that Ljudizem has claims on.

- The Kingdom of Desnau was last seen ordering the Vandans Nossëo who visited it shot for lese-majesty, and having failed to shoot, hang, boil and disintegrate the Limboite representative, went with exile, and it is still not accepting ambassadors.

- The Duchy of Havralt is insulted to be asked and thinks that Ljudizem does not have a claim on its lands and is EXTREMELY OFFENDED at Vanda Nosseo, they thought Vanda Nosseo protected small countries.

- The Kingdom of Gerontmarkh (having had some time to communicate with the king) wishes to point out that His Majesty Marek Gerontmarkhen was legally crowned King of all Ljudizem by the assembly and that Dinot is a usurper and a renegade and an oathbreaker and a heretic and probably has sex with goats, and if Dinot's followers want to flee into Vanda Nosseo they can run all they like but Marek is the legitimate king of Ljudizem and his army is going to take it.

- The Empire of Vzhoudoun is not capable of responding within a single day to matters of great import, but will eventually say that the Emperor, crowned by Heaven, is not subject to any mortal ruler, and that His subjects must humbly obey His commands, regardless of their personal feelings on the matter. The border with Ljudizem is there, the legitimate king of Ljudizem is Marek Gerontmarkhen, that is all good day.

- The Dominion of Simolya still has the Vandan Nossëo ambassadors who visited it in jail. Are they sending new people over, or what?

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No, the ones in jail are receiving communiques and asking them to be conveyed to whom it may concern. If nobody else wants to legitimize the proceedings with a represenatative, they will proceed with the votes! Everybody gets to decide as what state headed by whom they wish to be considered part of for this purpose and whether that state should join Vanda Nossëo or not.

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Havralt will legitimize the proceedings once they realize that Vanda Nosseo is serious, but only because they've seen enough casual-demonstrations-of-superpowers to make them realize there's a new superpower in town, and they're real unhappy.

Gerontmarkh wishes to protest that this is utterly unreasonably and a violation of international law and surely we can slow down and discuss this instead of trying to feed half their country to a usurper!

Vzhoudoun... maybe if they spend a few weeks petitioning they'll get further, but definitely not faster than that.

It is quite possible that the King of Simolya does not know that he's been asked for a representative, since the jailers have no interest in sending things up. No further comment on this proposal is being delivered, certainly.

... Wait, how are they handling property? There's lots of disputed land in the relevant villages. Do the villages vote on where they want to be, or is it just that if more than 51% of the people say Ljudizem they get Ljudizem?

(Ljudizem's preferred method is that each region - here's the maps - votes collectively if it wants to secede and join Ljudizem, but it is certainly conceivable that their regions may be slightly gerrymandered.)

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Gerontmarkh is welcome to explain the international law in question?

Vanda Nossëo would rather do this on a town- or village- level rather than a regional one; if a town wants to be part of Ljudizem, or declare independence and VN membership, or be a part of some other country, or join the Nongeographical Society, or if they have an idea of their own, Vanda Nossëo will support their self-determination in this regard. Though they wouldn't really recommend declaring independence and not membership, considering.

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Right. So, this is the important bit, countries have recognized territory, and territory is not just allowed to secede. Secession is an act of war against the country you're seceding from, and therefore on all their allies.

Also, all the countries except a few puppet states installed by the Traitor Admiral recognize Marek as the legitimate king of Ljudizem, really, you can ask them.

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Ljudizem thinks this sounds impossible to defend. What if towns end up surrounded by the enemy?

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(Quite early in this census process, a young woman arrives at the Havralt shop/bus station in a black uniform with a golden bracer on her wrist, mostly concealed by her sleeve. She has impeccable posture and a rifle that looks like it belongs to a museum and looks like she hasn't slept in decades. What magic artifacts / high-tech gear from another universe have they got for sale?)

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They've got healing doodads and air conditioners and kitchen appliances and sewing machines and contraceptives and an Allspeak wand and laundry thingamabobs and robot vacuum cleaners!

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Allspeak wand is useful, what's the price?

Anything for long distance communication?

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She can get an allspeak installation (though not the wand) for a story or a song!

There isn't internet coverage over most of the planet yet, but she can get a phone anyway if she wants. State of the art is chiplock installation but they can't do that here, she'd have to go to Vanda Nossëo and pay actual money for it.

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What are the options for creating Internet coverage or for alternate long-distance communication methods, if there are any?

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If she's planning to stay near areas that have Vanda Nossëo storefronts and bus stations, she can get a technological hotspot for a story that'll piggyback on that. If she wants to range farther than that she'd need a crystal ball, and those are magic and somewhat scarce and therefore cost actual money when purchased in Vanda Nossëo proper. They can special-order walkie-talkies or radio transmitters but those aren't standard inclusions because they don't come with tutorials on their own use the way computers can.

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When she speaks it's clipped and directly to the point.

Her country doesn't have a bus station. What is there that is worth actual money to Vanda Nosseo. How do radios work and how long does the special order take. Do they do bulk rates. How do they define stories.

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The special order can be there in minutes if she's in a hurry and once there's radios in stock at all they won't cost more than anything else in the shop. A tutorial in how to use them will be an extra story, it's not part of standard retail-envoy training. People in Vanda Nossëo who don't live solely off basic income are often researchers, entertainers, charity-legwork-doers, service workers of various types, logistics managers, engineers... it's pretty unusual for people from new nonmagical preindustrial societies to be able to make much of an economic splash right away, but there are museums that will take authentic preindustrial souvenirs if faster people from this planet haven't saturated demand already and some who will do longer-form story-collection type things for monetary consideration. A story is an anecdote or narrative which can be true, embellished, or wholly fictional, customer's choice, and is generally about a paragraph long at least.

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She is in a hurry. She'll pay for the tutorial.

She was given her hero crest when she managed her first forty-mile rough-terrain march in two days. She brought a machete and a water bottle and made it to Mordgart two hours after sunset and left the next morning an hour before dawn and made it back the next day forty minutes before midnight. She was twelve. Is this enough of a story or do they want her to continue.

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That's one, but she seems like she wants more stuff than one thing.

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Yes.

But she'll buy an explanation of how radios work first and then decide how many radios she needs.

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Okay. They will dig up someone who knows how to use radios and he'll pop in to teach her.

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Good. Then she can start giving them stories while they find that person do that.

Do they accept complete tactical descriptions of every battle in the past three hundred years as a type of story?

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Oh yeah, the people who want the stories'll eat that up.

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Good.

Then assuming they can get her some kind of radio-based-device that can transmit and receive at a distance, she can start giving them history for four hours, with a brief pause for the explanation, then walk away with four hours of history's worth of these aforementioned devices.

And possibly a few healing wands, if they're reusable and do permanent injuries.

(Everyone working at the shop has almost certainly learned that aces can do healing, by this point.)

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The healing devices are little music players that do a healing song real fast. They are always-on and don't work that well; they recommend heavier-duty options for anything serious or long-term but this one is safe to distribute.

She winds up with a lot of radios and a bag to put them all in, but they're individually pretty little.

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She has her own healing, then.

And she takes off flying back to her army, radios and instructions ready for use.