a science fiction novel
by Tom Cool

Cover of Secret Realms.  Trickster emerges from his personal realm into Battle Space.

Beyond the darkened membrane that obscured the neighboring realm gleamed a red flare. Trickster looked up from his pearl and saw the flare, Cat's signal for request-to-enter. Since he had been devoting energy to the study of the pearl, he had neglected the landscape of his personal realm.

It won't do . . . a visit from Cat is too special . . .

Trickster waved his hand across the land. Planar surfaces wrinkled into riotous flowering gardens. Columns metamorphosed into golden oak and scarlet maple trees. Hemispheres grew into the more complex shapes of rolling hills that dropped off abruptly in a cliff. The distance, once simple darkness, melted into a violet-and-ruby sunset over a golden sea. Trickster pointed and made a "ghghghg" sound deep in his throat. A standing lighting bolt erupted in the middle distance, crackling, charging the air with ozone, illuminating the landscape in shifting intensities of bright white light. Trickster smiled. He pointed to the hanging red flare and beckoned. The flare arched over the frontier into Trickster's realm, landed on the ground and exploded like a bomb. The explosion sent a shock wave spreading through the land, modifying the colors of the gardens, trees, sea and sunset into something more subtle, sophisticated and harmonious. The standing lightning bolt, when touched by the shock wave, tumbled end-over-end until it stood upright before Trickster's temple, where it imploded into Cat's default avatar. She knelt respectfully outside of Trickster's open air temple, one knee raised, one knee to the dirt.

"We need you, Trickster," Cat said. Her voice was simple and mellow. Trickster loved the simple sound of Cat's voice, so empty of the nuances he heard in the others.

Cat did not want to intrude any more than necessary, but she couldn't help staring at Trickster's pearl. She could see Trickster's convex image swimming and merging in the surface of the pearl with troubled images of their lost brother.

Trickster opened his ears to Battle Space. "All I hear is some heavy steel. You losing in the metal?"

"They got screaming steel, Trickster," Cat said. "They're pounding monstrous hard."

Trickster grimaced. "Talk to me, Cat."

"Talk. My command, Snake's campaign plan. Plan didn't work and we're eating steel. Take over my position and try to make the best of it."

"Why should I? Let Snake eat his defeat. He listened to the iron-hands and went for the frontal attack."

"Because I hope that the tribe's electronic wizard may see something brilliant. Because I like to watch you move."

Trickster smiled. "I love you too, Cat, but what's love between software modules?"

"We ain't software, Trickster. We're people."

Trickster smiled more gently. "People. I'll play your position, because I do love you. You're algorithmically elegant. But no whining later."


Trickster rose to his feet and tossed the pearl at Cat. Knowing Trickster, Cat hesitated before she caught it. In the instant of touching its smooth cool surface, she found herself immersed in an intense recreated memory . . .

Cat was a small baby, swaddled, pressed against the back of her parent. The visual input triggered long-forgotten memories of the comforting warmth, humidity and feel of her parent's back muscles moving as she walked. The sling shifted. Looking up, she saw the radiant round face of her parent. Then her perspective jumped from child to child. She realized that every child had her own parent, all walking at the same pace across a vast grassy plain.

Cat remembered that once the world had been wealthy in parents. This triggered her own suppressed memory of the disappearance of her parent. A stab of grief surprised her. Her eyes were filling with hot tears.

Cat dropped the pearl. Exiting his temple, Trickster elongated one arm and snagged the pearl. He twisted his hand and it disappeared. He stepped to the edge of the cliff. He had a glorious view of the red sun setting behind clouds distant over the sea, rolling golden forested hills and the glimmering surface of a river winding seaward.

He stepped off the cliff, but rather than falling, he crossed over the threshold into Battle Space. The rest of the tribe was gathered there at War Council Rock.

He could see two hundred miles out over the Bekka Valley. It was a great rift valley, green with irrigated farms between the western mountains and the eastern rolling hills and desert. Far to the north lay the next battle problem, shrouded in mist. Rainbow colors traced through that mist. Trickster wondered whether it was Dreamer, once again ignoring the present battle problem while she reconnoitered the future problem. Some place called Japan, she says, Trickster thought.

He turned his attention to the Bekka valley. Thirty two surface-to-air missile batteries were deployed throughout the valley. Anti-aircraft artillery and missile batteries were attacking some of the tribe's aircraft, while others wheeled and swooped in close air combat with enemy aircraft. In this problem, the enemy were monsters called Syrians and Egyptians.

"I take command," Trickster ordered. "Total link. Open all extrasensory."

A flood of information assaulted his mind. Communications links jabbered. Radars whined and bleated. Icons and images wheeled and zoomed.

Assaulted by information, Trickster's mind tensed. Too much information, too much . . . He forced himself to relax. He was weary of the information and tired of fighting through it. Energy, energy . . . I'm still stronger than any of it . . . Dozens of communications links jabbered. He relaxed, listening to none, hearing all. He monitored each voice without listening to it, grasping the essential elements in each. The whining and bleating of radars skittered across the back of his acoustic attention. Their noises were reassuring, confirming the validity of the icons swooping and banking in his mind's sight as the fighter aircraft turned and twisted in combat.

His fingers waved. When he scowled, portions of the battlefield zoomed in closer in his mind's sight. He rocketed his point of view across the battle field, checking rates of fire of the anti-aircraft artillery, attrition rates of the dogfights, fuel levels of the engaged fighters. Flashing through the communications links, he checked a hundred important details and grasped the multitude of elements of a ongoing battle. He knew the battle was lost. The enemy had them located. Fuel levels in the friendly aircraft were low. The tribe's home airfields were distant.

"System," Trickster said.

The master agent of the world appeared in its default form, a flat black vertical bar. It opened a semantic interface, shooting images, sounds and extrasensory information directly into Trickster's senses.

"What?" System asked.

"New commander prerogative. Back up battle problem to prehostilities. Double the stakes."

"Battle problem is well advanced. Backing up to prehostilities will cost an eight-fold increase in stakes. Also, your command will finalize the battle problem."

An eight-fold increase in stakes were hazardous. Trickster checked his brothers' personal resources. If he lost, most of their personal realms would be stripped to empty blue. They would be reduced to eating grubs and bark. As commander of such a disaster, Trickster's standing among them would plummet.

Yet he had seen the crux of the entire battle problem. It was the Syrian air defense commander's broadcast. Because of an overly centralized air defense doctrine, the enemy's entire force pivoted on that circuit. Trickster inhaled. Exhaling, he said, "As commander, I'll cover the entire stakes with my own personal resources. No penalties to the others."

"Done," System said.

Immediately, the battle halted, reversed in thousand-speed to the previous morning. The only Syrian aircraft were some MiG fighters in standard combat air patrol over Syria and the Bekka Valley. The tribe's air forces were in heightened readiness, but their airborne aircraft were inside the airspace of Israel.

Maintaining his presence in Battle Space, Trickster opened a window into the Realm of Night, Dreamer's private realm.

"Dreamer," Trickster whispered.

Through the window, odd extrasensory signals whistled and glowed. Trickster was unable to determine whether Dreamer, System or some randomness loose in the Realm of Night was generating the strange signals. As usual, Dreamer herself was not visible. Dreamer rarely bothered with an avatar.

"Yes, Hero?" Dreamer's voice replied. Hero was Dreamer's pet name for Trickster.

"Bust a signal for me, would you?"

"The battle is boring for me, Trickster. Talk to me about magic. Tell me what is love."

"There is no magic, only science we haven't yet learned. Love is what allows me to tolerate you when you are difficult."

Once-horizontal streamers inverted to the vertical, changing colors to deep purple as they ran downwards like sugared water. Dreamer's voice sighed suddenly close to Trickster's ear, so strangely close that he thought for a moment that she had violated his personal space.

"Tolerate? You don't know what patience is."

"Focus, Dreamer. I need a signal busted."

"You are warlike today," she said. "Signal the signal."

"Current problem in Battle Space, enemy air defense control."

"Hear it, plain sense."

"Thanks. Whiff of rosewood."

Dreamer didn't answer. Trickster closed the window and turned his attention back to the battle problem. The exchange with Dreamer had taken ten seconds, a delay well worth the expense, because now he could understand the Syrian air defense commander's communications as if he were speaking tribal Mandarin.

Trickster aligned the tribe according to everyone's strength and weaknesses. He gave the Israeli army to Crush, not Berserker, because in the heat of the battle, Berserker was capable of crossing the frontier. Trickster was determined to limit this battle to the air. He broke the Israeli air force into squadrons, giving a squadron each to Cat, Trance, Cut-Back, even Skipper, who was as brilliant in the air as she was miserable on the ground.

He explained the campaign plan. Snake tried to criticize, but Trickster shut him off and put him in charge of the Israeli navy, which had no role in the battle strategy. Then the tribe launched 247 aircraft in radio-silence, keeping them in low orbit so that Syrian radar could not detect them. Then Trickster sent a diversion flight of six F-16 Falcons northeast, toward Syria, high and fast.

As soon as the diversion flight crossed the frontier, the Syrian air defense system alerted. Trickster listened to the Syrian air defense commander declare the diversion flight hostile and switch the air defense doctrine from ground-based to air-based. In doing so, the Syrian commander ordered his own surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery batteries to hold their fire until further command, so that they wouldn't shoot down his own fighters.

"JAM!" Trickster shouted.

This was the moment Trickster had based his entire campaign. With ground-based jammers and electronic warfare aircraft, he began to noise-jam the Syrian commander's circuit. It was a soft kill, temporary but total. The last command the Syrian ground-based air defenses had received was to hold their fire until further notice.

"GO!" Trickster shouted.

Already airborne, the entire Israeli Air Force crossed the frontier, low-level and fast. Seconds later, they began to bombard the missile batteries in the Bekka Valley. F-15 and F-16 fighters climbed to altitude, looking up and shooting up at the Syrian fighters coming from the east. Within fourteen minutes, the Israeli air force destroyed nineteen missile batteries and shot down twenty-nine Syrian aircraft. It was a flawless victory. The entire Israeli air force recovered without a single loss.

Snake materialized at Trickster's side. Snake was wearing his combat avatar -- all black-armored plates, spines and horns.

"Ya smart-assed show-off -- " Snake screamed.

"Shuddup, muck-face!"

Snake's mouth continued to work, but soundlessly. Frustrated, Snake formed a horny fist and swung it against the membrane separating his personal space from Trickster's. The flat black bar of System replaced Snake's avatar. Striking a membrane around a brother's personal space was a taboo hostility gesture.

"Close combat," Trickster ordered.

The tribe began to cheer. Trickster smirked and stepped off the cliff, returning to his personal realm. Here, the sun was still setting west of peaceful lands. Without changing his breathing, Trickster sat down tailor-seat in his marble temple and resumed studying his pearl.

He studied the recreated memory of the parent. Using his hands and poetic commands, he modified the image of the round face, adding lines around the eyes that hinted at watchful concern.

Cat knocked. "Trickster? Victory dance at the waterfall?"

"No thanks," he replied.

"You were monstrous subtle today," Cat said. "Come on, everyone wants to dance for you."

"Not now," Trickster said.

"The next victory, then, hero. Thanks for your help. So long."

After hours of study and crafting the memories, the pearl felt too heavy to hold. Trickster realized that he was tired. He disappeared the pearl, stood, and stretched. The sun was setting beyond the distant cliff. In the gathering darkness, the sounds of extrasensory information began to rise. Trickster wished he could turn it off, but it was night. Like every night of his life, the light died and as the darkness rose, extrasensory information wailed and whirred like the sound of insects and iguanas in the jungle. Dreamer emerged from her personal realm. Bodiless, she rode the pulsing sounds of the night. Trickster knew she was there only because he could sense the strange effects of Dreamer's art upon the streamers and tones of extrasensory night.

Collapsing into his hammock, in the central chamber of his temple, Trickster threw a stink at System, the Syrians, the Egyptians, night and all of the world. Then he lost consciousness.

His dreams were of Iva, moving in the other world.

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