During what has become known as the Second Spacing, when the availability of cheap introction technology made interstellar travel possible for the ordinary (or extraordinary) citizen, numerous special-interest groups, cults, societies and other collections of misfits set off into space to find a world where they could express their particular weirdness in peace. Those who stayed, the cautious, the conservative and the downright scared, shaped the policy of Earth's government in the following decades. The gods of California had retreated into their intellectual seclusion, and, freed from their benevolent but restrictive "guidance", Earth began military preparations to regain control over the "Lost Sheep". The foundations of the Last Empire were being laid.
It was a scouting mission from Earth that encountered, for the first time as we then thought, the beings known as Nyronds. Proceeding to the salvage of an apparently disabled ship, the TSS Cracow discovered two humanoids who revealed, under interrogation, the existence of a map containing the coordinates of a cluster of asteroids, nine in number, composed of pure metallic copper. A search of the ship revealed only a portion of the map. Earth swiftly authorised the captain of the Cracow, Dominic Mudie, to do whatever was necessary to recover the copper, which was desperately needed to build new introction drive coils, Earth's supplies having vanished into space with the "Lost Sheep". There followed a tortuous two-year quest across forty planets, in which it is now estimated that the Cracow encountered at least sixteen different Nyronds and paid vast sums of Earth currency (ferried to the ship at great expense from the home planet) to all of them in the attempt to locate the missing portion of the map. Curiously enough, when the asteroids were finally located, they proved to consist of a form of limestone compound coated with a thin copper veneer: but by that time the Nyronds were nowhere to be seen. It emerged soon afterwards that the currency paid over to the Nyronds had been issued by the government as an emergency measure and overstamped with a code which would invalidate it in any cash till on the planet: unfortunately, the Nyronds must have possessed a means to eradicate the overstamped code, and the money flooded the market in the ensuing months, causing runaway inflation and delaying the launch of the Terran Grand Fleet by at least thirty years.
Another curious fact about this occurrence was that the Nyronds, the first alien race encountered by the Terran civilisation, spoke perfect idiomatic English, not only in conversation with the Terrans, but among themselves, as did every other race encountered during the quest. This fact was never adequately explained, any more than the peculiar persistence of English itself as the lingua franca of Earth: we may only surmise that the Nyronds were active there long before we suspected their existence.
When it became necessary for the Nyronds to flee from their home universe, which was about to undergo some terrible disaster about which nothing is now known, the gigantic vessels which were pressed into service for the evacuation were still in the experimental stage, and the crews who were hurriedly assembled to man them were little better than raw recruits. During the terrible journey between realms of space-time, much knowledge was lost, and the homeships underwent incalculable stresses which damaged their complex circuitry beyond the fledgling crews' ability to repair.
Consequently, the Nyrond homeship of today is a capricious, unreliable hulk, whose computers are far gone in cybernetic eccentricity and whose structure is prone to sudden alterations. About the only things that can be guaranteed not to go wrong are the main drives and the large-scale fabricators, mainly because they have never worked since the Crossover. To mitigate in some measure the danger to life and limb caused by these aberrations, each homeship elects a Safety Committee which takes it upon itself to publish, at irregular intervals, a list of hazard warnings.
Homeship life can sometimes be uncomfortable, sometimes infuriating, sometimes positively dangerous: but the Nyronds, to whom these planetoid-sized arks are the only true home they may ever know, remain cheerful as they dodge sudden showers of white sand or unexpected man-eating livestock.
"It beats living on a planet," they say. "All that weather..."
In appearance, the Nyrond homeship is a roughly ovoidal mass ranging between twenty-two and fifty-nine miles in diameter. Only a small fraction of this space is in use at any given time. Its surface is covered with decorative and other protuberances, often including turrets, pagodas, bridges, minarets and simulated landscapes. Every homeship possesses a huge complement of defensive forcefields, all of which are normally kept in operation and all of which must be lowered in order for smallships or other vessels to pass in or out. Strategists have estimated that the odds of inflicting damage on a Nyrond homeship at any given time, assuming ideal accuracy and marksmanship on the part of the attacker, are less than ten to the minus nine to one. The homeship characteristically moves at speeds no greater than one thousand miles per second; its main drives, allegedly capable of almost instantaneous transit across intergalactic distances, are never activated.
The nerve centre of every Nyrond homeship is the Library. Here are collected, in hard copy and data store, the records of every coup ever run by that homeship's inhabitants, and many records cross-downloaded from other homeships as they pass in the endless night.
A coup is a work of art, sharing many of the characteristics of poetry, higher mathematics, dance and mud-wrestling. Some Nyronds prefer to run their coup exactly as it has been written down in the library, word for word, gesture for gesture, the challenge being to imbue the creation of another with the spontaneity of improvisation. Others take the opposite view: for them, the coup is merely a springboard for their own vaulting imagination, and their challenge is to make their flights of fancy hew to the line of the original coup's structure. The division falls almost, but not squarely, along the line between vathatched and halfkind. The ultimate goal for every Nyrond is, of course, the composition and execution of an entirely new coup and, after rigorous assessment, its eventual addition to the library.
The coup comes in five phases: Preparation, Spiel, Wind-Up, Sting and Departure. The terms are for the most part self-explanatory. No words, however, can describe the emotion every Nyrond feels when another hardened entrepreneur, another despoiler of other people's peace, another exploitative plutocrat, has been cleansed of his or her ill-gotten wealth, and left with a chance to start a new and better life, freed from his or her addiction to money.
The construction of a viable coup is as much science as art, and new refinements and avenues of exploration are constantly being evolved. The names of the coups which adorn the library shelves bear witness to aeons of questing for the ultimate expression of the creative impulse: Trajan's Voluntary, the Hangchow Holdout, the Six Passed Owls, Come Back Eugene. Every coup is indexed, cross-referenced and rated by performance, and every coup is regularly tested and re-evaluated.
In the never-ending search for quintessential artistic truth, it is the duty of every seeker to keep to the true path.
The Nyrond smallship, presumably, was originally intended to be a straightforward means of travelling from the large, slow-moving homeship to the surface of a planet and back. We may surmise that in some far-off age they were of standard size and shape, with simple control mechanisms, basic life support and computer facilities, and that proper function at all times was taken for granted. Suffice to say that the programme governing the fabrication of smallships, like everything else, has suffered some damage over the millennia.
The naming of smallships is a delicate matter, as the accompanying poem and article show. By comparison, flying a homeship (I do beg your pardon, a smallship) is fairly simple, or would be if the average Nyrond possessed any piloting skill whatsoever. Unfortunately, Nyrond training tends to skirt lightly round such areas as the occurrence of meteors, asteroids, largish moons and other vessels, without enabling the Nyronds themselves to do so. The result is a constant need for more smallships, which the homeship computers do their best to supply. On their own idiosyncratic terms, of course.
Buttons and bars and such are courtesy of Jelane's Free Web Graphics, at http://www.erinet.com/jelane/families/.