Previously in Only Slightly
Bidet, Fridgara, The Geraldine and Anneka remained in the mysterious dining hall with the even more mysterious Yarek, who claimed to have important information to impart which could save the human race.
As this was revealed, in a much less mysterious location Bill conducted a magical study of several plague victims on Arelon; but when he was present as one man died, he and the head of the medical research team became infected.
'Bill! Bill! Wake up!'
Bill stirred, moaning fitfully. He must have fallen asleep - he hoped he hadn't slept for too long. His eyes were already the tell-tale sickly yellow of a plaguebearer, and he'd noticed his skin was starting to dry out when he'd gone to the toilet a while ago. Blinking, he looked at the clock. Three hours ago! He looked around to see who'd woken him up.
'Bill, there's a message for you from Earth,' Elizabeth said, handing Bill a handheld computer. He stared at it for a few moments before locating the appropriate button, it being quite different to the kind of interface he was used to seeing on Earth. The image of one of the extremely talented medical research wizards he'd met at an awards ceremony a few months ago appeared on the screen and started to speak.
'Mr. President, we received your message and accompanying information from Ambassador Randall. You will be pleased to know that by the time you receive this message I will already be in hyperspace with a full magical research team comprised of experts in magical healing from America, h2g2 and Luna. Although we cannot reach Arelon through hyperspace in less than ten days, we have theorised that one day's travel from Earth we will be in a suitable location to open a spatial tear to a point only a few light years outside the Arelon star system, so we should arrive within two days. While we are in transit, please continue to gather as much data as possible so that we have the best head start we can get on this spell, and can develop a cure in time.'
The message finished, and Bill sighed heavily.
'They'd better be very quick if they're going to find a cure before I'm out of the picture,' he said. Elizabeth put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it.
'You might find one yourself before they even arrive,' she said. 'But you might also be pleased to know that I got a transmission from the ship's pilot, who said he's running the hyperdrive as close to the limits has he can get, and they should be able to shave four hours off the initial jump.'
'Good.' He looked around. 'Where's Dafydd?'
'Dafydd has gone to bed, as you should. You aren't going to get anywhere when you're too exhausted to work a simple diagnosis spell.'
'If I go to bed,' Bill told her, 'I may never get up again.'
'I know. But if you work yourself to death before the plague runs its course, you're not even going to have the chance to still be around for the team from Earth to cure, are you.'
Bill shook his head. Something on the desk his head had slumped on caught his eye - some notes he'd made before he'd fallen asleep. He read them, blinked, then read them again. They made no sense at all. Maybe Elizabeth was right.
He looked up again as someone else entered the room.
'Excuse me, Ambassador, but we've had a message from the Firi Arego medical team. They said one of their patients has recovered from the plague by himself.'
'What? How?' Bill demanded, instantly alert again. The messenger shook his head.
'I don't know, sir,' he said. 'But they've put him on a spaceplane and he'll be arriving here in about half an hour.'
'Thankyou,' Elizabeth said. The messenger nodded and departed. 'Looks like you've got an excuse not to go to bed after all,' she said to Bill, 'but you can at least have a cup of coffee.'
So they went to the spaceport cafeteria, now filled with medical staff and patients who could still walk and still wanted to eat, and drank cups of the strongest coffee they could get the machine to make. Bill made a face with every sip, but stubbornly drank three cups, after which he began to feel marginally awake as the first cup began to take effect.
The messenger found them again and told them the survivor had arrived, then led them to Harin Tubré's office, where the man was waiting for them. He seemed perfectly ordinary to Bill at first, until he shook hands with the man. The moment their fingers touched, Bill got a sense of intense heat, the roar and crackle of flames, and almost thought he saw a raging inferno behind the man's eyes.
He blinked, dropped his hand. The man who'd survived the plague was looking at him curiously. Harin and Elizabeth looked completely baffled.
'I think... I think perhaps we need to talk,' the survivor said.
In a mysterious dining hall located somewhere he didn't even particularly want to speculate about, Bidet was eating. Food had appeared on the table at Yarek's command - good food, but simple. Food like they might have been eating four thousand years ago, Bidet thought, and grimaced. That was something else he wasn't particularly keen on thinking about.
But think about it he must, because not only were his fellow diners talking about it, it was also possibly the most important thing he had ever heard in his life. If it was true.
Yarek had explained in great detail what was going on, starting from the beginning of the downfall of his masters the Ikhshiid. A species from a planet quite near the galactic rim and a very considerable distance from Earth, the Ikhshiid had, he said, visited Earth many times during the birth of human civilisation, always keeping a low profile and attempting not to influence human development and using what they observed to improve their understanding of their own history.
However, this situation had not lasted, and the Ikhshiid had encountered another species on a level of sophistication at least as high as their own. Powerfully magical where the Ikhshiid relied solely on technology, the Karema had proven to be only interested in one thing - the destruction of the Ikhshiid.
The Ikhshiid had fought for their territory of course, never giving up a planet or star system or space station until they absolutely could not hold it any longer but, as the years of warfare pressed on, they were able to put fewer and fewer ships into the fight, and were pushed quite rapidly towards the heart of their territory.
About sixty years into this endless retreat, as the Karema took possession of the Ikhshiid homeworld - killing every living thing on the planet in the process - one Ikhshiid sociologist returned to Earth with a small group of like-minded individuals. They had no magical ability that they could discern, and although genetic analysis of Karema tissue had revealed to them the triggers for magical ability, they had not been able to develop a way to engineer Ikhshiid with magical talents with which to counter the Karema weaponry. Advances in defensive technology had only bought brief respites, for the Karema could modify their battlefield magic in a very short space of time, rendering each new technological innovation useless shortly after it was deployed.
Humans, however, already had the trigger genes in place. Of the few other sentient species the Ikhshiid had encountered in their exploration of the galaxy, only the human race was capable of magic on any significant level. However, the genes were dormant, buried in the mass of genetic material no human ever used, so the Ikhshiid sociologist and his team of biologists harvested human sperm and ova, activated the magical genes and grew them in artificial wombs aboard their ship, which they landed in an unpopulated region to avoid attracting unwanted attention from any Karema scouts which might be passing.
The result, Yarek had said, was six people like him - the Chosen of the Ikhshiid. Possessed of staggering magical talent, they had spent their childhoods learning to control it, taught as best they could be by the Ikhshiid, who had studied their enemies abilities as closely as they could. Once they were mature enough and powerful enough, four of them had been taken to the war zone - not to fight, for the Karema would never have rested until they found the wizards who had the power to challenge them - but to lay down vast, invisible spells which would allow some of the Ikhshiid to escape to another place the Karema would not know and would not be able to find for thousands of years.
Two remained on Earth. Yarek was given the task of preparing the way for when human magical talent and technological skill had both flourished, when they would come to the attention of the Karema and fall under risk of annihilation as the Ikhshiid had. His compatriot, Erissa, was submerged into the general population to have children and spread her then partially deactivated genes into the humans, thus accelerating their magical development somewhat. She had found a man and raised a family somewhere in Africa, and died in her eighties a happy woman, barely able to remember what her purpose in life had been.
Yarek, on the other hand, after laying numerous spells on Earth to allow him to monitor and occasionally influence the situation, had travelled by magic to Mars, where he set up the conditions for the arrival of the First One under the guidance of the Ikhshiid sociologist. The First One, who had turned out to be The Geraldine, would, by his manipulations, be guaranteed to be a human with active magical genes, considerable raw potential and, preferably, some knowledge of their power already.
He hadn't quite bargained on The Geraldine's particular set of skills, but when she'd arrived he'd been able to adapt the initial tests to match her abilities, and the exercises which came after to be more suited to bringing out those talents she had yet to discover.
Bidet looked over at The Geraldine as he thought of this. Strange to hear what Yarek said she had done during his exercises. Her own description of the first mystery was bizarre in the extreme - but she had come out of it with the ability to move between disconnected bodies of water over any distance, proof of a sort that what Yarek had said about untapped potential might be true.
What disturbed Bidet, though, was the implication of Yarek's story - that all humans alive today with magical talent were descended from one woman who'd been genetically engineered by an alien race, the existance of whom was something else he was struggling with. Humans shouldn't even be able to cast the most basic of spells yet, if their original evolutionary pattern had been allowed to occur.
'But if magic was introduced to Earth so long ago, how come it only manifested about four hundred years ago?' Anneka was asking as she ate. Yarek sat at the head of the table, not eating, but he had said he would answer what questions he could.
'Erissa's genes were partially deactivated again before she had children,' Yarek explained. 'I did the spell myself. The intent was not to give the general population magical abilities straight away, but to have them emerge earlier than they would originally have done. Humans needed to learn more than they knew then before they'd be able to understand that kind of talent.'
'And what about the humans who left Earth? Why aren't there any wizards among them?'
'That would be my doing. When I observed their ship leaving, I worked a spell on it which would prevent any magical talent manifesting among the occupants or any of their descendants until such time as they began to interbreed with the inhabitants of Earth again. I was somewhat aware that they did not intend contact with Earth for quite some time, and I did not want them attracting the attention of the Karema too early.'
Bidet decided to ask the question which had been playing on the back of his mind for some time. He swallowed what he'd been chewing.
'And have we attracted their attention yet?' he asked. Fridgara looked at him sharply, as if she hadn't considered that - strange, he would have bet on her asking the question before he even thought of it - but The Geraldine and Anneka looked like perhaps they already knew the answer. Yarek sighed.
'Yes,' he said. 'You have. This is why you are here. You, The Geraldine, you know your purpose, and you have told some little of it to Anneka, as much as she can know for now. The rest, Anneka, you will find for yourself. I have a mystery for you to solve. Are you willing to accept the challenge?'
Anneka put her knife and fork down, rose from the table, and nodded. 'I am.'
'Then good luck,' Yarek said. There was a faint popping sound, and Anneka vanished.
As Anneka saw it, she was suddenly alone in the dining hall. The food had vanished, but the door at the end stood open. Curiously, she went and looked out, and found herself looking down a sheer cliff which, as far as she could tell, did not have a base. All she could see to all sides was blue sky and a few puffy clouds - apart from the pillar of rock which rose sheer from the endless space below, about two miles away from the door.
'Ah well,' she said to herself. 'Might as well go and take a look.'
And so she jumped out of the door, and when she looked back, having flown halfway to the pillar of rock, the hall was no longer there; neither, when she looked back forwards, was the rock pillar. She floated alone, just her and the clouds and the sky. After a few moments of looking in all directions and finding nothing, she reached for the scanner hidden in one of the stainless steel spikes on her leather catsuit - but found that the spike was just a spike. All her gadgets had gone.
'So it's just me,' she said to the endless sky. 'Well, I'll just have to show them what I'm capable of.'
And so she did.