Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

by PsiDraconis

For Disclaimers, see Chapter 1

Author's Note: Much apologisings for going so long between updates. As those of you who have emailed me (demanding to know when the next Chapter would be up) know, I moved to teach English in South Korea in mid-February. For a while, finding an appropriate place and time to get some serious writing done was very hard. Now, though, I have my wonderful laptop, so now I can write the story much more conveniently. Thanks for your patience. I hope it's worth the wait.

Author's Note 2: Somehow this story has broken (I think) the 14A rating for sex I originally put in the disclaimer. I suppose I should be safe and give this next bit an R rating. Oops. I can tone it down if you really want me to.

"Here, 'mid the bleak waves of our strife and care,

Float the green 'Fortunate Isles,'

Where all thy hero-spirits dwell and share

Our martyrdoms and toils.

The present moves attended

With all of brave and excellent and fair

That made the old time splendid."

- J.R. Lowell

Chapter 28

"You know, I could still arrange for the helicopter to fly you out. That way you wouldn't have to fly commercially, and we could have a few more hours," Evelynne said earnestly. She was currently lying in bed, her head propped up on her elbow as she watched her lover get dressed. She reached out to trail her fingers teasingly down Ally's green silk-clad back as the other woman sat on the edge of the bed to pull on her socks. "You can't tell me you're that eager to stuff yourself into a cramped airline seat."

One sock on, Ally turned to face the princess, giving her a scolding look that was ruined by the expression of barely concealed love and desire in the eyes behind her glasses. "Come on, Evy, we've talked about this," she said, capturing the hand that had begun to wander dangerously close to her inner thigh. "I don't want special treatment. Nobody else who works there gets Royal transportation, and I'd feel weird being the only one. If I'm going to be working, I need to pay my own way. It just feels... wrong for me to take advantage of my relationship with you." She held up her free hand to forestall Evelynne's imminent objection. "And I know, you don't think it's taking advantage, but this is something I need to do on my own." Ally lifted Evelynne's hand and pressed a lingering kiss on the tips of her fingers.

The princess relented, as she had known she would. Ally was quite open to most of her suggestions, and could often be convinced to follow Evelynne's lead, but the princess knew that on some subjects, Ally was completely immovable - and this was one of them.

Evelynne sighed. "Oh, alright," she said, pushing herself up so that she was kneeling, naked, behind her lover. She wrapped her arms around Ally's thin shoulders, pressing her front against the other woman's back. She nuzzled her face into Ally's neck, inhaling the smell there. "I'm just going to miss you, and I want to spend as much time as possible with you before you go. I don't know when I'll see you next."

Ally turned her head so that she could kiss Evelynne on the lips. "I know, love. And I'll miss you, too. I like being around you. You make me happy. And now I'm... used to having you near me at night."

And that was certainly true. At first, of course, sleeping with Evelynne had been a little uncomfortable, for a couple of reasons. The most obvious was that Ally had not shared a bed intimately with anyone for over a year. The second was that sleeping with Evelynne meant sleeping with Evelynne. The princess had a tendency to sleep tight against Ally, as though she was trying to allow them to share dreams.

Even when Ally had been together with Annie, they had usually kept a slight distance between them when sleeping. Not because of any lack of love or passion, but rather out of simple physics and geometry. Both women were tall and rather thin, making sleeping together a possible nightmare of bony elbows and knees colliding with unpadded legs, ribs and spines. Eventually they had learned to sleep slightly apart as a simple survival mechanism.

Evelynne, however, while by no means fat, did possess a much softer layer of padding under her skin. That, added to the fact that she instinctively penetrated to the area inside the effective attack radius of Ally's knees and elbows, made sleeping close much more feasible - and something Ally had never done before. Now, though, she had, and she was dreading the time that they would be apart.

"So am I," Evelynne replied. "I'm going to have to go back to my own bed, too."

That had been another development from the week they had been sleeping together. Each night, they would retire to Ally's rooms, with the stated intention of Evelynne returning to her own bed after making love. Somehow, though, that had never happened, and now Evelynne hadn't slept in her own bed in a week.

Ally had expressed her concern over what the servants might think, but Evelynne had reassured her that Seneschal Nancu Ylan was committed to preserving their privacy, and even if a servant suspected, he would carefully control the access. However, the Seneschal had done it apparently it had worked, because nobody had given them odd looks, or knowing winks, or anything that would have been considered a sign of knowledge of their new relationship.

The only person who had said anything had been Maïda, who had separately cornered first Evelynne, then Ally, on the first day and spoken to them until she was satisfied that they both knew the possible personal repercussions of their nascent relationship. She had said nothing about the possible political or social ramifications, however.

The week had also been marked by a steady discovery of each others' bodies, along with what turned each other on. With no previous experience to draw on, but a very fertile imagination, Evelynne had begun by mainly following Ally's lead, until she gained enough confidence to begin experimenting. So far she had discovered little that she didn't like, although there were some things that were incredibly enjoyable... for both parties. In fact, taking charge a little more had been inspired, since Ally revealed a preference for being somewhat submissive while making love, leaving the more dominant role to her partner - a role that Evelynne took to with great relish. It was by no means the "whips and chains" fetish that Evelynne had once speculated about, and Ally had shown a distinct aversion to any actual pain during sex. Still, it had been an incredible turn-on when Evelynne had realised that she had this massively powerful being willing - eager, even - to have her take charge.

At one point, once Evelynne had realised the amount of pleasure she was getting from her dominance, she had spoken to Ally about it, worried that she might be getting too much enjoyment out of it. Ally, in turn, had laughed heartily, before, without warning, leaping on her lover and reversing their roles in a love-making session that had Evelynne completely at the other woman's mercy... for several hours.

"I suppose you will," Ally said, leaning her head against Evelynne's, which was resting on her shoulder. She sighed. "You know, I really need to figure out how to teleport. Then it wouldn't matter where I was working."

"Mmm." Evelynne paused. "Is that possible? Teleporting, I mean?"

Ally shrugged slightly. "I have no idea. I've read some stories and legends that suggest it, but I don't know for sure."

"Mmm," Evelynne hummed again. "It would be nice if you could. I don't know how I'm going to handle not being with you... sleeping with you... making love to you."

Ally blushed. "I suppose we'll just have to handle ourselves as best we can," she said. Suddenly realising what she'd said, she blushed harder. "Um... that is..."

Evelynne chuckled. "That's okay, I know what you mean." She hesitated. "Do you ever do... that?" Ally's bright red ears were her only answer. The princess' brows rose. "Really. Often?"

"Well... not in the past week," Ally managed to mutter. A pause. "Um... do you?"

Evelynne grinned and nipped playfully at Ally's neck. "Not in the past week." She looked at Ally's flushed face, realising that at least part of it was due to arousal. "Does it get you... excited, thinking about me like that?" She began a slow scratching of her lover's stomach.

"Um... y-yes?" Ally said, her voice hitching. Trying to gather herself, she attempted to stand, but was prevented by Evelynne's encircling arms. "Uh, Evy, if I don't go now, I'm going to be... uncomfortable all day."

"Well, we don't want that," Evelynne murmured, still nibbling along Ally's neck. She made no attempt to remove her arms. Instead, in a move too fast to intercept, she slipped her hand down the front of Ally's pants. The move was made easier by the fact that Ally had yet to put on a belt.

"Evy!" Ally said, shocked. "What are you... Oh God." Her eyes closed involuntarily. "You c-can't..."

"I can," Evelynne countered. "I can make you feel good. I can give you something to remember me by." Her voice lowered and she spoke directly into Ally's ear. "I can show you how much I love you."

Though unable to reply verbally, Ally managed to convey her response clearly, through her breathy moans and sighs, until she stiffened, hunching over slightly for long seconds until she finally relaxed again. Evelynne cradled her nearly boneless love to her chest with her free hand. She mused on just how quiet Ally usually was when they were making love, and made a mental note to ask why she was so silent... sometime later. In contrast, the princess had, to her own surprise, found herself to be quite vocal, though not particularly loud.

"Jesus, Evelynne," Ally said hoarsely a few minutes later, "I can't believe you did that."

"Did what?" Evelynne asked. Experimentally, she twitched her entrapped fingers, intrigued by the answering jerk from the body in her arms.

"Oh God... That," Ally said. She looked down at herself. "I'm fully dressed."

"You are," Evelynne confirmed. "And you have no idea how hot that made me."

Ally finally noticed the increased heat radiating from her lover. Twisting around, unable to suppress a shiver as Evelynne's hand slipped from her between her legs, she knelt on the floor beside the bed, with the princess - looking very un-princesslike - kneeling on the bed before her. Raising a trembling hand, she slowly ran her palm up the side of Evelynne's leg and continued up her body. "Oh, I think I can," Ally said huskily. "Allow me to demonstrate."

"Hello, Alleandre," Dr Malloy shouted over the roar of the helicopter blades. "I'm glad to see you arrived safe and sound. Alice tells me you nearly missed your flight." He gestured towards his secretary, who was standing some distance away, having chosen not to chance the wind kicked up by the rotors.

"Hi, Doctor Malloy," Ally replied, shaking his hand. They quickly moved away from the aircraft while a grey-uniformed worker collected Ally's baggage. Once out of range of the blades, they were able to speak more normally. "Um, yeah. I got delayed at the Palace. Thankfully Sir Arthur was able to get me to the airport just in time." The memory of the reason for her tardiness, unexpected but highly pleasant, brought a high blush to her cheeks, and she hoped that the excavation's Director wouldn't notice.

It seemed that Dr Malloy remained oblivious to his new employee's reaction, as he simply nodded distractedly. "And how is Her Highness? Well, I hope."

"Oh, yes, she's... fine." Better than fine, actually... if the way she was reacting this morning was any indication.

"I'm glad to hear it," the Doctor said as they drew near the small welcoming committee that had assembled to meet Ally. He wasted no time before introducing those present. "Alleandre, I believe you remember Alice Bennett, my secretary?"

"Ah, yes," Ally said, smiling and shaking the other woman's hand. "The one who actually runs things around here."

Ms Bennett smiled broadly. "Aye. Ye do remember, then. Shows ye 'ave a good 'ead on yer shoulders."

"Indeed it does," Malloy said, grinning. "And don't worry if you forget; Alice will be sure to remind you who's in charge." He moved on to a tall, muscular man, whose thick blond beard looked like it could house several families of birds. "This is Charles Hanlin, our building supervisor. He's put together a small set of offices for your use, and also made you some temporary living quarters. He's the one to talk to if you want to expand either."

"Dame Alleandre," Hanlin rumbled, shaking her hand with a surprisingly gentle grip, "I'm pleased to meet you. Dusan has spoken to me about some of your ideas, and I'm intrigued. I hope we can discuss some of them sometime soon."

"I'd like that, Mr Hanlin," Ally replied, somewhat surprised.

Some must have shown on her face, because Malloy chuckled. "Charles is also one of the best amateur architects we have. He has a knack for predicting the floorplans of the buildings we excavate before we've even finished. Don't let his appearance fool you. I believe he probably has more practical experience than half the archaeologist we have on staff. Enough to get him several Doctorates, if he was so inclined."

Hanlin blushed, increasing Ally's surprise. "Naw. There's no way you're saddling me with some pansy academic title. Those things are for wimps." He cast a sidelong glance at Malloy. "No offence, Doc."

It was obvious that such genial insults were a common occurrence. "None taken," Malloy said blithely. "And finally, this is Ms Laura Garrity, your own secretary." Ally looked shocked. "Believe me, you will be thankful you have one once the paperwork starts piling up." He scowled. "Event though we don't have a lot of governmental oversight, what exists is enough to drive any 'pansy academic wimp' to distraction."

Everyone laughed, and Ally shook her new secretary's hand. The other woman, a blonde, extremely fit woman in her mid-thirties, had a firm, no-nonsense grip that Ally immediately appreciated. "Ms Garrity," she greeted. "I'm not quite sure what to do here. I've never had a secretary before."

"No problem, Ms Tretiak," Laura said, smiling politely. "I'll be sure to let you know what to let me know to do."

While Ally worked out that sentence, Alice Bennett laughed. "I think she's the best kind, Laura. You can start training her right away."

The introductions complete, Dr Malloy escorted them all to the waiting cars. He showed Ally and Laura Garrity to one car and helped them in. "I hate to leave you so quickly," he said, "but I have a telephone conference with several of our university contacts in about fifteen minutes. So, I will leave you in Ms Garrity's capable hands. She'll show you to your office and new quarters, and also give you a tour of our residence area. She also knows how to contact me if necessary." He smiled at both women. "Alleandre, welcome to Aztlan."

"And here's your office, Ms.... er... Dame Alleandre," Laura Garrity said, opening the door and allowing Ally to enter.

"Please, call me Ally," the other woman said, looking around curiously. She smiled wryly. "Honestly, I'm still not comfortable with all that Dame Alleandre stuff."

"Of course... Ally," Laura said. "I'm actually not used to using all these titles yet."

"Oh? I thought all Atlantlans learned all that etiquette."

"I'm sure they do. However, I'm not Atlantean... um, Atlantlan."

"Really? Where are you from?" Ally asked curiously.

"Texas," Laura replied. "I'm here on a work exchange program."

"Really?" Ally said, surprised. "I didn't realise."

"What, you didn't recognise the accent?" Laura teased, smiling.

"Oh, I noticed it. It's just that I've heard so many different accents since I've come here that I don't even notice them any more. I'm just a little surprised that you're from America. I didn't think Atlantl and the U.S. were that friendly."

"Oh, it's not that bad," the secretary explained. "Heck, even during the Cold War Russia and the States had similar programs. They were usually simply covers for espionage operations on both sides, but some good did come of them. The politicians have to play up the tension for their own reasons, but those of us who are actually working can usually ignore it... for the most part." She paused. "It doesn't bother you, does it? That I'm American?"

"Oh, no. Not at all. I just don't know many Americans. My uncle became an American citizen a couple of years ago, but I don't see him much." Ally shrugged. "You know how they describe Canadians, don't you?"

"No, I don't think so."

Ally smiled. "Canadians are just unarmed Americans with health care."

Laura laughed. "I see," she said. "Is that all?"

Ally shrugged again. "Pretty much. Actually, we tend to make a big deal out of how we're different, and in some ways we really are. In fact, Canada is one of the only countries to define their cultural identity by what they're not. Ask any Canadian and the first thing they'll say is, 'We're not Americans.'" Laura laughed again. "No, really, it's true."

"Okay," Laura said. "Well, if you don't have a problem with me being a gun-toting American..."

"... I hope you don't have a problem with me being a pansy-assed Canadian."

"No problem here."

"Good," Ally said, relieved. She hesitated, then continued in a more serious voice. "Speaking of problems... You might know... Hell, the whole world knows that I'm a lesbian." Laura nodded. "And, well... some people I've worked with in the past have had a problem with it. And... this job is really important to me..." She trailed off.

"I have absolutely no problem with your sexual orientation," Laura assured her. "As long as you're breaking no laws, I really couldn't care less. I happen to be happily straight, but I assume it doesn't bother you. Does it?"

"Of course not."

"Then there you go. Subject closed." Laura smiled. "Now, back to business." She waved a hand to indicate the office. "Before we got off track, I was going to give you the nickel tour." She looked around the small space and was silent for a moment. "Well, this is it. It's not much, but then this post is brand new. Apparently nobody's quite sure what exactly you'll be doing, so we're starting small. We'll be able to bring in more office space and equipment as we need it."

Ally looked around the small room. It was some six metres square, constructed of pre-fabricated panels which could probably be deconstructed in less that an hour. A small window was set in two of the walls, while the door to the outside was in the middle of the fourth. A second door was in one corner. A skylight let light into the room, enhancing the fluorescent bulbs that were the primary source of illumination.

Those would have to be the first things to go, Ally decided. For some unknown reason, fluorescent lights - either the frequency of their light, their subliminal sounds, or something else - had a dulling effect on her telempathic and clairsentient abilities. Something more conducive to concentration would have to be installed.

Two simple desks occupied the lion's share of the floor space. One, already sporting an impressive collection of papers and files, Ally assumed to be her secretary's. A few framed pictures, their faces away from the door, lent a more personal feel to the workspace. The other desk was nearly pristine, with neatly arranged office supplies bracketing a sleek-looking LCD computer monitor, keyboard and mouse. She couldn't see the CPU, but assumed it was nearby. Other than that, the only furniture consisted of a few desk chairs - Ally could see that those would be the next things to be replaced - a small table at the side of the room, and a couple of file drawers.

Finishing her scrutiny, Ally faced her new secretary again. "Well, once we add a bit of colour, this'll be a pretty good place to work." Pointing to the second door, she asked, "What's through there?"

"Bathroom," Laura replied, confirming Ally's guess. "I've been assured that we can expand with additional storerooms or lab spaces as needed... within reason, of course. If you want a scanning-tunnelling electron microscope in a sterile lab, that might take a bit of work."

"I'll keep that in mind," Ally said wryly. "I think it would probably be easier to send things to Jamaz University in that case."

"I'd imagine so," Laura agreed. Taking a seat at her desk and snatching up a PDA, the secretary waved Ally into another chair. "Now, I don't mean to rush you into anything, but I was wondering what you were intending to do."

"Oh. Okay then. Well, what's been done so far?"

"Not much. The basic summaries of the excavations so far have been uploaded to your computer, and Doctor Malloy said to let you know that if you have any questions to feel free to call him. All the computers on site are video linked. Now, I imagine you want to spend a few days getting caught up on things, but I was wondering if you had any ideas for your first project."

"Okay." Ally had actually been able to read and memorise - thanks to her newfound speed-reading and eidetic abilities - much more than the summaries of the excavations. Practically a whole library of information had been "uploaded" directly into her brain. She still couldn't access it automatically, instead having to "read" it behind her eyes, but she thought it would still come in very useful. "Well, I know we're going to need more people. So if you could maybe get together some information on what we have to do to hire some people... Procedures, budgets, that sort of thing." She smiled crookedly. "I've never done anything like this before. I'm a little out of my depth."

"No problem," Laura said. She was making notes the tiny screen of her PDA. She looked up. "So who were you looking to hire?"

"Well, I'd imagine that there are already plenty of architects and archaeologists on site." Ally shared a grin with her secretary. "But I know we're going to need some other scientists." She thought for a moment. "One of the first things I'd like to do is investigate that pattern in the Great Temple. I have a hunch that it's possibly a big electronic circuit, and I'm afraid that my electrical engineering skills are sadly lacking. So an electrical engineer would be good. Also someone with some background in optics, and materials science."

"Got it."

"I was thinking of maybe getting grad students. For one thing, I'd like to help them financially. For another... I only have a bachelor's degree myself, and somehow I think that Ph.D.'s might find it beneath them to work for someone like me. And the last reason is that with what we're doing, we want people with fresh ideas, those without old scientific prejudices holding them back. Basically, I want people who aren't completely used to saying, 'It's not possible.'" Ally smiled at a private joke. "I kind of have a thing about that."

Laura was looking at her with a considering expression on her face. "You know, I might have misjudged you," she said.

"Pardon?" Ally asked.

"I've read about you in the papers, and seen you on TV, and I always thought you didn't really look as though you belonged with all those high society people. No offence intended. I only thought you didn't have the political savvy to belong there."

"Oh, none taken. Usually I really can't stand all that hobnobbing myself."

"And now I've just seen you navigate a potentially tricky political situation in a completely logical manner. You've come up with at least a possibly viable solution. Grad students are a great idea."

Ally blushed. "I've had some time to think about it. And it might not work. Just because they're not doctors doesn't mean they're all modest, easy-going types themselves. I know from experience that some are real pricks. But a lot are decent people. Also, they're all very familiar with the other more senior professors in their departments, and could tell us if there are any that might be suitable to join us as well."

"And I rest my case. You are good at this."

"So, how did your first day go?" Evelynne asked into the phone that was held between her shoulder and ear as she lay in a bed that seemed strangely - or not so strangely - large and empty.

"Pretty well," Ally's voice replied over their connection. "Everyone's at least pretending to be happy to see me. Doctor _____ has been really helpful. Actually, his secretary's been the helpful one. I think that when _____ finds a new thing to occupy his attention he pretty much tunes the rest of the world out. Apparently they found some new mural at the site shortly after I arrived. I didn't see him after that."

"Hmmm. That reminds me of a certain someone I know when she finds a new Terry Pratchett book," the princess teased.

"I don't know what you mean," Ally said with exaggerated innocence. "But she sounds like someone with excellent taste."

"I like to think so. She's a... friend of mine." Evelynne paused for a moment. "Are you enjoying the gift Uncle Arthur sent with you?"

"I am," Ally replied. "I'm using it right now. I think we're safe for the moment."

"Oh good," Evelynne said, allowing a much warmer and more intimate tone to enter her voice.

The "gift" was a high quality scrambling device that could be attached to any telephone, allowing the user to speak with near total confidence in their privacy. All of the phones in the Palace were outfitted with similar devices as a matter of course, but that still left the other side of the call vulnerable to electronic eavesdroppers. With a portable version of her own, Ally could call her lover and speak freely without fear that their relationship would be exposed.

"Yeah, remind me to thank Sir Arthur. I never would have thought of something like this."

"I'll do that." Evelynne hesitated. "I miss you already," she said, hoping that she didn't sound too desperate.

"I miss you, too," Ally said softly, and even over the slight static of the line the warmth and love in her voice could be easily heard. Evelynne revelled in the sound. "I thought about you all day, and when I came back to the place that I'm staying and saw this empty bed... I seriously considered dumping this job and flying back to be with you... Is that healthy?"

"I think so. Hey, you could get a late night flight and be back in three hours," Evelynne said, only half-joking.

"To hell with the airplane. I was planning on just jumping into the air and speeding back under my own power." Ally sighed. "Then I thought about how far it is, and realised that I've never flown that far before in a single stretch. I really didn't want to run out of steam over the Mulbaya Channel."

"That would be bad," Evelynne agreed. "I suppose we'll just have to depend on the phone until you come back this weekend... You are coming back this weekend, right?"

"Of course," Ally said. "Even if I actually do have to fly by myself."

"Good." Evelynne paused, looking sightlessly up at the ceiling. "I still can't believe how much I'm missing you," she reiterated.

"I know," Ally said softly. "I can feel you."

"Really? All the way from Aztlan?"

Ally laughed. "Love, I could feel you all the way from the west coast of Canada."

"Oh... I wish I could feel you like that," Evelynne said wistfully.

"So do I," Ally replied. "I want you to know just how much I love you."

"Oh, I know that," Evelynne said, smiling. "You know, you're not exactly shy about letting me know."

"Yeah, well..." From the embarrassed tone of Ally's voice, Evelynne could easily picture her lover's blush. "I've never felt like this before."

"Never?" Evelynne teased. "Not even -" She stopped herself, remembering Ally's refusal to compare her previous and current relationships in any way. "Never?"

"Never," Ally confirmed, her tone serious. It was clear that she knew what Evelynne had been about to ask and appreciated that she hadn't done so. "I like feeling like this... even when you're not here."

"So do I. Although I like it better when you are close."

"Yeah." They were silent for a moment. "You know," Ally said, "we sound like a couple of lovesick idiots from some trashy novel, don't we?"

Evelynne laughed. "I was just about to say that. How did you know what I was thinking?"

"Well, I am psychic, you know."

"So, Mr Islin, what particular skills do you think you can bring to this project?" Ally asked, leaning back in her brand new office chair.

Rather than deal with the hassle of requisitioning something more comfortable through official channels, she had simply dipped into her newfound fortune and bought the plush leather seat herself. Nearby, Laura Garrity was happily ensconced in her own comfortable chair, dealing with paperwork. Across the desk from Ally, the person she was interviewing shifted slightly in his less opulent but still comfortable seat.

"Well, Dame Alleandre," Taldas Islin said, his speech clear and precise, "I remember hearing that you're looking for, ah, 'unconventional thinkers'. I hope I don't sound too boastful, but I am one of the most original thinkers at He'Attan University... much to the despair of my thesis advisors. They were finally forced to accept my thesis proposal, but not without a fair amount of arm-twisting." He smiled, confident but not arrogantly so.

"Oh?" Ally looked down at the resume on her desk. "'Adaptive Evolutionary Electronics And Its Applications'," she read. She looked up again. "What is that, exactly?"

"It's a new way of thinking of the design of electronic circuits," Islin said, leaning forward slightly. His enthusiasm for the subject was unmistakable. "The old way - the way that's used today - is to design the circuit on paper, using the known electronic laws and principles, and then build it. A new way that's very slowly gaining recognition is through adaptive evolution. Essentially, you build a large set of slightly different generic circuits out of adaptive components, such as an array of a hundred smart transistors, and then simply turn it on. You have a goal in mind, of course. Now, on the first run, you simply take those circuits that come closest to your goal and keep them, and discard the rest. The ones that are left are combined into a new set of circuits - 'bred' with each other, if you will - and you repeat the process. In that way you have an evolutionary process, where successful 'species' of circuits are retained, while the unsuccessful ones 'die out'. Amazing as it seems to most people, within a few hundred cycles you usually have a circuit that works perfectly at whatever it is you want. Of course, we've only done work on fairly simple goals to date, such as 'recognising' the difference between two different electrical signals, but the potential applications are massive."

"That sounds impressive," Ally admitted. And you're right, it's like you're 'breeding' new circuits. So all this modelling is done on computer, right?"

Islin shook his head. "Sometimes, just for experimentation, but usually we build the entire physical circuit. The idea is that a computer model cannot accurately predict the results because the real world is much too complex. Interactions between adjacent electronic components, with the Earth's magnetic field... with the inert circuit board itself; they all have an impact on the actual functioning of the circuit." He shook his head bemusedly. "There are a few circuits we've built that do exactly what we 'bred' them to do... but we have no idea exactly why they work. Components with absolutely no electrical connection with the rest of the circuit - effectively 'useless' components - cause the entire thing to stop working if they're removed. There is probably some interaction based to electrical or magnetic fields, but it's very hard to know for sure... because as soon as we try to insert a probe of some kind, it stops working again."

"Interesting," Ally murmured, her eyebrows quirked. She appeared to be thinking. "So... essentially you wouldn't even need to know the physical laws behind the technology? You could just... keep trying until something worked."

Islin frowned. "I suppose so. Of course, you'd need a certain degree of knowledge so that you could build the thing to begin with. Once you did that, though, it's like evolution: trial and error, with potentially equally impressive results."

"I see," Ally said. "Do you -"

She was interrupted as the door opened suddenly and a heavy-set, bespectacled young woman entered, who blinked owlishly after entering the relative dark of the office. The newcomer's expression cleared as her eyesight did, and she saw Ally sitting with the new candidate. "I am sorry," she said with a thick Arabic accent. "I do not know you have... visitor."

"That's okay, Rena," Ally said, waving the young woman over. She stood, and Islin did the same. "Mr Islin here is applying for a position with our merry band of misfits. "Taldas Islin, Rena bel'Oman. Rena's our resident material sciences expert."

"Ah, greetings, fellow misfit," Islin said, grinning as he shook Rena's hand.

The other woman looked confused. "I am sorry. What is... 'misfit'?"

"Y'ek'sal," Islin translated into Lantlan, and Rena's face cleared.

"Ah, yes," she said. "I am also... misfit."

"Rena here got in trouble with her faculty because she was trying to show that the ancient Egyptians must have had something resembling ultrasonic drill bit technology," Ally explained. "Plus trying to show that whatever it was must have been about a hundred times more efficient than anything we have today."

"But, of course 'everyone knows' that all ancient cultures are too primitive to have developed that kind of technology," Islin concluded. He shook his head ruefully. "Even with Aztlan here, and all the incredible things around, they still insist that the Canals were made using slave labour and elephant power. Personally, I think some kind of levitation device is much more likely."

Ally smiled internally. She had her own theories about how such huge projects could have been completed, even by some society with no technology, and Islin wasn't that far off. "Mr Islin," she said, "I think you'll fit in pretty well here."

Continued in Chapter 29

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