Heaven's Reach sample chapters
For some reason, the tumultuous red star reminded her of Venus.
Naturally, that brought Tom to mind.
Everything reminded Gillian of Tom. After two years, his absence was still a wound that left her reflexively turning for his warmth each night. By day, she kept expecting his strong voice, offering to help take on the worries. All the damned decisions.
Isn't it just like a hero, to die saving the world?
A little voice pointed out -- that's what heroes are for.
Yes, she answered. But the world goes on, doesn't it? And it keeps needing to be saved.
Ever since the universe sundered them apart at Kithrup, Gillian told herself that Tom couldn't be dead. I'd know it, she would think repeatedly, convincing herself by force of will. Across galaxies and megaparsecs, I could tell if he were gone. Tom must be out there somewhere still, with Creideiki and Hikahi, and the others we were forced to leave behind.
He'll find a way to get safely home... or else back to me.
That certainty helped Gillian bear her burdens during Streaker's first distraught fugitive year... until the last few months of steady crisis finally cracked her assurance.
Then, without realizing when it happened, she began thinking of Tom in the past tense.
He loved Venus, she pondered, watching the raging solar vista beyond Streaker's hull. Of course Izmunuti's atmosphere was bright, while Earth's sister world was dim beneath perpetual acid clouds. Yet, both locales shared essential traits. Harsh warmth, unforgiving storms, and scant moisture.
Both provoked extremes of hope and despair.
She could see him now, spreading both spacesuited arms to encompass the panorama below Aphrodite Pinnacle, gesturing toward stark lowlands. Lighting danced about a phalanx of titanic structures that stretched to a warped horizon -- one shadowy behemoth after another -- vast new devices freshly engaged in the labor of changing Venus. Transforming hell, one step at a time.
"Isn't it tremendous?" Tom asked. "This endeavor proves that our species is capable of thinking long thoughts."
Even with borrowed Galactic technology, the task would take longer to complete than humans had known writing or agriculture. Ten thousand years must pass before seas rolled across the sere plains. It was a bold project for poor wolflings to engage in, especially when Sa'ent and Kloornap bookies gave Earthclan slim odds of surviving more than another century or two.
"We have to show the universe that we trust ourselves," Tom added. "Or else who will believe in us?"
His words sounded fine. Noble and grand. At the time, Tom almost convinced Gillian.
Only now things had changed.
Half a year ago, during Streaker's brief, terrified refuge at the Fractal World, Gillian had managed to pick up rumors about the Siege of Terra, taking place in faraway Galaxy Two. Apparently, the Sa'ent touts were now taking bets on human extinction in mere years or jaduras, not centuries.
In retrospect, the Venus terraforming project seemed moot.
We'd have been better off as farmers, Tom and I. Or teaching school. Or helping settle Calafia. We should never have listened to Jake Demwa and Creideiki. This mission has brought ruin on everyone it touched.
Including the poor colonists of Jijo -- six exile races who deserved a chance to find their own strange destiny undisturbed. In seeking shelter on that forbidden world, Streaker only brought disaster on Jijo's tribes.
There seemed one way to redress the harm.
Can we lure the Jophur after us into the new transfer point? Kaa must pilot a convincing trajectory, as if he can sense a perfect thread to latch onto. A miracle path leading toward safety. If we do it right, the big ugly sap rings will have to follow! They'll have no choice.
Saving Jijo justified that option, since there seemed no way to bring Streaker's cargo safely home to Earth. Another reason tasted acrid, vengeful.
At least we'll take enemies with us.
Some say that impending death clarifies the mind, but in Gillian it only stirred regret.
I hope Creideiki and Tom aren't too disappointed in me, she pondered at the door of the conference room.
I did my best.
The Ship's Council had changed since Gillian reluctantly took over the Captain's position, where Creideiki presided in happier times. At the far end of the long table, Streaker's last surviving dolphin officer, Lieutenant Tsh't, expertly piloted a six-legged walker apparatus carrying her sleek gray form into the same niche where Takkata-Jim once nestled his great bulk, before he was killed near Kithrup.
Tsh't greeted the human chief engineer, though Hannes Suessi's own mother wouldn't recognize him now, with so many body parts replaced by cyborg components, and a silver dome where his head used to be. Much of that gleaming surface was now covered with pre-Contact-era motorcycle decals -- an irreverent touch that endeared Hannes to the crew. At least someone had kept a sense of humor through years of relentless crisis.
Gillian felt acutely the absence of one council member, her friend and fellow physician, Makanee, who remained behind on Jijo with several dozen other dolphins -- those suffering from devolution fever, or unessential for the breakout attempt. In effect, dolphins had established a seventh illegal colony on that fallow world -- another secret worth defending with the lives of those left aboard.
Secrets. There are other enigmas, less easily protected.
Gillian's thoughts slipped past the salvaged objects in her office, some of them worth a stellar ransom. Mere hints at their existence had already knocked civilization teetering across five galaxies.
Foremost was a corpse, nicknamed Herbie. An alien cadaver so ancient, its puzzling smile might be from a joke told a billion years ago. Other relics were scarcely less provocative -- or cursed. Trouble had followed Streaker, ever since its crew began picking up objects they didn't understand.
"Articles of Destiny." That was how one of the Old Ones referred to Streaker's cargo of mysteries, when they visited the Fractal World.
Maybe this will be fitting. All those irksome treasures will get smashed down to a proton's width, after we dive into the new transfer point.
At least then she'd get the satisfaction of seeing Herbie's expression finally change, at the last instant, when the bounds of reality closed in rapidly from ten dimensions.
A holo of Izmunuti took up one wall of the conference room, an expanse of swirling clouds wider than Earth's orbit, surging and shifting as the Niss Machine relayed the latest intelligence in Tymbrimi-accented Galactic Seven.
"The Jophur battleship has jettisoned the last of the decoy vessels it seized, letting them drift through space. Freed of their momentum-burden, the Polkjhy is more agile, turning its frightful bulk toward the new transfer point. They aim to reach the reborn nexus before Streaker does."
"Can they beat us there?" Gillian asked in Anglic.
The Niss hologram whirled thoughtfully. "It seems unlikely, unless they use some risky type of probability drive, which is not typical of Jophur. They wasted a lot of time dashing ahead toward the older t-point. Our tight swing past Izmunuti should help Streaker to arrive first.... for whatever good it will do."
Gillian ignored the machine's sarcasm. Most of the crew seemed in accord with her decision. Lacking other options, death was more bearable if you took an enemy with you.
The Jophur situation appeared stable, so she changed the subject. "What can you report about the other ships?"
"The two mysterious flotillas we recently detected in Izmunuti's atmosphere? After consulting tactical archives, I conclude they must have been operating jointly. Nothing else could explain their close proximity, fleeing together to escape unexpected plasma storms."
Hannes Suessi objected, his voice wavering low and raspy from the silver dome.
"Mechanoids and hydrogen-breathers cooperating? That sounds odd."
The whirling blob made a gesture like a nod. "Indeed. The various orders of life seldom interact. But according to our captured Library unit, it does happen, especially when some vital project requires the talents of two or more orders, working together."
The newest council member whistled for attention. Kaa, the chief pilot, did not ride a walker, since he might have to speed back to duty any moment. The young dolphin commented from a fluid-filled tunnel that passed along a wall near one side of the table.
* Can any purpose
* Under tide-pulled moons explain
* Such anomalies? *
For emphasis, Kaa slashed his tail flukes through water that fizzed with bubbles. Gillian translated the popping whistle-poem for Sara Kahoon, who had never learned Trinary.
"Kaa asks what project could be worth the trouble and danger of diving into a star."
Sara replied with an eager nod. "I may have a partial answer." The young Jijoan stroked a black cube in front of her -- the personal algorithmic engine Gillian had lent her when she came aboard.
"Ever since we first spotted these strange ships, I wondered what trait of Izmunuti might attract folks here from some distant system. For instance, my own ancestors. After passing through the regular t-point, they took a path through this giant star's outer atmosphere. All the sneakships of Jijo used the same method to cover their tracks."
We thought of it too, Gillian pondered, unhappily. But I must have done something wrong, since the Rothen were able to follow us, betraying our hiding place and the Six Races.
Gillian noticed Lieutenant Tsh't was looking at her. With reproach for getting Streaker into this fix? The dolphin's eye remained fixed for a long, appraising moment, then turned away as Sara continued.
"According to this teaching unit, stars like Izmunuti pour immense amounts of heavy atoms from their bloated atmospheres. Carbon is especially rich, condensing on anything solid that happens nearby. All our ancestor ships arrived at Jijo black with the stuff. Streaker may be the first vessel ever to try the trick twice, both coming and going. I bet the stuff is causing you some problems."
"No bet!" Boomed Suessi's amplified voice. Hannes had been battling the growing carbon coating. "The stuff is heavy, it has weird properties, and it's been gumming up the verity flanges."
Sara nodded. "But consider -- what if somebody has a use for such coatings? What would be their best way to accumulate it?"
She stroked her black cube again, transferring data to the main display. Though Sara had been aboard just a few days, she was adapting to the convenience of modern tools.
A mirror-like rectangle appeared before the council, reflecting fiery prominences from a broad, planar surface.
"I may be an ignorant native," Sara commented. "But it seems one could collect atoms out of a stellar wind using something with high surface area and small initial mass. Such a vehicle might not even have to expend energy departing, if it rode outward on the pressure of light waves."
Lieutenant Tsh't murmured.
"A sssolar sail!"
"Is that what you call it?" Sara nodded. "Imagine machines arriving through the transfer point as compact objects, plummeting down to Izmunuti, then unfurling such sails and catching a free ride back to the t-point, gaining layers of this molecularly unique carbon, and other stuff, along the way. Energy expenditures per ton of yield would be minimal!"
The whirling Niss hologram edged forward.
"Your hypothesis suggests an economical resource-gathering technique, providing the mechanoids needn't make more than one simple hyperspatial transfer, coming or going. There are cheap alternatives in industrialized regions of the Five Galaxies, but here in Galaxy Four, industry is currently minimal or nil, due to the recent fallow-migration --" The Niss paused briefly.
"Mechanoids would be ideal contractors for such a harvesting chore, creating special versions to do the job swiftly, with minimal mass. It explains why their drives and shields seem frail before the rising storms. They had no margin for the unexpected."
Gillian saw that just half of the orange glitters remained, struggling to flee Izmunuti's gravity before more plasma surges caught them. The three purple dots had already climbed toward the mechanoid convoy, ascending with graceful ease.
"What about the Zang?" She asked.
"I surmise they are the mechanoids' employers. Our Library says Zang groups sometimes hire special services from the Machine Order. Great clans of oxygen breathers also do it, now and then."
"Well, it seems their plans have been ripped," commented Suessi. "Not much cargo getting home, this time."
Pensive whistle-ratchets escaped the gray dolphin in the water-filled tunnel -- not Trinary, but the scattered clicks a cetacean emits when pondering deeply. Gillian still felt guilty about asking Kaa to volunteer for this mission, since it meant abandoning his lover to danger on Jijo. But Streaker needed a first-class pilot for this desperate ploy.
"I concur," the whirling Niss hologram concluded. "The Zang will be in a foul mood, after this setback."
"Because they suffered economic loss?" Tsh't asked.
"That and more. According to the Library, hydrogen-breathers react badly to surprise. They have slower metabolisms than oxy-life. Anything unpredictable is viscerally unpleasant to them.
"Of course, this attitude is strange to an entity like me, programmed by the Tymbrimi to seek novelty! Without surprise, how can you tell there is an objective world? You might as well presume the whole universe is one big sim --"
"Wait a minute," Gillian interrupted, before the Niss got sidetracked in philosophy. "We're all taught to avoid Zang as dangerous, leaving contact to experts from the Great Institutes."
"That is right."
"But now you're saying they may be especially angry? Possibly short-tempered?"
The Niss hologram coiled tensely for several duras.
"After three years together, Dr. Baskin -- amid growing familiarity with your voice tones and thought patterns -- your latest inquiry provokes uneasy feelings.
"Am I justified to be wary?
"Do you find the notion of short-tempered Zang... appealing?"
Gillian kept silent. But she allowed a grim, enigmatic smile.
Five Earth years had passed on his personal duration clock since he took the irrevocable step, standing amid volunteers from fifty alien races, laboriously mouthing polyglottal words of a memorized oath that had been written ages ago, by some species long extinct. Upon joining the Observer Corps, Harry's life didn't simply shift -- it leaped from the river bed of his genetic lineage, transferring loyalty from his birth planet to an austere bureaucracy that was old when his distant ancestors still scurried under Triassic jungle canopies, hiding from dinosaurs.
Yet, during training he was struck how often other students sought him out with questions about Earthclan, whose struggles were the latest riveting interstellar penny-drama. Would the newest band of unprotected, sponsorless "wolflings" catch up with starfaring civilization in time to forestall the normal fate of upstarts? Despite Terra's puny unimportance, this provoked much speculation and wagering.
What was it like -- his fellow acolytes asked -- to have patrons like humans, who taught themselves such basic arts as speech, spaceflight, and eugenics? As a neo-chimp, Harry was junior in status to every other client-citizen at the base, yet he was almost a celebrity, getting hostility from some, admiration from others, and curiosity from nearly all.
In fact, he couldn't tell his classmates much about Terragens Civilization, having spent just a year among the talky neo-chimpanzees of Earth, before dropping out of university to sign on with the Navigation Institute. His life before was already one of exile.
He had been born in space, aboard a Terragens survey vessel. Harry's vague memories of TSS Pelenor were of a misty paradise-lost, filled with high-tech comforts and warm places to play. The crew had seemed like gods -- human officers, neo-chim and neo-dolphin ratings... plus a jolly, treelike Kanten advisor -- all moving about their tasks so earnestly, except when he needed to be cuddled or tickled or tossed in the air.
Then, one awful day, his parents chose to debark and study the strange human tribes on a desolate colony world -- Horst. That ended Harry's part in the epochal voyage of the Pelenor, and began his simmering resentment.
Memories of starscapes and humming engines became muzzy, idealized. Throughout childhood on that dusty world, the notion of space travel grew more magical. By the time Harry finally left Horst, he was shocked by the true sterile bleakness that stretched between rare stellar oases.
I remember it differently, he thought, during the voyage to Earth. Of course that memory was a fantasy, formed by a toddler's impressionable mind. At university, instructors taught that subjective impressions are untrustworthy, biased by the mind's fervent wish to believe.
Still, the thirst would not be slaked. An ambition to seek paradise in other versions of reality.
The bananas held him trapped for days.
If the allaphor had been less personal, Harry might have fought harder. But the image was too explicitly pointed to ignore. After the first debacle, when the station nearly foundered, he decided to wait before challenging the reef again.
Anyway, this wasn't a bad site to observe from. In a synergy between this strange continuum and his own mind, the local region manifested itself as a high plateau, overlooking a vast, undulating sea of purple tendrils. Black mountains still bobbed in the distance, though some of the "holes" in the redblue sky became drooping dimples, as if the celestial dome had decided to melt or slump.
There were also life forms -- mostly creatures of the Memetic Order. Shapes that fluttered, crawled, or shimmered past Harry's octagonal platform, grazing and preying on each other, or else merging or undergoing eerie transformations before his eyes. On all other dimensional planes, memes could only exist as parasites, dwelling in the host brains or mental processors of physical beings. But here in E Space, they roamed free, in a realm of palpable ideas.
"Your imagination equips you to perform the duties of a scout," Wer'Q'quinn explained during Harry's training. "But do not succumb to the lure of solipsism, believing you can make something happen in E Space simply by willing it. E Space can sever your life path, if you grow obstinate or unwary."
Harry never doubted that. Watching memiforms slither across the purple steppe, he passed the time speculating what concepts they contained. Probably, none of the creatures were sapient, since true intelligence was rare on any level of reality. Yet, each of the memes crossing before him manifested a single thought, unconstrained by any organic or electronic brain -- a self-contained idea with as much structured complexity as Harry held in his organs and genetic code.
That one over there, prancing like a twelve-legged antelope -- was it an abstraction distantly related to freedom? When a jagged-edged flying thing swooped down to chase it, Harry wondered if the hunter might be an intricate version of craving. Or was he typically trying to cram the complex and ineffable into simple niches, to satisfy the pattern-needs of his barely sapient mind?
Well, it is "human nature" to trivialize. To make stereotypes. To pretend you can eff the ineffable.
Local meme organisms were fascinating, but now and then something else appeared beneath his vantage point, demanding closer attention.
He could always tell an interloper. Outsiders moved awkwardly, as if their allaphorical shapes were clumsy costumes. Often, predatory memes would approach, sniffing for a savory conceptual meal, only to retreat quickly from the harsh taste of solid matter. Metal-hulled ships or organic life forms. Intruders from some other province of reality, not pausing or staring, but hastening past the floating mountains to seek refuge in the Swiss Cheese sky.
Harry welcomed these moments when he earned his pay. Speaking clearly, he would describe each newcomer for his partner, the station computer, which lay below his feet, shielded against the hostile effects of E Space. At headquarters, experts would decipher his eyewitness account to determine what kind of vessel made transit before Harry's eyes, and where it may have been bound. Meanwhile, he and the computer collaborated to make the best guess they could.
"Onboard memory files are familiar with this pattern," said the floating M at one point, after Harry described an especially bizarre newcomer, rushing by atop a myriad stiff, glimmering stalks, like a striding sunburst. "It appears to be a member of the Quantum Order of Sapiency."
"Really?" Harry pressed against the glass. The object looked as fragile as a feathery zilm spore, carried on the wind to far corners of Horst. Delicate stems kept breaking off and vaporizing as the thing -- (was it a ship? or a single being?) -- hurried toward a sky-hole that lay near the horizon.
"I've never seen a quant anywhere near that big before. What's it doing here? I thought they didn't like E Space."
"Try to imagine how you organics feel about hard vacuum -- you shrivel and perish unless surrounded by layers of protective technology. So the fluctuating subjectivities of this domain imperil some other kinds of life. E Space is even more distasteful to quantum beings than it is to members of the Machine Order."
"Hm. Then why's it here?"
"I am at a loss to speculate what urgent errand impels it. Most quantum beings reside in the foam interstices of the cosmos, out of sight from other life variants -- like bacteria on your homeworld who live in solid rock. Explicit contact with the Quantum Order was only established by experts of the Library Institute less than a hundred million years ago.
"What I can suggest is that you should politely avert your gaze, Scout Harms. The quant is clearly having difficulties. You needn't add to its troubles by staring."
Harry winced at the reminder. "Oh, right. The Uncertainty Principle!" He turned away. His job in E Space was to watch, but you could do harm by watching too closely.
Anyway, his real task was to look for less exotic interlopers.
Most of his ship sightings were of hydrogen breathers, easily identified because their balloonlike vessels looked the same in any continuum. For some reason, members of that order liked taking shortcuts through E Space, on their way from one Jupiter-type world to another, even though A and B levels were more efficient, and transfer points much faster.
On those rare occasions when Harry spotted anyone from his own order of oxygen breathers -- the great and mighty Civilization of Five Galaxies -- none of them approached his sentry position, defending a proscribed route to a forbidden place.
No wonder they hired a low class chim for this job. Even criminals, trying to sneak into a fallow zone, would be fools to use allaphor space as a back door.
As I'm a fool, to be stuck guarding it.
Still, it beat the dry, windy steppes of Horst.
Anything was better than Horst.
He and his parents were the only members of their species on the planet, which meant the long process of learning speech, laborious for young neo-chimps, came doubly hard. With Marko and Felicity distracted by research, Harry had to practice with wild-eyed Probsher kids, who mocked him for his long, furry arms and early stammer. With painted faces and short tempers, they showed none of the dignified patience he'd been taught to expect from the elder race. By the time he learned how different humans were on Horst, it didn't matter. He vowed to leave, not only Horst, but Terragens society. To seek the strange and unfamiliar.
Years later, Harry realized a similar ambition must have driven his parents. In youthful anger, he had spurned their pleas for patience, their awkward affections, even their parting blessing.
Still, regret was just a veneer, forgiveness a civilized abstraction, devoid of pang or poignancy.
Other memories still had power to make his veins tense with emotion. Growing up listening to botbian night wolves howl across dry lakes under patch-gilt moons. Or holding his knees by firelight while a Probsher shaman chanted eerie tales -- fables that Marko and Felicity avidly studied as venerable folk legends, although these tribes had roamed Horst for less than six generations.
His own sapient race wasn't much older! Only a few centuries had passed since human beings began genetic meddling in chimpanzee stock.
Who gave them the right?
No permission was needed. Galactics had followed the same pattern for aeons -- each "generation" of starfarers spawning the next in a rippling bootstrap effect called Uplift.
On the whole, humans were better masters than most... and he would rather be sapient than not.
No. What drove him away from Earthclan was not resentment, but a kind of detachment. The mayfly yammerings of Probsher mystics mattered no more or less than the desperate moves of the Terragens Council, against the grinding forces of an overwhelming universe. One might as well compare sparks rising from a campfire to the stars wheeling by, overhead. They looked similar, at a glance. But what did another incandescent cinder really matter on the grand scale of things?
Did the cosmos care if humans or chims survived?
Even at University this notion threaded his thoughts. Harry's natural links elongated till they parted one by one. All that remained was a nebulous desire to seek out something lasting. Something that deserved to last.
Joining Wer'Q'quinn and the Navigation Institute, he found something enduring, a decision he never regretted.
Still, it puzzled Harry years later that his dreams kept returning to the desolate world of his youth. Horst ribbed his memory. Its wind in the dry grass. Smells that assailed your nose, sinking claws in your sinuses. And images the shaman painted in your mind, like arcs of multicolored sand, falling in place to convey deer, or loper-beast, or spearhunter.
Even as an official of Galactic civilization, representing the oxygen order on a weird plane of reality where allaphors shimmered in each window like reject Dali images, Harry still saw funnels of sparkling heat rising from smoky campfires, vainly seeking union with aloof stars.
"Not that way!" Ling shouted.
Her cry made Lark stumble to a halt, just a few meters down the new corridor.
"But I'm sure this is the best route back to our nest." Lark pointed along a dim, curved aisle, meandering between gray ceramic walls. Strong odors wafted from each twisty, branching passageway aboard the maze-like Jophur ship. This one beckoned with distinct flavors of GREEN and SANCTUARY.
"I believe you." Ling nodded. "That's why we mustn't go there. In case we're still being followed."
She didn't look much like a star god anymore, with her dark hair hacked short and pale skin covered with soot. Wearing just a torn undertunic from her once shiny uniform, Ling now seemed far wilder than the Jijoan natives she once called "savages." In a cloth sling she carried a crimson torus that leaked gore like a wounded sausage.
Lark saw her meaning. Ever since they had tried sabotaging the dreadnought's control chamber, giant Jophur and their robot servants had chased them across the vast vessel. As fugitives, the humans mustn't lead pursuers to the one place offering food and shelter.
"Where to then?" Lark hated being in the open. He grasped their only weapon, a circular purple tube. Larger and healthier than the red one, it was their sole key to get past locked doors and unwary guardians.
Ling knew starships far better than he. But this behemoth warship was different. She peered up one shadowy tunnel, a curled shaft that seemed more organic than artificial.
"Just pick a direction. Quickly. I hear someone coming."
With a wistful glance toward their "nest," Lark took her hand and plunged away at right angles, into another passageway.
The walls glistened with an oily sheen, each passage or portal emitting its own distinct aroma, partly making up for the lack of written signs. Although he was just a primitive sooner, Lark did know traeki. Those cousins of the Jophur had different personalities, but shared many physical traits. As a Jijoan native, he could grasp many nuances in the shipboard scent language.
Despite the eerie hall-curvature, he was starting to get a mental picture of the huge vessel -- an oblate spheroid, studded with aggressive weaponry and driven by engines mighty enough to warp space in several ways. The remaining volume was a labyrinth of workshops, laboratories, and enigmatic chambers that puzzled even the star sophisticate, Ling. Since barely escaping the Jophur command center, they had worked their way inward, back toward the tiny eden where they hid after escaping their prison cell.
The place where they first made love.
Only now the greasy ring-stacks had shut down all the axial drop tubes, blocking easy access along the Polkjhy's north-south core.
"It makes the whole ship run inefficiently," Ling explained earlier, with some satisfaction. "They can't shift or reassign crew for different tasks. We're still hurting them, Lark, as long as we're free!"
He appreciated her effort to see a good side to their predicament. Even if the future seemed bleak, Lark felt content to be with her, for as much time as they had left.
Glancing backward, Ling gripped his arm. Heightened rustling sounds suggested pursuit was drawing near. Then Lark also heard something from the opposite direction, closing in beyond the next sharp bend. "We're trapped!" Ling cried.
He rushed to the nearest sealed door. Its strong redolence reminded him of market days back home, when traeki torus breeders brought their fledglings for sale in mulch-lined pens.
Lark aimed the purple ring at a nearby scent plate and a thin mist shot from the squirming creature. Come on. Do your stuff, he silently urged.
Their only hope lay in this gift from the former traeki sage, Asx, who had struggled free of mental repression by a Jophur master ring just long enough to pop out two infant tubes. The human fugitives had no idea what the wounded red one was for, but the purple marvel had enabled them to stay free for several improbable days, ever since the battleship took off from Jijo on its manic errand through outer space.
Of course we knew it couldn't last.
The door lock accepted the coded chemical key with a soft click and the portal slid open, letting them rush through acrid fumes into a dim chamber, divided by numerous tall, glass partitions. Lark had no time to sort impressions, however, before the corridor behind them echoed with human shouts and a staccato of running feet.
"Stop! Don't you stupid skins know you're just making things worse? Come out, before they start using --"
The closing door cut off angry threats by Ling's former commander. Lark pushed the purple traeki against the inner sense-plate, where it oozed aromatic scramblers -- chemicals tuned to randomize the lock's coding. From experience, he knew it could take half a midura for their pursuers to get through -- unless they brought heavy cutting tools to bear.
Why should they bother? They know we're trapped inside.
He found it especially galling to be cornered by Rann. The third human prisoner had thrown his lot in with the Jophur, perhaps currying favor for the release of his Rothen patron-gods from frozen internment on Jijo. It left Lark with no options, since the purple ring would have nil effect on the big Danik warrior.
Turning around, Lark saw that the glass walls -- stretching from floor to a high ceiling -- made up giant vivariums holding row after row of wriggling, squirming things.
Midget traeki toruses!
Clear tubes carried brown, sludgelike material to each niche.
Refined liquid mulch. Baby food.
We're in their nursery!
By itself, no traeki ring was intelligent. Back on the world where they evolved, slithering through fetid swamps as wormlike scavengers, they never amounted to much singly. Only when traeki began stacking together and specializing did there emerge a unique kind of pre-sapient life, ripe for adoption and uplift by their snaillike Poa patrons.
This is where the Polkjhy crew grows special kinds of rings, packed with the right skills to be new members of the team.
A potent kind of reproduction. No doubt, some of the pulsing doughnut shapes were master rings, designed millennia ago to transform placid, contemplative traeki into adamant, alarming Jophur.
Lark jumped as a human scream clamored down the narrow aisles. Pulse pounding, he ran, shouting Ling's name.
Her voice echoed off glass walls. "Hurry! They've got me cornered!"
Lark burst around a vivarium to find her at last, backing away from two huge Jophur workers, toward a niche in the far wall. The nursery staff, Lark realized. Each tapered pile consisted of at least thirty component toruses -- swaying and hissing -- two meters wide at the bottom and massing almost a ton. Their waxy flanks gleamed with an opulent vitality one never saw in traeki back home on Jijo, flickering with meaningful patterns of light and dark. Colored stenches vented from chem-synth pores, as manipulator tendrils stretched toward Ling.
She moved lithely, darting left and right. Seeking an opening or else something to use as a weapon. There was no panic in her eyes, nor did she give Lark away in her relief to see him.
Of course, Jophur vision sensors faced all directions at once. But with that advantage came a handicap -- slow reaction time. The first stack was still swaying toward its victim when Lark dashed up from behind. Somehow, Asx's gift knew to send a jet of sour spray, striking a gemlike organ that quickly spasmed and went dim.
The whole stack shuddered, slumping to quiescence. Lark wasted no time spinning toward the other foe --
-- only to find his right arm suddenly pinned by an adamant tentacle! An odious scent of TRIUMPH swirled as the second Jophur pulled him close, coiling tendrils and commencing to squeeze.
The purple ring spasmed in Lark's hand, but the chemical spray could not hit its mark at this impossible angle, past the Jophur's bulging midriff. The master torus drove its lesser tubes with a malice and intensity Lark had never seen in serene traekis back home. The constriction grew unbearable, expelling his breath in a choking cry of agony.
A shattering crash filled his ears, as a rain of wetness and needlelike shards fell across his back.
The Jophur emitted a shrill ululation. Then someone shouted a fierce warning in the clicking whistles of staccato Galactic Two.
"To let the human go -- this you must.
"Or else other young ones -- to ruin shall fall!"
The harsh pressure eased off Lark's rib cage just as consciousness appeared about to waver and blow out. His captor huffed and teetered uncertainly. Peering blearily, Lark saw that slivers of glass dusted the big stack, and moisture lay everywhere. Then he caught sight of Ling, crouching several meters away with a crooked metal bar, brandishing it threateningly in front of another vivarium. Where she found the tool, he couldn't guess. But the floor was already strewn with flopping infant rings, decanted violently from one of the nurturing mulch towers. Some struggled on vague flippers or undeveloped legs. Midget master rings waved neural feelers, seeking other toroids to dominate.
Lark felt the nursery worker tremble with hesitation.
Noises beyond the doorway indicated that the Polkjhy crew were already at work, unscrambling the door. Clearly, the two fugitive humans weren't going anywhere.
The Jophur stack decided. It released Lark.
He managed to keep from slumping to the floor, teetering on wobbly knees, feebly raising the purple torus for a clean shot at the pheromone sensors.
In moments, the second worker joined the first in estivation stupor.
Sheesh, Lark pondered. If this was just a tender nurse, I'd hate to meet one of their fighters.
Ling grabbed his arm to keep him from buckling.
"Come on," she urged. "There's no time to rest. We've got lots to do."
"What're you talking about?" Lark tried asking. The question emerged as a gurgling sigh. But Ling refused to let him sink down and rest.
"I think I know a way out of here." She said urgently. "But it's going to be an awful tight fit."
True to her prediction, the cargo container was tiny. Even by scrunching over double, Lark could barely cram himself inside. The purple ring squirmed in the hollow between his ribcage and a wall.
"I still think you should go first," he complained.
Ling hurriedly punched commands on a complex keypad next to the little supply shuttle. "Do you know how to program one of these things?"
She had a point, though Lark didn't like it much.
"Besides, we're heading somewhere unknown. Shouldn't our best fighter lead the way?"
Now Ling was teasing. Whoever went first would overcome opposition by using the Asx's purple gift, or else fail. Physical strength was nearly useless against a robot or a full size Jophur.
He glanced past her toward the far door of the nursery where the red glow of a cutting torch could be seen, slicing an arched opening from the other side. Apparently, Rann and the Jophur had given up unscrambling the lock and decided on a brute-force approach.
"You'll hurry after me?"
For an answer, she bent and kissed him -- once on the forehead in benediction, and again, passionately, on the mouth. "How is that for a promise?" she asked, mingling her breath with his.
As Ling backed away, a transparent hatch slid over the little cab -- built to carry equipment and samples between work stations throughout the Jophur ship. There had been a crude version of such a system back at Biblos, the Jijoan archive, where cherished paper books and messages shuttled between the libraries in narrow tubes of boo.
"Hey!" He called. "Where are you sending m --"
A noise and brilliant flash cut off his question and made Ling spin around. The torch-cutter was accelerating, as if the enemy somehow sensed a need to hurry. To Lark's horror, the arc was over half finished.
"Let me out!" He demanded. "We're switching places!"
Ling shook her head as she resumed programming the console. "Not an option. Get ready. This will be wrenching."
Before Lark could protest a second time, the wall section abruptly fell with a crash. Curt billowings of sparks and dense smoke briefly filled the vestibule. But soon, Jophur warriors would come pouring through... and Ling didn't even have a weapon!
He hammered on the clear panel as several things happened in rapid succession.
Ling knelt to the floor, where scores of infant traeki rings still squirmed in confusion amid shards of their broken vivarium. She emptied her cloth sling, gently spilling Asx's second gift -- the wounded crimson torus -- to mingle among the others.
A tall silhouette passed through the roiling cloud to stand in the glowing doorway. The wedgelike torso was unmistakably Rann, leader of the Danik tribe of human renegades sworn to Rothen lords.
Ling stood. She glanced over her shoulder at Lark, who pounded the hatch, moaning frustration and fear for her.
Calmly, she reached for the keypad.
"No! Let me out! I'll --"
Acceleration kicked suddenly. His folded body slammed one wall of the little car.
Ling's face vanished in a blur as he was swept away toward Ifni-knew-where.
"Are they really gone?"
Dwer bent close to an ancient, pitted window. He peered at a glittering starscape, feeling some of the transmitted chill of outer space, just a finger's thickness away.
"I don't see any sign of em over here," he called back to Rety. "Is it clear on your side?"
His companion -- a girl about fourteen, with a scarred face and stringy hair -- pressed against another pane at the opposite end of the dusty chamber, once the control room of a sleek vessel, but now hardly more than a grimy ruin.
"There's nothin' -- unless you count the bits an' pieces floatin' out there, that keep fallin' off this rusty ol' bucket."
Her hand slammed the nearest bulkhead. Streams of dust trickled from crevices in the prehistoric metal walls.
The starship's original owners must have been oddly-shaped, since the viewing ports were arrayed at knee height to a standing human, while corroded instruments perched on tall pillars spread around the oblong room. Whatever race once piloted this craft, they eventually abandoned it as junk, over half a million years ago, when it was dumped onto a great pile of discarded hulks in the dross midden that lay under Jijo's ocean.
Immersion in sub-icy water surely had preserving effects. Still, the Streaker crew had accomplished a miracle, reviving scores of these wrecks for one final voyage. It made Rety's remark seem unfair, all considered.
There is air in here, Dwer thought. And a machine that spits out a paste we can eat... sort of. We're holding death at bay. For the moment.
Not that he felt exactly happy about their situation. But after all the narrow escapes of the last few days, Dwer found continued life and health cause for surprised pleasure, not spiteful complaint.
Of course, Rety had her own, unique way of looking at things. Her young life had been a lot harder than his, after all.
"i sniff every corner of this old boat," a small voice piped, speaking Anglic with a hissing accent and a note of triumph. "no sign of metal monsters. none! we scare them off!"
The speaker trotted across the control room on four miniature hooves -- a quadruped with two slim centauroid arms and an agile, snakelike neck. Holding his head up proudly, little yee clattered over to Rety and slipped into her belt pouch. The two called each other "husband and wife," an interspecies union that made some sense to another Jijoan but would have stunned any citizen of the Civilization of Five Galaxies. The verbose urrish male and an unbathed, pre-pubescent human female made quite a pairing.
Dwer shook his head.
"Those robots didn't leave on account of our fierce looks. We were hiding in a closet, scared out of our wits, remember?" He shrugged. "I bet they didn't search the ship because they saw it for an empty shell right away."
Almost a hundred ancient derelict ships had been resurrected from the subsea graveyard by Hannes Suessi and his clever dolphin engineers, in order to help mask Streaker's breakout, giving the Earthlings a slim chance against the overpowering Jophur dreadnought. Dwer's presence aboard one of the decoys resulted from a series of rude accidents. (Right now he was supposed to be landing a hot air balloon in Jijo's Gray Hills, fulfilling an old obligation, not streaking into the blackness away from the wilderness he knew best.)
But Rety had planned to be here! A scheme to hijack her very own starship must have been stewing in that devious brain for weeks, Dwer now realized.
"The sap rings cut us loose so they can go dolphin-hunting somewhere else! I knew this'd happen," Rety exulted. "Now all we gotta do is head for the Five Galaxies. Make it to some place with a lot of traffic, flag down some passing trading ship, an' strike a deal. This old hulk oughta be worth something. You watch, Dwer. Meetin' me was the best thing that ever happened to you! You'll thank me when you're a star god, livin' high for three hunnerd years."
Her enthusiasm forced him to smile. How easily Rety looked past their immediate problems! Such as the fact that all three of them were primitive Jijoans. Learning to pilot a space vessel would have been a daunting task for Dwer's brilliant siblings -- Lark or Sara -- who were junior sages of the Commons of Six Races. But I'm just a simple forester! How is skill at tracking beasts going to help us navigate from star to star?
As for Rety, brought up by a savage band of exile sooners, she could not even read a few months ago, when she began picking up the skill.
"Hey, teacher!" Rety called. "Show us where we are!"
Four gray boxes lay bolted to the floor, linked by cable to an ancient control pillar. Three had been left by the dolphins, programmed to guide this vessel through the now-completed breakout maneuver. Last was a portable "advisor" -- a talking machine -- given to Rety by the Streaker crew. She had showed Dwer her toy earlier, before the Jophur robots came.
"Passive sensors are operating at just seven percent efficiency," the unit answered. "Active sensors are disabled. For those reasons, this representation will be commensurately imprecise."
A picture suddenly erupted between Rety and Dwer... one of those magical holo images that moved and had the texture of solidity. It showed a fiery ball in one low corner -- Great Izmunuti, he realized with a superstitious shiver. A yellow dot in the exact center represented this hapless vessel. Several other bits of yellow glimmered nearby, drifting slowly toward the upper right.
The Jophur have cut loose all the captured decoys. I guess that means they know where Streaker is.
He thought of Gillian Baskin, so sad and so beautiful, carrying burdens he could never hope to understand. During his brief time aboard the Earth vessel he had a feeling... an impression that she did not expect to carry the burdens much longer.
Then what was it all for? If escape was hopeless, why did Gillian lead her poor crew through so much pain and struggle?
"Behold the Jophur battleship," said Rety's teacher. A blurry dot appeared toward the top right corner, now moving rapidly leftward, retracing its path at a close angle toward Izmunuti.
"It has changed course dramatically, moving at maximum C-Level pseudospeed."
"Can you see Streaker?" Dwer asked.
"I cannot. But judging from the Polkjhy 's angle of pursuit, the Terran ship may be masked by the red giant star."
He sensed Rety sitting crosslegged on the floor next to him, her eyes shining in light from the hologram.
"Forget the Earthers," she demanded. "Show us where we're headin'!"
The display changed, causing Izmunuti and the Jophur frigate to drift out of view. A fuzzy patch moved in from the top edge, slippery to look at. Rows of symbols and numbers flickered alongside -- information that might have meant something to his sister, but were simply frightening to Dwer.
"That's the... transfer point, right?" Rety asked, her voice growing hushed. "The hole-thing that'll take us to the Five Galaxies?"
"It is a hole, in a manner of speaking. But this transfer point cannot serve as a direct link out of Galaxy Four -- the galaxy we are in -- to any of the others. In order to accomplish that, we must follow transition threads leading to other hyperspatial nexi. A much bigger one, capable of longer-range jumps."
"You mean we'll have to portage from stream to stream, a few times?" Dwer asked, comparing the voyage to a canoe trip across a mountain range.
"Your metaphor has some limited relevance. According to recent navigation data, a route out of this galaxy to more populated regions can be achieved by taking a series of five transfers, or three transfers plus two long jumps through A-Level hyperspace; or two difficult transfers plus one A-level jump and three B-level cruises; or --"
"That's okay," Rety said, clapping her hands to quiet the machine. "Right now all I want to know is, will we get to the point all right?"
There followed a brief pause while the machine pondered.
"I am a teaching unit, not a starship navigator. All I can tell is that our C-Level pseudomomentum appears adequate to reach the periphery of the nexus. This vessel's remaining marginal power may be sufficient to then aim toward one of the simpler transfer threads."
Rety did not have to speak. Her smug expression said it all. Everything was going according to her devious plan.
But Dwer would not be fooled.
She may be brilliant, he thought. But she's also crazier than a mulc-spider.
He had known it ever since the two of them almost died together, months ago in the Rimmer Mountains, seized in the clutches of a mad antiquarian creature called One-of-a-Kind. Rety's boldness since then had verged on reckless mania. Dwer figured she only survived because Ifni favors the mad with a special, warped set of dice.
He had no idea what a transfer point was, but it sounded more dangerous than poking a ruoul shambler in the face with a fetor worm.
Ah, well. Dwer sighed. There was nothing to be done about it right now. As a tracker, he knew when to just sit back and practice patience, letting nature take its course. "Whatever you say, Rety. But now let's turn the damn thing off. You can show me that food machine again. Maybe we can teach it to give us something better than greasy paste to eat."
He reconfigured the station to look something like a Martian arachnite, a black oval body perched on slender, stalklike legs. It was all part of Harry's plan to deal with the problem of those transumptive banana peels.
After pondering the matter, and consulting the symbolic reference archive, he decided the screwy yellow things must be allaphorical representations of short-scale time warps, each one twisting around itself through several subspace dimensions. Encountering one, you would meet little resistance at first. Then, without warning, you'd slam into a slippery, repulsive field that sent you tumbling back toward your point of origin at high acceleration.
If this theory was true, he'd been lucky to survive that first brush with the nasty things. Another misstep might be much more... energetic.
Since flight seemed memetically untenable in this part of E Level, the spider morphology was the best idea Harry could come up with, offering an imaginative way to maneuver past the danger, using stilt legs to pick carefully from one stable patch to the next. It would be risky, though, so he delayed the attempt for several days, hoping the anomaly reef would undergo another phase shift. At any moment, the irksome "peels" might just evaporate or transform into a less lethal kind of insult. As long as he had a good view of his appointed watch area, it seemed best to just sit and wait.
Of course, he knew why a low-class Earthling recruit was assigned to this post. Wer'Q'quinn had said Harry's test scores showed an ideal match of cynicism and originality, suiting him for lookout duty in allaphor space. But in truth, E Level was unappealing to most oxygen breathers. The great clans of the Civilization of Five Galaxies thought it a quaint oddity at best. Dangerous and unpredictable. Unlike Levels A, B, and C, it offered few shortcuts around the immense vacuum deserts of normal space. Anyone in a hurry -- or with a strong sense of self-preservation -- chose transfer points, hyperdrive or soft-quantum tunneling, instead of braving a realm where fickle subjectivity reigned.
Of course, oxygen-breathers only made up the most gaudy and frenetic of life's eight orders. Harry kept notes whenever he sighted hydros, quantals, memoids and other exotic types, with their strange insouciance about the passage of time. They don't see it as quite the enemy we oxy-types do.
His bosses at the Navigation Institute craved data about those strange comings and goings, though he could hardly picture why. The orders of sapiency so seldom interacted, they might as well occupy separate universes.
Still, you could hide a lot in all this weirdness, a trait that sometimes drew oxy-based life down here. On occasion, some faction or alliance would try sending a battle fleet through E Space, suffering its disadvantages in order to take rivals by surprise. Or else criminals might hope to move by a secret path through this treacherous realm. Harry was trained to look out for sooners, gene raiders, syntac thieves, and others trying to cheat the strict rules of migration and uplift. Rules that so far kept the known cosmos from dissolving into chaos and ruin.
He nursed no illusions about his status. Harry knew this job was just the sort of dangerous, tedious duty the great institutes assigned to lowly clients of an unimportant clan. Yet he took seriously his vow to Wer'Q'quinn and NavInst. He planned showing all the doubters what a neo-chimp could do....
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