Chapter 6 – Wilderness

Canorus and Borne were floating in mid-air, peering over the edges of the truck bed. Vivian was rummaging in a duffle bag. She produced a pistol and thrust it upon Isaiah. He recognized it as a TSTO-issue shock pistol. It was set to stun.

There was a bang and another lurch. Isaiah rode his spontaneous adrenalin rush into hysterical speed and agility. "Attack?" he asked. Then he noticed the sinking sensation was real, not just his stomach's opinion.

For a weird moment, he thought Vivian was about to embrace him. Then he saw that, in fact, she had turned away, gun in hand, aiming out the tailgate. What had given him such a strong impression of her approach?

The question was swept away by unfamiliar thoughts and knowledge. Yes, it was an attack. Four skycycles, two trailing, two flanking the truck. ("How do I know that?" Isaiah wondered. He had seen no skycycles yet.) The rider on the seaward cycle had twice shot the truck in the lifters with a rifle. The rider was Joel Steves.

He wants us down in the water, so we can sink without trace.

He's not gonna get it. Borne was hovering in the center of the truck bed. He was, Isaiah realized with a shock, helping to hold up the truck. In the cab, Jeanette was ordering Louise to land the truck on the shore.

Could Canorus haywire the skycycles? No, they were all psilenced.

Another bang, this time from one of the rear skycycles. Open fire. Isaiah joined in with a will. But the skycycles and the truck were both weaving. For some time, no one hit anything.

Then the truck landed with a thump and a squeal of metal on pebbles.

Vivian lit up. A pale nimbus surrounded her. It shot out and back in silvery, misty wings. She rose – and vanished. Borne dropped onto the grain sacks, panting. FX, Daima, and Canorus shot up into the air and winked out, one by one.

A blaster bolt charred the sacking at Isaiah's elbow. He curled up and returned fire with his stunner. Simultaneously, Borne glared at a man-sized boulder near the truck's tailgate. It shot upward. Momentum carried it through the psilence around the skycycle, and it connected with a satisfying "clunk." The cycle spun, its rider yelled and was left hanging to an upside-down cycle by one handlebar. Borne lobbed another rock and knocked him off.

A blaster bolt hit Borne in the shoulder. Isaiah, who had been shooting at Borne's target, wheeled and saw Steves hovering a couple of meters above and beyond the edge of the truck bed, aiming a rifle at him. Isaiah shot the rifle. Steves gasped and dropped it.

Why the hell weren't all of them invisible? Sorry, so sorry. And Borne winked out. The next moment, Isaiah's vision dimmed, as if he wore sunglasses. He was not surprised to find himself invisible. So was his gun. He wondered how to aim it.

But he didn't have to. Fire – blaster fire – rained down from the sky onto Carmel. Steves and the other two riders fell off their cycles.

Vivian appeared, eerily angel-like, and dropped down beside Borne. Her pale aura vanished as she holstered her gun. FX, Canorus, and Daima appeared in mid air and floated down, though without auras. Despite all the appearances, Isaiah felt abruptly alone.

"That– that was telepathy," he stammered.

"That was a lot of stuff," Vivian answered. She knelt beside Borne and bathed his shoulder in greenish-silver light that flowed from her hands. "Give me my med kit."

Isaiah reached into her duffle and pulled out a red-cross-bearing box. He gave it to her and picked his way over the sacks and out of the truck.

Louise and Jeanette had come out of the cab and were helping the others arrange the bodies. Isaiah joined in, lacing his efforts with several prayers for their full recovery. At least they were all still breathing. Three of the four, in fact, were conscious, though stunned by the defending fire and bruised by their falls. There were three men and a woman.

Once they were all laid out on the pebbly beach, FX and Daima started to frisk them while Canorus stood guard. One of the two unknown men struggled; Canorus instantly gave him a stun-bolt in the head.

"I hope that didn't cause brain damage," Isaiah remarked in a carefully mild tone.

Canorus grunted. "Let him regen some cortex with better attitudes in it. You know these three?"

Isaiah summoned up his mnemonic skills and looked them over. "The woman is June Ritz. I think you just shot her husband in the head. I don't know his name, or the third man. We should call for some help."

"Already did."

"Oh? Good." Presumably some variation on his trick with the computer back in Hebron, or "haywiring." This brought Isaiah's attention to the surge of thoughts that had boiled through his mind during the fight. He mulled over the experience. He could not always tell which thoughts came from who, but it was surprisingly easy to tell his own; they had the push of volition to them.

Coming down off the adrenalin rush, Isaiah trudged back to the truck and sat on the tailgate. Inside, Vivian was sticking a bandage on Borne's shoulder, through a hole neatly cut in his shirt.

"How are you?" he asked Borne.

"Oh, fine. It stings, that's all."

"You're quite the telekinetic. Hoisting trucks around. And boulders."

Borne grinned. "My speciality. But the truck still had some lift."

"Do you have to look at a thing to move it?"

"Uh-huh. Or touch it or something. You have to be real good to do it by TV or second-sight or like that."

"Borne's powerful, not fancy," Vivian said, grinning at him. "There. We'll see if I can improve on that when we get back to the ship." She sat back.

"Vivian, could you look over our late attackers?" Isaiah asked her.

"Hmph. Oh, I suppose I ought." She clambered out, her red-gold braid swinging, and stalked over to the witch-hunters.

Steves and June Ritz shrank from her but said nothing. Canorus still stood guard over them. Isaiah joined him in this while Vivian examined all four with a combination of eyes, fingers, instruments, and what looked like blank staring.

"Sprained neck and dislocated shoulder," she said, pointing to the unknown third man. "Fractured ankle." She pointed to June Ritz. "And I hope it hurts like hell, you bitch." She jerked a thumb at Steves. "Matthew Hopkins here just has some good solid bruises." She stood over him and scowled, then raised her hand. Steves flinched back. Whatever she had intended while raising it, she let the hand fall in a gesture of disgust. "Sleep," she said. Steves and Ritz both slumped.

"Who the hell is Matthew Hopkins?" asked Canorus.

"Witch-hunter," Vivian answered shortly.

"Self-appointed 'Witch-Finder General' in Renaissance England," Isaiah added. Vivian smiled and nodded. "But he was running a racket," Isaiah said. "Steves here is an honest fanatic, I think."

"Fanatic is the word, all right," said Vivian, and walked away. She returned with her kit a minute later and began taping Ritz's ankle.

Daima, meanwhile, had produced a fat, luminous blue balloon from somewhere. She drifted up into the air, placed it over the truck, and descended again, leaving it hanging. It inflated until it was at least ten meters wide. Its light was not bright, but the suns were setting now and it stood out splendidly. "That helps them find us," she told Isaiah, landing beside him.

"Who?" he asked.

"Who Wisper sends."

"Wisper? Who is Wisper?"

"Wisper is our ship computer. Canorus becalls it, and it calls TSTO."

"Ah. Well, I'm glad it's TSTO. They won't be as startled by a giant blue balloon."

Louise, the driver, was startled enough by it. In all the confusion, she had not really noticed anything paranormal until Vivian slept Steves and Ritz. She had looked alarmed enough at that. The blue balloon left her aghast. Isaiah sat down next to her and put a hand on her shoulder as she prayed in desperate whispers.

"Oh, Major, pray with me!" she begged, when the balloon did not go away.

Isaiah knelt. "Dear Lord, shield us, we pray, against malice, human and spiritual. If there be evil spirits here, cast them and their works away, we beg. Likewise forgive us our sins and grant us to do justice and mercy to each other. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen."

The blue balloon glowed on. Louise moaned.

"You knew they were psychics when you offered them the ride," Isaiah reminded her.

"Is that why it won't go away?"

"No, I don't think so. It won't go away because it's not demonic. It's natural. Well," he amended, "as natural as your truck. A thing made by people, using their own native powers. Louise, what have these people done except defend themselves and maybe do a little too much well-intentioned meddling?" Like me, he added silently. "Why did you offer them a lift if you were so terrified of psychic powers?"

"I didn't think they'd use them!"

"I don't suppose they did either. Really, Louise, I know the party line says otherwise in your church, but plenty of Christians back in Terran Space treat psi as just one more piece of God's creation. Personally, I think the balloon's rather pretty."

Louise sat on a rock, looking troubled.

"Think, and pray for guidance," Isaiah recommended, rising. "The two go together very well. I'm going to lay down."

Two servings of voluntary hysterics in one day, garnished with acrophobia, with a sticky center of political turmoil, made a great sleeping pill. Isaiah reflected that he would have to rejuvenate soon at this rate. He primed himself to remember dreams and to rouse easily, then lay back on the grain sacks. He slept immediately.


Jeanette entered the library, causing the little bell on the door to ring. Isaiah said, "Ah!" and marked down her entry with satisfaction.

"You'll remember this, won't you?" she said, a bit unhappily.

"I always remember my dreams. Can I help you find something?" It was a lovely little library, cozy, idiosyncratic, warmly lit. It was night outside.

Jeanette paced back and forth, looking at the spines of books, picking up datablocs and reading the labels. "The others sent me," she said. "They're still uneasy about you, and wanted me to audit your memory while your guard was down."

"That might take some time," Isaiah said, rising from the armchair. "This library holds more than you might think. Some of the records go back two hundred and fifty years."

"Oh, nothing comprehensive," Jeanette assured him. "Anyway, I said I wouldn't, without your permission."

Isaiah cocked his head to one side. "I think I once gave permission. It's hard to recall just when, in a dream."

"Not to me. You didn't give permission to me."

Isaiah smiled at her, a little foolishly. Over her shoulder, he saw another library, full of her books. "We could audit each other." Somehow this was both a discovery and a cheeky joke. Jeanette blushed a little.

"I just wanted to ask you," she said, "if you were truthful when you said you tolerated psi. If you really did mean well by my brother and his friends."

"Oh, yes."

"So you don't have any hidden schemes for them?"

"Mm, no, not to hurt them." He looked vaguely at the desk. "I think I did have a scheme here, but it was quite harmless."

Jeanette eyed the desktop and fingered the papers, obviously tempted to look for the scheme. She pulled her hand back decisively and said, "Well, then, thank you. Sorry to interrupt."

"Not at all." She turned to the door. "Must you go?" he asked.

"Yes, I've– I've got a scheme of my own to tend to."

"About Joel Steves?"

"Yes, how did– Oh, you're much too good at this to be safe!" Isaiah smiled and looked over her shoulder again, where he could see a picture of Steves lying on the desk in her library. "Steves was born here, wasn't he?" Jeanette asked.

"Yes. Have you read him?"

"Oh, no. He'd have ruptured at the mere idea. I just guessed."

"You guessed right. Lousy place to raise a kid. Physically harsh, dull and desperate. He's never even seen stage magic. His status in the town was all he had; no wonder he fried out. And I don't like his church culture. Prone to false guilt, rigorism, and hysteria. I'm being horribly undiplomatic. Well, that's what dreams are for. What's your scheme?"

"The same thing that got me in trouble the first time," she laughed. "I want to teach him to relax."

"May I come?"

"I was hoping you'd ask."

"Yes, I thought so."

"Much too good at this," Jeanette muttered, taking his offered arm and leading him out of the library, not into the study of her own mind but into the dark streets between.


He was in the busiest bar in Horeb. There were no bars in Horeb, but he was in the busiest one anyway. Vivian was the bartender. Isaiah, Jeanette, and the rest of the crew flanked a very scared Joel Steves. Vivian handed Isaiah a shot glass and nodded at Steves. "Ply him with liquor," she ordered.

Isaiah folded the glass into Steves's hand. "Drink it, son. It'll steady your nerves."

Steves stared back in fear. "Heretic. Apostate."

"I like you, too, kidnapper, murderer. Would-be murderer, anyway. Drink up. You'll need it to face what's ahead."

"What's ahead?" Steves echoed.

"Exile for sure. Probably off planet, now. Perhaps excommunication or disfellowshipping, or whatever your folk call it." Steves moaned and buried his head in his arms.

"That's not the note I want to strike, Isaiah," Jeanette reproved. "The poor schtunk had this image of himself as the pure child of the cloister or something. And a consequent horror of disgrace and defilement."

"Needs to get laid," growled Canorus. Vivian chuckled.

"That would just heat up his conflicts," Jeanette replied. At the same time she blushed deeply, and Isaiah reflected that, if she had been male or less pretty, Steves might never have imprisoned her. Did Steves suspect that?

Isaiah slumped down on the bar with his chin on his arms, so that he was nearly nose to nose with Steves. Or nose to scalp, since Steves still had his face buried in his arms. "What are you going to do next?" he asked.

"There's nothing I can do," was the muffled reply.

"Maybe not just now, but soon. In a month, you'll be somewhere. You'll need to get a job or join a labor pool." (Do they still have labor pools? he wondered.) "You should take some kind of exam to prove your educational level. All that sort of thing. And you'll have to live with yourself." Silence. "Answer me, kid." More silence. Isaiah wondered what Steves was feeling.

Quite suddenly, he knew. It was as if the scalp had suddenly become a highly expressive feature, like a face. Steves was indeed wracked with guilt and shame. But what about?

Jeanette brought her hand down between Isaiah's face and Steves's head. But this did not matter since her hand did not block the view. Rather, it seemed to act like a bio-scanner, giving a deeper view inside. Not a truly visual view, though. There was a brief darkness and Isaiah was sure that Steves was, indeed, ashamed of his murder attempt, not just of failing and being caught. Defeat had changed anger to fear, and that anger had been his only shield against guilt. So far, so good.

Jeanette took away her hand. "All right," she told Steves. "Suppose we are a bunch of godless sorcerers. Isaiah is a lukewarm apostate. And you're down at our level now. Well, life is possible down here. Life goes on. You can live, not being perfect."

"Life's a lot more possible 'down here' than 'up there' on your high horse," FX muttered. He conjured a piano keyboard on the bar, like a gambler spreading a deck of cards, and began picking out a jingly little tune.

"Sorry you wiped your good record," Isaiah chipped in. "But do you know when you blew it? Not today. Not even when you locked up Jeanette. A long time before that. You're just now crying over something long gone. To disobey is sin. But pride in obeying is sin, too. A deeper disobedience."

"Isaiah–" Jeanette began, remonstrating, but he held up a hand.

"It's a delicate balance. It's an infinitely delicate balance. You can't keep it. No one can, permanently. You can only keep it through grace, have God keep it for you, and then there's nothing to be proud of, and no need for pride. It's a relief, actually."

Steves raised his head and laid a cheek on his arms. "`In Adam's fall we sinnéd all,'" he crooned mournfully.

"Yes, but let's not concentrate on the 'we' part just now," said Isaiah, unwilling to have the subject dismissed into generality. "We're talking about your pride and violence. You know, I don't think I agree with Jeanette and FX. Life isn't possible as a sinner. Not in the long run, not just as a sinner. But life is eminently possible as a forgiven sinner. You know, as murderers go, you're very lucky. Since you failed in the attempt, you still have your victims around to forgive you out loud. That may make it easier for you to believe God forgives you."

Steves glanced up through teary eyes. He hadn't touched Vivian's drink, but he looked for all the world like a weepy drunk. Isaiah throttled his distaste. "You really forgive me?" Steves whimpered.

"As I would be forgiven." Isaiah looked around at the others. Jeanette looked dubious. Daima looked puzzled. (He stared a while at Daima. Her image wavered in and out with some other image, dark and gleaming.) Canorus, FX, Vivian, and Borne had various sour expressions on their faces. He sighed. "If you can, please forgive him. He really is sorry, you can see. And forgiving him doesn't mean saying he wasn't bad; quite the reverse. And his punishment will be severe enough."

"I forgive him," said Jeanette quickly. "Borne?"

Borne swung his legs, kicking the bar. "Huh. Well, you suffered more from him than anyone else. Yeah, I guess I can too."

"Let's hear him say it," demanded Vivian.

"Fair enough," Isaiah agreed.

Steves agreed too. He babbled out a half-intelligble stream with the word "sorry" in it over and over. A chant-like keening came into it, which Isaiah recognized as part of Glossalalian congregational response.

"Okay, okay," said Vivian. "You're sorry. I believe you. I forgive you. Drink this, dammit." And she shoved the shot glass back into his hand. Like a child taking medicine, he drank it.

"Yes," drawled FX, "if you're going to cry into you beer, you should at least have some beer to cry into." He had dismissed the keyboard and was playing jacks on the bar with a ball that changed color at each bounce.

"FX?" Isaiah asked.

"Me? I'm not sure there's anything to forgive. As I understand it, Mr. Steves here thought Jeanette was demon-possessed or some such thing. Maybe he still does. And he thought she was a public menace. So he tried to cure her. So far, so good. We come along, cut short the cure, humiliate him, and threaten him with exile. I'd be ticked, too. I don't know that my revenge would go so far as homicide, but then I know how to survive in exile." He shrugged and started doing threesies.

"Canorus?" said Isaiah.

"He didn't have a chance," the Melior stated, slouching against the bar with folded arms. "He should've snuck up beside the truck and thrown in a wide-range psilencer, then a grenade." He swiped the air contemptuously with one hand. You don't shoot puppies for growling at you, the gesture said. "Just don't try it again, or you're ashes."


She shook her head, her face half seen through shining shadows. "I do not judge. I do not know his picture of becoming. I do not know his passion. He is safe now, that is enough."

Steves sat for a while, head bowed. "Thank you," he whispered.

"Have another," said Vivian, refilling the shot glass.

Shortly after that, Isaiah's clarity began to fade, as if it were he who had had a couple of shot glasses. The bar was empty except for Steves, Jeanette, and himself. Smiling, Jeanette ushered them out the door. Then he and Steves were stumbling through dark streets toward the spaceport. Steves hung on his arm, half-drunk or half-fainting.

The concourse was dark, full of unseen crowds coming and going. They staggered through to the landing fields, under the stars where the people came and went. He lost Steves then, swept apart by indifferent crowds, each to find the right ship. "So long, kid!" Isaiah yelled after him. "For God's sake, relax!"

He turned to Jeanette. Surely she had been at his side just now? But she was gone. A moment later, he caught sight of her through the darkness. She was following Steves. "Where are you going?" he called.

Jeanette turned back to answer, but her reply was an image, not words. Isaiah imagined (or she imagined for him) a tower. Steves stood at the topmost window, looking out vacantly. Jeanette entered the door and went down a stair, into the basement.

"What do you seek in his mind?" Isaiah asked her. But Jeanette only shook her head.

He was in the concourse again, alone. He scanned the restless shades for his own path and ship. "That's enough," said Jeanette's voice. "Thank you."


Isaiah woke to the sound of voices and a play of lights. He lay on the lumpy grain sacks in the back of Louise's disabled truck. Beyond, the others were sitting in a small group under the blue light of Daima's balloon. The four assailants lay at their feet, and Borne was rising into the air, waving. Above, a white-and-black air-van with the TSTO logo was descending, playing lights over the area. A tow-truck, spangled in yellow lights, floated close behind.

Isaiah stretched and rose. He walked over to the group and was happy to see Louise had worked up the courage to join them. She was even laughing at some joke of FX's.

"What was the shot glass?" he asked Vivian.

"Hi there, beautiful dreamer," she said. "The shot glass was your image, I think. As far as I was concerned, it was a mild sedative. I injected it when he agreed to it; it doesn't do much good if the patient doesn't let it."

"He was asleep at the time?"

"Yeah, but he still agreed to it."

Isaiah turned to Jeanette. "I'm honored. But how much good will that dream do him?"

"Oh, it's no instant cure," she admitted. "But it's what I could do to help."

"You do a lot of impromptu telepathic psychiatry?"

She grinned. "One good exorcism deserves another. Thanks again. You were very useful, knowing his spiritual idiom."

"You're welcome. It's a nice little idiom," he added drily. "We like it."

Then the folk in uniforms arrived and there were many questions to answer. When they were done, Isaiah would ask his questions again.

On to Chapter 7, Tooth
Back to Chapter 5, Hearing
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop

Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013