For the last time, Isaiah took the bus to the spaceport and made his way through the concourse. How strangely normal, he thought, and how unlike any of his expectations. He had thought to leave Carmel (if he ever did) on a freighter or trade ship bound for Terran Space, paying for his passage, not headed for Philippia on a TSTO special-operations ship, taking passage by the mere asking and a general promise to make himself useful. Quite in the style of Heaven, he mused, to grant his prayers in this unforeseeable fashion.
Jeanette, Vivian, and FX met him. His smile felt timid. FX took one of his suitcases, then they led him through the security gates and out onto the landing field.
The landing field was a vast, tidy grid of squares, marked out on the pounded earth with chalky lines and flashing lights. A great, chalky number lay in each square. Ships lay in the squares like titan game pieces. Isaiah followed his companions through the safety zones to a small white craft.
It was a boxy affair, about ten meters wide and high, thirty long, bluntly tapered at the nose, even more bluntly tapered at the tail. The only window was the "wind-screen" above the nose. Its side bore the TSTO symbol, an inverted black triangle spangled with fifteen four-pointed stars. Above the triangle was written T.S.S. Will o' the Wisp. When last Isaiah went space-faring, such a ship would have been a very large shuttle or very small interplanetary passenger ship. But the new hyperdrives allowed for a wider range of sizes in starships.
As they approached, the Will o' the Wisp withdrew its stubby landing legs and hovered a meter above the ground, as steady as if the legs were still in place. A door opened near the nose and Daima appeared. An ingenious set of steps folded out from the doorsill. The lights on the square around them started to flash and Isaiah began controlling his breathing. He expected to hate the take-off.
The lock led into a narrow corridor, white and brightly lit. Canorus and Borne waited behind Daima. "Welcome aboard," Borne said. He wore his extra arms and a four-sleeved green shirt. This one had a pilot's insignia pinned to it.
"Thank you," said Isaiah. "Where do I–?"
There were squeaks and flutterings. Something white flew down the corridor and assaulted the crew. It dove at Daima first, who smiled and held her hands to her face. The creature flickered there briefly, then leapt to Vivian, snuffled in her hair, passed to FX and appeared to do a short war-dance on his collar, then on to Borne and Canorus, who got squeaks down their ears at point-blank range. Everyone chuckled and laughed except Canorus, and even he smiled crookedly.
Then the newcomers, Jeanette and Isaiah, were inspected at a greater range. Isaiah held up his hand. After a few seconds, the thing perched on it. He got his first close look at creature.
It was about the size of a parakeet or a baby ferret, and resembled a cross between the two. It had a weasel-like body a hand-span long, equipped with two wings, pegasus-fashion. The tail, as long as the body, was fringed with feathers, making a flat fan. Gently, Isaiah stroked the head and found the whole coat was tiny feathers. The animal was mostly white, but muzzle, feet, and the fringes of tail and wings were pinkly orange, as if it had been playing in peach jam.
"What a charming creature! Ship's mascot?"
FX nodded. "Meet Nift."
"Hello, Nift." Nift fluffed his feathers, trilled, and leaned harder into Isaiah's ear-scratching.
"Has he been eating regularly?" Vivian asked the air.
"Yes," an electronic voice replied.
"Obviously Nift does not live by bread alone," said Isaiah. Nift had gone back to Daima and nestled on her shoulder. "What is he? Where from?"
Vivian and FX exchanged glances. "He's a fimmet. Fimmets come from a planet colonized by Daima's people."
"Rorass," Daima supplied. "But Nift comes not from Rorass. He is my making."
"Yes," FX broke in hurriedly. "He's a benign example of ectoplastics. Modeled him on a mascot from a Sossen trade ship. Used half a dozen eggs as raw material."
Isaiah smiled. "I see. You needn't cringe. I approve. After all, people have been breeding puppies and kittens by mundane means for millennia. What does he eat?"
"Insectiles," Vivian answered. "That's in nature. Here, he gets a high-protein, high-fat pet chow we make for him. Or he'll eat large fractions of your breakfast and tap-dance on the rest, if you let him."
Jeanette laughed and held out her hand for Nift to perch on. "Would you do that?" she asked him. Nift hopped aboard, looked her straight in the eye, and assured her that he would.
Canorus, meanwhile, had shouldered his way past the group, down the ship's main corridor. Borne followed, Jeanette went with Borne, and soon Isaiah was alone with Vivian. "Come on," she said. "I'll show you to your cabin."
The cabin was small and bare, but cozy and brightly lit. Like the corridor, it was blank white, lit from the ceiling. A wide mirror on one wall made it look larger. There was only a bunk with drawers under it, a chair, and a desk. But the bed was luxurious by Isaiah's standards of the last century, the chair was a miniature recliner, and the floor was carpeted. "Satisfactory?" Vivian asked.
"Good heavens, all it needs is a valet! More than satisfactory."
"Good. Leave your suitcases here and come to the bridge with me. Safety regs for take-off. The shielding is heavier there."
Isaiah followed her, controlling his breathing. The bridge had three heavy, permanent chairs in front. Borne sat in the center chair, flanked by Daima and Canorus. FX and Vivian fetched light folding chairs from a locker and bolted them to the floor. Isaiah sat when told to, strapped himself in, and refrained from gripping the chair's arms. All the others were disgustingly cheerful and calm.
Borne finished his conversation with human and electronic voices, grasped the steering yoke, and said, "Liftoff."
Despite his resolution to watch with calmly folded hands, Isaiah closed his eyes and clenched his fists. Three controlled breaths later, he remembered his resolution. In another breath, he noticed that nothing seemed to be happening. He opened his eyes.
The landing field had vanished. Blue nothing lay beyond the windows. The only hint of motion came from the shadows sweeping across the bridge deck. Then the suns blazed into view and vanished again.
"They've certainly improved cabin gravity since my day," Isaiah remarked, partly to test the steadiness of his voice. "We didn't turn it on until we were in freefall. I don't feel a thing, but we must be pointing nearly straight up."
"Yep," Borne said. "See?" He twisted the yoke. Isaiah still felt nothing, but the suns rolled past and the horizon appeared – overhead. He closed his eyes again. He heard Jeanette say, "Borne," in a big-sisterly way.
"An acrophobic patharch?" asked Canorus.
Isaiah opened his eyes. The sky was empty blue. "Yes. Rather badly. With the patharchy, at least, I don't need sedatives. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go into a light trance."
"You going to spend the whole trip in a trance?" asked the Melior.
"No. I'll be fine as soon as there's no ground to fall to."
He turned his attention inward, systematically removed all symptoms of panic ... then removed them again as they started to reappear... and again, and finally achieved a state of alert calm.
Outside, the sky turned royal blue. The stars came out. Soon the sky was black. Borne tuned the hyperdrive in a fraction of the time it had taken the pilots of the refugee ships. Then the stars winked out, replaced by a few scattered sparks of violet, the cores of black holes shining with tachyonic radiation. They were in hyperstate.
FX turned to Isaiah. "Can you hear me?" Isaiah nodded. "I don't think we told you our travel plans. We want to reach Philippia fast, so we're doing the trip in five hours, outside time. That means we have to take three weeks, inside time." He referred to time measured on Carmel or Philippia, versus time measured aboard the ship. "Sorry about the imbalance. I hope it doesn't worry you." It was not the sort of thing to worry Isaiah at any time, much less now. He shook his head. FX looked at him uncertainly, said "Good," and left.
Isaiah was now the last person on the bridge. He left his trance and his chair, and looked out the bridge ports. The infinite gulf "below" him was too abstract to set off his individual phobia. It gave him only a slight qualm, mild enough to be pleasant.
He made his way back to his cabin. There, he unpacked and stowed his few clothes and books in the drawers beneath the bed, then sat down at the desk.
The desk's terminal had a screen built into the wall; at the moment, it was pretending to be a porthole, displaying the space outside. Isaiah started tapping at the keyboard, to see what else the terminal could do. This attracted the attention of the ship's computer. It was named "Wisper," spoke in a neuter tenor, and had an interface icon in the form of a realistic dragonfly flitting across the screen.
Wisper politely gave Isaiah a tour of the software he was allowed to use. The only things he felt ready for were the games package and the media server. He picked the media server.
He was surprised to find that the ship was in full contact with the whole Terran Space network. The last time he was on a starship, communications in hyperstate had been difficult and chancy, seldom feasible except near a port. That was certainly still the case for Carmelite ships and most Philippian ones. But from where he sat, he could reach databases on Earth, or send text-, voice-, or image-mail to Aten. Or phone. He could reach libraries, newsbases, conferences, magazines, book- and show-stores, public entertainment, channels for news, sport, chat, or music, and assorted computer services.
It had been a century since Isaiah had had such a sea of data to swim in. Even then, it had been the data net of a single planet. This net covered two dozen worlds and somehow compensated for the time dilations of hyperdrive. He even found that, with more patience and money, he could reach out into the larger web of the whole KaiSenese Association and further into the whole Ecumene – a thousand star-faring species and all their colonies.
He cleared the screen, dazzled. Obviously, he was back in a world where you could get as much information as you wanted; the trick was locating the right bits. By force of contrast, he remembered the early years on Carmel, where losing any book, any databank, was a calamity. He remembered memorizing crumbling pages and flickering screens, to write them out by hand later, so that nothing would be wholly lost.
There was a knock at the door. "Isaiah?" Vivian called. "Are you all right?"
Isaiah remembered that Vivian seemed to be the team's medic. "I'm fine, doc," he answered, sliding the door open, "except for a slight case of temporal shock."
Briefly, she looked wary. "What do you mean?"
"Psionic technology. Here we are in hyperdrive, and I could phone my cousin in Brussels, if she's still there."
"Oh, I see." A tiny look of relief passed over her face. Isaiah filed it away with the other little anomalies of this group. "Well, I thought I'd give you a short tour of the ship, and then take you to my room." She watched his eyes widen and laughed. "For a physical."
"Oh. In that case, lead on."
The Will o' the Wisp had two decks. The upper deck was organized around a short corridor, with the bridge at one end and a small lounge at the other. The corridor was flanked by eight little cabins, a pair of bathrooms, and some equipment lockers.
The lower deck contained bulky slabs of machinery, with small walkways between. Gravity on this deck was a tenth Terran, which sent Isaiah quietly back to controlled breathing. The machinery itself was half familiar; the newest ships of the Diaspora had cruder versions of many pieces; other chunks were beyond his guessing. All was smooth and white and silent.
He dutifully memorized the locations of emergency equipment. "I see you use KaiSenese-style air-sheaths," he remarked.
"Yeah, no spacesuits. Finally caught up with the ETs in space technology. The psi revolutions put us all on an equal technical footing. This table here is our autodoc. Take any serious injuries straight to this, if they're movable. This is also where I do my fancy doctoring. Say ah." Isaiah obeyed. Vivian scraped the inside of his cheek with a tongue depressor, then smeared the depressor tip across a small cake of gelatin.
"What are you doing?" Isaiah asked. He watched over Vivian's shoulder as she popped the cake into a slot, then turned to a nearby screen and began manipulating controls. "Just took a cell sample. This is my micro-surgery. Let's see..." The screen, which had been displaying shadowy blobs on a white background, shifted to irridescent blobs on a black background, then to enhanced blobs like standard textbook diagrams of cells. "That one, that one, and that one." A pipette came in view and sucked up three cells. "We'll use those to get a copy of your genome."
"You're working on a case involving psi and bio-tech. It might be handy to have a reference copy of your genome."
"But– but wouldn't anything that scrambled the genes all through my body also kill me?"
"Not necessarily. Anyway, you might want to change them yourself, if you want to operate under an assumed genome."
"An assumed genome," Isaiah echoed. "Is that what Daima's doing?"
"No, no. She just did the psychic equivalent of cosmetic surgery. Ah, here's a good one. And this little clump. I'm also using these cells to get an immunity profile on you. That has several medical uses."
"Yes, I know. Rejuvenation, regeneration, genetic therapy."
"Uh-huh." Vivian turned and looked Isaiah up and down. "How long since your last rejuve?"
"About twenty years."
"So you're about forty, physically?"
"Maybe closer to forty-five," Isaiah admitted. "I put off the one before that a few years."
"And how old are you by the calendar?"
"About 250." The question seemed a little impertinent, so he threw it back. "And you?"
"About seventy. So you've had several different kinds of rejuve in your time, right?"
"Just about all the kinds, unless I missed some while I was on Carmel. Is it important?"
"Some of the earlier procedures were less thorough. Come on up and let me examine you."
Vivian's cabin looked just like Isaiah's, of course, except that it was littered with colorful pieces of clothing and sewing supplies. A holo-mural covered the wall opposite the mirror, showing a lush tropical garden, chock-a-block with flowering vines and hibiscus. Other pictures hung on the walls, including what Isaiah took for a family photo on top of a poster of a space station.
The bed, however, had no sheets or pillow; Vivian used it for an examining table. "Take off your shirt and sit on the bed," she instructed. "Breathe deep and hold it. Good." The examination proceeded on traditional lines, except when Vivian poked Isaiah with a widget new to him, or waved an unfamiliar gizmo about his person.
"You're full-blooded eo-human," she remarked.
"The classic original."
"Do you have any trouble working with neo-humans?"
"No, but is Canorus going to have trouble working with me?"
Vivian laughed. "He'll warm up once he decides you're not dead weight. It took him a long time to decide about Borne." Isaiah laughed too. "And speak of the devil," she said.
Borne stood in the door, holding a small hypo in one hand. "Canorus is all right," he said. "He just likes acting grim. I was passing the autodoc and Wisper said you wanted this." He floated the hypo to Vivian.
"Thanks." She plucked it out of the air and injected Isaiah in the upper arm.
"What's that?" he asked.
"Your next rejuve. You ought to see some effect before we reach Philippia."
"Oh! Thank you very much!"
"Don't mention it. Routine fleshware maintenance."
"Um. I don't mean to look a gift virus in the mouth, but do modern rejuvenations avoid the general weakness and muscle pains that I'm used to? Because in three weeks–"
"Collagen and fibrin repair is much slicker now. Don't worry. Put on your shirt."
Isaiah put on his shirt and went back to his cabin. There, he rubbed his injected arm and thought for a while, then went back to poking around at his terminal. He found how to send text mail to the TSTO base on Carmel. Good. Matthew had links to the TSTO base. He could send mail to Matthew and, through him, to all the folk he'd just left behind. That would show Max he was serious about keeping in touch!
Isaiah looked up from the terminal. For all its comfort, the cabin looked like the inside of a milk carton. He'd just spent a century in bare stone cells. Would he have to continue in that style until he reached Philippia (and Heaven alone knew where he would go after that), or could the ship provide him with a little decor?
Wisper told him it could print off holo-murals and several other kinds of poster. Isaiah browsed through a catalog, picked an image of an Alpine valley full of flowers, then went down to the lounge to pick it up.
He put up the mural, admired the effect, unpacked his bags, and found nothing else to do for the moment. He turned to considering his shipmates.
Isaiah had told FX he did not mind the skewed trip-times, and he had told the truth. But now, untranced, Isaiah realized he was spending far longer shut up in a ship with these bizarre people than he had expected to.
They said they were a team of TSTO trouble-shooters specializing in psi problems. He hadn't truth-read that testimony, but everything agreed with it. On the other hand, it seemed to be far from the whole truth. He began to tally the odd points about them.
First and foremost, they acted hunted, and had since he first saw them. Of course, they had felt Carmel to be "enemy territory," with some justice. But the attitude was habitual, as he had seen in Vivian's demeanor at their first meeting, in the implications of the remarks FX made to the group, and in Canorus's ready trigger. Whatever their travels, they had been in enemy territory a long time.
Second, they had a private patois they apparently learned on Varkard – a mixture of Earthron and KaiSenese that Isaiah had understood only by knowing both parent languages and turning up the gain on his perceptions. Where in heaven was Varkard? Consulting an atlas through the terminal, Isaiah learned Varkard was a multi-species colony world in the KaiSenese Association, well beyond Terran Space, on the far side from the Diaspora. In the Psi War, it acquired a community of Terran refugees. Had they been hunted while on Varkard?
Third, at the same time that they were used to being hunted, they were used to being conspicuous. They had handled it adroitly at the Carmel spaceport, combining patharchic distraction with showmanship. They had learned to ignore it when they couldn't help it, as on the streets of Carmel. Had they been conspicuous even among the Terrans on Varkard?
Fourth, Borne lied about his age and about being in the Psi War. Isaiah tentatively dismissed that. People under a hundred often added a century or so to their ages, back before the War; otherwise, they were dismissed as callow. Things must be even worse by now, even if the War had turned the population over a little.
Fifth, they were so unmilitary. Most of the TSTO officers Isaiah had met were career military folk from the space forces of the various planets of the Terran Space Treaty. The remainder were diplomats or highly qualified explorers and scientists, here to scout out the Diaspora, socially and physically. This team was none of the above, but psionic troubleshooters instead. Was that enough reason for TSTO to give them the very long leash they apparently had? Or had TSTO encountered them already working as a team and decided it was better to have them inside and working for them than outside and, at least potentially, working against them?
Sixth... Was nothing definite. Besides their hunted air, these hex-shooters sometimes showed other flashes of uneasiness. The most recent was Vivian's wariness when Isaiah spoke of "temporal shock." Were they still afraid something about them would shock him? Were they right?
But what was shocking now? Isaiah could answer that question for Carmel, or for Terran Space a hundred years ago, or guess for Philippia and the rest of the Diaspora, but not for modern Terran Space.
He was shut up in a ship with them for three weeks. Plenty of time to find the answers. Wisper announced dinner. Maybe he would find the answers soon.
On to Chapter 10, Table Talk
Back to Chapter 8, Noah
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013