FX stared at the puddle, then at Borne, then at Jeanette. "You, too," he said to her. "Both of you. How–"
"Never mind that," snapped Isaiah. "The police are coming. We'll have a very strange homicide to explain to them. We need to master as much evidence as we can, for the case and for our own protection. Jeanette, Svetlana, Canorus, clearly that neb was never in psilence until he died. His whole life should be open to you. Read it and pass it on to me. It can't be very long."
Svetlana and Canorus stepped up to the puddle and flicked on their ampsies, then knelt. Svetlana hesitantly, Canorus stoically, both put a hand in the bloody slime. Every bit of contact increased the clarity of their reading.
Jeanette stood by, still numb. "Jeanette, read," Isaiah ordered. It was a command, kindly intoned, but still a patharchic command. Quickly, almost in a flinch, Jeanette knelt and put both hands in the puddle. A moment later, she turned on her ampsi. Isaiah reached out to each of them, driving the contact as deep as he could, while they devoured their victim's history.
Images, sounds, experiences flooded into Isaiah's imagination. He passed them into his memory immediately and continued doing so. With a remaining fragment of attention, he spoke to the other. "Vivian, collect a sample of this stuff. FX, go on with your clairvoyance. Look for more trap patterns, cloaked guns, more teeth, anything. Borne, finish unloading. Daima, make sure there are no more nebs or shebs. Or physical traps. Stand guard."
Then he gave himself up completely to containing a short, strange life.
Some time later, Isaiah sat on a crate, exhausted. He had no conscious knowledge of the neb's life, just now. It all lay sealed in his mind, behind the image of a white casket. Jeanette sat next to him, staring at her bloody hands.
"I'm sorry I commandeered on you," he said.
"No. Thank you. You were right."
There were many questions he should be asking her, but none of them were interesting at the moment.
Daima floated down out of the dark. "I find a ... a nest ... a den in the top," she said. "FX is looking. The others work now. Do you want to see?"
Did she understand about his acrophobia? Well, that was not interesting at the moment, either. And the roof was not very high. "Yes. Yes, I do. But I can't fly."
Daima took him by the upper arm and floated up with him. Jeanette drifted up behind. I must remember this, Isaiah thought. An experience of flight without fear, and without drug or trance.
FX was balancing on a strut, examining a little camp, of sorts. There was a scrap of flooring, little more than a square meter, a couple of shelves, and a hammock. The flat surfaces were littered with fast-food cartons. Here were some folded clothes, there a desk lamp, peeking out of the litter. "The shelves and floor are painted black on the bottom," FX remarked, "and the whole setup has four layers of invisibility around it, each with four triggers. Other than that glamour, there hasn't been much psychic activity up here. Just traces of levitation from the neb's comings and goings. The most interesting find is this."
He pointed and something rustled under a pile of burger wrappers. A cheap little book-style computer rose into the air and unfolded. "I'll give this to Canorus," FX said, "before we turn it over for mundane forensics." He floated down, the computer hovering before him. The others followed.
They landed next to the camouflaged shrine. Isaiah glared at it. "Do you want to desecrate it?" FX asked with a return of his wry style.
"It's an idol, a pagan altar. It's already a desecration. I can't do anything to make it worse. Anyway, it's evidence and shouldn't be tampered with." Isaiah turned on his heel and walked away.
To his surprise, Daima followed him. She stared at him as they walked into the warehouse gloom. A human would do that only while talking or listening. Daima did neither. Did she expect something of him? Finally, she spoke. "You are angry," she said. Maybe it was a question.
"Yes." He stopped and stood facing the alien, who gazed back in the twilight, her eyes unhumanly wide and dark.
"You are angry at the ... altered. Is this true?"
"Altar. I'm disgusted by the altar. I'm angry at the people who set it up. An altar is ... furniture for worshipping."
They stood facing each other for another long time while Daima thought out her next statement. "The quarry– Does the quarry worship wrongly?" Isaiah nodded; she understood that gesture, he knew. "What is worship?" she asked.
Now it was Isaiah's turn to stand still in thought. "Worship," he said at last, "is a ritual or other act of communication expressing awe of its object and submission to it. Do you know the word 'awe'?" After a pause, Daima nodded. "Humans should worship the Divine as a single supreme Person. Our quarry do not; they worship parts of their own minds." Daima nodded again after another pause.
She turned and vanished into the half-dark. "Wait!" Isaiah called. "Come back!" With her going, questions had begun forming in his own mind. He felt interest in things returning. She reappeared as suddenly as she had gone. "Do Sossen franen worship?" he asked.
"No. We– we hhaselli. Chase with awe. Hunt with awe."
"Ullid. The ... Divine."
Isaiah tried to imagine it: religions of the hunt, religion as a quest for the Eternal, not as prize or lover, but as quarry. "Does the Divine hunt you, too?" he asked.
"No! It ... traps. To humans, hunting and trapping are similar, I know. To us, they are ... reciprocals. Ullid would not hunt. That is–"
"I see, I see," said Isaiah hurriedly, quite sure that he saw only a tiny fraction, but also sure that Daima was as near being offended as he had ever seen her. "Is Ullid single? One?" he asked.
"Of course," she answered. "Otherwise, the hunting would be too easy." She vanished again in darkness, and this time Isaiah did not call her back.
Dear Matthew and Max,
Please pray for us all, and for Abel, our victim. Abel is dead, and I remember Max's arguments about prayers for the dead. But God is Lord of Time, and I ask you to pray for Abel at the moment of his death, at least.
I know more about Abel than anyone else, just now. Here is what I have learned of him:
He was a neb, a man made of air, like Noah, and made by the same people. They set him as a guard over the goods they left behind them on Philippia – more dragons' teeth, plus clothes and weapons for the people conjured from them. He was to frighten off thieves, move the goods if discovery seemed at hand, destroy the goods if he must, and deliver them if he received instructions to do so. But we were too many and too sudden, and he failed in his purpose.
Abel lived in a warehouse, with the goods he guarded. He was created there. He never saw a sun, though he crept out most evenings to stroll about the roof and alleys, and to check a certain spot under a waste bin for new orders. These never came.
He slept in a hammock in the rafters, and besides that did four things: patrol the warehouse, follow media on a little computer (understanding very little of it), eat, and do his devotionals.
He ate take-out food delivered to the warehouse and paid for in cash. The delivery runners were the only people he met between his creation and his death. He was very hungry, always, his flesh craving to change from air to meat. He never finished, or he would be alive now. He faithfully recorded each purchase in the computer.
He was set to worship the Persona. His makers were Vierlingers and told him this archetype was the ground of his own being and the patron of their fortune. This slavery to a hollowness terrified Abel, who craved solidity with his deepest instincts, knowing what he lacked. He made his worship dutifully but fearfully, with all the speed he could.
When we came, he fought us with all the skills his makers had built into him, but we were too many. He was trying to call guns to himself when Jeanette, not knowing what he was, cast a psilence. He melted away in bloody froth, a meringue of quarter-made flesh.
Jeanette turned herself over to the Philippian magistrates. They quickly found her to have committed accidental manslaughter in self-defense. No one charged the rest of us with accidental manslaughter or negligent homicide, but I feel they could. If one of the clairvoyants had pierced the darkness or illusion sooner, or if we had read his mind deeper, or if I had had the sense to suggest any of these things, we might had realized Abel was vulnerable to psilence, and he might be alive now.
Abel knew nothing of forgiveness. (I pray he knows now.) My faith tells me God will forgive me, but I am left with the job of forgiving myself. So are the others. Pray for us all, I beg.
At the moment, I have no forgiveness for the Vierlingers. I doubt that I should. They made androids just as they made Abel, but because the androids were goods for sale and had to be durable, they made them solid, from a homemade protoplasm of milk, eggs, pureed meat, and the like. They would not waste the time or effort on Abel, though. They made him quickly, on the cheap, from air, and left him to finish his own incarnation with take-out pizza. At the same time, they made him human, not android, because they wanted initiative and imagination from him. They wanted everything from him and gave as little as they could, even of flesh. They did not even name him; I am the one who did that.
I must stop writing now. I am getting too angry to think straight. Your brother,
"Will there be anything else, Isaiah?" Wisper asked.
"No, thank you, Wisper. Just send it." Isaiah watched the dragonfly image flit off the screen, then folded the board and put it quietly on the table. He took a few slow breaths, then looked around. He sat at one end of a table in the center of a study in Svetlana's house. On the left, windows opened on the kitchen gardens, under twin noontides. Jeanette sat silently at the corner on his right. The others, even Daima and Canorus, were gathered at the other end, in a long, involved, and sometimes rancorous discussion. Isaiah listened, piecing it together. They were organizing a schedule of recent events.
"All right," FX said at last. "Here we are, here we are. Wisper, got it in standard calendar?"
A table of dates and events appeared on the wall opposite the windows. "The records in the neb's– in Abel's computer give us the date on which the neb-runners left Philippia," FX said. "Several dozen ships left Philippia for Carmel that day, but only one stayed on Carmel long enough to be the ship carrying the party that went dowsing for Jeanette and frightened her into leaving for Gilead – the M.V. Pride of Majorca. See?" He waved at part of the schedule, which read:
26 May: Pride of Majorca leaves Philippia
28 May: Pride of Majorca arrives on Carmel; Jeanette first dowsed
29 May: Jeanette goes to Gilead
2 June: Jeanette last dowsed, arrested
5 June: Pride of Majorca leaves Carmel
"What do we know about the Pride of Majorca?" Isaiah asked.
"Small trade vessel," Canorus answered. "Crew of four. Owner-captain is Dahlia Hambro. Crew: Imogene Chase, Jan Storen and Isaac Isenman. The three names we got from Bourgeois. None of them are real."
"That is to say," FX amplified, "none of them are recorded legal identities, with birth records and bank accounts and all. Well, there are two men named Jan Storen, both on Earth, and a sim named Isaac Isenman on Capek, but none have left their planets for the last year or more."
"The ship," Canorus added, "is Adonian registry."
"Nice to see some things don't change," Isaiah said. Adonis had a long and profitable history of sloppy bookkeeping. Even when Isaiah was last in Terran space, a ship with Adonian registry might simply come from Adonis, but it might also have a crew or structure below everyone else's standards, or a past that did not bear examination.
"They left Carmel before we showed up," Vivian observed. "I wonder why?"
"Prescient?" Jeanette suggested brightly, collecting the expected round of groans and dirty looks from the others. "Don't worry; it's not likely."
"They probably just ran out of patience," said FX. "The tooth and Jeanette were both in psilence from the time she was arrested to the time we rescued her. They'd have struck a psychic dead end, unless one of them was a clairvoyant piercer." He paused microscopically to glance at Jeanette, then Borne, then continued, "And they were in no position to ask questions about you."
"I thought they were the ones who got Steves to arrest her in the first place," said Borne, "so they could come get her."
"I was never certain of that," Jeanette reminded him. "Even if they did work on Steves, they may have decided they didn't want to stage a raid on Gilead."
"Maybe they read in his mind about that psych-out shelter, with the guns and psilencers," Vivian suggested.
"Insufficient data," Canorus said. "Move on."
"Well, moving on is the problem," FX said. "The Pride of Majorca moved on, and probably left its name behind, along with the names and appearances of all the crew. We've got a nice little history of their career out here in the Diaspora, but not a lot of clues about their future. Unless..." He looked at Jeanette. "You are prescient. Can you find out anything about their future?"
Jeanette shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "I'll work on it. But I can't guarantee results."
FX shrugged. "It's just that you seem to be a font of unexpected abilities. Well, we do have one clue. When the Pride of Majorca left Philippia, it took on some cargo. Ordinary trade stuff – semi-precious woods – bound for Hellene. So it looks like they're headed for Hellene. Given that they covered the 44 light-years between Philippia and Carmel in two days, they'll take a month or more to get to Hellene, assuming both trips are isochronal. Of course, they'll arrive there with different names, faces, and registry, and claim to have acquired the woods from someone on Aurelius or something." He sighed.
"Or," said Svetlana, "they might actually pass it on to someone else and not go to Hellene at all. Their suspicions have been aroused; perhaps they will stop neb-running for a long time. Or permanently. That would be their smartest move."
FX sighed again and everyone looked pessimistic. Everyone but Daima, who said, "That does not fit."
"Fit what?" FX asked.
"Stopping does not fit their nature. Their character."
"Why not?" FX asked.
"They ksavt– hhh– dare and... dominate and..." A rather human look of frustration passed over her face. She looked like she wanted some conceptual telepathy, but Isaiah thought he could guess her meaning.
"She's right," he said. "They won't stop neb-running. They get too much kick out of trading in people." Daima nodded.
"Well, I hope you're right," said FX. "Or do I? After all, we don't want more crimes committed, just to furnish us with clues. Anyway, we'll go to Hellene, since it's the only lead we've got."
Jeanette and Isaiah strolled through the kitchen garden, green herbs and vegetables in the bed to their left, native blue ones on the right.
"I didn't think I would feel this way," Jeanette said.
"About killing Abel?" Isaiah asked. She nodded. "Were you expecting to kill someone? Presciently?"
"No. I mean– Borne had to kill people, on Varkard. When he was helping them track down that psi lord. There were battles. He let me read his feelings and memories, and he didn't feel nearly so horrible."
"He's a very different person, for all that he's your brother. And it was a very different circumstance. Different kind of victim. He went in expecting to kill, didn't he? Intending to kill?" She nodded again. "We killed accidentally," Isaiah went on. "It was a shock, a surprise. Borne may have had all kinds of trauma in those battles, but he wasn't surprised by his enemies' deaths. And our enemy was one of the people we were meaning to help."
"You say 'we killed' and 'our enemy,' Isaiah, and that's very nice of you, but I am the one who killed him."
"Accidentally. If any one of us had been a little more curious or concerned about our target – read his mind a little deeper, gotten a closer look – hell, if I'd just thought a second faster, Abel might be alive."
"You can't be blamed for that."
"Then neither can you. You're like someone who threw water on a busy pyromaniac, only to discover there was kerosene in the bucket."
"Thank you." She paced in silence, then: "Where'd you get the name Abel?" Isaiah told her the story of Cain and Abel. "That's a horrid story!" she exclaimed.
"That's why I picked the name."
"You feel awful, too."
"Do you think the others do?" she asked.
"Don't you know?"
"No! I don't know! Do you think that I always go around–"
"I don't! I don't! I just thought you'd have telepathed with someone in the last day or so, in the ordinary way." He paced ahead of her anxiously, the turned around. "Listen to me, talking about ordinary telepathy. I've certainly come a long way since we met. Okay, let me clear this up. FX just now mentioned clairvoyant piercers. What's a piercer? Someone who can do psi despite psilence?"
"And you and Borne are piercers?"
"Yes. But just for telepathy, with me. And just for TK with Borne."
"So how does it work? How do you evade the psilence?"
They reached the end of the path and stopped. "What do you know about psilence?" she asked him. "The physics of it?"
"Psionic physics is the dynamics of variables called icons. Icons are both force and information in a way I haven't been able to understand yet. Psychic phenomena are the result of living brains assigning certain icons to one another. A psilencer forces the icon assignments within its volume of operation, so no manipulation is possible."
"So far, so good," Jeanette answered, starting to walk back the way they had come. "But there are many classes of icons. Human brains only manipulate some of them. Artificial brains and each species of alien brain manipulate a different set of icons. Did you know that the first psilencers only worked on mammals? Sims and other AIs couldn't even detect their psilence. Modern psilencers have dual systems, for human and AI brains. And ordinary Terran-made psilencers don't work reliably against aliens. Each species makes their own model."
"How about Daima?"
"Her brain chemistry is pretty human, so our psilencers give her some trouble. Between that and her zero range, you seldom notice the difference."
"Yes. But me. And Borne. We're piercers. Our neurochemistry is different."
"It runs in your family?"
She flashed a wry smile. "In a way. Most piercers... Well, most piercers don't exist. Modern Terran space has a new set of urban legends about piercers, as silly as any other urban legends. But there are piercers. Most of them are desperately sick people with exotic problems. If they ever get cured of the problem, the piercing will go away too."
"But not you."
"No. Borne and I are neo-humans. Experimentals. We were designed to be psychic."
"Ah." Pace. Pace. "I guess it worked."
"Oh, yeah. With side-effects, though. Like the piercing. They weren't trying for that; it just happened."
"Who are 'they'?"
"Our parents. And the rest of the research team. Mom and Dad are research geneticists. Slightly guilt-wracked ones."
"Because of the piercing?"
Jeanette nodded. "Piercers are very unpopular. They're stock video villans. They get confused with the psi lords. Think about it. The only reason psionics and the Psi War didn't create an aristocracy of psychics is because non-psychics and minor-league psychics can protect themselves with psilencers. And you can buy psilencers in any hardware store. But you still aren't safe from a piercer. Telepathy piercers are hated most," she added bitterly.
"You must have found it very hard to adapt," Isaiah said. "No wonder you studied psychology."
"Too right. And patharchy. Especially mnemonics, and most especially amnesia. I literally forget about this as often as I can, as much as I can. Ditto Borne. Not that he's studied patharchy. I did the amnesia for him."
"Did Svetlana know?"
"Yes. She alone of all my schoolmates. None of the Timekeeper teachers. FX and company knew about Borne, but not about me. Not until Abel died. That psi lord on Varkard – Moiros – he found out about Borne. That's why he wanted him."
"And of course you were able to contact Borne from Gilead by piercing."
"Right. But cautiously. I wasn't at all sure whether Steves could feel me doing it. And if he did feel me–! I knew he'd never stop to listen to a lecture about disjoint icon sets. You have no idea how much people hate telepathy piercers."
"He'd never heard of piercers."
"He'd have re-invented the hatred. I guarantee it. Isaiah... Isaiah, you don't– Do you think I'm..."
"Read me and see. Or, better yet, I'll read to you." He reached out with his own, lesser telepathy and felt her shielding. Then she dropped it and he opened contact down to the conceptual level. Ideas, words, and feelings rushed out:
I love you. "Of course I don't loathe you, fear you." Rather, I love you. "Nothing has changed. I know you." And love you. "I've known you for weeks. I know you won't invade and harass my mind." Ridiculous. You are too wise and good. "You never did it in open psi. No more would you do it through psilence." For I think you love me, too.
They were at the other end of the garden path, hands clasped, eyes locked, with no memory of how they got there. The telepathy between them flooded their imagination with fused images of itself: it was a taut rope spun of burning incense, a river of honey and rose attar, a giddy gyre tingling with voices as wild as sea-birds'.
It occurred to Isaiah that there was one thing left to do, a physical thing. He leaned forward to kiss Jeanette. Her lips met his in perfect accord. The two kisses, of minds and lips, ended together.
"So," said Jeanette. "We've admitted it. What do we do now?"
Isaiah knew what she meant, the problems she alluded to. "Enjoy it," he answered. "Wait and see."
He laughed. "How do I know what? You're the precognizant." She flinched. "I'm sorry. What is it? Something about your precognition?" He wondered if he should resume the contact.
"If I weren't a precognizant, Abel would be alive. Did you wonder how I came to be carrying the psi conditioner?"
"Yes, briefly. There was so much else to think about."
"I can't just look into the future, the way I can into the past. It's the causal feedback. If I saw danger X approaching and prevented it, it wouldn't have been there for me to see coming. That kind of thing." Isaiah nodded. "So I can only get filtered data. Isolated glimpses, very short notice, general impressions.
"I had this strong hunch that the psi conditioner would come in useful. That's all. I've learned to recognize that flavor of hunch. It was one of the main things the Timekeepers taught me. So, I..." She shrugged. "I acted on the hunch and took the psi conditioner. After all, it's what I spent all that time at school for. And Abel died."
Isaiah nodded. Still holding her hands, he stared down at the garden bed. A sprig of mint cast double-edged shadows on the dirt. "But we lived. Abel was pulling a gun on us when he died. Several guns, in fact. Those guns must be what triggered your precog. I approve. I wish Abel was alive. I'm much gladder that you are."
"But it's so ... so ruthless. I feel like parts of me – the precog and my personal survival drive – I feel like they conspired to trick me into murder."
"They conspired to protect you. As you've explained the rules of this game to me, they couldn't speak to you more clearly. And they could only work on what came to hand. The psi conditioner was just lying around – in FX's room, right? If we'd had some shock armor lying around, your hunch might have suggested that."
"Probably." She dropped Isaiah's hands and walked away, kicking at pebbles.
Isaiah shot a thought at her, a vigorous denial that she was an awful person. As he snapped off the contact, he realized it had been tinged with impatience. He started to worry. But she looked back and smiled.
On to Chapter 18, Transit
Back to Chapter 16, First Blood
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013