Isaiah sat watching a young man flip through a pornography magazine. The young man was very young; he had probably been born from a dragon's tooth less than a year ago. His face was pale and freckled, completely unlike Noah's or Andre's or the face of the neb-maker that Vivian had conjured from their gene codes. But he had the spine, the shoulders, the posture, and the gait of his kindred.
The neb was the crewman of the Maigrette, and he was under the illusion that he was in private. He was off duty, as far as Isaiah could tell, sprawled in the sun, in a niche formed by packing cases on the deck of the ship. Isaiah sat cross-legged on the crates behind him, Jeanette sat on his right, and Canorus stood right in front of him, all invisible.
Isaiah was standing guard over the other two, who were searching the neb's history for his origin. Isaiah was also supposed to gather some cell samples, if he got the chance, but the neb consistently refused to spit or bleed or otherwise shed tissue.
The rest of the team were on the Leucothea, waiting, not daring to crowd the little Maigrette with more invisible presences. The Leucothea was four days further along her route, still the center of an informal fleet that included the Maigrette. Five hours ago, Wisper had spotted the neb. The team had rallied immediately to Isaiah's call, returning to the Will o' the Wisp to grab Isaiah and some equipment, then barging through Hellene's military teleport system to the terminal nearest the Leucothea. Then Vivian had surprised Isaiah with a quick sedation and bundled him into the air-car that was waiting for them. When she un-sedated him, they were aboard the Leucothea.
Now, for at least two of those five hours, Isaiah had been haunting the neb. It was dull work, but much easier than Canorus and Jeanette's. Isaiah could neither see nor hear them, but they were all in shallow telepathic rapport, and he could feel their repeated frustration and growing weariness. They were searching for the neb's origin, which would have been simple, except for the many times he had been in psilence.
Every time their clairvoyance hit a period of psilence in the neb's life, they went psychically blind. They had to grope backward through time or sideways through space, to some time or location of open psi. Then they had to re-establish contact with the neb at that point in his history by a process similar to dowsing. But there was no guarantee that the neb was in open psi at that time. If he was not, they had to move their viewpoints about, hunting.
Nor could they look for anything else useful while they hunted. As Isaiah understood it, they had to start their probing of the past from some particular target in the present, such as the neb. They could not, for instance, jump over to the history of the Maigrette's captain, at some point a week ago when he brushed by the neb. They had to stay with the neb. The past was not an open book, even to a graduate Timekeeper like Jeanette. Instead, it was a tangle of paths that could only be entered from the present. If their dowsing failed, if they lost their path, they would have to start over.
Isaiah felt the time-hunters pause. Another period of psilence, probably. They registered weariness. Jeanette's fatigue started to pass off, then Canorus's. Probably they were drawing on their psi batteries, but those would not last forever.
Isaiah sighed, looked around as a good guard should, then resumed his own exploration, a study of the neb himself, in the now.
They had followed the neb to his little reading niche. Clearly, he knew the layout of the boat well and had been here some time, at least a week, probably much longer.
There was no habit of fear or resentment about him, but likewise no habit of swagger. He seemed a rather bored drudge. Isaiah inferred that the neb was treated as a subordinate but not a whipping boy. Not bad for a slave. (Did the captain or crew regard him as a slave, as property? Did they know his origin? What had they bought him for? As a guard? For re-sale?) Far beneath the boredom, a hint of confusion lurked, only visible to patharchic character analysis – the only visible hint that the neb had been hurried into life and adulthood.
Pornography is a very narrow range of theme in art, but it still allows for different styles. The neb's porn magazine was a thick one, with a variety of pictures. He flipped over most of them without interest. Oddly enough, the pictures he studied most often showed women wearing a lot of clothes. True, they wore them loosely, and it never looked as if they would be wearing them much longer, but mere nudity did not seem to interest the neb. Flowing robes, silk, velvet, deep and vivid colors, caught in the act of departing – those were his taste.
Often, the pictures looked like illustrations to some story, stills from a movie. Often, there was a couple, their faces filled with various emotions – not just lust, in fact seldom lust, but ecstasy, fear, anxiety, woe, anger. The backgrounds were stormy skies, dark forests, monumental architecture, views of space decked with flaring suns, huge moons, or battling spaceships. All very dramatic.
Drama. Romance. The neb's taste's were lush and romantic – fanciful, extravagant, generous. It fit. A neb's tastes might very well be copied from its maker, in large part, and Isaiah suspected the neb-maker was the Animus in the Vierlinger tetrad. An Animus was not necessarily romantic, but it was a common style.
"How's it going?" It was FX, making verbal-level contact.
"Steady slogging," Isaiah told him. "I think he's–"
"?? Borne? What? angry – interrupt? no! ??!" FX's contact was awash with verbal fragments and flickerings of puzzlement and alarm. Isaiah gathered that Borne was about to interrupt Jeanette's long work of probing.
Hastily, he made contact himself. "Borne, don't interrupt Jeanette. What is it?"
"What the hell is this Vivian tells me about you and my sister?"
"We thought you knew," said FX, his verbal telepathy smooth once more.
"Jeez, they gave you enough of a hint when we left the ship this morning," came Vivian's thought.
"We're in love," Isaiah told him simply. Borne couldn't verbalize a reply, but his empathic contact was a-bubble with dismay, outrage, and a kind of incredulous aghastness. If he'd been speaking, he'd have spluttered. Isaiah's own emotions flared back anger, indignation. Why should the idea be so inconceivable? His thoughts started to form a sharp reply.
"Got it!" It was Jeanette, radiating triumph. Her powerful contact seized and reorganized their little telepathy network, and grabbed up Vivian and Daima in the same effortless sweep. "Look at this!"
Isaiah's imagination was flooded by a picture: the neb, standing between two groups: four men on one side; a man, a woman, and a sim on the other – his buyers and sellers. In the background stretched a wide, paved plain, littered with ships. Pericles Spaceport.
Canorus moved the viewpoint, slewing it around to look over the shoulders of the three neb-runners. There, a few meters away, sat their ship.
"Hot frass!" exclaimed FX. Aloud. He and his three companions were sitting at a table in a restaurant aboard the Leucothea. Several patrons stared in surprise as he snatched up a paper napkin and began copying the image onto it with bound glamour.
Canorus moved the viewpoint again. This time, he brought it in on the wrist of one of the four buyers. On the man's watch. "No closer," he stated. "He's wearing a personal psilencer." It was close enough. They could all see the date: 3 June. A babble of thoughts filled Isaiah's mind:
More than a month ago. There – I've got the image down. What about my sister? That was two days after they dowsed me. Hell of a time-skew. What's the name on their ship now? More than a skew – time-travel. Bizarro cultist bastard. Stuff it, Borne. Must've arrived on Hellene before they even left Carmel. Ship's name isn't visible in the image. Weird religions. Now image the people. They must have spent months in hyperstate. Plenty of time to work up more dragons' teeth. The point is, are they still here, or have they already left Hellene? Speaking of time, you're eight times her age. We said stuff it. I've got the people's images now. Okay, everybody, I'm lifting the contact; I want to concentrate on this fix.
The last thought came from Jeanette. Once again, she re-wove the telepathic links. Isaiah felt relatively alone again, with her and Canorus. "I could have sworn that Borne knew already," she verbalized. "Oh, well. Worry about it later. Isaiah, help us memorize this."
Seeing now through Jeanette's clairvoyance, now through Canorus's, Isaiah watched the sale of the neb from several angles, several times. He stored it all away. Then, with weary relief, the two time-sensitives let go of the moment they had dived and dowsed and hunted for so long.
Isaiah had closed his eyes, back when the visualizations started. He opened them now and blinked in the sun. The boy still sat, flipping through his magazine, still unaware of the invisibles around him, unaware that his history had been delved and quarried by strangers.
"That," sent Jeanette, "was one for the record books. I have never groped my way back through so many psilent periods before."
"Me either," sent Canorus. "Was that you or Isaiah telling Borne to stuff it?"
"Both, I think," Isaiah answered.
"Let's get back to the liner," Canorus urged. Isaiah felt his presence floating up into the air. Jeanette gave a flicker of assent and rose, too. Moments later, she levitated Isaiah off the packing case. Isaiah looked at the distant bulk of the Leucothea. He looked very steadily, not glancing up or down.
A few minutes later, visible and afoot, Isaiah and his companions walked into the restaurant and joined the others at a sea-view table. "Ah, good," said FX. "Canorus, I need your hand-comm to transmit our images to Wisper. That'll be better than hunting up a phone."
Jeanette frowned. "Why the rush?"
"I want to see if their ship is still at Pericles Spaceport."
"Uh... But don't rush it."
FX met her gaze and raised an eyebrow. "Is this the Timekeeper speaking?"
FX looked at her for a few more seconds, then shrugged and sipped his ice water. He ate three origami snacks while no one spoke. On his fourth one, Borne said, "Jeanette, do you know what–"
"No one who dated Darlene for a year and a half has the right to criticize my dating."
"That was years ago!"
Vivian laughed. Daima looked baffled. Borne blushed and growled, "Later."
"Excuse me, am I done not rushing now?" FX asked.
Jeanette lowered her gaze, presumably testing the time stream. "I don't know."
"You don't know what disaster we're trying to avoid here?"
"No. I just have this foreboding."
Isaiah coughed gently. "I get forebodings every time you guys whisk me through the air. But they've all been wrong. So far."
"Yeah, well, this one had a Timekeeper tag on it," Jeanette said. "I can't explain it any better," she growled, sounding like her brother. "Not without some heavy telepathy. They said explaining myself would be the hard part," she muttered.
"I believe you," Isaiah assured her. "It's not that. I just wondered."
"Well," said FX, businesslike, "I've conscientiously not rushed, and you don't have any actual red lights on your Timekeeper's brainboard. And it is the next logical step, finding out if that ship is still there. So..."
Canorus produced his little hand computer and held it briefly over the two glamour-printed napkins. "Have you got those?" FX asked Wisper through his calling card.
"Is that ship still on the field?"
"The picture offers no name or registration number on the ship. I cannot make a match with the port records."
"Yes, I know. But can you make a visual identification?"
They waited. Vivian ate a cracker folded to look like a toy boat. Jeanette started to frown again. Then Wisper said, "I have a positive identification." Canorus's hand-comm lit up. It showed a blocky little trader ship, like hundreds of others on the field. The viewpoint was high in the air and several hundred meters away, judging by the heat-ripples.
"Stablize the image and magnify it," FX said. "I want to see their current name and number."
Jeanette was still frowning. "What's wrong?" Isaiah asked softly.
"Just the foreboding come back."
"But that's important! I didn't mean I disbelieved in your– Damn it! Too much telepathy is ruining my ability to speak clearly. I just wondered how you told psychic forebodings from mundane ones. Never mind that. What should we do? Or not do?"
"No. I think... it's come true."
FX, who had been listening to them with a very unhappy expression, turned his attention back to the hand-comm screen. "They now call their ship Fleahopper. And a string of numbers. Probably another Adonian registry. ... Wisper, where does the image come from? It's too high to be a landing field monitor."
"It comes from the bow camera."
"What?!" roared Borne. Heads all over the restaurant spun to stare at him. "You took off? You idiot chip!"
"There is no cause for alarm, Borne. I received clearance."
"Not from me you didn't!"
"I am under standing orders from FX to develop my initiative," the computer answered, rather primly Isaiah thought.
"Put that ship down!" Borne thundered.
Borne sighed and looked at his sister. "Bad omen averted. I was afraid some service air-car would smack into it or..."
He trailed off as his gaze wandered to FX. The team leader looked unhappier than ever. "If the neb-runners saw our ship... with a TSTO logo plastered on it... pointing its bow at them..."
Jeanette closed her eyes. "I think they did see it."
"So," FX sighed, "it wouldn't have mattered how long I waited. Wisper would have made his blunder at any time."
"What blunder have I made?" the computer asked, with polite curiosity.
"We'll explain it – at length – later. Come on, everybody, let's hustle back to the air-car."
As they entered the Leucothea's parking garage, Isaiah tapped Vivian on the shoulder. "Better give me the next dose," he said. She nodded and handed him an aerosol tablet. He burst it between his teeth and inhaled.
By the time he climbed into the car, the glazing of tranq was already heavy on his brain. It was easy to summon up a trance, easier than keeping one off. When Borne sent the car hurtling off the launch ramp, Isaiah felt a far-off twinge, but no more. His thoughts contracted and perhaps he slept.
Sleep turned to dream, or perhaps trance turned to memory. Isaiah dwelt on the neb and his sex fantasies, on men conjured from air, from water, from stew. Were they sold by the gallon? Canorus and his geometrical jungles of electricity. Canorus's voice, deep and clipped. Canorus was speaking.
"Make up your mind," he was saying to FX. "If you want it to grow its mind, you have to supervise. On its own, it'll take four times as long and get weird."
"Wisper wouldn't fit in without some eccentricities of its own," FX countered airily. Canorus snorted.
Isaiah was certainly awake now. At least, his eyes were open and staring at FX. Given a shove by Canorus's remarks, his thoughts moved around FX and his carelessness. "Have you called?" he asked.
FX stared at him and blinked. "Called who?"
Isaiah dredged for words. "TSTO," he said after a few seconds.
"Oh, yes. They're expecting us at the base."
"The one on New America, Isaiah. With the teleport station. Don't worry."
Isaiah nodded and started to glaze over again. But then Jeanette asked, "How about calling ahead to the spaceport?"
"I was going to," said FX on a slightly defensive note.
"Do it now. Ask if there's been any activity around the Fleahopper. Warn them."
Isaiah went back into his daze. He stared out the window at the sea tearing by below, feeling that he ought to enjoy the sensation of flight without fear, but too numb to do so. Somewhere in the background, he heard FX expostulating to someone.
Some time later, Vivian handed him another pill. He chewed it, an icy little puff went off in his mouth, and his head started to clear. The car was settling down on a parking garage. Around the garage were a few other buildings in a wide, flat field, and beyond the field was the sea – or so Isaiah thought. The sea wasn't visible, but he half-remembered seeing the shore go by recently.
His head was quite clear when the car touched down. Perfect timing. Two little carts came skimming up to meet them, driven by a woman and a man in black-and-white TSTO uniforms. A third man in uniform, standing nearby, looked bewildered; the two drivers looked annoyed.
The bewildered-looking man climbed into the air-car as soon as Borne had climbed out of it. "Hop on," the other man ordered them, nodding his head toward his carts.
"What's this about?" FX demanded.
"You said you were in a hurry," the woman said. "Shut up and hop on." FX obeyed and the others followed suit. Whereon the carts buzzed up the roof ramp and off into the air, five storys up.
Vivian put a hand on Isaiah's shoulder. "Do you want–"
"No! We're headed down anyway. I don't want to play yoyo with my neurochemistry any more today."
Vivian nodded and leaned back.
The air-carts slid down toward a boxy white building. It stood amid similarly functional buildings that made up the TSTO base. It must be the military teleport terminal, Isaiah decided. He had no memory of the place; he must have been chewing on his first tranquilizer last time he passed through.
The carts touched down and whisked them through a wide door, past a jumble of figures in various uniforms – the colors of TSTO, Hellene, and New America, mixed. They jerked to a halt. The team sprang off and jogged into a chamber like a very large freight elevator. This Isaiah remembered and thought again how unlike it was to the commercial teleport he and Jeanette had taken to Albion, with its carpeting and gaudy plastering of posters.
The doors sealed shut and there was nothing to do but stand. Isaiah turned to Jeanette. "What's been happening?" he asked.
"FX has been trying to get some action out of the spaceport authorities," she told him. "Trying to get a restraint placed on the Fleahopper."
"It hasn't been going well?" he ventured, looking at FX's face.
There was a small jolt. They were elsewhere – some other military base, somewhere else on Hellene. The doors stayed shut, though.
Jeanette shook her head. "He has to contact the right authorities and they're being elusive."
"Hellenic orneriness, I think. They don't like being given a rush of orders by a TSTO irregular." Another jolt. "And, to be fair, they haven't had much time," she concluded.
"So have the neb-runners been doing anything?"
Jeanette opened her mouth but FX answered instead. "We can't tell," he said. "But Canorus set Wisper to looking for answers. Checking port monitors and that sort of thing."
Another jolt. The doors opened with a puffing noise and everyone's ears popped; the air pressure here was different. No carts waited for them. The team simply pelted down a corridor, past staring teleport technicians. Isaiah summoned up his hysterical endurance.
As he ran, he felt feather touches on his mind – Jeanette re-establishing the telepathic routes cut by the teleportation. Best to have redundancy on that network, he decided, and reached out for her and the others as he ran. They reached back. By now, Isaiah was so used to telepathy that this contact-making left him with free attention. They threaded their way through office hallways. Here and there, a uniformed figure turned and lifted a hand, stopping foot-traffic to let them pass. He saw FX was still arguing loudly with his calling card. "I don't care!" he said. "Hold them on anything! General suspicion. For questioning. Loitering. Malicious mopery." Buzz buzz. "Well hold onto the ones you do have!"
They were in a concourse. At one of the gates, figures in uniforms waved at them and beckoned. They charged and skidded to a stop around the checkout desk.
"We couldn't bring grounds for holding them individually," one officer explained. "We couldn't find the right magistrate in time. But the port master has forbidden them to launch."
"Good," puffed FX. "Where are they? The Fleahopper crew themselves, I mean."
"There are four," the official said, glancing at a printout. "We know the whereabouts of two; they're on the ship."
"I bet the other two are, as well," FX muttered.
"That would mean sneaking through security," the official remarked.
"Yes, it would. I expect they're very good sneaks. Where's this damned ship of theirs? I've yet to see it with my own eyes."
The officer gestured out the gate, past which hovered another species of air-cart. Vivian glanced at Isaiah, and he felt an anxious little tingle on Jeanette's contact. He sighed and waved his hand dismissively. "Maybe I'll just get it burnt out of me," he murmured, piling onto the cart with the rest.
"Drive low, please," FX said to the officer, a fresh-faced man in star-marshal silver and black. He nodded and obediently drove low – for him – at twenty meters.
The cart whisked over the chessboard of the landing field, usually cutting across squares where no takeoffs or landings were scheduled, sometimes cautiously sticking to the safety zones between squares. The field was flat, offering a view of the sea before them and, behind, the towers of Pericles. Around and about, the ships lay scattered like Titan game pieces, two rising, one falling in the invisible hands of controlled gravity.
"That's the one," the star-marshal shouted over the rush of air.
"What?" said FX. "The one with someone scurrying up the gangplank?"
Isaiah felt Jeanette sparkle with psi. He had an idea that she was reaching out both clairvoyantly and telepathically, the first assisting the aim of the second. "Gotcha," she murmured or thought. Unobtrusively, Isaiah deepened his contact with her and laid open his indelible memory for her use.
She scried a man, tall dark and handsome, the original of Vivian's genetic reconstruction, clambering up the last few rungs of a gangway. He turned and waved his hand at the approaching air-cart in self-conscious bravado. The Animus, of course, the neb-maker himself. The telepathic contact left no doubt of his attitude.
"Stop, slave-maker," sent Jeanette. "You are caught."
"Not caught if I don't stop!" he sent back cheerfully. "As to slave–"
"Not now!" interrupted another thought as the airlock swung shut.
"They're taking off!" FX yelled to the star-marshal. The marshal raised one forearm to his mouth and started speaking urgently into a wrist-comm.
Meanwhile, Jeanette had leapt off the Animus's mind, following the commanding thought that had shut him up. That thought vanished behind a shield almost immediately, but still Jeanette snuffled around it like a bloodhound or a badger (both images flitted through her mind and into Isaiah's memory), memorizing the psychic "scent" of the original contact and of the shield itself, probing for a crack, any remaining free icons that could still yield signals.
Suddenly, the target mind snapped open. Three other minds dipped in, seeking things with practiced speed – seeking each other, Isaiah thought, deliberately ignoring the mental newcomers.
But the unwilling host mind did not ignore the newcomers. She flew at Jeanette, and Isaiah had an image – who knew from where – of dragons battling with fire in the high air.
And there was pain. Something choked and weakened. A hot nausea. In Jeanette. Isaiah risked a look through his fleshly eyes and saw her slumped on a seat of the cart, glaring at the little trade ship they were fast approaching. With the glare, something went back, return fire, an eating rage to choke, sever, rob, burn.
Jeanette's contact to Isaiah sputtered out on the return volley. It was fortunate he had forged his own connection a few minutes before. She was somehow starving, he sensed. "Take from me," he offered.
A helpless refusal on the empathic level, then a shake of the head. Then Jeanette attacked again.
Out in the air, ships were lifting. The Fleahopper had left ground and was a hundred meters up. A hundred and fifty. TSTO ships and armored air-cars were swarming up from the edges of the field. At two hundred meters, someone in the gestalt that ran the ship yelled, "Now!"
The ship vanished, taking several hundred cubic meters of air with it into hyperstate. The atmosphere fell in on the hole with a crack as of lightning. The air-cart shuddered in the turbulence.
Isaiah joined in a chorus of Damns. The marshal started bringing the air-cart down to ground. "Well," he said with shaky cheerfulness, "at least you forced them out into the open."
"Fat lot of good that does," FX snarled. "We know they had at least two sets of papers. No reason they shouldn't have – or get – more."
"Follow them, dammit!" Borne fairly howled.
"Can we?" FX asked.
"Sure. We get the launch vector from the ground sensors. If we hurry, we can catch any early course-changes on ground sensors, or on our own."
"Unless they took a really fast vector," Isaiah remarked. "Then they'd be out of sensor range already." Borne turned a snarl on him. "However," he went on, "they probably just used whatever vector they already had laid in. Anyway it's worth a try."
"As you say," said the star-marshal, sending the cart up again and heading for the Will o' the Wisp.
On to Chapter 21, Curse
Back to Chapter 19, Hellene
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013