Isaiah pulled himself out of trance and looked around the bridge. Everyone was seated and strapped in. He looked up just in time to see the stars wink out, replaced by the few violet lights of hyperstate.
"How's it going?" he asked Jeanette.
"Fine," she answered tersely.
"Back there on the field... What were you doing? Some kind of telepathic combat?"
She nodded. "It's called burning. Though I always thought it felt more like choking."
"How does it work?"
Jeanette gave a short laugh, almost a snort. "In the TV shows, you fry each other's heads with colorful beams that you shoot from your eyes."
"And the real answer is...?"
"You cut off your opponent's supply of unassigned icons." She glanced at him. "Does that make any sense to you?"
"Well, I've been trying to educate myself on psionic physics, so I know that, on the psionic level, matter and energy are patterns of variables called 'icons.' And I know that psychics do their tricks – our tricks, I mean – by using unassigned icons. So I understand the basic principle. But what's it like to you, subjectively?"
"You have to be able to feel the opponent's form of telepathic contact. That's ... not easy to describe."
Isaiah nodded, remembering when he had helped Jeanette recall Svetlana's contact, back on Carmel. "It's like an esthetic quality. But only like."
"Yes. Well, all I can say is, once you have the ... style of the contact well in mind, you grab for the contact extra hard. Imagine if I contacted you and then contacted again, and again."
"A touch turns into a strike."
"Yes. The amplified contact uses up your unassigned icons."
"But icons come and go all the time."
"Oh, sure. But it knocks you out of commission for a while. And the psychological effect can include real unconsciousness or hysterical psi-failure." She met his gaze and smiled, a gleam in her eyes. "You're a good telepath. You've learned very fast. Between that and your psychosomatic patharchy, I bet you could be a real scrapper."
Isaiah laughed. "A telepathic brawler? Interesting. I can see my class schedule now – Canorus beating up my body and you beating up my mind. You are the best burner in the crew, aren't you?"
"I am. I'm the only one."
"How good was the Vierlinger Integral?"
Jeannette dropped her smile. "Quite good. I'm sure it's something she's practiced."
"And you haven't."
"No." She sighed. "But I'm the best we've got."
Isaiah reach out and clasped her hand. "You are an Olympic-class telepath. That's what FX said back on Carmel. It may not be great style to overwhelm a more skilled opponent with raw strength, but none of us here will object. Anyway, are we going to confront them telepathically?"
"We may have to." But she looked a bit happier. Isaiah considered making a contact to find out how happy she actually was, but decided that would be rude. Instead, he looked around the bridge, seeing how the others were preparing.
Borne sat front and center, in the pilot's seat, bring up view after view on his panel, using sensor readings from the ship and sensor logs from Hellene to zero in on a chunk of spacetime containing the neb-runners' ship. Canorus and Daima sat on either side of him, setting up targetting programs for Wisper.
FX worked on the controls of the ship's psi-conditioner. Vivian, in the seat in front of Jeanette, was the only one doing something obviously arcane: she was forming bubbles of silvery light in her hands, then depositing them in a cluster that hovered in mid-air. It looked like she was preparing for an astral snowball fight.
"What are those?" Isaiah asked her.
"Blocks, cloaks, and shields," she answered. "It's faster to make them ahead of time and then trigger 'em in battle."
"You're going to throw them at the other ship?"
Viv smiled. "I'm going to throw them at us, if we're attacked. These are defenses."
"Ah." He considered for a few moments. "What can I do?"
"Pray," she answered, forming another bubble of light in her hands.
"Already did that. Anything a little more material?"
"Hm. Lemme think." She did that for a few seconds, then remarked, "If we'd been smart, we'd have shown you how to run a targeting program weeks ago. Too late for that. We just haven't done much ship-to-ship fighting."
That didn't make Isaiah feel very good. "How about putting me on lookout?" he asked. "Give me a comm board and route the sensor feeds through it. I've studied the ship's systems enough to make some sense out of them. I can run hysterical speed and perceptual skills. Maybe give us an edge that way."
"Hm, well, Wisper already does that, but an extra pair of eyes certainly couldn't hurt." She passed the suggestion over to FX, who nodded, so Isaiah unstrapped himself and fetched a comm board. After a short conversation with Wisper, he was busy watching the activity on the ship.
According to the gravitic emissions recorded on Hellene, the neb-runners' ship had darted into hyperstate on a normal course, but had shortly thereafter made three more jumps to different hyper-vectors, trying to confuse their trail. It hadn't worked. The ground sensors on Hellene were too good, and Borne was too good at reading their logs.
The Will o' the Wisp had torn off the ground minutes after the neb-runner ship. Wisper did a vector sum of their quarry's four jumps a further few minutes later. Now they were presumably in the same hyper-vector as the runners, a few hundred thousand kilometers away from them in an unknown direction.
Watching his comm board, Isaiah saw Canorus issue an order to Wisper. The computer was to monitor the ship's sensors for tachyonics and gravitics that might signal the quarry's power plant or maneuvers. "Would it do any good to scan for magnetic fields and infrared?" Isaiah asked aloud.
Canorus grunted and added them to the computer's list of duties. "Have to be pretty close to detect that," the Melior said, "but we might get lucky."
"How well can they sense us?" Isaiah asked.
"If they were an ordinary trader, not very well," Canorus answered. "But who knows what they've equipped themselves with? And that goes for their gunnery, too."
"I suppose it depends on how well the trade in nebs has been going," Isaiah said. Canorus only grunted.
A few minutes after his last course correction, Borne announced, "We'll be entering their projected sensor scope in a few minutes. That's if they've got ordinary commerical sensors. So I'm blacking out now."
Isaiah fell. He gasped, then closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. He had not really fallen, of course, but when Borne switched off the cabin gravity, that's how the instant zero g felt. He opened his eyes on darkness; even the cabin lights were off, along with heating, aeration, and virtually everything else except computers and sensors. Isaiah stared at his comm board, making it a trance focus.
One display showed a red sphere with a green line being drawn slowly through it. The sphere was Borne's guess at the neb-runners' sensor scope, and the line was the course of the Will o' the Wisp. A much larger green sphere drifted around this scene, centered on the moving tip of the line – the sensor scope of the Will o' the Wisp. If the neb-runners were likewise blacked out, the TSTO ship would need greater sensitivity, more than greater scope, to find it.
The red sphere shrank and moved away from them, as time wore and no enemy ship appeared. When it disappeared, Borne said, "Okay, my guess is they're blacked out not far from here. They probably didn't see us, but if we change course to double back or start a search pattern, they'll spot our gravitics. What'll we do?"
"Wait," said FX. "Just keep gliding along. That first sphere was just the first standard deviation for their location. Let's take it out to the second or third. If they're anywhere at all near, we'll spot them as soon as they move."
New spheres appeared on the display, with the path of the Will o' the Wisp already mostly through them. Vivian hummed and blew bubbles with her hands. Jeanette sighed. It became very dull, even if you were entranced.
Suddenly, everyone looked over their shoulders, toward the back of the ship.
"Psi," said Isaiah.
"Big psi, very far away," Jeanette said.
"TK," said FX. "A big burst of TK, a long way off. Our friends, surely. Wisper, concentrate the infrared scan on the ten-degree cone around our path."
"Done. Target established," the computer announced. A little red X appeared on the display, near the green line of their path, trailing a red line of its own. Nearby, a grainy image appeared, worked up from the target's own infrared emissions and the faint violet light of hyperstate. No details were visible, but it was obviously the trader ship.
"Huh," Borne grunted. "That's not at all the course they should be on. You think they shoved their whole ship onto a new course with TK?"
"I do," said FX. "A whole lot of TK, stored up over a long, long time, for just such an occasion. Well, well. I wonder if they saw us go sailing by. We'd have seen them if we'd been a little luckier with our infrared sampling. Think we have longer legs than them?"
Borne grinned. "Pretty sure."
The lights came on and blessed gravity returned. Coming out of his trance, Isaiah barely marked, at the edge of his awareness, the comm board. It showed their path doubling back on itself and accelerating toward the red X. The grainy image got sharper and suddenly blazed. The neb-runners' ship turned and began its own acceleration.
"We've got their attention," FX remarked. "Broadcast the notification, Wisper, not that it matters. Estimated times?"
"At the tone, twenty-five seconds (beep) to engagement, lasting .04 seconds," Wisper announced. "Targeting programs running," it added, "set for disabling shots."
Jeanette brought up their telepathy network. "Hysterical speed, please," she asked Isaiah. "And agility."
Isaiah obediently invoked those patharchic powers, so Jeanette could share them through the team. But four hundredths of a second was not much time, even at this accelerated scale. Wisper counted down to twenty four, then there was a flash and the two ships were flying apart again.
"Sixteen seconds (beep) to next engagement," Wisper announced, "lasting .03 seconds." The ship wheeled around. Violet sparks spun past the nose.
"Target changing course," Borne said.
"No damage to us," Daima said. "No damage to them."
"Armament looks standard," said Canorus. "Light shock guns. Standard shields."
"Good," said FX. "Listen for a–"
There was a flare. The ship jerked.
"–a surrender, Wisper, just in case."
"Okay. Thirty-seven seconds (beep) to next engagement, lasting .7 seconds."
"Target accelerating," Borne said.
"Superficial damage to our hull," Daima reported.
"A projectile," Canorus explained. "They dented our hull."
"Naughty," FX commented. "Okay, raise impact screens, too, Wisper."
"Now, why would they use–?" Isaiah began.
"FX," Jeanette called, "raise psilence."
"And lose our net? Why?"
"It's a prem–"
A flash, a shudder.
"Glamour!" Canorus called, over Wisper's announcement of the time to next engagement. "We got two clear hits on them, and neither took effect. They're not where they seem. They can glamour radar."
"Cute bastards," FX said. "Okay, let's–"
He broke off. A figure had popped out of the air, directly behind Borne, a blonde woman in white body sleeve and robe. Borne must have felt the psi-burst of her arrival, because he and the others wheeled their seats around to stare at her.
"FX!" Jeanette yelled. "Psilence!"
But the woman had already gestured at FX – a sharp swat, as if throwing something. FX gasped, shielded his face with his arms, and curled up in his seat. The woman swatted again and again, so quickly that Isaiah knew she, too, must be running on hysterical speed. Then she swatted at him.
A stab. Darkness. Fear.
He tossed and flailed, as on a sick-bed. He was sick, infected, invaded. Dreamwise, he saw himself, naked, writhing in some vague, dark place. Someone looked on, gloating, because she had caught him, had discovered his shame. Now she would bring it out. Everyone would see the sickness in him, the monstrosity.
Something rummaged in his head. Every other time this had happened, it had been a friend; he had tried to help them find the thing they needed. Not now. How did he hide a thought without first thinking it and so exposing himself? Do not think. Deny, deny.
He tried to empty his mind. Maybe he could throw out the intruder along with the thing it sought. But no. Something gloated again. It had found a rich vein, a promising lead. Here was the shape of his shame.
He swelled and puffed. He looked down at his arms. They turned scarlet. He grew, inflating. His vision swam, multiplied. He caught the image his persecutor was mining:
The horror at the end of time. The final tyrant. Long ago, he had admitted to Vivian that, like any patharch, he sought control. Here was the theme of control, swollen with an endless greed, snarling domination from seven heads, rising from the sea of history to persecute, to horrify, to deserve and receive the last curses.
Isaiah looked at his hands again. They were paws, covered with scarlet fur. And again his vision swam, and he knew the other heads were growing. Fourteen eyes? He remembered his horror and fascination with alien vision, with Nift's vision.
The intruder in his head turned greedily on this memory. It rummaged again, found another image. Did Isaiah see that new target? He could not tell. And perhaps he was despairing or weary, but for whatever reason he did not fight any longer. He let the stranger storm through his head, whipping up a torrent of memories and fancies, then distill that new image and send it out into his flesh.
Again he saw himself from outside, as one may in dreams. As clairvoyants may. Now he was in no vague darkness. He was strapped in his chair, on the bridge. The woman in white was nowhere to be seen. Neither were FX or Daima. Canorus was cursing and stabbing at his control board. Bric-a-brac – papers, books, a boot, a gun – were swirling around the room, pelting Borne, who was jerking in his seat, being thrown against the belts by an invisible force. Both Vivian and Jeanette were pale as death, and both were looking at Isaiah.
His clothes had split off him. He was a red blob, vaguely human, mostly lumpish, hairy and bloody. The redness faded to orange, to tawny brown. He swelled further and the belts snapped off. He fell to the deck.
And still he saw himself from outside. He saw himself from two different angles, from three, five, a dozen angles. From three different distances. And still he was watching the two women, and the men struggling at the helm. And each view changed and moved.
It mesmerized, it fascinated. So much vision. Far too much to absorb or control, but forcing itself on his mind, leaving no attention for anything else. At the center of the myriad-sighted vision was himself. He thrashed on the deck. He could feel himself thrashing, but it was hard to pay attention to that, so full was his mind of sight.
He was huge, surely as big as a horse. He raised his head, long and muzzled. But as he watched, the muzzle became pointed, shiny, a beak. He staggered, trying to stand. He could only do it on all fours. A tail whipped about. He remembered feeling through Nift's senses, the sensation of having a tail. He had one now. Was he becoming a fimmet, like Nift, a giant fimmet?
As if confirming this, his torso suddenly took shape. What had been a churning brown bag developed ribcage and belly. The mass on the back gathered up, divided, spread, and became wings.
Griffin. He was a griffin. Why the hell was he a griffin? Oh, yes. The woman in white. The invader, infector. Why weren't the others griffins? What had happened to them? Why could he see all of them at once, and himself, and from so many angles, and still his eyes were closed.
He opened his eyes. Huge, gold-orange, the eyes of a giant eagle, as big as teacups. And, in the air around him, more eyes opened, green, blue, yellow, brown, pink, red, slit-pupiled, round-pupiled, human and not, eyes peering out of invisible lids, looking at everything, looking at each other, circling in rings through the air. Around and about, he was full of eyes, wheels of eyes.
Jeanette stood up and reached for him. He felt her hand, so tiny now, on his shoulder. Below the wing. "Are you– all right?" she asked. "Are you in pain?"
He tried to speak. He had no idea what he would say, and it did not matter. He opened his mouth and produced a noise like tearing metal, a hawk shriek in the bass registers, a lion roaring through a beak.
Jeanette reached out telepathically. He could feel it, anticipated it with dim gladness, though he was still preoccupied with the visions, all the wheeling, multiplied beholdings. Then contact came, and he shrieked again.
His mind, already overburdened, was failing, darkening, choking. Burning. This was burning. She was burning his mind. He started to lash out with one paw. She gasped and flinched. He did the same. His rings of flying eyes circled her, examining. Had he hurt her? In no shape would he hurt her.
She shrank from the swirling eyes, then said, "Can you understand me?" He nodded. "What's happening?" He shook his head. "Are you in pain?"
"I– I–" He stopped. He has spoken. "No," he said, his voice harsh, distorted, but still faintly like his old one. "But I can't– Too many–"
"Isaiah, what are these eye things?"
He looked at her from before, behind, both sides. He looked out from her, behind her, in front of her where he crouched. Too much to see. He had forgotten her question. The eyes drifted away from her, forming new rings, tilting and spinning drunkenly around the Griffin's head.
Vivan lit up her aura. It flickered, feeble and ragged. She staggered toward the Griffin. "Lemme try to–" she began, reaching out with hands and nimbus.
The Griffin roared again. He scrabbled on the deck and beat his wings. Vivian lurched back. "Shrunk!" Jeanette cried. "He's shrunk! What did you do?" And indeed, his whirling rings of vision showed the Griffin that he was smaller, lion-sized, not horse-sized.
"I didn't do anything!" Vivian protested. "What's happening?" She stared around at the whirling clouds of eyes and junk. "Where's FX?"
The Griffin cowered down, behind Isaiah's chair. Let them forget about him, let them not think on the fact that he was now a beast, a monster, that he could not think for all the visions. And, as if in answer to his wish, all the items flying through the air suddenly dropped. Yelling stopped – yelling that had been in the background since the nightmare began. His many eyes swirled around and clustered on Borne, now slumped in his seat, stunned by a blow from the flying boot. Borne's own boot, it must have been, since one foot wore only a sock.
Vivian leaned over him for a closer look. Her hand touched his neck and the stun became full unconsciousness.
Calm. Or at least stillness. The nightmare should be over now, but he was still a beast full of eyes, he could not think, could only watch.
"Can anyone tell me," Canorus growled, "what the hell is going on?"
"No," said Jeanette. "What are you doing?" He was tapping frantically at his own control board.
"Got massive system corruption. Trying to help Wisper fight it."
"Good idea. Viv, put your hands on Canorus's neck."
"What?" spluttered the Melior. "Hey! No! Aahh..." He trailed off, his cinnamon skin turning greyish. "Stop it!" he commanded breathlessly. "So ... tired. Can't–"
"Systems purged," Wisper announced. "Peripheral software being refreshed."
"Huh?" panted the Melior. "You mean it stopped?"
"Yes," said Jeanette. "Viv, keep a grip on his neck." A few seconds later, Canorus slumped in his seat, unconscious. "Good. Wisper, take us to safety."
"Okay," said Vivian. "One down. But I have to find FX." She turned and strode away. The Griffin saw that she was no longer pale and weak. Her fair skin was rosy, her bearing was energetic.
"Wait," said Jeanette. "Help me with Isaiah." She, still weak, stumbled into Vivian's way.
"We know were Isaiah is," Vivian answered, catching Jeanette by the shoulders. "Maybe not what, but where," she muttered. "He'll keep. Help me find FX. And Daima. Jeanette?"
For now Jeanette sagged to the floor, unconscious. Vivian's face changed – the Griffin watched the shift in expression from eight different angles. She cried out and ran from the bridge.
The Griffin crawled out from behind Isaiah's chair and stood over Jeanette. He nudged her cheek with his beak. Eagles don't whimper; neither do lions. But a plaintive noise escaped the Griffin, like an upward stroke on a cello. His eyes huddled around her. "J- Jeanette?" he boomed softly. No response.
He looked up and his eyes went swirling out. Some gazed at the unconscious men. Some glanced about the room, littered with debris. A few looked at the control boards, where Wisper was restoring lesser systems and doing something with maps. The rest went crowding to the window and through it. He gazed from outside the ship. His eyes swirled away through the window, into the void, and saw the ship, a microscopic husk of metal, falling through hyperstate, dropping faster than light through the abyss.
He huddled his eyes back into the bridge and, somehow, he closed them. Later, he thought he pulled them into his real eyes and shut those. Shuddering, tail between his legs, he blundered off the bridge, found his way to his cabin, and curled up tight, in a darkness with many, many sides.
On to Chapter 22, Aten
Back to Chapter 20, Closing
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013