FX had the sudden, distinct impression of being observed. He looked around, but saw no one in the crowd of fellow passengers. He held his place in the queue and, eventually, walked down the gangplank to the wharf, leaving behind him the windjammer and the flat, dark expanse of the Sea of Tranquility.
The feeling stuck with him as he hurried through the crowds to the teleport station and took the transition to Platograd. But he saw no one suspicious in the teleport car, certainly none of Moiros's men. Carefully, he changed his gloves. The current pair were getting distinctly green.
He cursed to himself. Why had the old war-wound in his mind chosen this time to open? He left green smudges on everything he touched. He had bought a pair of white gloves at the bus terminal, but the green glamour had leaked through after a couple of hours, until the gloves were shining with a dim, emerald glow. So he bought more gloves at Helium spaceport and changed them every half hour or so. Once out of contact with his hands, the glamour faded by itself after an hour. FX thought he might have despaired otherwise. It would have made him far too easy to track.
Because Moiros's men were after him. There had been one on the windjammer. He and FX had played a kind of tag with each other, strolling about the deck with relentless nonchalance. FX lost him between the wharf and the teleport station. Before that, there had been two of them at Helium, and one on the caravan, who let his disguise slip when he nearly succeeded in knifing FX.
At Platograd, he took the shuttle to Earth. Still he felt watched. He sent a clairvoyant viewpoint up and down the aisles, remaining in his seat, in an apparent doze. His vision halted over a trim, athletic man, young or well-rejuvenated, in a blue business tunic. FX remembered him well. He had been with Moiros on Varkard, and he had died with him there. That could only mean time-travel. This man had been flung out of the past to hunt FX, and, worse, was fated to return into that past and die there. Therefore, it was impossible for FX to kill him now. Any attempts he made would certainly fail.
The doomed man stared up into FX's viewpoint, meeting the gaze. Hastily, FX dropped the clairvoyance. If the man could see the viewpoint, then he was clairvoyant himself. FX cloaked himself against detection, though it would blind his own second sight.
At Canaveral, he carefully kept to open, public spaces. He caught a stage coach, shared with only four other passengers, and let himself relax. He had a respite. Perhaps he had even shaken them. Though he still felt watched. Perhaps it was imagination.
Then a dwarf Blenari got on at Dodge City. FX remembered the creature well, a mustard yellow saurian no more than half a meter high, one of Moiros's nonhuman underlings on Varkard. It squatted on the seat opposite FX, its tail curled around its feet, and smirked at him. FX returned the gaze blankly and unwove his cloak. The creature was a telepath, he knew from old battles, and he wanted to be able to tell if it tried to contact anyone.
But the Blenari did nothing. FX got off in Boston. It got off, too, of course, clearly intent on dogging his heels. Soon, no doubt, it would summon reinforcements. FX growled to himself and decided to put his old affliction to use. He whirled and glared at the little Blenari. It smirked back, then bleated and staggered. FX had cast a glamour on its eyes and turned them green – opaque green.
FX left it, temporarily blinded, groping in the crowd. A walk, a taxi, and another walk later, and he was on the Orient Express, bound for Vienna.
He paced up and down the train. Folk wore clothing from the reigns of Victoria or Elizabeth II. None looked familiar. Cautiously relieved, he returned to his seat and stared out, into the night rattling by. But still he felt watched. In fact, it grew more intense, more intent.
A young woman entered the car. She wore deep blue and had a griffin on a leash. She walked down the ai sle and sat in the empty seat opposite FX. She smiled pleasantly. FX smiled back and cast about for a topic of conversation. He looked at the griffin. It was the size of a large dog, with leonine body, eagle head and wings, and a pair of pointed ears, all in tones of rich golden brown. "That's a handsome pet you have there," he said.
"He's more of a partner," she answered. "He led me here."
"To this seat?"
"To you," said the Griffin. It stood up on its hind legs, inflating to man-size as it did so, then sat down next to the woman, its wings draped around its shoulders like a cloak.
FX, alarmed, readied his attacks. To gain a few seconds, he asked in a low voice, "Who are you? Why are you trailing me? Are you with Moiros's men?"
"Not at all," said the woman. "We're allies."
"We are from TSTO," said the Griffin, crossing one leg over the other and making a steeple of its fingers – which, a moment before, had been clawed toes.
"I thought griffins had eagle legs for forefeet," FX remarked, and wondered at the back of his head why he did not find this encounter stranger.
"Not me," said the Griffin. "Though I might some other time. I'm a little inconstant in shape. Sometimes, I have the horns of a bull, for instance. There's an interesting reason for that, but it'll wait."
The woman stared at the Griffin. "I never saw you with horns."
"No, I don't think I've ever had them. But I think I might, some time. We'll see. Right now, we're here to help you, FX."
"Against Moiros and his men?" FX asked.
They both nodded. "After this, they won't be any problem to you," the woman said.
The Griffin glanced at her with golden eyes and murmured, "A bit Jesuitically put." Then, aloud, "Show him the files."
She reached under the seat and pulled out an attache case. This had to be some kind of conjuring trick, FX reflected. But he had felt no snap of psi, so it must have been no more than stage magic.
"It is not stage magic," the woman said, "or even psi. At least, no more psi than we've already used. You'll understand in a minu te."
"You're a telepath," FX accused.
"Yes. We both are. That's why you've felt watched for the last few stages of your journey. We were waiting for a good point to introduce ourselves. Now–" She opened the case. "Please take a look at these. Do you recognize these people?"
FX took the pictures from her and leafed through them. They were portrait-quality holos. "Certainly. These are my team-mates. Vivian, Borne, Canorus. This looks like one of Daima's usual disguises."
"It is. Do you recognize these two?" She handed him holos of a man and a woman.
"Hm. The woman looks a lot like Borne. Maybe that sister of his he's mentioned. I hear she's– She's you! "
The woman nodded. "That's right. I'm Borne's sister. Do you remember my name?"
"He said it was, ah, Jean."
"Jeanette. We've met before. Do you remember?"
FX looked at the holo again, then at its original. "I'm drawing a blank."
"Try to think back. It wasn't long ago. Trace back your steps."
"We can help," the Griffin added .
"No!" said FX. "Nothing telepathic, thank you."
"Afraid of a false memory?" the Griffin said. "Then you don't really trust us yet. Understandable. How about the next picture?"
FX looked at the remaining holo. It showed a man in a red tunic. "Looks like some kind of uniform," he remarked. He looked up and found the Griffin staring fixedly at him. "I don't remember the face, but the uniform is familiar. I can't place it, though. Are you saying something has happened to my memory?"
Woman and monster both nodded. "Think back," Jeanette repeated. "What were you doing before this?"
"I was in the terminal at Boston."
"How did you get to Boston?"
"Doesn't that strike you as a little odd?" said the Griffin gently. "Stage coaches went out of use in the 19th century. It would take days for one to get from Canaveral to Boston."
"How did you know I got on at Canaveral?" FX demanded suspiciously.
"We've already told you, we're the ones who've been watching you," the Griffin said. " But go on. Where were you before Canaveral?"
"I took the shuttle from Platograd. I teleported to Platograd from Tranquility Base. I got to Tranquility Base by windjammer. And I got on the windjammer at Helium. I got to Helium by bus, from Chiron. Let's see... I got to Chiron by–"
"Chiron is on Centauri," the Griffin said. "Right?"
"And Helium is on Mars. You traveled from Centauri to Mars by bus?"
FX opened his mouth to answer, then left it open.
"How about sailing across the Sea of Tranquility?" Jeanette asked. "There's no water in it. There's no water between Mars and Luna, either."
"But– I–" FX sputtered. He paused, collected himself, and demanded, "What's happening?"
"You're dreaming," the Griffin answered.
FX stared into the Griffin's golden eyes, and a bemused smile spread over his face. "An interesting conjecture."
"Not a conjecture," the Griffin answered. "An observation. By us."
"But, on your own hypothesis, you are only figments of my dream."
"Oddly enough," t he Griffin said, "we're real." There was a distinctly sour note in its voice. At the same moment, it made telepathic contact with FX – very gently and shallowly, but still giving a heightened sense of its presence.
FX sat back, then looked again at the holo in his hand. "You're the man in the picture," he said.
"Yes, you clothes-horse," the Griffin said. "Trust you to remember my uniform better than my face. Not that I'm wearing either at the moment."
"I believe you now," FX said. "Otherwise, this is all too incoherent. But why can't I wake?"
"You're under hypnosis, dear," Vivian said. Suddenly, she was sitting next to him, as if she had just ended a patharchic distraction. "I'll fix that, as soon as you want."
"How did–? Never mind. I want. Do it."
Vivian smiled. So did Jeanette. Even the Griffin smiled, its beak turning up at the corners. Then FX noticed that they were alone in the train car, and there was only blackness outside the windows. The train was not moving. Vivian raised h ands shining with white light.
"Explain it once more," FX asked.
"The neb-runners attacked us," Isaiah answered. "Specifically, their Integral cursed us. Borne got poltergeists, Daima got a doppleganger, Canorus got a gremlin or something, I'm a were-beast, Viv is a vampire, Jeanette's telepathy now burns, and you got a bad case of maya. Lost in an illusion."
FX nodded. "I grasped that. Why couldn't you find me?"
Isaiah smiled. "Well, but we did find you, eventually."
"So you did, but you know what I mean. Why did it take you so long?"
"Because we didn't want to hurt you," said Jeanette. She, FX, and Isaiah were gathered, with the rest of the crew, in the lounge, waiting for clearance from the Atenic authorities so they could move the Will o' the Wisp to the spaceport at Akenaten.
"I tried contacting you a couple of times before we landed," she went on, "but you had your shield up. When I tried to push through the shield, I started to hurt you. Do you remember?"
FX shook his head. " The further back I try to remember, the foggier the nightmare becomes. There were any number of unpleasant things that could have been the image of your burning." He started in on his fifth muffin; he had not eaten in all the days he had been missing. He must have drunk at some time, but no one could guess when.
"Well, so I didn't want to locate you telepathically. And you had yourself cloaked, so dowsing was out, and you made yourself invisible with glamour, so normal senses were out."
"But then you psilenced the whole ship," FX pointed out.
"Right," said Jeanette, "and I risked another telepathic contact through the psilence. You were hiding under the sink in the bathroom."
"Oh," said FX.
"I went to get you," said Borne, "and you fought me off and ran and hid again."
"That explains some of the bruises on you," Vivian said.
"And on me," Borne added.
"At that point, we all decided you could go hide, or go soak your head, or otherwise amuse yourself," said Jeanette. "We were all exhausted. So we all went to our cabins to lay down. You, apparently, opened the lock and went outside to hide. Once you were out of the psilence, you brought up the shield, cloak, and glamour again."
"And then I woke up," said Isaiah, "found I was a griffin, and flew off."
"I tried another gingerly bit of telepathy," Jeanette said, "and determined you were somewhere near the ship. I set Wisper to watch for you in infrared, and sat back, and waited. And rested some more. Then Isaiah came back and helped me find you. Your body, anyway."
"By smell," Isaiah answered.
"Do griffins have a keen sense of smell?"
"Patharchs do," he said drily. "Jeanette tapped into my hyperesthesia to track you."
"Why didn't you use it yourself?"
"I can't. My patharchy's shut off. Part of the curse. But back to your case. Finding your body was only half the battle. You were ... in a dissociated state. Perpetually dreaming."
"Riding the nightmare. Maya."
"Yes. We psilenced you so we could keep an eye on you, and then went into your dreams after you."
FX finished the muffin and gulped down some chicken soup. "Now how did you do that? Only Jeanette can telepath through psilence, but I don't remember feeling any burn in our dream encounter."
"It was Isaiah's idea," Jeanette said. "More skill-swapping. He had me use his telepathic skills to reach you, instead of my own. That way, I didn't burn you. That's why I said, in the dream, that the Griffin brought me to you."
FX frowned. "You didn't burn me, but you must have burned Isaiah."
Isaiah shifted in his seat. "The psilence helped stifle the effect."
"But I still burned him," Jeanette admitted unhappily.
"Just lightly toasted," Isaiah assured her, smiling.
"I thought the Griffin seemed a little short-tempered," said FX, peeling a banana. "Anyway, now I know why I woke up behind a rock."
The psychiatrist's office was on the second floor and gave a clear view over the city of Akenaten. The unmoving sun beat down on white buildings, its ruddy light balanced by strips of brilliant blue streetlight hanging in the air over the curbs. Isaiah stared out at the scene as he listened to the conversation behind him.
"The problem," said Dr. Ragnison, "is that the curses tailored themselves to each of you. You two," he said, pointing to Jeanette and Borne, "have always felt your talents to be liabilities as well as gifts, because of the psi-piercing. The curse patterns read this and corrupted your talents." Ragnison was a tall blond, very pale from years of living under the ultraviolet-poor light of Aten's sun. He and Isaiah's shipmates sat in a circle of chairs in the psychiatrist's office. "Like many patharchs, Mr. Hola has a fear of losing control. He also has – or had – severe acrophobia. So he turns into a flying were-beast – unable to control his shape and flung into the air."
"Why all the eyes?" Borne asked.
"Nift," said Isaiah, turning back from the window. "Remember how upset I was the first time I looked through Nift's eyes? The curse pattern must have been trying to revive that fear."
"But that was weeks ago," Borne objected. "You don't have any trou ble zeening Nift now."
"Nift?" asked Dr. Ragnison.
"Our ship's mascot," Isaiah said. "A little flying critter. A fimmet."
"Looks like this," said FX, holding out his hand and conjuring an image of Nift in it.
"Ah. Interesting," Ragnison said. "Doubly so. First, the pattern not only picked up Isaiah's old fears of, ah, Nift's vision, but gave him a shape like Nift's. A winged and tailed quadruped. Second, there are limits on the pattern's cleverness, since these fears are obsolete. Mr. Hola, am I right in saying you find nothing terrible about the griffin shape, except that it comes on you involuntarily?"
Isaiah nodded. "It's even fun. In that shape, I can do flight and clairvoyance, the two psi skills that eluded me. And my acrophobia is gone. It's just that my patharchy is gone, too. And I transform whenever I'm in open psi." He smiled one-sidedly. "But it beats being the Antichrist."
All the others stared at him, puzzled. "I beg your pardon?" said Ragnison.
"An image from a vision, part of the Christian canon. The Antichrist, also called the Beast, is the culmination of human wickedness. In the vision, it appears as a scarlet lion with seven heads. When the curse first hit, that's what I started to turn into."
Jeanette shuddered. "A griffin is much better."
"That's from the same vision," Isaiah said. "And it ties in with the eyes. The throne of God appears, with four fabulous beasts attending it – a bull, a lion, an eagle, and a man. Each has six wings and is described as 'full of eyes.' Like me."
"Again interesting," said Ragnison, grinning. "They try to turn you into an image of evil and instead you insist on turning into a celestial creature. Yes, these curses are nasty but they clearly can be tricked and tripped up. Yes, this is very hopeful. Most hopeful of all, Mr. Bacon is now cured."
Cured bacon. FX winced at the pun and Isaiah flinched in sympathy, but Ragnison did not notice. He went back to listing their diseases. "Mr. Bacon has an old fear of being stalked by his late enemies, and is an illusionist. So his curse turned his power against him and buried him in an illusion of perpetual stalking. I am not sure of the basis for your problem, Ms. Alistair," he said to Vivian, "or yours," to Canorus. "Oddly enough, I am willing to make a guess about your doppleganger, Daima, despite the fact that you are alien.
"You have disguised yourself as human," he said, "even partially transformed yourself. You have left your true species identity behind. Perhaps your doppleganger has taken up the identity you have discarded."
"Then this curse is based on a mistake," said Daima. "I am still Sossen fra. My identity cannot change. It can only be hidden."
Ragnison shrugged. "I merely guess. Though I guess after some fairly deep telepathy. Let us go on to the cures. Mr. Bacon's case suggests that we try a combination of guided imagery and psychic hypnosis for the more complicated cases. For the simpler cases..." He turned to Daima. "I cannot predict how your doppleganger will work, but there is a simple and straightforward method of curing human dopplegangers."
"Good," she said. "What is it?"
"Kill it. Next time it appears, battle it to the death."
Daima blinked thoughtfully. "It has my own skills. It is from my own mind. I think any fight would be a draw."
Ragnison nodded. "That's why you want friends standing by when you try this."
Daima stood. "I have six friends here. Seven, if I add Wisper. Eight, if I add Nift. Nine, if I add you." She drew her psilencer out of her jacket pocket. "Do you want me to summon it and kill it now?"
Ragnison smiled and raised one hand. "No. In a few minutes."
They piled out of the air-van, lent them by an anxious TSTO carpool. Isaiah reflected that it was almost a let-down to feel nothing special about flying. He stepped out and looked around.
They were in the desert, well away from the Akenaten city limits. Overhead, the unmoving sun shed its soft furnace glow. Below, on the baked earth, purple cacti sprouted here and there, flat, fleshy leaves carefully facing the constant sunlight. Ragnison led the way deeper into the desert, and Isaiah marched after. Something insectile buzzed near him, caught his alien scent, and veered away. A tiny, many-legged weasel skittered into a clump of cacti as they approached.
"This is far enough," Ragnison said after a few minutes. "Form a circle, everyone, around Daima. Wider, please. Good. Stunners ready? Mr. Bacon, are you ready with the psi-conditioner? Good. Are you ready, Sentient Daima? Then turn off your psilencer."
They stood in a ten-meter-wide ring around Daima, each in a bubble of psilence, each with a stun-gun except for FX, who stood ready with the psi-conditioner. Daima stood quietly in the center, in a black-and-white TSTO uniform, but looking somehow less human than usual. She stared around her, then called out in her native tongue. She stared expectantly, then called again. Then again, something longer and more involved.
After two minutes, nothing had happened. "Perhaps," said Ragnison, "your double does not want to face you with friends near."
Daima opened her mouth to answer. As she did so, a wisp appeared in the air behind her, quickly thickening into a shape. Another Sossen frani stood behind her, in its native shape, gray-furred and gray-maned. It launched a kick into Daima's back as Isaiah and other shouted warning. Daima pitched forward, but turned it into a roll. She started to come up standing, but the double was already launched at her. It struck her feet first again, this time in the chest. Daima grabbed the feet and pulled it down after her, but it kept the advantage, rolling forward to claw at her head.
A yowl went up. And then another. The Sossen franen scrambled and writhed around each other in a swirl of black, white, and gray. Daima was bleeding, Isaiah could see – bleeding violet, it seemed. The double did not bleed. Perhaps it could not. It got its hands around her throat and one yowl ended abruptly.
FX hit the psi-conditioner. The double vanished, like a bubble bursting. Daima panted, then rose, growling. For once, her face bore a readable expression: rage. She wiped the blood from her cheek and no more flowed after it. She stood breathing for a minute, then turned to FX. "Again," she said. He lifted psilence.
This time, it did not surprise her. After a quick scuffle, Daima got her hands around its neck and started to strangle it. But it slipped out of her grasp, and Isaiah recalled that it had all her talents, including the ability to ooze through tight places.
T he double, having squirted out of its original's grasp, leaped away and then toward Isaiah. Perhaps it had some idea of using him as a shield or hostage. It thrust a hand at him, but its whole forearm vanished as it entered the zone of Isaiah's psilence. It hissed and pulled back, the arm condensing mistily out of air.
By now, Daima was up and centimeters from closing with the double. It leapt and simply kept on going up. Daima followed. They were headed for the city, Isaiah noted anxiously.
"Get 'em!" Borne yelled and, following his own advice, took off after them despite the psilencer he was wearing. He flew much faster than either the real Daima or the imitation, passed the original, and closed with the double all in a few seconds. His stunner crackled and the double went limp. It hung in the air, air itself and neutrally buoyant. Daima grabbed it and dragged it back to the ground at the center of the circle.
"Shall I kill it?" she asked Ragnison.
He sighed. "If you had shot it yourself, killing it now might work. Especially if it had been armed, too. But you have to defeat it by yourself. At least, that is the rule with human dopplegangers."
Daima patiently settled down on the baked earth to wait for the double to revive.
FX cleared his throat. "If you want to confine the doppleganger," he said, "I think I can set the psi conditioner to cast a zone of psilence in the shape of a hollow sphere, with open psi in the middle. Would that do it?"
Ragnison brightened up. "Ah! Perfect! I would like to look at that psi conditioner when we are done here. It must be a very advanced model."
Everyone resumed waiting. Isaiah turned to Jeanette, on his left, and said, "Does Daima look a little ... different to you? Even less human in her movements?"
"I hadn't noticed," Jeanette said, but Ragnison, on Isaiah's right, said, "She is starting to shift back to her native shape. She suggested that to me and I approved. That ought to undermine the double's excuse for existence, if my guess is right."
"But I thought Daima's shapeshifting took days."
"Yes, it probably will. But she is going faster than she normally would, and I am helping by empowering her – telepathically sending her free icons, the reverse of Ms. Alistair's problem. Unfortunately, I empower the double, too, as I do it."
"So you aren't in psilence?"
"No," Ragnison answered. "I'm carrying an opener. But there is psilence between me and this arena here, and I have a TK block set up, so I feel reasonably safe."
Isaiah glanced up at the ruddy sun and wiped sweat off his forehead. He remembered when all he knew of psi conditions was psilence and open psi. Now there were these various blocks and cloaks and shields. Was there a way of using these to help Daima now?
"Where does the double think?" he asked. "I mean, is it just a palpable image, with the processing done in Daima's brain, by her subconscious, or is it a separate airy creature, like a newly-made neb, with its own brain made of air?"
"Both, at the moment," said Ragnison. "It starts as a projection and becomes solider and more independent with time."
"What would happen if Jeanette cast a telepathic shield on Daima?" Isaiah asked.
"The double would simply vanish. It's projected from a deep level of the id. Assuming it works like a human doppleganger."
"Well, but suppose Jeanette left the id level open and only shielded at, say, the memory level. Would that leave the double but deprive it of Daima's skills?"
Ragnison pondered. "Please try it," said Daima. Ragnison nodded agreement. They all looked at Jeanette, who stared at Daima briefly. "Done," she reported.
A few minutes later, the double revived from the stun. Daima waited patiently while it regained full consciousness – or full mental capacity, if it was not precisely conscious. It recoiled from her, rolled into a ball, rose to its feet, and began to flee, all in one fluid squirm. Isaiah wondered if it really was stripped of all its skills.
But then Daima pounced, and her action, too quick to see, left him in no doubt. It struggled wildly, but it seemed sluggish compared to Daima, or compared to its own performance a few minutes ago. Daima slid through its fluttering hands, latched onto its neck, and twisted. Its head flopped over. Then the gray-furred figure blurred, became a wisp of mist, and vanished in the desert air.
Daima stood panting. Her face no longer looked human at all. It lacked only the fur to be identical with the van ished double's. She looked at Ragnison and said, in Varkardian, "Is it gone?" He did not understand, so she repeated it in KaiSenese, then finally in Earthron.
"Yes. It is gone. Or so I believe."
"Two down," said FX. "Five to go."
FX escorted Jeanette and the Griffin into the train car. "This may be the most intricate piece of psi I've ever taken part in," he remarked, "though we did get fancy on Varkard a few times. Let's see... We're all in telepathic rapport with each other, despite the fact that Jeanette's in psilence to keep from burning us all. You two are under psychic hypnosis by Ragnison. Jeanette is tapping Isaiah's patharchy and sharing it back with him, since he can't reach it himself, and you've all asked me to orchestrate it with that fugue state I learned from my curse."
"We're dreaming," said the Griffin, summing up.
"Yes, but very intricately." FX could not but help feel the impatience radiating from his two companions, so he changed topics. "Well, I shall bow out, now. Jeanette, if you tap into my skill of maya now, Ragnison's hypnosis should take over."
"What happpens then?" Jeanette asked.
"I expect the train will drop you off wherever you should be next." The car stopped trembling, and the floor jerked beneath them. "Here we are." FX sat down in a train seat as Jeanette and the Griffin headed for the door. "I'll just watch, now. Good luck."
They felt his presence fade into passivity and forgot it entirely as they stepped down from the train and looked before them. A moor rose in dark swells before them, under a dim sky of heavy cloud. On the crest of the hills, a thick, blunt tower reared.
"Jung's tower again!" said the Griffin.
"My tower," Jeanette corrected.
They did not remember the hike to the tower, or perhaps it took no time, being unimportant. Instead, they were simply there, entering a heavy wooden door. Beyond was a bare stone room containing nothing but a staircase. "Down?" asked the Griffin, peering down the stairwell.
"Down," Jeanette confirmed.
At the bottom of the stairs was a curtain, and beyond that a short, forking corridor, ending in more curtains. Beyond those, more corridors and more curtains, in a labyrinth. "We could wander here forever," Jeanette fretted.
"We won't," the Griffin answered and opened his many eyes. They appeared above his head in wheeling haloes of sight, then scattered, disappearing through the curtains. "It's a simple, repeating pattern," he said, taking in all the visions. "The question is, where does it lead? What's the point of a mess of empty corridors? Maybe we should go down another– Ah." He paced toward a curtain. "This way."
Jeanette followed obediently. Once again, the unimportant transition simply vanished. She stood in a dark stone room, staring at a sword. It stood upright, flames flickering along its blade, driven into a short stone pillar, through a naked brain. The brain sat on the top of the pillar, perhaps quivering slightly. Flames licked over it, too, as if it and the sword were coated with burning oil. The Griffin sat next to the pillar, his tail neatly wrapped around his feet, looking at her expectantly, his extra eyes all tucked away.
Jeanette did the obvious thing: she walked up to the sword and reached for the hilt.
"No!" A second sword whistled down between Jeanette's hand and the hilt. She and the Griffin both jumped. Golden wings flapped, and a flurry of eyes sparkled through the air. "Get back!"
The speaker was a young woman. She wore a cowl and tunic of chain mai l, and over this a tabbard of white, bearing a red letter psi. She was fair and blue-eyed, and the hair flowing out from under the cowl was blonde. Otherwise, she looked just like Jeanette. "Get back!" she repeated. "You are not worthy!"
"Who do I have to be, King Arthur?" Jeanette demanded.
"Witch!" spat the valkyrie. "That sword keeps your cunning dead. It is a flaming angel-sword, and its light of pain exposes your spying."
"Listen," said Jeanette in a heavily patient tone, "I don't spy on people. Mother and father taught me better manners. I just–" She left her image arguing reasonably with the valkyrie and, invisibly, reached for the hilt.
Slash. The valkyrie was not fooled, and Jeanette recoiled, her hand bleeding.
"It's all your fancy, that," remarked the Griffin. "You don't know glamour, really, and anyway it's no use inside your mind. You can't hide from yourself, you know."
Jeanette growled and reached into the air. From an invisible scabbard, she drew another sword and poked at t he valkyrie, who parried and riposted. Jeanette parried.
The Griffin watched the fight for a couple exchanges. It was, he realized, perfectly balanced. A stalemate was inevitable, if nothing intervened. Time to intervene, then.
He inflated to lion size, spread his wings, and dove at the valkyrie with a torn-metal scream. "Monster!" she screamed as he seized her neck in his beak. He bit down, just as the valkyrie drove her sword into his throat. Eyes fountained through the air, then went out.
The Griffin's beak slacked, and the valkyrie rose from the tangle of golden limbs. "So much for your familiar, witch," she said. She raised her blade to strike off his head.
"No," said Jeanette, horrified. In her dreaming state, she could not think of things like psychosomatic shock, but she knew that Isaiah might well be dying in reality. She looked for the sword she had grabbed from the air. It was gone. But now the flaming sword was unguarded.
Jeanette seized the hilt and pulled. It burned. The blade came free of the brain with a squelching noise. She turned and saw the valkyrie's sword come down.
In a fury of rage and fear, Jeanette brought her sword down on the valkyrie's shoulder. The dream-armor parted. The valkyrie shrieked and collapsed.
"Isaiah?" cried Jeanette anxiously. "Are you all right? Isaiah?" But the Griffin did not move. There was no wound or blood, but he looked diminished, deflated. He was not breathing.
"It couldn't work," she said to herself. "I couldn't save him. That's not how the story goes. The maiden doesn't rescue the monster from the knight. Oh, damn! The story's gone wrong!"
Isaiah hung in a darkness. The blow of the valkyrie's sword had been a telepathic burn. Jeanette had said it was more like suffocation, and that was right, too. Or like a crushing blow. It was none of those things, really, but it left him stunned, seared, stifled. It was an agony.
He knew, then, that he could die. Beyond the darkness he hung in, there loomed a greater darkness. Was that the fabled black tunnel, the death-road? Was the light of God beyond it? He was too stunned to feel fear or longing or even curiosity – only a bewildered puzzlement.
The cavity pulled at him. Was it time to go? Time to die? Should he resist that pull? But he was so weary. "Help," he prayed, and that seemed to use up his last initiative. All that was left was the darkness and the puzzlement.
Puzzling in the dark, he became aware of other things besides the black cavity. The attack had knocked out his telepathy, but he was still in contact through Jeanette's initiative, and FX's. Through that, he knew the dream continued and Jeanette mourned over the fallen Griffin. He also knew that, somewhere, he and Jeanette lay quietly on couches in Ragnison's office. But those worlds of imagination and sense were far away.
Most immediately, here in the darkness with him, was that deeper blackness. And the Griffin. Later, he remembered a heraldic thing, a symbol of gold on blue, but he was never sure that he saw this. It seemed likelier that he apprehended the Griffin as mere concept, and created the image later.
It was a beautiful thing, that Griffin, an essence of wild energy, of vision and flight. But it was also a barrier. On the far side of the Griffin lay something belonging to Isaiah, something the Griffin barred from him. His control. The Griffin walled him off from all those intuitions and disciplines that made him a patharch and had taught him psi.
But the Griffin itself was a thing of psi, and all the psi had just been stunned out of him. So the Griffin should be helpless now.
In the dark at the edge of sanity and life, he reached for and claimed his lost property, moving away from the final blackness as he did so. The Griffin could not bar him.
Control was back. What to do with it? Isaiah turned his attention again to the dream.
The Griffin breathed. No, it didn't, but its skin stirred. The belly tore open and out climbed Isaiah, human. Jeanette gave a yelp of joy and hugged him. He hugged back for a long time.
Eventually, he asked, "What was that about stories?"
Jeanette did not speak, but just passed the concept to him. There was no hint of burning in her contact now.
"We write our own stories," he told her. "If we want to invert Perseus and Andromeda, and throw in Beauty and the Beast, who's to stop us? Your burn seems to be gone."
"It is. I'm sure." She hugged him again. "And you?"
"Human again. I wonder, though." He gazed at the floor, where the burning sword lay beside the griffin-skin. "Are we allowed to take souvenirs?"
"We can try," said Jeanette, reaching once more for the sword.
FX was waiting for them on a station platform. They came soaring down out of the sky, Jeanette riding on the Griffin's back, a flaming sword in her hand.
"So what can he do?" asked Borne, looking at the cat-sized griffin curled up in Isaiah's lap.
"Fly, of course," Isaiah answered. "Turn invisible. Change size. Walk through walls. Become me. That is, I can put him on, like a suit."
"What'll you call him?"
Isaiah scratched the griffin behind the ears. He could barely feel it on his legs, since it was made of air and imagination. "Seer, I think. Because I can see through his eyes."
He and Borne sat on Dr. Ragnison's sun-deck. It was backed by a metal-mirrored wall, to double the constant, ruddy sunlight. Brilliant blue lamps flared at each corner. With them were Jeanette, FX, and Daima. Down b elow, Ragnison was working on Canorus and Vivian.
Jeanette shifted her gaze from Seer to Isaiah's face. "So, do you think your prayer was answered? Did you get help?"
"Oh, yes. I pulled through, after all. The curse is gone, even turned into a blessing."
"But how do you know that you pulled through because of God?" Jeanette persisted. "After all, you did it yourself."
Isaiah nodded. "I got a hunch to try something. And when I tried, I succeeded. Where did the hunch come from? Where did the succ ess come from? From God."
FX stirred. "The hunch could have come from your own subconscious mind. The success came from– The success is just the way things worked out. How is God necessary to the picture?"
Isaiah smiled. "Where did my subconscious mind come from? Why do things work out as they do? Trace the answers back far enough and you come to the creation and history of the whole universe. I'm not saying that God worked a miracle for me. I am saying I got what I prayed for, and so it must have been God's will, however He brought it about."
"Is everything that happens God's will, then?" FX asked.
Isaiah nodded again. "He either commands it or permits it."
Borne rose half a meter into the air, leaned back to face into the sun, sighed contentedly, and closed his eyes. Ragnison had been able to undo his poltergeist illness with a single session of counter-hypnosis, and he was enjoying his return to normality.
"Then why did God permit you to get cursed in the first place?" Jeanette asked.
"I don't know. Maybe so I could learn therianthropy, familiar-casting, clairvoyance, and flight. To bless me, or bring judgement on me, or for some other reason. Why should I expect to know?"
"And us? The same for us?" asked Jeanette.
"The same what? I just confessed my ignorance."
"Yes, but you're sure there was some good reason, even if you don't know what."
"Right. The same for you. For anyone."
"How about Abel?" she challenged. "Did he deserve judgement? Did he get a blessing?"
Vivian came up from the office. "What's going on?" she asked, looking at the intent faces of Jeanette and Isaiah.
"They're debating the Problem of Evil," FX told her. "How are you doing?"
She shrugged. "He says we made progress. But I'm not cured yet. He's working on Canorus now." She sat down next to FX and gazed expectantly at the other couple. A flash of psi passed between them, which Isaiah guessed was a quick telepathic update from FX to her.
"I know even less about Abel's case than about ours," Isaiah confessed. "Look, if you're seeking a club to beat me with, let me give you a better one. Abel was killed by his makers' callousness and greed, and by our haste. His misfortunes can be blamed on humans. Mortals," he amended, glancing at Daima. "But time and space are full of millions of instances where beasts and children, all at least as innocent as Abel, suffered much worse than he did, from disease and accident that were no one's fault. No mortal one. If you want to blame God, those are much more incriminating cases than Abel."
"I don't want to blame God," Jeanette looking into the gentle, dim sun, perhaps in order to look away from Isaiah. "I don't believe in a personal Divine that can take blame. I just don't understand how you can."
Isaiah sighed and lay back in his sun chair. "This is a very old argument," he said.
"One of the oldest," FX chipped in.
"It goes back at least as far as the story of Job, in the Bible. Any of you read it?" None of them had. "I t's a long argument between Job and his friends about how God could allow innocent suffering. At the end, God shows up and joins the conversation."
"What does He have to say for Himself?" Jeanette asked, interested.
"First, you must understand that Job has been very angry at God all through the argument, complaining about unfair treatment and demanding explanation. God answers, in effect, 'Don't you speak to Me in that tone of voice. What makes you think I am answerable to you? I made this universe and I'm running it. Can you do that? Then why do you think you're fit to judge Me? What makes you think I don't know what I'm doing?'" There was a slight pause.
"That's it?" Jeanette asked. "That's God's whole answer?"
"Yes. Not very satisfying, is it?"
"No! He sounds like He's scolding a little kid."
"He often does," Isaiah muttered. "The odd thing is," he went on, "it seems to satisfy Job. Anyway, he stops complaining and apologizes. Then God turns on the friends, the ones with the glib, pat a nswers, and says they are in His bad books and should get Job to intercede for them, because they didn't speak truly about Him, the way Job did."
"Now, that's interesting," Jeanette conceded.
Canorus came up to the sundeck, followed by Ragnison. Neither looked pleased.
"What news?" FX asked.
"No cure," said Canorus. "Yet."
"Both Canorus and Vivian have curses more intractable than Borne's," Ragnison said. "I cannot simply counter-suggest, as I did with him." He dropped into a sun chair, and Canorus followed suit. Ragnison turned to Jeanette and Isaiah. "However, with both of them, I have set up suggestions for telepathic imagery sessions. You two and FX did very well with that method against this brand of curse. I am hoping you will succeed again."
"I'm willing," said Isaiah. He looked cautiously at Jeanette. "You?"
"Certainly. If Canorus and Viv are."
"Sure," said Vivian. "Who wants to stay a vampire?"
"Whatever it takes," said Canorus. "I don't want to be stuck here too l ong."
FX coughed. "Not that Aten isn't a nice planet, Dr. Ragnison," he began. "But–"
Ragnison laughed and waved one hand dismissively.
"Maybe we can work out the imagery now," said Isaiah, "and do the sessions on the ship, so as to get under way as soon as possible."
"Under way where?" asked FX.
"Aren't we continuing after the neb-runners?" Isaiah asked, surprised.
"I'd like to, of course, but I don't see how. They could be anywhere within a light-century or so, by now. We've already done what we can do by alerting TSTO and giving them all the information we have on them."
"Damn!" exclaimed Jeanette.
"Ditto," Isaiah growled. The griffin in his lap growled, too. He and it stared owlishly into space for a time, then he said, "We don't know where they're going, but we know where they've been."
"Yes," said FX. "So? How– Oh, no! Not time-travel!"
"Why not?" said Jeanette, brightening up immediately. "We go back to Hellene, arriving a little while before we did last time, lay low, trail the bastards, and–"
"And find our path is paved with banana skins," FX interrupted. "How much do you know about time-travel? Have you ever done it?"
"No," Jeanette admitted, "but I know the theory. They covered it thoroughly at the Timekeepers' College."
"I should hope so. Then you ought to know that you don't want to hang around in your own earlier vicinity."
"We don't have to," she returned. "Hellene is a big place."
"With excellent communications and transportation."
"We'll just take care not to use it to contact our earlier selves," Isaiah said. "That should be easy. After all, we didn't."
"We didn't because our later selves aren't going to have been there," FX insisted. "If we did this, we'd have to hang around the Pericles spaceport a great deal, with our own earlier selves coming and going, and Wisper scanning everything in sight."
"We'll know what places to avoid," Isaiah assured him. "We'll just remember where we were."
"And telepathy," FX went on, heedless. "Have you thought about tel epathy? Suppose you tried to contact me? Which me do you get, the first or the second?"
"Obviously the second," said Isaiah, "since the first didn't get any prophetic contacts."
"Anyway," said Jeanette, "you'll have been through four hyperjumps by then. None of us will have any trace contact with the earlier versions."
"And if you like," said Isaiah, "we can just do without telepathy. We did when I was a kid..." he remarked dourly.
FX sighed with exasperation. "Amateurs! Why is it so important to you to continue?"
Jeanette and Isaiah looked identically surprised. "Because we don't want the bastards to get away with it, of course," said Isaiah. "No more human pawns like Abel."
FX folded his arms and stared moodily into the sun.
"They've got a point," said Vivian. "I don't want to let them slip away, either. And we have some time-travel experience. We'd be prepared."
"It's because of the experience that I don't want to do it," FX retorted. "Don't you remember breaking your ankle at just the wrong moment? Canorus's gun shorting out? Daima developing an allergy to human dandruff?"
"Those just happened because we were trying to take out that guy we'd already seen alive the next year," Vivian said. "If we'd recognized him, we'd have steered clear and none of those timelocks would have happened. Nothing like that can happen here."
"Can't it?" FX demanded.
"'Timelocks'?" echoed Isaiah.
"Weird turns of luck," Vivian explained, "that happen to prevent changes to history."
"They just look weird," Jeanette said, "because time-travel complicates the distinction between anterior and posterior probability."
"Thanks for clearing it up," Isaiah muttered.
"But this time," Vivian said brightly, "we're just going to watch. No harm just watching the pas t, is there?"
"And this time you have a Timekeeper with you," Jeanette added, smiling.
"Oh, good," said FX without enthusiasm. He looked around at his shipmates' faces. "This isn't a democracy, you know."
"Of course," Isaiah said.
"We'd have to sneak off without telling TSTO until later," he warned. "I'm sure they'd never give permission."
"So?" challenged Canorus.
FX sighed. "I suppose that, if we don't, you two will just jump ship–" He nodded at Isaiah and Jeanette. "– and fast-talk some poor singleton trader into taking you back. Or hypnotize him or something."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Isaiah.
"What a good idea!" Jeanette remarked.
FX sighed again.
"You don't want to let them get away with it, either, do you?" said Vivian.
"No," FX admitted. "I don't."
On to Chapter 24, Returns
Back to Chapter 22, Aten
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013