The ship flew through hyperstate, falling toward Hellene and into the past. Just now, the principle industry on the ship was dreaming. And healing.
Canorus fought on the steps of a golden pyramid. At his side were Jeanette and the Griffin. Before them, barring their entry, swarmed manlike creatures loosely woven from brilliant, neon-colored cords. Canorus shot one with a blaster. There was an bolt of blue-white light and a snapping noise. The creature dissolved into fading strings of color, while the word "ZAP" burst out of its chest, flared briefly, and vanished.
Another creature swung at Canorus with a staff apparently made of multicolor static. It struck the Melior on the shoulder. He hissed. A little burst of blue and white stars exploded from the contact point.
Meanwhile, Jeanette fired her own blaster into another neon-man who unraveled with another "ZAP" flare, then dodged, anticipating two return swings from another pair of creatures with static-staves. The staves collided, producing multiple starburst patterns and popping noises. The Griffin bit through a foe's woven neck, ignoring the staff-blows to its back and wings from other creatures. The word "SNIK" floated up briefly, from a pile of collapsing light-strings, and the Griffin turned on the two other attackers.
A few minutes later, the three were alone at the top of the pyramid stairs, rubbing stings and scorch marks from the defunct neon-men, surveying the field. The pyramid was stepped, South-American fashion, all shining gold except where it was decorated with patterns of cubical crystals. Around it stretched a cubistic cityscape of luminous pastels, under a black sky broken only by white threads of outgoing comm lines.
"So," said the Griffin, licking the burn marks out of one wing-shoulder, "I gather you enjoyed superhero videos as a child."
Canorus frowned. "Yeah. Why?"
The Griffin shrugged the feathers back into place. "Just a hunch."
"Shall we enter?" Jeanette suggested.
"Watch out for traps," said Canorus, leading the way.
"Of course," the Griffin murmured. It sent a cloud of eyes ahead to scout.
A trapdoor, a barrage of blaster-fire, and an invisible monster later, they entered the central chamber. It was a rectangular cell of gold, the walls sprinkled with crystal cubes. These cubes bore images, some of the electronic cityscape, some of flowing text, some of people's faces. One face belonged to FX, watching with attentive dispassion.
In the center of the room stood a golden dais with four steps, a miniature pyramid. On top was a huge crystal cube, taller than Canorus. Embedded in this was a cubistic golden throne, and on the throne sat a woman.
She was a Melior, with the same cafe au lait skin, mahogany hair, and yellow eyes as Canorus. Indeed, she could have been his twin sister. Isaiah had seen her face, laughing and mocking, in various screens around the ship, on the two occasions when they had tried letting Canorus out of psilence. Both times, it had taken Wisper more than an hour to clean up the software, and Isaiah had begun to feel something like exasperation emanating from the AI's processor housing.
Now, Canorus lay in psilence, his sleep and his visualization mediated from FX and Isaiah – here the Griffin – through Jeanette's psilence-piercing telepathy. "Perhaps," the Griffin suggested, "the glass cube is the psilence."
Jeanette frowned. "Would that make sense?"
"Would it have to make sense?" the Griffin asked.
Canorus strode up the steps of the dais and rapped on the cube's wall. "Hey, you in there! You think this cube will protect you? Wrong."
The pirate-coin eyes slid slowly to meet Canorus's. The full lips moved slightly, and a feminine voice murmured in monotone, "This is not protection. This is prison."
"Oh, yeah? Who imprisoned you?"
"Four. Led by a woman, fair and blonde. They stole three of the four."
"Three out of four what?"
"These." At quarter-speed, as if she were packed in transparent gel, Nettle raised one arm and moved it back. She was dressed in a charcoal-gray robe, and the action pulled back a fold to reveal a blue jar at her feet. The lid of the jar was a stylized ibis head.
"So you're missing three of those?"
"What are they?"
"This holds my brain. They left me that, or I would not be here at all. The other three contain my lungs, liver, and heart. Get them for me."
"Now, why should I do that?"
"Then I am yours again."
"'Again'?" Jeanette and the Griffin both nodded confirmation. "Okay, maybe. What if I just shatter this cube and take your blue jar? I'll have you then, too."
"No. Then I cease and you will be exiled from the city."
Canrous glanced at Jeanette. "Is she telling the truth?"
"Oh, yes. You'd lose your psi-coding skill."
He sighed. "Okay. Where are these three jars?" He started to pace. Nettle's eyes did not follow him. Her arm remained outstretched in the imbedding crystal. But her lips still moved and spoke.
The banquet had been over for some time, but no one left the table. Vivian and FX chatted a bit, inconsequent and brittle talk to put off the inevitable. Jeanette and the Griffin merely sat, watching the couple or gazing about the room in slowly rising impatience. Finally, Vivian cast a reluctant eye at the grandfather clock. "I guess we really should start."
FX and Jeanette nodded. The Griffin pushed back its chair, dropped to all fours, and re-settled its wings. "Procrastinating will just make this harder," it agreed. "Let's have a door."
The banquet hall had several exits to sumptuously baroque corridors, but none to the outside. FX glanced around, picked a stretch of blank wall, and produced French doors into darkness. Vivian rose, squared her shoulders, and advanced. She looked back at FX. "You coming?" she asked, a shade pleadingly.
"Not obviously," he answered, "but I'll be there, stage-managing."
"I wish I could remember what we scripted," Vivian said, stepping up to the threshold.
"Later," Jeanette assured her. "Get going."
"You'll have other matter for worrying soon," said the Griffin, nudging her in the back with its beak.
She stepped into the dark. The doors swung shut behind. The light faded, and they were gone. The moon came out from behind clouds and revealed a graveyard.
Vivian looked down at herself. She wore a black gown and cloak, the cloak lined with red. Jeanette, she saw, was also in black, but wore a wide-brimmed, pointy hat. The Griffin, golden in the banquet hall, was now pale gray, gaunt and gangling in the half-light, its eyes saucer-huge. "Monster, witch, and vampire," Vivian said. "Quite a team."
"We are not a team," Jeanette corrected. "The Griffin and I are your opponents. This is a trial, and we represent opposite sides." She turned to the Griffin. "Produce the first witness."
The Griffin led the two women through black weeds and cypress, to a grave with a simple, square headstone. It began to dig, dog-fashion. Soon, it unearthed a coffin. Using its forepaws as hands, it hauled it out. Jeanette waved her hand and the lid lifted.
A woman sat up, dark-haired, her face paper-white. She wore close-fitting space-hand gear, the shirt cut away to show two burn marks on her upper chest, dark in the moonlight. "You let me die," she told Vivian, her voice hoarse.
"No!" Vivian countered. "I did everything I could."
"They brought me to you and I died," the corpse insisted.
"Your brain obviously did," Vivian snapped. "You were dead when I first saw you, clinically. No pulse, no respiration, no blood pressure. I couldn't bring you back."
"Do you identify this woman?" the Griffin asked, formally.
"Yes. That is, I don't know her name. She was the first casualty I lost in the Psi War. It was Delta Chrysaor, in the mining station where I grew up. They brought me to her after the first fighting, with blaster strikes. She had taken two hits and was dead of electric shock. I couldn't bring her around."
"Couldn't, or didn't?" ask Jeanette, coldly.
"Could. Not." Vivian's eyes blazed with moonlight. "Hell, I worked on her until she was room-temperature!" She shoved at the corpse with her hand, as if pushing it in the face, though it sat two meters away. It fell back into the coffin. Vivian waved her hand again and the lid slammed shut. She stared defiantly at Jeanette.
"Next witness," Jeanette said calmly to the Griffin.
It dug up another coffin. This one held a man in a space suit, the helmet shattered. Blood flowed from mouth, nose, and ears. "You failed me," he wheezed.
Vivian glared at the new corpse silently for a few seconds, then said, "This is the same as the first. I did what I could. Pure oxygen under pressure. Massive injections of oxy supplement. He died of decompression in a blowout that ended one of the battles."
"No," hissed the corpse. "It isn't the same. You had psi by then. You should have given me your magic. I would have lived then. I would be alive now."
"Dammit!" yelled Vivian. "It just didn't work! Yes, I was learning a little psi by then. Some clairvoyance, to poke around inside him better. I hadn't the least inkling of any kind of TK yet. I hadn't even heard of auric psi, much less of raising an aura and using it to heal. God damn it to hell, don't I get any credit for trying?"
"We aren't the ones who give credit around here," Jeanette answered. "Next witness." The corpse fell back in its coffin and the trio moved on.
The next corpse was a teenaged girl with no visible wounds. "You used me," she told Vivian. "You let me die, while you studied me like a microscope slide."
"Oh god." Vivian turned her face away, eyes watering.
"What happened?" the Griffin asked, its voice a sounding brass.
"Another war death. Psychosomatic shock. I knew her. Maggie. Maggie Stebbins. She was one of eight kids on the whole damned station. We'd been isolated so long, had to ration births so carefully despite the high number of deaths. Oh, hell, I helped deliver her when I was an apprentice!" She sat down on the black, dewy grass and wept.
"But what happened to her?" the Griffin persisted.
"I never found out exactly. Parts of the station were openly in Moiros's hands; the rest was heavily infiltrated. Probably, she stumbled on something they didn't want her to see. So they threw some telepathic pattern at her, I guess because they couldn't get a physical shot at her. It was–" She sighed. "It was sort of like the hypnotic delirium they threw at FX. Only, in hers, she was dying. Right arm cut off, she thought. And all the faces around her were strangers, enemies. Including me. Including her folks. I knew because I had learned some telepathy by then. I got in her head and screamed at her to wake up, to snap out of it, that it wasn't real. She bled to death anyway. I mean, she thought she did, and she died of shock."
"She says you used her," Jeanette pointed out.
"Of course I did!" Vivian snapped. "I tried to learn everything I could about that kind of attack, for the next one. I did a neurochemical autopsy. Her parents were all upset. But I pulled martial law on them. I had to find out what I could. Maybe standard anti-shock with induced coma might have stopped it. I dunno. There never was another like that one. I still don't know exactly what they did to her. She was why, on Varkard, I made sure to learn psychic hypnosis. I knew regular hypnosis, for anesthesia, but..." She shrugged.
"Could you save a case like Maggie's now?" the Griffin asked.
"I think so."
"Next witness," Jeanette commanded.
The Griffin led them to a black tomb. Somewhere in the dark, the monster had acquired bull's horns. It lowered its head and gored at the tomb's door, then pecked and pried with its beak, in alternation, until it smashed a hole through the marble. Then it reached in with one paw and opened.
"What kind of tomb opens only from the inside?" Vivian asked.
"Mine," said a man's voice. "You didn't think I really died, did you? When did I ever give you anything real?"
A figure stepped out of the utter black, into the lesser darkness of the moonlight. It was tall and broad, wrapped in a black silk shroud. The face was pale, round, that of an ordinary man of European stock. He smiled unpleasantly at Vivian, and she looked at the name engraved above the door: "Moiros."
"Everyone else here says I took something from them. What did I take from you?" she demanded.
"Nothing," Moiros said. "You thought you took my life, of course, but that was a lie, like everything else in your experience of me. No, no, I am here to testify that my pupil has learned well. Learned all her powers from me, as she harried me from star to star and year to year. Illusion. Shaping bodies. Shaping minds. Yes, I would be quite proud of you, except that I want you dead. Or mad. Or mine some way. And I shall, you know. Oh, yes. This dream is a presentiment. And when we meet again, or when I let you know we have met, I'll tear off the blindfold and you can see the tether I've had you on. Not truly, of course. Just another image. I'll change that image, too, and the one after that, and the one after that, until I decide that you should die. Or that I should make you think you've died. And in the meantime, I'll use you to do my taking for me, like a tax collector. Bending minds, touching bodies, draining power with the skills I taught you by letting you think you hunted me."
"You did not teach me to drain power," Vivian growled.
Moiros laughed. "You think not? Where did this Integral woman learn her power? Who do you think she serves? (Never mind who she thinks she serves.)"
"You're dead," Vivian told him. "I saw it happen with my own eyes, and made it happen with my own hands, and felt it happen with my own mind. And it was sweet, you bastard, an orgasm of revenge and relief, to hear your mind screaming in fear and rage as it blacked out. I learned powers hunting you, but I didn't learn them from you, I used them on you. And it was sweet, your death, the best thing I ever did."
She reached out and pulled aside the shroud. Beneath, the bare torso was marked with scorches, from a rain of blaster bolts. "One of these is mine," she said, pointing at the wounds. "More than one. My best work."
Moiros laughed again. "Yes, your best work is draining life. Yes, you learned well the lesson I set you."
Vivian scowled. "The only true thing you've said tonight is that you always lie to me." She turned to the Griffin. "Fetch."
The Griffin obediently trotted around the tomb and returned with a blaster in its beak. Vivian took it, aimed leisurely into the center of Moiros's grinning face, and shot. He fell back and lay still on the moonlit grass. "Next witness," Vivian growled.
The Griffin led them to a cypress grove. In the center lay a stone slab, and on the slab lay a figure, like the effigy of a knight on a medieval tomb. As they approached, the figure sat up, looked at Vivian, and slowly shook its head. "A taker," he said. "Always a taker. You always took more than you gave."
"You're not dead, Dad," Vivian insisted. "You're alive and well on Delta Chrysaor."
The man with a face like Vivian's waved one hand dismissively. "You were always such a disappointment to me," he sighed.
"I was not." Vivian turned from her father's image to Jeanette. "I've been through this bit already."
Jeanette shrugged. "Good. But maybe you need to go through it again."
Vivian turned back to the image. "I wasn't a disappointment. You told me so yourself, a week before I left Delta Chrys. The problem was you. You were so damned remote and aloof, Dad. I could never tell if you cared a damn about me. So I kept trying and trying. I couldn't know you were clinically depressed all through my adolescence and even before. But I know now. And I know all those things you did to watch out for me, now. And help. And the way you worried during the War. You just never said anything. Until you got better. When I stumbled on your problem, giving you a physical."
The figure said nothing, but faded and blurred in the moonlight until, by the end of the last sentence, it was gone. "Any more witnesses to call?" Vivian asked.
"One," said the Griffin, and led them off again.
They came to another crypt, low, a black block half-sunk into the ground. Steps led into a deeper darkness. Vivian started to descend, but there was a slam of stone doors thrown open and a figure flew up and grappled with her. It was clad in ragged black and skeletally thin. The moonlight gleamed off pale, braided hair.
Vivian fought back, first with holds and kicks, then with a flare of silvery aura. But the aura flickered, went ragged as the foe's black cloak, and died. Vivian gasped.
The Griffin roared and pounced. The other figure tried briefly to throttle the monster, then fled into the night. The Griffin followed.
The two women followed, Jeanette helping Vivian along. "She drained me," Vivian panted. "It's me. Isn't it? I saw. The hair."
In the distant dark, the Griffin roared. They followed the sound and came to an open grave. The Griffin prowled about it like a cat outside a mouse hole, and inside crouched Vivian's image, thin and ragged. "Send it away!" it cried when Vivian came in view. "I need you to send it away!"
"Why should I care what you need?" demanded Vivian, still leaning on Jeanette.
"Because they're your needs! "
"No, they're not. You're a lie. A lie fed to me by that damned neb-runner."
"No, no! We need energy, power, strength, to go on. To keep ourself safe. Everyone has needs. There's nothing wrong with having needs. We need what they've got." The image gestured at Jeanette and the Griffin. "And the others."
"'We' have enough of our own," Vivian declared. "Enough and to spare."
"You hear?" the Griffin called into the grave. "The lady is no taker. She gives."
"Not enough," the image whined back. "She has to take. We have to take. We've always taken. We just looked like we were giving, but really we were taking."
"Did you?" Jeanette asked the real Vivian. "Is all your giving, feeding, clothing, healing, a mask for taking?"
"Then did you give enough?" asked the Griffin, pacing around the grave.
"How do you know? How much is enough?"
"Dammit, this isn't fair!"
"No," said the Griffin, sitting down and curling its tail around its feet. "It isn't fair. Why do you keep doing it?"
"Accusing yourself. How many different spirits do you think we have met, here?"
"Right," said Jeanette. "Now take. From her." She pointed into the shallow grave.
Vivian stretched out her arms. Silver light shone from her hands in beams that touched the image. It shrieked and writhed, but rose into the air, toward Vivian. She grabbed its wrists and the silver light brightened. Pulsing flares of it burst from Vivian's hands as her image yelled, then moaned, then grew silent and limp. When the light stopped, she held a skin-covered skeleton, with black rags dropping off it.
"Very good," said the Griffin. "Now we finish." It hopped into the hole, and Vivian now saw a set of steps, leading down. She stepped in after it, dragging the skeleton after her like a grisly rag doll. Jeanette followed.
The darkness on the stair was total. Vivian lit her aura and saw massive black stonework. At the end of the stairs, the darkness spread out in a vast chamber, upheld by countless black arches. But the arch directly before the stairs was incomplete. The keystone was missing.
"What do we do now?" Vivian asked.
"Give me that thing," the Griffin ordered, taking the skeleton from her. It folded the thing into a fetal curl, then squeezed some more, bearing down with its forepaws. Then it picked it up and shoved it into the gap of the missing keystone.
"Why are–" Vivian began.
"Because the thing was right, or not wholly wrong. You do need to take. Everyone does. Anyway–" The Griffin dropped back down on all fours and met her gaze. The corners of its beak lifted in an unavian smile. "–if you didn't keep it, you wouldn't be able to pull power at will. Don't you think that would be useful? Especially in a fight?"
The Griffin lay its ears back and squinted into the wind. It and Jeanette sat in the back seat of the open-topped car that was Canorus's visualization of his palmtop computer. In the front seat, Canorus crouched over the driver's yoke. They flashed down white, green, and purple highways, through blackness, pursuing Nettle – or a Nettle – who rode a ground-cycle. She carried a yellow canopic jar strapped to her back and was escorted by sixteen of the neon-spun code-goons.
They dove into a tangle of intersections, thick with traffic signals and glassy message-packet vehicles. They ignored both, as did Nettle and her gang. Emerging from the spaghetti-roads, they saw the highway before them leading to a vast wall, a billboard or window with a man's face gazing abstractedly out of it. Nettle and Co. drove their cycles leaping off the road, through the wall, and Canorus followed.
They were in an office. The man and his companions sat before terminal screens, dressed in TSTO uniforms. Out the window, they could see stars. Tiny as flies, the hunters and quarry swirled through the air, around the heads of the heedless humans. One woman, presumably psychic, did look up in puzzlement, but the next moment they dove through her screen and away down more roads.
The roads were comm lines. The interchange had been a switchboard. The wall had been a terminal. The TSTO comm station had been real, the Griffin supposed. Their own presences were visualized clairvoyance. And Nettle?
Nettle and her entourage were presumably a dislocated chunk of Canorus's mind, sharing in his psi-coding skills. They might also share awareness of his plans. Which would explain why they were so bloody difficult to catch.
"This is like chasing your own shadow," the Griffin complained as they dove into another switchboard. "Why can't you just be where they are? They're you."
"Can't just jump like that with psi-coding," Canorus told him. "Gotta follow the signal paths."
"I'm not talking psi-coding," the Griffin replied. "I'm talking simple self-awareness."
"If his awareness were that unified," Jeanette answered, "he wouldn't have a curse."
That made a frustrating kind of sense. They whirled out of the switchboard and across another violet highway. The violet ones always spanned a gulf spattered with a thin scattering of purple stars, like hyperstate, and the Griffin decided that violet roads were psionic links. Strange to think that their awarenesses had leaped out of the ship, through a deep-space relay station, and were now on their way across light-decades to some even more remote target.
Wherever they were going, Nettle and her friends would get there first. There they were, stuck about four hundred apparent meters ahead of Canorus's processor/hot-rod. Out of curiosity, the Griffin opened half a dozen eyes in the dreaming dark and sent them ahead, to look over the quarry.
They rode skid-cycles, each balanced on a variable-friction runner, the very image of a model Canorus had daydreamed over in a magazine. The color-woven figures were as motionless as statuary. Nettle was almost equally still, except for her hair whipping in the wind. She did not appear to feel the Griffin's gaze.
"If you could see the goal," the Griffin asked Canorus, "could you jump there?"
"Yeah. Why? You got–?"
"Look at this." The Griffin deepened their telepathic contact to the sensory level and showed him Nettle.
–and the car was directly in front of her, squealing to a halt, swinging sideways across the road. Canorus and Jeanette were belted in place, but the Griffin was thrown out of the car. It spread its wings and hovered.
Below, in among its eyes, Nettle and her crew plowed into the side of the car. Their cycles dissolved in unlikely clouds of neat, fading, hexagonal pixels. The code-goons slammed into the "pavement" of the comm-link and unraveled into colorful, tangled smears. Brightly colored starbursts and words such as POW and KRASH flared around them, accompanied by the appropriate sounds.
The Griffin paid no heed. It tracked Nettle. She too flew off her cycle, but appeared to be soaring off the road entirely, into the dark of Canorus's mind. None of that. It stooped on her like a giant falcon, snagging her belt with its beak.
She fought, clawing at its eyes, kicking at its throat, jerking in the grasp of its beak – for she could fly on her own as well as Canorus could. The Griffin descended quickly to the road.
"Put her down," Canorus ordered. "Now I can hold with my own TK." The Griffin obeyed.
Instantly, Nettle wheeled to face Canorus and folded her arms behind her back. The Griffin saw her fists framing the canopic jar. "This jar is very fragile," she told Canorus. "You can't TK what you can't see for yourself, and I can smash it before you or your friends can turn me around."
"Then I won't turn you around," Canorus answered. "Stay there and get cramps in your arms. I've got time."
She laughed. "No, you don't." She gave a shrill whistle, and all sixteen code-goons re-wove themselves from the tangles on the pavement.
The Griffin, who stood between her and the code-goons, spread its wings and expanded to elephant size. " Two can play at that," it said.
"Yes," agreed Jeanette, "but she can play as well as we can. So," she said to Nettle, "why not play your trump now and smash that jar?" Nettle glared back at her, silently. "Because it'd destroy you, right? And you're willing to do that, but not if you don't have to, right?"
"Right," replied the dream-woman.
"I'm not gonna let you go," Canorus told her. "If I did, I'd just have to catch you all over, and we'd be right back here. So just give me that jar. You won't get destroyed that way. You'll just get reintegrated with the other Nettle."
Nettle looked sullen, then gleeful. "Okay. But there's a price."
"What?" demanded Canorus.
"You heard me. Sing."
"I don't sing," the Melior stated.
There was a pause. The Griffin, still facing down the code-goons, asked, "Why not?"
"It's ... dumb."
"Well, thank you!" exclaimed Jeanette. "I recall a lot of evenings, on the run to Hellene, where we did a lot of singing. Except you. And Daima, who can't. So we were all being 'dumb'?"
"I don't sing," Canorus amended.
"Because you'd sound dumb? Is that it? I hardly think that matters much, here in your own head. Or halfway down a comm-link. Whichever."
"However did you get the name 'Canorus'?" the Griffin asked, still facing the sixteen code-creatures. "It means 'singer' in Latin, and in Melioran too, I'd imagine."
"It does," Canorus admitted. "My whole family was musical. Except me. They didn't know that when they named me, of course."
"Be that as it may," the Griffin went on, "I think you'd better sing now. Something. Anything. What do you sing in the shower?"
"Anything," the Griffin repeated. "Pick a song you like to hear. After all, we're in your mind; all you have to do, really, is remember it."
There was another silence. Then Canorus cleared his throat. The Griffin had expected something in Melioran, or a popular tune. Instead, Canorus sang an old 21st-century song, though the words were a hundred years older yet:
"The white moth to the closing bine,
The bee to the opened clover,
And the gipsy blood to the gipsy blood
Ever the wide world over.
"Ever the wide world over, lass,
Ever the trail held true,
Over the world and under the world,
And back at last to you. ..."
From far off, the Griffin and Jeanette felt a flare of surprise. FX, hidden weaver of this dream, was startled when one of his dreamers began to sing aloud while lying on his couch.
"... The pied snake to the rifted rock,
The buck to the stony plain,
And the Romany lass to the Romany lad
And both to the road again. ..."
Nettle stood smiling, though her arms were still bent behind her back, ready to smash the yellow jar. Her phosphorescent aides stood quietly at parade rest, their heads cocked as though listening.
"...The heart of a man to the heart of a maid–
Light of my tents, be fleet.
Morning waits at the end of the world,
And the world is all at our feet!"
Still smiling, Nettle unhitched the jar from her harness and held it out to Canorus. She winked as he took it, then put her hands on her hips and dissolved into mist, which flowed under the lid and into the jar, like a genie returning to home base. Her neon cohorts stood at attention, tightened their fibrous anatomies into knots of color, turned into sixteen orderly white flares, and winked out.
"Very nice," said FX, from far away in the waking world. Canorus colored.
"You really hated that, though, didn't you?" said Jeanette. "Why?"
The Melior shrugged. The Griffin savored his mood carefully and guessed: "It's the demand, isn't it? Each listener requiring satisfaction, right now, the first time. I bet you could sing comfortably to a recorder."
"Probably," Canorus agreed. "What now?"
"Now," said Jeanette, "you return that jar to the central Nettle and head out after the next one. So back to the brass pyramid."
"Golden," corrected Canorus.
"Whatever you say."
They sat in the lounge, at dinner. Around them, t he wall screens showed stars, their colors and brightness amplified, the sky rendered an impossible summer blue.
"So where did you find this jar?" Bornes asked Canorus.
"In the memory banks."
"This was the second?" Canorus nodded. "What was it like?" asked Borne.
"Green. It had her liver in it."
"Gech– I mean, what was it like in the memory banks? You said the comm lines were highways. What were these?"
"Oh. A bunch of bookshelves."
"A maze, really," Isaiah amplified. "We had to track her through it."
"I bet all those eyes were useful," Borne said. Isaiah smiled back. "No string-people this time?"
"Rats," said Jeanette. "Giant rats, made of glowing, colored string."
"You guys made this stuff up?" Borne asked. "Why?"
"Actually, FX and Dr. Ragnison made it up between them," Jeanette said. "Based on Ragnison's readings of Canorus."
"Why give yourselves so much trouble?" her brother asked.
FX shrugged. "Ragnison tried the direct approach and it didn't work."
"Nettle is based on Canorus's anima," Isaiah said, "mixed with his shadow side. He has to come to terms with her. He can't just defeat and reject her; she's part of him."
"Like Seer is part of you?" Borne asked, gesturing at the cat-sized griffin that was curled up on a cushion with Nift, apparently dozing.
"Sort of like. Seer is based on shadow, too, with a dash of integral. And Daima's double is based on shadow and persona, if Jungian archetypes can apply to her species."
Borne looked at Daima uneasily, but her double was not manifesting. "Is this Nettle femme going to show up on the ship?" he asked. "Not that she isn't decorative, from what I've seen on the screens, but–"
"No," Canorus declared.
"Not that we can tell," Jeanette modified, grinning into Canorus's glower. "But she is unpredictable."
"What did you do when you cornered her?" Vivian asked. "I mean, last time, you had to sing..."
"Riddles," Canorus growled.
"What kind of riddles?"
No answer. Vivian started to ask again. "Obscene ones," Isaiah said.
"Very personal obscene riddles," Jeanette amplified.
"Which we've forgotten," Isaiah continued, smiling reassuringly at Canorus, whose face was darkening. "I could help you forget them, too, if you like," he added.
"So what's left?" asked Vivian. "Two jars down, one to go. Where's the third? Comm lines, memories, where next?"
Suddenly Canorus grinned. "Let's see," he said, reaching up to his breast pocket and flipping off his psilencer.
Two of the walls went blank. The third wall displayed an aircar race, running backward. The lights went out. The floor jerked. The sound of alarm signals on the bridge buzzed and whined down the corridor.
An aircar backed off the active wall and onto one of the dark ones. It slewed around, revealing Nettle at the controls. She smirked at Canorus, who winked back and then flipped on the psilencer.
Nettle and the cars vanished. The lights came back on. One by one, the alarms fell silent. The stars reappeared and, flitting among them, Wisper's dragonfly icon.
"Commander Canorus," it said, "please use your psilencer until you are cured. I cannot guarantee life support when the ship is subject to your psionic interference."
"Right," said the Melior. "What went wrong?"
"A great many processors crashed or began running random programs. I am still re-booting the larger groups."
"Great. Don't worry; I'll keep her– keep it under wraps."
"Thank you." Wisper whirred off.
"Looks like processors next," he said.
"Next and last," said Borne. "Why isn't Wisper affected?"
"It's an AI, sentient," FX answered. "Even if it doesn't have any psi skills, it has a basic psychic presence that has to be coped with by telepathy, not psi-coding."
"Psychic AIs must be interesting people," Isaiah mused.
"You could say that," FX agreed cautiously.
"Tried psi-coding on Wisper a couple of times," Canorus reflected. "Just got lost in a sort of software storm. AIs're always re-writing themselves, see. And they're huge."
People ate in silence for a few minutes. "Where'd she get that aircar race?" Borne wondered.
"Probably off the public lines," said Canorus.
"Why does it go reverse?" asked Daima. "Because we are moving backward in time?"
Canorus shrugged and looked at FX. "You're the time expert."
"No, I'm not," FX insisted. "I just know when to duck. But the answer to Daima's question is probably yes."
"Tell me, time expert," said Isaiah, ignoring the "expert's" sour look, "how are we going to land on Hellene if we're already there? Won't the port authorities find it curious?"
"We'll use a false registry," FX told him. "We have several. And we have some glamours set around the ship to disguise it. TSTO security will spot it, of course, and we'll get yelled at, but they'll let us land."
"Might that be why Hellene officialdom was a little tetchy with us the first time?" Isaiah asked. "Because someone up the ladder knew we were playing time-tricks?"
"Maybe," said FX. "But Hellene officialdom is always pretty tetchy to TSTO."
The trio marched through the corridors of the golden pyramid. The way was very familiar to them, now. Canorus held a red jar in his hands. Jeanette and the Griffin dragged after them a tangle of red and yellow lines, brightly glowing. Viewed with a little imagination, it looked like a smashed insect about three meters long. They made their way through the corridors and around the traps.
In the central chamber, Nettle still sat encased in her crystal cube, but now she hopped up when she saw them enter, moving freely through the glassy medium. "You have it!" she called, triumphant. "Free me!"
Canorus obediently walked up the steps of the dais and touched the red jar to the glass. The yellow and green jars already leaned against it. As soon as all three were touching, the cube vanished like a bursting bubble.
Nettle leapt down to Canorus's step, turned, and grabbed the blue brain-jar that had remained with her in the cube. She held it to her head. It vanished, just as the cube had. Then she snatched up the yellow jar and held it to her chest, followed by the green jar, held to her right side. Both vanished.
She turned to Canorus, who had stepped back to watch. "Give me my heart!" she cried, reaching for the red jar.
Canorus exchanged glances with Jeanette and the Griffin. They had discussed this already. "Well, I've been thinking," the Melior said. "We get married now, right?"
"Married? I am yours. Call it marriage if you like. But why do you hesitate?"
"Because, if I give you this jar, we're just back where we started. And you weren't able to keep this the first time. So I'm keeping it. For you. Um."
The edge on Nettle's smile could have scratched diamond. "Why, my master and soul, you'd think you didn't trust me."
Now Canorus smiled. "Just the opposite. I know exactly what to expect from you." And his smile was borrowed off the muzzle of Old Man Coyote, by way of Hermes and Loki.
"You think so?" Nettle answered. Her smile did not soften, but it reflected his grin in its facets.
Canorus laughed and touched the red jar to his own chest. It vanished. Nettle laughed in answer, grabbed him by the arm, and gestured with the other hand. The two Meliors vanished.
"Where did they go?" Jeanette asked, staring around the room.
FX answered from one of the screens on the brazen wall. "He gets to finish the dream by himself. Or with her, however you want to look at it. Not even me to stage-manage. Come on, time to wake."
On to Chapter 25, Loop
Back to Chapter 23, Cures
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013