Isaiah sat gazing out at the violet stars. He only sat because he was strapped into the seat; gravity, along with all other unnecessary systems, was off, to make them less detectable. The Will o' the Wisp was adrift in hyperstate, serenely hurtling along at several hundred c, on an intercept course with the neb-runners and its own earlier self. That intercept was only minutes away.
His hand stretched out into the darkness, holding Jeanette's, but his mind was isolated, his thoughts private.
The outbound trip had been busy. At first, there had been attempts at planning, but they had done all their planning days ago, on Hellene. It started to degenerate into mere worry and stewing. Isaiah pointed this out to FX and the two of them instituted an aggressive course of training – psi, martial arts, patharchy, vacuum drills, mock combats.
In between, he and Jeanette had found an amazing amount of time to talk. Just talk. Trading jokes and old stories. Staying up far too late watching library videos together. Isaiah wanted that contact to never end. In the dark, in freefall, he sighed very gently.
It was wonderful to be able to take freefall like this, without panic or trance or drugs. He had wondered if his new freedom from phobia would last with Seer gone – if Seer really was gone. What was really waiting on the neb-runner ship? A pattern written on a puff of air, below the level of Brownian motion, below the quantum noise, below the cryptometrics. Little more than an expectation.
"Time?" asked FX.
"Four minutes, forty-five," Borne answered.
With a margin of error of at least thirty seconds. Probably more. It was amazing to Isaiah that they could come even that close to locating a point in spacetime in an unmarked abyss of years and parsecs. With the technology that had taken him to Carmel, they could have got no closer than days and hundreds of astronomical units. But it wasn't just a matter of technology. Jeanette the Timekeeper had coached her brother on the last few decimal places of their coordinates.
Jeanette squeezed his hand, and he realized he had been squeezing hers. He repeated his prayers for the thousandth time. By now, they were nearly worn down to the word "help."
"Contact," announced Canorus. "Range: 1.6 million."
"Time now?" FX asked.
"Three minutes, ten ... mark." That was time until Canorus's tricks were due to explode in the neb-runners' computer. "Just twenty-three seconds early," Borne added proudly.
"On screen," said Canorus. The world had been violet stars and dim silhouettes picked out in the glow of instruments. Now the screen before Isaiah's seat lit up. But it showed only two lines, red and green, garnished with numbers, stretching across darkness toward each other.
In silence, the lines zig-zagged across each other. Numbers flickered, recording the shots discharged. The green line stretched out at a broken angle. "There we go," Jeanette murmured. The red line bent back to its original direction. The counter in the corner raced toward zero.
"Incoming message," Wisper announced, in synchrony with the same message written on the screen. "Got it!" Canorus shouted, as the message printed itself: "Ready."
"Go!" FX commanded. But before Canorus had reached the T in "it," Jeanette was reaching out for her crewmates' minds. They reached back, weaving their net of telepathy. Variously, they reached out for their weapons on the enemy ship.
"Damn!" Canorus snarled. Nettle's face appeared on their screens; she was here, not there.
"Sorry, guys," the code-familiar said, smiling crookedly. "Guess I couldn't tear myself away."
Isaiah ignored her. He was hunting for Seer. In his short experience with the griffin, he had learned three relations – he could become the Griffin, or he could summon it, or he could reach for it if it was already out in the world. Right now, he had to reach.
He reached. For the first time since his transformation, nothing happened. His heart sank, but he sent up a prayer and continued. Around his mind, he could feel the others at work: Borne and Wisper sent their ship accelerating toward the enemy; Canorus tried to raise a permanent comm link down which he might invade; FX sought his tracers; Vivian readied defensive patterns; Daima hunted for her doppleganger; and Jeanette reached for her mind-prints.
But all the psychic efforts groped in a void, stymied, the connection scrambled by the hyperjumps that had brought them here. And they needed speed. With no presence on the enemy ship, they could not tell if they were accelerating into a trap.
If only, Canorus wished, we could just blast them out of the sky. But they're wanted for slavery, FX reminded, not murder.
Grope, grope. Nothing. Isaiah gave up on it. Instead, he launched his clairvoyance out through his skull, through the hull, into vacuum. From someone – Borne? – he got the bearing on the neb-runners. His vision sped toward them.
The Will o' the Wisp fell away, dwindled to a speck, vanished. Even the sight he had copied from eagles could no longer see it. And the neb-runners were still more than a million kilometers away, invisible in distance.
And so... he stopped. Or so he supposed. How could he gauge speed or position now? His vision hung in blackness, with only violet sparks of remote singularities to gaze upon. The distances here fell outside all human perception.
Fimmet and Sossen frani perceptions were just as useless, of course, but there was one other kind of mind aboard the ship. He reached for Wisper. Hello, machine. How do you see? Let me add your perspective to my collection.
He felt his companions pause in their efforts, watching his mind. He knew their doubts. Would this be too alien for him, as Nift and Seer had been at first?
It wasn't bad. Not too bad, anyway. Wisper's perceptions had been designed by humans, after all. The colors were normal. It was odd to use a visual field that was equally sharp all over and shaped as a neat eight-by-five rectangle. And there was something odd about the depth perception. But Isaiah refused to examine that. The main thing was the adjustable scale.
Isaiah gazed through the computer's perspective. Here was their ship; here was the enemy ship. Launch a viewpoint, as he had so often before. And he was there.
"You are sure it is not them?" a man's voice demanded. It was dark. The Griffin peered up from a control panel, at the man's face, square and coarse, scowling with concentration as he studied the readouts. The Shadow.
"Quite sure," a woman answered. The Integral, tall, big and blonde, strapped into the seat behind the Shadow's. She looked tired, but grimly satisfied. "They're all fighting curses now. This breakdown must result from their attack."
"Then why did it wait to happen well after the attack?" the Shadow demanded.
The Integral shrugged. "A slow discharge, maybe, of residual plasma from the blaster fire."
The Shadow grunted, unsatisfied. "In any case, I must power down the computers and see if they re-start properly."
So Canorus's traps had sprung properly.
A few thousand kilometers away, the Will o' the Wisp accelerated toward them. Aboard, the Griffin's crewmates saw and heard with him, and now knew there was no trap.
The Shadow unstrapped himself and, with a flick of TK, flew out of the cockpit. "Suave projecting with those curses," said another woman, short and blonde, a kind of miniature of the Integral, the Persona.
"A bit of prescience," the Integral answered, smiling to herself. She started to unstrap herself. A man reached out to assist her, tall, dark, and handsome, the Animus.
A few hundred kilometers away, Wisper began running its targetting programs.
Smiling, the Integral floated up from her seat, then stiffened. Simultaneously, the Griffin knew, Daima's double was forming in the cabin below. She said nothing, but the Animus stiffened likewise and the Persona quickly followed the Shadow into the lower cabin. The Griffin guessed the four were telepathically linked.
The Integral stared about her, then fixed her eyes on the Griffin. It was flea-sized and invisible, but their gazes seemed to lock. "Another," she said aloud.
Wisper struck. The cockpit flared with blue lightning. The neb-runners' ship boomed and belled. Wisper was already decelerating, but would be hundreds of kilometers away before it could halt and turn back. Meanwhile, the neb-runners' guns and screens had been fired on, perhaps disabled. It wouldn't matter whether they could reach the weapon controls.
The Griffin exploded off the control panel, beak lunging at the Integral. She shrieked. Together with the Animus, she thrust back with karate kicks and TK. The Griffin left a bloody gouge on her shoulder, but was thrown off and pinned against the window.
They could not use their TK on what they could not see. The Griffin dropped visibility and lunged again.
They were ready for it, grappled with hands, by feel, then amplified their strength with patharchic hysteria and by using TK on their own hands. For a moment, the Griffin was pinned, back legs caught in the seats, head and claws caught by the enemy. It thrashed briefly, then shrank once more to bug-sized, slipping through their fingers. They stared about, panting. The Griffin fluttered on the breath of the Animus. The breath gave it an idea – it flew into the man's mouth, down his windpipe. And grew.
The Animus couldn't scream, but the Griffin felt him try. It stopped at the size of a walnut. It was tempted to go on, but had no idea how far it could go without killing the man. Shrinking to gnat-sized, it flew out on a desparate exhalation.
Expand again. Attack again, making sure to keep claws and beak free, wings folded, form invisible. The Animus blocked, bending voluntary hysteria to serve his endurance and blot out the pain, though his white face showed the cost of it. The Integral glared into the dark air and flared with psi.
The Griffin felt itself dissolve into that selfsame air. She was casting a TK block on the entire cockpit. Momentarily stymied, reduced to a clairvoyant viewpoint, it relaxed the focus of its attention, widening it.
Elsewhere, the Will o' the Wisp was headed back, slowing for boarding. Jeanette was prompting Isaiah's body to rise, seal his vacuum envelope, and get ready to board the enemy ship.
One deck down, Daima's double had formed, found a stunner, and surprised the Shadow with it. Unfortunately, the gun had been sensibly left on the minimal setting, and there had been no time to reset it before getting off the first shot. The Shadow had been merely annoyed. Now he and the Persona were hunting the double, as the double had hunted them. The Persona, taking her cue from the Integral, began casting TK blocks at the double's likely positions.
But the double, like Daima, did not fire from likely positions and, warned telepathically by the Griffin, kept moving.
A few kilometers away, Wisper had reversed direction and was making its final deceleration. Soon, their ship would halt, relative to the neb-runners'.
The double was invisible. Soon, the Persona and the Shadow were invisible too. Then all three, like the Griffin, resorted to clairvoyant vision, leaving everyone where they had been before, so far as the Griffin could see. They dodged and darted and ducked, free-falling, among the packing cases and outcrops of machinery, sniping at each other with stunners.
So far, none of them had noticed the Griffin, which was, after all, nothing but a cluster of viewpoints at the moment. It would change that. It rematerialized, gnat-sized again, and flew in the Shadow's mouth. As before, it expanded in the windpipe, blocking breath and doubling him up with agony.
But the Shadow was ready. He blocked and the Griffin dissolved again into disembodied vision. The Shadow flinched. Daima's double had shot him, thanks to the time he had spent evicting the Griffin, but the double's gun was still on low. There had been no time to re-set it.
Outside, the Will o' the Wisp hung only four meters away. Its crew sealed up and headed for the airlock. Vivian guided Daima and Jeanette led Isaiah, while they steered their phantoms in the next ship.
The Griffin re-formed, tiny, and flew at the Persona, ready to try the choking trick again. But a block covered her face.
It swung to the opposite end of the size scale. Abruptly, a golden Griffin, vast as an elephant, blossomed out of the air, filling the cabin. It cuffed the Shadow with a paw and pecked at the Persona, missing. It pecked again. She flew onto a stack of crates, bruised and winded.
But then a hole appeared in the Griffin's wing, where it covered the hatch to the cockpit. A foreleg dissolved. They were blocking again. The Griffin dissolved itself, retreating into air. Where was the double? No, never mind; where was the Shadow? The Griffin needed to find him and tell the double–
–tell the double so she could–
"Isaiah, we're getting ready to breach the outer hatch of their lock. We need your attention here."
Isaiah opened his eyes. He floated in a void. The only light came from distant violet sparks, the running lights of the Will o' the Wisp, and a couple of flashlights held by Borne and Canorus. He was still partially aware of the Griffin, now no more than his familiar Seer, and of the fight. It was like trying to follow a TV program while talking to someone.
"They've planted the charge," Jeanette told him. "We need to move back, then be ready to move in quickly after it goes off. And it would help if everyone diced against stray shrapnel." Isaiah nodded. She couldn't see it in the dark, but she felt his intent.
The boarding party glided along the side of the enemy ship. Canorus glanced around to make sure they were all as safe as possible. As he did so, Daima yelped and flinched in Vivian's grasp. "I– The other," she stammered. "It is gone." Her mind uncovered a scrambled memory of diving for cover, startlement at colliding with the Shadow hiding in the same nook of the machinery, a gun coming up, and then a numbing black.
Isaiah wondered if this would have happened, had Daima been able to give the double her full attention. "Can you re-form it?" he asked.
Telepathically, he felt Daima's will strain and fumble. "No," she said. "Another time, I hope. But, no."
"How are you?" FX asked Isaiah. "I mean the Griffin."
Alive, certainly. Isaiah checked that part of his mind that was Seer. The familiar was nothing but a cloud of viewpoints, now, watching the neb-runners as they...
"Hurry!" Isaiah commanded.
They were making nebs. Three milk-white replicas of Noah drifted in air before the Integral, who was rapping out instructions to them. The nebs held guns with a confidence patterned into them before they were created. Their faces, though, looked bewildered, startled by existence. A few meters away, the Shadow, Animus, and Persona were in the act of unwrapping three more Dragons' Teeth kits, complete with guns.
Invisible, the Griffin formed and lunged forward, to knock the Teeth from their hands. But the Teeth were already dissolving, expanding, taking on human shapes. The Griffin drew back. Invisible though it was, the Shadow looked up and glared into its eyes.
A metallic crack shook the ship. The outer hatch was open. Canorus and Borne rushed into the lock. The others huddled close and helped FX seal an air-tent over the forced hatch. Isaiah had no time to be the Griffin now. He let Seer go, with a last command to dwindle to gnat-size and hide over the airlock's inner hatch. "Six nebs, at least," he told the others. "With guns."
"Quick," FX told Borne and Canorus. "Don't let them organize."
Canorus paused only for a moment, finding a chip in the airlock intercom and unleashing Nettle through it into the ship. In the same moment, FX cast invisibilities on everyone, whatever that might be worth against clairvoyant foes. Then Canorus pulled the handle and burst through the lock.
In synchrony with him, Isaiah seized Seer and became the Griffin. It dove out before Canorus, blossoming to cart-horse size, spreading its wings and tossing the airy nebs like snowflakes. Two went blowing about the cabin; one hung onto his gun, flapping like a flag.
The Shadow, Persona, and Animus were not displaced. They didn't even seem surprised. They opened fire on the Griffin, with guns no longer set on stun. A wing, an eye, a paw, two paws, dissolved into golden mist, then shuddering air. Isaiah let the Griffin go.
But meantime Canorus dove in and sheltered in a niche behind a crate, scouted out minutes before through the double's vision. Borne found similar cover.
The two set to work. Quickly, at least three nebs were stunned. The Persona was grazed and at least groggy. Then Nettle turned cabin gravity back on. Suddenly. The three neb-runners fell to the deck. So did the nebs, dragged down by the weight of their guns.
The Will o' the Wisp crew, forewarned by Canorus, landed on their feet and piled into the cabin.
A whip of silver light licked from Vivian's hand to the head of the Shadow, draining him. He roared in protest. Next to him, the Animus yelped as Jeanette struck with her brain-burn.
"Where's the Integral?" Isaiah demanded.
"Better yet, why haven't we wondered?" FX replied.
"No, that's not better." His clairvoyance swarmed through the ship. "She's headed back into the cockpit. We almost pulled her off the ladder with the gravity trick. Pity it didn't work."
"Do the Griffin," FX told him.
But it wasn't easy. She had felt its gaze upon her and saw the Griffin forming in the air, invisible or not. She blocked the formation over and over. Meanwhile, she was searching for something. There was a rhythm to their fight – for a few moments, she would glare at an incipient Griffin, dissolving it, then she hunted over the control panels, under Isaiah's puzzled clairvoyance.
Below, Isaiah himself was stuck behind a crate. He was reasonably sure that only the Persona, the Shadow, and one neb were still conscious. The Shadow was incapable of psi, now, but the Persona was shielding him and herself from Jeanette and both were sniping from behind an chunk of machinery. The neb fired from under a bunk. Canorus, Borne, and FX fired back.
"Surrender!" FX bellowed, his voice amplified by glamour. "You are outnumbered and outgunned. You are going to lose. Surrender now!"
Isaiah saw the Integral scowl when she heard him. Then her eyes lit up. Isaiah followed her gaze. In one corner of the environmental controls was a switch labeled "General Psilence."
Down below, Isaiah gasped. Faster than he had ever tried it before, he pulled the Griffin out of the air. A yellow tangle blossomed at the Integral's side and lunged at her, developing a beak as it did so. But her hand hit the switch, and the apparition vanished.
Isaiah's clairvoyance ended. Nettle vanished. Vivian's webs of silver light winked out. A gun Canorus had been levitating from the floor to his hand fell back.
And all six nebs died. Pure air, they vanished back into air like quenched flames, their lives no more than a minute of confusion, noise, fear, and pain.
The Shadow and Persona had, of course, known it was coming. In the moment of confusion, they moved, darting out from behind the housing. From the new vantage, the Shadow fired on Canorus. The Melior collapsed.
The Shadow turned his gun on Borne, then yelped. Borne was unhindered by the psilence, and now he, too, had a clear view of his target. He tore the gun from the Shadow's hand, slammed him headfirst up into the ceiling, then dropped him.
Meantime, Daima used the Persona's surprise to load three stun-bolts into her, followed by one each to the heads of the Animus and the now-crumpled Shadow.
FX opened his mouth to speak. "Quiet!" Isaiah thought. He thought it only to Jeanette, of course, since only her telepathy still worked, but FX heard Isaiah in her mind and said nothing. "The Integral still doesn't know," Isaiah added. "She may think she's winning."
Before he had finished articulating the thought, he had summoned up hysterical speed and darted across the cabin. Silently, he swarmed up the ladder to the cockpit. The Integral was staring fixedly at the hatch, a gun at the ready. Isaiah came in with all the speed adrenaline could provide, but she still caught him.
Daima, a heartbeat behind him, saw him fall.
The Integral descended from the cockpit, smiling. The Shadow was busy tying up the unconscious forms of their assailants. The Animus and the Persona looked on, catching their breaths.
"Space them?" the Shadow asked.
"Not yet," she said. "We'll need to find out how much they know, for our next cover. And maybe we can acquire their ship. Remember to get the two up here." It was tiresome, not using telepathy, not thinking in and with the Shadow, but the psilence was also a relief, a rest. In a minute, she would turn it off and start auditing their victims' memories. But let her have that minute to clear her head.
She was therefore quite surprised, as she reached the bottom of the ladder, to feel the psilence lifting by itself. "You can have their ship," said a voice, "if you like. For a souvenir. But you now have much more."
The voice came from the airlock. It was familiar. For a moment, the Integral thought it was her father's. No, her mother's. Was it, somehow, her own? Then she caught similar questions flickering through her mates' minds, as telepathy wove up around them.
A figure entered through the airlock. Together, the Four gasped and drew forward. The being was blood red and at least eight feet high. It was slender, naked, sexless. Its shoulder-length hair was black on the left side, white on the right. Its eyes blazed like diamonds in the sun, and there were four of them.
"Who are you?" the Integral breathed. She knew the answer would be no surprise, was as inevitable as the next line of a poem.
"I am you. All your joint life, you four have sought integration. In the heat of battle, you achieved it. You achieved Me."
The Shadow cocked his head. "I didn't feel anything," he objected.
"Of course not," the figure said. "Each of you was a part, totally engaged in serving the whole. I am that Whole, as surprising and simple as satori."
The being glanced down at the fallen TSTO agents. It waved a dismissive hand, and they vanished, as if they had been nebs. The Animus gasped. Several hundred kilos of animal matter do not just vanish. "How–?" he began.
"The old limitations are gone," the being announced. It gestured again, and the agents were back, conscious and on their feet, even the two from the cockpit. They gazed around, disoriented, like new nebs. Another gesture, and they were gone again.
"You have victory over all the mundane," it told them, "not just a few unenlightened foes. Look."
It gestured back at the airlock hatch. The darkness beyond vanished. Instead, sunlight blazed through. A fresh breeze entered, and the Integral was suddenly aware that the ship's hum, the vibration of its artificial gravity, was gone. They were down somewhere. She raced to the hatch, almost colliding with the Persona on the way. Together, they gazed out at rolling meadow, dotted with blossoming trees.
"Can we do that now?" the Persona squeaked. The Integral felt her excitement – or was it her own? or was there a difference? – rising to some bursting point.
"You are doing that," their being told them. "The four of you are Me, and share in My fullness. You have achieved. You can stop now."
"Stop?" said the Persona, turning back from the miracle outside. "Stop what?"
"You no longer need to be the persona, Edna," the ruby giant told her. "You pass beyond the phenomenal. Nothing needs to appear. There is no outside world to appear to, now. Outside and inside are one. You are free."
"I– I–" Edna stuttered. The Integral watched thoughts and feelings rush in confusion through Edna's mind – the security of being part of the Four, the exaltation of tricking the mundane world through her endless guises, her mingled disgust and attraction to the Shadow, her admiration and resentment of the Integral, the weariness of shipboard life, the godlike feel in dealing in nebs, the exasperation of a life with no privacy – her entire reaction to being the Persona. All of that, gone? How to cope with this freedom? Edna's telepathic contact faded.
"Come," said their being. Suddenly, it had four hands. Each of them took one, like a child with its parent. The ruddy skin was hot and silken. It led them forward, and the ship dissolved in a steely, silvery mist. They sank through the mist, onto the meadow.
"You are home," their being told them. "You are at rest." It turned to the Shadow. "Just as there is no outside to appear to, there is no outside to attack, to exclude you. There is no need to seem and no need to hide, no light and no dark. Nothing is rejected, Franz. There are no Shadows." And his contact was gone, with a waning flicker of misgiving.
"And all desire is achieved, Claude," it said to the former Animus. "And all polarities are past. There is no need of an Animus." He had been suspended between wonder and terror. She felt his suspense start to unravel, and then he was gone from her mind.
It turned to her. She had felt her mates, felt their emotions come uprooted, but there was no preparation. "Sarah." Her name, so long left behind, renounced and replaced with her archetype and all the aliases of her daily business – it spoke her name softly, but it was like a slap in the face. "You have had the hardest role." Role. A role was something you left behind. She had had an archetype; it had been her identity; now it was a role. "You have had to be the Self of four people. Now that I am here, now that you have integration, you need not try to integrate. You need not be the Integral."
Its grip was burning, but her hand still felt cold. "Come," it said, and gently led her and the others. "Welcome back to the Pleroma, the Fullness. There are no limits here."
No limits, no forms, no identities. The Four felt themselves dissolving, as their being gestured at the horizon and a jeweled city sprang up. They would go there, it told them.
"But who is making the trip?" Jeanette asked, watching them go.
"The further they go, the less they will be able to answer that," the Griffin told her coldly. "Let them dissolve into airy nothing, and see how it feels. From the inside out."
On to Chapter 27, Victory
Back to Chapter 25, Loop
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013