Authors: Allen Steele
I followed Ted to the other side of the bridge, where we stopped beside a locker recessed in the bulkhead behind his chair. “One thing you should know about Rain,” he said quietly once we were away from the others. “She comes from a rather powerful family on Coyote, and they have a lot of pull with Janus.”
“So Morgan insisted that you hire her?” I was no stranger to cronyismâthe Western Hemisphere Union is rife with itâbut this was something I didn't expect.
“Pretty much so, yesâ¦although I meant what I said about having confidence in her.” He produced a key ring from his vest and began sorting through it. “But the Thompson Wood Company is a major investor in Morgan's company, and if Molly Thompson wants her great-niece to have a jobâ¦”
“Yes, wellâ¦” Ted inserted a key into the locker. “Off the record, I think she's rather nervous about all this, so she's taking it out on you. Once you get to know her, you may find that she's actually quite nice. But she's had a tough time lately, though, what with her brother andâ¦” He stopped himself. “Sorry. Think I said too much. And it's none of our business, besides.”
That was the second time I'd heard about Rain's brother. The captain had clearly overstepped the boundaries, though, and I wasn't about to press the issue, not when I'd come so close to getting fired. So I said nothing as he opened the locker and reached inside.
He withdrew a ceramic jug, its neck sealed with a cork stopper. Since I'd spent some time in Liberty's taverns, I immediately recognized it for what it was: a quart of corn liquor, known on Coyote as bearshine.
“I've trusted you with one secret already,” Ted murmured as he handed it to me. “Now I'm going to trust you with another. I want you to take this to Ash and be quiet about it.”
“Yeah. Okay.” I tucked the jug under my left arm; Ted added an empty squeezebulb, which I stuck in a thigh pocket of my suit. “He's an alcoholic, isn't he?”
“I suppose. But again, he's here because Morgan insists, so what he does in his cabin isn't our concern.” Ted closed the locker. “I'm keeping him on a short leash, though, and that means keeping his liquor supply under lock and key. This should be enough to get him to where we're supposed to goâ¦after that, he'll have to work for the rest.”
“And what is his job, exactly?”
“Heâ¦ah, perhaps we should call him an interpreter, and leave it at that.” He nodded toward the floor hatch. “Now off with you. Change out of your suit, then pay a visit to Mr. Ash. I'll have a word with Ms. Thompson. Fair enough?”
“Yes, sir,” I murmured. “Thank you.” Ted nodded, then began to make his way back across the bridge.
I stared at the jug of bearshine in the crook of my arm. A brat and a wetbrain. This mission was getting stranger by the minute.
I heard Ash's guitar as soon as I opened the hatch to Deck Two, melancholy chords that drifted down the corridor. Whatever he was playing, it had no clear rhyme or pattern, but nonetheless spoke of loneliness and regret. Like finding a bouquet of dying roses in the heart of a machine.
I lingered just inside the deck hatch for a few moments before I remembered why I was there. Grasping the ceiling rail with my free hand, I pulled myself down the corridor toward Ash's cabin. I was trying to be as quiet as possible, not wanting to disturb him, yet the moment before I raised my hand to knock on his door, the music suddenly stopped.
“Come in,” he called out. “It's not locked.”
How did he know I was there? Perhaps he'd heard the deck hatch open, but stillâ¦trying to shake off the willies, I slid open the door.
Ash floated in midair, cross-legged and upside down, one foot hooked over a ceiling rail, guitar nestled within his arms. Fashioned of fine-grained brown spruce, with silver strings running along a black fingerboard, it was as beautiful as the sounds it produced. It was the first time I'd seen him without his robe; he wore a tan cotton tunic and matching trousers, loose-fitting and almost monkish in appearance. Ash himself was older than I originally thought: lean and bony, with a mop of brown hair growing grey at the temples. His eyes were surrounded by dark rings, as if he hadn't slept well in years.
“Hi, Gordon,” I began. “Captain sent me down here toâ¦”
“Bring me a bottle. Yes, I can see.” He idly strummed at his guitar. “You can put it over there,” he added, nodding toward a net for personal items that dangled from the bulkhead next to his sleep-sack. “I'll get to it later.”
Apparently he wasn't a social drinker. Well, that made sense; I'd met a few drunks, and the hard-core boozehounds usually preferred to drink alone. Twisting around so that I could attach my shoes to the floor, I stepped into the cabin. “Nice guitar. Heard it down the hall.”
“Thanks.” He didn't look up at me. “And by the way, I prefer to be called Ash. No one calls me by my first name.”
“Sureâ¦sorry.” I stuck the jug into the net, then pulled the squeezebulb out of my pocket. “Ever use one of these before? You need to unscrew the top, see, like this”âI demonstrated by removing the capâ“then fit it over theâ¦”
“I can manage.” Irritation crossed his face. “Incidentally, just so that you knowâ¦I'm not an alcoholic.” His fingers plucked out sharp, discordant notes as he spoke, as if to accentuate his words. “Or a drunk, or a wetbrain, or whatever else you've decided to label me.”
That brought me up short. I stared at him, trying to figure out what I'd said or done to lead him to believe what I thought of him. “I didn'tâ¦”
“Of course you didn't. You're being polite. But I canâ¦” A brief glare, then he looked away again. “Never mind. Just in a mood, that's all.”
“Sure. No problem.” He was making me nervous, so I screwed the cap back on the squeezebulb and stuck it in the net beside the jug. “Well, look, if you need anything else, I'm right next door.”
Ash didn't respond. Seeing that my presence wasn't wanted, I turned to leave. I was halfway to the door when he suddenly spoke up.
“ âGalaxy Blues,'” he said.
I stopped, looked back at him again. “Excuse me?”
“The song I was playingâ¦it's called âGalaxy Blues.'” His hands returned to the strings, and once again I heard the same progression I'd caught while I was in the corridor. “Been working on it for a while,” he went on, his eyes still avoiding mine. “Kind of weird, I know, butâ¦well, I'm getting there.”
“Sounds nice.” I hesitated. “Got any words for it?”
“Nope. No lyrics.” Ash glanced up at me, and I was surprised to see a sly smile on his face, as if he was sharing a private joke. “That's what I like about music. You don't need words to get a point across. Just screws things up, really, when all you really should have isâ¦”
His right hand abruptly shifted farther up the neck of his guitar, and he produced a quick succession of warbling, high-pitched notes. “That's youâ¦trying hard to rationalize something that doesn't really need to make sense.”
I felt my face grow warm, but before I could say anything, his smile became a knowing grin, and the progression drifted into a lower, more solemn bass sound. “And that's what happens when you find that nothing really fits into your safe and conservative worldview. But believe me, out here in the great beyond”âa snakelike ramble of notesâ“everything is strange. The sooner you get used to that, the better off you'll be.”
He was beginning to piss me off. “What are you, some kind ofâ¦?”
Something cold crept down my back as I suddenly recalled the first time I'd seen him, peering in through the window of my jail cell. As incredibleâlet's face it, as impossibleâas it seemed, nonetheless it was the only explanation that made sense.
“Mind reader?” Ash chuckled as he pushed aside his guitar. Uncoiling himself from his lotus position, he pushed himself off the ceiling. “You could say that,” he said as he glided over to where I'd left the jug. “Or maybe I'm just an astute observer.”
Perhaps he was only thatâ¦but all the same, his hands trembled as he uncorked the jug, and he swore under his breath as a few globular droplets of bearshine floated away before he managed to fit the squeezebulb around the neck. Ash finally managed to fill the bulb and close the jug again without wasting any more booze; he looked almost infantile as he put the bulb's nipple to his lips and took a slug that would have choked anyone else.
“You can go now,” he rasped, as he pinched the bulb shut. “Come back again when you've got more of this.”
A brisk wave of his hand as he dismissed me. No doubt he'd spend the rest of the day getting bombed. Once again, I turned toward the doorâ¦but not before he had some parting words for me.
“She really does like you, y'know,” he murmured. “Just as much as you're attracted to her. Too bad neither of you will admit it to yourselves.”
I almost asked how he could possibly be aware of these thingsâ¦but I already knew the answer to that, didn't I? And just then, I only wanted to put a wall between us. Hoping that a bulkhead was enough to separate my mind from his, I hurried from his cabin, shutting the door behind me.
And found Morgan Goldstein waiting for me in the corridor.
“What are you doing in there?” It wasn't a polite question, and there was no mistaking the anger in his eyes.
“Captain Harker told me to bring him a jug of bearshine.” I pretended innocence, even though it was clear that he'd been eavesdropping all the while. “Just stopped to have a chat. Anything wrong with that?”
“Yes.” Morgan kept his voice low. “For now on, you're to leave him alone. If anyone asks you to bring him anything, you come to me first. I'llâ¦”
“Pardon me, sir, but if the skipper gives me an order, it's my duty to carry it out. I'm under no obligation to ask your permission to do that.” I would have turned away from him, but he was blocking the way to my cabin. “Now, if you'll excuse meâ¦”
“Of courseâ¦you're right.” His manner softened. “My apologies, Mr. Truffaut. I forgot that you were only following orders.” Morgan moved aside to let me pass. “But in the future, I'd appreciate it if you'dâ¦minimize your contact with Ash. He's quite sensitive and needs all the privacy he can get.”
“I'll try to keep that in mind.” Unsticking my shoes from the floor, I started to push myself down the passageway. But thenâ¦
“Just one question, though,” I said, grabbing the ceiling rail and turning back to him again. “Does he drink so much to keep from hearing everyone else's thoughts?”
Morgan's face went pale. His mouth fell open, but for a moment he couldn't respond. Maybe he was having trouble coming up with an adequate lie. Whatever the reason, I realized that my guess was right on target.
“He just drinks too much,” he said at last, his voice little more than a whisper. “If I were you, though, I'd keep my distance.” Then he twisted himself around and headed toward the deck hatch.
I went to my cabin, but even after I closed the door, I was aware of Ash's presence. Through the wall vent, I heard the sound of his guitar. After a little while, though, it stopped, and all I could hear was his voice.
I couldn't tell, though, whether he was laughing or weeping.
Off to see the lizardâ¦
peace with Rainâ¦
the Order of the Eye.
We remained in orbit overnight, Coyote time, and next morning after breakfast the
Pride of Cucamonga
headed out for Rho Coronae Borealis.
As customary, all hands assembled in the command center for final countdown. As shuttle pilot, there was little for me to do; once I verified that
was ready to serve as a lifeboat in the unlikely event that we'd have to abandon ship, my only job was to take a seat and watch while everyone else went about getting the
under way. Yet Emily was nowhere to be seen until fifteen minutes before launch; when she finally showed up, Mahamatasja Jas Sa-Fhadda was with her.
This was the first time since coming aboard that I'd seen the Prime Emissary. Jas had remained in hisher quarters while the crew made preparations for the journey, and I'd expected himher to stay there until the
arrived at its destination. So I was surprised when the
followed Emily through the manhole into the command center.
Everyone stopped what they were doing as the first officer led Jas onto the bridge. As always, the Prime Emissary wore hisher environment suit; I would've thought that heshe would be encumbered by it, yet heshe was surprisingly nimble. Reaching up to grasp a ceiling rail with a six-fingered hand, Jas lingered near the floor hatch for a few moments, the opaque faceplate of hisher helmet turning first one way, then the other, as heshe gazed around the deck.
“Guess heshe decided to come up and join us,” I murmured to Rain. We were seated off to one side of the control console, near the life-support station; like me, she had little to do just then. “Must have gotten curious about how we do things up here.”
Rain gave me a patronizing look, but if she had any insults in mind, she refrained from giving voice to them. “More than curiosity,” she whispered. “Without himher, we're not going anywhere.”
This was the first time she'd spoken to me since our altercation the day before. When I'd seen her a couple of hours earlier, during breakfast in the wardroom on Deck Two, she had avoided me as much as possible. Ted must have had a few words with her. Well, if she was willing to bury the hatchet, so was I.
“How do you figure that?” I asked.
“You don't know?” She darted a look at me, and I shook my head. “Watch and learn,” she added. “This is where it gets interesting.”
Ted unbuckled his harness and rose from his seat. “Prime Emissary, welcome,” he said, raising his left hand in the
gesture of greeting. “The
Pride of Cucamonga
is ready to depart. If we may have your permissionâ¦?”
“You have my permission.” As before, an androgynous voice emanated from the mouth grille of hisher helmet. “Please direct me to the navigation system.”
“It would be my honor.” Careful to avoid touching the Prime Emissary, he extended a hand toward the helm. “This way, please.”
Jas followed Ted across the command center. As they approached the helm, Ali turned around in his seat. I couldn't help but notice his sour expression and wondered whether our pilot harbored a secret revulsion for the
. I wasn't the only one who saw it. On the other side of the deck, Ash was seated next to Morgan Goldstein. Although he once again wore his robe, I caught a glimpse of the sickened look on his face. Goldstein must have observed Ali, too, because he leaned closer to Ash and whispered something. Ash didn't respond, but instead nodded ever so slightly. Ash had picked up on somethingâ¦that is, if I was right, and he was a telepath of some sort.
Ted stopped beside Ali's console. “Mr. Youssef, if you willâ¦”
Ali said nothing but instead typed a few commands into his keyboard before shrinking away from Jas. If the Prime Emissary noticed the pilot's reaction, heshe said nothing. Instead, heshe reached into a pocket of hisher environment suit, then pulled out a small object about the size and shape of a data fiche.
“That's the bridge key,” Rain said quietly. “Until Jas uses it, we're not going anywhere.”
Then I understood. One of the things the
survivors had learned was that the
belonged to something called the Talus, a loose coalition of alien races that had developed the technology to build starbridges in order to travel to other worlds. The main purpose of the Talus was to provide trade and cultural exchange, but it also made sure that the galaxy remained at peace. To prevent one race from attacking or invading another, each member of the Talus protected the starbridges of its home system by means of hyperlink transceivers, each of which was accessed by its own individually coded signal. Unless one race provided another with a key containing that signal, its starbridges would remain closed, and navigation through hyperspace would be impossible.
One of the conditions the
had made upon establishing contact with humankind was that we would be unable to travel to Rho Coronae Borealis without their express permission. That could only be granted if they transmitted a coded signal via hyperlink to their own starbridge. This was the reason that no human ship had visited Hjarr since the return of the
survivors; until the
vessels were equipped with the proper navigation equipment.
“So Jas is carrying the
key with him,” I whispered. “Guess they're not quite ready to trust us.”
Rain nodded. We watched as Jas moved toward a rectangular box that had been installed in the center of the nav station. Featureless save for a narrow slot at its top and a reflective black surface beneath it, the box remained inert until the Prime Emissary slid the key into the slot. The panel glowed to life, emitting a blue-green luminescence. Jas removed the glove of hisher left hand, and I caught a glimpse of mottled brown flesh, leathery and reptilian, as heshe laid hisher palm against the panel.
Its surface became bright orange, and vertical bars of alien script that vaguely resembled Farsi scrolled down it. A small drawer slid open from the bottom of the box, revealing a narrow row of buttons. Extending the middle finger of hisher hand, Jas delicately pushed the buttons in what appeared to be a predetermined sequence. The script changed, the panel became purple, and the drawer slid shut once more.
“The code has been entered, Captain Harker,” Jas said, hisher voice a low purr. “You may proceed.”
“Thank you, Prime Emissary.” Ted turned to Emily. “Contact the gatehouse, Emcee, and inform them we're on our way.” Then he tapped Ali on the shoulder. “Proceed with final countdown for main engine ignition.”
Ali nodded. He waited until Jas moved away from the helm, then swiveled his chair back toward the console and began entering commands into his keyboard. At her station on the other side of the table, Emily was murmuring into her headset, telling Starbridge Coyote that we were about to launch. Ted watched as Jas put hisher glove back on. “We'll be ready to go in about five minutes. If you'd like to stay here, we canâ¦”
“Thank you, Captain, but I would prefer to return to my quarters.” Turning away from him, Jas almost seemed to disregard Ted. “Would you please have a member of your crew take me back?”
“Certainly.” Ted looked around the command center. Emily was busy, and both Doc and Ali were needed on the bridge just then. On the other side of the deck, Goldstein was already unfastening his harness. Then Ted's gaze fell upon me. “Jules, if you'll pleaseâ¦?”
Goldstein's eyes widened, and there was no missing the scowl on his face. Before he could protest, though, I snapped open my harness. “I'd be glad to, sir,” I said, pushing myself out of my chair. “If it's all right with the Prime Emissary, that is.”
Ted looked at Jas. Hisher head moved back and forth upon hisher long neck; at first I thought heshe was objecting, until I remembered that this was the
equivalent of a nod. Then Rain spoke up. “Skipper, may I join them? With the Prime Emissary's permission, of course.”
Ted looked dubious. “I don't know why we need to send twoâ¦”
“You are curious?” Jas's helmet turned toward her, and Rain nodded. “Very well. I would be delighted to have guestsâ¦if your captain approves.”
Ted hesitated. “Very wellâ¦but don't overstay your welcome, either of you.”
“Thank you, sir.” Rain unbuckled her harness, then rose from her seat. “After you,” she said to me, gesturing toward the access shaft.
I'd be lying if I said that I was pleased to have Rain tag along. Perhaps we were getting along a little better, but I didn't want to have her henpecking me all the way down to Deck Three. Besides, I wanted Jas all to myself. Call it selfish, but how often in life does one get the chance to have private time with an alien?
Nothing I could do about it, though, so I pushed myself over to the hatch and pulled it open. From the corner of my eye, I saw the jealous scowl on Morgan's face, yet I couldn't help but notice that Ash was grinning broadly, as if he was enjoying his own private jokeâ¦or, perhaps, savoring his patron's irritation.
Then I ducked down the manhole andâwith Jas close behind me and Rain bringing up the rearâbegan to make my way down the access shaft.
None of us said anything until we reached Deck Three, but three bells rang just as we entered the passageway, warning us that the main engine ignition was imminent.
I had just enough time to brace my hands against the corridor walls and rest my feet on the floor before a prolonged shudder passed through the ship. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure that the others were all right; Jas's broad feet had found the carpet as well, and although Rain had been caught off guard, she quickly recovered by grabbing hold of the ceiling rail and planting the soles of her stickshoes against the carpet. For the next fifteen minutes or so, we would enjoy one-third gravity while the
accelerated to cruise velocity.
“Well, we're off,” I said, stating the obvious if only for the sake of conversation. Lowering my hands, I stepped aside to make way for Jas. “Prime Emissary, if you'd like to lead the wayâ¦?”
“Thank you.” As the
moved past me, I caught my reflection in hisher faceplate. “There is no need to be so formal, Mr. Truffaut,” heshe added. “You may call me Jas.”
“Uh, sureâ¦right.” I'd forgotten that heshe'd told me so before. Behind us, Rain was closing the deck hatch. I waited until she'd dogged it shut, then followed Jas down the corridor. “Thank you for letting meâ¦I mean, both of usâ¦see your quarters.”
A sibilant hiss from hisher mouthpiece. “The courtesy is long overdue,” Jas said as heshe led us past the medical bay. “We have allowed only a few of your kind to enter our compound on Coyote. Perhaps the time has come for us to be less jealous of our privacy. Very soon we will be arriving at
. A little cultural acclimation is desirable.”
I stumbled over the words. “I'm sorry, but whatâ¦?”
. In your language, the House of the Talus.” Jas came to a halt beside an unmarked hatch. A black plate had been set within it; once again, heshe removed hisher left glove, then placed hisher palm against it. “That is only an approximate translation of what it really means, but it will suffice.”
The panel turned purple, then the hatch slid open, revealing a small antechamber that I assumed was an internal airlock. Jas stepped into it, then turned to look back at us. “Please remain here until I summon you. I must prepare myself for visitors.” Then heshe touched a button beside the door, and the hatch closed once more.
That left Rain and me alone in the corridor. An uncomfortable silence settled between us. With nothing to say or do, I gazed at the bulkhead, idly speculating how much effort it must have taken Janus's engineers to retrofit this part of the ship to
specifications. I was beginning to count the rivets when Rain quietly cleared her throat.
“I just want toâ¦” She paused, started again. “Look, I'm sorry about yesterday. I mean, about what happened during load-in.”
“Don't worry about it.” I continued to study the bulkhead.
“No, reallyâ¦I mean it.” Putting herself between me and the wall so that I couldn't ignore her, she looked me straight in the eye. “You knew what you were doing out thereâ¦better than I did, to tell the truthâ¦and I was just trying to see if I could piss you off.”
“Yeah, well, you succeeded.”
“Uh-uh. I've been told I have a talent for that.” A crooked smile that quickly faded. “Ted told me that you almost quit.”
what had happened, but I wasn't about to correct her if it made her feel guilty. “Believe me,” she went on, “that's not what I want. I justâ¦look, can we still be friends? I promise that I won't snap at you anymore.”