Authors: Allen Steele
I could tell that she was making a sincere effort to make up. I was still a little angry about the things she'd said to me, but if she was willing to apologize, it would have been churlish of me to refuse. “Yeah, all right,” I said, and as an afterthought offered my hand. “Case closed.”
“Okay. Case closed.” Rain grinned as she took my hand. I was surprised by how soft her touch was, and was almost reluctant to let go. “Glad to put that behind us.”
“Yeah, wellâ¦so am I.”
Another silence fell between us. Perhaps we'd ceased fire, but there were still old wounds that hadn't healed. The hatch remained shut, and I wondered what Jas was doing in there. But there was something else that roused my curiosityâ¦
“Pardon me, but may I ask a personal question?”
“I don't know.” She frowned. “Depends how personal it is.”
I hesitated. Too late to back down, though, so I forged ahead. “Yesterday, when we were at breakfast and talking about my brother, I happened to mention yours, and that set you off.” There was a spark within her eyes, and I quickly raised my hand. “Hey, I'm not trying to pick another fight. I'd just like to knowâ¦what was it that I said about him that got you so riled?”
“You didn't know?” Rain stared at me. “No one told you?”
“I'm new around here, remember? I couldn't find my way to the outhouse without a map.”
That brought another smile to her face. “At least you admit that,” she said with a slight laugh before becoming somber again. “It's not something I like to talk about, butâ¦well, you're not the only one with a black sheep in the family.” She looked down at the floor. “My brother killed my father.”
Of all the things she could have said to me, nothing could have been more unexpected. It was my turn to be apologetic. “Iâ¦I'm sorry, I didn'tâ¦”
“No, of course not. Like you said, there's no reason why you should've known.” Rain shook her head. “I guess I've become so used to having people talk about him behind my back, it's like I have it tattooed on my forehead.”
She let out her breath as a tired sigh. “My brother, Hawkâ¦who's about your age, by the wayâ¦murdered my father.
father, I mean. There's a lot of people who say he had it comingâ¦my father was a mean drunk, and even my mother says he was a bastard, which was why they were separatedâ¦but all the same, Hawk shouldn't haveâ¦”
She broke off when the hatch abruptly slid open, a silent invitation for us to enter. “Guess that means we can come in,” I said, making a courtly bow. “Ladies firstâ¦”
“Thank you.” Rain seemed happy to be interrupted. Not that I could blame her, but Jas couldn't have picked a worse moment. Yet I let the subject drop as we stepped into the antechamber.
The airlock was a small foyer just large enough for the two of us, with an identical hatch on the opposite side. Once the outer hatch closed behind us, the ceiling lit with a pale yellow luminescence.
said Jas, hisher voice coming from a speaker beside a small control panel.
“Before I repressurize the room you are in, you will need to put on breathing masks. You will find them in the compartment to your right.”
Rain turned around, located a small candy-striped panel recessed within the wall; inside were two full-face air masks. We slipped them on, and I helped Rain activate the miniature oxygen-nitrogen cylinders on either side of the lower jaw. Jas must have been observing us, because as soon as we were ready, there was a faint buzz and the airlock began to repressurize.
We could've breathed the air within Jas's quarters, but not for very long. Watching the digital gauge on the control panel, I saw the atmospheric pressure drop 250 millibars while the nitrogen content increased by 20 percent. Without air masks, we would have succumbed to anoxia and fainted from lack of oxygen. The change-out took about five minutes; when it was done, there was another buzz, then the inner hatch revolved open.
We walked into what had once been the ship's lounge before it was converted into a cabin suitable for
passengers: a large suite divided into three rooms, two of them serving as private sleeping quarters and the third as a sitting room. At least heshe had furniture, even if it was designed to accommodate hisher shorter legs and longer torso; I noticed that the couch and chair were equipped with safety harnesses. There was even what appeared to be a small galley, no doubt stocked with vegetarian food palatable to the
. If there was a privy, I didn't see it. Yet other than a porthole, the cabin was spartan, the ceiling rails lending it the same utilitarian appearance as the rest of the ship.
But the surroundings didn't catch my attention so much as Jas himherself. Since the Prime Emissary no longer needed to wear hisher environment suit, heshe had changed into a long, togalike robe that looked like silk yet seemed to shimmer with red and purple radiance. Hisher head, resembling that of a turtle only with a short fin on the back of hisher skull, rose from the high collar of hisher robe, while the hands I'd glimpsed earlier were folded together within bell sleeves embroidered with intricate designs.
“Please, come in,” heshe said. “Make yourselves comfortable.” A six-fingered hand, its talons white against the dark brown of hisher skin, emerged from a sleeve in the gesture of welcome. “I'm afraid I cannot offer refreshment, but I doubt you would enjoy anything that I eat or drink anyway.”
When Jas spoke, I heard two voices: the familiar one that addressed us in Anglo, which came from the grille of a small device that heshe wore around hisher neck, and the low-pitched series of hisses, croaks, and whistles that matched the movements of hisher mouth. The Prime Emissary didn't know our language; heshe merely possessed the means to have it translated for himher. The device heshe wore around hisher neck apparently did the trick; a slender prong was suspended in front of hisher lipless mouth, while thin wires led to small caps that covered the membranes on either side of hisher head.
“No need to apologize.” Rain recovered more quickly than I did; I was getting over my first sight of Jas without hisher environment suit. “Once we reach your world, maybe we will have a chance to sample your cuisine.”
“Uhâ¦yeah,” I stuttered. “I'd like that a lot, too.” I was at a loss for what else to say. “Ummâ¦nice place you have here.”
Lame, but Extraterrestrial Diplomacy 101 wasn't a course I'd taken at the Academy. Whatever I said, though, was apparently enough to tickle hisher funny boneâwhere that was located, I hadn't a clueâbecause it was received by a short, high-pitched hiss. Jas's heavy-lidded eyes, which bulged from the front of hisher skull, closed slightly.
“Your people have done well to accommodate us,” heshe replied. “Perhaps we will be able satisfy your curiosity about our food, once we have arrived at
I was still getting over the spooky way hisher eyes moved on their own when Jas stepped a little closer. “However,” heshe continued, “our time is short, and you will soon need to return to your duties. Therefore, I will ask the question that I would like to have answered, if you may.”
“Question?” That startled me. “Ahâ¦yeah, sure, whatever youâ¦”
Rain's cough was muffled by her air mask, but I heard it nonetheless. “Of course, Prime Emissary,” she said, interrupting me, “although you'll have to forgive us if we're not very helpful. After all, we're ixnay on the alktay.”
I caught her meaning and dummied up, hoping that Jas's translator wasn't as efficient as it seemed. Apparently it wasn't up to pig latin, because Jas went quiet for a moment, the fin on hisher head rising ever so slightly. “Yes, certainly,” heshe responded after a second. “I understand. But nonetheless, I'd like to knowâ¦are there members of the Order of the Eye aboard this ship?”
I didn't have to pretend ignorance. “Sorry. Don't know what you're talking about.” I glanced at Rain. “You?”
“Neither do I.” She shook her head, but something in her expression told me otherwise. “Is that something you've heard about on Coyote?”
Jas's fin rose a little more, hisher eyes twitching back and forth. “A rumor, perhaps little more,” heshe responded, “yet enough to rouse our interest.” A short pause. “One of your passengersâ¦Gordon Ashâ¦we have reason to believe belongs to this group. Do you know anything of this?”
“Nope. Nothing at all.” I shrugged, hoping that my lie was convincing. “Just that he drinks a lot, that's all.”
left eye rotated toward me.
“He means alcohol. An affliction among my kind.” Rain was about to continue when, from outside the room, we heard four bells, giving us the one-minute warning that the main engine was about to shut down. “We should go,” she said, glancing at her watch. “Many thanks for your hospitality, Prime Emissary.”
“The pleasure has been mine.” Jas folded hisher hands together and bowed from the waist. “Feel free to visit me again.”
Neither of us said much to the other as we cycled back through the airlock. The main engine cut off while Rain and I were still inside; we grasped handrails along the walls, and once the atmosphere returned to normal, we removed our air masks and placed them in their compartment. But as soon as we'd left the airlock and moved far enough down the passageway that I was sure Jas couldn't hear us, I pulled her aside.
“All right, now,” I said, keeping my voice low. “How about telling me what's going on?”
“What do you mean?” Her expression remained neutral.
“C'monâ¦you know exactly what I'm talking about.” I nodded in the direction of Jas's cabin. “This business with the Order of the Eye. You know something I don't.”
“I don't know what you'reâ”
“Ash reads minds.” Her face went pale as I said this, and I went on. “I don't know how he does it, butâ¦well, it's there, and don't try to pretend that I'm wrong.”
Rain glanced both ways, as if to make sure that we were alone. “Okay, you're right,” she replied, her voice little more than a whisper. “Ash is a telepathâ¦or at least strongly empathic. That's why Morgan brought him alongâ¦to verify whatever the
have to say to us, since we still don't know their language even though they're able to interpret ours. We've tried to keep this from the
, but apparently they've already figured it out.”
Despite the fact that she'd confirmed what I had already suspected, I couldn't help but feel a chill. “How did Ash learn how to do that? This isâ¦I mean, I've never met anyone whoâ¦”
“Not on Earth, no. But lately, a few people on Coyote have developed the ability to read mindsâ¦or at least pick up emotions.” She hesitated. “Rumor has it that it comes from long-term exposure to pseudowasps. Supposedly they belong to a cult that calls itself the Order of the Eye.”
I knew about pseudowasps: a flying insect native to Coyote, its sting contained a venom that produced low-level hallucinations among humans. There were even people who ingested the venom as a recreational drug; some of it had found its way to Earth, where it was sold on the black market. This was the first time that I'd ever heard of its producing telepathic abilities, though. If it hadn't been for my earlier encounter with Ash, I would have discounted it as hearsay.
“And Ash belongs to them?” I asked.
“I've heard that the Order got started by someone who used to work for Morgan. That's how Ash was able to hook up with himâ¦Morgan has been bankrolling them on the sly.” Rain shrugged. “It's only when Ash is drunk that he can't hear what's going on inside other people's heads. That's why Morgan had Ted bring along a couple of jugs of bearshine.”
I'd figured that out already. If Ash was loaded most of the time, he wouldn't be able to hear the thoughts of everyone else aboard. Even Goldstein wouldn't want that, except when he wished Ash to do soâ¦say, when he had to negotiate with the
, and therefore wanted to have a level playing field.
“So Ash is Morgan's ringer,” I said, and Rain nodded. “Sounds like Jas got wind of it, though. Are you going to tell him?”
Rain shook her head. “Not if I don't have to,” she said, pushing herself toward the deck hatch. “None of my business, and I'd just as soon not have anything to do with Ash if I can help it.” She looked back at me. “And neither should you. The Order isâ¦well, if they really do exist, then they're not something you'd want to mess with.”
That sounded like good advice. “Okay,” I said as I followed her toward the hatch. “I'll take your word for it. Thanks for being straight with me. I appreciate it.”
Rain paused just before entering the access shaft. “You're welcome,” she said, then favored me with a smile. “What are friends for, right?”
A matter of trustâ¦
transit to Rho Coronae Borealisâ¦
an indelicate request.
It took about ten hours for the
to reach Starbridge Coyote. Time enough for both lunch and dinner in the wardroom, plus a long nap in between. Ted could have cut it in half if he'd ordered the engines to remain at full thrust, but that would have meant spending fuel we might need later. The only person impatient to reach Hjarr was Goldstein, and Ted made it plain that, although Morgan might be the ship's owner, it was the captain who called the shots.
That gave us nearly half a day to kill. Since the
was on autopilot, there was little reason for Ali to remain at the helm. Regulations called for a flight-certified crewman to be on duty in the command center at all times, though, and Ted, Emily, and Doc all wanted to be relieved. So Ali sat me down at his station and gave me the quick-and-dirty on how to drive the ship. The helm wasn't much different than that aboard the
: although the controls were a bit more complex, the thrusters controlling yaw, pitch, and roll were operated by the same sort of trackball I'd learned to use in the Academy.
Ali had already laid in the course for rendezvous with the starbridge; he told me that Morgan had assured him that, once we were through hyperspace, the
would transmit a signal that would interface with the newly installed nav system and automatically dock the
. Even so, Ali had taken the precaution of programming an emergency override into the
's AI; two finger-strokes on the keyboard, and he could resume control of the helm at any time.
“I don't care what Morgan says,” Ali said. “I'm not quite ready to trust the
I remembered the way he'd recoiled from Jas when heshe had inserted the key. “With the ship, or anything else?”
A wry smile crept across his face. “Let's just say I prefer to err on the side of caution, especially when dealing with a race that looks like it might possibly eat its young.”
I considered reminding him that the
were vegetarians, but decided against it. Nonetheless, I wondered how someone so xenophobic had come to be hired as command pilot for this particular mission. Perhaps the same reason why Goldstein recruited me; pickings were slim on Coyote when it came to experienced freelance spacers, and Morgan had to settle for what he could find.
Once Ali was confident that I knew what I was doing, he left the bridge to grab some lunch and observe his midday prayers. For the first time since we'd departed Coyote, I found myself alone on the deck; everyone else had gone below. Through the starboard windows, I could see 47 Ursae Majoris-B as an immense blue-and-purple disc, its silver-yellow rings casting a broad shadow across its cloud bands. Hard to believe that, little more than ten days ago, I'd been in the same place, only aboard a stolen lifeboat. Fate had dealt me an odd hand, to be sure.
I was still gazing at Bear when the deck hatch opened. Looking around, I saw Doc pull himself up through the manhole. Seeing me seated at the helm, he nodded with satisfaction.
“Good manâ¦you're at your station.” A perfunctory nod, then he reached to his utility belt and unhooked a squeezebulb. “Here's your rewardâ¦catch!”
He tossed the bulb across the deck. I reached up to snag it from midair. Hot coffee, just what I needed just then. “Thanks,” I said. “Why, did you think I wouldn't be here?”
“Not really, but you never know.” Doc closed the hatch, then turned a somersault that put him upside down to me. “One time, when we were going through the Belt on the way from Jupiter, the skipper put a rookie on watch during graveyard shift.” He tucked the toes of his shoes within the ceiling rail. “I came up here to get something and found him catching z's, with an asteroid only eight hundred klicks off port bow. Stupid kid had turned off the collision alert so that it wouldn't interrupt his siesta. Never turned my back on a new guy since.”
“If I'd done that in the Union Astronautica, my old captain would've put me out the airlock.”
“That kid was Union Astronautica, too.” Doc unhooked another squeezebulb from his belt and opened its nipple. “So am I, for that matter.”
I'd gathered as much; his accent was
, from somewhere out West. Which wasn't surprising; I was hardly the first UA spacer to have defected. “Morgan recruited me from the European Space Agency,” he went on. “He'd just expanded his company and needed people to build ships for him. After a while he let me leave the desk and do what I really wanted to do.”
“Why the name? This ship, I mean.”
Pride of Cucamonga
? After my hometownâ¦Cucamonga, California. And before you ask,
was named after my ex.” Doc shook his head. “Word of adviceâ¦never christen your ship in honor of your wife. Not unless you intend to stay married, that is.”
“I take it that's why it's called
,” I said, and he gave me a rare smile. “Well, I have to hand to youâ¦the
doesn't look like much, but she flies just fine.”
“Looks aren't important. It's how they're built that counts. Only thing I don't like is having to add equipment that I don't know how to operate.” Doc scowled as he gazed past me at the black box on the console. “It came to us just as you see it. A few cables in the back, with instructions on how to hardwire them to the console. Soon as we turned it on, though, it interfaced with the main AI bus. But we can't open it, and there's no way for us to change its settings or anything. Only Jas can do that.”
I hesitated, wondering whether I should let him in on Ali's secret. Doc was the chief engineer, though, so it was his job to know what was going on with his ship. “Ali told me he rigged a manual override. Says he canâ¦”
“Did he now?” A sip of coffee, then he reattached his bulb to a vest loop and twisted himself until he was right side up. “Actually, that's my doing. Ali's just taking credit for itâ¦and don't worry, Ted and Emily know about it, too. Just don't let on to Morganâ¦he'd throw a fit if he thought we didn't trust the
This was beginning to sound like a familiar refrain. “I take it you don't?”
“Oh, I trust 'em, all rightâ¦just not with my ship.” Another smile that quickly vanished. “Like with you. I have no problem with having a wet-behind-the-ears ensign standing watch, so long as I know you're not going to take a snooze.”
“Yeah, wellâ¦” I shrugged. “Trust seems to be in short supply on this ship.”
Doc didn't reply at once. Instead, he regarded me with what seemed to be sympathy. “Son, this isn't the Academy,” he said at last. “They do everything by the book, and that way they minimize the risks. Out here, though, the book doesn't apply. We're pretty much making it up as we go along. Especially on this flight.”
As he spoke, Doc pushed himself over to one of the starboard windows. “With any luck, this'll be pretty routine,” he said, gazing out at Bear. “We deliver cargo, we pick up cargo, we go home. But I'm not going to count on it, and neither should you. So if we don't completely trust the Prime Emissaryâ¦well, it's because there's a first time for everything, and trust is something you earn only from experience.” He reached up to fondly pat the ceiling. “But if you put your faith in this ship, and the people you're working with, then you'll get through this just fine.”
If I'd heard that from anyone else, I would've considered it to be hopelessly saccharine. Yet sweetness and light clearly weren't part of Doc's character; he was a pragmatic old spacer who'd been doing this for a very long time. “Thanks. I'll keep that in mind.”
“Uh-huhâ¦well, that's all I have to say about that.” Turning away from the window, Doc pulled himself back across the command center. “Okay, kid, the conn is yours. Don't wreck my ship, or I'll kick your ass.”
He opened the deck hatch and floated headfirst down the access tunnel. The hatch closed behind him, and once more I was alone on the bridge. Yet I found myself remembering something Ash had said to me:
Out here in the great beyond, everything is strange. The sooner you get used to that, the better off you'll be.
Six hours later, we were on primary approach to the starbridge. By then Ali had relieved me at the helm, and everyone had returned to the command centerâincluding Jas, whom Goldstein had escorted up from Deck Three. Doc had installed a specially made couch for the Prime Emissary, into which heshe strapped himherself; I noticed that, although Jas tried stay away from Ash as much as possible, Morgan traded chairs with his “interpreter” so that Ash was seated next to the
. Funny how even the smallest of coincidences gained significance, once I knew what was going on.
If Ted was aware of all this intrigue, he paid no attention. “Emcee, open a channel to the gatehouse,” he said, keeping an eye on the screens above the control console. Once Emily told him that she'd made contact, he touched his headset mike. “Starbridge Coyote, this is CFS
Pride of Cucamonga
, requesting permission for hyperspace transition to Rho Coronae Borealis.”
A moment passed, then a voice came over the loudspeaker.
. Standing by to receive destination code.”
“We copy, gatehouse.” Ted glanced over his shoulder at his wife. “Send the key, please.”
Ali typed in a command that relayed the key code to Emily's station; she transmitted the signal to the gatehouse, which in turn sent it via hyperlink to Rho Coronae Borealis. A minute went by, then we heard from the gatehouse again:
“Code received at destination and confirmed. You have permission to commence final approach.”
“Roger that, gatehouse. Thank you.” Ted let out his breath. “Right, thenâ¦Ali, interface AI with the gatehouse, then fire main engine on my mark.”
Ali tapped at his keyboard, studied his comp for a moment, then looked back at him. “Interface completed, skipper. Ready when you are.”
A brief surge as the engine ignited. Looking up at the nearest screen, I saw Starbridge Coyote grow in size. Above the console, a holographic miniature of the
moved toward a three-dimensional funnel that grew from the ring. Remembering the turbulence I'd experienced a few days earlier, I cinched my harness a little tighter, then glanced over at Rain.
“Hang on,” I whispered. “This could be rough.” She nodded and gave her own harness a quick yank. Although she said nothing, the perspiration on her face showed just how nervous she was. I remembered then that she was the only person aboard who hadn't made a hyperspace jump; everyone else had gone through this at least once before, if only from Earth to Coyote. “Don't worry,” I added. “It'll all be over in justâ¦”
“I know, I know.” Her voice was tight. “Don't remind me.”
She didn't want to be babied, so I left her alone. Ali had taken his hands from the console; with the
's guidance system slaved to the gatehouse AI, there was nothing for him to do. Yet Doc continued to study his board, alert for any signs of trouble, while Ted and Emily watched the comp displays at their stations.
The engine cut off a few seconds later. Another glance at a screen told me that the
was only a few miles from the starbridge. Any moment now, we'd be entering the event horizonâ¦
A sudden flash from within the ring, and then it felt as if we were being pulled into the wormhole. I was about to close my eyes when someone grasped the back of my wrist. Looking down, I was surprised to find that Rain had grabbed hold of me.
“Don't watch,” I said quietly, taking her hand. “Just shut your eyes. You'll beâ¦”
I didn't get a chance to finish, for at that moment we entered the starbridge.
This time, I saw what happened. Bright light in every color of the visible spectrum streamed through the windows as the command center turned upside down, becoming a barrel that some malicious giant had decided to kick down a slope. For an instant, it seemed as if everything stretched, like matter itself had become little more than warm taffy. The holo flickered and went dead. From the other side of the bridge, I heard someone screamâAsh, perhaps, or maybe it was Morganâand Rain's grip became so hard that I almost yelped.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. The light faded, the spinning stopped, everything resumed its normal proportions. We were through the starbridge.
Rain let out her breath, slowly opened her eyes. “Oh, god, that wasâ¦” Then she realized that she was still clutching my hand. “Sorry,” she muttered, and quickly released it. “Didn't mean toâ¦”