Authors: Alan Dean Foster
Alan Dean Foster
A Del Rey
THE BALLANTINE PUBLISHING GROUP * NEW YORK
If everyone’s going to chase me, Flinx thought, I should’ve been born with eyes in the back of my head. Of course, in a sense, he had been.
behind himself. Not in the commonly accepted meaning of the term. Not visually. But he could “sense” behind him. Most sentient creatures generated patterns on the emotional level that Flinx could, from time to time, detect, descry, or perceive. Depending on the wildly variable sensitivity of his special talent, he could feel anger, fear, love, sorrow, pain, happiness, or simple contentment in others the way ordinary folk could feel heat or cold, slipperiness or stickiness, that which was sharp and that which was soft.
The emotional states of other beings prodded him with little jabs, twitches, icy notions in his brain. Sometimes they arrived on the doorstep of his mind as a gentle knock or comforting greeting, more often as a violent hammering he was unable, despite his most ardent efforts, to ignore.
For years he believed that any refining of his talent would be an improvement. He was no longer so sure. Increased sensitivity only exposed him to more and more personal distress and private upsets. He had discovered that the emotional spectrum was a roiling, violent, crowded, generally unpleasant place. When he was especially receptive, it washed over him in remorseless waves, battering and pounding at his own psyche, leaving scant room for feelings of his own. None of this was apparent to others. Years of practice enabled him to keep the turmoil inside his head locked up, hidden away, artfully concealed.
Much to his distress, as he matured it became harder instead of easier to maintain the masquerade.
Used to be that he could distance himself from the emotional projections of others by putting distance between himself and the rest of humanxkind. Now that he’d grown more sensitive still, that kind of peace came to him only in the depths of interstellar space itself.
His situation wasn’t entirely hopeless. With advancing maturity had come the ability to shut out the majority of background low-level emotional emanations. Spousal ire directed silently at mates, the petty-squabbles of children, silent internalized hatreds, secret loves: he’d managed to reduce them all to a kind of perceptual static in the back of his mind. He couldn’t completely relax in the company of others, but neither was his mind in constant turmoil. Where and when possible, he favored town over city, hamlet over town, country over hamlet, and wilderness over all.
Still, as his erratic control of his fickle talent improved, his worries only expanded, and he found himself plagued by new fears and uncertainties.
As he watched Pip slither silently across the oval glassine tabletop, hunting for fallen crumbs of salt and sugar, Flinx found himself wondering not for the first time where it would all stop. As he grew older and taller he continued to grow more sensitive. Would he someday be privy to the emotional state of insects? Perhaps a couple of distraught bacteria would eventually be all that was necessary to incite one of his recurring headaches.
He knew that would never happen. Not because it wasn’t theoretically possible—he was such a genetic anomaly that where his nervous system was concerned,
was theoretically possible—but because long before he could ever attain that degree of sensitivity he would certainly go mad. If the pain of his headaches didn’t overwhelm him, an excess of knowledge would.
He sat alone in the southwest corner of the restaurant, but for all it distanced him from the emotional outpourings of his fellow patrons, he might as well have been sitting square in their midst. His isolation arose not from personal choice but because the other diners preferred it that way. They shunned him, and not the other way around.
It had nothing to do with his appearance. Tall, slim but well-proportioned, with his red hair and green eyes he was a pleasant-looking, even attractive young man. Much to his personal relief, he’d also lost nearly all the freckling that had plagued him since his youth.
The most likely explanation for his isolation was that the other diners had clustered at the opposite end of the dining room in hopes of avoiding the attentions of the small, pleat-winged, brightly colored flying snake which was presently foraging across her master’s table in search of spice and sustenance. While the combined specific xenozoological knowledge of the other patrons peaked not far above zero, several dutifully recalled that contrasting bright colors in many primitive creatures constituted a warning sign to potential predators. Rather than chance confirmation of this theory, all preferred to order their midday meal as far from the minidrag as possible.
Pip’s pointed tongue flicked across the tabletop to evaluate a fragment of turbinado sugar. Delighted by the discovery, she pounced on the energy-rich morsel with a languid thrust of her upper body.
Credit was due the restaurant’s host. When Flinx had appeared at the entrance with the flying snake coiled decorously about his left arm and shoulder, the older man had stiffened instinctively while listening to Flinx’s explanation that the minidrag was a longtime pet fully under control who would threaten no one. Accepting the tall young guest at his word, the unflinching host had led him to a small, isolated table which partook fully of the establishment’s excellent view.
Samstead was a peaceful world. Its three large continents were veined by many rivers which drained into oceans congenial of coast and clime. Its weather was consistent if not entirely benign, its settlers hardworking and generally content. They raised up light industries and cut down dense forests, planted thousands of fields and drew forth from the seas a copious harvest of savory alien protein. In dehydrated, freeze-dried, and otherwise commercially profitable compacted forms, this bounty found its way packed, labeled, and shipped to less fruitful systems.
It was a world of wide-open spaces buttoned together by innumerable small towns and modest, rurally attuned metropolises. While air transport was widely available, citizens preferred where possible to travel by means of the many rivers and connecting canals. Working together, humans and thranx had over the years woven a relatively pleasant fabric of life out of the natural threads supplied by their planet, which lay on the fringes of the Commonwealth. It was a pleasant place to call home.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Samstead was that there was nothing remarkable about it. It had been a long time since Flinx had come across so docile an outpost of civilization. Since his arrival he’d given serious thought to extending his visit beyond his original intent, perhaps even settling down—if such a thing were possible for him.
It was a world where a new colonist might be able to lose himself in villatic contentment. A world where even he might no longer need to continually employ those figurative eyes in the back of his head. Flinx wasn’t paranoid, but bitter experience had taught him caution. This was the inevitable consequence of an adolescence that had been, well, something other than normal.
For the moment, he was content to travel, to observe, to soak up the gentle, genial, country feel of this place. If its appeal held, he would linger. If not he would, as always, move on.
Departure would be effected by means of his remarkable ship, the
, presently drifting in parking orbit over Samstead’s equator in the company of several hundred other KK-drive craft. As far as Samstead Authority was concerned, it was bonded to a Mothian company, which was in fact a fiction for private ownership: a not uncommon practice.
As he slipped a forkful of some wonderful grilled fresh fish into his mouth, he drank in the view beyond the sweeping glass wall that fronted the backside of the restaurant. The establishment clung to the edge of a thirty-meter-high bank of the Tumberleon River, one of Samstead’s hundred principal watercourses. Translucent graphite ribs reinforced the wall, becoming soaring arches overhead. These supported a ceiling of photosensitive panels which darkened automatically whenever Samstead’s sun emerged from behind the clouds.
At this point, three-quarters of its way to the Kil Sea, the river was some three kilometers wide. All manner of contemporary rivercraft plied the languorous yet muscular stream: sailboats whose ultralight fabrics responded automatically to shifts in wind speed and direction, hovercraft built up out of ultralight composites, MAG barges which utilized the minute differences in electric charge between air and water to lumber along several centimeters above the surface of the water, big power-boats, tiny superfast pleasure craft, and land-based skimmers.
There was even a small group of children splashing about in some nearby shallows, looking for all the world like an undisciplined pod of playful amphibians. They seemed to be having a good time without the aid or intervention of any advanced technology whatsoever. Though timeless, it was a tableau less frequently encountered on the more urbanized worlds like Terra or Centauri.
Flinx found himself envying that unrestrained innocence. The pace of life on Samstead was much slower. It was a world on which one could live and work and still take time.
Flinx had managed to live, but so far his work had consisted of trying to stay alive and unnoticed. As for time, there never seemed to be enough of that intangible yet most precious of commodities.
Raising the upper third of her body off the table, Pip fully unfurled her pleated pink and blue wings and stretched. Across the room a family of four, stolid farmers clad in dress-gray coveralls and green paisley shirts, did their best to ignore the display. All except the youngest, a perfect little blond girl of seven who excitedly called attention to the unparalleled flash of color.
Her mother leaned over and spoke sharply, quickly quashing the girl’s initial delight at the sight, while her father growled something under his breath and remained hunched over his meal. They were trying their best to ignore him, Flinx knew. He cast his perception their way. Instantly Pip froze, the better to serve as an empathetic lens for her master’s talent.
He sensed fear lightly tinged with revulsion. There was also curiosity, which emanated principally from the children. This was directed more toward Pip than himself, which was to be expected. It would be remarkable if there was another Alaspinian minidrag anywhere on Samstead. This system was a long way from Alaspin, and Pip was usually an exotic no matter where they were.
Flinx was thankful he was no taller, no handsomer, no more distinctive in appearance than he was. The singular alignment of neurons within his cerebrum was distinction enough. The last thing he wanted was anything that would call additional attention to himself. He lived in constant terror of sprouting a third eye, or horns, or a bulging forehead. Knowing what had been done to him before birth, none of those developments would surprise him.
Sometimes it was hard to wake up and look in a mirror for fear of what he might see there. Others might wish for more height, or great beauty, or exaggerated muscularity. Flinx prayed frequently for the daily forgiveness of normalcy.
Pip attacked a pretzel while her master drank deep from a tall curved glass fashioned of self-chilling purple metal. An import, most likely. Though nearly done with his meal, he was reluctant to abandon the view. His fish had probably been netted in the river below that very morning. While it could not project, food possessed an emotional resonance all its own.
How wonderful were those times when he could simply sit and
Pip rose to land gently on his shoulder. This time it was the boy who gestured and exclaimed, only to be hastily slapped down by his father. Flinx sensed the older man’s unease, but continued to ignore the family. That was what they wanted, anyway.
Fear of a different kind abruptly rippled through the dining room. Flinx tensed and Pip lifted her head from his shoulder, responding to his heightened emotional state.
That was odd
. Calmly he scrutinized his fellow diners, seeing nothing to inspire such a sudden upsurge of apprehension. The ground was stable, the sky clear, the view outside unchanged. Raising his glass, he searched for the source of the disturbance.
Three men had arrived. They paused just inside the entrance. Two were much bigger than average. All three were exceptionally well dressed and would have stood out in any crowd on Samstead, though they would have been far less likely to attract attention on sophisticated Terra or Hivehom.
It was clear that the one in the middle was in charge. He wasn’t more than four or five years older than Flinx; shorter, ordinary of build and sharp of countenance. His dark maroon whispershirt concealed a sinewy muscularity.
Over the top of his glass Flinx studied the narrow, pale face. The uncleft jaw protruded distinctively. It was matched above by an aquiline nose and unusually deep-set black eyes. The forehead was high, the black hair combed straight back in the most popular local fashion. Eyeing him, Flinx decided that this was, a man for whom any expression would be an effort. His two overbearing associates were much more animated.
Flagrantly indifferent to the reaction his arrival had engendered, the young man scanned and dismissed the room with a flick of his eyes before moving off to his left. The self-important heavies continued to flank him.
To Flinx, the lessening of emotional tension in the dining area as the new arrivals turned away was palpable. A measurable quantity of joie de vivre having been sucked out of them, the patrons gratefully returned to their conversation and meals as the recently arrived trio disappeared through a service doorway.
Flinx returned to the last of his meal, but unlike everyone else, continued to monitor the disturbance that centered around the recently arrived trio. It had simply shifted from the dining room proper to the kitchen in back.
After a while the three reemerged, followed by a very attractive young woman dressed in chef’s whites. Save for her red hair, her features reflected an Oriental heritage. Her prosaic attire could not completely conceal her figure.