Authors: Glen Cook
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Short Stories, #Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Fantasy - Short Stories, #Short Story
by Glen Cook
Book 2 of
Scanned by wicman99; proofed by Nadie. If you enjoyed this e-text, why not consider buying a print copy?
One: 3048 AD
Operation Dragon, Carson’s
In that frenetic, quick-shift, go, drop-your-friends-possessions-roots-loyalties like throw-away containers age, heroes, legends, archetypal figures, and values as well, were disposable. They were as brilliant and ephemeral as the butterflies of Old Earth. One day someone on the marches of science might burst the pale and wrest from Nature a golden, universe-rocking secret. A bold naval officer might shatter the moment’s enemy. Either could be a hero, a legend for a fleeting hour. And then he would become one with the dust of Sumer and Akkad.
Who remembered on the seventh day?
Who remembered Jupp von Drachau’s raid in the Hell Stars? Mention his name. Blank stares would turn your way. Or someone would say, assuming memory, “He’s too old,” meaning too long gone. Von Drachau had been relegated to the historical toy box with the Caesars, Bonapartes, and Hitlers. Half a year, Confederation standard, had passed. The Now People had abandoned him. The yesterday people, the Archaicists, would not pick him up for a hundred years.
Luckily, benRabi thought, Jupp did not need the adulation.
The Now People, the down-planet people, who rode the screaming rockets of technological and social change, bought their values plastic-packed, to be disposed when their usefulness was done. BenRabi found no satisfaction in that. He could hold on to nothing long enough to wear the rough edges off, to make it comfortable with time, like an old couch after years of use.
He thought those things as, toolcase in hand, he wandered toward the gate of Carson’s Blake City spaceport. The name he wore felt a size too small, yet it could become a burden heavier than the cross the Christian god had borne.
He was going to hate this. He loathed pipes and plumbing.
He wore a union-prescribed commercial spacer Liquids Transfer Systems Technician’s uniform. It consisted of tight, dull grey coveralls with green and yellow piping. His sleeves boasted three red hashmarks where Servicemen wore chevrons. They indicated that his union rated him a Master.
He did have the training, though his acquisition of it lay nearly forgotten amid that of countless exotic skills.
His teaching-couch days seemed part of another age. Still in his thirties, he felt the weight of a thousand years. Lifetimes worth of knowledge had been pressure-injected into his skull. And the education would never end.
The Bureau was his surrogate mother, father, and wife. It insisted he be ready for anything. Just in case.
The Bureau was a family without love. It left him with dissatisfactions that could easily grow into hatreds. The things they did to him . . .
They never justified. They never explained.
But lately he had been dissatisfied with everything. The image of the gun had become merciless. He had developed a crying socket of soul-need into which nothing seemed to fit.
And there were the aches and pains.
Within him he bore a second set of nerves. They had implanted a complete instel radio powered by bio-electricity. A small, dying pain surrounded a knot behind his left ear. That was the largest lump of the radio.
He had other pains. His ulcer. A little finger he had bruised playing handball. A hint of the headache that had been with him most of his life.
Each slow step drove spikes of agony up the bones of his legs. They had been lengthened six centimeters, hastily. His arm bones felt no better. The skin on his stomach itched where they had trimmed off twenty pounds.
His fingers, toes, and eyes itched too. His fingerprints, toeprints, and retinal patterns had been too quickly changed.
Carson’s was as back of beyond a world as he had ever seen.
The damned ulcer . . . The fast-push to Carson’s had reawakened it. It was a hurry-up job from the go.
But, then, they all were. How long had it been since he had had time to catch his breath, to relax, play with his collections, or just loaf around that house he owned, unshared, on the quiet government retirement planet called Refuge? Or to tinker with his literary opus,
All Who Were Before Me in Jerusalem
There was no time to loaf. Nor to plan operations in advance. In a rush of maddening changes, civilization seemed to be hurtling toward an apocalyptic crisis. Nothing was permanent. There were no fixed points on which to anchor.
Moyshe benRabi’s life had become like the flash floods of Sierran rivers in Thaw Time, roaring and cascading past too swiftly, too liquidly, for any part to be seized and intimately known.
But wait! In the river of life apassing there were a few solid rocks. They were the long-lived legends lying heavy on his mind. Like the boulders in the turbulence, they had endured a forever compared to anything else of his age.
Something was missing: fixtures, solids, foundations for his life. There had to be something for him, something real . . .
, he cried to the corners of his soul. And here came the image of the gun, that sprang to mind at the oddest time. Bow, howitzer, rifle, pistol, whatever, always unmanned, usually in profile and firing. What did it mean? A goal? Some sexual symbol? An expression of his sometime want for heroism? A sign of a secret urge to kill?
Memories returned, of the day he had entered Academy. He had been nervous and polished and proud to be part of Navy, proud to be one of the rare Old Earth appointees, and scared they would hold that against him. A bee of uncertainty had buzzed his butter soul even then. He had taken his oath with private reservations. He had devoted a quarter of his short life to winning the appointment, and success had left him with the feeling that something was missing. But Navy had seemed to promise what his want demanded.
The Academy years had not been bad. Hard work, hard play, not much time for introspection. But the first few months of line service had brought the hurt back stronger than ever. Casting about desperately, he had put in for intelligence training without understanding his own motivation. He had told his wardroom acquaintances that he wanted more adventure.
Even then his words had rung false. There was adventure enough in the line hunting Sangaree and McGraws.
All of which had come to a head in the now, with Moyshe benRabi, a flying knight, being sent to find a dragon hiding behind the eyes of the night.
Ahead, he spotted his small, brown, Oriental, Manchu-mustached partner, Mouse. Making no sign, he entered the gate behind the man.
He slowed momentarily, staring across the field. The lighter from the raggedy-assed Freehauler that had brought them in from Blackworld was still on the ground. It should have lifted last night. They had caught the Freehauler at the end of a fast-shuffle through a procession of ships designed to cover their backtrail.
Mouse saw it too. Nothing escaped Mouse’s little devil eyes. He shrugged, lengthened his stride so benRabi would not overtake him.
They were not supposed to be acquainted this time. That left Moyshe without any anchor at all. He did not need lots of people, but he felt desolate when he had no one.
He daydreamed about Stars’ End and the High Seiners, the unchanging boulders that had ghosted across his mind before he had become distracted by his own past.
Sheer mystery was Stars’ End, a fortress planet beyond the galactic rim, bristling with automatic, invincible weapons that slaughtered everyone fool enough to come in range. Not one of a dozen expeditions had produced a shred of why.
In the lulls, the deep, fearful lulls when there was nothing to say and nothing being said, people seized on Stars’ End as strange country to explore, in litanies meant to exorcise the dreadful silence. They were intrigued by the godlike power there. Theirs were the eyes of the godless seeking gods in a majestically powerful unknown, a technological equivalent of an Old Testament Jehovah.
Or, if Stars’ End was momentarily passé, they turned to the High Seiners. The Starfishers.
The Starfishers should have been no mystery. They were human. Stars’ End was just a dead metal machine voice babbling insanities in non-human tongues, the toy of gun-toting pyramid builders so long gone no extant race remembered them. But, because of their humanness, the Seiners had become the greater, more frightening puzzle.
Landsmen did not comprehend the quiet, fixed culture of the Starfishers at all. They yearned for the Starfishers’ obvious peace, yet hated them for their blissful stasis. The Seiner trail was a perilous one, wending tortuously among yin-yang pitfalls of envy and jealousy.
His thoughtful mood departed. Work came first. He had to be alert. Lives could hinge on his slightest misstep, and the life at the head of the list was his own.
He entered the Blake Port terminal. It was a massive plastic, glass, and steel cavern. Its vast floor was a crossroads of color and movements, its entrances and exits the mouths of tunnels opening on other worlds.
Moyshe had wanted to be a poet once, a spacefaring Homer like Czyzewski. A child’s dream, that had been. Like the one about having secret powers if only he could find their handle.
An instructor had made him read Czyzewski critically, then had forced him to examine his own secret images of space and night and the womb. That had been a broomstick fly. Strictly from hunger. The backs of beyond in the shadowy reaches of his mind were lands of corruption and horror he would never journey again. His muse had abandoned him for brighter skies. Now he played with prose,
All Who Were Before Me in Jerusalem
This mission should give him time to polish it.
Light surrounded him. Human scent hung heavy around him. People rushed hither and thither like swarming bees who had lost track of their queen. Their effluvia was too much for the air fresheners. It was the same in every terminal he had ever visited.
The citizens were there in their multitudes, dancing atoms pursuing the rituals of terminals. The costumes of a dozen worlds mixed in a kaleidoscopic choreography.
A small, subdued crowd occupied one backwater of the waiting room floor. A long table had been set up there. Behind it a half-dozen men in off-white, undecorated jumpsuits fiddled with forms and questionnaires. A girl at table’s end, armed with an arsenal of secretarial gizmos, reduced the forms for microstorage. She was pale, had blondish hair that hung to her shoulders. He noticed her because her hair was unusually long for a spacegoer.
The men, though, conformed to the spacer stereotype. Their hair was cropped to a centimeter’s length. “Like induction day at boot camp,” Moyshe muttered.
These people would be his new employers. The ones he had been sent to betray.
Mouse passed, small and brown, with a wink. Why he had that name benRabi did not know. He had carried it for years, and seemed to like it, though for lookalikes Weasel would have done better.
A weird one, my partner
, benRabi thought.
But we get along. Because of commensality of obsession. In some areas