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Losing Everything

This is a novel I began in 1989. As you read it, you're welcome to take notes and send me feedback at invisiblecows@juno.com. I'm interested in mistakes in spelling and grammar, and I'm even more interested in things that are clumsy or confusing or that take you out of the story.

When you send me a note, please put down the Chapter number and the first three words of the paragraph so I can find it. Thank you.

By the way, this novel is 131,381 words long. At 500 words a page, that would be 262 pages long.


Losing Everything,
a science fiction novel
by
Roger Fritz


Table of contents:

Prologue



DEDICATION: From the movie Jeremiah Jones:

“Well, Pilgrim, was it worth the trouble?” asked the old mountain-man.

Jeremiah Johnson looked puzzled. “What trouble?”


~*~

FOREWORD: A Sufi story:

Once there was a man with a bad temper. He went to a woman of knowledge for advice, and she told him to go to a certain crossroads marked by a withered tree and to offer water for everyone going by. The man did this, and many days passed by without incident.

But one day a traveler in a hurry ignored the angry man's offer and scurried on down the road. The man with the bad temper called after him, and still receiving no reply, he lost control completely and shot the traveler dead.

The withered tree burst into blossom. For the traveler had been a murderer on his way to commit the most heinous crime of his career.


~*~

PROLOGUE:

Viewed from Earth, the full moon is the size of a penny held at arm's length.

Viewed from the distance of a diameter and a half away, the Earth is the size of a basketball held at arm's length. The shadows of the clouds are barely distinguishable from the clouds themselves. Only, instead of a basketball, it's a vast gloriously living and glimmering jewel.

A diameter and a half away from Earth orbited a black sphere, fifteen kilometers in diameter. To outward appearances, it was a much-cratered asteroid. In reality, this was the lady Spakool.

Actually, her full name was 53 syllables long, but she usually went by the first two for convenience. She was a graduate student in Experiential Anthropology, and she was something of a rebel and a rogue in her own way. There were stories told today in her home swarm about what it was like getting her through orbit training. She'd been to a string of training hives, and she'd been in trouble at all of them and been kicked out of most of them. Only the fact that she was rebellious rather than malicious had enabled her to finally graduate at all. She not only had the bad habit of talking back to her instructors, but she had the even worse habit of usually being right, which had resulted in a series of hurried and harried reassignments to training hives of lesser and lesser status.

Currently she'd worked her way down the ladder of success to the point where she was on loan to the Wilderness Service, in an ambiguous position which left no one exactly sure to whom she was supposed to be reporting. This was just the way she liked it, and it was the only way the System could tolerate her at all, so an uneasy status quo had developed. She wouldn't have been a problem at all if she weren't a Tseedin, a race that had been well-connected at Court for millennia. You did not mess with the Court, and you did not mess with the Tseedin.

She was currently on detached duty in a backwater system 23,000 light years from the galactic center and 6,000 light years outside the Empire's borders. Her duties were pretty much up to her, and she'd chosen the classic Observer Mode in a modern Bohemian style. Which was sure to cause seismic disturbances in her Overlords, who were neither modern nor bohemian. She didn't care, as the assignments farther down the ladder of success were even more desirable.


~*~

Spakool was a diameter and a half from Earth because she enjoyed the strong radioactivity of the inner Van Allen Belt, which thrilled her with a glorious vibratory and ever-changing sensory tingling. Around her floated an odd assortment of space junk, some of it assembled into antennas that only looked crude.

She swam through the sea of electronic signals coming from Earth like one of the great hydro-beasts of Xenedon, her home planet. Her vast mind gloried in the hundreds of thousands of inputs: everything from reruns of I Love Lucy to secret military transmissions.

Her goal wasn't to study or even to record for later study. Those were Classical Modes in the Classical Style. The Bohemian Style is to savor, and for her the savoring was ecstatic and an end in itself. The wild variety of human transmissions created such exotic sensations that she rode through the turbulence like a Fleetnar surfing the wavefront of a super-nova. It was like being tickled in millions of places, and she chortled softly, internally, prodigiously, continuously. The lady was satisfied.


Back to Top


Chapter 1: Capture



Hank Walker lived in a communal house, and the group needed a new house-mate. So they put an ad in the Willamette Week Classifieds, and an elephant came to apply for the room. Hank could see right away that he was a sensitive and gentle pachyderm, and so he was inclined to vote for him. But the elephant could see that the rest of Hank's house-mates were afraid of him. So he politely put a paper bag over his head and pretended to be a whale. But somehow this didn't seem to help. He couldn't understand why not.


~*~

Hank woke up feeling refreshed in a way he only felt when he'd been sleeping near the ocean. He wondered if it was the negative ions, or the sounds of the waves? Or both?

“What was that dream I was having?” he wondered. He didn't usually dream when he napped, and the memory faded away as he sat up.

He was sitting on the sand half-way up the northern face of the biggest sand-dune at Cape Kiwanda, on the coast of Oregon, in the shade of his hang-glider. He hadn't meant to nap. He'd been waiting for the wind to strengthen to fifteen miles an hour, and he'd drifted off. Below him the sand-dune slanted down to the beach. The Pacific Ocean stretched away beyond that, vast and blue. Late afternoon clouds were blowing in off the sea from the northwest.

The year was 1984. Hank was a 37-year-old hippie. His hair was straw-colored, and he wore it in a pony tail. He kept his beard trimmed short. The long hair and beard he thought of as his hippie badges. He was wearing purple gym-pants, a red gym-shirt with a dancing Micky Mouse on the chest, and green sneakers. He usually wore tai chi shoes, but in the sand they came off too easily. He had the general demeanor of a mouse who's worried about hawks even on a foggy day.

His glider was a single-surface Lancer constructed of aluminum tubes, wires, bolts and nylon cloth. The wings were blue with an orange stripe. The Lancer was a sturdy machine, made in Australia, and far more forgiving than the double-surface gliders most people moved up to after they'd mastered the art somewhat. A double-surface glider won't “mush,” but he could bring his single-surface glider to a dead stop in the air, and it turned into a parachute.

Hank had been flying for three years, and he had come to accept that hang-gliding is mostly waiting. It had been good patience training, in a way, except that it wasn't hard to be patient when he was sitting under a hang-glider. All the flying sites he'd been to were wonderful spots out in nature. He'd gotten to where he enjoyed sitting all day with no other entertainment than the sea and the sky. Not counting the shenanigans the other fliers were likely to get up to, of course. They were always entertaining.

He decided the wind wasn't going to get strong enough today to do any soaring, so he stood up and hooked in his harness to take a last sled-run down to the beach. He checked his harness straps and did a visual check of the wire connections on both wings. The wind was so light he had to run to take off.

After four steps he was in the air. He looked down at the sand forty feet below him. It thrilled him to be up in the air, even for a sled-run. The flight was short, with barely time for a couple of turns. He flared to land, and then walked his glider to the spot where he'd parked his car. As he walked, the wind under the wings supported his glider and popped it up to the limit of his harness, so he didn't have to carry it's weight. All he had to do was steer.

A few other die-hard fliers were parked beyond the sign that said, “No Motorized Vehicles Beyond This Point.” Hank chatted with them about the conditions as he folded up his glider and packed it on the roof of his car. His car was a yellow MG Midget, and with a 17-foot package tied on the roof it looked pretty silly to anyone except another glider pilot. Actually, it was a perfect car for gliding expeditions, since it was low and streamlined and powerful.

Hank drove up a narrow, sandy road from the beach to McPhillips Drive. He turned north onto Cape Lookout Road, and then east to the Oregon Coast Hiway. Then he cruised north to Tillamook, driving for ten miles through the beautiful Oregon countryside. The hills by the road were covered with pines and manzanita, and the blue sky was filled with scattered cumulus clouds.

In town he stopped for gas. He got to talking with the station attendant, and chuckled as he reflected what good conversation starters hang-gliders were. Hank used the restroom, and on the way back to his car a woman stopped him. She had bright orange hair sticking out in every direction, and black lipstick. She held out her right hand, palm up, and said, "Look. I have a burning blue butterfly." She looked down at her hand.

Hank looked too, and he saw nothing but an empty hand. "Really?" he said. "I don't see it." "She's probably a homeless person," he thought. From being a hippie he was comfortable with homeless people.

"You have to look with your dream eyes," she said.

"Oh? How do you do that?"

"In the dream-time, breathing is the fire of life," she said. "Here. You should take it with you." So Hank held up a hand, and she mimed dropping the invisible butterfly onto his palm. Then she smiled and walked away.

"She's seems a little crazy," Hank thought. "But then, isn't everybody?"


~*~

In the center of Tillamook he turned onto Highway 26 and headed east to Portland, 70 miles away. This time of day was Hank's favorite: the time of twilight when the sunlight turns golden. The land was gorgeous now under blue-grey skies. Clouds so dark they were almost purple blew inland over pine-covered hills and green rolling fields.

As he drove, Hank was watching the sunset in his rear-view mirror. It was so beautiful he felt moved. The crimson and gold in the clouds reminded him of the sunsets when he'd been in Vietnam twelve years before.


~*~

He'd been drafted when he got out of college, and wound up forty miles north of Saigon on a little base called Phu Loi. Fortunately his MOS was 72 Hotel, so he spent his days doing typing and filing in a little office. When he'd arrived in Vietnam, it had been 11 Bravo, and he was slated to hump an M60 machine-gun through the jungle. But by coincidence the army'd been short of clerks when he arrived in-country.

So his experience of war had been a boring office-job in the tropics, four degrees north of the equator.

Every day the only decision Hank and his buddies had to make was whether to get stoned before supper or after supper. Once they'd eaten, they'd often climb up onto the hootch to the peak of the roof and watch the sunset. The trade winds blowing in off the ocean piled up thunderheads fifteen miles high, and dozens of them filled the sky as far as they could see. The sunset turned the clouds gloriously red and purple and gold, in a vast display of glowing colors, and the young men sat mostly in silence until it was dark.

Then their commonest form of entertainment was to sit around in someone's room and talk. The conversation was free-floating and wide-ranging. Often it was about feelings, and girlfriends left behind in “the world.” The comraderie was comforting and fun, the Lost Boys enjoying each others' company in Neverland.

But there was a paradox nobody foresaw at the time. When Hank got back to the US, he found himself in a social desert. Men in “the world” reserved that kind of sharing for their girlfriends, if they did it at all. So, suddenly Hank had no friends. For years after returning from Vietnam he was lonely, and sort of wished he could go back. Peter Pan yearning for friendship, but there was no way to fly away. He was trapped in “the world”....


~*~

Halfway home, Hank turned off onto Route 6 going through Mist and Jewel. It was dark by now, and he had his lights on. His ex-wife Mary lived in Mist, and he'd promised her he'd come to a party he was already late for. Hank didn't see his ex very often anymore, but they were good friends. Their marriage had been a learning experience, and after they got divorced due to circumstances beyond their control they remained good friends. By now they were old friends. Hank had promised to bring his compact disk collection with him, and he had it in the trunk: eighty compact disks in two paper bags with twine handles.

The MG's engine growled as Hank down-shifted for a turn. The road dipped down a hillside covered with larch and fir trees, and he was enjoying the driving.

Suddenly Hank felt distracted, because over the engine noise he heard a sizzling roar that gradually got louder. He couldn't place the sound. Then he flinched because he heard an explosion, and off to one side in his peripheral vision he caught an impression of violence and trees shattering and dust billowing into the air. He looked in that direction and saw a second fireball sear down through the darkness and crash into the hillside. Hank's jaw dropped.

The motor of his car quit. He put on the brakes and wrestled the car to a stop on the roadside. The sputtering roar was even louder now, and he felt excitement and dread and calm, all at once. He'd never been the first person at an accident, and he'd never seen a plane crash, but he knew first aid from being in the army. He knew with a hollow feeling in his belly that he'd have to stop and do whatever he could to help.

Hank was about to get out of his car when a black shape stood up from one of the impact craters. It was roughly fifty feet tall, more or less humanoid in shape, and it had a surface texture like broken rock. Bits were falling off. Hank went into shock. This was no plane wreck. This wasn't normal. He had no idea what this was.

The humanoid lifted one leg and leaned forward in slow motion as though to run. Hank felt like he was in a dream. Everything was happening slowly. “This isn't possible,” he gasped out loud.

Ponderously the black shape ran toward him, skidded to a stop and bent over to pick up his car. It grabbed the hang-glider and lifted. Ropes and bungie cords snapped, and the hang-glider popped right off. The car whumped back to earth with a jolt that knocked Hank's breath out of him. The humanoid tossed the hang-glider aside, bent over farther and scooped his hands under the car. He picked it up, and the lurch threw Hank against the seatbelt straps. His mind was whizzing like a roman candle, without producing any coherent thoughts. Through his side window he could see the humanoid's chest. It was wearing a black metal harness with pouches on the straps, and the metal all looked burned and scorched.

Then, from under the humanoid's arms, Hank saw a cluster like a tumbleweed made of white crystals roll up out of the other impact crater. The crystals were long and thin and glowing from within. The spiky ball rolled over the ground with a crumpling noise. It bounced and leaped toward the figure holding Hank's car, spitting bursts of electronic static. The humanoid howled and leaped straight up and flew into the night sky, slumping Hank down into his seat with the force of acceleration. Below them, the crystal clump leaped into the air on a tail of blue flame and followed.

Hank had gone into deep shock. His eyes were wide and crazy. He kept saying the word, “No!” over and over, his voice cracking. He felt as though his sanity had broken like a necklace and scattered like falling beads, bouncing and rolling in all directions.

The black humanoid was a Zylosene named Flibnar. A good deal of his outer body had been burned off, and he was feeling kind of irritated about that. Things were not going well, and he was beginning to be irked about that too. As he lunged upward toward space the planet gradually fell away below him, and the sky around him gradually turned dark. As he flew he was thinking things over. This was supposed to be a clean mission. In and out, no complications. The planet Dirt wasn't supposed to be within a war zone. “So where,” Flibnar wondered, “did this Lyr come from?”

The air around Flibnar and the car he carried in his arms was contained by a translucent forcefield. It was a phosphorescent blue around the edges, and it fizzed occasionally with purple sparks. Hank crouched in his car-seat, gripping the steering wheel with a death-grip, his sweat dripping from the acceleration. “Where,” Flibnar wondered, “did my omens go wrong?”

The crystal creature below him was a Lyr, and it was one of the most dangerous of mercenaries. It had no capacity for emotion, but it did have a high capacity for holding an energy charge, which it could hurl in bolts. Having such an enemy on Flibnar’s trail was the worst kind of luck. “Curse the coincidence,” Flibnar muttered.

Then the Zylosene's troubles got worse. He was several hundred kilometers above the planet when he saw that a spaceship was approaching him at high speed. It was going too fast to be in low orbit, which meant that the crew had risked a low-level gravity swing around the planet. And that meant they were incredibly reckless, and that implied they were probably dangerous to boot. Flibnar pushed himself to the highest speed he was capable of, but slowly the ship overhauled him anyway. He looked back, and he was gratified to see that the Lyr was falling behind, at least. One trouble at a time.

As the ship got closer, details could be seen. It looked to Hank, looking out the MG's window, somewhat like a cluster of grapes in a silver net. The “grapes” were of many colors. Some were dark, and some glowed from within. The ship was shaped like a raindrop, with the pointed end in front. Six masts originated a third of the way back from the forward end. They were currently folded back along the ship's sides, with sails bundled around them. Hank was observing this with the comprehension of a cabbage. His capacity to think in words was long gone. He was so panicked he was sure he was having a heart attack. He was afraid he was going to die of fear before he could be killed, and somehow that seemed heart-breakingly ironic.

The spaceship loomed hugely as it closed in. A crackling web of violet energy whipped into existence around Flibnar and Hank, and then contracted. Just outside it flew a swarm of black spherical robots the size of Hank's head. They bristled with weapons and energy studs. They were so hard to see against the blackness of space that it was only at the last moment Hank could see them at all. He had no idea what they were. At the moment he had no idea what he was.


~*~

The capturing platoon was being lead by the Captain of the ship, which was quite unusual. Captain Skrim, when he wasn't in his battle body, was a basketball-sized robot with silvery hair a meter long, two arms, two sparkly eyes on stalks, and laughter that sounded like an orchestra tuning up. He couldn't decide whether to be curious or irritated, but the omens had told him capturing Hank was important. So he'd jumped into his battle-body, and here he was in person.

Second in command of the squad were Bos'n Splug and Exec Karooma. The Captain had brought Karooma along because she was good with hostages and injuries and squishy organic things. She had a touch, which was surprising because she hadn't started out as an organic herself. She'd come to consciousness as a cloud of self-aware swamp gas, and only learned how to possess animal bodies after hundreds of centuries spent floating in the wind. Much later she’d learned how to possess robot bodies, and after many adventures she'd joined the crew.

Backing up Karooma were squads led by Zingla and Gyron. They were wary of the Zylosene because of his reputation as a fierce fighter, and dying as a robot might not be permanent, but it was still painful. Cautiously the robots dragged Flibnar and Hank by the energy web towards one of the "grapes." A slit in the side of the pod opened as though it were a stomata in a leaf, only vastly enlarged.

Suddenly Flibnar roared. Hank cringed. He could feel the subsonics in his teeth and the echoing in his skull. The black humanoid fountained light from the top of his head and tore a hole in the restraining energy web. He clawed his way free and zoomed off into the darkness, leaving Hank in his MG behind, spinning slowly in space. Most of the robots darted after the Zylosene, and the rest dragged Hank and his car against the wind of escaping air in through the pod's opening. The robots were chattering in beeps and boops as they went. Hank looked around at an ovoid chamber whose inner surface was lined with multicolored flowers.

The stomata closed. The robots released the tattered energy web, and it collapsed. Hank gasped and then discovered the air had no oxygen. “Holy cow,” he thought, and he passed out.


~*~

The ship had no gravity. The capture team anchored the MG in the middle of the pod with tractor beams, and then extracted Hank from the yellow car. They towed him in mid-air out of the chamber and along a series of branching tubular hallways to the organics' infirmary, chatting and laughing as they went. They weren't exactly in a hurry, even though Hank was dying, because they knew he could be revived. But neither did they take the time to switch from their battle-bodies back to their shipboard bodies. Along the way, the robots pursuing the Zylosene reported to Captain Skrim that Flibnar was darting away too fast to follow. Karooma half-heard the communication, as most of her attention was on Hank. She was crying at the bad shape he was in, as she squirted oxygen from an emergency balloon onto his face.

He was in deep shock, and his skin was peeling as though from a bad sunburn. He woke up as he was being towed into the infirmary's spherical chamber, enough to mumble, “Not happening, not happening.” His eyes were glazed over. The sound of Karooma crying was enough like human crying to reach him even in the depths of his shock. It gave him something to hang onto, a human sound in a life gone suddenly mad.

Zingla and Gyron meanwhile were making bets. Zingla said to Gyron, “I'm betting that the aborigine's a useless idiot who won't survive longer than three months, and I”ll give you three to one.”

“I'm betting he'll make it longer than six months,” Gyron said, “but just barely, so I'll give you four to three against.” They were arguing with each other and trying to gain more advantageous odds as they handed Hank over to the medical robots, who stripped him of his clothes and pushed him into an empty medical tank. They sealed the transparent sphere and started it filling. Hank woke up, and he could be seen batting in a startled way at the globes of water swirling around him, and then panicking as the tank filled, and then passing out again as the last of the air was sucked away and he drowned.


~*~

Captain Skrim headed back to his battle station, where he put his battle-body back into storage. He jumped into his shipboard robot body, which he'd left on the bridge. As long as they were here he wanted to supervise a close fly-by of Venus, partly in order to use the gravity well as a slingshot. He anchored himself with a tractor beam in the captain's chair, which floated in the middle of the bridge, and in front of him floated an assortment of keyboards, joysticks, roller balls and computer screens. On the front wall of the bridge was a huge computer screen.

The other part of the reason for the fly-by was that Skrim was fond of Venus, and he couldn’t explain it. It looked somewhat like the planet his race had been migrating to when he was born, so perhaps that was it. But he thought there was more to it. He felt like Venus would be a good home, which made no sense since it wasn’t even legal to live there. The odd thing was that his omens seemed to agree with him.

His race had come from a star-system that had co-orbital planets. One planet was in a lower orbit, and as it passed the upper one, it was pulled up in front of it into the upper orbit. At the same time, gravity pulled the upper trailing planet down into the lower orbit. So the planets traded places until the next round.

Summer was on whichever planet was in lower orbit, so Skrim’s race, the Teradnoi, waited for the atmospheres to touch. And then they flew through the connection of air that formed as the planets approached and stretched out as they separated, like a cloud of billions of silvery leaves being carried in a vast cloudy tornado. The flight took so long that millions of children were born on the way, and Skrim was one of these.

Seated in his chair, he sank into a trance, and then he dropped into the dream-time. He flew across a landscape of glowing orange hills under a lilac sky to his favorite hill. In dream-time he no longer looked like a robot, but like a small brontosaurus covered with feathers. A sighing wind blew across the hill from a desert a thousand miles away, and the sky shimmered like ferns being ruffled in the wind. The Captain could see no omens of opposition around him, only the congratulations of the wind and the cheerful agreement of the clouds. But then, the clouds were always optimistic.


~*~

The hyper-space engine was in the aft-most pod of the entire ship. The hyper-space team gathered around the glowing three-meter ball that hovered in the center of the pod. The team-members were all organics. They tuned their minds to the glowing sphere, the humming hyper-space engine, and it turned from blue to silver to gold, with a swelling sound like an orchestra composed of tubas and clarinets and bagpipes. Then, together, with a mighty heave of willpower, the team lifted the ship up into hyper-space. Once she was in hyper-space, the shape of the ship shifted from a teardrop to a football.

In his underwater sleep, Hank jerked and flailed as he was twisted into impossibility, and then folded back into it a second time. But he was too deep in shock for even that to awaken him. In his dreams, he surfed on a wave ninety feet tall, racing across the vast wave-face so fast that the water zinged like crystal.

All over the ship, the crew erupted in laughter, floating away from the walls as internal acceleration effects died away. And now, outside the ship could be seen the glowing orange pseudo-landscape of hyper-space. The mountains here stretched impossibly high, and the blue hyper-winds curled between the mountains in every possible direction at the same time.

The ship raised her masts and unfurled her iridescent hyper-sails, and they snapped and cracked as they filled with hyper-wind. Ribbons of light coiled sensuously across the hyper-sky. Creaking and rolling, the ship whipped by Venus and then accelerated up out of the deep gravity-well of the solar system. The turbulence made the ship bounce and sway. She stayed deep in an orange hyper-valley where the wind was strongest. A vast cloud of glimmering lights drifted in hyper-space around the ship, blowing along at the same speed in the wind. They looked like fireflies, though they were the size of kittens.

Although the crew didn't know it, the ship was following an ancient migration route once used by the dinosaurs when they left the Earth forever.


Back to Top


Chapter 2: Infirmary



Hank was in his grandmother’s barn, up in the hayloft lying on a mound of hay. The loft was empty except for the tall mounds of hay, a scattering of straw on the floor between them, and sunbeams coming through holes in the roof. Hank liked the immensity of the space, and the cool cooing of the pigeons.

He slid down off the hay-mound and walked across the board floor. His footsteps rustled. Something made him look down, something less than a sound, something more ominous, a sudden hollow feeling in his belly. Through cracks between the floor-boards he could dimly make out a huge black bull just below him, walking along in pace with him, and looking up at him. Hank was so startled he jolted awake.

He was naked, and he was floating underwater, in a spherical tank. His throat clutched as he realized where he was. Then he realized he was breathing OK, and he relaxed. Then he panicked again when he realized what he was breathing was water. It was beyond weird to feel the water flowing though his throat with each breath, and the weighty presence of the water in his lungs. “This is bizarre,” Hank thought, and he felt frightened to the point of madness. He wrung his hands.

The tank's wall was transparent, but all he could make out beyond it was patches of colored light. “I’m dreaming,” he thought, knowing he wasn't, and took a deep watery breath. “I’m having a very odd dream, and this is very strange that I’m aware that I’m dreaming.” Then he remembered that before this he’d had a much weirder dream, something about a black bull. But before he could remember anymore about it, and without noticing it, he drifted down into the depths of sleep.


~*~

Hank stood on a black hill. Below him was a wide, flat, snowy valley. A train rolled along it’s track through the valley, trailing a plume of white smoke behind it that rose into the grey sky.

Then the cars broke loose from each and began to slowly tumble, spilling off the track, bouncing like a child’s blocks across a floor covered with white velvet blankets.

Without warning, the dream shifted, and Hank was standing in the snow on the railroad track, and the cars were tumbling toward him. They bounded past him harmlessly, with swift gigantic swinging motions, darkening the sky as they passed. They moved by him so close that he could see the individual boards in the boxcar walls.

Suddenly, again without warning, Hank was standing on the valley floor. In the middle distance the train cartwheeled, noiseless, graceful, the green and brown and blue cars painting color into the white desolate landscape.


~*~

Hank woke up and thought he was falling. He flailed out, and he grabbed something. He stabilized a bit, and found he was floating in a box of netting, his fingers and toes tangled in the soft white cords. He was weightless. He felt like throwing up, but managed not to. "At least I'm not underwater," he thought. "If they drown me again, I'll...." But he didn't know what he would do.

Outside the net a robot floated in mid-air and looked at him. At least Hank thought the robot was looking at him. It was green and spherical, and it had five eyes and three arms. It didn’t have a head. The eyes were in its middle part, and some of them seemed to be pointed at him.

Behind the robot was a wall of flowers. Now Hank was sure he was dreaming, and he burst out laughing. The robot burst out laughing too, and it sounded so real Hank was startled. "Holy Cow!" he thought. "I'm awake." With a surge of mental pain, Hank reclaimed his memories. Like a black wave, they crashed on him. His mind reeled, and retreated, and he fell back into sleep like a child falling down an endless black well.


~*~

Hank knelt on the bank of a river, and reached down to scoop up some water. He was thirsty, and the water was cool. Empty black gloves reached up out of the water to grab him....


~*~

And Hank leaped back to being awake. He was still in the box of netting, floating free. This time he didn’t feel like throwing up. There was a robot watching him, a different robot from last time. His mind walked right by that as though it weren’t impossible, because something deep within was demanding his attention.

He flexed all his joints, one by one, to see if they worked and were pain-free. He looked over his own body, which was easy because he was naked. His skin was blue. But he found no sunburn, no scars, nothing wrong other than the color. Under the circumstances, he found that frightening. He tried to get his mind around the idea of what had happened, and he found himself mumbling over and over, “I was kidnapped, and now I’m in a spaceship.” It didn't make sense, but he kept saying it anyway.

He heard bits of electronic talk in the pod, and he saw no one for the voices to belong to, other than the robot watching him. "A PA system?" he wondered. Hank noticed his cage of netting. "Am I a prisoner?"

Hank looked around, and saw that he was in a cave of flowers, with a stomata doorway at one end. The space was about the size of a house trailer, but it was the shape of the inside of a balloon. Hank felt the urge to giggle, and somehow he was sure this wasn’t a good sign.

There was equipment stuck to the walls here and there, among the flowers. Some of it was shiny, and some was colored, and the colors seemed to change over time. Some looked like glass balls with fluid in them. Mostly they looked like toys somebody stuck together with putty.

And there were computer screens scattered on the walls among the flowers. They varied in size from playing cards up to the size of card tables. Hank took them to be windows because they all showed the same thing: a view of the starry sky outside the ship. Hank wrinkled his forehead. Something was wrong. Then he got it. The stars didn’t twinkle.


~*~

The entrance stomata opened, and a burgundy-colored robot came careening into the pod. She came to a stop, hanging in the air. She hummed and chirped and said, “Salaam aleikum.” What she actually said was a complex whistle, but what Hank heard was a woman's voice that seemed to originate inside his head.

The robot’s body was spherical, about the size of a basketball, with two iridescent crimson compound eyes in front. Hank could tell they were eyes because he could feel they were looking at him. Two jointed arms originated on the sides of the sphere, and they were gesturing in a sinuous way. The hands had three fingers and two thumbs.

Hank had to try three times before he could say, “What?”

The robot tried several other languages.

“English,” Hank croaked.

“English? Oh. Ah. English. Yes, OK, here we are. Now it is you understanding my speech?”

Hank gulped with relief. “Oh, good! Yes, now I understand you!”

“OK. Yes. Very good is. English we is got from anthropologist named Spakool. Normally is she not giving away information such as, but we pull trick, throw a gag, yes? Convince her we did, mission of great importance for the Empire we’re on. Raucous good joke! Excellence for us! But no music would she give us. Puzzledness this led us to. What is this music....”

The robot saw that Hank was taking in none of this, and touched her hands together lightly. "Oh dear," she said. "I'm start over. Name my is Chinglad. What’s yours?”

Hank grunted. “Hank. Hank Walker.”

“Well, Hank Hank Walker. You are here. Welcome you are here. Where you are? You do know?”

Hank cringed. He didn’t answer, and he didn’t look at the robot. He looked at the flowers on the wall. They were all different colors. Most of them were small, the size of pansies.

"How do I hear your voice in my head?" “Looking please at me,” Chinglad said, and he looked back at the robot.

“Some of the flowers on the wall, the sound to you projecting are. Medical readouts are OK reporting. Are saying, far enough out of shock are you, curious to feeling be. About where you are? About what happening is? Yes? No?”

“How come you speak English?”

“Ah, good, a question. An anthropologist is giving database to us. At this I'll get better, as we talk. I'll hear how you grammerize.”

There was a long silence. Chinglad blinked. Hank cleared his throat. “Space? I think I’m in outer space?”

“Just so,” laughed Chinglad, and her laughter sounded like silvery bells. To Hank’s surprise there was a wild sinking feeling in his belly at hearing his nightmare confirmed. “You aboard ship are. The ship is name Mefrina. You fortunate are, we to have happened along you, to have run you over. You were taken by a Zylosene. A troublesome renegade, very bad sort. And that not all. The Zylosene is being pursued by a Lyr. Lyr nasty is terrible mercenary. Very much worse sort. Zylosene have tried to capture we....”

“Wait,” Hank interrupted. “You’re going too fast. I need to start over. The ship’s called a Mefrina?”

“No, she's called the Mefrina. Mefrina her name is.”

“Her? It’s a female?”

“Yes. Some ships males are, some females are.”

“Oh. OK, so the black guy who caught me. His name’s Zylosene?”

“No, that is his race. What his name is, we don’t know. If we name his knew, we track him could, if only.”

“What?”

“Never-mind. The organism crystal that was chasing you, is of race a Lyr. Its name is unknown, right? Now the Lyr is chasing us. This bad news is a lot. So we running away like hell are. On a clear day we might get away."

“What? You’re running away from that crystal thing?... But who are you? I want to go home! You don’t understand! I’ve been kidnapped. Please turn back! I’ve got to get back home!”

“Back? To Dirt? Oh, well, I don’t know how you’d do that at all. This ship outward bound is going.”

“Outward bound! But you can’t do that! This is kidnapping! This is illegal! You’re got to take me back to Earth!”

A long silence ensued. The robot hovered in place as solidly as a rock. She chirped and made soothing noises and seemed to shrug with uplifted arms. Hank kept drifting into the netting around him and bouncing off, feeling distressed.

Suddenly he felt as though he’d been dropped. His stomach twisted, and his body seemed to turn itself inside out, twice.

Then he noticed that in the computer screens there was no longer a view of a star-field. Instead there was a purple sky, visibly roiling, and an oddly insubstantial and glowing orange canyon wall, streaking by at high speed..

“What the hell was that?” Hank yelped.

“Oh, that was hyper-space going into, now we’re in. Before we were in normal space.”

“Oh.” Hank looked at Chinglad. “Hyper-space? What’s that?"

“That’s how we get from star to star. Through hyper-space we follow the canyons of hyper-time.”

Hank choked. “This get's worse and worse. Now I’m really lost! I can’t go back?”

“No, not back, not now. For present and future you are with us, I would say.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“Along with us. But where we're going, we know don't. We wait for omens to tell. You are one lucky bingo to be alive, you know. We are returning from smuggling run, when strong omens we dreamed. Powerful bird and thunder omens, telling us to sneak across the boundary. We into the Preserve have entered, so cunning. So we did, and lucky for you. You wouldn’t have survived long with the Zylosene's tender lack of care, no indeed.”

“But this is insane! I was kidnapped! I didn’t do anything!”

“I know. Absolute. No question of that. The Zylosene acted rashly, and here you are. I’m afraid this is the question: you are going to survive, yes?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“You are a tough situation, my friend. All the determination you’ve got to stay alive, it’s going to take. I should think.”

“Stay alive?”

“I’d say are your chances slim. Actual.”

“What chances? What are you talking about?”

“A situation report, you would like?”

Hank started to say yes, and then choked, and then nodded.

“You are in a bigger universe now, that is the scenario. Of the outside, your planet knows nothing, right ho?”

Hank nodded.

“Well, we live in spiral galaxy we do. This you know?”

“Yes, I knew that.”

“Most stars are in pairs or groups. Lone stars are rare. Single stars are mostly variables. Only have the non-variables life.”

“You’re saying not many star systems have life?”

“Yes, exact. Fabulous. The galaxy is populated thinly. But even so there are lots of sapient races, to our good luck. Your race is hardly alone, but you may wish, alone your race were, after all. 95% of the galaxy’s inhabitants are robots. Mechanical life is more successful than organic, by the large, on the whole. Most of the robots are at war, each with the other, all with the all. So technically you are a prisoner of war.”

Hank’s mouth popped open. “What? You're telling me I’m caught in some kind of inter-stellar war? That’s not fair. This is horrible!”

“Oh yes.” Chinglad sounded lugubrious. “Not fair at all. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the crew of Mefrina aren’t at war with anyone. We are pirates, and we prey on everybody with equal enthusiasm. And some smuggling we do when ships to prey on are thin.”

Hank’s mind blanked for a moment, like wind ruffling the surface of water. He wasn’t processing all this new information. He was storing it away in chunks, and he still felt shocky and sick. But he got the part about the pirates.

“So I’m a pirate now?”

“Oh no. Not at all. You are a slave.”

Hank’s mouth popped open again. "I'm a slave?"

"Yes, that is your good fortune."

"Good fortune! What's good about it?"

"Alive you are. Not so?"

"I guess... But I don't want to be a slave!"

"Ah," Chinglad shrugged again. "Who does? We ourselves live in fear of becoming slaves."

"You do? Who would enslave you?"

“We operate on the fringes of the Zin Empire,” Chinglad went on, “very old, very corrupt. But what we’re really afraid of is the Kai.”

“The what?”

“The Kai. They’re the galaxy overlords, and we are careful, offend them to very not. They’re the ones who declared your system a reserve to be, and we have taken a terrible risk in breaking the border. Trouble with the Zin would do a great deal of damage, you see, but trouble with the Kai is a horse of another flavor.”

Hank blinked. He didn't understand any of that. “But what about me?”

“You? Well, when you get out of the infirmary, you’ll be put to work, of course. Scrubbing the slime tubes, I should think, and peeling off space leaches from the outside of the ship, the massaging of the space hippos, manual labor of that like sort.”

“But that's not right! You can’t make me a slave!”

“Oh, yes, sure we can. Besides, there’s nothing else for you to be. If you have no value at all, then we’ll throw you out into space. With the trash. And no air. So it's better to have some value at all."

“What?” Hank was too flabbergasted to have any flabbergast left.

“You were damaged by radiation, you see. Your skeleton is replaced with a foam-steel duplicate. Better than original, you will find, I think, yes. And both your kidneys were replaced. And what else? Oh yes. Your left leg, your left hand, both lungs, most of your endocrine glands, and both eyes. And your skin, of course."

Hank squinted. His vision didn’t seem any different. Except that now Chinglad mentioned it, he seemed to be seeing several new colors. “Is my skin blue? Why is my skin blue?”

“Oh, that’s the only color that skin comes in right now. You can get it changed later if you want. We ran out of, what was yours, pink? Your hair is still long, but it's also blue. By the way, your new lungs are the only reason you can breathe the air aboard this ship. And the bill you owe for all this is of course very high. Oh my goodness, very high indeed. You owe us, big way. Big time.”

Hank blinked. "I owe you? I owe you what? How will I even get money?"

"Oh, slaves get paid."

"They do? How much?"

"As a starter slave, you'll get seven credits an hour."

"How much is that in Earth money?"

"About twenty four cents."

"So you're telling me I get paid three dollars a day?"

"No, you get paid six dollars a day. You even get paid while you sleep. See how good we are you to? Isn't that fabulous?"

A convulsive shudder ran through Hank’s body. He let out a wordless yell. Chinglad reacted in no way. Hank howled in fury and frustration. Then after awhile he felt like he'd let it all out, and he stopped.

But the cursed robot wasn’t done. “Oh, and I should mention this to you, that many of the crew are insane. Unfortunate hazard of occupation. They will mistreat you in creative ways. There’s nothing personal about it, it’s just their fun-loving nature. But who knows? If they don’t kill you, you may even live to pay off your bill. The odds are not running with you these days, not at all. In fact, they're abyssal. But a few of the most intuitive and long-range gamblers are actually betting you'll make it. Doesn't that cheer you up?”

Hank gulped.

Chinglad waved an arm airily. "Well, toodle ooh," she said. "I'll leave you to recuperate a bit more. Let it blow by." And she went scooting off out of the pod.

Hank didn’t want to think about any of this. He didn’t want to think at all. He wrapped his head in his hands and curled up into a ball. The motion sent him bouncing gently off the netting that surrounded him.


~*~

Two hours later another robot zipped in through the stomata with Chinglad, and they came to a stop by Hank's cage of webbing. He was still curled up. They both looked at him.

The new robot was green in color, and was shaped like two hubcaps placed back to back, with the addition of two arms and four violet eyes spaced around the rim. Two of the eyes were in front, and were looking at him, and two were behind. The green color flowed like oil, though the robot’s surface was dry.

Hank looked out from under his arms.

"Hi there, Hank," Chinglad said cheerfully. "I'm pleasureable to introduce this new robot to you. His name’s Ronam.”

Ronam looked at Hank and said, “Greetings, space-bug. Well, it’s wonderful to see you’re in such good shape! Most entities going through what you’ve been through would be dead by now. Wouldn't you say, Chinglad?” Ronam's voice sounded like a bassoon.

"Oh, yes," Chinglad chuckled. "Very dead."

“Wait a minute," Hank said. "You know what I’ve been through? Chinglad told you?”

“Ei caramba, no, it’s all over the ship. You’re quite a curiosity, really you are! The betting was heavily on you cracking from the strain. I made a pretty profit so far betting you’d survive.” Ronam chuckled with a sound like boiling mud and elbowed Chinglad. “Chinglad lost a good bit betting you’d be dead by now.” Chinglad laughed with a tinkling guffaw and gave Ronam a cheerful shove. Ronam bounced off the flowered wall and darted around the room.

As he coasted to a stop, he said to Hank, “You’re very lucky to have followed coincidence up off Dirt, you know that? To live among us is great good luck. Who knows what you can make out of yourself out here? Who knows what winds of chance you sail?”

“But I’m a slave!”

“A slave? So what? The captain of this ship and most of the crew began as slaves somewhere. Chinglad herself was once a slave. You can’t let a little thing like being a slave get you down. I mean, now seriously.”

Hank’s mouth was agape.

“Of course, first we have to survive the Lyr,” Ronam added in a lugubrious tone. “Your luck could be bad, maybe, if by joining us you're here when the Lyr catches us. Sometimes coincidence bites a bit of the bullet, eh? The Lyr’s still following us, up to this very moment, and we haven’t found the star-track yet.”

“Star-track?”

“Our path through hyper-space, if we're going to outrun it. And the omens aren’t good.”

“Omens?” Hank’s mind was spinning.

“Yes. He knows about omens, doesn't he? Don’t you know how to read omens? Don't they know anything on Dirt? Holy frijoles!”

Hank couldn’t begin to find an answer. Ronam said to Chinglad, “Serendipity, this one’s got a lot to learn.”

Chinglad chuckled. “Didn’t we all when we were young?”

“Well, why do you think the omens led us to him? I don’t get it. He seems such a pathetic loser.”

Chinglad looked at Hank. “He does seem a bit of a wretched mud-thumper, doesn't he? It’s hard to imagine him being any use at all. He doesn’t seem to have any dream powers that I can see, and worse than that, he’s making no effort to aid in his own recovery. His will power is very fragile.”

“If only she knew how fragile,” Hank thought. He felt like he was sliding down a ramp into a pit of despair that would drive him mad. He had no idea that because he had no dream powers, he couldn’t see the team of dreamers that kept dragging him back up the slippery and endless slope.


~*~

Time passed. Hank made endless escape plans that meant nothing. In his sleep he had nightmares, in which he was lost and pursued and threatened. While he fled for his life, he noticed that he was hearing laughter in the distance. Somewhere in the darkness and madness it sounded like horseplay and wisecracks. On top of terrified, Hank was puzzled, which only made it worse.

From his nightmares Hand awakened into another nightmare. Two new robots, named Nooie and Flad, came zipping in through the stomata and announced they were currently on medical duty. They told him it was time to learn to eat, and that they would be filming this for the Entertainment Committee. When Hank demanded an explanation, they only burst out laughing.

They gave him bladders of murky liquid, and taught him how to open and close the nipples. They laughed themselves sick when he made a mess of it, with blobs of liquid floating about the pod. Finally they towed him to a smaller pod next door, a water-pod, and there they taught him to shower and excrete. And they laughed themselves sick again when he made a mess of that.

After more showering, they took him back to the infirmary and gave him some solid food to try. One item resembled something between lettuce and seaweed, and tasted like sweet oatmeal. Another resembled a chocolate-covered cherry, only bigger and bitter. Another resembled a potato pancake. When Hank asked for some ketchup, Nooie and Flad had another attack of the giggles. When Hank complained about the lack of taste, Nooie told him righteously that it was nutritious, and anyway it was good enough for slaves. “Alright,” Hank frowned. “So much for food, when do I get some clothes?”

“Clothes?” piped up Nooie. “Oh, I've heard of those. Very kinky custom of the natives on Dirt. Nobody wears clothes here. The closet thing you’ll get is your harness.”

“My what?”

“We’re not going to tow you around forever, you know. You’ll need a harness to get around. And you’ll need a space-suit. We’ll do that tomorrow.”


~*~

When Mefrina was in hyper-space, her shape was that of a football. The six masts near her fore end held triple ranks of sails, with the smallest sails nearest the ship. Together, the sails formed a ring of metallic canvas around the ship.

The star-track came up on the screens in the ship's bridge. It glowed like a magenta canyon in a realm of fire. Mefrina dived over the rim and leveled out just above the river of hyper-fire boiling along the canyon floor. There she picked up a hyper-wind, and she began to gradually pull ahead of the Lyr.

In desperation, the Lyr started lobbing bolts of energy into Mefrina’s path. She dodged sharply several times, and then the star-track opened into a much deeper canyon. The ship hurtled out of the wall of the side-canyon, and into a long fall towards the purple deeps at the bottom of the great canyon. There she was swept away with such speed that the Lyr was left far behind and out of sight.

The Lyr drifted up into the open skies of hyper-space, where in the far distance the violet clouds were crackling with blue lightening. The Lyr let off a few bolts in frustration, and then set about consulting the omens of fire and desire and wind-blown depair. It would catch up with this muon-blasted ship yet and reduce it to plasma, or its name wasn't Pofreeble.


Back to Top


Chapter 3: Recovery



Chinglad bobbed in the wind, her ramjet thrumming just loudly enough to keep her in position. In dream-time she was no longer a robot. She was a streamlined organic purple dirigible three meters long, and the purple was so deep it flashed with glimmers of ultraviolet. Her ramjet was a thin tube running from mouth to anus, and the flame behind her was fueled by the hydrogen in the atmosphere. From the bottom of her pod hung a bulge containing her brain and eyes, and from which jutted her long thin arms, now trailing behind her in the wind.

A thousand kilometers above her there was a layer of ammonia cloud roofing the sky, a ceiling of foaming white. And a thousand kilometers below her the ammonia sulfide clouds made a dusty purple floor. The light was indirect and diffuse and bright.

Here in the clear zone between the cloud layers the great winds ran endlessly, and Chinglad faced into them and waited cunningly for her power animal. She watched alertly, her extra eyes open. Far below her, a flock of animals that looked like tumbleweeds frolicked as they sailed downwind.

Then her animal came skittering down the wind right toward her. What a stroke of coincidence! It looked like a tiny jeweled octopus that could stretch out membranes like sails between its tentacles. It caught onto Chinglad as the wind blew it by, and contracted its sails and clung. Using Chinglad’s short fur for tentacle-holds, it crawled to a spot on the lower side of her nose, so that Chinglad could see it.

“Hello, my power goddess,” it signaled to her with it's tentacles. “I’ve been asking around among the dream-giants. They’ve been using their white fires to peer into the future, and they say this curled god Hank is an important omen. Ambiguous, yes, anachronistic, oh yes, antideluvian even, but still important. What the giants want from you, old friend, is that you teach Hank to how to read the omens for himself.”

“What? That dummy?” Chinglad sighed. “Do you have any idea what a burden he will be?”

Her power animal laughed like tiny bells. "Oh yes," it said. "What a wonderful challenge!"

It grabbed Chinglad with tiny but mighty dream tentacles and pulled her down into a whirlpool of sleep. The turbulence buffeted and baffled her, and for a moment she cried out, remembering home....

She woke up. She was a robot again, and she was hovering in her own quarters, a small living-pod surfaced with black flowers. She yawned internally, feeling dismayed at the task the dream-giants had given her.


~*~

When she got to the infirmary, Chinglad found Hank outside his hammock, experimenting with weightlessness. He was pushing off from the flowery pod walls, and only their springiness was keeping him from getting hurt when he spun across the pod and collided with the far wall.

"Here, this is for you," Chinglad said. She was towing a yellow harness behind her, and she helped him put it on. It looked like it was made of flexible yellow plastic, and it strapped on like a parachute harness. For Hank it felt odd to be doing this naked. He’d been to nude beaches often enough in his life, and he supposed this would be like that, but still it was odd to have no clothes. Which brought up a passing thought: “Are there women here?”

“The harness is tuned to your mind," Chinglad said, tugging it tight. “So all you have to do is think what direction you want to move, and it’ll move you."

“Wow," said Hank. “Thought control. I like this. How do I turn it on?"

"Just think the words, 'Activate harness'." Hank did so, and he promptly zoomed into a wall. Chinglad sailed out the pod’s stomata, her laughter ringing gaily behind her, like silvery bells.

Finally Hank had something to do, and he spent hours mastering this new art of flying without wings. At first it was like balancing a greased plate on butterfingers. He was grateful for his experience at hang gliding. Then he laughed when he realized that this was flying the way Peter Pan flew. Well, at least one of his childhood dreams was coming true.


~*~

The next day Chinglad came flying in through the stomata, and she made a noise like hands clapping. “OK, Hank," she said. The frost-giants have given me the job of beginning your lessons."

“Lessons? What lessons? I thought you said I was a slave."

"Oh you are. And the first thing you'll learn is how to be a good slave."

"Oh, really?" Hank said sarcastically.

"Really. Don't worry, my friend. I have confidence in you. You can learn the skills to do well as a slave. Of course, the betting is running heavily against you, but never-mind that. As I was saying, I'm your instructor, and I'm here to begin your instruction, so let's begin. The first topic is omens."

"Omens? What? I keep hearing the other robots mentioning omens, but that's just silly. Omens aren't real. That's just superstition.”

“Yes, exactly," Chainglad said. "As you say. And it's our first topic. So, are you ready to begin?” Chinglad was a deeper purple today. Her arms were spread wide.

Hank spread his arms too. “What the hell? I’m ready.”

“So, do you know what an omen is?”

“No, no idea. I mean, I guess it’s like something happens, and it tells you something that's gonna happen later, right?”

“That’s a bit vague, but I wasn’t asking for a definition anyway. I meant in practice.”

“Oh.”

“In practice, anything unusual is an omen.”

“What do you mean unusual? You mean anything out of the ordinary?”

“Right.”

“You mean like getting kidnapped by a bunch of aliens, for example?”

“Yes. Good example. An omen of that scale in your life demands an extraordinary response. So that leads to the next question. Do you know how to respond to an omen?”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea. You know, they really didn’t cover this in school back on Earth. I think I would have remembered.”

“The only way for you to stay alive is to learn to follow omens.”

“What!”

“Your one slim chance in this inscrutable and glorious puzzle that coincidence has handed you is to use omens to guide you. Otherwise you won’t make it. No way.”

“Won’t make it through what?”

“All the dangers you'll meet in life outside the Preserve.”

“What? This is rediculous. What do you mean outside the Preserve. And what do you mean dangers? What dangers?”

Chinglad waved an arm. “Oh, so many. From every direction. Inscrutable and unpredictable. And you’re in a society now that uses omens, so your only chance to thrive and move up in society is to learn to use them too.”

“By moving up in society you mean getting out of being a slave?” “Sure, anything’s possible. Even for you.”

"What do you mean, even for me?"

"Well, you're kind of a bumbler, you have to admit. The bookies aren't optimistic about you."

Hank made a face. "But you're telling me it's possible to work my way up out of slavery?"

"Oh, yes."

“How?”

“Oh, there’s not a procedure for it. You’ll have to find your way."

Hank shrugged. “OK, I get it. I was drafted once. So, to get back to omens. Your belief is that anything odd is an omen. And what do I do when I see an omen?”

“The way to react is to do something odd, the more spontaneous and outrageous and unusual the better."

“I don't get it. What does that do?”

“It shows life you’re listening.”

“Life?”

“Life at large. Everything is alive, and behind everything there’s a spirit. She plays with us, and relates to us through daily coincidences, if we pay attention. If we don't pay attention, then she does something to get our attention. Usually something painful."

"Like getting kidnapped by aliens?"

"You didn't hear it from me. But anyway, all that is beside the point. The point is that if you play life’s little game, there are immense rewards.”

“Really? What?”

“Well, for one thing, you’ll get to find out what your innate quest is.”

“Innate quest? This is starting to sound like a crazy religion. Is that what this is?”

“Oh no, this isn’t religious. It’s practical. For example, before you were kidnapped, a crazy person crossed your path. That was an omen.”

“What? How could you know about that?”

“Never-mind, right now. The point is, how did you respond?”

“Respond? I didn't respond. I didn’t do anything in particular.”

“Exactly. That was your first mistake.”

“So, what are you saying? If I’d responded to the crazy person in some crazy fashion, then I wouldn’t have gotten kidnapped?”

“No, I’m saying you would have enjoyed it.”

"Urk. Well, this makes no sense at all."

"Yes. Isn't that fabulous?"


~*~

Hank felt angry about being jerked out his life, and he felt helpless and afraid. And the worst of it was being a slave.

He tried to tell Chinglad all this, and she laughed. At first it was tinkly giggles, and as Hank went on the giggles got louder. Hank felt offended, and when he tried to tell Chinglad about feeling affronted, she burst into open laughter. Now he was angry at being laughed at, and by this time Chinglad was weeping helplessly.

She sobbed, “It’s all very well for you to fool around, my dear Hank, and I’m very grateful for the entertainment. I had no idea you were a comedian. Perhaps we've underestimated your value. But I'm afraid we really must get back to work.”


~*~

First she showed him that any of the screens on the wall could be plucked off and used as a computer. “Do you have computers on Dirt?”

“You mean Earth? Oh yes, I have a friend who has an Apple computer, so I’ve seen one.”

“An apple? You have vegetable computers? How odd. OK, this is a little different. Here, take this screen. Tap the face with your finger.” Hank did, and the screen turned from a view of space to a blue background with icons scattered over it. Under each icon was a word in English. “I know what this is,” Hank said, “it’s a GUI. A Graphic User’s Interface. It’s the latest thing on Earth.”

“Your apple had a gooey? This gets odder and odder. But never-mind that. So, if you want to read something from the ship’s library, touch this icon. If you want to create a text file, touch this one. This one is for making video files. This one’s to call people on the ship.”

“Like a phone?”

“Yes, but you can see the person you’re calling.”

“This is cool. Way better than Earth computers. I like this. Do you have any video games?”


~*~

For the next lesson, Chinglad gave Hank a pair of emergency ear plugs, and drilled him in what to do with them. “In emergency decompression, put in the earplugs. Keep them with you at all times. Repeat that back to me.”

Hank put them in a small pocket on one of the straps of his harness, and Chinglad took him on a tour of the ship. He'd hardly been outside the infirmary before, and he was thrilled. "Shouldn't I put on some clothes?" he asked.

Chinglad laughed. "Nobody outside the Preserve wears clothes. Clothes are for primitives."

Outside the infirmary stomata was a tunnel about five meters across, with green flowers on the walls. They flew down the middle of it for fifty meters, with Hank bouncing occasionally off the walls, and it opened into the main hallway that ran the length of the ship. This hallway was fifty meters across, and on the walls were flowers like orchids of all colors.

Flying along the hall in both directions were a circus of creatures. Hank was astonished and frightened. More than half were robots, of all sizes and hues, with a wild assortment of wings, jointed arms, tentacles, tubes, antennas and folding appendages.

Mixed in with the robots were a fabulous variety of aliens, most of them wearing the same yellow harness that Hank wore. Some looked like insects, and rhinoceri, and fanciful fish, and giant clams, and giant butterflies. Some waved fins like fans, some had trunks or tentacles. Some had eyes on stalks, and some had horns. Hank didn’t see any women. In fact, he didn’t see anyone with even a remotely human shape. Suddenly he felt like a kid on the first day of school. And suddenly he felt very naked.

“The ship is alive,” Chinglad said, waving a hand at the walls around them. “She is our mother, and we live in her.”

Hank tried to focus. "Holy cow. A living spaceship? How elegant.”

“The things you saw when you were captured, darting around the ship and looking like seals, are the young pods before they go through metamorphosis. Anyone can have their own living quarters if they want them, but they have to go out and catch a seal and bond with it before the change.”

"Holy cow, that's a hard way to get an apartment." The pods were alive? Hank found the whole idea kind of queasy, but very cool. “How do you feed the ship?”

Chinglad reached over and touched a flower. “These drink in light and feed the ship.”

Hank glanced around. The lighting was indirect. “Where does the light come from?”

Chinglad put a hand out in front of her, and above it a small globe of light brightened in the air.

Suddenly it was all so alien. Homesickness blossomed in Hank’s chest like a giant painful flower.

Hank was glad when Chinglad said nothing more. Instead, she waved for Hank to follow her, and flew out into the stream of traffic. Hank gulped and leaped after her, and with much dodging and weaving and many near misses, he followed her six hundred meters along the hall to where it opened into the main lounge. This chamber was a hundred meters across and two hundred long. The surface was covered with a jungle of vines and flowers and small trees, and there were lots of robots and aliens, looping and flying in the air in complex patterns.

Chinglad suddenly pushed Hank out into the big pod's airspace, and with more room to fly in, Hank began to zoom around. Now this was fun! He scattered robots and aliens in every direction, to cries and squawks and curses he'd never heard before. The more he practiced, the more graceful he became. “It’s like downhill skiing,” he thought, “with the sliding turns.” Hank had been a good skier, back on Earth. But this was even better than hang-gliding. It was like flying in a dream.

Chinglad let him go on till he was whooping and hollering. Then she let him keep going till he was exhausted, and then she took him to a bar on one wall of the lounge. She had him try some exotic snacks and something like sweet blue beer. Hank got so drunk that she had to tow him back to his hammock in the infirmary, and he sang the whole way. “Alas, my love, you do me wrong, to cast me off discourteously. For I have loved you oh so long, delighting in your company....”


~*~

Mefrina came to a Spatoolian Breakaway, and she veered down a canyon that glowed like a sunset. The canyon emptied out onto a flatland, and Mefrina spread her sails wide and settled herself down for a long run in the high-speed tradewinds. Mefrina was young for a ship, and she was feeling good. It felt great to run free. The hyper-fireflies trailed behind her like the tail of a comet.


~*~

The next day Hank awoke without a hangover, which surprised him. Chinglad sailed into the infirmary and told Hank first she'd take him to get his space-suit fitted. And after that he was free to explore on his own. "The boobytraps will continue to be disabled until you get better at flying," she said.

“Say what? What booby traps?”

“Oh, don’t worry. They’re nothing serious anyway. They’re just to train the slaves.”

“Train the slaves to what?”

“Be alert.”

“You have other slaves than me?”

“Oh, yes. We have to. Only organics can perform the hypno-meshing with the hyer-spatial engines and lift us up into hyper-space. Without organics we couldn't go anywhere.”

“But they’re all slaves?”

“Oh no, some of them have won their freedom by now. Oh, and by the way, as you explore you can talk to anyone. The robots all speak English, and the ship computers will translate for the organics.”

“How’d the robots learn English?”

“Well, you may remember that I learned it from an anthropologist named Spakool. That is to say, the language was stored in the central computer, and I learned it from there. From talking to you I refined the database. And anything the computer knows, all the robots know.”

“Oh." Suddenly Hank felt naked in a whole new way.

"And by the way," said Chinglad, "keep an eye or two out for the stowaway. We have one on the ship, and nobody knows who he is or where he's hiding. The first one to spot him wins a sizable ship's pool. You could pay off some of your debt."


~*~

Chinglad took Hank to meet a robot named Minfroi, who was the color of an iridescent green beetle and had five eyes and seven arms. Hank was reminded of a fussy tailor in Saigon who'd measured him for a suit, clicking his tongue and making ribald comments as he darted around Hank with his tape measure. Only Minfroi used lasers to take measurements.

When he was done, Minfroi zipped pieces of silvery cloth together onto Hank's body. Then he made boots, gloves and a transparent helmet by shining flickering lasers through a vat of transparent fluid. When he was done, he showed Hank in a computer screen how he looked.

"Wow," Hank said. "I look like a NASA space-man. This is the first time since I got here I've had clothes on."


~*~

Chinglad showed Hank a pod on the surface of Mefrina where he could stow his space-suit. "This is your battle-station," Chinglad said. "Your first assignment is to memorize how to get here from anyplace in the ship. When an alarm goes off, this is where you come as fast as you can."

And then Hank began to explore on his own. He was getting used to flying. The most difficult part was to keep his attention focused on where he wanted to go. If his attention slipped, he'd careen into walls or dart in unexpected directions. He explored the bars and entertainments in the main lounge. It turned out the central computer did have video games. And then he went farther astern along the main hall, until he came to the hyper-space engine pod. A guard robot told him he couldn’t come in except on tour because he wasn’t on the hyper-space team. And then she gave him a tour.

“This is the engine itself.” The robot gestured toward a glowing white ball three meters in diameter hanging in the air in the middle of the pod. "The 20 team members arrange themselves around it at the points of an imaginary dodecahedron," she said.

“How do they move the ship into hyper-space?” Hank liked the little robot. She was cheery and round and orange, with four long graceful arms and white hands.

“It’s a knack. For centuries it was thought of as a skill to be taught, but it turns out to be unteachable. It’s been described as lifting a giant weight from the center of your belly. Either you have it or you don’t.”

“Oh.”

The robot’s eyes twinkled. “Would you like to join the hyper-space team?"

"Me? Oh no, I just want to be free."

"You want not to cost anything?"

Hank laughed. "No, I mean I want freedom."

The little robot sighed. "Oh. Don't we all?"

"What do you mean? Aren't you free?"

"Oh, no. I still owe a large debt to the Fear and Piracy Committee. I'll be a slave for another three repair cycles. But never-mind that, how do you like your journey so far?”

Hank was at a loss for a moment. "I didn't know robots could be slaves," he thought. “Actually, so far it’s been great," he said. "Except for the being in shock part. That wasn’t so great. And the being a slave part. But this is fascinating. It’s starting to be an adventure.”

The robot laughed softly. “You know the technical definition of adventure?”

"No."

"It's a miserable experience that makes a good story later."

"Oh. Well, that makes sense."


~*~

Hank went the other way along the hall until he came to the bridge at the front of the ship. Nobody stopped him, so he floated in. The wall was covered with red flowers. There were about fifteen beings scattered around the rear half of the pod at work stations on the wall. Floating in the air in the middle of the pod were three more work stations in a row, facing a giant circular viewing screen that walled off the front half of the pod.

Floating in the air behind the three stations was Captain Skrim. His silvery hair floated sinuously in the lack of gravity. Two white arms reached out of the hair to a bank of keyboards, joysticks and touchpads. Two eyes on stalks popped out and swiveled to regard Hank. “Come on in.” The captain’s hair moved in a wave. “Welcome to the Mefrina. I hear you aspire to be a member of the crew. Well, two homes are better than one. Epfid’l, why don’t you give our guest a tour?"

From one of the workstations on the wall, a ball of sea-blue liquid extruded a long thin pseudopod towards Hank. Then a ball formed at the tip and expanded while the ball at the workstation shrank. The pseudopod retracted, and there was a blue ball a meter in diameter floating in front of him. Oddly enough, she had beautiful big golden eyes.

She bubbled in her own language. Her voice was like underwater honey. Overlaying it was a woman's voice that sounded like it was in the middle of Hank's head. "Welcome to the ship,” she burbled.

"How do I hear your voice inside my head?" Hank asked.

"Oh, the ship's computer translates what I say into English. And some of the flowers on the wall are speakers. The project the sound from all directions to you, so it sounds like it's inside you."

And as she spoke, she changed, like a balloon changing its shape, into something resembling a porpoise with arms, leaving Hank so surprised that his entire body jerked in alarm. And then she changed still more and became a translucent blue mermaid who was smiling at him. "Holy cow!" he cried. Her body was translucent, like looking into a sculpture made of blue jello. She seemed featureless inside except for a scattering of thousands of tiny bubbles.

"How did you do that? What did you do? Oh my goodness!"

"I'm a transformer," she bubbled liltingly. "I can change into any kind of shape. I found this one in the Dirt file, and I thought I'd put it on just for you, to make you comfortable."

“Uh, thanks. That's really amazing. You have no idea.”

She smiled broadly. “Come on. Let me show you around the bridge.” She took his arm and led him to each of the work stations, explaining what they did. Some sounded familiar to Hank: Communication, Navigation, Life Support. And some made no sense at all: Hyper-space Sails, Harmonization, Fractal Strategy. “Behind the screen," Epfid’l explained, waving a hand at the front view-screen, “are the inertial engines for moving the ship when we’re not in hyper-space.”

Hank was totally at sea. “What? What’s an inertial engine?”

Epfid’l giggled. “The inertial engine uses spinning pairs of off-weight flywheels to generate thrust, but that’s really not my specialty. Hyper-space is how we travel faster than light.”

"You travel faster than light? Holy cow!"

"You are a worshipper of cows?"

"What? Oh, no. That's just an expression."

"Here we worship coincidence." Blithely Epfid'l smiled. With one arm she waved toward the command station. “You’ll like Captain Skrim. He’s very dashing. You’ll notice there’s no steering station the way there is on some ships. That’s because the Mefrina is alive and does the steering. The Captain just asks her to go somewhere, and she goes there. Well, most of the time she goes there. Sometimes she gets frisky. Sometimes," Epfid'l frowned, "she gets downright uncooperative.

"But never-mind. The guy to his right is Stenero, the First Mate.” He looked like a large red insect. “He reads minds."

"And the gal to his left is Ying, the First Troubador.” Ying was a lilac-colored robot who looked like two connected soccer balls, one with four metal tentacles coming out of it, and the other with eyes and ears. “And she’s special. Her body is powered by space turning into time.” Ying looked at Hank with one of her eyes and waved an ear.

Epfid’l escorted Hank to the door. “I have to get back to work. But I’ll be seeing you again. Once you get out of the infirmary, we’ll be pod-mates.”

“What?” Hank was startled. “We will?” But Epfi’d only smiled and changed into a shape like a manta ray and swam through the air back to her work station. "This is the first I've heard about any pod-mates," Hank called after her.

She turned and looked at him with her golden eyes. "Don't burn all your water," she said. And she smiled again and turned away.


~*~

Hank continued to explore the ship. Some of the organic aliens snarled and lunged at him, usually causing him to fly right into a wall. Several times a gang of them chased him into parts of the ship he'd never been in before. Sometimes they beat him, but none of them actually hurt him enough to put him back into the recovery tank. He complained bitterly to Chinglad, who laughed herself sick in response.

He got so he constantly expected attack. He kept remembering Chinglad’s warning that some of these jokesters could be fatal. He tried to relax, but he could only do that in the infirmary. He tried to sleep as much as he could. The ship had a light-dark cycle somewhat longer than 24 hours, and there were times in that cycle when the halls were almost empty. Hank was restless, so he took to exploring during those times.

He discovered that the ship’s basic layout was like a cluster of grapes, with the halls as stems and the chambers as grapes. The halls got smaller as he explored farther from the central hallway. Some of the smallest tunnels were too narrow for him to get through. He found the mess pods, a gambling lounge, residential areas for different types of organics, and other residential neighborhoods for robots. He found holds and dormitories and hives, and mysteriously lit chambers where robots rested or tinkered with machinery or crystals, their movements unnaturally smooth and graceful. Sometimes they looked back at him with unwinking glittering eyes, and sometimes the ones with mouths smiled and asked him on in. He went in, but he had no idea what they were doing. Or talking about. It was all pretty much a mystery wrapped in a riddle.


~*~

One day in the mess-hall Hank saw an organic looking at him. His first impression was that he was looking at a little rust-colored rhino. Or maybe a triceratops. With two black eyes, a horn on his nose, a fan around the back of his head, a stocky body with short arms, short legs, and a long tail with a clump of black hair on the end. He was wearing a yellow harness similar to Hank’s.

The little guy took off, and he came back with two more organics. One looked like a yellow basketball with three eyes and three strong tentacles. And the other resembled an iridescent seahorse the size of Hank.

The organics wouldn’t talk to him. They twittered to each other, and the ship’s computer translated bits and pieces to him, but Hank couldn’t make any sense of it. He didn’t like this. It had the flavor of running into punks in a dark alley, but he couldn’t leave. They had him backed against a wall.

They reached some kind of agreement, and grabbed him. They beat him up bad enough to leave bruises, and the basket ball rushed off and came back with some cord. They tied him up and towed him off down the main hall, hooting and calling. Hank was alternately cursing and pleading, but he was ignored. “Where’s Chinglad when I need her?” he thought.

They took him to a storage hold that was seldom used, and shoved him in the door. The yellow basketball seemed to boss the other two around, though they bickered back. Hank yelled at them not to leave him, as they scooted out of the pod and closed the stomata. And then it wouldn’t open for Hank.

Eventually Hank calmed down enough to notice that the hold had windows, a lot of them. It was the first pod he'd been in with actual windows.

The view outside was of a great orange wasteland, like the bottom of a vast sea. But it had a sky above it, the color of lilacs, and filled with moons and planets. Ribbons stretched from horizon to horizon.


~*~

Much later Hank was rescued by Ronam, who called him space-bug and towed him ignominiously back to the infirmary before cutting the cords. Hank was irritated but glad to get back to the infirmary. At least it was familiar.

Hank was furious and frightened at the same time. He seemed to be trapped in an insane situation. And for the first time he was starting to think that everything he knew from Earth wasn't going to help him. "I've gone through the looking glass," he thought. "And nothing makes any sense any more. Maybe they're not the crazy ones. What if I'm the crazy one? What if I've gone completely mad? What if I'm lost in something I'll never understand?"


Back to Top


Chapter 4: Dorm Life



Hank dreamed he'd gone to Mars with some other cosmonauts. They were living in a spacious one-level air-tight apartment. It had big windows looking out onto the red landscape. One of the women went to a window and looked out and shrieked with excitement. Hank went to look, and there were people approaching across the dusty red soil. They were wearing parkas. “There shouldn’t be people here,” the woman said. Hank was frightened.


~*~

Mefrina dropped off the end of a Blakian Field in a long swoop, falling down the face of an escarpment till her sails were trailing flames. At the bottom of the scarp Mefrina revved up her hyper-space engine to curve beyond the laws of physics from freefall into hi-speed horizontal flight. The navigation team found an arroyo that cut off in the direction of Flabia, and Mefrina banked into it and then settled deeper as she sought out the fastest part of the air current. If you could call it air in hyper-space. It had texture and pattern, and it could coalesce at times into tiny beings of flame whose humming sounded like billions of bees. For Mefrina all this was like downhill skiing to Hank, or exuberant flying to Epfid'l, or leaping off the edge of a time cliff to Ronam. Her children followed her in a little flock. And the hyper-fireflies followed them like trailing sparks.


~*~

A robot Hank vaguely remembered flew into the infirmary one day and bobbed to a stop near him. She was about a meter long, and her body was two lilac-colored spheres connected by a short tube. One ball had two big iridescent purple eyes and two ears that swiveled to focus on sounds, and the other ball had metallic tentacles which coiled expressively.

“How do you do?" she said, in a voice like a oboe. "My name is Ying. Do you remember me from the bridge tour? I’m the First Troubador.”

“Oh, yes, now I remember you. What does that mean, First Troubador?”

“Oh, I’m in charge of stories and poems, putting on plays, concerts, festivals, rodeos, general glee, stomp and perloo. Can you ride a bucking bronco?”

“Me? No.”

“Aren’t you a cowboy? I thought you were a cowboy.”

“No. I'm not. Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Oh, I thought Chinglad said you were a rough rider? Or something like that. Maybe she meant something else. Maybe she meant you’re reckless and arrogant. But I'm sure that couldn't be it. What do you think?”

Hank blinked. “Me? I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if you’re reckless and arrogant?”

“No, I mean I don’t know what she meant.”

“So you’re saying you are reckless and arrogant.”

“No, I don’t think I’m those things. And I don’t think it’s right for you to be making accusations when you don't even know me yet.”

Ying broke into a fit of giggles that sounded like a bass drum, and the fit was so strong that she caromed off the pod’s walls several times. “I think,” she said when she’d recovered herself, “being reckless and arrogant is a good thing. And I think you would do well in the Existential Comedy department.”

There was an awkward pause. Awkward to Hank, anyway. Finally he said, “So you’re the Entertainment Director?”

“More like the Quality of the Cultural Spirit Director, I would say.”

“I see. But you were right next to the Captain on the bridge. Does that mean you’re one of the most important people on the ship?”

Ying laughed. “You could say that art helps with guiding the ship. You do some kind of art? Any kind of art?”

“Not really. I like to dabble in painting and music and writing poems, but nothing serious.”

Ying made a shocked sound. “What? You’re not serious about art? If you’re not serious about art, how can you be serious about anything?”

“What?”

“Never-mind. However unserious you are, Chinglad thinks you’re ready to get out of the infirmary now. So I’m here to take you to your new dorm.”

“Dorm? What dorm? No, I want to stay here. Wait a minute, is this what Epfid'l was talking about?”

Ying giggled. “Chinglad said you’re really funny. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't heard it myself. Fandibular! Come on.” And Ying sailed out the stomata. Hank’s only possession was his harness, so he gulped and followed. "Oh no," he thought, "now I’m in for it.”


~*~

Ying skimmed forward along the main hall, and it was all Hank could do to catch up. She went almost to the bridge before she turned off into a side hall. Hank zoomed after her, through three more branchings, and then she skidded to a stop in front of an open stomata. “Here we are, Hank. Your new home.” She pushed him with a booming laugh through the stomata into pod. “And let me introduce you to your new room-mates,” she said. "Here they are."

Hank had a flash impression of a pod about 10 meters long with a handfull of organics in it. There were several large viewscreens on the wall, and a number of scattered smaller ones. There were hammocks like cocoons suspended by cords, and an impression of a bunch of junk strapped down on the walls.

And then Epfid’l emerged from one of the hammocks and drifted toward him. She changed from a spherical shape to a blue crocodile. “I know Hank already,” she burbled, and the central computer translated. "Here you are. So, you've come to live with us now?" Her eyes were luminous amber and slanted. She blinked and grinned. "I told you we'd be pod-mates."

“Oh," said Hank, "of course I remember you. You gave me the tour of the bridge. Nice to see you again.” Or maybe he should have said nice to hear you again. Her voice was so lovely.

An alien popped out of a hammock and darted up to Hank, and he saw with surprise that it was one of the organics who had beat him up, the one that looked like a triceratops. His skin had a pebbled texture, and tiny dots of red and brown made up his overall rusty color. He was wearing a harness like Hank's, only blue. Hank was instantly angry, but the organic stuck out his hand and snorted in a friendly way, “Hi, I’m Hofnog.”

Hank sputtered and fizzed. “I ought to punch you right now!”

Hofnog's blue eyes beamed. “Oh absolutely! That would be terrific. Do you want to throw the first punch, or shall I?"

Epdi’l extruded a pseudopod between them. “Now calm down, boys." She lengthened the pseudopod and pushed them apart. “You be nice, Hank."

“Me? I’m the one that got beaten up.”

“Yes, you poor thing. And I think it’s awful what they did to you, you being a newcomer and all. Hofnog, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Hofnog tucked his chin to his chest and looked up at Epfid'l. “Oh, I am. I'm very ashamed. I’m very sorry that we hurt you, Hank. It's not our fault, though. We assumed you knew how to defend yourself, so we were just having a little welcoming ceremony. We welcome all the new guys this way. It's a traditional thing.”

Hank was feeling an odd mixture of angry and confused. He blurted out. “Welcome? That's not how you welcome somebody!"

"OK, you're right, poor baby. But we thought you already knew martial arts. I have to warn you that we're all going to be taking a martial arts classes together, so we’ll be tussling a lot. You’ll enjoy it. I think.” He laughed like a little pig squealing.

Another organic slipped out of a hammock and drifted forward. “Oh," Hofnog waved a hand, “you remember Toogodda.”

It was the two-meter long, silvery seahorse, with a fan on her head and a bigger one on her back. Her surface resembled opalescent shell. She had a head like a skinny horse armored with mother-of-pearl plates, and big violet eyes. She had a long tail, and long delicate arms. “Welcome to the clubhouse,” she grinned. It was the first time Hank had seen an organic other than Epfid'l smile. “Sorry if we got a little rough. No hard feelings?”

“Well, don’t do it anymore. What you did was wrong!”

Toogodda snickered like a peal of trumpets, but tried to keep a straight face, and failed. “Oh dear," she said, "yes, very wrong.” She snickered again.

“No, I’m not kidding. I don’t like to be treated like that.”

Toogodda made a straight face. “Well, you’re going to have a great deal of trouble on this ship then, dear friend. Most of the organics you meet here will treat you much worse than that.”

“What? They will? That’s not right either!” Toogodda broke down laughing and had to put her face under her arms and sob.

Hank was fuming. He couldn’t think anything to say.

Another alien drifted forward, and to Hank's chagrin it was the last member of the gang who’d beat him up. “Hi, I’m Usip.” Usip's race had three sexes: male, female and neutral. Usip was male. His voice sounded like a balloon with the air escaping through a neck held tight. He looked like a yellow basketball with three eyes and three tentacles. At the end of each tentacle were three fingers, each with a sucker at the tip. Hank could see when he talked that his mouth was a three-way split between the three eyes. “Well, howdy, pardner," he said. "What? Isn’t that the traditional cowboy greeting? Somebody said he was a cowboy. Did I get it wrong again?”

Epfid'l laughed like a stream bubbling over rocks. "No, you got it right. He's a cowboy alright. He even worships cows."

Usip fluttered his fingers. "No. Really? That's what they do on Dirt? I thought they worshipped money. Isn't that what you said, Toogodda?"

"Not me," said Toogodda, waving her hands in front of her face. "Just a coincidence."

Hank turned to Ying, who was lingering just inside the stomata door. “I protest! This isn’t right! These people beat me up, and there ought to be some consequences for this kind of behavior. There ought to be a law about it. Don’t you have laws here?”

Ying erupted in tympanic laughter. She laughed so hard she could hardly speak. She choked and whooped. She pushed off the wall and went sailing out the stomata still laughing, and her giggling and snorting could be heard diminishing off down the hallway like a drum set having a giggle fit.


~*~

One more organic drifted forward from the wall. This time it was someone Hank didn’t know. He looked kind of like a giant cricket, only he was orange and glowed from within. He had four walking legs attached to his body, but where a cricket would have antennas on its head, he had arms. When he spoke, his voice was a kind of deep chirp. “Welcome to our pod,” the computer translated. "I'm Jagung." He wiggled his hands. “Personally, I agree with you. I think what they did was an outrage, and I think they’re evil and mean. Personally, I’m hoping that you will beat them all up and become the pod champion. It would serve them right. Especially you, Hofnog.”

Hofnog snuffled innocently. "Who, me?"

Hank felt like he was splitting in two. Information and outrage were overloading his system.

Epfid’l took him by one arm and pulled him away. “Never-mind them," she said. "Let me show you around. Over here is your hammock and your locker.” The hammock looked like it was made of string woven into macrame, and it was more like a cocoon than an ordinary hammock, in that it curled around and could completely enclose Hank. Or rather, it would once Epfid’l showed him how to get into it, which without gravity was a trick.

His locker was two raised fins two meters long and half a meter apart on the wall near his hammock. Stretchy cords woven from edge to edge made an enclosed space. “This is just for your stuff. You’ve already got three blankets in here, and a variety of weapons you're going to need, and a new bathing kit, an immensity mirror, your pajamas, some basic art materials, a library computer screen, a gas mask, some other odds and ends.”

“Pajamas? I have pajamas?”

Epfid’l reached through the flexible cords and poked around. She pulled out a pair of felt pajamas, with feet. They were light green in color, and had images of planets and stars scattered randomly. Hank was suddenly so overcome with yearning that tears floated away from his eyes. Epdif’l reached out with a pseudopod that transformed into a blue hand and touched them curiously. They absorbed right into her body. "You emit water," she said. "Is this what they call tears? How lovely. You feel lonely?"

"I don't know what I feel," he said. "This is so much new stuff all at once...."

"Change is good," she said, and laughed, "although it almost never feels like it at the time. Let it all flow by, pod-mate."


~*~

"I tell you what," Epfid’l bubbled, "let's go to the main lounge and have some fizzio. Come on." She led the way, flying along the hall like a blue bubble. She was one of the few organics that didn't need a harness to fly. Her race could grab ahold of the fabric of space and pull themselves along.

They made their way along the main hall through darting swarms of crew-members to the main lounge, and from one of the bars they got two thermoses of something like carbonated hot chocolate. With a bit of jalapeno.

Tables were scattered around the pod on the wall among the flowers and trees, but there weren't any chairs. Hank and Epfid'l hovered at one and talked for a couple hours. It was just what Hank needed. He was so relieved to have someone listen to him that it all poured out: the capture, the madness of the ship, the pain of adjusting to the madness, the yearning for home, the despair at being mistreated by circumstance. Epfid’l bubbled and sympathized. "It's all a terrible coincidence," she warbled sadly.

Along in there she asked him about his history, and told him something of hers. "I was born on a ship in the Frinian Empire," she said, "in a huge spaceship filled with water, so I spent most of my time in my porpoise shape. The ship was filled with refugees from a stellar explosion, and the living conditions were terrible. It was a slum. Me and my mom scrounged for survival as the years went by, until one day we got our chance to escape. The ship was attacked by pirates, and the way we escaped was very simple. We joined the pirates. Wasn't that clever?"

"You mean it was these pirates, the Mefrina?"

“Yep. I’ll take you and introduce you to my mom sometime,” she smiled. “Her name’s Respfid’l. She’s kind of critical sometimes, but she’s nice. We get along well.”

“Does she look like you?”

“Yes, except that she’s pinkish purple where I’m blue.”


~*~

Somewhere along in there, Hank asked her, “What was the best time of your life?”

Epfid’l laughed. “It was my teenage years. I was living with my mom and sister in the ship, and for awhile conditions were pretty good. I had a lot of fun partying. And I learned a lot in my school. My mom was kind of unhappy. She wanted a future for my sister and me, I think. But I also think she made her problems worse by being melodramatic. It was a big ship, though, so I had a good time. I had lots of friends, with lots of tag and wordgames and sex and play, you know, the good things of life.”

Hank's mind leaped straight to the important thing. “What? You have sex?”

“Sure. Don’t you?”

“Uh, yes, I mean, uh, no....” Hank gulped. “I never thought of having sex. I mean the organics having sex. I mean you having sex.”

“Oh yes," she laughed. "Anything alive has to have sex. I like sex. Don't you? In my species females like it more than males. The poor men don't know what they're missing.”

“But, how do you have sex? I mean, don't you sort of need...."

Epfid'l giggled. "I can have any genitals I want," she said, "when I'm having sex with other races. When two transformers have sex, we don't need genitals. It's kind of like two bubbles fusing. Physically we form one bubble for awhile. The male orgasm isn’t as strong, but the female orgasm lasts for hours. It’s quite wonderful.”

“Really. Sounds great. How do you get pregnant? I mean, do you get pregnant from sex?”

“Oh yes. But we can only get pregnant if we choose to.”

“Ooh, that’s convenient. I like that.”

Epfid’l told him about the spinner game, when one would be twirled by one’s school. “Disoriented while caressed by warm flippers, it feels so nice. Disoriented by the very caresses....”

She told him about the word-games of the Sklimery, her race. One person in each family devoted their whole life to the story-games. Some were so ancient they came from word-feuds that were fought before her race ever left its home planet. She chanted one for him, and he couldn’t make any sense of it.


~*~

They went back to Hank’s new home in time for lights out. Hank pulled himself into his hammock and hooked it closed. “Computer,” Jagung said, “Lights out.”

Some of the flowers on the pod wall gave off light from the backs of their petals. They dimmed and went out. Everything in the pod could still be faintly seen for awhile by the glowing light of Jagung. But his amber light faded in ten minutes, and after that the pod was dark.


~*~

“So,” said Jagung out of the darkness, in a voice like paper rustling, “where’d you come from, Hank?”

“Earth,” Hank said. "I was kidnapped."

“Oh, I thought it was called Dirt,” Usip piped up. “It must be terribly exciting living on the frontier.”

Hank sounded puzzled. “What do you mean frontier?”

“You didn’t know?” Epfid’l asked. “Your planet is classified as wild and savage. Even the tourists don't go there."

“I thought it was in some kind of preserve,” Hank said.

“It is,” Toogodda said, “but where the tourists don't go, the pirates and outlaws like ourselves do, of course. If there's anything to go there for. Nothing personal.”

“Oh,” Hank said.

“So what’s it like on your planet?” Usip asked. "I hear blame was invented on Dirt."

"We invented blame? You don't have blame out here?"

"Oh no," spluttered Usip. "Isn't that why you were made a preserve? What's it like?"

“Oh, it’s a very strange place. I'd think you pirates would like it. Some countries are rich, and some are poor. The whole place is materialistic and mostly devoted to status and appearances, except for the hippies, the bohemians. There are lots of wars going on between various countries, which are like large tribes. The tragedy of our planet seems to be that people just can't stop killing each other. We’ve been doing it ever since women invented agriculture 15,000 years ago and we emerged from the Stone Age. Women ruled during the Stone Age, but as soon as men took over, the wars began. And they've been going on ever since. Women are second-class citizens now. I sometimes wonder about archeologists finding our planet millions of years from now, when there won’t be anything left but garbage heaps, and the blackberries and cockroaches will be fighting it out with the morning glories.”

“Wow. That sounds like the planet Ying was born on,” Epfid'l commented. “It got so overpopulated that even the oceans were built over. The whole place became one vast building, with endless stories being added on top. Eventually it collapsed under it’s own weight, and the entire planet had to be evacuated. There was a massive exodus, and all the nearby planets were flooded with refugees. You should hear Ying’s stories sometime. She's had some wild adventures.”

“Wait a minute,” Hank said. “What do you mean born? He’s a robot, isn't he?"

“Actually, she’s a robot,” Epfid’l said. “But she didn’t start out a robot. Hardly anybody does. When she was born she was a Poscarling, who look kind of like a black and yellow octopus with four tentacles. She got rich along the way, and she could afford to buy a backup body. So then when she died she naturally became a robot.”

“What?” Hank was dumbfounded.

“Isn’t that how they do it on Dirt?” Hofnog asked.

“We don’t even have robots,” Hank said.

“What?” Hofnog spluttered. “Unbelievable. Now I see why they call it the frontier. That's barbaric.”

“Did Chinglad used to be an organic?” Hank asked.

“Oh yes,” said Jagung. “All the robots on board used to be organics.”

Hank thought about it. “How much would it cost for me to have a robot body?"

Hofnog giggled. “More than you will ever earn in your lifetime, that’s for sure.” Hank’s pod-mates burst out laughing. "Isn't that ironic?"


~*~

Conversation drifted off into giggling and snorting, and then into quiet. Hank was almost asleep when he heard a peculiar hissing, in short swooshes. He drifted back from sleepiness and looked out into the pod. His pod-mates were playing catch with balls the size of softballs, only the balls were insubstantial: fizzing clumps of light that formed as they were thrown and disappeared when they were caught. Epfid’l was giggling.

Hank recoiled into fear. The hairs on the back of his neck rose. It was too eerie. His pod-mates seemed not to notice him till Epfid'l suddenly flipped a ball of blue light right at him. Hank grunted and threw out his hands, but the ball went right through his hands and impacted his belly with a feeling like warm snow. Hank looked at his stomach to see the energy soak in and disappear.


~*~

For a time Toogodda floated in her bunk listening to a hyper-space radio. She’d built the radio herself out of bits of junk, and one of her hobbies was tuning through the ancient signals that oscillated endlessly through hyper-space. Toogodda was looking for antiques to record and add to her rather extensive collection.

After a while, it turned out that Epfid’l snored. She sounded like a percolator. Hofnog snored too, and he sounded like a large puppy. Toogodda sounded like a steam radiator. It took a long time for Hank to get to sleep. It all felt so strange.


~*~

Chinglad stopped by the next day to tell Hank that the boobytraps were now turned on again. She asked his podmates to teach him how to navigate them. “You know about omens,” she said to Hank, “and so now you’ll have to use them to get to the main lounge.”

“But what’s the point of that?”

Chinglad chuckled. “The point? If you can’t get to the main lounge, you don’t eat. No, seriously, it’s training for you, my friend. Any member of this ship has to be ready for combat, and that includes the slaves. Especially the slaves. But don’t worry, you’ll like it.”

Hank could just bet. She patted his arm and went sailing off down the hall, leaving everyone in the pod except Hank laughing.


~*~

Epfid’l was hovering in a shape like a translucent blue giant snowflake. A face formed in the center, and her amber eyes popped open, and she smiled. “You ready to go?”

Hank frowned. “What? You mean now?”

Usip hooted. “He’ll never be ready, but it’s too late now, cowboy.”

Jagung scooted out through the stomata, and beckoned from the hall. “Come on!”

“I’ll come too,” Toogodda purred. “Sounds like fun.” She rippled through the air and out the door.

Epfid’l changed into her porpoise shape, and she moved through the air the way a fish would swim through water.

Hank felt suspicious. He tried to move gracefully, but felt like he was lumbering along behind. They flew in a little swarm through the hallways till they reached the main hall.

“Look out.” Epfid’l put a fin in front of Hank. “The booby traps start now.”

Jugung gestered along the hall toward the main lounge. “There’s a few things you should know. There’s three kinds of boobytraps. One squirts a stream of sticky liquid. Another hits you with a shock beam. And another hits you with a beam that makes you feel like you’re being tickled all over, beyond endurance. That’s the worst one.”

Togodda knickered like a horse. “You can handle it. It’s easy. You just have to know how to spot them before they hit you.”

Edfid’l was turning into a shape more like a shark. “You remember what Chinglad told you about omens? This is where you have to apply it. Look for anything odd, out of place. It might be a chance pattern in the flowers on the wall. Some of the robots on this ship can practically read the walls. Or it might be a pattern in the people flying by. It might be a coincidence between a thought you’re thinking and something you see. It might be an intuitive feeling, or an itch or a tickle somewhere on your body. It might be a sudden vivid memory. No one can tell you what omens work for you. You have to find that out by trial and error.”

Usip spluttered. "Mostly by error."

Jagung waved at the people passing. “So what’s your first omen?"

Hank blinked. “You mean me?”

Jagung snickered. “Oh yes. Take your first step.”

Hank looked out into the hall. He didn’t see anything unusual in the robots and organics passing, or in the tunnel wall either. A minute went by, undisturbed except by Toogodda saying to Epfid’l, “Three to one he doesn’t make it.” Epfid’l shushed her.

“That’s funny,” Hank pointed at a yellow organic going by. "She looks like an old girlfriend, kind of.”

Jagung pushed him out into the stream of traffic. “Follow her. Quick. And look for the next omen.”

Hank zoomed around like a released balloon for a few seconds, and then he got control and took off after the sleek yellow organic. He glanced back and saw Jagung, Epfid’l and Toogodda trailing behind him. He looked around for other oddities. He saw a guy go by with a mane of purple hair, but that wasn’t particularly odd for this ship. A moment later a stream of orange glop hit him in the face and chest, and it was in his hair. Epfid’l and Jagung burst out laughing, and grabbed him, and dragged him to the wall.

“You almost got it,” Jagung said.

Hank rubbed goop out of his eyes. “Oh you mean it was the guy with the purple hair?”

Toogodda snickered. “No, it was in the other direction. A portal of wishfullness opened in the air for a few seconds, making the air shimmery. That was the clue to veer in that direction.”

“Do I get to clean up?”

Epfid’l giggled. “What would be the point? This isn’t the last time you’re going to get gooped.”

And it wasn’t. His pod-mates took Hank up and down the main hall for two hours. He got gooped, stung and tickled into near delirium. Each time he ran the gauntlet, they made bets with each other. By the time they let him off, he was ready for a meal and a shower and a nap. But he didn’t get it. Instead he got dragged off to martial arts training. And then a meal. And then to a class in ship’s etiquette.

By lights out Hank was exhausted. He crawled into his hammock and closed it around himself. Epfid’l was telling him about the first time she’d made it to the main lounge without getting hit. “Suddenly it was like the hall was wide as the open ocean, and everything was happening in slow motion. I could see the signals in plenty of time to move aside. It was the oddest thing.”

“I had that happen once in the Reefs,” Usip said dreamily. “I was stealing purses from pouches, and I felt like I could do no wrong. My fingers were light as bubbles, and the marks never felt a thing. I got more wallets in that one run than I usually got in an afternoon. It was great. It’s times like that make you feel close to nature, huh?”

“I spent most of my life in the military before I got kidnapped by these pirates,” Jagung said, his voice raspy in the darkness. “That’s what I liked about combat. I’d go into a different state of being where I was totally focused. Time would slow down. I had all the time on the ocean to think what to do. Only it wasn’t even thinking. It was more like feeling. I miss the old life. There’s no friends like war friends. Present company excepted, of course.”

“What do you miss, Hofnog?” Hank asked.

“Oh, there’s not much to miss where I came from,” Hofnog snorted. “I was born on a desert planet, and it was alright when my race migrated there. But for the last thousand years there’s been a storm. High winds, like hurricane strength all the time. So we had to go underground. We live under thick domes, and it made the culture of my people very conservative. I ran away to space to become a space merchant so I could escape and have some freedom. I certainly wouldn’t go back to Splendoid, that’s for sure.”

Hank persevered. “How about you, Toogodda. Where do you come from?”

Toogodda giggled. “I come from Wavicle. The whole planet is ocean, and everything in it is born from one egg-mass. When I first hatched, I was a minnow, and life was wonderful. I loved playing in the shallows, and I had thousands of friends. After my first transformation I became a running frog, and life was still good except for the hunters. That was scary. After my next transformation I was a finned lizard, very fast, and the hunters weren’t a problem anymore. But life was still hard, because it was migration time, and there just wasn’t time to hang out with my friends anymore. After the migration I transformed into my sea-going form, as you see me now. Well, you can’t see me right now, but during the day, I mean. You know.”

“Sound like your life’s been hard ever since minnowhood,” Epfid’l said.

“Oh no, it’s just what life is like in an ocean full of predators. I was lucky enough to have good teachers who taught me self defense. But compared to that, I like life here with the pirates much better. So far. Training is fun.”

“Not me,” Hank thought. He felt depressed and anxious and lonely. His chest was hollow from the ache of all he missed. He was totally out of place, and he wished he were back in Oregon.

The talking among the others drifted off after awhile, and eventually they all drifted off to sleep.


~*~

Mefrina drifted along an arroyo in the hyper-plane and settled into a copse of crystalline pseudo-trees. They swayed in the wind like sargasso waving in a current, flickering back and forth between existence and non-existence. Mefrina settled down for a nap.


~*~

Santa Claus arrived, swooping down out of the sky with his sleigh and his reindeer and his bags of gifts, and he sliced through the house like a hot knife through butter. Hank leaped up out his chair, and...

he was awake. The lights in the halls were at their daytime levels. His pod-mates were all gone. He got out of his hammock and left his harness and went hand-over-hand to a nearby water-pod, using the flowers as handholds. He sealed himself into the shower tank. Mmmm, that felt good. With warm water rushing over him, a pang of hunger hit his stomach, and he remembered what lay between him and breakfast. Maybe he’d skip breakfast today. He dried in warm air, and went back to his hammock to gather himself. But when you’re naked there’s not a lot to gather. So he fretted awhile and then put on his harness and headed along the connecting hall to the main tunnel.

Where the connecting hall met the main tunnel he found a group of five organics in silvery suits waiting for him. These were organics with body temperatures a lot hotter than Hank’s. All he could see behind their faceplates was an orange glow. They grabbed Hank with cries of glee, and they chittered and burbled to each other as they trussed him up. They towed him off backwards at high speed. “Well,” he thought bitterly. “This is familiar. I’ve been here before.”

To his own surprise, Hank started to cry. His captors had ignored him before, but now they made remarks about him. They made fun of his crying, which made him angry. Then they made fun of that.

They dragged him to a stop in front of a large stomata. They opened it, untrussed him and stripped off his harness and pitched him into the darkness. “This is a storage pod,” one of them called after him. “And in 107 minutes it’s going to empty into space."

The organics dashed off giggling, and the door he was tossed in through irised shut. Hank floated through the darkness, spinning slowly. He found himself doing an odd combination of weeping and cursing. And, by the way, he was still hungry.

“Computer," Hank said, “Start timing please. And lights please." The lights came on. Hank looked around at a huge cargo hold stuffed with junk, mostly pieces of machinery and what looked like abstract sculptures.

The problem was that he was drifting out of reach of a wall. Without a harness he floated helplessly. He coiled the cord he’d been tied with and eventually managed to lasso a piece of nearby equipment. He pulled himself to it, and from there he could push off from one piece of equipment to another until he was back at the door. He slapped the stomata with a palm, and it opened.

He found his harness stuck to the wall in the hall, and now he was back where he’d started: hungry and on his way to the main lounge. He knew the gauntlet would be difficult, but at least he was getting so he cared less about the goop and shocks and tickling and humiliation.


~*~

In the main lounge he got some food, and he was hovering at a table when a burgundy-colored robot floated up to him. “Hi. You must be the new guy. My name is Gowrung.” His voice sounded like crackling ice.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Hank.”

Gowrung's body consisted of a sphere the size of a scarlet basketball with three tentacles coming out of a spot on one side and four coming out of a spot on the other. Two of the four were tipped with eyes, and two with hands. The eyes were faceted and blue. “I’ve heard about you. At this point you have less rank than anyone on the ship.”

Hank frowned. “I have that distinct honor. What do you do here?”

“Me? Well, my job is working for the Entertainment Committee. But I’m a prospector really. I’m on a lifelong search for the motherlode. I caught a ride on this ship cuz my omens gave me reason to think it’s somewhere out here in the wilderness, out in the wild parts of the galaxy. You ever do any prospecting?”

"Me? No. It sounds interesting. So you’re not actually a pirate.”

“Yes and no. Not really. I was more of a passenger than crew until they made me a slave.”

“I've never heard about this motherlode. What is it?”

“I have no actual idea, but I’ve heard tales about it since I was a nymph in the nursery. If I could find it, I’d be the richest man this side of the galactic core.”

“Then how do you look for it? Do you have a sixth sense?”

“Oh yes, I have eight senses, actually. But the tools I use to search are some technology from the Zin Empire, very old, very good. And it also takes a lot of bribery along the way, I can tell you.”

“What’s it a motherlode of? Gold?”

Gowrung laughed like wooden wind-chimes. “Oh no. From what I hear it’s a streak of the purest consciousness that’s ever precipitated into matter. If I could dip my hands in that river, I could fill my knapsack with enough high grade awareness to keep me rich for a hundred lifetimes. Or of your lifetimes, anyway. One of mine.”

“What do you mean? Are you saying that robots die?”

“Oh no, not in the normal course of things, no.”

“But in rare circumstances?”

“Well, yes. Accidents happen. If a robot dies and he isn't in range of his replacement body, then death is permanent. Robots don’t really think of themselves as immortal, just longer-lived than you.”

“Oh.”

“So, my idea is to divert the ship to look for the motherlode. There’d be more than enough to make everyone rich. Wouldn’t you rather be rich?”

Hank grinned. “Sure. I could buy my way out of slavery.”

Gowrung fluttered his blue eyes. “Oh, don’t worry. You won't be a slave for long. New places are opening up all the time, and you’ll advance in rank. You won’t always be a newbie.”

“What do you mean, new places?”

“Oh, members of the crew are getting killed all the time, don’t you know?”

“No, I didn’t. Killed how?”

“Mostly in combat with other pirates, though occasionally from being run down by Empire battleships, or over-run by reclamation thieves. Then there’s the odd re-emergence into normal space in the same time slip-stream as another vessel, and the usual losses from gambling and dueling and general mischief. But mostly in combat.”

Hank looked glum.

“What, you don’t like combat?”

“No, of course not. It’s hell.”

Gowrung laughed. “Me neither. It wastes time that could be spent looking for the motherlode.” Gowrung coiled his tentacles. “But most of the people on this ship like combat. Have you heard about the stowaway?”

Hank blinked at the sudden change of topic. “Yes. Chinglad said I should be on the lookout for him. Why, have you seen him?”

“Oh no. Since the last layover at Reefstop the mass detectors have registered the weight of an extra being on board, but no one has seen him. Or it. Or her. The betting runs heavily towards it’s being a robot, since the mass is relatively low. A watch has been organized by the betting syndicates, to try to catch whoever it is.”

“Catch it? What for?”

“To settle the bets, of course.” Gowrung raised three of his tentacles. “Wait a minute. Something's just come across on the grapevine that I gotta deal with. Being on the Entertainment Committee is just one emergency after another. I don't know how I manage.”

And Gowrung zoomed off like an arrow toward the main hall. Hank finished eating, thinking about how depressed and helpless he felt. He missed Earth, everything about it, things he never thought he’d miss. Even the bad things he missed. He was lonely and scared, and what he heard about life out here in the galaxy got worse and worse. He felt betrayed by life. Or as Epfid'l would put it, by concidence.


~*~

At first Hank hated martial arts classes. They took place in a large empty pod, so there was plenty of room for zooming around. It was hard flying and doing something else at the same time, and Hank usually wound up spinning helplessly in the air. But then he started to get the hang of it, and things got more fun.

Martial arts without gravity is a cross between gymnastics and underwater ballet. The classes were usually taught by Chinglad or Ying. At first they were about spinning and rolling in place, and that progressed to the students being thrown against the pod wall and rolling as they hit. Then there were escapes and evasions, and Hank learned how to break a hold when one of his podmates grabbed him. That progressed to pushing aside kicks and punches. And then there was taking various weapons away from attackers.

Hofnog turned out to be right. Hank came to enjoy the daily workouts more and more, especially when he was sparring with Epfid'l. She was the most flexible and tricky of his pod-mates, and she tended to giggle as she baffled and confused him with her shape changes and sneaky attacks.

One day in the middle of martial arts practice it occurred to Hank that his pod-mates might enjoy a game of poker. So after the workout he got them to help him make a deck of cards, and he taught them the game. He couldn’t remember whether a straight flush beat a full house, and had to ask the central computer to check the information left by the anthropologist for the rules.

The first time they had a couple of hours between shifts, they spent it in a game that got increasingly wild and rambunctious. His pod-mates liked this game a lot. The idea of betting on actions you did yourself rather than on observed events was new and exciting to them. "This is great!" they cried.

"See," said Hofnog, "now I'm glad they didn't kill you. Already you're good for something."

After awhile Hank found himself losing. Epfid’l was doing well, and Hofnog too, while Toogodda was losing rather badly. Her back fin undulated with pleasure. Usip was losing and winning by turns in wild swings, and laughing like a clarinet both ways with equal boisterousness.


Back to Top


Chapter 5: Ship Life



Hank dreamed he was mowing the lawn in an office. The floor was white tile, and the grass was in scattered patches, one for each chair to sit on. The lawn mower looked like a small square of white carpet. He rubbed it over the grass, and there was a whirring sound while the excess grass was reduced to a small amount of fine white powder.

He talked with a young woman who was taking over the job. "My husband has invented an empty box," she said. "But I don't have long to live, so I might as well get ready to pass on. When I'm ready to go, I'll get in the box and disappear. Perhaps I'll do it next week during the Festival of Hadron."


~*~

Time went by. Mefrina made her way down a series of plateaus, pummeled by a series of storms that forced her sometimes to drop into normal space to wait out the worst of the hyper-lightening. In hyper-space the strongest lightening bolts could fry the whole ship in a hyper-second.

Hank still felt queasy every time the ship went into or out of hyper-space. The sensation of being turned inside out left him shaken, sometimes for hours. Toogodda told him happily that he’d get over it. "How about a little sympathy?" Hank asked, and was rewarded with gales of laughter.


~*~

Hank spent his days in various kinds of training sessions, along with his pod-mates and twelve other beginners. They learned to make their way to any part of the ship in the dark, at first with only a small flashlight and then later blindfolded. They learned the rudiments of navigation, and how to evacuate the ship, and survival outside the ship in hyper-space. When they were in normal space they learned to pilot personal ships, and when they were in hyper-space it was hyper-gliders. They spent a lot of time shooting every weapon Mefrina had on board, or in some cases simulation weapons. During their off-time they played on an obstacle course set up in one of the larger pods, or they went gambling.

And every afternoon it was martial arts training. Whenever Hank didn't try hard enough in martial arts class, Chinglad would threaten Hank with being put on Scumtube Scraping Detail, but somehow it never actually happened.

One day the teacher was neither Chinglad nor Ying but Ronam, and he came flying in through the stomata, clapping his hands for attention. "Ei caramba," he said. "Pay attention, space-bugs." The two eyes in front were lilac colored, and they twinkled. "Chinglad and Ying say you're ready for the next level. So I'm here to tell you we're taking it up a notch."

He began by teaching them sleight of hand, magic tricks where small objects appeared and disappeared. Then he taught them to juggle, which looks very different in zero gravity. He had them play dodgeball. He reviewed and refined the empty-tentacled self defense that Ying and Chinglad had taught them: setting aside punches and charges, practicing throws and evasions, disarms and escapes.

And then he handed out short sticks to each organic, one per arm or tentacle, and they learned the basic moves with a stick in each hand. Or tentacle. Then he handed out a long stick to each novice, and they learned the basic long-stick moves.

He had them practice tumbling, how to hit a wall and roll and rebound, till they could do it with ease. And he had them form defensive groups in the air or against a wall. He had them fight each other with padded sticks, in pairs and then in groups.

Hank was fairly good at all this, and he enjoyed the sessions a lot. It reminded him of playing soccer in high school, the athleticism and the teamwork. And of the training he’d gone through for the Vietnam War.

Epfid’l was better than he was, but then, she had the advantage of being able to change her body-shape during combat. She could whack him with a long stick anytime. Hofnog was also quite good at martial arts. He was quick and tricky and a fast learner. Usip was more likely to get tangled up in his tentacles than to pull off the fancy moves he tried, but sometimes the fancy moves worked. Toogodda was the best of the class. She looked like she was distracted and lazily doing nothing, and yet no one could lay a stick on her. Jagung wasn’t the worst in the class, but he was the worst among the pod-mates. “You’re the slowest one among us,” Hofnog snickered.

“Yeah? Remember the story of the Gulimp race?” Jagung smiled. “The turtle trapped the rabbit into a dice game and beat the self-importance right out of him.”

Hofnog chortled and wandered away looking like the Fanfor who'd swallowed a Dender.


~*~

Hank’s podmates complained about their fate and made bets with each other on anything. The other organics in the class and around the ship seemed to relate to each other mainly with practical jokes, and to the robots with servility. Hank himself complained about everything, to the point where his pod-mates crowned him the King of Complainers.

Three more times he was tied up and beaten up and hauled off and left someplace inconvenient, mostly by suited organics, but then he started carrying a pair of short sticks and fighting back. After that he came home bruised and battered a few times, but the kidnappings tapered off. One of the suited organics confided in Hank, “We will get to know you better, cowboy, and then we can torment you in more better ways, what?”

“But why do you have to torment me at all?”

“Oh,” the organic said in a solemn tone of voice, “orders from Chinglad.”

“What?” But the organics went whooping off down the hallway like a flight of marshmallow men.

The worst of it was that his own pod-mates would join in tormenting him if they saw it going on, with glee. Later when he reproached them about it, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Toogodda and Epfid’l would apologize sincerely, but that didn’t stop them from doing it again when the opportunity arose.

One day when they had a rare bit of free time, Hofnog invited Hank to go with him to steal some food from the kitchen. “Come on,” he said, wiggling his feathery eyebrows, “I hear the cooks made some really special treats today.”

“Really? Which ones?”

“They haven't made these since you’ve been here. They’re incredibly delicious.”

“Why don’t we just wait till tomorrow?”

“Because they would taste so good now. I want some tonight. Let’s just go down to the kitchen-pod and swipe a basket or two, whaddya say? Besides, I have a plan.”

“You do? What’s your plan?”

“We’ll distract the cooks, and steal a batch just for the pod. And they’ll think the stowaway took them. So, you game?”

“That’s your whole plan?” Hank said, thinking how much this was like high school. "Well, alright." They flew down the main hall, weaving among the passing robots and organics, and dodging the booby traps without thinking about it anymore. They crossed the main lounge to the dessert pod just beyond it, and there it turned out that actually Hofnog had no plan at all.

So they waited around till no one was looking, and then they each grabbed a basket and lit out for home. They barreled down the middle of the main hall without even trying to evade the boobytraps, and ironically neither one got hit.

An hour later four black robots came to Hank and Hofnog’s home pod, where Hank and Hofnog were eating cookies out of the baskets. “No, wait,” Hofnog protested. “It wasn’t my fault! It was Hank who stole the kumquat cream delights. I just ate some, is all I did. I didn’t do anything.”

But the black robots dragged Hank and Hofnog off to Itty Bitty Affairs Court, where a green robot sentenced them right away to a day in solitary. The same black robots dragged them off to one of the algae pods and threw them in and sealed the stomata.

Hofnog began to cry. He sounded like a piglet wailing. Hank had to laugh. The algae covering the pod’s walls glowed blue. Balls of algae the size of Hank’s head floated in the air, and among them floated balls of water. “Well, at least we won’t be thirsty,” Hank thought, and then laughed again.

Hofnog shouted, and the pod had an amazing echo. The sound lingered on for half a minute. Hank made animal calls and hoots and cries, and Hofnog started laughing too. “Try this,” said Hank. “It’s a chant I learned from India. Go like this. 'Aum mani padme hung.' Go on, over and over.”

Hank began to chant, and Hofnog joined in. The sound resonated and filled and built around them till it seemed to come from everywhere. “Try this one,” Hofnog said, and taught Hank a chant from Aldagarmo. That one was fun too.

“I studied a bunch of Sufi stuff once,” Hank said, “and they have a cool thing called a Free Allah. You sing any note you want to, and change it whenever you want.”

“Sing?”

“Sure. Let’s try it. I’ll start.” Hank began singing, and the echo enriched the simple melody with resonance and depth. He stopped because of the look on Hofnog’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“That’s singing? I mean, that’s what singing is?”

“Yes.”

“I never heard anything like that before.”

“What, you mean that exercise?”

“No. Music! That’s incredible. I never heard music before. It’s astonishing. Show me how you do that.”

So for the next two hours they sang. They sang rounds, and folk songs, and rock and roll songs that Hank knew from the radio in his car. Hofnog was like a puppy in his delight at this new art form, and they could hardly have had a better spot to sing than their algae cathedral.

What they didn’t know was that a bubble of energy built around them and radiated out into the dream-time. Inconceivable creatures came up to the bonfire and warmed their hands.

As they sang, Hank noticed that Hofnog was acting more and more like he was drunk. He became weepy, and then he broke down crying. Hank asked him what was wrong, but he could hardly speak. He curled up in a ball and sobbed like a baby pig. "I feel so sad," he cried. "I feel like I'm falling to pieces."

Hank didn't know what else to do, so he held Hofnog. It was an old hippie cure for a bad acid trip. "I wonder if he's having a nervous breakdown," Hank thought. "And why would he have one now?"

It took hours for Hofnog to recover a bit. He was still shaky and disoriented. But he was able to say, "I'm glad Gowrung wasn't here to film this. Promise me you won't tell anybody about this, OK?"

Hank promised. He didn't understand what had happened.

Two hours later Hofnog was feeling somewhat better, and they were both hungry. They had no choice but to find out if algae is edible. It is. Sort of.


~*~

Epfid’l got to talking with Hank one day in the main lounge. He was eating Danish pastries, and she was sipping fruit juice from a bulb through a straw. Today she looked like a blue seal with arms and big eyes.

“Why don’t you help me get untangled from my hammock when I get messed up?” Hank asked.

She beamed. “The robots have rules about how we can treat you. Well, maybe they're more like guidelines than rules. I’m not supposed to do that.”

“Oh really? I didn't know that. What are the rules?”

“Oh, let’s see. No helping, no indulging, no believing anything you say, we have to lie to you all the time, we have to be mean to you, if you own anything we have to steal it, it’s good to make you frustrated, any amount of pain is OK short of serious injury, and so on. Most of the crew act that way anyway, so it's easy for them, but I still have a lot to learn. I have old bad habits like affection, loyalty, ethics. I know they're wrong, but old habits are hard to overlay with new habits.”

Hank thought she was joking. Then he thought maybe she wasn’t.

“How about you?” she asked. “What was your life like before you were kidnapped?” Hank hardly noticed anymore that she bubbled and burbled, and that the words from the PA lagged a moment behind.

“Nothing particular. Just a regular life.”

“What's regular on Dirt isn't regular here. What’s your story, cowboy?”

“My story? Well, I was born in 1947, in a state called Montana. In a country called the United States. They still have countries on Dirt. My dad was a rancher,... uh, he herded animals called cows."

"Oh, the holy cows."

"What? Oh, right. I don’t know how much about Dirt you know.”

“Almost nothing. It seems like a fun place.”

“Parts are fun. Other parts, not so much. I grew up in cowboy culture, and I liked to read a lot. I played basketball in high school, and I went to Montana State. Then along came the hippie revolution, and I ran off to San Francisco. I was young, and it was a crazy time. Good thing I was young, actually, or I’d never have survived.”

“The revolution was dangerous?”

“Oh no, it wasn’t that kind of revolution. A social revolution, a bohemian revolution, a temporary wave of liberalization. So the dangers were drugs and partying too much and staying up all night, burnout really. It was a good time, though. We were young and free.”

“It sounds idyllic.”

“It was actually, though we didn’t know it at the time. Then I got drafted. They cut off my hair and sent me to Vietnam. We were having a war there. I was 23 years old.”

“Soldiers on your planet have short hair?”

“Yes.” Hank laughed. “Who knows why?”

“So you fought in wars?”

“Oh no, once I was in the army they made me a mechanic, and I worked in a motor pool. I never saw any fighting. It was just a boring job in the tropics. It was nice in some ways: no responsibilities, good friends, lots of pot to smoke. Our only decision every day was whether to get stoned before supper or after supper."

"You got stones thrown at you?"

"Oh no, stoned means intoxicated."

"What's pot?"

"Uh, it's a mild hallucinogen. Smoking it was how we consumed it. You burn it and inhale the smoke."

"You do? Doesn't that make you cough?"

"Not once you get used to it. Then you get intoxicated."

"Oh, intoxicated I know about."

"And being in Vietnam was an education. It taught me more than school ever did, that’s for sure.”

“About what?”

“Well, taking orders, for one thing. I learned to hate being a slave.”

“Ah. And here you are one again. That must be painful. And ironic.”

“I never would have guessed how painful. Isn’t it painful for you?”

“Oh no, I don’t particularly care. My race lives a long time, and slavery is temporary.”

“Really, what’ll change it?”

“Something will. Maybe gathering rank, or maybe we’ll be sold to someone who frees us, or maybe we'll have a talent the pirates can use, and they’ll reward us with freedom. One thing we can count on is that life always changes.” She smiled. “So what did you do after the military?”

“I came back to ‘the world,’ as we called home then. I went to visit a friend in Oregon, a very liberal state, and the visit grew into staying there. It was great. We were young, and we were hippies, and the mating dance was going fast and furious. I made my living for awhile by making things out of stained glass and selling them at a local craft market.”

“You were living the bohemian life?”

Hank laughed. “Yes, indeed. While we could. Then I got married. That was a learning experience. And I became a veterinarian, a doctor for animals. That's been good. And a few years ago I took up hang-gliding, and I’ve been doing that off and on for three years now. Which was fulfilling a childhood dream for me. I’ve wanted to fly since I was a kid.”

"How odd not to be able to fly. I've been able to fly since I was an infant. It's so joyful."

"Isn't it?"

“Hang-gliding must have been a powerful experience for you.”

“Yeah, it was, and in odd ways. After I'd been flying for awhile I realized I wasn't doing it just for the joy of it. I was also partly doing it to defy death. One of the things I learned in life is that everyone dies. On Dirt death is a fact of life that’s much avoided and ignored. People there act like they’re going to live forever. It’s very odd.”

“Indeed,” chirped Epfid’l. “Well, I don’t think you’ll find it’s ignored out here among the pirates.”

Hank frowned sarcastically. “Why don’t I find that comforting?”

Epfid’l laughed, which sounded like a percolator bubbling. "Who said anything about comforting, you poor dear."


~*~

One day Werx and Zhanin, two of the other organics in their class, inveigled Hank into helping them play a joke on Hofnog. The ran the gauntlet to one of the kitchen pods, and there they prepared a chocolate balloon. That’s what Hank thought of it as, anyway. It was a fragile plastic sack the size of a grapefruit, full of something dark and sticky and edible.

Hank’s job was to lure Hofnog out of the dorm pod, and he thought he was doing great till he turned around to tell the guys Hofnog was coming and saw the chocolate balloon getting very large very fast.

He went to the nearest water-pod and washed up, cursing and feeling sorry for himself. Ronam came wandering in and was interested in the new vocabulary, but then Hank was too embarrassed to continue.

Hank didn’t feel like talking to anyone, which Ronam blithely ignored. “I’m like you in some ways, space-bug,” he said. “I know a lot of martial arts, but I’m a relative newcomer. I got shanghaied in Reefstop a couple months ago, and I’m still trying to get my space legs. This ship’s a lot different than anything I’ve done before.”

Hank grinned ironically in spite of himself. “Me, too.”

“The only thing I managed to bring with me is my collection of ship models.”

“You mean space ships?”

“Well, of space ships mostly, but also some atmospheric and surface vessels. I have a Janogian sailing ship that... Actually, would you like to see them?”

“Sure.”

Ronam took him through the main hall, dodging the booby traps effortlessly, and then along branching tunnels to his pod. It was small, hardly bigger than a camping trailer, and clinging to the wall were several hundred transparent balls the size of grapefruits. Ronam opened one and took out a model of an ornate space ship, looking like it could have been designed in ancient China, and handed it to Hank. “This is an early Transco war ship. It was used in the founding of the Zin Empire.”

He opened another. It looked like a black speedboat. “This is a Monorian racing speedster for the surface of hydrogen oceans.”

He opened another. It looked like a battleship whose deck was covered with palm trees. “This is a Mulgonian hatching ship. They had to bring the old growth forest with them when they went into space because their eggs won’t hatch anywhere else.”

He opened another, and another. The models were wonderful, some ornate and some simple, and all incredibly detailed. Ronam had trivia or bits of history for each one, and Hank caught glimpses of dramatic moments beneath ammonia oceans and high above methane clouds, battles across the surfaces of moons at 200 degrees below zero.

“What’s this one?” Hank asked, holding out a sleek one-alien ship.

“That’s a courier ship for the Kai mail runs. It was kind of like the Pony Express on your planet. These ships went through incredible danger to deliver love letters to a battalion of Xethrops who were trapped in a hyper-space canyon. Many poems have been written about their epic journey.”

“Cool.”

“Sometime I’d like you to tell me about Dirt ships. And maybe we could find pictures of them in the anthropologist’s data dump. I could make some Dirt models.”

“Sure,” Hank murmured. He was distracted by the model of a Minorian light cruiser that he had in his hand. Minuscule lights winked in the ports. “Let’s do lunch sometime.”


~*~

Epfid’l and Hank were doing lunch. “Did you know that Usip and Toogodda and Hofnog tied you up and dragged you off in order to test the Four Warrior Qualities?”

“What? No. What four warrior qualities?”

“It was a test to see where you are in martial arts training. Chinglad had us do it. The first warrior quality is patience, and the second is having a soft heart, and the third is being tricky and cunning. And you’ll like this: the fourth is detachment. In order to graduate from training we have to demonstrate at least a beginner’s mastery of all four.”

“What? We’re going to be tested? When? What happens if we fail.”

“Oh, fail once, and you go back and start over. Fail twice, and they chuck you out an airlock.” Epfid’l giggled.

Hank frowned. “Yeah, right. So how’d I do?”

“Oh, you failed on everything. You’re not patient: you raged like a Gowlian bull. And you’re not clever.”

“I’m not?”

“You didn’t figure out how to get loose, did you?”

She actually seemed to expect and answer. “Well, no.”

“And of course you aren’t gentle. You didn’t listen for the lesson at all.”

“Lesson? What lesson?”

“A warrior can take any situation as a training. So everything has a lesson, doesn’t it? And when it comes to pity, well, you suffer from the worst kind of self-pity. Boundless.” She sighed. “In short, you’re a totally helpless being, all wrapped up in your lack of character. It’s too bad, really.” She smiled sweetly at him. “But what can one do?”

The odd thing was that her bizarre opinions didn’t seem to go with her friendly attitude. He looked at her eyes, and suddenly it hit him that these aliens were people. He felt surprised. Without realizing it, he’d been thinking of the organics as animals, creatures without the kind of awareness people have. But her eyes were beautiful. They had golden irises.

Epfid’l could tell something was happening, and her smile changed. Suddenly he felt naked, which he was, and vulnerable too.


~*~

Epfid’l was in one of her forms with legs. She was crossing a gigantic bridge that arched through the sky. The sky was black with clouds and lanced by violet lightening bolts. She was with her mother and the dream guardians. The wind was rising, and they clung to the smooth surface as they crept forward. On the misty miniature waves crawled across the black ocean.

She woke in her hammock, and for a moment the wind was still blowing around her. She ran the gauntlet easily, without even thinking about it, and she found Hank at a table in the main lounge. He was trying to make a sandwich with two potato pancakes. Epfid’l went to the bar and got a basket of toasted fruit fritters that smelled like gardenias. Hank tried one, but they tasted like mud. "Ugh," he said.

"Delicious," Epfid'l replied.

“I’m glad I know you,” Hank said. “You’ve treated me like a friend, and I’ve been so freaked out about losing Dirt that I really needed a friend.”

“You’re welcome, cowboy,” Epfid’l said. “I need a friend, too. It’s been hard for me. Joining these pirates isn’t my idea of the good life. I’m hoping it will lead to the good life someday, but only the ocean knows.”

"Indeed," Hank said, and took a bite of his sandwich. "Everyone's seeking the good life."

"And by coincidence," said Epfid'l, "some find it. You can't eat coincidence, and you can't put it in the bank, but it can still save your life."


~*~

The Lyr hovered above a mighty spire in hyper-space. The spire was the remnant of an ancient hyper-volcano, and it glowed orange in a desolate landscape. The Lyr tasted the omens, and none of them told it where to find the Mefrina. Far away the hyper-lightening crackled in the purple clouds of anguish. Nearby, a flight of hyper-lightening-bugs swirled and wafted in the wind. The Lyr had no concept of patience, and it had no concept of quitting. So it waited without knowing it was waiting, knowing only that someday the omens of seeking and satisfaction would appear.


Back to Top


Chapter 6: Meeting



Jagung was aboard a titanic space-ship, in normal space, surrounded by a fleet of similar ships. He looked out a tall window at the other dreadnoughts. They were shaped like tombstones. Their color was white, and their surfaces were intricately textured, as though they'd been weathered by flowing water.

The fleet was flying past a ringed planet, and a subordinate was reporting to him. “The rings were settled even before the Zin Empire," he said, "and they were tuned long ago. That’s why they have so many colors.” Jagung turned to take another appreciative look out the window.


~*~

Jagung woke up. He turned in his hammock and used a computer screen to check in on the grapevine. Turned out it was about time for a meeting, and someone needed to go get Hank. Jagung volunteered, and he learned from the central computer that Hank was in one of the mess-pods beyond the main lounge. Jagung headed down the main hall to get him, easily avoiding the booby traps.

The ship was cruising along the main face of a Nyackian reef. Hank was hovering in front of a large computer view-screen, enjoying the view. Creatures too small to see made sparkles on the reef face.

“Hank, there you are. I’ve been sent to get you, cowboy. It’s time for the meeting.”

“What meeting?”

“Ooh la la. You don’t know? Me neither, but you’re supposed to be there.”

“Oh. OK.” Hank grabbed a handful of something resembling potato chips and followed Jagung. The chips were one of his favorite treats, next to the silver cookies. They didn’t have far to go, as the meeting was in the main lounge. When they came in, Hank was amazed to see hundreds of robots all whipping through the air, spinning and nearly colliding and whirling pellmell in the pod's open space like leaves in a whirlwind.

This was the first time Hank had seen the whole crew assembled. There were a lot of them, more than a thousand, with robots outnumbering organics three to one. The organics Hank saw were near the walls, watching and applauding. Jagung and Hank joined them.

The glissade of robots was fascinating. The shouts and hoots blended together into a roiling crowd sound. Some of the robots were changing direction by catching hands, and twirling like a square-dancing couple, and letting go. After watching awhile longer, Hank realized they were using the principles of tethering to speed up and slow down. They caught at tentacle’s length or arm's length and pulled in closer as they spun in order to speed up, or did the opposite to slow down. For the first time, Hank appreciated the robots’ power of communication. The evidence of it blossomed in an intricate flying dance before him.


~*~

After awhile the robot’s frolic slowed down, and they gradually formed into a hollow sphere. They gossiped in small groups until Captain Skrim floated to the center, waved his white arms and opened the meeting. “Alright, let’s begin,” he said. “First, Bos’n Splug will give us a situation report.”

Hank was looking around at the incredible variety of robot bodies when he noticed a robot change color. He was startled. It hadn’t occurred to him they might have that capacity. Nice option. The bos’n, who was a lime-green robot shaped like a barrel with telescoping arms, said, “Thank you, Cap’n. Well, since our recent smuggling run was successful, we are pretty much stocked up on supplies. So we can afford to hunt for awhile.” The crowd cheered. “Gringle me feathers, it’s a good time to hunt, as our treasure holds are 85% empty.”

Next came the Entertainment Committee’s report. This consisted, Hank was surprised to see, of films on the vision screens of embarrassing screwups caught by the ship’s own Candid Camera team. A chartreuse robot named Skeer waved his arms grandly as he narrated the clips, with the other Entertainment Committee members hovering by to share in the glory. Hank noticed Gowrung among them, all seven tentacles rippling with excitement.

“Welcome to I’ve Got a Secret! Let’s start right off, shall we? Well. Here we can see Spokelma in the Engineering Pod sleeping on the job while seven of his pod-mates defrill the confrabulator. Sweet dreams, Spokelma!

“And here we have Podunkin cruising into the bay with the speedster and knocking over, shall we count them?” The audience shouted, “One! Two! Three!” as on the screen three speedsters were sent tumbling from their parking spots.

“And what’s this? Here’s Pembly and Bumberd down in one of the supply pods that we hardly ever visit having recreational sex. It certainly looks like they’re enjoying themselves.”

Hank was startled. He didn't know the robots could have sex. It seemed to involve cables plugged into ports and orgasmic reactions.

Hank couldn’t understand most of the incidents, but from the waves of laughter sweeping through the audience he could see that this was a popular feature. Some of the foulups seemed to have been caught by chance, but most of them were evidently set up as pranks. Hank tried to study them to know what to watch out for, but it didn't help him as most of them made no sense.


~*~

“Enough of old business,” Captain Skrim said, his long white hair rippling as though in a wind. “Now on to the new business. Where’s Hank?”

Several thousand eyes focused on Hank. The sudden blast of attention made his blood run cold. He gulped.

“Let’s see now,” said Skrim. “Who wants to sum up the arguments to space him?”

Space him? What? Wait a minute! Hank felt like his head was spinning.

Gonifra, as head of life support, volunteered to present the summation. “It’s like this,” he rumbled. “We’ve got a closed system here with a foreign element introduced into it. Either the system has to expand to make a niche for this inadvertent invader, or the intruder has to be tossed out. Now personally, I always like to see a good spacing. Livens up the whole day. So here’s what we have to consider.

“A: His hostage value is gone. We had hoped to appease the Kai if we got caught in the preserve by having kept the aborigine alive. But we haven’t seen hide nor hair of the Kai, so evidently they don’t care.

“And 2: He has a hospital bill the size of the Empire and no way to pay it, of course, since he has no face.”

Hank interrupted. He didn’t know if this was permitted, but under the circumstances he didn’t care. “What do you mean I have no face?” he demanded in a tone of anxious outrage.

Captain Skrim answered him. “Our tokens of exchange here are based on prestige. Naturally, as a newcomer you’re like a newborn Squibling, a blank computer screen: all potential and no value.”

Gonifra continued the report. “And as we all know, Hank has no skills to contribute. He could have joined the hyper-space team, but he’s already too much inorganic for that. So common sense says we space him and be done with it.”

The crowd cheered.

Ack! “Wait,” Hank cried. “I have skills! I can learn!” The entire audience burst into laughter. The sound was so overwhelming that Hank was jolted into incoherence. The giggling and chortling took a long time to die down.

"And now," said Captain Skrim, "Chinglad will sum up the arguments for not spacing Hank."

Chinglad floated inward towards the middle of the sphere. She spread her hands. “I must beg you to spare this stupid boy. Now, I know that’s a lot to ask. Admittedly he’s lazy and slow, and he’s certainly not very smart. He’s shown no potential, and while he does have it to his credit that he’s shown some tendency for petty pilfering, this hardly outweighs his shameless self-indulgence. He may be known among the crew as The Whiner, but even so I ask you to save his life as an act of paradoxical wisdom. Unpredictability is power. To save him will have fractal effects even the Goddess of Coincidence can’t foresee. And how will we know what those effects might be unless we save his lazy ass? And besides, I personally feel some affection for this pathetic loser, so I beg you to let him live.”

At the mention of the word "coincidence" a murmer ran through the audience like a wave crashing on a shore. Chinglad floated back to the sphere.

Suddenly Hank realized that his life was at stake. They were talking about killing him as casually as stepping on an ant. He panicked, and suddenly he was begging. “Please don’t hurt me! Please don’t kill me!” He panted in desperation. The crew laughed with abandon, weeping with joy.

Ying drifted to the center and spoke up. “I'd like to bring up a point about our captive cowboy. Hank’s race must have some value, or the Kai wouldn’t have made their system a preserve. Perhaps we should hold onto Hank till we find out what that value is.” No one took this argument seriously, but it derailed them into a long discussion about how much Hank was actually worth. They finally decided he was worth about seven zilligs.

“How much is that in Dirt money?” Hank asked.

Gonifra spoke. “About four cents.”

“Well,” said Captain Skrim, “now we can hear from Hank. Can you give us any reason you should live?”

Hank blinked. His mind scrambled frantically. He considered pointing out that he knew things the crew didn’t know. But Ying had already said that, basically, and they’d laughed at Ying. He considered pleading that he was a unique being, but he didn’t want to endure the storm of laughter he could guess that would bring. The silence went on, and he couldn’t think of anything at all to say, even to save his life. He felt utterly desperate. And tongue-tied.

“Well,” said Skrim briskly, “it's time to vote.”

Epfid’l interrupted. “This isn’t fair! We organics should get to vote too.”

"I agree," shouted Hofnog, "Death is better than slavery, so I want to vote that we space him!"

"Does he have a family?" shrilled Usip. "Then I also want to vote that we space him!"

"What about me?" pealed Toogodda. "I want to vote both ways!"

"Wait a minute," shouted Hank. "What are you doing? You're supposed to vote for me!"

This quickly descended into an argument between the organics and robots, complaints of mistreatment and accusations of incompetence and malfeasance. The uproar mounted till it looked like a battle was about to break out. Hank couldn’t believe it. These guys were such amazing bungholes!

Captain Skrim interrupted, “Great Orfam's ghost! All the slaves will simmer down and be quiet, or you’ll be ejected from the meeting.” The organics shouted in response, and in the pod’s wonderful acoustics the sound became a roar.

“You’re out!” Captain Skrim thundered.

“No!” they roared back.

Battle broke out. Hank flattened against the wall, pressing into the flowers. The fight was over before he could figure out what was happening. His impression was that the organics gave a good account of themselves, but they were outnumbered three to one by beings far stronger. So it didn’t take long for them to be overpowered and trussed up and tossed out of the main lounge into the main hall. Epfid’l was the only one who was difficult to restrain. She kept changing shapes. But finally they got her contained, and the organics floated helplessly away along the tunnel.

The robots chatted happily and exulted as they waltzed back from the ejection, and they formed again into a loose sphere.

“You get to vote too, Hank,” Captain Skrim said. “Aren't you pleased? You're the only organic who gets to vote.”

Oh, great! Now they were going to vote!

The vote was taken on the grapevine, and therefore was silent to Hank. “Everybody else has voted," Captain Skrim said. "What’s your vote?”

“I vote that you don’t space me,” Hank said.

Skrim held up a hand for a moment, until the hum of conversation in the sphere died. And then in a dejected tone he said, “Well, I’m very sorry to tell you that, by a narrow margin, you’ve won survival and a lifetime of slavery. Death would have been so much kinder on you. You have my commiserations." Captain Skrim waved his arms. Hank felt numb and outraged at the same time.

“But on to more new business. The training period for the new organics is approaching an end. So who would be most upset by having to be Hank’s master?” This triggered a lively discussion, all of which Hank found so insulting that he felt angry and sullen, and the consensus finally settled on Spacrudda. Spacrudda sputtered with annoyance, which for the crew confirmed the rightness of their choice. They congratulated him on his new slave. He said he didn’t want one, and if he had to have one he’d take it out on the slave. The crew couldn’t have been more delighted.


~*~

Hank felt shocked. The inside of his body felt weak and trembly. He couldn’t believe the crew was so heartless, and yet he’d seen it with his own eyes. To be treated with such indifference felt like more than he could bear, and totally unfair. He’d heard stories of the robots in battle, and so he knew they killed. But this was wanton brutality. This was causing pain for the fun of it. He felt like crawling into a hole somewhere, but there was nowhere to go.

He hardly noticed the rest of the meeting. Seringoi from Data Engineering reported that a data crystal had been obtained from the harness the Zylosene left behind. The central computer had finally decoded it, and among other things there was information about a Kai treasure fleet. An excited hum swept through the audience. Of course it would be heavily guarded, but an agreement was quickly reached to go check it out anyway.

“Along the way," Seringoi continued, “it’d be a good idea to hunt for some more robot bodies. Our own reserves are low, and they’re low at Pirate’s Rest too, so we’d be paid a good price for any extras we find. Yes? OK?” Everyone thought this was a good idea.

The meeting was about to break up when Captain Skrim said there was one more piece of business. “I’m resigning as captain. Who wants to be captain next?” There didn’t seem to be much interest, but finally Bos’n Splug said he’d do it.

But that meant they needed a new bos’n, and who wanted to do that? Helmsman Thlad was interested, so he took the position. Thlad was a crimson-and-cream colored robot. Two globes were connected by a short flexible neck, and there were two eyes and two arms on each sphere.

The changes cascaded through the crew, and they finally ended up with Skrim in Life Support, Chinglad in Supplies and Tustom the new head of Command Intelligence. Hank couldn’t have cared less about any of this. He was weeping silently with despair.

When the meeting was over, Chinglad accompanied Hank back to the dorm pod. “I’m so sorry this happened to you, cowboy,” she said. “You certainly don’t deserve this kind of fabulous mistreatment.”

“It’s not fair.”

“No, it’s certainly not.”

“And I can’t do anything about it. I hate that.”

“Well, no, not unless you work your way up the prestige ladder enough to escape from slavery. And that will take a long, long time.”

“Oh great.”

“For now you’ll continue to live in the dorm-pod. When the training ends Spacrudda will start picking you up there every morning and taking you to work. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. You'll be working on the Scumtube Scraping Detail.” "Oh great," Hank thought, "the dreaded Scumtube Detail." She patted Hank on the back and flew off down the hallway.

Hank went into the pod. All his pod-mates were there, busily discussing the fight. They didn’t pay much attention to Hank, except that when he complained bitterly about the unfairness of it all they shouted boisterously in support. And then fell apart laughing.

Later that night, as he was drifting off to sleep, he felt Epfid’l slipping in with him and rebuttoning the netting. She slid into his cocoon of blankets. Her body temperature was a bit warmer than Hank’s, so it was cozy and soothing to hold her and be held by her as he drifted off to sleep.


~*~

Chinglad hovered in the center of her private pod, reflecting. She was thinking about the void she’d come from, and the attractions of the vaporous life. From that viewpoint Hank’s extremes of emotion were interesting to observe, like the human practice of watching fireworks, but she didn’t see them as something to solve or alleviate. She took them as indicators, like the scratching of an unhatched space-dragon on the inside of its eggshell. “Hank would be so unhappy to know that the point of all this,” she thought, “isn’t to get him to feel better. It’s to get him to hatch.” She found that both touching and amusing, and therefore ironic. "What a sweet boy," she thought.


Back to Top


Chapter 7: Slavery



Hofnog scooped mud from the trough and threw it at places that needed strengthening. The structure was a space station, and it was made of mud and ropes and sticks. It floated a planetary diameter above a water-ocean planet, which was blue and white and lovely as a dream. From a distance the station looked a cluster of purple warbler’s nests. Other Ragrak were coming up from the planet with rocket packs on their backs, towing sacks of sticks or mud or water. Others dropped whistling down in the long fall, going back for more. Hofnog continued working, caught up in a creative fire.


~*~

There continued to be martial arts practice in the afternoons, but mornings now became work detail. The only interruption was that once in a great while someone would think they caught a glimpse of the stowaway and sound the alarm. "He looked like a shadow," the sighter might say, "but then he slipped away." A ship-wide search would boil into action, with much disruption and chaos and shouting and whooping. But no actual trace of the stowaway was ever found, and Hank and the other organics would regretfully go back to their chores.

Hofnog woke up one morning and got out of his hammock to go with Hank on work detail. Spacrudda was an unusual robot, in that he didn't have a single body. He looked like six silvery tennis balls orbiting around each other. And when he talked, it sounded like six voices in unison. He took them to a holding pod for liquids and set them to scrubbing glop off the walls, sucking up the floating suds with a hose. As they worked, Hank complained about the endless life-boat drills, and how almost everything they had to do was sloppy and messy and smelled bad. The problem with the life-boat drills was that the life-boats were the size of coffins and gave Hank the creeps. It reminded him too much of drowning in the medical tank.

“What bothers me,” Hofnog said, “is that there’s no hope of ever escaping. All my life I’ve been trying to escape, and still I haven’t done it. When I was a cadet I escaped from the domes into space. Then I wound up in a merchant school, and I had to escape that. So I was clever: I flunked out for rowdiness and escaped into a life of petty crime. Finally I thought I had made it. For years I was a carrier, and I had a fine time, but then one day we were busted in a massive way. I mean, truly massive. Those of us who escaped the roundup had to flee into the reefs. I almost died a number of times, but I finally made it to Pirate’s Rest. And you know what? Again I thought I had escaped. Again I thought I was free. Until I made the mistake of signing onto the Mefrina. They didn’t even have to shanghai me. What a good joke on me! It wasn’t until we got into space that the crew told me I was a slave.”

“Well," said Hank, "you sound like you're an expert at escaping. Isn't there some way to escape from the ship?”

“Not that I’ve found. For one thing, escape to where?”

Hank blinked. “There's no place to go?”

"Not that I've found. And certainly no place better."


~*~

Hank was standing on a riverbank. The river was wide and green. On the other bank a grassland stretched away endlessly to the horizon. On this side a wide strip of sand separated the river from a wall of forest. Hank heard a sound like low thunder coming from up-river. He watched until he saw a heard of dinosaurs come around a bend, in a shuffling trot, their long necks undulating. Hank ran for the trees. He barely made it in time, and he climbed one. From his perch he watched the herd stampeding by.

Then he noticed something odd in the river, and climbed higher to see. A pod of whales was accompanying the dinosaurs on their migration.

When they’d passed, Hank climbed down and ran after them, seized by a strange yearning. He bounded effortlessly along the sand till a hand caught his arm and swung him to a stop. A purple robot hung in the air before him.

What? A quiver of confusion swept through him. The robot was saying something, and Hank had to go through an intense internal struggle, like pushing forward through tangible darkness, before something popped and he could suddenly hear Chinglad’s voice.

“Wake up, Hank,” she said. “Wake up, cowboy.” For a moment he knew what she was asking him to do, and it scared him so badly that he jolted awake. Only something was wrong. Now Chinglad wasn’t a robot anymore, she was a small purple blimp. “Now stay asleep,” she said. “That’s right. You’re doing well. Right here in the middle there’s a place where you’re awake and asleep at the same time.”

The balance was delicate, and he quickly lost it. But each time he fell away, Chinglad dragged him back. “You have to learn how to do this by yourself,” she told him. “I can’t carry you forever, you know.”

Eventually she decided he’d had enough, and dropped him into deep sleep. He fell away from her like a skydiver from an airplane and disappeared into ordinary dreaming.


~*~

The next morning Hank woke up frightened. It took him a few minutes to think why, and then he remembered Chinglad coming into his dream and waking him up. Only not exactly waking him up. What in the world was that?

His pod-mates were stirring. Hank put on his harness, and the dream drifted away as he got interested in what they were saying. They were deep in discussion about an escape plan. It had become their latest fad.


~*~

Stars in real space caused immense spires in hyper-space that towered up out of the Blakian plain Mefrina was crossing. Other ships had been glimpsed in the distance from time to time, across the plain and among the towers, but none had been seen close by. Mefrina stayed in a Fanuppian channel most of the time, to avoid being spotted. The baby pods played around her.

The crew hadn’t found any robot bodies, but they had dropped down a derelict wormhole into real space, and after a brisk battle, they'd taken a ship that was carrying supplies to an outlying Fanupian colony. That partially filled the storage pods. The only organic on board the supply ship was the pilot. Since he was a hot-body, he was thrown into a dorm-pod with other suited organics. "Welcome to the Mefrina. Welcome to change of status. Now you're a slave."


~*~

One day Hank had to do inertial engine maintenance. Spacrudda was teaching him the procedures, and bopping him on the top of his head when he didn’t pay attention. Hank hated Spacrudda, but he found the engine interesting. It was in a huge housing against the front wall of the bridge, which was the leading pod for the entire ship.

“How does it work?” Hank had asked at the beginning.

“It’s an inertial engine. You know what that means?” When Spacrudda spoke, it was like six musical saws.

“No. They don't have these on Dirt.”

“It’s an engine that can keep accelerating no matter how fast you’re going. Chemical rockets aren’t inertial. They have a top speed.”

“You mean the Minefra has no top speed?”

“That’s right.”

“But.... You mean we can go faster than light?”

“Sure. Well, we could. Except for one little problem. Anything that goes the speed of light turns into light.”

“You mean we’d explode?”

“No. We’d turn into a beam of coherent light. From which there is no return. But in practice, we can't go anywhere close to the speed of light anyway. We'd have to be outside the galactic cluster to find a hard enough vacuum to do that. All space is filled with dust. As you approach the speed of light the matter in space becomes a solid wall, for all practical purposes.”

“There’s that much matter in outer space? What, hydrogen?”

“No. Carbon mostly. Soot from the stars. Stars don’t burn totally smoke-free, you know. That’s why the only effective way to get around is hyper-space.”

“Oh.”

Since the ship was in hyper-space, the inertial engine wasn’t in use, and Spacrudda had Hank and Toogodda and some of the suited organics strip it down for maintenance. Mostly that meant they took off hatches and crawled into the huge machine. Inside it there were gigantic off-weight flywheels to inspect for cracks, bearings to inject with lubricant, and a complicated mechanism like the legs of a praying mantis to push and pull on the axle. The axle itself was thicker than Hank’s body, and seemed to be made out of a gigantic blue saphire. Curiously, whenever he was in the engine Hank saw flickering fires out of the corners of his eyes, but when he looked directly at them they weren’t there.

Spacrudda showed Hank the battery fish that supplied power for the engine, and it was Hank's job to feed them. They reminded him of fat chickens in the way they chirped at him. One of Hank’s chores when he’d been a boy on the farm had been to take care of the chickens, and he’d hated it. In fact, his present situation reminded him way too much of life on the farm. And of why he’d run away to the city. Endless chores. His father had once said, “It’s good if you like doing chores, because that’s mostly what life consists of.” To Hank that had sounded dismal at the time. Now it sounded downright despairing. These pirate robots seemed to have the same basic philosophy. Too bad they didn’t kidnap a farmer instead of a city boy, someone who was used to slavery, someone with a taste for it.

Well, Hank had to be honest. Actually it was the Zylosene who kidnapped him. The pirates just took advantage.


~*~

A few days later Spacrudda was having a meeting with the Captain about the possibility of introducing a new flower into the ship's ecosystem. So Ying was Hank's supervisor.

Hank was complaining about feeling helpless. "I'm such a failure," Hank said.

"Of course you are," Ying replied. "We all are. Failure is built into this reality. It's impossible to avoid mistakes and accidents."

"Well, you're not a failure. You're very successful."

Ying wiggled her tentacles. "It depends what you mean by success. I was born on a planet so overpopulated that there was endless city, hundreds of stories deep, covering the entire surface. I never liked it, and my goal from the time I was a hatchling was to get off the planet. So at that point success was escape."

"It must have been easy for you to detach from your homeworld then," Hank said. "You had nothing to lose, right?"

"It took me a long time to learn I had nothing to lose. At the time I thought I had everything to lose. I tried for the university, and failed. So I joined the police. They tried me at various jobs, and I failed at all of them until we got to the bottom job. It turned out what I was good at was going undercover and infiltrating the smugglers and pirates that plagued our system. Well, I had fun being a pirate. For the first time I felt successful. When I realized I had a better life as a pirate than I did as a cop, the rest was obvious. I'd already built up a false identity as Ying the Smuggler, so I faked my death as a policeman and made the switch. I did fairly well, and when I died I had a robot body standing by. Personally, I think it's the pirates' life that's the wonderful life."

"So what you're telling me is that success and failure are random?"

"Not at all. They're determined by coincidence. I'm saying that the ladder of success goes down as well as up, and all the best jobs are at the bottom."

"What? That's ridiculous."

"Isn't it though?" Ying said smugly.


~*~

Gowrung zoomed down the main hall and did a sliding turn into the hallway leading to the organic dorms. He decelerated and peeked through the stomata into Hank’s pod. Hank was in his hammock eating cookies and watching a documentary about the Zin Empire on a computer screen. Toogodda was in her hammock, and she perked up when she saw Gowrung. He gave her the high sign and dashed away.

“Wow! Hank! You gotta listen to this,” Toogodda called. She squirmed out of her hammock and flew to his. She handed him her home-made radio, and he put one of the earphones to his ear. He heard a human voice. It took a bit to realize the voice was speaking English, with a heavy Hindi accent. “...over? Is anyone listening out there? Yes? Katiri Sindaki here, call sign FWB 0791. Is anyone responding? Over?...”

“What is this?” Hank asked, “a ham radio operator?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“This is an old signal out of the past?”

“No, occasionally you get flukes in the hyper-folds, and you can catch present time. “You can tell by the drain on the giga-meter here....”

Hank listened some more. Slowly the picture emerged of a war having been fought, a world war. Hank forgot about eating and with growing dread listened for clues in the radioman’s rambling pleas for a response. The war seemed to have been atomic. America and Europe and Russia were devastated.

“This is a movie track you’re picking up, right?” Hank asked. “A radio show?” Toogodda fiddled with her equipment and insisted the signals were from a ham radio.

Toogodda took Hank to the ship’s radio pod to get some help. The robots in the Communication Pod pitched in gladly, and they quickly found the same signal with their equipment. They found a couple other signals too, and through a long night’s vigil it gradually became clear that humankind on the Earth was plunging into darkness. They might be going back to feudalism or even all the way to the stone age, but civilization was a thing of the past. Hank wept in despair. Now there was no home to go home to. The loss was so staggering he felt like he was teetering on the edge of insanity. Toogodda tried to comfort him, “Isn’t it great that you got kidnapped and therefore survived? What a piece of good luck, right?” But Hank just cried.

Neither of them noticed Gowrung slide into the pod. Gowrung hovered and rubbed his tentacles in satisfaction. Toogodda noticed him first, and Hank noticed her attention shift. He turned. “What?” he thought. “What’s Gowrung doing here? He’s on the Entertainment Committee....”

A sudden suspicion swept through Hank, like crystallization through a super-saturated solution. “What?” he yelled. “Is this a trick? You damned bastards! You damned sneaky cursed robots....” Hank could no longer speak.

Neither could the radio operators or Toogodda or Gowrung, who were incapacitated by laughter. Hank just knew this would all be on the vision screen at the next crew meeting. When he got his voice back he explained fiercely to Gowrung how wrong this was. Gowrung loved every moment of it, and encouraged him to express himself fully.

Hank and Toogodda want back to the dorm-pod. Along the way Hank said, “I notice you were in on this too.”

“Oh yes, cowboy,” said Toogodda. “It was too good to miss. You’d have done the same if you were in my position, wouldn't you?”

Hank didn’t know what to say to that. Even though it had turned out to be a prank, the night of fear had left him feeling a great emptiness, a looming sense of dread. He couldn’t tell if it was in his belly or in the universe. Along with the anger and betrayal he was feeling, a cold fear blew through him like a winter wind through a corn-field.


~*~

Hank was standing in a doorway, looking out at the snow falling. Each flake sparkled as it tumbled, so the whole sky was filled with a vast soundless sparkling. Back behind him, down the hall, some guys were setting fire to a piano in the bathroom, and laughing. Party sounds came from all over the fraternity.

A little green bird came fluttering down through the snowstorm, dipping and rising like a falling leaf. It twirled down toward Hank, and it came to a stop right in front of him, hovering in the cold air. The odd thing was that it didn’t flap its wings as it hung there. The wings were a darker green, and they were folded against its body.

Even odder were the bird’s eyes. They were the darkest of greens, almost black, and their gaze was riveting. With an inner twisting surge that Hank half-recognized as it was happening, he woke up halfway, so that he was awake and asleep at the same time. The bird clicked its beak in acknowledgement and amusement, and then it flew off. When he didn’t follow her, she came back and scolded him, fluttering around his head.

She took off again, and in two looping steps he took off and flew after her. He flew in a seated position, feet out front, as though he were driving an invisible flying car. They soared through clouds, and vast spaces tinted pink and amber, where memories blew in the wind like aromas. The bird danced through the air, and he followed her down to a rocky mountainside.

There she showed him a cave, and not only showed it to him but drove him into it, darting around him like a fierce tiny warrior. The cave was a round tunnel, like the ship’s hallways, but there were no flowers, and the walls glowed with a bluish light from within. The green bird continued to lead the way, dipping and looping in celebration, and Hank swam through the air after her.

They passed turns and branchings and came to a room. It was small and almost dark. Light filtered in from the hall and reflected off a mirror on the far wall. Hank looked more closely, and saw that the mirror wasn’t on the wall. It was more like a puddle of mercury in the wall. Then he noticed with a jolt of fear that the pool had the same shape as the silhouette of his own body, as though there were a light behind him projecting his pattern onto a screen. He swam closer to look at it, and a sudden shove from behind propelled him right into it. Damn that bird!

For a split second he felt immensely compressed, and then he popped through and found himself standing in a green valley. A small spot of air suddenly writhed, and ejected the green bird. She bopped him on the head and scolded him, but her tone was satisfied rather than irritated.

Then she sang a sudden clear tone like a bell, and a whirlwind carried him away. There was a bright flash, and he was in the dorm-pod, hanging in the air near his hammock. But something didn’t feel quite right. Something was different. Then Hank realized he was still both awake and asleep, but he didn’t seem to be in dream-time anymore.

He was so frightened he got into his hammock and pretended to be asleep.

In an hour the double feeling had faded, and he was just awake in the normal sense. Curiously, not until then did he hear a single sound from the rest of the ship.

Hofnog and Epfid’l came in, but he didn’t feel like talking. They seemed to sense it, and they left him alone.

In a moment of sudden realization, Hank saw that this dream-time stuff was real. Robot mysticism, for Pete’s sake. Ridiculous, but unfortunately as real as frostbite. He'd been doing it without believing it. But wake-time and dream-time were equally real. Bad news. The arenas in which Hank could screw up were suddenly twice as many.

“This dream-time stuff is actually real, isn’t it?” Hank said bitterly to Epfid’l and Hofnog.

“Sure,” snorted Hofnog. “You didn’t know that?”

“Oh yes,” smiled Epfid’l. “That’s the first great discovery. Congratulations.”

“On what?”

“On entering the wider world. Before this you were only half a person, and now you’re beginning to claim your birthright.”

“But how can it be my birthright when I don’t know how to do anything.”

“Oh, you’ll learn. Same way everyone does." She giggled. "By making mistakes.”

“Well, thank you very much. That’s no comfort.”

Epfid’l burst out laughing, and the percolator sound of her laughter suddenly relaxed Hank and cheered him up. Sure he was lost in space with a bunch of lunatics, and everything he believed about reality had been turned on its head, but so what? What did he have to lose that he hadn’t already? He’d been humiliated so often he hardly even had his pride to lose anymore. And, as far as that went, actually, what did he have to gain? Interesting question. Now of that he hadn’t even the foggiest notion.

“At least you’re good at something,” Hofnog said, and wrinkled his horn. “You’re a whiz at making mistakes.” He laughed like a teakettle full of ball bearings.


Back to Top


Chapter 8: Disks



Epfid’l was in her space form, a black ovoid, although she wasn’t in space. She frolicked among cylindrical clouds. The sunrise light among the clouds was beautiful. She felt a downward yearning and dove from the light down into a layer of gray roiling turbulence. Then the dimness opened out into vast black tunnels, with tiny lights embedded in the walls. Unlike stars, they twinkled.

Suddenly, as if it were easy, she remembered she was dreaming. She remembered her instructions from Chinglad, and was happy she was already in the tunnels. Finding them took care of the first four steps of the directions.

Epfid’l shifted into her alligator form as she slowed down. She looked around. She was searching for a power animal, and so she needed omens to follow. A small flock of tiny yellow birds zipped past, and she followed them, streamlining into her porpoise shape to keep up. The flock stopped to drink at a pond on the tunnel wall. Epfid’l let them go on, and considered for a moment. Then she sank into the pond.

She fell with a whump onto a sandy cave floor, transforming into a shape like a blue panther. Outside the cave’s mouth stretched a sandy desert. On a rock near her crouched a white lizard, doing pushups.

“What did you bring me?” he asked in a voice like sandpaper.

Epfid’l took a gem from a pouch in her body and gave it to him. “It is an honor to meet you,” she said.

“And a delight to have my student finally arrive.” Quick as thought the lizard scampered across the sand and up Epfid’l’s body to pat her face with his tiny hands. “I will be so happy to teach you many things."

Epfid’l felt thrilled. It had been a long search.


~*~

Epfid’l woke up and shook herself. She morphed into a lizard form, slithered out of her hammock and ran the gauntlet to the main lounge. After a breakfast of flowers, garlic and fruit fritters she was due to go on hyper-drive duty. In the evening her mom was throwing a party, and Epfid’l considered as she ate whether or not to go.

Respfid’l was decorating a medium-sized pod for a poker party. The game had spread through the ship and become a fad. Respfid’l was extravagant and practical by nature, and she loved to throw parties. She’d been doing it so long she was nearly unflappable. So of course people organized grandiose pranks in an effort to disturb her composure, and when they succeeded she giggled along with the pranksters.

She asked Hank to help her with a theme for the decorations. He was still so upset from the meeting that Epfid'l had to sweet-talk him into helping. Out of their consultation came draped green and red velvet along the walls, and sparkly lights floating in the air. Epfid'l had to drag Hank to the party, and he didn't really have a good time till Respfid'l introduced him to some mild psychedelics that worked on his particular physiology. It was the first time he'd been stoned since he'd joined the pirates, and he let go and relaxed and was happy. He drifted among robots and aliens and diaphanous imaginary fireflies, and it was all good.


~*~

One morning in the middle of shoveling sklop in a yucktube it occurred to Hank to wonder where his car was. "Wait a minute," he thought, "whatever happened to my MG?" That evening Toogodda and Hofnog and Epfid’l volunteered to help him find it.

“First you have to clear it with the Entertainment Director,” Epfid’l said, so they wandered all over the ship till they found Skeer.

“How can I find what happened to my car?” Hank asked.

“I don’t know,” Skeer said, “but I better come along and document this.” He grabbed a computer screen to use as a camera. “But before we start you’ll have to clear it with Captain Splug.”


~*~

They tracked down the Captain in a steam lounge for robots, and he sent them to Ying. Ying was playing an exotic form of poker in one of the gaming lounges, but he said, “No, no, this is all wrong. You need to see Bamdundle, head of supplies.” The central computer located the supplies master in one of the rare viewing pods on the surface of the ship, and they were distracted for awhile into looking at the view of the Gambian cliff that Mefrina was falling slowly past. Bolts of lightening rolled down the cliff face like tumbleweeds.

“Go see Spinkle in sub-sub-supplies,” Bamdundle said, in a voice like walking on gravel. It took them half an hour to find Spinkle, who sent them to Records Keeper Gleeb, who forwarded them on to Sub-Master-of-Storage-Allocation Flundon, who passed them on to Priority-Allocator Bangwin, who cleared them for immediate action and sent them to Gofor Salmington. “Yeah, I’ve got it right here,” said Salmington, caressing the nearest computer screen with a flipper to fish through his files. “It’s in a little pod named Beebly, out on the surface.”

The central computer told them where to make turns, and they made their way into a little-used part of the ship. Hofnog slapped on the stomata to ask it to open, and he waved his arms grandly. “There it is,” he said.

Hank’s yellow car was tethered by gravity beams in the middle of the pod. He felt shocked to see it again. He drifted to it and opened the front door. He pulled himself into the seat and strapped himself in with the seat belt. He took ahold of the steering wheel with both hands and looked out the windshield and burst unexpectedly into tears. Hofnog and Toogodda made some witty remarks about his crying, but he didn’t really hear them. The rush of yearning for home and familiarity overpowered him like an ocean wave.

He got out of the car, tears flowing. “This is my car, guys,” he said. "It was a great little car. And this on top here is my hang-glider.”

“Hoowie, that’s a glider?” asked Epfid’l.

“Well, it’s folded up now. It unfolds to a wingspan of 34 feet. It’s called a Comet, and it’s a sweet glider. I’ve had a lot of wonderful times with her.”

“It’s a female?” asked Hofnog.

“On Earth all ships are female, whether water-ships or air-ships.”

“How do they reproduce?” Toogodda asked.

“They’re not alive. They’re just machines.”

“What?” Toogodda was aghast. “How shockingly primeval.”

“It is? Why?”

“It's easy to forget that you’re an aborigine, and the planet you come from is primitive beyond belief. I mean, I know it makes sense to keep Dirt isolated so it can be studied, but this is ridiculous. Dirt should be freed so it can modernize.”

“It would never survive,” Hofgnog said. “It’s not a transition that every primitive planet can make.”

Epfid’l laughed. “Oh, Dirt might surprise you. Hank has surprised us already.”

Hank was startled. “I have? How?”

“You’re such a sweetie,” she said, and laughed again.


~*~

Hank flew around to the back and opened the trunk. His compact disks were still there, still in their paper bags. Epfid’l helped him tow them back to the dorm, while Hofnog and Toogodda and Skeer went off about their various nefarious businesses. Skeer went back to the editing pod to shape another piece for I’ve Got A Secret.

Hank checked for damage, and found a few of the cases were cracked, but he didn’t find any broken disks. “Wow,” he said. “Phoenix, and Minute by Minute, the first Dire Straits album, Asleep at the Wheel, Jefferson Airplane. These are all old friends to me. They meant a lot.” He kept looking through them, and pretty soon disks were floating all over the chamber and drifting out into the hall. Epfid’l tittered and got a net bag out of her storage bin and started putting them in it. She had it halfway filled when she laughed again and said, “I think I love you.”

“What?”

“Well, I think I’m infatuated with you anyway.”

“Wow.”

“Do you like me?”

“Of course I do, but I never thought of you in that way.”

"What way? You mean romantically? Or sexually?"

"Uh... yeah."

“Well, maybe this will change your mind. I have a little surprise for you. I researched the female of your species, and she looks like this.”

And Epfid’l morphed into a woman. She was still translucent and blue, and she didn’t have hair, but otherwise there was suddenly a naked woman hanging in the air in front of him. With large amber eyes.

Hank gulped. “Yes,” he managed to say. “Now I’ve thought of you that way.”

Epfid’l made her way sinuously through the air till her blue breasts touched his chest. “Would you like to make love with me, cowboy?”

Hank had a hard time speaking. “Can we do that? I mean, yes.”

“Great.” She grabbed his harness and towed him off down the hall to a little pod where she knew they could be alone. "You're such an anachronism," she said. "I've read on Dirt sex is supposed to be private." They tried kissing. Hank had to help Epfid’l a bit with the tongue and interior of the mouth. Teeth were hard for her. And he had to help her with the nipples. “Oh, you want erectile tissue there? OK.” And later he had to help her a bit with the interior of the vagina. "It should be able to squeeze you? Oh, alright."

Making love in zero gravity was a trick, but they managed it. Her emotions were so powerful that Hank could feel them in his own body. When Epfid’l came, her orgasms were so strong they sent ripples through her body like waves across a pond. When Hank came, she cried out with pleasure.

Epfid’l didn’t know why she loved Hank. Perhaps it began with taking care of him. Perhaps it was partly from the way he was funny most of the time and didn’t know it. Perhaps it was in part from a feeling that someday he’d amount to something. Now he was about as effective among the pirates as a beached porpoise-form, but she had the feeling he could learn.

Some spark had caught fire, and as a result she wanted to interfuse. She couldn’t literally do that with him the way she could with her own race, but this sex thing was another way to the same blended oneness. How clever of organics everywhere to have invented it.

Epfid’l had been in love before, mostly on the water-ship, but never with one being at a time. She wasn’t the outcast her mom had been. She’d swum with schools of her peers, frolicking in lengthy informal orgies. Sexual relationships in the school shifted like water. It was odd to have sex with one person. This feeling with Hank didn’t have that comfortable, drifting, oceanic quality. Hank himself was such a dry creature, a typical speedy land dweller. But in him she found it charming. Something about him had captured her passion. Perhaps it was because he himself was passionate, though he didn't seem to know it yet. She never would have guessed that she could love an alien. “What an odd adventure,” she thought.

It didn’t occur to her to wonder if their love would last. She had no conception of relationship in that sense. She assumed relationships were temporary, and how long they’d last was as unpredictable as the ocean.

That night when Hank went to sleep he wrapped some of his disks in a blanket and held them in his arms. Jagung’s light faded out, and Hank drifted off to sleep. His thoughts were of Epfid’l, and then his dreams were too. A blue woman with amber eyes danced and played with him through the old-growth forests of Oregon, and then flew with him among the mighty redwoods. She sang old rock and roll songs, accompanied by an orchestra. Somehow the orchestral music seemed to come out of the trees themselves. And the air danced along with them.


~*~

Hank zigged and zagged along the main hall to get some lunch. He found Toogodda hovering by a table having a milkshake and some fried insects. Hank joined her with a sandwich he'd taught the bartender how to make and some seeds that were crunchy and fried.

"What's your first memory?" Hank asked.

"Being taken to the Sulio after my second metamorphosis. That was so striking I remember it yet. The Sulio is the sacred nesting place of the Eskers, and in those days they still took us when we were in the lobster phase to see the central egg mass. They don't let anybody see it anymore. It was an amazing sight! All piled up white and blue, a gigantic pile of glowing spheres. Even as a sprattling I knew this was the most precious thing in the universe, the center of Esker life. I was thrilled."

"Wow, I can't imagine that," Hank said, waving his sandwich. "In my race every female is born carrying a lifetime suppy of eggs. Anyplace you've got women you've got eggs."

"That seems so chaotic." Toogodda lapped up an insect with her long tongue. "How silly to give something so precious to individuals. The egg is the concern of the race, and individuals have no idea what the race is doing, don't you think?"

"I have to agree with that. Mine sure doesn't."

Toogodda didn't remember her days as a minnow, on the long migration to get to the shallowest parts of the sea, regions where the surface was covered for hundreds of kilometers by seaweed. Nor did she remember her days as a running frog, scampering across the seaweed's floating pads, or sunbathing to soak up the radiation that would trigger the next metamorphosis. To run, to eat, to escape death lunging up through the sargasso, these were wonderful things! They were the juice of life.

"What's your earliest memory?" she asked.

"I remember when I was a kid that I lived in a state of wonder," Hank said. "Everything was wonderful. Ordinary life was marvelous. But my earliest actual memory is that I was riding in a car with my mom and my two younger sisters. It was night, and winter, and there was a full moon. We were way out in the prairie, and we had a flat tire. So my mom pulled over to the side of the road and put on her scarf and her galoshes, and told me she was going to walk back a half mile to a repair shop and get some help. 'Take care of your sisters,' she said. She walked away, and I looked at my sisters, and I looked at the snow-covered prairie. And I said to myself, 'Protect them from what?' It was the moment I realized there are dangers in life."

"I remember that state of wonder when I was young," Toogodda said. "I wonder if that's common to the young of all races?"

Hank tossed a nut into his mouth. Since it went straight it was easier to do than when in gravity. "I'd guess it is, but what do I know?"

"Ah, that remains to be seen," Togodda smiled. "When I grew up I was chosen to go into the highest calling of all: crime."

"Say what?"

"Isn't that the way it is on Dirt?"

Hank looked at Toogodda blankly. "Well, actually, I guess it mostly is. But we don't say so out loud."

"Crime isn't honored on Dirt? Holy Orp, what kind of culture do you have?"

"I don't know. I never had another one to compare it to before, so it seemed normal."

"Well, I don't think you need to worry about seeming normal to the rest of the galaxy. What's normal in my culture is to consider the highest calling to be service to the egg mass."

Hank squinted. "I guess people on Earth are loyal to their children, sort of. We seem to be a race composed mostly of predators."

Toogodda waved her crest fins in surprise. "Sacred Egg! I would think that would generate endless war and make civilization impossible."

Hank grinned mirthlessly. "Yeah, I guess it sort of does."

"There is some consolation," Toogodda said. "You have sex. In my race we all come from the egg clump, and so we never have sex in our lives. I've heard of sex. In fact, I've heard all about sex, endlessly, from you egg-carriers. You go on and on. It sounds messy and confusing and great."

"Oh, it is great," Hank said, thinking of Epfid'l.

"And it sounds like it's the source of endless trouble, too."

"Oh, it is," Hank said, thinking of his ex-girlfriends. "Every new relationship is a new way to screw up."


~*~

The next morning Hank was getting out of his hammock when a ball of fur the size of a kitten jetted into the pod. "Look out," Usip trilled. "That's a carnivorous animal! It'll bite you!" Hank pulled the netting closed again, but the pest came right through the netting like it wasn't there. Hank exploded out his hammock and caromed off the far wall. The kitten came after him. Toogodda tried to snag the creature in a net bag, and missed, and the fuzzball left deep scratches across her ribcage. Usip whirled past, his tentacles outspread. He caught the critter by its wings and held it spread out. It reminded Hank of a fuzzy bat with talons.

Hank had scratches, and so did everyone but Epfid'l. Hers had already closed. They all headed for the infirmary. "That was great," Usip crowed.

"It was what?"

"You didn't think that was great? What a ribald prank. I'll bet the tricamerals did it. They have a real sense of humor."

They went to the infirmary and got patched up, and then they ran the gauntlet to breakfast.

After the morning work session, Hank breezed off along the halls to find Epfid'l. Ever since they'd made love, they'd been sneaking off whenever they could to have sex. But at the moment he had something else to ask her.

He found her in the maternity pod with the baby seals. "Hey Epfid'l," he said, and gave her a kiss. She'd found kissing an odd custom, and for awhile had taken to kissing him at every opportunity. "Is there some way I could play my disks? I mean, could somebody build a disk player or something?"

"A disk player? What do you mean play them?"

"Uh, well, if you play them it makes music. You know. Right?"

"What's music?"

"You don't know what music is?" Hank thought back, and he realized he hadn't heard a note of music since he came onto the ship. Except for the time he and Hofnog were singing in the algae tank. Could it be? "No one on this ship knows what music is? You've never heard music? Oh, well, we should do something about this."

“What does it mean to play them? Are they a new game?”

“No, they’re something you listen to.”

“You just listen? You don’t do anything?”

“Well, you can dance. Oh, you don’t know what dancing is either, do you?”

“It’s a primitive custom of gyrating the body in a rythmic way. That’s what it says in the anthropologist’s writings.”

Hank smiled. “Well, you could say the same thing about sex, too, but never-mind. Dancing's different. Anyway, sound waves are turned into computer code and stored on these disks. How can I turn them back into sounds?”

“Oh, it’s computer stuff? Then the guys in the Computer-Pod can probably help you.”

“Good idea. You wanna come along?”

“No thanks."

“OK, see you.” She kissed Hank, and he kissed her and went zooming off. He didn’t have far to go, since the organic dorms and the Engineering-Pod, the Radio-Pod and the Computer-Pod were all near the bridge. He found a lone robot on duty in the Computer-Pod, a robot he didn’t know.

“Hi,” said Hank. “I’m Hank.”

“Hi,” said the robot. He was green and segmented like a caterpillar and had fourteen arms. His eyes were pink and iridescent. “I’m Pagile. How are you doing?”

“OK. You?”

“Framdacious. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve got some computer data disks from Earth. I’m hoping you can read them.”

“I can try. I like a challenge.”

“Here’s one.” Hank opened a case and handed him a disk.

Pagile stabilized it in mid-air with a tractor beam and looked at it closely. “Oh, how curious.”

“I don’t know very much about the disks. I know there’s a lazer beam that shines on the mirrored side as it spins to read the data. I know there’s a spiral track that starts in the middle and winds around to the outside. It spins about 500 revolutions per minute at the beginning, and later at about 300. The track is composed of little raised bumps.”

Pagile magified his vision. “Yes, I see them.”

“What those bumps code for is an audio signal. Does that sound like something you could maybe read?”

“Do you know how the sound wave is encoded?”

“No.”

“OK. This could be tough, but I’ll put my best man on it, and we’ll give it a try. My best man is me.” Pagile put the face of the disk against the nearest computer sceen. “Computer, can you read the spiral track?”

“Yes.”

“Can you decode it into a soundwave?”

“Interesting,” said the computer. Pagile and the computer got into a rapid technical conversation, which then pulled in other people all over the ship by grapevine. Hank was lost about two sentences in, and fretted as he waited. Would they be able to do it?

Eventually the conversation wound down, and Pagile turned his attention back to Hank. “Yes,” he said. “I think we can do it.”

“That’s fabulous! When?”

“Well, now.” Pagile fiddled with several control boards, and suddenly the pod was filled with staticky sounds, and then a line of music, but played much too fast.

“Wait. That’s too quick. Can you slow it down? More? That’s about right. That’s terrific.” Hank looked at the pod’s stomata. It was closed. “Has anyone else heard this?” he asked Pagile. Pagile shook his head, and ripples went down his body. “I have an idea for a joke on the entire crew. Are you game?”

Pagile’s eyes twinkled. “Don’t I look game? What is it?”

As Hank told him what the idea was, Pagile practically glowed with satisfaction. “OK, we have to tell the Captain, but first let’s get this working right.”

They got the music playing at the right speed, and the computer figured out how to tell when songs began and ended. By the time Hank could request a song and the computer would play it, Pagile was acting like he was drunk. “That’s odd,” Hank thought. “I didn’t know robots could get drunk.” “Are you OK?” he asked Pagile.

“Who, me? I feel framdacious. This music stuff is phenomenal. I like it!”

“OK. Well, I’m going to go back to my dorm and figure out how to create a controller on a computer screen. I'll need buttons, and a table of contents.”

Pagile’s voice trembled in awe. “You have more of this music?”

“Oh, yes. I have about eighty disks or so.” Hank put the disk in the case and flew out the door and down the hall, not noticing that the robot he left behind was speechless and trembling.

Hank was humming to himself as he tried to set up a control screen. But it wasn't easy, so he went back to the Computer-Pod. There he found a new robot on duty. Her name was Franime. She looked more like a doll than a robot, with long pink hair and a monkey-like face.

“I was working on something with Pagile,” Hank explained. “I was hoping we could create some kind of remote control so I can communicate nonverbally with the computer....”

Franime puffed up like the kitten-creature the tricamerals had freed in the dorm. “What did you do to Pagile?” she demanded.

“Me? Nothing. Why? What’s the matter with him?”

“He’s gone temporarily insane. That's why I've had to take over here. His internal alarms went off, and we found him raving in the main hall. What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything. He seemed fine the last time I saw him. I mean, he seemed a little drunk. I thought that was odd.”

“A little drunk?”

“Yeah.”

Franime’s hair unfluffed. She plucked a small computer screen off the nearest wall. She asked the computer to scatter icons on the screen. Then she explained that Hank could ask the computer to save this screen and assign any function he wanted to each button. "You can ask the computer to give the screen a name. Call it Remote Control or Music Screen."

“Alright, this is great!”

Franime greeted his enthusiasm with silence. Hank took the screen back to the dorm, and he was busy setting up buttons and a menu system when his pod-mates got back from somewhere, laughing and pushing each other around.

“Here he is,” cried Toogodda. “Just the man we need for a poker game.”

Hank blanked the screen, put on his poker face and looked at his room-mates. “Sure,” he said.

Some suited organics wandered in from the dorm next door and joined the game. They played for low stakes, nothing that would put anyone in debt for more than a lifetime or two. Toogodda whistled a sigh. “You know what I would do if I had a lot of money? I’d mount an expedition to find the Great Transmitter. I’m almost certain it still exists, and finding it would be a magnificent adventure. And even if we didn’t find it, what an expedition!”

“Of course,” Hofnog commented, “to do that you’d have to get out of being a slave.”

Toogodda laughed. “There is that. What would you do if you had a fortune?”

Hofnog wiggled his eyebrows. “I’d ship water to my home planet, lots of water.”

“But I mean how about for yourself? What do you want?”

“You know what I’d really like? I’d like to have an open-air lake. That would be really something. Reeds around the edge, water-beetles croaking in the evening. I’d like to sit and watch the clouds boil up off the surface. Of course it’s impossible....”

Epfid’l said, “I’d want a whole ocean.”

One of the suited organics, a guy named Sclero, said, “Me, too. I’d want a hydrogen ocean. But to do that you’d have to own a whole planet. The temperature at the surface is 1500 degrees, just right for sailing. A good wind-skimmer can get up to a thousand kilometers an hour. It’s terrific fun.”

“What would you do if you were rich?” Hank asked Usip.

“I’d go study at the quadricameral university at the center of the universe.”

Hank was startled. “What? There’s a center?”

“Oh yes,” Usip twittered. “It’s the place where the big bang happened.”

“Wow, I didn't know there was a location for that. What’s a quadricameral?”

“They have four parts to their brain, where I have three, and you have two, and Epfid’l has one.”

“What difference does that make?”

Usip was distracted by his turn to bet. Epfid’l said, “You know what it’s like to be bicameral, because you are one. Your conscious mind has a sense of self, and your unconscious doesn’t. Your unconscious adds an impersonal perspective.

“Monocamerals don’t have that impersonal perspective. We live in a kind of oceanic state of mind.

“Tricamerals have an additional perspective over the bicamerals, but unfortunately it’s incomprehensible to you. From your point of view it seems like they enjoy disorder and chaos.

“And the quadricamerals are even more incomprehensible. If you meet one, it’s wise to run. Not that they’re hostile, but their actions are as likely to kill you as not.”

“They’re not impossible to understand,” Usip protested. “Just difficult. They’re the Great Beings, aside from the Kai, of course. They’re the best that organic life has produced.”

Everyone laughed, not because it was untrue, but because there was precious little comfort in being a bicameral in a quadricameral universe.

“Some people think that the quadricamerals created the singularity that created this universe,” Usip continued. “The Big Bang was an orgasm of disorder, since only disorder has the fractal power to create vast things. It was a cosmic effort to do everything at once that very nearly succeeded. And it might have, if it hadn’t been for the interference of order. Order expands in a cosmic outbreath till disorder draws in its breath for another try. Maybe next time they’ll get it right. Maybe next time we’ll all be able to let go at once, and the universe will fall like a perfect drop of water into the nameless ocean.”

Toogodda chuckled. “Well, we won’t be around to see it.”

Usip smiled. “Oh yes we will. The quadricamerals work for the Kai. They're harvesting the souls of those who die the final death and putting them away in storage. If they fail next time, they’ll have another universe on their hands, and they’ll need to populate it.”

“Sound like synthetic immortality,” Hofnog said.

“Exactly,” said Usip.


Back to Top


Chapter 9: Permission



Hank was walking down a residential street. A couple of times he caught a glimpse of something shiny and domed peeking over the roof of a garage or around the side of a house. He went into a garage and found a large nest in one corner. Strewn around it were fragments of shoes. “What is this?” he thought. “A UFO that eats shoes?”

A small green bird flew in through the open garage door and landed on Hank’s shoulder. Hank wasn’t startled, and then he realized he ought to be. And then he realized he was dreaming. A shudder ran through his body as he shifted into the lucid state. The bird cocked her head, and looked at him, and twittered. He didn’t understand her, and yet there was a part of him that did. “This time, get us into the tunnels.”

“OK,” he said. He hadn’t the faintest idea how to do that. He walked out of the garage and looked around. He saw a normal street scene. But anything he stared at began to change, shifting like water. The bird fluttered around his head, scolding him. “Alright, alright,” he said.

“Well, let’s see if the obvious works," he thought. He picked up a manhole cover by one edge, and climbed down into the dark. The bird settled on his shoulder. Hank walked along carefully in the dimness, and then he was seized by a sudden exuberant compulsion, and he began to run. Without noticing it he transitioned into flying. The bird flew next to his head, twittering in a conversational way. Images of the old days when the tunnels were inhabited passed through Hank’s mind.

The light in the tunnels brightened, and this time the tunnels were a little different. This time they were tall and green. The bird sailed out ahead of Hank. He followed her till she fluttered to a stop in front of a pond. Only instead of being on the floor it was on one wall, and it quivered like quicksilver. She looked at Hank and dived into the pond. Hank laughed out loud and dived in too. He followed her through a space of silver and ringing sounds.

And he found himself on a residential street in Portland, Oregon, a couple blocks from where he lived. He was seized by such longing that his ability to fly disappeared, and he landed in a sitting position on the pavement. The bird had become a little old lady with cherries on her hat, and she helped him up. “Are you all right, dearie?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” Hank said, looking around, feeling weak and confused.

For an hour they walked together through the empty streets, seeing no one. The little old lady chatted incessantly, and Hank didn’t hear anything she said. He was drinking in the sights and feelings of home, of normal houses and trees and bushes, a blue sky. To be home was so sweet! His feelings welled up like water, nostalgia and homesickness and the deepest longing for the familiar.


~*~

The little green bird’s reaction to Hank was to shake her head. She thought he was probably useless. Trying to teach him how to dream was like trying to build a nest with oatmeal. But she had to persevere. There wasn’t any choice. The rainbow serpents themselves had given Hank to her, and the fact that they were interested meant the results would affect many star systems.

The serpents only gave her a small chance of success, but they promised that the outcome would be magnificent if she could pull it off. The green bird didn’t actually expect to succeed. But having a creative project was great, even if so much rode on it and it was hopless. And having Hank was sort of like having a pet.

First she had to get him shaped up. Now he was too full of homesickness to do anything with. So she’d taken the time to explore the tunnels and find one that led to Dirt. And she’d walk him around like a drunk till he got done letting go. Nobody said detachment is easy.


~*~

Hank found Captain Splug an ominous figure, so he decided to enlist some help in getting permission for his prank. He didn’t know Bos’n Thlad, but he’d seen him around enough to have an impression of him. He was very rare in that he seemed gentle and relaxed. And Hank had noticed that he seemed to have a curious immunity to the pranks that went on constantly among the crew. Even the Captain, for all his brooding fierceness, wasn’t immune. But nobody pestered Thlad.

So Hank asked the central computer where Thlad was. “He’s in his quarters, and open to visitors,” said the computer in a voice that warbled. Hank followed a line of blinking flowers on the walls to get there. The stomata was open, and Hank peeked in. The lighting was so dim he could hardly see, and the light had a ripply, underwater feeling.

“Hello?” Hank called.

“Hello yourself,” came back from the depths of the pod. “Come on in.”

Hank went in, and he didn’t notice Thlad at first because he was so taken with his surroundings. He seemed to be deep underwater, next to a wall of coral. Hank turned around and looked behind him, and all he could see was out into the open ocean. Holy cow! Creatures as brightly colored as tropical fish swam in the near distance, but they seemed to be jointed like insects. A few bigger creatures undulated in the distance.

“What can I do for you?” Thlad’s voice rang like bells. He floated near the reef, a deep cream and crimson robot hardly visible in the soft light. “When I was an organic I saw in longer wavelengths than you do,” he commented. He had six eyes and six tentacles, and his tentacles were waving like seaweed in an ocean current.

Thlad made a gesture, and a creature resembling a parrot flew to him and perched on his upper antenna. “This is my pet antrogile. It's name is Sivifins.” It had iridescent membranous wings, and its body was covered with feathery scales. It’s beak clicked, and the computer said, “Hello, Hank.”

“Oh, you talk. Hello, Sivifins.”

"Doing is being is waving in the wind," said Thlad's parrot. It's voice was like the popping and fizzing of small fireworks.

“Were you a tricameral when you were an organic?” Hank asked Thlad, not wanting to get straight to business.

The tentacles fluttered. “Yes, I was. And still am. Becoming a robot doesn’t change something as basic as that. I was a cold organic, and like most of us I was a little goofy. In the years since I have been able to develop that virtue to a higher degree, I’m happy to say.”

“That’s a virtue?”

“Yes, of course. Isn’t it considered so on Dirt?”

“Not after your’re out of adolescence. People there are quite serious. And mostly bored. And boring.”

"There's good times coming in the dragon ghost city," the parrot said.

“Ah well," Thlad said, "bicameral carnivores aren’t exactly famous for their acts of levity. Cold organics, on the other hand, are known for their sense of humor. Hot organics are famous for slapstick.”

“They keep trying to catch me and take me away somewhere and leave me trapped in something sticky.”

“Typical. You should see life as it’s lived in the cold cities. The aroma concerts, the pseudogames, the humorfests: it’s all so exhilarating! Of course, I’m prejudiced towards city life. I was a nomad when I was a kid, hiding all winter under methane ice, and so of course I ran away to the city the first chance I got.”

"Putter putter in the city," said the parrot.

“Me, too," Hank said. "I grew up on a ranch and ran away first chance I got. Doesn’t it drive you crazy to be penned up in this ship all the time?” Thlad chuckled, sounding like a cascade of bells. “Not at all. I find life here rich and challenging. It’s a lot like city life.”

“Well, it’s not much challenge for you. You’re not a slave.”

Thlad cracked up. It sounded like dropping a whole lot of crockery. When he could control himself, he said, “I was once. When I got to the city I became an inventor. My inventions were goofy, and I did quite well. Unfortunately some of them were also explosive, and I wound up exiled to a fur farm in the wasteland. There I was a slave, but it turned out I liked it. I liked life in nature, and I liked the animals so much I freed them all one night and caused a tremendous ruckus. Anyway, you don’t need to hear about that. How can I help you?”

"Help returned is a silent festival," the parrot said.

“I’d like you to help me get permission from the Captain to do a radio show.”

“A what?”

“It’s hard to explain. On Earth we have a custom of playing this thing we call music, rhythmic sounds, and I’d like to play some over the PA for the crew.”

“To what purpose?”

“Pleasure. On Dirt these are considered to be of great beauty.”

“How can sound waves induce pleasure?”

"Or pleasure induce sound wavicles?" asked the parrot.

“I don’t know, actually," Hank said. "But they do. I think the crew would like them. But I’m nervous about asking the Captain, and so I was wondering if you’d ask him for me?”

“Oh no. If there’s something you want to do, you have to ask him yourself. But I’ll go with you when you do. I’m curious to hear these pleasure-causing soundwaves.” Thlad swam out of the ocean illusion and consulted his computer. “The Captain’s in his quarters right now. Let’s go ask him.” Hank gulped. “OK.”

As they flew through the halls Thlad said, “My parrot has a peculiarity. He can see the future.”

“What? Really?”

“Want him to take a look at yours?”

“No!”

“Come on, Sivifins, what do you see for the boy?”

The parrot fixed Hank with a glittering look, and its beak rattled like a castenet. “You’ll go home,” the computer interpreted, “but you won’t feel at home when you get there. You’ll slide under a fence, and after nothing begins you’ll go home again. You still won’t be home when you get there, but it won’t matter any more. By that time you’ll be home anywhere.”

“What?”

“Of course,” Thlad mentioned, “he only speaks in dream language.”

“Then how’s that supposed to help me?”

“Help you?" Thlad laughed, and his parrot giggled. "Who said anything about helping you?”

They had arrived at the stomata for the Captain’s pod. The stomata opened, and Thlad went in. Hank swallowed, and followed. The pod was so dark he could barely see. The wall-flowers were black. “They’re probably not actually black,” Hank thought. “They’re probably beautiful colors in longer wavelengths.”

Then he noticed Captain Splug. In his quarters he'd changed into a different body. This one was black and blocky and had no eyes or appendages. He hovered near a bank of computer screens. He’d been running some simulations to consider the pros and cons of introducing a new flower into the ship’s ecology. “Yes?” said the Captain.

“Hank here has a question,” Thlad said.

"Existence is question," said the parrot.

“And what is it?” Captain Splug asked.

Hank wondered where the captain was looking. “Uh, I’d like to get your permission to have a radio show. For the ship. I mean, play music over the PA like it was a radio station. For the crew. Oh dear, I’m not explaining this right.”

“What’s he talking about, Thlad?”

“They have a mystery on Dirt. It has to do with generating pleasure with sound waves, and he says he knows how to do it.”

“Is this a joke of some kind? On who? The whole crew?”

"The joker laughs and sails up into the sky," the parrot said.

“Yes," said Thlad. "I'm sure it is, though he says it’s more like a present. It’s a pretty thing from Dirt. Entertainment, if I understand him right.”

“Hmm, pretty things can be dangerous. So can entertainment. What do you think, Thlad?”

“I think it might be a good joke. I doubt it’s too dangerous.”

Splug burst into laughter. “Then by all means, go ahead. And good luck with it.”

"Good luck, good riddance, good night Alice," the parrot said.

Hank was confused. “What do you mean?”

“I suspect you’re going to piss off the whole crew. I love it.”

“Oops. Maybe this isn't such a good idea.”

“Too late now,” Splug said cheerfully. “Now it’s an order from your Captain."

Thlad said goodbye, and went sailing out into the hall. Hank mumbled his thank-yous and followed. “That meant yes, right?” he asked, and when Thlad nodded, he said, “I think maybe I'm making a terrible mistake.”

Thad laughed. "Probably so. But it's too late now."

"Too late to cut the mustard anymore," said his parrot.

Hank could still hear the Captain laughing when he was 30 meters down the hall.


~*~

When he got back to the dorm, Epfid’l was the only one home. “So what’re you doing, cowboy?” she asked. “I hear you’ve been all over the ship. I don’t think the others have noticed, but I think you’re setting up some kind of prank here. Am I right?”

“Well, not exactly. Though the captain thinks I'm going to piss off the whole crew. I meant it to be more like a surprise, a gift for everyone. I have this thing from Dirt I wanted to share. It’s called music.”

“What’s it for?”

“For fun.”

“Oh. Well then. Anything that pisses off the whole crew and is fun has got to be worth doing.” She morphed into her naked woman form and drifted closer. “What else is fun, Sweetie Pie?”

Hank grinned and kissed her. “You are, Hunny Bunny.”

Her kiss was wet. She tasted like fresh bread. "Yum," he said.


Back to Top


Chapter 10: Radio Show



Hank had a wonderful dream. Someone had flooded a parking lot with two inches of jello and let it harden. Half was green, and half was red. He had on shoes with no heels, so he tried to see if he could skate on the jello. It worked. He could turn and swoop and glide. Several other people joined him, and they had a great time skating around. Hank felt like they were a flock of birds in flight.


~*~

After Epfid’l went to work, Hank had time to think awhile. He was delighted to have a girlfriend. It wasn’t just that they were having sex whenever they could, Epfid’l was also good to talk with. She was funny and smart and had the oddest point of view on things. She laughed a lot. She was companionable. She was sweet.

While he was thinking about this, he was getting his disk collection out of a locker near his hammock. Since he wasn't focusing, things got out of hand, and pretty soon disks were floating all over the pod. Hank had to close the stomata to keep them from floating out into the hall.

Then he took a tablet from the wall near his hammock and called up the controls he'd set up yesterday. There was a button at the top of the screen to turn the virtual microphone off and on, and it glowed when the microphone was on. Buttons next to it he'd assigned to "play" and "stop" and to designating different tracks. Below that Hank placed a disk face-down against the screen and asked the central computer to read the sound waves. "Just a moment," the computer said. "Translating.... OK."

And then he was ready. It was hard to believe.

He touched the top button. It glowed green. “Hi, this is Hank Walker.” Urk, what was he going to say? “Uh, this is a radio station. I mean this is a radio show. You don’t know what that is, of course, but it’s something we have on Dirt. So this is a little present from Dirt to the crew of the Mefrina, you might say. I’ll be playing songs from Dirt. You don’t know what songs are either, but never mind, let’s go ahead and get right to it. Welcome to the Mefrina Musical Hour. I’m your disk jockey, and this is KSTR, the first interstellar radio station.

“This first song is called, ‘Meditation from Thais,' by a musician named Massanet.” Hank touched the play button on the screen. It glowed blue, and sweet violin music filled the dorm-pod, and the hallways outside, and the entire ship. The acoustics in the dorm-pod were nearly ideal, and to hear music again after so long filled Hank with surging emotions. The music grabbed him in a way he’d never have guessed it would. A sorrow more pure than homesickness filled his chest and body, mixed with joy and a strange, nameless longing. He sighed and drifted away on the glorious sounds.

Throughout the ship, the sweet strains filled the air. Robots and organics alike stopped what they were doing, surprised. Some were amazed. Some were frightened. Some had no idea what was happening. Feelings came up like tidal waves.

“That was a little number for those of you who might like violin music. This next one is by a guy named Strauss, who lived a long time ago. It’s called ‘The Blue Danube Waltz.’ It’s ironic, there was this movie that.... Oh, never-mind, here it is.”

The famous waltz swooped and swayed, and Hank floated among his floating disks, brimming over with exultation.

Throughout the ship panic was beginning to break out. The music swept through Mefrina like an emotional tsunami. Hofnog was working in one of the holds, repacking some cannisters, and he promptly curled up and burst into tears. Usip was practicing in the martial arts pod, and he froze, spinning in place with his tentacles straight out.

Everyone in the ship was writhing in the grip of feelings more powerful than anything they'd ever known. Some cried, some laughed, some fled in random directions, some screamed for Hank to stop this madness. But then he was back again. Would he never relent? “This next song is a cut from an album that was released in 1962. It's called, ‘The Music Man.’ The song is called, ‘Lida Rose'.”

Toogodda was working for the cooks, and she writhed out of control, throwing food everywhere. None of the cooks cared, because they had gone over the edge of sanity too. One was howling, and two others were twitching rhythmically as they jetted about the pod like released balloons.

The ship was still quivering from the final crashing chords of the Strauss waltz as the acapella barbershop harmonies of the Buffalo Bills sang exquisitely through the corridors and chambers. The crew-members who'd been asleep when the radio show began thought they'd awakened into full-blown madness.

Chinglad was teaching a class in self defense. She stopped what she was doing and collected herself, and then she went into the void in a long sizzling dive. Behind her she left a trail of music.

He was back! “Three years later this album came out, The Sound of Music. What I’m going to play for you now is called, ‘Morning Hymn and Allelujia.’”

For Ronam it was like being drunk, and he reeled down a hallway, bouncing off the walls, gibbering and hollering. "Ei caramba!" he cried.

Hank could feel that the music simultaneously fed him and awakened a great hunger. He could hardly sort through his disks to find the next song he wanted to play.

Ying passed out. Spacrudda fell into a stillness he'd never known before and was at peace. Thlad's eyes had gone glassy, and if he'd still been an organic he would have been grinning from ear to ear to ear. His parrot began singing along with the music.

“This next number is by a group called, ‘The Brothers Four,’ and the song we’re going to hear is called, ‘The Green Leaves of Summer.’ I hope you enjoy it.” Hank, alone in his dorm-pod, had no idea what was going on throughout the ship.

Jagung had a strange dream in which he was a diamond robot dancing through a nebula in deep space.

Epfid’l had been eating in the main lounge with her mom when the music started. She went into her space form and then blissed out, rotating slowly at first in the air, and then faster and faster, until she was spinning like a whirling dervish.

Respfid’l also morphed into her space form. She dove into a deep meditation. She stayed there for days, and when she finally came back she shifted into her porpoise form and did a sinuous dance that lasted for seven hours.

The ship was devastated. Chaos reigned. Even the central computer was overwhelmed and thrown into confusion. Mefrina drifted unguided on the hyper-spatial winds, sweeping past spires and outcrops, dancing like a drunkard.

“Next we’re going to hear a song from the second Peter, Paul and Mary album. It’s called, ‘Old Coat.’” Hank was so overcome he was starting to cry. He sorted through his disks, shaking away the tears, which floated around him like clear jewels.


~*~

Ying had passed out and dropped into the dream-time. There she managed to recover her mental balance well enough that she was startled when she saw Jagung drop into the dream tunnels fifty meters away. Jagung zigzagged through the tunnels, raving like a madman, and Ying followed him. They meandered into a part of the tunnels Ying had never seen before. Jagung, searching desperately for sanity, found a chamber and zoomed into it. With a cry, he fell backwards through a shimmering surface on the floor. Ying shouted in triumph and plunged through after him. Ying had felt ever since Jagung signed on at Reefstop that there was something odd about him, and maybe now she’d find out what it was.


~*~

Hank was still crying as he put on 'The City of New Orleans' from his 'Best of Arlo Guthrie' album. He had no idea anything was wrong in the rest of the ship until the stomata suddenly opened, and then beyond the music he heard the sounds of shouting and screaming and occasionally things breaking. He went to the door and looked out. In the hall a couple of suited organics and a robot appeared to be having fits.

Hank let the 'City of New Orleans' play till it ended. And then he thumbed the microphone button on the screen. "We're interrupting this music program because there seems to be a disaster of some kind happening aboard the ship. This is Hank signing out till next time, for KSTR and the Mefrina Musical Hour. Um, happy trails." He turned off the music, and now the cries and lunatic warblings could be heard from near and far.

He wandered the ship, feeling shocked. There were accidents everywhere, and he helped where he could. At first he couldn't help at all, because everyone was crazy. During the next half-hour a few others became functional again, and the first rescue teams formed. Hank was on the first one, and they spent their time getting injured people to the medical pods, although at first there weren't any sane doctors to help them. They left one member of the rescue party to do triage, and the rest took off to find more victims.

Then Hank heard a cry of, "Fire!" from along the main hall. The rescue party dropped everything and rushed in that direction. The fire extinguishers weren't working, so Hank and the rest of the people arriving on scene formed a water-balloon brigade. They threw the balloons at the flaming flowers on the wall of the burning pod until the fire was out. They were barely done when the cry went up again, and they rushed off to put out another fire. And then another. This went on till Hank and the other organics on the rescue party were exhausted. And then it went on some more.


~*~

It took Usip a long time to unfreeze. It wasn't so much from the physical reaction as from the blinding mental revelation. He saw that music actually succeeded in fusing order and disorder. It was the first time he'd ever experienced anything like this, and the effect on him was profound. What an amazing accomplishment! If Hank's race had succeeded at this, what else might they do? No wonder the Kai had them in a preserve. Usip had assumed the preserve status was because the planet's first sapient race had arisen from carnivores, which is almost never an ecosystem that works. But this made him suspect there was far more to the Kai's plan for humanity than he'd guessed.

No wonder the race was crazy. You'd have to be crazy to succeed at such a paradoxical task. What if they could escape the preserve and succeed at a much larger scale? It would be devastating to the entire galaxy.

The implications unfolded beyond Usip's vision to see them....


~*~

Many hours later a meeting was called in the main lounge. Half the crew could get there. Hank was too sick about the damage and injuries to be worried about the meeting until it started. And then it occurred to him that since it was all his fault, they were sure to space him now. A cold bolt of dread shot through his bones.

Bosn' Thlad's parrot sat on his shoulder and sang in several voices at once as Thlad gave a damage report. Hank couldn't understand why Thlad sounded bubbly and cheerful as he did it. The damage was worse than the ship had ever suffered in a battle. The central computer was still babbling idiocies, but essential functions had been restored. The crew had manual control of life support, navigation, radio, the grapevine, and most importantly medical. A minimal hyper-space team had restarted the hyper-space engine, so Minefra was under way again. A quarter of the crew were still whacked-out crazy, and it took another quarter to deal with them, so the crew was at half strength. Eighteen robots were dead, and eight organics.

"Minute to minute in the wide green forest," sang the parrot.

Hank felt physically sick.

“The good news,” Thlad continued, “is that we have plenty of robot bodies in storage, so everyone who died can get a new body right away.”

Now Hank could barely keep from throwing up.

Then the captain scowled and said to Hank, “Now for the big question. Great Orfam's ghost, what in the ever-loving dream-time did you do to us?”

“I just played some music. On Dirt we do that for entertainment.”

“Oh, it was entertaining, alright!” shouted someone in the crew.

“Entertaining for Hank!” shouted someone else.

"Wonderful darkness," sang the parrot.

He tried to explain, but the meeting broke down into chaos and hooting and shouting. Hank was starting to be afraid he was facing a lynch mob and that spacing was sure. But gradually the grumbling died away before the whistling of the tricamerals and the Captain's repeated calls for order.

Then one of the tricamerals took the floor and said, “Our contingent maintains that this was a prank of heroic proportions. What Hank may have thought he was doing is beside the point. The point is that this event will live on in the history of pranks. Our position is that Hank should be awarded a gold cluster with three rings for pulling off this coup. Never before has someone pulled off such a zinger that a ship was left floating in hyper-space at the mercy of the winds.”

There was some vigorous discussion that Hank couldn't follow, and then the Captain asked him, “Well, how about it?”

“How about what?”

“The crew is demanding the release of the rest of the music.”

“They're what?”

“They want access to all your music.”

“But the music caused damage and death. Why do they want more of that?”

“Music is powerful magic. No one is fool enough to turn down powerful magic. We'll have to take some precautions. It has to be managed, of course. But we want more.”

“This is crazy,” Hank started to say, and then he realized that maybe this was one of those times when it's a good thing to keep one's mouth shut. So he just said, “OK. Sure. Fine with me.”

Some of the crew still wanted to space Hank, but the rest out-voted them, and gave him a round of applause to boot.

Epfid'l was smiling at Hank. “I had a feeling he would amount to something,” she was thinking.

Hofnog was so dingy he was dancing around in the middle of the meeting as though he were alone.

When the captain asked for new business, the crew asked when the next radio show was going to be? “We like radio!” they shouted. "We want radio! We want radio!"

"Alright, alright," the Captain said. "Then radio we shall have."


~*~

After the meeting Epfid'l and Hank flew down the main hall and then cut off toward an empty storage pod where they could be alone.

“I think the whole thing is marvelous,” she laughed. "This is great!"

“But people died,” Hank protested. “I feel awful. I feel so guilty.”

Edpfid'l giggled. “You can only be guilty if you have power, cowboy. And you don't yet. We're only responsible for our intentions. You had no idea what the effect of music would be out here.”

“Well, no....”

“And you'll go down in history as one of the greatest accidental pranksters of all time. Well, pirate history, anyway. Isn't that cool?”

“I dunno. I guess. I just feel so bad. I caused so much damage.”

“No, coincidence caused so much damage. You're taking on a burden that isn't yours. You were only the channel of the Great Mother.”

Hank looked at Epfid'l in despair, and she changed into her naked woman form and took him in her arms. She knew it'd take time for him to work through this, but she knew how to comfort him along the way. "You need sex," she said.

"I always need sex," he said miserably.

"Well, of course. We all do. But now you need it more than usual."

She was right.


~*~

During the cleanup Hank mostly worked at physical labor with the other organics. He couldn't believe that no one blamed him, but he kept being interrupted by crew members dropping by to chat and get his autograph.

Jagung happened by and stopped to talk. "I'm doing alright," he said. "I'm helping get the central computer unsnarled. Hey, I hear that a brisk trade has started up with your autographs. One guy accumulated a bunch of them and traded them for a memory upgrade. They say now he can remember back more than a hundred generations."

"Say what?"

"Anyway, gotta go. See ya." And he zoomed off.

Several times during the cleanup Hank saw a robot fix something by reversing time locally. At first he didn't understand what they were doing. They held their hands on either side of something broken, and Hank could see what looked like heat waves between their hands. "What are you doing?" he asked one of the robots, who had a silver body with three arms and a head like a stylized lizard.

“We're fixing things by reversing the time flow back to when they were unbroken. It's easier than doing it with manual labor.”

Hank felt a jolt of fear in his belly. For a second he couldn't think straight. When he could, it just scared him all over again. He didn't know why.

The Captain himself came by to tell Hank the size of his award. Hank was grateful and impressed till he found out it was only about a third of his hospital bill. Oh...

Epfid'l stopped by to give him a kiss. One thing led to another, as it usually does, and they sneaked away to have sex. As far as they could tell, there wasn't all that much hurry to getting the cleanup done. The mess wasn't going anywhere.


~*~

When Hank had time aside from cleaning up or making love with Epfid'l, he took one of the little computer screens off the wall and pressed the disks one at a time face-down to it's surface.

"Memorized," the central computer would say, and then he'd press the next one. "Music they want," he thought, "and music they shall have."


Back to Top


Chapter 11: Dancing



Hank dreamed he was at a large gathering of people. It was a party at a big house with a patio and a swimming pool. He was returning from having been away a long time, so he kept meeting people and being amazed at how they'd changed and giving them hugs.

Suddenly he realized this was a dream. Four or five times he woke up and realized this was a dream, and then he lost it again. He tried walking on the surface of the swimming pool, but he fell in and had to climb back out again. What was in the pool was hot chocolate rather than water.


~*~

When enough people were more or less sane again, Ying got on the grapevine and asked Chinglad, Ronam, the Captain and the Bos'n for a meeting. Since they were all robots, they didn't need to get together physically. All they needed was to match up their schedules and set a time.

When they were all plugged in, Ying said, “I think Jagung is a spy for the empire.” He was greeted by everyone shouting questions at once. “No, wait, please don't all talk at once. I found out by a serendipitous coincidence. The music knocked Jagung out of his body into the dream-time. I happened to be nearby, and I followed him. He was pulled deep into the Empire, to a particular planet. I followed him down to the surface, and guess what? I found a team of Norlingis waiting for him. When he'd landed they took him to report to his superiors, and you can probably surmise who. They turn out to be Empire Intelligence.”

This time he was greeted by silence. Finally the Captain asked, “What did he tell them?”

“Not much. He hadn't the faintest idea himself what had happened.”

“He'd been reporting to them all along?”

“It sounded like it from the conversation.”

“Well, it's a good thing we went to Plan 9, then, isn't it?” the Captain asked. They'd known something was odd about Jagung since he'd come aboard, because his aura had little flames floating in it. So in the face of the unknown they had done something unexpected. They set up a complicated pretense that the organics were miserable slaves, and that the crew had only the most trivial of dream-powers.

“Well,” asked Chinglad, “what do we do now?”

Ying grew up in the empire, and so he took this very seriously. Having been an undercover cop among the smugglers for awhile, he was aware of the damage an infiltrator could do. The last thing this ship wanted was attention from the Zin Empire.

"It seems to me," Ying said, "that we should give Jagung a choice."

The others suggested instead some scams to get rid of Jagung, and Ying coiled his tentacles in negation. “That's not it,” he said. “The issue here is to bring him to a crisis.”

The others murmured in appreciation. This had a nice ring to it. This they liked.


~*~

Hank felt so depressed he just wanted to float in his hammock and shrink into himself. The deaths from his radio show haunted him. He felt sick with guilt and regret.

Epfid'l squirmed into his hammock sometimes and held him. It helped a lot, actually. Helped with what, Hank couldn't say. Some strange, angry, sorrowful, pre-verbal change was taking place deep inside him, like a giant standing up from underneath the soil. Hank didn't know where the change was going, and he didn't actually care. He cared about the small group of dead people who walked after him in his dreams. They seemed to want an answer, but he didn't even know what the question was.

On the third day Thlad came sailing into the dorm-pod, his parrot fluttering behind him. “Well, my audacious friend,” he said. His actual voice sounded like bubbling in a mud-pot. “You didn't cause this mess, but you are responsible for it, so it's time for you to do something about it.”

The parrot said, "The exuberant city is leveled by marshmallows."

Hank felt like he'd been slapped. He opened his mouth and shut it a couple times. Finally he got out, “What?”

“I don't know what,” Thlad chuckled. “I don't come from Dirt. How would you fix this on Dirt?”

“Could I make amends somehow?”

Thlad burst out laughing. “Shiver my timbers, no. There's nothing to make amends for.”

“Well, at least I can avoid doing more radio shows?”

“Avoiding radio shows isn't the issue. The crew demands you repeat them. The issue is finding out how to have more radio shows without such extravagant damage.”

"Shiver my feathers," said the parrot, "and call me Shirley."

“Oh," said Hank. "Well, maybe we could start by having the music be at lower volume and for shorter times? And in each pod they could turn the music off if it gets too much?” And what? Well, what did people on Dirt do anyway? “What people on Dirt do when they listen to music is dance.”

“This is interesting. What is this dancing?”

“They respond to the music by moving in rhythmic and spontaneous ways. That way the music kind of goes through you. Maybe we could teach the crew to dance?”

Thlad's tentacles spiraled around each other in delight. “That sounds great. Tell the computer when you want to schedule your first dancing lesson.”

Hank was still agape as Thlad went sailing off out the pod and along the hall and out of sight. "Follow your bubbles," the parrot called back.

The next morning Spacrudda showed up to drag Hank off to work, moving food stores from one hold to another. While he worked, Hank was thinking, "How in the world do you teach robots to dance?"


~*~

The first dancing lesson took place a week later in the main lounge. The autopilot had been isolated from the main computer, and whatever other safety precautions the crew could think of had been taken. About half the crew gathered in the main lounge, though some of them were still a little shaky for their first encounter.

Hank hovered in the center of the lounge and cued the microphone button on a small tablet. “Alright,” he said. “The point of dancing is to have fun. The way you dance is you let the energy of the music run through your body. We already know what happens when you try to contain it. Try moving your body to the beat. It doesn't matter what part of your body you move. Experiment. Find what works for you.”

Hank used the tablet to cue in 'Peggy Sue' by Buddy Holly and the Crickets, at low volume. Hank wandered among the crew, getting them to move. At first they tended to spiral off into insanity, but gradually they acclimatized. Only one in ten had to be towed away to the infirmary.

Hank cued his microphone function. “OK, now try keeping the movement to the beat going, and try moving some other part of your body to respond to the bass line. Or to the lead guitar, or to the singer.”

The crew slowly got better. Some of them were looking less like they were having a seizure. Some were starting to actually look like they were dancing. A few were even beginning to be graceful and expressive.

At the end of an hour, everyone was exhausted, even the ones who did well. Captain Splug stopped on the way out to shake Hank's hand. “Good work, cowboy,” he said. “You're turning out to make a great slave. I'm starting to think it might have been a good idea not to space you.”

“Thanks,” Hank said. “I think.”


~*~

His pod-mates could tell Hank was glum, and they towed him off to a poker game. Chinglad was there, betting small amounts. Usip was betting with flair. Between hands, he and Hank fell to talking philosophy. “The best way to deal with troubles,” Usip said, “is to act in a way that increases them.”

“What?” said Hank. “That makes no sense at all. Why would anybody do that?”

“Because it works. If you succeed in making your troubles less, your life becomes boring. But if you succeed in making them increase, your life unfolds in its infinite possibilities. You bicamerals are way too cautious. Even we tricamerals don't really know how to play for the low-probability outcomes. But the quadricamerals, they are the ones we have to admire. They know how to go for the nearly impossible.”

“Well,” said Epfid'l. “That's alright if you don't have children to raise.”

“Absolutely,” admitted Usip cheerfully. “Some time,” he said in an aside to Hank, “we'll have to have a little talk about monocamerals.” “What?” said Hank. "We will?"


~*~

A couple hands later Toogodda asked Hank where he'd gotten the idea for music.

“Oh, I didn't create it,” Hank said. “It's an old tradition on Earth. People have been making music since the stone age.”

“But could you make it if you wanted to?”

“Sure. I play a couple musical instruments, and anyone can sing.”

“Did you make music because your race is so crazy?” asked Hofnog. “Or did music make you crazy?”

Hank shrugged. “Good question. I have no idea. I didn't know my race was crazy.” That got a laugh from everyone.

“Well, you're not the only one,” Jagung burbled. “Usip can't go home again. Get him to tell you why.”

Hank looked at Usip. “Well, it's no big deal,” Usip said. “There's a tribal feud going on. I sort of accidently got captured by the Flizznings, and then I sort of accidentally escaped. And the result is that I can't go home till the feud's settled.”

“What do you mean? Why's your own tribe angry at you?”

“Oh, I broke a bunch of taboos in the process, and they began to suspect there was coincidence in my accidents. The result is I'm in bad taste to both sides. So I'm thinking pirate may turn out to be a lovely career. Who knows?”

“Don't you want to go back?”

“Not really. The only thing I regret, actually, is that my efforts along the way to increase the disorder failed. I mean, I know there's no connection between effort and success, but it really meant something to me at the time.”

“Well, then what do you mean by success?” Hank asked.

“Oh, success would have been to amplify the feud until other tribes got involved, and it spread through the system and created ferment everywhere. That would have been great. But as it is, my best chance of going down in history is to become a great pirate.”

“Yeah, but that's just pirate history,” Jagung said.

“Sounds like you love war?” Epfid'l commented.

“Oh no,” protested Usip. “Destruction is not the point, the point is disorder. Disorder is life, as opposed to destruction, which is death.”

Chinglad sailed a card into the middle of the gathering, where it was halted by a puff of air from Toogodda.

“Well, I suppose we can all agree on that last part,” Chinglad said. "Death wins in the end."


~*~

When they left the poker game, Epfid'l hooked Hank's harness with a tentacle and towed him away to an unused storage pod. The flowers on the wall were all yellow.

She kissed him, and he kissed her back. Suddenly he had a feeling inside like a dam breaking, and pent up feelings released in a flood. Suddenly he wanted Epfid'l badly.

Sometimes it was nice not to have clothes. They shed their harnesses and made love. She was noisy, and then so was he. They had wonderful orgasms. Hank felt like he fell inward through her blue skin into a vast blue supernova.

When the last echoes had died, Epfid'l said, "Wow. That was great."

"Oh yes," Hank said. "Making love with you is so wonderful. It keeps getting better and better. It makes me feel bonded with you."

"Odd," said Epfid'l. "I felt bonded with you long before we had sex."

They wrapped around each other, and Hank went to sleep. Epdif'l thought about her feelings for Hank, and deep inside herself she sorted through his DNA code. "What a strange creature Hank is," she thought. "Sweet, when he isn't angry or depressed or whining about coincidence. And his DNA is fascinating."


~*~

Hank was coasting downhill on a bicycle. The night air was so warm that the air turbulence around his body felt like caresses. Stars twinkled in a cloudless sky. The mountain road was nicely banked for the turns.

A small green bird with darker wings was flying along to his left. He looked at it, and felt happy to see it, and then with a shudder he realized he was dreaming. The bird was twittering at him. Hank stopped his bike and got off.

She was easy on him this time. Rather than making him find his way to the tunnels, she took him there herself. She opened the ground, and they were swallowed up. They fell through the roof of a tunnel and landed on the floor.

Then Hank could fly. They flew through the tunnels to a region where the walls were glowing yellow. Farther on, she flew him through a patch where the light was silvery, and then they flew into a twilight realm. A fog thickened around them. Tiny, glowing balls zipped out of the fog, and for an hour Hank practiced batting them aside with whatever foot or hand was handiest. When he missed they left bruises.

Finally the green bird relented and took him back to his sleeping body. She booted him into it and took off back into the tunnels.


~*~

When Hank woke up, Epfid'l had gone to sleep and reverted to a blue ovoid. Gently Hank pushed off from her. He was putting on his harness when she woke up. She used a dream-power to make a wind-puff aimed at the nape of his neck. Unconsciously he batted it aside, and then turned around looking surprised.

“What did you do?"

“No,” she smiled, “the question is: what did you do?”

“Oh.” Hank squinted. “Now I see it. That's what the green bird was teaching me in my dream.”

“Green bird? What, in dream-time? You have a power animal?”

“Well, I don't know that she's a power animal. She just shows up in my dreams.”

“That's great. My power animal is a white lizard. Usip has one too. It's a tiny green snake that travels in lightening.”

“How do you get a power animal?”

“I don't know. They just come to you. But they're wonderful to have. Very helpful.”


~*~

Later that day Hank came home from working on repairing damage in one of the bigger holds and found that his pod-mates had gone off to a poker game and left a note for him on the main computer screen. He took a shower and headed down the main hall to check it out. One of the pods right off the main hall had become the poker lounge, and there had come to be a more-or-less permanent game going on there.

Hank sat in for awhile, and won a little bit and lost a little bit. While he was dealing, Skrim said, “There are many ways to become a pirate. You were lucky, Hank. You became one by sheer coincidence. We all became pirates by sheer coincidence, of course, but some were more ironic than others. Myself, I was a succcessful merchant, and I had an engine breakdown. The only place I could get to for repairs was Pirate's Rest, and the rest is history....” Everyone laughed ruefully.

“Were you a slave at first?” Hank asked.

“Oh yes. Everyone was. Tell him how you became a pirate, Ronam.”

Ronam looked at his cards. “Ei caramba, I was fortunate. I got caught in a riot in a prison camp in my system's Oort Cloud. I used the opportunity to escape, but I fled right into the path of a pirate parade. I cursed my fate at the time, but it turned out to be fortuitous good luck, wouldn't you say?”

“How about you, Ying?”

“Me?” Ying threw some tokens into the pot, which was a small area with gravity in the middle of the ring of players. “When I was an undercover cop I kept going to prison. Three times, in order to preserve the cover. And then one day I had a revelation. I finally figured out that I could be a real criminal and do less time than I was already doing. So I came to Pirate's Rest because I was looking for the Mefrina. I'd heard she was a good ship. And I haven't done any time at all since I became a pirate. Fandibular, what?”

“What about you, Hank?” Usip asked.

“What do you mean?"

"Have you ever been in prison? I mean, if you're going to be a pirate, you ought to have a resume."

"Oh. No, never in prison. Though I've been in jail a couple times.”

“What did you do? Rob someone? Kill somebody?”

“Nothing so grandiose. I just got rounded up with a bunch of other hippies because I was in a peace demonstration, and the cops put a bunch of us in the holding tank for a day.”

“You were demonstrating against peace?”

“Oh no. We were trying to stop a war.”

"What?" Usip waved his tentacles in distress. “You allied yourself with the forces of order? How disgusting.”

Hank laughed. “I know. It's awful, isn't it? But I was young and foolish then. I hadn't had the benefits of your enlightening company.”

“No indeed,” said Usip, and thumped his round body for emphasis.


~*~

Pofreeble the Lyr finally had some good luck. It had been hovering above the spire in hyper-space for so long that it's crystals were beginning to creak. And then in the middle of a lightening storm a flock of hyper-fireflies passed by. They formed a perfect circle around the Lyr. Pofreeble felt an electric thrill zing through it's body. Here at last was the omen it had been waiting for. And it knew just what the omen meant. Go home.

So it gathered electricity from the lightening storm into it's body till it crackled and thrummed, and then it released in a sizzling bolt that sent it hurtling across the hyper-sky in a long blue arc.


~*~

In the middle of the night Thlad called the Captain on the grapevine. "Captain," he said, "I think we may have some trouble coming."

"Orfam's ghost," said Splug. "What makes you think so?"

"My parrot has been babbling on about bubbles running on burning feet, and the flowers and robots crying tears of blood."

"Uh oh," said Captain Splug. "I'll order our defenses tightened. Anything else we can do?"

"Besides rechecking the omens," Thlad said, "I don't think so. We're as ready for coincidence as we can be."


Back to Top


Chapter 12: Boarded



Usip was waiting in a graveyard. The sky was dark, since he was on the surface of a large asteroid. He was standing up on the tips of his tentacles so as to see farther. With him were four attendants, and they like Usip were painted white in mourning.

They were waiting for the Pharaoh to die. Usip carried a small box with green rods protruding from it. They would know when the Pharaoh had died because the rods would glow. They were waiting for the burial procession to arrive, the one that carried the dwindling Pharaoh in a litter. It was considered a good omen if the pharaoh could stay alive until he reached the graveyard, but this time the chances of that seemed slim.

Usip woke up and thought about his dream for awhile. The sadness of it lingered like the mist above an asteroid's surface after dawn. He was the first one awake in the pod, and he couldn't get back to sleep, so he got up to go about his day. The others stirred as he put on his harness, but he was gone by the time they'd gotten up and were headed for breakfast.


~*~

Usip never did show up at breakfast. The PA came on, but there was no announcement, just huffing and puffing and groaning and a low-pitched cheeping. Hank didn't know why the people around him were laughing. “It's a sexual encounter,” Epfid'l told him. “Sounds like it's between Mosnid and Gliboi and Basid.”

Hank remembered them vaguely. They were from the hot dorm, so of course he'd never seen them without suits. Mostly he knew them from poker games.

“And unless I miss my guess,” she added, “Usip not being here has something to do with it.”

Sure enough, Usip came sailing in, laughing like a teakettle. “Another triumph,” he said.

“How'd you do it this time?” asked Jagung.

“We got Toogodda to make a mechanical microphone and a crystal radio transmitter, and we bounced a signal off one of the battle-bots that's always patrolling round the ship. That way we tricked the computer into accepting the signal. I don't think the computer's going to be very happy with us.”

“Who's us?” asked Hank.

“Me and a couple tricameral friends.”

The others at his table were laughing, and it was contagious. Hank found himself chuckling along with them until it occurred to him that it could just as easily have been him and Epfid'l entertaining the crew. Ooh....


~*~

Minefra was following an ancient Manubrian streambed, and she was tucked down low to keep out of sight. Ages ago a deep gorge had been worn into the surface of normal time by a river of timelessness, and Mefrina took advantage of it for concealment. Although the fireflies following her made concealment more difficult.

Chinglad and Splug and Skrim and Thlad were talking about Hank on the grapevine. One of the nice things about being a robot was that you didn't need an external screen for the video. “I have a feeling he's about ready for initiation,” said Chinglad.

“I also have that feeling,” Thlad shook his head in agreement. He was one of those rare robots with a head.

Skrim nodded. “I can't agree. My feelings tell me he needs a final test, at least.”

“I like that idea,” Captain Splug said. “What can we do to him?”

"Forever memories dissolve like ice cream," said Thlad's parrot.

“We could send him on the Quest for the Unfindable Object,” said Chinglad, “if you want to go for something classic.”

“We could break his heart by faking Epfid'l's death,” Splug said, “if we wanna go for something extreme.”

“We could do the Lizard in the Swamp Maneuver,” suggested Thlad, “to test his resilience.”

“Or the Losing Everything Challenge,” said Skrim, “to test his ability to practice acceptance. After all, it's the most difficult skill of all.”

“Well, I think he's already had that one,” said Chinglad, "though he doesn't seem to have learned anything from it. I think we need something more focused than that. How about the Fake Treasue Scenario?”

They were about to call Spacrudda and propose their conclusion when an alarm went off. It rang inaudibly over the grapevine, and it warbled aloud through the hallways.

Hank looked up from finishing the last of his beancurds and yeast. “What's that?” Usip said, “Ship's alarm. You should remember this from our training. Get to your station, cowboy.” The rest of his pod-mates had already jetted from their table for the main hall. Usip zoomed after them.

"Battle stations!" the captain shouted over the PA. "We're being pursued by a Scrampian spider ship, and we're about to be boarded! This is not a drill! This is a fight to the death! All hands to battle stations!"

Hank flew out the aft end of the main lounge and along a short hall towards his station in the hyper-space pod. There wasn't time to go get his spacesuit. His current job was backing up the defenders of their one and only hyper-engine.

The halls were a madhouse, boiling with activity. Hofnog zoomed off to the Inertial Engine Room. Toogodda headed for a pod housing one of the Electrical Weapon teams. They were able to shoot bolts of lightening from anywhere on the ship's surface. Epfid'l flew for the Emergency Life Support Team's home pod. Jagung took off to join one of the Defense Squads. And Usip looked like an underwater squid as he flew off with tentacles trailing to Tactical Support. His job was to help the quadricamerals come up with unpredictable strategies and tactics.

Mefrina dropped out of hyper-space into normal space, fleeing the black corsair behind her. Hank felt like he was falling and spinning, and he was sick for a moment from the transition.

A sound like a giant balloon bursting whoomed through the halls. Hank's skin suddenly felt tight as the air pressure dropped. His eardrums felt like they were bulging, and he had to swallow.

Hofnog flew into the bridge so fast he bounced off the partition wall. He flew through a stomata into the engine room. Ten robots and organics were already there, and he joined them in barricading the partition wall.

Epfid'l reached the Life Support Control pod and took up her station as squad dispatcher.

Hank felt a breeze blowing along the hall toward the hyper-space pod. He'd never felt a breeze aboard Mefrina before. He zoomed into the pod. He saw the hyper-space engine hanging in the middle of the pod, glowing and humming normally. It was surrounded by the Engine Crew, bristling with weapons. But there was a rip in the pod's far wall. Escaping air sighed and thundered like a giant waterfall. And suddenly black enemy robots the size of Hank's hands came scrambling in through the tear and were running in all directions along the pod's walls, leaving burning flowers behind them. The engine crew members began firing as fast as they could.

Ronam zoomed into the hyper-space pod and saw Hank. “Ei caramba!" he hooted to Hank. "Let's get the tear patched!” And he accelerated towards it. Hank gulped. He didn't know what he could contribute, but it was time to leap into action. He lunged after Ronam.

They were past the hyper-space engine when there was an explosion behind them, and Hank and Ronam were blown out through the rip into raw vacuum. Hank's ears popped, and his skin felt painfully tight. His eyes hurt. He fumbled his earplugs out of their pocket on his harness and put them in his ears.

Ronam flew in crazy spirals through space and ended up by Hank. He grabbed Hank's harness and turned him around. Hank was panicking, and had no idea what Ronam was doing, and then he saw it.

The attacker's ship was black, and huge, and close. It was so black that for a moment it seemed to Hank like a hole in the star-field of normal space. It seemed to be made of struts and crystals and tubes and balloons, a complicated shape with no pattern. Ronam and Hank accelerated together, straight at the alien ship. Hank had no idea what good this would do, and he hadn't taken a breath since the explosion had blown him into space. "What the hell," he thought, "I'm dying anyway."


~*~

When Epfid'l saw the black robots pour into the Life Support pod like a wave of spiders, she knew her only chance was invisibility. This would be tough, so she sent out a cry for help to her power animal. She flipped into sleep, but halfway there she slid to a stop. Her power animal, the white lizard, shimmered and appeared out of thin air. Awake and asleep at the same time, she had the dream-power to soften her outline, to slip aside from the raging photons filling the space around her like fire. The white lizard darted around her, spinning her the rest of the way into invisibility. She drifted gently out of the Life Support pod and along the hall toward her backup station, the Maternity Pod.


~*~

Ronam fired a rocket ahead of them. It made a hole in one of the enemy ship's balloon chambers, and he and Hank burst in through it. They were almost blown back out again by the escaping air. But they made it into the next chamber before the door slide shut. Pressure came back up to nearly normal. Hank's skin felt like he had a bad sunburn all over. Ronam still had ahold of his harness, and was dragging him along a metal hallway. "Take a breath, space-bug," Ronam said. Hank gasped for breath, and because of his synthetic lungs the air was breathable.


~*~

The team in the Inertial Engine Room had barely succeeded in getting the barricade built in time. The black robots hit it in a swarm. Hand-held self-aiming lasers blew up a third of them, automatic defenses shooting jets of super-cooled liquid got another third, and then the fighting was hand to hand. Hofnog used a pair of plasma torches to slice the black spiders in half, squealing like a banshee as he slashed and burned.


~*~

Half of the Mefrina's robots had jumped to their battle-bodies and were attacking the alien ship. Ying was with them, and he was in a state of flow. The narrow crannies of possibility between the gravity bolts from the black ship looked like broad avenues to him, and he seemed to have all the time in space to avoid them as he led a squad zigzagging toward their target. Some of the squad weren't as graceful, and fell into the lances of fire. Chinglad was one, and she was instantly crisped.


~*~

Hank's pain was dying away curiously fast, though he noticed that his entire body was covered by a sheen of red blood. It looked strange on his blue skin. He realized Ronam was dragging him along, and he tried to help. The walls of the hallway were silver and black, and they looked odd to Hank because there were no flowers. Emergency shutters clanged shut behind them. They passed through a pod that smelled of bananas and tropical flowers. “A nest,” Ronam said. They flew on as fast as they could.


~*~

Hofnog got one of the last remaining spiders by throwing one of his plasma torches at it. The attack on the Engine Room did a terrible amount of damage before the last one of this wave was destroyed. A hot organic was dead from a slashed suit. Several other organics floated randomly in death, and they were outnumbered by the dead robots. Drops of blood of many colors floated in the air like a multi-hued snowstorm. Gasping with pain and exertion, the living organics dragged each other back to the barricade. Those who breathed hyperventilated as they waited for the next wave.


~*~

Respfid'l was leading a squad through space behind Ying's, dodging the heavy fire. They flew so fast that the explosions were always behind them, and they dodged so unpredictably that anticipatory fire didn't get them. Still they probably wouldn't have made it except for Ying's squad leaving a wake of confusion through the computerized defenses.


~*~

Ronam and Hank popped out of a hall into a large chamber. The walls were cluttered with equipment. "Holy frijoles!" Ronam shouted in triumph. Hank kept having to blink blood out of his eyes. “They left no guards at all,” Ronam hooted, and searched through the control panels for an emergency power-down switch. He didn't find one, but he found a critical piece of equipment he could destroy, and he smashed it gleefully.

The enemy ship went suddenly quiet. Hank hadn't noticed the background noise until it stopped. Suddenly the air was motionless on his face. His skin hurt. His lungs hurt. His whole body hurt. And he was amazed to find that he wasn't dead yet. "How strange," he thought. "I'm not dead."


~*~

Pagile was a member of a squad led by Bilinj, and they were coming in behind Respfid'l's squad when the mother-ship powered down and the enemy firing stopped. Ying's squad had almost arrived at the ship, and all three squads did a high-speed U-turn and headed back to Mefrina. The remaining danger was from the spiders already aboard. The robots who were farthest from the ship jumped from their battle-bodies to their shipboard bodies and went looking for a fight.

The battle was raging all over the ship. More than a thousand crew were slaughtering the spiders and being slaughtered by them. Gradually the crew was winning. The battle centered around two locations: the hyper-space engine and the inertial engine, and the fighting was to the death.

Between the waves of spiders, more crew had trickled in to help defend the barricade to the Inertial Engine Room, and there were 29 of them now. Between assault waves the dead had been lashed to the walls, and almost everyone was wounded.

Pagile's squad in their battle-bodies came into the Mefrina through a tear in the wall of a storage pod. They ignored the battle around them and zoomed through the halls to attack the spiders assaulting the Inertial Engine Room from the rear, and right behind them came Ying's squad in their shipboard bodies. Pagile fought recklessly, flinging broken spiders aside with tractor beams, but even so he was quickly drowned in a black wave. Ying's squad leaped into the wave, and now more squads were joining in behind them. Gowrung was in the middle of the action, but he wasn't fighting. He was filming snafus for the next crew meeting. He was as reckless as anyone.

The fight wasn't over till Respfid'l's squad and the rest of the battle-bots got there, coming in through one of several gaping tears in her aft pods and flying to the bridge. They tore into the spiders with specialized appendages, and made short work of them.

When the last of the spiders were destroyed and the battle was over, the crew swung without a pause into sorting out the wounded and dead. They towed the wounded to the medical pods. Dead organic bodies were towed to the recycling pods, and dead robots were towed to the machine shops.


~*~

Hank nearly froze to death while he and Ronam were waiting for rescue. Well, technically, while Hank was waiting. Ronam could have flown back to Mefrina anytime.

“Look on the bright side, space-bug,” Ronam chirped. “If you die out here you'll be a hero for your glorious charge into terrible danger. Wouldn't that be terrific?”

“Oh yes,” Hank said sardonically. “Of course, I'd be a little bit dead.”

“Oh, but only a little bit. Death used to be more permanent in the old days, but I'll tell you a little secret. These days you'd just jump to your robot body.”

“What? I have one? I thought I had to pay off my debt first."

"Oh no. That was just a joke. Every new crew-member gets one made for them, and the central computer takes a new print of your mind whenever you get your weekly physical.”

“And then when I die the computer downloads my mind into the robot?”

“Right. There might be a few days you don't remember, but otherwise you're ready to roll. Oh, I think you'll find that being a robot is a big improvement.”

“Why don't I find that comforting?”

“Who said anything about comforting? Ei caramba, you are the oddest organic.”

There was air, but there was no heat, and the temperature kept dropping. Hank hardly noticed the laser burns on his legs because of the decompression sickness he was feeling. Breathing hurt. Existing hurt. He stayed as still as he could, hovering in place. He tried to keep his mind still. Even thinking hurt.

“Too bad you're a robot," he said, "or we could huddle together for warmth.”

Ronam was missing an arm and an eye, and his body was dented, but he didn't seem to mind. He chatted breezily along, but after awhile Hank wasn't following him anymore.

“What an odd place to die,” he thought. “I wonder if it's true that when you're freezing to death after awhile the cold goes away and you feel warm....”


~*~

“When I was a kid I lived in a space nursery,” Ronam was saying. “It was a lovely big swamp orbiting a star much like your sun. We were in the Lagrange point following a planet much like Dirt. The nursery was droll. We played tricks on each other all the time. I was a little spratling, and we learned to eat the space-bugs that lived in the swamp. Then we learned to hold our breath for months at a time, and we could fly out into space, where the space-bugs were much bigger. And delicious. I don't suppose you'll ever know what that's like, to fly free and naked in space....”

Hank roused himself. “Oh, I think I know what that's like now,” he murmured. “But what does it feel like to die?”

“Oh, it's a shock the first time, I would say. But you get used to it. I'm sure you'll be fine.”


~*~

By the time the rescue crew arrived, Hank was drifting into the enchanting depths of hypothermia. Ronam was chatting away to himself, and he greeted the rescue squad cheerfully. They examined Hank and gave him first aid for the life-threatening stuff. Mainly they needed to warm his brain and spinal cord, so they hovered around him and put their hands and tentacles on his head and back, radiating heat into his body.

A strange prickling warmth invaded Hank's skull and backbone. He badly wanted to squirm away from it, but he couldn't move. Then they let him go, and he discovered that he felt much better. Or at least less bad. They slipped him into a coffin-sized lifeboat and slapped its stomata closed. There was some jostling, and then acceleration.

The lifepod opened in the infirmary. Too late Hank realized they were going to throw him into the recovery tank again. His struggles sent the squad handling him into peals of laughter, and the hilarity weakened them so much that at one point he almost got away. But they managed to get it together and toss him into the empty tank despite their giggling.

The medical robots sealed the tank and turned on the water. It boiled around Hank and thickened until there was no air. The guys who'd brought him waved cheerfully while he freaked out and drowned. And started breathing water. He stuck out his tongue at the rescue crew, and they went off laughing. The nice thing about the tank was that he couldn't hear them chortling anymore.

“Back in the tank,” he thought. "I'm so sick of this stupid tank." But it didn't take long before he faded away into an exhausted sleep.


~*~

Lightening struck the top of a mountain, and chunks of rock the size of house-trailers tumbled down the slope. Hank had to scramble and run to dodge the black leaping boulders. He felt the claws of a bird settling on his shoulder, and he shuddered as he realized, "Oh, I'm dreaming again."

He looked around at the little green bird, and she pointed with her beak. He looked up the mountain. Tongues of lava like streams of brilliant slow water flowed down toward him. He wanted to flee, but the bird insisted he go closer.

“Touch the lava,” it chirped urgently. He finally did, and his fingers caught fire. He panicked, and then noticed that the fire was cool. He could play with it, mold it, flick candleflames off the ends of his fingers.

“Sink you hands into the lava,” the bird said. “That's it. Now let the lava pull the heat from your body.” Cold waves flowed through Hank's hands, and when he took his hands out of the lava, his fingers were no longer burning.

“Now flick your fingers,” the bird said.

Hank did. Nothing. “No, flick it toward your face or your other hand.”

Hank did, and felt a puff of wind. “Oh,” he said. “So that's how they do it.”


~*~

Hank woke up in a hammock in the infirmary. Remembering the dream, he flicked his fingers, and was startled when flames skittered away from them. “Wow, I can do it in wake-time too.”

It took some time for him to find out how to think cool enough to do it without flame, and throw puffs of air like invisible marshmallows. But he didn't have anything else to do but practice anyway.


~*~

The crew scavenged robot parts from the bodies of the broken spiders, and everything useful from the mother ship. They didn't find much. Mostly what they took was repair equipment. Ship's surgeons sewed together the rips in Mefrina's pods, and it would take a few weeks for them to heal. Until then, Mefrina wouldn't be able to travel at top speed, so she leaped into hyper-space and unfurled half her sails. Slowly she got underway along the same gorge she'd been in when the battle began.


~*~

The medical robot on duty, Nodsfar, was new to Hank. She said she'd traded jobs with Flad.

“How badly am I damaged?” Hank asked.

“Not too bad, actually. You had laser burns on your legs, and some decompression damage, and some frostbite. Nothing that won't heal in a week.”

“That's all?”

“Well, we had to replace your legs to deal with the frostbite.”

“I lost my legs?” Hank looked at his legs. They looked normal. He flexed them, and they felt normal.

“You also lost one arm, minor portions of your nervous system, and your skin. But the rest was pretty much salvageable.”

“My skin? Then why is it still blue? And what do you mean minor portions of my nervous system?”

“Well, most of the spine, it's true, but only small parts of the cerebellum.”

“Jeez Louise!”

Nodsfar looked at him primly, her limbs entangled.

“I probably don't want to know how much my bill is, do I?”

Nodsfar laughed. “No, you don't. But since you mentioned it....”


~*~

Hank's pod-mates came to the infirmary to make fun of him. They talked about poker debts, and pranks that had been pulled around the ship lately. They wondered whether the stowaway had lived through the attack.

“There'll be a wake for those who died,” Jagung said, “when the wounded are out of the infirmaries and the robots are out of the repair shops.”

They hung out and played cards, and Hank no longer saw any point in caring whether he won or lost. It was just fun to hang out with friends.

When everyone left, Epfid'l stayed to talk and sleep with him. “You're in no shape for sex,” she said. “So don't ask. Doctor's orders.”

“Rats,” Hank said.

“There's a pool on when we have sex again. I'm not telling you what day my money's on. But you'll find out.”

“What? There's a pool? Gee, that's embarrassing.”

Epfid'l looked delighted. “You mean that was supposed to be secret? Why Hank, you pervert. How charming.”

Hank frowned.


~*~

Hank had been back in the dorm a week, on light duty, when the wake was announced over the PA. It was held in the main lounge. “Are you coming?” Hank asked Jagung in passing.

“No, I'm on duty in the Navigation Pod. Somebody has to do it.”

The usual hubbub preceded the ceremony. Then there were eulogies for the dead, one of whom was Chinglad. People had nothing but nice things to say about her, especially since she was there in her new body. It looked the same as her old body only shinier. She flew to the center of the meeting sphere and received a round of applause.

There were videos from the Entertainment Committee of the most interesting parts of the battle, namely the parts where people screwed up. These also got hefty rounds of applause. Then Ronam and Hank got face awards. “Your shutting down the mother ship contributed hugely to the victory over the Scrampian spider-bots,” Captain Splug declaimed, and flourished certificates for both of them. “And there will be medals. Ronam, yours will be painted on, and Hank, yours will be a tattoo.”

“A what?” And the whole crew laughed. It felt better than a round of applause.

“And right now,” the Captain continued, “we'd like to ask Hank to DJ a dance.”

Hank said, “It would be an honor.”

So he coded in 'Flying' from the Beatles' 'Magical Mystery Tour' and touched the play button.

Fewer people went crazy this time. And as Hank watched, he could see that the robots were combining dancing with the tether frolicking he'd first seen them doing at the meeting to space him.

They seemed to be doing well, so Hank put on 'White Rabbit' from 'Surrealistic Pillow' and joined the dance himself. Dancing's very different when you can fly at the same time. He danced with Epfid'l, and Toogodda, and Ying, and Chinglad. Hank was pleased to see that he knew many of the crew by now.

The robots and organics whirled and gyrated like leaves in a trembling wind.

At the end of the song, a few more were towed out twitching, but the rest chanted, “More! More!”

They were acting drunk, and Hank wasn't sure how far this could safely go, but what the hell. He put on 'In a Gadda-da-vida.' That leveled them like wheat before a scythe. Hank panicked and almost stopped the song. When it was over, to his surprise most of them recovered quickly and cried for more.

But the captain vetoed it and order the crew back to duty.


~*~

They were already heading out both doors of the lounge when Hank had a staggering realization. When the white heat of it had passed, he was surprised that only a couple seconds had gone by.

“Excuse me,” he called. “I have an announcement. Yoo hoo.” When he had the attention of most of the crew who were still there, he said, “I'm not a slave anymore, am I?”

A wave of laughter rolled through the crew.

“Of course you're not,” Captain Splug replied. “That was just a joke all along.”

Hank was instantly outraged. “A what?”

“We thought we'd kid you around a little.”

“What about the other organics? Aren't they slaves?”

“No, not them either.”

Hank went off like a fizz-bomb, and the crew about laughed themselves sick. “We're surprised it took you so long to catch on,” Splug said to Hank when he'd wound down. That set him off again.

When Hank was finally done having his fit, they told him that the joke wasn't just on him, it was also on Jagung. “You'll notice Jagung isn't at this meeting. We want you to cooperate in maintaining the illusion for awhile yet."

“What do you mean? For how long?” “I have no idea,” Splug said.

Hank felt angry, but he could tell this was a serious issue to Splug and the crew, and so he grumpily agreed to be devious. He felt burned and suspicious.


~*~

In the dorm-pod it became a topic of discussion when Jagung wasn't there: if we're not slaves what are we?

“Well, I don't know about you,” Epfid'l said, “but I think we're crew-members.”

The next time Spacrudda came to take him to work, Hank asked him the question. “I agree with Epfid'l,” Spacrudda said. “Especially since you're going to be initiated into the crew soon.”

“Initiated? I am? What's that like?”

But Spacrudda would say no more about it. "Oh no. That's a secret."


~*~

The rips in Mefrina's pods had healed. She came to the edge of a Probability Gulf, and leaped out into the emptiness. It took a double shift on the hyper-space engine to stabilize the ship in the high winds. The energy sails cracked in the turbulence. Like a dragonfly caught in a dust-devil, Mefrina flipped and whirled through the air. She was loving the thrill.


Back to Top


Chapter 13: Initiation



Hank went for a job interview. He got to the right address, and he found the building to be the last one standing in the neighborhood. The rest looked like a wrecking crew was halfway done with demolition. He walked into the waiting room and sat down. One wall was partially destroyed, and Hank could look out at the local devastation.

The interviewer was a short, bald man who wouldn't make eye contact with Hank. He didn't get the job. So Hank threw the address away and pedaled his bicycle home. But his own neighborhood was murky and unfamiliar. Broken stubs of buildings flickered in the light of scattered wildfires. Here and there he saw groups of ragged survivors gathered around cooking fires.

Hank was frightened, and yet he kept going forward, even when he came to the top of a cement cliff and had to carry his bike down a long ladder. The sky was dark except for red flames on the horizon.

He reached the bottom and was looking around when Chinglad suddenly appeared out of thin air in front of him. Hank realized he was dreaming, and shifted into the lucid state.

“Could you come back to wake-time?” Chinglad asked. “We're having a meeting we'd you to come to. I'll meet you in the main lounge.”

“Sure,” said Hank.

And he woke up. He'd gone to sleep in his hammock in the dorm pod, and so he was startled that he woke up in the main lounge. Chinglad was floating in the air in front of him, and all she said was, “Come with me, cowboy, if you please.” And she headed out of the lounge and along the main hall to the poker lounge.

Captain Splug was there, and Hank's pod-mates, and Bos'n Thlad, Ronam, and Ying. Thlad's parrot was floating next to him, waving her wings.

"Awk," said the parrot, "here's the dream-swimmer."

“Well,” the Captain rumbled, “Now that you've caught on to our little trick, it's time to formally initiate you into the crew. Unless you'd rather just go back home to Dirt and forget the whole thing?”

Hank was startled. He hadn't considered the possibility in so long that for a moment he didn't know how he felt. And then he did. “No, I can't go home again. I'm part of this crew now, for better or worse.”

“Good,” said Splug. “Because now you finally qualify. Before this you were too awash in self-pity. But you've come a long way, and we're proud of you. Or at least some of us are proud of you. Or at least Chinglad is proud of you. Of course, this still means you have to work off your debts. At the rate you're going, that should only take a couple centuries.”

Hank bridled. “And how is that different from being a slave?” Everyone at the meeting burst out laughing. Some of them broke into tears.

“By the leopard's spots,” said Thlad, “he's seen through our little trick once again.”

"He's seen through the mirror both ways," added the parrot.

“If you were a better gambler,” Toogodda commented, “you could get rid of your debt that way. But I've seen you gamble.”

Splug said, “So now that you're part of the crew. That means there's certain information you get to know that you didn't before. You wanna take him through it, Chinglad?”

“Sure,” said Chinglad. “Now you know that there's something called the dream-time. Your race has lost touch with this knowledge somehow. You've been to the tunnels, and you even have a power animal, so this is starting to make sense to you, right?”

“I wouldn't have believed it before, that's for sure. But you're right.”

“OK. Almost all of the bicameral races in the galaxy are awake and asleep at the same time. Yours is almost unique in having polarized into being one at a time. You do this marvelous trick of walking around with half your brain awake, and then you go to sleep so the other half can be awake. The rest of the galaxy would call this state insanity.”

“Huh? You're kidding, right?”

“Oh no, not at all. That's really what they'd call it.”

"Just don't call me Shirley," said the parrot.

“Your race seems to be smart enough,” Thlad volunteered, “but the anthropologists find that you do such crazy things that the waiting list for openings to study Dirt is longer than this ship.”

“What? Like what?”

“Like living on the surface of your planet, for example. That's no place for a sapient. Surfaces are for sentients, and space is for sapients.”

“Well, I can see that it's crazy to pollute one's planet, but how can it be crazy just to live on it?”

“It's not possible to live on a planet without polluting it unless you're a quadricameral. Even tricamerals can't do it.”

“But how would we get into space? You talk like it's easy.”

“Well, it's not exactly easy,” Edfid'l said. “But your race has the intelligence to do it, if you weren't distracted by being crazy. Most races first get into space with a version of the maglev train. A seven mile track laid up the side of a mountain can shoot robots and containers of water and supplies into orbit. A track a hundred miles long can shoot organics into orbit. If you could get into space, you could use your planet for what it's meant for.”

“What's that?”

“Vacations, of course, Sweetie Pie. Day-dreaming, and rest and play. Reconnecting to nature.”

“Huh?”

"Nature is natural," said the parrot. "Natural is ephemeral. Ephemeral is strength."

“Your planet is dying,” Splug said. “Your whole system is dying. Why do you suppose you have large moons and an asteroid belt? And it's all because your race lost touch with the dream-time.”

“Most races stay in touch with the dream-time,” Epfid'l said. “At least to the point of having sorcerers to guide them into robot bodies when they die. Your race doesn't have that, so when you die you go through the dream-time like a Fleetnar through a nebula, straight into the beyond. That would make anyone crazy.”

“The beyond? What's that?”

Ronam answered. “It's the level above and beyond the dream-time, space-bug. In the dream-time stars are alive, and it's power from the beyond that feeds them. In the dream-time Dirt is fed by the sun. The power is received by the central crystal, and then radiated to all the beings on the planet.”

“What central cystal?”

“You'll like this,” Ying said. “At the center of Dirt is a crystal of iron 2400 kilometers in diameter. It's spherical, but it's not smooth. It has mountains and valleys on its surface. And those are inhabited by strange beings.”

Splug picked up the story, “Anyway, the power is normally passed from the crystal to the rocks, and then to the plants and animals, and then to the people. On Dirt that chain has been broken. That's why the rocks and plants and animals don't talk to you. They're straining to maintain the connection at all.”

“The way a planet dies,” Thlad said, “is by losing touch with the dream-time. Your asteroid belt used to be a planet, and it's already died and exploded. In its final dissolution, the consciousness of the planet fragments, and the fragments repel each other. And usually if a planet dies, it means the whole system is going. Certainly Dirt is going. Maybe preserve status will save the rest of the system. Who knows?”

“This is the information that I get to know now that I'm in the crew? And how in the world is this supposed to help me?”

Splug laughed till he choked. “Shiver my gringles. Who said anything about helping you?”

"The green soldiers come up in the spring," said the parrot.

“And there's more you need to know,” said Thlad. “There are two kinds of robots. Wild robots, and organics who've died and jumped to robot bodies. Wild robots consider organic life a plague, because we steal their bodies. So there's endless war between robots and organics. The robots on this ship all used to be organics, and they're on our side. The black spiders we had the fight with are one of many kinds of wild robots who scour the galaxy looking for us.”

Hank was scowling. “You lied to me about all this?”

Splug beamed. “Oh, yes indeed. Aren't you proud of us?”

Hank spluttered. “But that's not right.” Everyone at the meeting burst out laughing. “And since you've lied to me, how do you expect me to believe you now?”

“Ei caramba, we don't expect that,” Ronam said. “We believe in freedom, so you can believe anyone you want to.”

Hank was outraged. “But there's only you!”

“Exactly my point,” Splug said, clapping his hands together happily.

“And the last lie,” continued Thlad, “was that we're pirates. Well, I mean we are pirates here in wake-time, but in dream-time we're a party of travelers. You've joined that party, so now you're a traveler too. Not because you want to be, but because coincidence has made it so.”

“What do you mean coincidence has made it so?”

“There's a great power from the beyond that manipulates the lives of everyone who's alive, wherever they are. We don't know what it is. We don't even know if it's beneficent. That would be a wonderful mission for a party of travelers to try to find out. But that doesn't happen to be the mission we're on.”

Thlad touched his tentacles together. “The computer says it's having trouble translating the term 'traveler.' What's meant is someone who is lean and trim and has overcome self-pity, who loves with detachment. Most importantly, it's someone who can jump a great distance when he dies. The farther you can jump when you die, the greater the chances there will be a robot body within range.”

“But why did you have to lie to me?”

Thlad chuckled. “Oh, we didn't have to. We did it for fun. And we did it in order to expose your self-importance. You were a slow learner, but you did learn. Now you're trim enough to know the truth. So now you do.”

"Jingle my bells and call me a magnificent beast," said the parrot.

“And so," Splug said, "welcome to the crew."

“That's it? That's the initiation?”

“Why? You expected more?”

“Well, at least a gold star and a secret decoder ring. Or maybe some invisible ink and a secret handshake. Sorry, bad joke. On Dirt it would have been funny.”

"No more giggle juice for the boy-o," said the parrot.


~*~

Ronam and Ying took Hank off to get his ceremonial mind-print taken. "But first," Hank said, "can I see my robot body? I mean, it's in storage somewhere, right?"

"Indeed it is," said Ying. "Come along." And they flew along hallways into a little-used part of the ship. Ying stopped in front of a storage pod and tapped on it's stomata. "Here it is," she said.

The stomata opened, and they flew in. Ranks of robot bodies were hanging in space, suspended by tractor beams. It felt weird to Hank that they were all silent and still. "It's like a graveyard," he thought.

They went along the ranks. "There it is, space-bug," Ronam said, and he pointed. Hank went closer. His body was tan, and it was only about a meter tall. The torso was in two pieces that were connected by a flexible tube. His neck was another flexible tube, and his head looked like a stylized skull with blue eyes and pointed ears. His arms and legs were curled up in a fetal position.

"Holy cow," Hank said. "That's it?"

"Yep," said Ronam. "It has an inertial engine built in, and an internal source of heat. The color, of course, you can change at will, once you're in it. Your vision will be extended into the ultraviolet and infra-red. You can even see gamma rays and radio waves if you want to."

"But it's so small."

"Big enough," said Ying. "I think you'll find it comfortable." "The ears look like Dr. Spock's."

"Who?"

"A guy on Dirt. I mean.... Never-mind."

"They swivel for better hearing."

"Like a horse," Hank said. "This feels so weird."

"We know," they said together. "We've been there," Ying added.

Hank didn't know what else to say, so they flew back to the main hall and then toward the bridge, and just before they got to it they turned off and zoomed along a hall to the Computer Pod. There they asked Hank to put on a hat. It looked kind of like a World War 1 flying helmet. “Wait a minute,” Hank said. “I've been doing this every week as part of my physical, but Chinglad said it was to check that my brain was healthy. What's going on here?”

Ying coiled her tentacles in a sheepish way. “Chinglad lied to you,” she said. “Or rather, we all did.”

“So actually, this is how I've been getting weekly brain scans? So that if I died you could put me in my robot body?”

Ying and Ronam looked at each other. “Great Ceaser's Ghost!” said Ying. “I think he's got it.” They burst out laughing.

Hank scowled and put the hat on. “Don't forget to tie it under your chin,” Ying said, and they went off into more peals of laughter.

"While you're having your brain scan," Ronam said, "we'll show you some parts of dream-time that you haven't seen yet. This is a traditional part of the initiation that we call the sleigh-ride."

"Should I be worried?" Hank asked.

"Oh no, cowboy," Ronam said. "Not at all." Which made Hank really worry.

“Enough of this goofing around,” said Ying, and turned to Ronam. “Are you ready?”

“I am,” said Ronam. He turned to Hank. “Are you ready?” he asked.

“No,” said Hank.

“Computer,” said Ying, “you may begin.”


~*~

They all dropped down into dream-time as though a trapdoor had fallen open beneath them. Hank screamed. They fell through purple turbulent darkness, the wind roaring around them. Like sky-divers, they linked up, and with tremendous effort they gradually slowed until they were flying rather than falling.

Hank was confused by the changes. Ronam was still a saucer shape, but now he looked organic, like two mottled turtle shells stuck together. He still had arms, but now they were fleshy and retractable. Ying looked like a large lilac-colored octopus with 2 ears and 4 eyes.

They flew down through layers of violet clouds and came out over a moonlit landscape. The land below was black like coal, shiny black. Hank's flying companions took him through a roller-coaster ride in the air, and it ended with them zooming straight down. Even the trees, which now loomed larger and larger, were black.

They zoomed through the ground as though it were a soap bubble, and they found themselves flying in a twilight space. Shafts of sunlight shifted and sparkled all around them. Ying and Ronam were laughing like they were children. A wall loomed before them, and they giggled louder.

Boom! They burst through the wall, and they were flying through the plasma of a red giant, below the surface of a huge star. Everything around them was an incandescent fog. Once or twice Hank thought he glimpsed great winged shapes flapping along through the brightness nearby. He was taking all of this like a joyride. He knew he wouldn't be so calm about it if he weren't in a state of lucid dreaming.

They went through an enormously compressing acceleration and exploded out of the star at nearly the speed of light. As they flew they continued to accelerate until Hank could feel them trembling on the edge of breaking the light barrier. He began to feel hungry for it with a powerful yearning that came from deep within him. He longed to go through it and burst into light. Ronam and Ying each grabbed a leg and began slowing him down. They were cackling as though they were drunk.

When they'd slowed enough and sobered enough to talk again, Ying said, “Never, never go faster than light, cowboy.”

“Whether in dream-time or wake-time,” said Ronam, “it's the same: if you exceed the speed of light you become light.”

“And when you become light,” Ying said, “time stops. So there's no way back.”

“Got it,” Hank said. “Point taken. It's strangely attractive though, isn't it?”

"Holy frijoles," Ronam said. “That's why it's so dangerous."

“OK,” said Ying. “Let's do one more jump.” Hank's stomach blanched as they leaped to a place of pastel clouds, filled with sparkles. A humming like billions of bees came from everywhere at once. There Ronam and Ying showed him time-puffs, both the pink usable ones and the dangerous blue ones. Now they were acting sober and Hank was the giggly one. He tried to keep his balance, but he kept falling off into giddiness.


~*~

They camped out in dream-time, on the edge of a bluff overlooking an opalescent ocean. The wind-blown vegetation was blue, and the sea was a deep burgundy. Ronam and Ying took turns diving off the cliff into the ocean, one applauding while the other dove. Then they urged Hank to join them, and talked him into jumping. The long fall was terrifying, and diving into the cool water was exhilarating.

Ronam made a fire, gathering dry branches into a pile and throwing fireballs till the flames caught. They gathered around it and watched the sunset. After dark the fire burned down, and the land was still. A breeze flowed toward the ocean.

Hank didn't know one could sleep in dream-time, but Ronam and Ying curled up and dozed off. So he lay down on the dark moss and let go. Eventually he fell into a dreamless sleep, and for a time he even drifted up into the beyond. The view was vast, and indescribable in words. Later he could only say, "It's as though it was all light...." Though he had a vague memory of islands floating in the air.


~*~

The next morning they flew up into the sky. They flew up very high, and they built up so much speed that they dropped in a long whistling arc back into wake-time.


Back to Top


Chapter 14: Grave Robbers



Spacrudda sat in a tavern in dream-time, ostensibly just having a drink with the guys, but really poking around for information, when he felt Hank wake up. In dream-time Spacrudda resembled a large bird with long legs and ornate feathers on his wings and crest. He excused himself and walked out the back of the bar. No one was watching, so he clapped his wings together and dropped like a fountain of fireworks into the tunnels. He flew through glowing fog and many twists and turns, and then out through his personal door into wake-time.

He awakened in his robot body and went to supervise Hank. Hank had been disappointed to find out that just because he wasn't a slave anymore didn't mean he didn't have to clean out slop pods. “But you're doing it now as a crewmember rather than as a slave,” Spacrudda explained helpfully. Somehow Hank didn't feel that helped at all.

But he noticed that now that he wasn't a slave, he didn't mind the chores as much. Or maybe he was just getting used to them. Today he was using a pitchfork to move salad greens into a storage pod near the kitchens. He was getting soaked in the process. He was working with Lapsi and Cleep, two hot organics in suits. He could tell they were new to the ship from how giggly they were and how much they horsed around.


~*~

Pofreeble the Lyr dropped from hyper-space into normal space a thousand meters from the space station it thought of as home. Tuning its crystals to act as a radio, it called the central computer.

"Where," it asked, "does the spaceship known as Mefrina call home?"

"Mefrina has no home," the computer said. "But it refits and resupplies at a large asteroid named Zinjan orbiting the planet Sakara. Here are the coordinates."

"Noted," said the Lyr. "Thank you for your assistance."

"My satisfaction," said the computer.

Pofreeble twinkled like a cloud of fireworks as it lofted into hyper-space and disappeared from view.


~*~

Mefrina's wounds from the battle with the Scrampian spider bots had largely healed. She skipped over the lip of a Nibelian rift, and skidded down a long slope into a side canyon of the Carongian Mesa. She was followed by her baby pods, who were playing with each other and trying to catch the fireflies.

There she came to a stop, and deep in shadow she lay in wait for the Kai treasure fleet. Toogodda spent a lot of time listening with her crystal radio, trying to hear them coming before the Radio Pod, just for her personal satisfaction. Hank bet Hofnog 3 to 2 she'd succeed. Life went on pretty much as usual, only quieter. There was an air of anticipation and suspension throughout the ship. Everyone was waiting.


~*~

“And that was 'When I'm 64' from the Beatles album 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.' An album, I might add as a piece of interesting trivia, that cost $78,000 to make, which in those days was a lot of money. Next we'll be hearing another Beatles song, from their White Album, called 'Long, Long, Long.” And that'll be followed by 'Attics of my Life' from one of the great classic Grateful Dead albums called 'American Beauty.'”


~*~

On the third day, the advance scouts for the treasure fleet sailed cautiously by the mouth of the side-canyon. Mefrina hovered deeper into the shadows, behind her nets of illusion, completely locked down. Since the computers were all off, Hank was watching through the windows in Chinglad's quarters near the bridge. He wanted to see the fleet for himself.

2000 spaceships went sailing majestically by, most of them a great deal bigger than the Mefrina. No two were alike. All were ornate and gilded and baroque. Hank and his pod-mates hung out in Chinglad's quarters for three days, eating cold meals, fascinated by the parade. Chinglad provided a running commentary.

As the tail of the parade went by, Mefrina slipped out of hiding and joined in among the hangers-on and camp-followers. Hank finally went back to the dorm-pod to get some good sleep. He woke up when they dropped into real space, feeling like he was waking up on a roller coaster going over the edge into a downhill plunge.

He headed for the main lounge, dodging the booby traps in the main hall without thinking about it anymore. Hofnog was at a table having a snack. “The news,” he said, tossing what looked like a french fry into his mouth, “since you went to sleep, is that it isn't a treasure procession at all, it's a funeral.”

“A what? For who?”

“We don't know yet. One of the Kai, probably." Hofnog handed Hank a tablet, which worked now that the computers were back on. "If you look at the view you'll see we're approaching the grave chamber.”

Hank looked. Ahead of them in normal space stretched the vast parade, now spread out a good deal. Beyond the leading ships lay a hollow asteroid. Directly ahead of the ships was a huge star of cracks, and in the center of the star was a gap large enough to admit several of the mighty ships at once.

The parade constricted and passed through the hole without slowing down. Mefrina passed through the gap in the tail of the procession, and the viewers could see that the ships ahead had formed a sphere formation inside the hollow shell of rock. The Mefrina took up an unobtrusive place among the mourners. Hank flew to the bridge and was looking over Epfid'l's shoulder. She had shoulders because she was in her crocodile form. The atmosphere on the bridge was anything but somber. Hank looked around at the gleefully celebrating robots.

Epfid'l tugged on his arm and pointed at the screen in front of her. From one of the ships emerged an escort of seven Kai with a body floating horizontally among them. The escorts and the body looked the same to Hank: huge humanoid figures that glowed too brightly for details to be made out.

The procession approached the center of the sphere, and there they performed a lengthy ceremony, which seemed to involve a good deal of juggling with balls of light. It culminated in a display of what looked like fireworks. Then they left the body and returned to the ship they'd come from. From most of the ships present beams of brilliant green hit the body at the same moment, and it erupted in a cloud of golden sparkles. When the beams stopped, there was no body.

Hank looked at Epfid'l. “Wow,” he said. “That was amazing.”

The procession of ships began to leave the asteroid. “I wonder where the body went.”

“Nobody knows,” Epfid'l said, “except that it goes from dream-time somewhere into the beyond. Maybe it goes to another place in time, or to a different kind of time. Who can say?”

Mefrina had fallen back so that she was the last ship in the procession, and she was just about to go through the gap in the shell when alarms went off all over the ship. She did an emergency stop. Tiny inertial engines in each pod kept them from overtaking the bridge, with the result that anything in each pod not fastened down crashed into the aft wall.

Suddenly the atmosphere on the bridge was like a stirred-up ants nest. Epfid'l turned when she could and whispered to Hank, “They've spotted a sniper. He's got some kind of suppressor beam aimed at the ship.”

“Spotted him where?”

“In the shell.” She pointed at the viewscreen. The shell was 200 meters thick, so there was plenty of room there for someone to be hiding. Hank could see airlocks and viewports set into the rock here and there. Then black battle-bots tumbled into view and flew like a squad of hornets toward a spot on the cliff face that was now illuminated by many red laser beams. As they approached one of the airlocks, Hank could see the many-colored beams of battle begin flickering. Several of the robots were hit, and spun uselessly away, trailing smoke. The rest took the airlock after a brief firefight.

“What's going on?” Hank whispered.

Epfid'l made a hushing motion. “They're reporting back now. The sniper got away, but they disabled the projector. And a posse's going after the sniper.”

Engineer's were scrambling all over the main inertial engine, and then they cleared it for restart. The ship popped and creaked as she stretched out into her natural teardrop shape again. She flew through the gap in the shell and out into space. Most of the procession ahead had already disappeared into hyper-space.

Captain Splug spoke from his chair in the center of the bridge, and his voice repeated on the PA all over the ship. “All hands. We'll be meeting in the main lounge in two hours to form up raiding parties. Over and out.”

Epfid'l was relieved of duty until the raids. She looked at Hank. “I know what we could do,” she said.

“Oh really? You do?”

They went off to find some privacy, and with their usual creativity they found it. Hank had recently told Epfid'l about multiple orgasms, and she was figuring out how to have them. Hank felt so envious he almost wished he hadn't mentioned them. But that would be petty.

Epfid'l had been feeling sad lately, and as they made love she felt herself emerging from the sadness like a whale coming up from the depths of the ocean for a leap into the sunlight. And then another leap. And then another.


~*~

The crew was chipper. Hank noticed it as he and Epfid'l danced along the hall to the main lounge. Since it was still being prepared for the meeting, they flew across it and had a snack in one of the mess pods.

"What are we raiding?" Hank asked.

"The shell," Epfid'l said. "You oughta start carrying a pocket screen with you. The gossip is all over the grapevine. Since we've already got a posse in the shell, we're going to use them as the advance scouts. The raiding parties will follow, only radiating out as we go. You and I are in Ronam's squad, and we'll be going out in the second wave."

"What are we looking for?"

"Who knows? Surprises, mysteries, antiques, relics, technology, glittering piles of treasure beyond imagination..."

When they'd finished eating, they drifted back to the main lounge to watch the raiding parties forming. The robots were going first, since they could move faster than the organics. They poured into the main lounge in their battle-bodies, black and purple and deep blue, some trailing colorful streamers in honor of the occasion. Splug and Thlad handed out assignments over the grapevine, and the robots wheeled in the lounge like flights of birds. Most of them went back the way they'd come, along the main hall and then through various hallways to their battle stations on the surface.

When Ronam came flying in, he beckoned to Epdfid'l and Hank, and they joined him on the ceremonial loop, flying in circles and spirals around the main lounge. Then they followed Ronam along the main hall and through branching hallways to a pod on the surface.

Jagung and Toogodda were already there, and in their space suits. Hofnog was getting into his. “Suit up, Hank,” said Ronam. “We're about to go. And don't forget your sack.”

As he put on his suit, Hank looked around. His pod-mates were joined by several hot organics, a couple of tricamerals, and a quadricameral. Hank could tell the tricamerals because of the three tentacles, and the quadricameral by the four arms.

“Attention, sapce-bugs,” said Ronam. “When the stomata opens, follow me. We'll be going at full acceleration." He looked around. "Ready? Here we go.”

Ronam slapped the stomata lightly, and it snapped open. The air in the pod and all the organics spilled out into hard vacuum. Ronam zoomed away at high speed, singing a song he'd made up about the glory of scavenging, and the organics were hard put to keep up.

They crossed a thousand meters of emptiness. Ronam zoomed to their assigned airlock, like a comet with a tail of followers.

The airlock door was closed, though there was no air in the tunnels behind it. Jagung and a hot organic named Safroo pointed their time accelerators at it. It melted into old age, corroding before their eyes. It crumbled at a touch, and they pushed through the cloud of dust and took off down the tunnel behind the airlock in a phalanx, whooping with excitement. Whenever the hall split, the party did too, until everyone was exploring in parties of two or three or even alone.

The hallways were large and clean and lined with machinery. Somehow an air of abandonment lay like a coating of invisible dust on everything. The rooms were ornate with furniture and decorations and murals of the Kai.

Ying found a data sphere, and she was amazed. It was five centimeters in diameter, and a cloudy white in color. There was no way to tell what information it held, but five centimeters meant there was room for a vast amount. She felt into it with dream feelings, and it felt rich. When she picked it up she sparkled orange and spun in crazy circles for a bit. Then she added it to her sack.

Toogodda came across a sub-space crystal. It was so powerful it could take a whole ship into sub-space, which is a level below hyper-space. "But never-mind that,” she thought. “What a crystal radio I can build with this. Holy Orp!”

Hank tailed along with Epfid'l, since he mostly couldn't tell a valuable item from a useless one. “Get those computer cubes there,” she said. “Those are good. And here are some yaminam fruits. Very delicious! And they last forever. We'll bring these.” Epfid'l was good at finding hidden safes and getting them open, and they filled their sacks with things tiny and precious.

Then Epfid'l found a musical instrument that looked somewhat like a blue violin. “Look at this,” she said. “I didn't know the Kai had music. No wonder they became gods. Can you play it?” “I think so, given time,” said Hank. “Bring it with us. We'll learn together.”

Hank found a set of data spheres like beautiful marbles the size of walnuts, with information on various planets. Hank woofed with surprise when he found one that looked like Earth. Into his sack they went, though Epfid'l warned him the information was probably eons out of date.

Ronam found a chamber with walls covered by weapons. A museum? An arsenal? The prize of the display was a glowing sword, a Keelar weapon of great subtlety. Ronam took it from it's display case with a feeling of awe, but it got him to thinking about the days of revolution, and all the useless combat. And prison after that, with even more useless fighting. It wasn't until he became a pirate that he found struggle which was useful and meant something. "Revolution and personal gain and a mission combined," he thought, "now there's the proper balance. Ei caramba!"

He remembered an old prisoner, a harmless-seeming but tough old Throgdike. Over years of prison life he noticed that the old man survived better than anyone. And part of how he did it was by never using weapons.

They'd escaped together during the riots, dodging bolts of fire and laughing like madmen as they zigzagged through the mine field. The memory of the old Throgdike cackling as he sizzled along at full speed, kicking mines out of his way and leaving them to explode harmlessly in his wake, still made Ronam chuckle. He put the sword in his sack and went on. Someday he'd be a good enough warrior to forego weapons, and then he'd give the sword away.

Jagung found a cabinet full of models of ships, each one in a glass ball. He picked up one to examine it, a Dracun luxury cruiser colored gold and violet. The workmanship was superb, possibly down to the nano scale. He filled his entire sack with models and headed back to Mefrina, hoping he had time for a second run.

Respfid'l had found a string of beads that gave the wearer the power to feel the gravity dents in space-time. With these she could surf empty space like ocean waves. She could travel near light speed with no effort.

Gowrung found a Vitrupian power crystal. “If there were more of these nearby, this could be the motherlode,” he thought. But the captain was calling the crew back with their gleanings, so he marked the location in his permanent memory and headed back with his sack. If the crystal were even partially filled, it alone was worth a fortune.

Thlad and Skrim were working together, and they found a wall rack of storage bottles. “Look at this!” cried Skrim. “I don't believe it!”

"Believe it at your peril!" cried the parrot, who was in his own little spacesuit.

“What?” asked Thlad. “I don't get it.”

“Goo.”

“What?”

Skrim laughed. “It's goo. Old Empire technology. I've always thought it was just a myth, but Chinglad's always said it was real. And look there.” Skrim gestured towards the bottles, which were labeled in an archaic language: 'Nanotechnology device Number 3067-C, Engineering X-078-D, Batchfile 13-809-41.'

Skrim was so excited he didn't trust himself to check the bottles, so he had Thlad do it. All but four were empty. Skrim and Thlad put the full ones in their sacks and headed back to Mefrina, laughing down the halls and across the empty space. This was too important to search farther. Skrim couldn't stop chortling the whole way.


~*~

When Hank and Epfid'l made it back to Mefrina, they could hear whooping and hollering from all over the ship. As he took off his suit and stowed it, he asked her, “What is it now?”

“I don't know,” she said. “Computer, what's going on?”

“Nanotechnology has been discovered,” the computer said. Skrim and Thlad found four ancient capsules of 'goo,' and preliminary testing says it actually seems to be viable.” Epfid'l grinned. “Whether we can access it or not remains to be seen,” the computer warned.

“This is phenomenal,” Epfid'l said. “Have your heard of goo?"

"No," Hank said.

"It's technology from the old Empire, a much grander time than the present and long before the Kai. Everybody thought this was a myth.”

Hank was puzzled. “Everybody thought what was a myth?”

“Oh, you don't know what nanotechnology is?”

“No.”

“It's the technology that lets you build things an atom at a time. You haven't heard of this on Dirt yet, so it's probably hard for you to imagine the incredible things you can build when that becomes possible.”

“An atom at a time? How do you do that?”

"According to the myths, the actual devices look something like the Scrampian spider bots who boarded us, only much smaller. So small that they're invisible to the naked eye, the size of large molecules.”

“How can a miniature spider build anything? It'd take years.”

“First the spider makes other spiders, until there are enough to do the job quickly. All together, a mass of these spiders looks like a silvery colloid, which is where the nickname 'goo' comes from.”

“So that's what Skrim found, is some of this stuff?”

“Well, maybe. It's useless unless we can interface with it. Each spider forms part of a computer, but how do we talk with that computer?”

“The crew is happy about this even though it's only a possibility?”

“Exactly. If this pays off it could be bigger than the motherlode that Gowrung and Pagile are always talking about. Let's go join the party.”

They did, and it turned into a dance. Dancing with Epfid'l was great. She'd change shapes as she danced, sometimes recognizable, and sometimes freeform. Hank danced like a pagan, an Indian, like a hippy, for the fun of it and the joy of exuberant motion. And hardly anybody fainted at dances anymore.


~*~

When the dance was over, they had a shower. Epfid'l didn't need to shower, since she didn't sweat, but she enjoyed playing in the water with Hank.

After the shower they were floating together in a cloud of warm moist air when Epfid'l said, “I think I might be pregnant.”

Hank felt like he’d been hit with five gallons of ice-water. “What? Omigod! But how did you.... I mean, I thought....” It had never occurred to him that Epfid’l could get pregnant. A child? A half-alien child? What did this mean?

Epfid’l was beaming. Hank found himself beaming back. “That’s great!” he said, hoping it was true. "The responsibility would be awesome with a human child on Dirt," he thought, "but this was ridiculous. What could we raise a child to be? A pirate? A refugee? An explorer? A goddess? And how would we raise a child aboard a pirate ship?"

Epfid’l giggled as she wrapped herself around him. Hank looked at her and realized he’d love his child even if it were a blue fish. He felt a dizzy mixture of recklessness and fear and joy. "My goodness," he said. "A child...."


~*~

They came back to the dorm exhausted, and there they met a solemn Toogodda and Usip talking with Yar, an aquamarine organic from another dorm pod.

“Yar has brought us bad news,” Toogodda said. “Hofnog's been lost.”

“He what?”

“He was exploring with Neera and Basid, and they found a large mirror. Hofnog touched it, and it sucked him into the dream-time so fast and so far that he was lost to us. He's gone, I'm sorry to say.”

“Wow.” Hank hadn't realized how fond of Hofnog he'd become. His chest hurt. “What do you mean gone? He's lost forever?”

“Well, no,” Usip said. “His physical body is lost forever. His mind is in the central computer, of course. But in order for the computer to re-animate him, his dream-body has to get back to us. If he ever does, we'll see him again, but he'll be wearing a robot body. And there's no way to know how long it'll take him to get back from wherever he is in dream-time.”

“He'll make it,” said Epfid'l. “We'll throw a party for him when he gets back. Well, I mean, after he gets out.”

“Out?” Hank asked.

“Of the computer.”

“Why doesn't he come out as soon as he gets back? Isn't his body built already?”

“Oh, it's built,” said Epfid'l, “but most people go kind of crazy when they die, for awhile. And it's better to do that inside the computer where it can support you.”

“How long will it take?”

“A few weeks, usually.”

“It varies from person to individual,” said Usip. “For you it'll probably take years.”


~*~

The posse came back empty-handed. The sniper had a scout ship hidden on the surface of the asteroid. He'd had enough of a lead on the posse to get to his ship, jump to hyper-space and get away.

When the party wound down, the bridge crew assembled. The Navigation Team did an electromagnetic scan, an etheric scan, and then a dream-cast in all directions. Space was clear of enemies. The Hyper-space Team twisted the ship into hyper-space, and Mefrina caught a hyper-wind flowing down a Spinelian Channel. The ship was bulging with loot, and the next goal was to make it back to Pirate's Rest before word spread and they got raided and boarded by other pirates.

In the normal course of job changes, Hank was put on cooking duty. It bored him. And it reminded him of KP in the Army, which was eons ago and on another planet, but somehow KP was still KP. It was amazing to him how far one could go and still wind up on KP. He tried to get out of it by trading jobs, but no one would trade with him. He tried putting up kitchen duty as poker stakes, but everyone recognized this as a desperate maneuver and didn't hesitate to take advantage of him and sink him deeper into debt. And to tease him mercilessly.

Through it all, Epfid'l laughed at him (which wasn't comforting) and remained someone warm and loving to come home to (which was). Hank was startled one day to realize how much the pod had become home to him. These aliens were his friends. Epfid'l of the Seven Veils was his lover. He was happy.

Then he was startled by a feeling of betrayal, not that he'd been betrayed but that he'd done the betraying. Home used to be Dirt, and everything he held dear, the memories of which he guarded within himself like a collection of irreplaceable figurines. And now in this comic circus of a pirate ship, home had become a living pod, with a hammock and a locker and some friends, membership in a crew, a lover, and life in a bigger world. It was such a big step. It was as though he noticed himself stepping in Seven League Boots over a canyon, a void, in a long crazy leap from all he'd ever known and loved to the unknown future. Over the emptiness to a new life as strange and evocative as a dream.

“It isn't outer space that's empty,” Hank thought. “The people back home on Dirt don't get it. It's the lack of certainty about the future that's empty. And if they only knew, they'd be glad they don't know.”

He felt the loss in back of him, and the way his attachment to his pod-mates and Epfid'l pulled him forward. He wanted not to care, but he knew it was far too late. "There's no off-switch on love," he thought. "One of life's little paradoxes."


Back to Top


Chapter 15: Lyr



Epfid'l was in her alligator form, and she sat with her back against a rock. The rock was as soft as her mama's skin. Petals from pink flowers blew by her in the breeze, and she looked around to see Hank climbing in a tree that was covered with pink blossoms. The tree-trunk was black, and Hank was clothed in blue feathers. The tree glowed as though it were afire from a sunset in the distant sky. "How lovely," she thought.

She woke up and snuggled with Hank. They were in her hammock rather than his because hers was bigger. Toogodda and Usip and Jagung were gone already, so they made love. Epfid'l giggled at him for his privacy fetish. “You're so uptight,” she teased him.

“I know,” he said. “You keep telling me that. I'll try to get over it. But as long as we're talking about fetishes, what about monogamy? We've never talked about that. Now that we're going to have a child, does that change things? Do you want to be lovers just with each other?”

Epfid'l laughed in dismay. “That would be silly. I'm from a species that likes schooling. And having a child doesn't change that.”

Hank kind of thought so too, but he didn't know how he'd feel about it in practice. "Back when I was a hippie on Dirt," he said, "we called it free love. And everybody said they believed in it. But when push came to shove, most guys couldn't stand it. Feelings of jealousy came roaring up. The only way I could stand it was by having sex with someone else. I mean, somehow it made it tolerable for you to have sex with other people if I did too."

"My species doesn't have jealousy," Epfid'l said. "So I can try to empathize with your feelings, but it's difficult. Is there any way I can help?"

"Well, I've tried having my lover tell me when she has sex with someone else, and I've tried not knowing. Knowing seems to work better."

"Have you had sex with anyone but me since you got here?" Epfid'l asked.

"No. You're my one and only sweetie."

"Well, maybe you should branch out."

Hank's stomach jumped. "Oh," he said. "I don't know anyone else I'm attracted to."

"Really? I know some nice females who have genitals that would work with you. How about if I introduce you? I've told them about multiple orgasms, so I think they'd be interested."

Hank gulped. This all seemed to be happening too fast. But all he said was, "OK. I guess. But come to think of it, how are we able to have a baby? I mean, we're hardly the same species."

"Oh, I have a lot of your DNA to mess with. I can edit it inside my body, so I changed yours, and I changed mine, until they fit."

"What will the baby be like?"

"She'll be blue like you and me, and a shape-shifter, and one of her natural forms will be human. Though she won't have hair."

"She'll be a girl?"

"Female is the default form with humans, so it was much easier. I'm not a good enough editor yet to make a male."

"Female is great," Hank grinned. "A blue little girl will be wonderful. I assume she'll be spunky like you?"

Epfid'l smiled and ruffled his blue hair. “They're having potato pancakes for breakfast,” she said. "Let's go, cowboy." Casually they dodged the booby traps on their way to the main lounge. Since they didn't notice them anymore, it hadn't occured to them to ask someone to turn them off.


~*~

Mefrina was passing through a Gurchian field on her way to Pirate's Rest. The hyper-field glowed around her, and in the distance there were crimson mountains. This close to home-base, the crew felt safe enough to let down the alertness level a bit. An atmosphere of partying pervaded the ship.

But then an anomaly suddenly erupted into being in a flash of blue light and folded around the ship like a spider's trap. Mefrina was catapulted over the event horizon into a webbed singularity. Emergency alarms went off all over the ship and echoed through the pods and hallways. Cracks and pops boomed through the ship as she broke up into her component pods. But even that maneuver didn't help. They were captured by Pofreeble the Lyr, the mercenary they thought they'd lost a long time ago.

Pandemonium broke loose on the grapevine. Pods tumbled through space. The inhabitants tried not to touch the spinning walls. Hank and Epfid'l were in the main lounge, and it was strange to see the walls wheeling ponderously around them.

Slowly the pandemonium died down, and slowly the ship was reassembled, with much fussing by Thlad, which everyone ignored. It didn't seem to matter how long they took, it turned out, because once they were finished there was nothing to do but wait. "Singular events sail over the horizon," Thlad's parrot said to no one in particular.

A week went by in the pocket of space that was folded around them. Mefrina was cut off from outside communication, and no one had any idea where they were being taken. Except there was no doubt it wasn't going to be good. Stress was high among the organics. Hank was having a hard time with anxiety. When they weren't on duty, he spent a lot of time holding Epfid'l.

The endless poker game multiplied into a number of locations around the ship, and several endless games of hearts began as well. Fortunes were won and lost, empires rose and fell, with much weeping and cursing and histrionics.

Epfid'l spent a lot of time at band practice. Toogodda couldn't hear anything inside the singularity, so her radio equipment went unused. The pod-mates all played a lot of poker. Usip was the only one who made money and hung onto it. The others begged for his secret. “Sheer recklessness,” he told them, to their scornful disbelief.

The crew's main focus was to gain access to the goo. So the Computer Pod was the focus of frantic activity. The first breakthrough came when they discovered that the goo wasn't using an electromagnetic frequency for communication. The second breakthrough was when they managed to elicit a response using infrared laser beams. But the response was only to tell them that they lacked the proper entrance codes. "So there," said the goo.


~*~

Respfid'l floated in her pod, watching an old movie from the anthropologist's data dump. Epfid'l appeared at her doorway. “Hi, Mom,” she said. “Whatcha doing?”

“Old movie from Dirt,” Respfid'l waved a flipper. “Quite good. It's called Destry Rides Again. What are you up to, dear?”

“Feeling anxious about being caught in this black hole. What do you think will happen, Mom?”

“Oh, they'll steal all our treasure, and we'll have to go back for more. No big deal, as the cowboys would say.”

“Maybe. I hope you're right. You've been watching a lot of Dirt movies. What do you think of these humans, Mom?”

“Good question. At first I thought they're just crazy, and of course they are. But there are lots of crazy races who don't have this weird spark of creativity. They seem to have a genius for it. I've come to think they have the potential to be great.”

“If they make it, you mean?”

“Oh yes, of course. They'll make terrifically dangerous pirates once they're out of the preserve.”

“Do you think they will? Make it out of the preserve, I mean.”

“I think so. Unless they destroy their planet and their system first. I'd say their best hope is to be taken off preserve status soon. But speaking of humans, how are you getting along with your own crazy human?”

“Pretty good. He's cute. More and more I have the feeling he'll amount to something one day. His values are pretty puritanical, and they trip him up. But he's getting better, I think. I wish he'd relax more. He seems kind of defensive. He could use a touch of good old recklessness.”

“What does he do?”

“Well, he's territorial and jealous by nature. That stuff seems to be hard-wired into bicamerals. I think he can overcome it, but it won't be easy for him.”

“Doable, but not easy?”

"Well, they say every weakness can be converted into a strength."

Respfid'l laughed. "Simple but not easy. Are you happy these days, dear daughter?”

“Yes, I'd say I am, until we got captured by the Lyr. Especially because Hank and I are going to have a child."

"Really! Congratulations! You're going to make me a gramma?"

Epfid'l smiled. "Editing his DNA was quite a trick. I couldn't have done it without your help."

"You're welcome, darling girl. You're going to discover that having a child is a wild and wonderful adventure, and that's an understatement. I'm very happy for you."

"Already I feel different. Somehow life feels good. There's a kind of satisfaction I never felt before. I feel like I'm close to feeling secure in the middle of chaos. As the old philosophers would say."

“Good for you, Sweetie. Most of the old philosophers raised children, so they'd swum around the ocean.”

They drifted into talking about Respfid'l's upcoming party. She always had an upcoming party. For ideas to make this one special she'd been poking through old Dirt films. She was thinking of making this one western-themed. And she was trying to figure out how to get the stowaway to come. Perhaps if she made him the guest of honor? Or her, as the case might be.


~*~

Jagung was working in the Computer Pod when Hank popped in. “Hi, Jagung,” Hank said. “I've come to get you for a meeting.”

“What?”

“A meeting. I'm supposed to bring you to it.”

“What's it about?”

“I don't know. All I know is that Chinglad called me and asked me to find you and bring you to the Hangout Pod.”

As they went down the main hall Hank laughed and said, “You once came to get me for a meeting, remember? Turned out to be rather an important event for me.”

“I'll say it did. Why? What have you heard?”

“Me? Nothing. I was just thinking about the old days when I was a newcomer. Life since I came aboard the Mefrina has certainly not been boring.”

“You can say that again, cowboy.”

"OK. Life since I came aboard...." Jagung punched him, and Hank warded off the blow with a martial arts move. Both of them were laughing.

They turned off into a smaller pod near the endless poker game. "Well, I'm off," Hank said, and waved goodby from the door. He went on to band practice. Epfid'l had asked him to come and help them untangle some of their difficulties, seeing as he'd had prior experience with music.

Jagung found Splug and Thlad and Chinglad waiting for him. They looked serious.

“This meeting is taking place over the grapevine,” Captain Splug said, “so all the robots can hear and contribute. We're holding it because we have reason to think you might be a spy for the Empire.”

“Yowp!”

“Some of us,” said Thlad, “have felt since you came aboard that there was something funny about you. But we hadn't a clue what it was until you bounced out of your body during Hank's first radio show. Ying accidently followed you.”

“Accidently?”

“Perhaps by coincidence,” Chinglad said with an ironic tone. “And she saw you wake up in your organic body deep in the Empire. We hadn't realized until then that the body you're in now is synthetic.”

"Deep perturbations ripple though time like a musical saw," Thlad's parrot said.

“Your real body appeared to be in some sort of life-support cradle,” Splug said.

“And you appeared,” said Thlad, “to be reporting to superiors in Empire Intelligence.”

Jagung sighed. “I don't suppose there's any point in denying it. What are you going to do to me?”

“We haven't decided yet,” said Splug. “What do you have to say about all this?”

“I might as well tell you everything. Whenever I sleep here I wake up and report there. But there hasn't been a lot to report, I can tell you. Just background stuff. I've never been able to find out anything vital.”

“We made sure of that,” said Chinglad, “and on top of that we fed you false information.”

“You did? Like what?”

“Where we were, what we were up to, statistics, data, intentions.”

“You mean you used me to fool the Empire?” Jagung laughed.

“Yes,” said Thlad, “but that's not your problem right now.”

“It isn't? I thought you said you hadn't decided what to do with me.”

“We haven't. The one who must decide is you. You must choose between the Empire and us.”

“What? How can I possibly make a choice like that?”

“What we do depends on what you do. If you choose to join the crew, we think we can bring your real body through dreamtime and you can have it back, rather than this similacrum you're wearing.”

“Really? That'd be nice. It kind of chafes.”

“And it's lifespan is only a year or two," said Chinglad. "If you decide to stay with the Empire, then the next time you report back we'll deactivate this imitation.”

“That wouldn't kill me. It would just strand me back there.”

“We have no reason to kill you. We like you. We would prefer that you join the crew, for real this time.”

Jagung quivered with shock. “My mission's a complete failure. You guys made a fool of me.”

“Exactly,” Splug said. "Don't take it personally. We make fools out of everyone if we can." Jagung made a noise like gears grinding.

"Elegant foolishness is my delight," said the parrot.

Thlad spoke up. “We chose to confront you now because you can't jump home to report while we're caught in this anomaly anyway, so you have time to think about it a bit.”

“Thanks,” Jagung said bitterly.

“You're welcome,” Chinglad said sweetly. "if your life back there is better, you can choose it. If your life here is better, you're welcome to become a pirate for real, with all the rights and appurtenances attached thereto."

"That's a funny way to put it," Jagung said bitterly.

"It's up to you."

"Ride my see saw," the parrot said.

On the way out of the meeting Jagung found Thlad at his side. “You OK?” Thlad asked.

“Not really.”

“Just one more thought,” said Thlad, “Wouldn't you rather be free?”

“You're saying that being a pirate is freedom and being an Empire employee isn't?”

“I've never been an Empire employee, but I have the impression it's a form of slavery. Not so?”

“Well, I guess that's what I need to think about. And feel about.”

“Yes, and where you can best get your needs met, fulfill your dreams.”

“And who I'd be disappointing back in the Empire.”


~*~

Hofnog was caught in a bad dream that never ended.

He wondered if there were a way out through the yellow sun that hung low overhead. He manifested a pair of yellow gloves and tried to grab one of the streamers that erupted from it's surface. His grip closed on nothing.

He thrashed and yelped, cried and panted.

He fell through a long vertical cave, spinning end over end, crying. He landed on a cone of sand, and was immediately scrambling away from a huge black lizard with an open purple mouth full of black teeth.

He fought to escape. Unfortunately, this was a part of the dream-time he'd never seen before. He didn't realize it was his own craziness he was caught in, and so his gallant rushes, his clever ploys, always failed.


~*~

Chinglad spent her time learning a new game she'd gotten from the anthropological data, called Go. And in her meditations she kept catching whiffs of a divine smell. She tried to follow the drifting ribbons of aroma, and occasionally she caught glimpses of a spry red insect as large as she was. It looked kind of like a praying mantis, and it seemed to be playing with the threads of aroma like a cowboy doing rope tricks.

Ronam had discovered the game of 3-D chess in a pod that had been set up as an arcade for Dirt games. In his voyages into dream-time he kept seeing little white butterflies. He didn't know whether to take them as an omen or something more mysterious.

Usip was so enjoying the chaos caused by the unexpected entrapment that he was going about with a strange air of serenity, which baffled and annoyed all of his pod-mates except for Epfid'l.


~*~

They'd been in the grey motionless singularity for ten days when it suddenly popped like a disappearing soap bubble. Hank happened to be in one of the mess-pods with Epfid'l, Toogodda and Mosnid when it happened. They all gasped from the sinking feeling, and looked at the view screens. Hank didn't understand what they were seeing.

They were approaching a Lyr space station. It looked like a cluster of giant crystals. A docking bay yawned to receive the Mefrina. Since the Lyr were cold organics, the bay was ultraviolet and austere. The temperature was comfortable for a Lyr: 230 degrees below zero.

The door of the landing bay slid closed. Capain Splug and his personal squad left the ship and flew to an airlock. When they came back, Splug turned on the PA. “Attention ship,” he said. “We've talked to the Lyr who captured us. It's a particularly sleazy ruffian called Pofreedle, and it was in a talkative mood. At least we now have it's name, so in the future we'll be able to track it. Which is a small consolation. Because it's sold all of us into slavery, to a race that resembles tiny red beetles.”

The crew freaked out. There was weeping and wailing all over the ship. Hank contributed his share. He couldn't believe he was going to be a slave again. This time for real. And this time his friends and his child would be a slave, too.

The crew was free to roam the space station until the beetles came to get them. No sooner were the tantrums and crying jags done than the crew was off on tours of the station, acting like a bunch of tourists. Hank was dismayed. “They don't seem to understand,” he thought. “We're all on our way to slavery! This is serious!”

The crew didn't seem to think so. Epfid'l beamed at him and made him go exploring with her. The space station was elephantine and byzantine, and there was lots to see. It was constructed out of huge crystals fused at crazy angles. "This looks like Superman's Fortress of Solitude," Hank thought. And it was almost interesting enough to make him forget his anxiety for a bit, sometimes. Only now his anxiety was mostly about his child. "Child...." The thought kept reverberating through his mind.

Ronam had such a good time exploring that he got into giving tours. He loved playing the guide, waxing expansive and making things up to fill in the weak parts. Toogodda and Usip were eager tourists, but they were puzzled over many of Ronam's facts and figures, and they got into long arguments with him. "Ei caramba," he would say, "I know what I'm talking about." Respfid'l got interested in Ronam's tours, and they joined forces to put on The Grand Tour. For once Hank forgot himself and had a good time. At a party afterward he got so tipsy on something resembling champagne that Epfid'l and Toogodda wound up having to tow him to the infirmary for a Vitamin B potion.

Thlad taught some of the Lyr he met to play poker, and a version of the endless poker game started in an off-duty lounge on the station. "Deal me in," cried the parrot.

Safroo and Fanfra, two superhot organics, taught the Lyr barbershop harmony. It spread through the station like a computer virus. The Lyr were bowled over. For a day and a half the station floated untended and incapacitated, and the Mefrina almost escaped. Most of the Lyr recovered from their first encounter with music, though many of them died the first death. The dream-bodies of those who died were recovered and put in crystals. Which meant they'd have to spend a century regrowing their bodies. Many of them had lost fortunes at poker. They were starting to regret they'd ever let Pofreedle land with this irascible band of prisoners.

Gowrung, in the meantime, explored the farthest reaches of the station, looking for fresh clues to the location of the motherlode. He found a device for viewing the past, and he was able to see where the motherlode had been until a century ago. He felt bitterly disappointed at not making it to Pirate's Rest. With the fortune he'd make, he could mount a real expedition and find the motherlode itself. The dream shimmered before him like a mirage, alluring and enticing.


~*~

Once the anomaly unfolded and released the ship, Jagung began the usual sleeptime jumps to his real body, and he resumed the reports to his superiors. He hadn't actually decided yet what to do, but with guidance from Chinglad his reports were masterpieces of creative lying. He felt strange at knowingly deceiving his superiors, hiding things from them and lying to their faces. And he felt even stranger to know he couldn't string this out much longer. He had to decide to leave this life forever or leave the pirates forever. At first he'd thought the choice was obvious. And then he thought it wasn't.

One day he called Chinglad on the grapevine, and they met in a lounge. Chinglad sipped from a container of high-density gravity and listened.

“I need to sort this out,” Jagung said. “I was born on Opnigal, and I grew up in a floating city. As a youngster I was a petty criminal, but then I got chosen for military school. That was supposed to be an honor, but when I graduated I was assigned to combat, and that opened my eyes. It became clear to me that war was madness, and the authorities didn't know what they were doing.”

“Welcome to the real universe,” said Chinglad.

“Now you tell me. Fortunately I wasn't in combat for long. I was assigned to Intelligence on a computer error, which I wasn't about to call to their attention. Intelligence didn't know what to do with me, so they used me as a runner for a couple years, and then the whole thing came up of doing these remote missions. Going undercover. I volunteered because I was bored, and this was my first mission, way out here on the fringe. And now it seems I've messed up.”

“Don't take it personally. I suspect the others did no better.”

“That's no comfort. But if I go back, it's to a life in the military. I have some friends there, but really I'm not cut out for the bureaucracy.”

“Then why not let go of them and join us?”

“It's hard to let go, you know?”

Chinglad chuckled ruefully. “I know. Detachment is one of the more difficult skills.”


~*~

A friend of Jagung's named Nodsfar wandered into a viewing chamber one day on the station and discovered a large group of Lyr before a viewing window. The Lyr don't have eyes, so the window only needed to be electromagnetically transparent. Nodsfar shifted his vision to longer wavelengths, but all he could see through the window was the small moon the station orbited.

“Excuse me,” he said to one of the Lyr. “What are you looking at?”

“Our sleeping god,” the Lyr said.

“Your what?” The Lyr rustled its crystals. Nodsfar was surprised, as he'd never heard any hint of religion among the Lyr. “You say this moon is a sleeping god?”

“Yes and no. We're the guardians till he hatches.”

“He? It's a male? How can you tell?”

“Quite simple. The eggshells are different colors for males and females.”

What an odd religion! “So you're saying this moon is an egg? How long have you been guarding this egg?”

“Three million years.”

“Seven tumblers of Taskatee!”

“That's a relatively short time as god-eggs go. Our race knows of more than a hundred, and most of those we've been watching for twenty or thirty million years. One we've been watching for seventy.”

“Don't you get tired of watching nothing happen?”

“No. We like nothing. Every once in a while one hatches. There are some signs that this one may be about to. That's why Pofreedle brought you here rather than take you directly to the red beetles. Lyr are coming from all over the galaxy, just in case. It's a great gathering.”

This was so curious that Nodsfar mentioned it to Jamky in Supplies, who talked with Samskalay in Hydroponics, who laughed about it with Kurdly in Electronics, who talked over tea with Jarmine from Hydraulics, who chatted with Mimnels in Hypnotic Navigation, who mentioned it to Jagung one morning while sharing breakfast. That night as the dorm-pod went to sleep the pod-mates talked about the Lyr religion.

“I believe it,” said Epfid'l. “It sounds romantic.”

“It sounds wonderfully dangerous,” said Usip. “Imagine the disorder a foreign god could strew through our galaxy. What would the Empire do?”

“And do I tell them?” Jagung thought.

“What are the odds,” Toogodda asked, “that we'd be here when it happens?

“One in an impossibadrillion,” said Hank.


~*~

Thlad and Respfid'l threw a party. Epfid'l wanted Hank to go, but he didn't feel like it. He felt the threat of slavery looming over him like a black cloud, and the prospect of having a child looming like a white cloud. An hour later Epfid'l found him in the Computer Pod, hanging out and watching Skrim and Cleeda and Spinkaw argue with the goo.

“Millenia have passed since you went into storage,” Skrim said. “The very civilization that created you is long gone.”

“So your loyalty to archaic access codes is misplaced,” Cleeda said.

“We are that civilization's descendant, and your loyalty should be to us,” said Spinkaw.

The goo hooted in derision.

Epfid'l dragged Hank off to the party, and actually, once he got there, he relaxed and had fun. The organics gyrated and tumbled like rock-and-roll gymnasts, and the robots danced as though they were possessed.


~*~

Two days later the moon shattered, and the baby god uncurled and yawned. Tidal forces threw the space station about so violently that it began to break up. Any of the Mefrina's crew that were scattered about the station fled for their ship like space-dragons with their tails on fire.

The Lyr spilled out into space through the ruptures in the station's walls. They were comfortable in open space, so they flew to where they could get a good view, and watched. Those aboard Mefrina were watching on view screens.

The baby god romped off through the other moons circling the gas giant far below, batting them out of orbit. The Lyr trailed in helpless fascination, like a cloud of snowflakes following a kitten. Some were in shock at the damage. Some were in blissful rapture. Some were in dismay at the way their expectations had turned out. So much time had passed since a god last hatched that no one actually had a manual anymore.

The last of the crew to come aboard was Gowrung. Captain Splug ordered the tickling of the battery fish to begin. Current began pouring into the inertial engine.

The baby god was entertained by the moons and by the Lyr for awhile, but then his limbs tucked in tight and he began to cry. The closest Lyr were shattered by the etheric soundwaves, and the rest were blown across space like leaves swirling in a wind.

And then here came Mom, galloping in from deep space. She was black, and long, and shedding clouds of fizzing neutrinos in her wake. The baby was delighted. Mom and baby romped with the Lyr like puppies playing with butterflies. Then she grabbed him in a hug, and they fell towards the clouds of ammonia far below. He shrieked with delight and squirmed out of her grasp. She grinned and glowed and chased after him, and she grabbed him and continued the long fall.


~*~

The Mefrina quietly sneaked away during the confusion. No one was guarding the storage bay anymore, so her inertial engine was fired up, and she coasted away. Some crew-members had been able to carry away their poker winnings, and they exulted. Others exulted at the loss of their debts. Usip claimed the Lyr were lucky they hadn't stayed longer, or they'd have owned the station. The Hyper-space Team lifted the ship into hyper-space, and she followed a stiff wind down a Dunkian Outwash into the Great Outland.

Hank had mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was angry about being threatened again with slavery, even though it hadn't worked out that way. On the other, he felt helpless about the way the threat had lifted. And he was glad their baby wouldn't be a slave. "Come take a hot shower with me, cowboy, Epfid'l invited. Splashing together in the warm water, they could hear Usip singing in the background, “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all. Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall....” His voice soared like a Filner riding the thermals above a hyper-volcano, exultant and free.


Back to Top


Chapter 16: Pirate's Rest



Hank was standing in the street in a residential neighborhood in Portland, and some other people were standing around talking with each other. Suddenly he realized he was dreaming.

"Oh, I can do whatever I want," he thought. So he started jumping up into the air. Three or four times he soared up about the height of a telephone pole, and each time he drifted gently back down again. Then he jumped REALLY high. He sailed up into the sky like a released balloon. Below him the city was spread out like a colored map. He felt exhilarated and free.


~*~

Ying turned on a lamp, and aimed the light at the wall of her pod. She moved in front of the light, so as to cast a shadow, and then she went through her shadow into the tunnels. Behind her on the wall, her shadow remained.

In dream-time she resembled a lilac-colored octopus with four tentacles and two glowing violet eyes. She flew along the tunnels as though she were jet-powered. She swerved into a chamber where there was what looked like the mouth of a well. She flew straight down into the darkness, and shot upward out of the mouth of a different well far away, going straight up. She continued to go on up, above a foggy landscape, until she reached a vast ceiling. From below it looked like roots intertwined.

Ying was looking for a way through when she felt the call of the physical. She came back, and found that her robot body had drifted against the wall, and its tentacles were bent uncomfortably.

That was alright, she had some things to do anyway. She flew through the hallways to the Communication Pod and called ahead to Pirate's Rest. There was a long conversation with some folks on their local Entertainment Committee, and she confirmed that preparations were in place to deceive Jagung. Until he made his decision, the pirates would keep a flow of false information headed back to the Empire, with or without his cooperation.

Then she talked with the local Bos'n. “I just wanted to confirm that the central computer and the vital functions have been sealed off from the effects of music. The Captain wants me to make triply sure you've been warned.”

“I'm no tricameral," the bos'n said, " but we've been warned. We can take it. Don't worry. I'm sure it's no big deal.”

"That's what we thought," Ying said.


~*~

If an asteroid is more than 400 kilometers in diameter, gravity causes it to assume a spherical shape. And then it's called a minor moon. Pirate's Rest was a town under a dome on a small moon named Zinjan which orbited a Jovian planet, in a system that was unusually hard to get to. The stellar neighborhood was so thick with asteroids, nebular veils, rogue black holes and anomalous gravitational warpages that any kind of high-speed surprise attack through normal space was impossible. In addition, the four suns of the system orbited their common center in an interlocked tetrahedral array, creating such a mighty spire in hyperspace that any surprise approach across the hyper-landscape was nearly impossible too. The hyper-spacial tower was so tall the gas-giant planets only created tiny ledges near the top.

Mefrina ascended the spire by leaping from hyper-buoy to hyper-buoy up a long chain. And then, just short of the moon, she dropped into normal space. Hank was in the dorm-pod with Epfid'l when the drop came, and his stomach lurched and twisted as always. "Boy, I wish they'd find a way to stop that," he said.

“Hoowie,” said Epfid'l. “What a beautiful planet!” She was looking at the view screen, and it showed the surface of the gas giant below.

“Sure is,” said Hank. "It reminds me of marble cake." And then he had to explain to her what marble cake was.

Then the view switched to the town under a dome they were approaching, and Hank had to laugh. It was a hodge-podge construction, spread across the surface of the moon in a tumble as indescribable as Bartholomew Cubbin's hat.

Everyone had to hang on while the ship turned end over end to decelerate. Then they had to hang on even tighter while the helmsman did a fancy crack-the-whip landing just to show off. Mefrina drifted into the landing berth perfectly, and there was scattered applause throughout the ship.

Ramps were extended from the landing berth to Mefrina's opening stomata, and crew-members poured excitedly out into the landing terminal and then into the streets.

They were lined with shops, stores, cafes and seedy hotels. They were filled with hawkers selling mostly things that would be illegal in the Empire. The air was filled with shouting and chattering, and so was the grapevine, as people split up into groups and headed off in different directions. Respfid'l used the grapevine to announce a grand soiree at Gerif's Hotel, where she would of course be staying. It was where she usually held court when she was in Pirate's Rest.

When the last of the crew had gone ashore, the unloading of cargo and treasure began by terminal robots. And when that was done, the ship was broken up into her component pods by huge robots that looked like spiders. Each pod was towed off to its own nourishment berth.


~*~

Chinglad and Ronam and Ying waved goodbye and headed off to the Spacelubbers, a robot hotel renowned for its video games. Epfid'l and Toogodda took Hank off with them and flew off to what they claimed was a great hotel. “The Alien Slopspot,” Togodda laughed, “it's always where the party winds up being anyway, so we might as well stay there.”

Ying trailed along unnoticed in a group with Jagung, curious to see if the effects worked. They passed along a street thirty meters in width, and the buildings lining the street were studded with multiple space cannons, each one powerful enough to destroy a fleet. Jagung was amazed to see that the pirates had such weapons.

After Jagung had gone by, the space weapons slowly dissolved and shrank down until they were revealed to be crouching aliens who were good at projecting illusions. They stood up and shook themselves and had a good laugh.

Epfid'l and Toogodda showed Hank around on the way to the hotel, pointing out local marvels and shops that gave good prices on treasure of various kinds. He was reminded of downtown Portland, in that it was busy and cheerful. Hank was amazed at the alien body shapes he hadn't seen before, but he was shocked when he saw a human walk by. Walking in low gravity is more like bounding. He yelped. “A human! Did you see that?” He bounded off after her, a woman with black hair.

“Hello, hello!” he called to her, and she turned around in mid leap.

“Et spalla?” she said.

“Central computer,” Hank said. “Can you translate?”

“How can I help?” she repeated.

“Uh, you're human?”

“Yes, I am. So are you, are you not?”

“Yes, me too. But how'd you get here? I mean, I thought I was alone out here. I didn't know there were any other humans.”

“Oh, there's a few. I run into one from time to time.”

“Were you kidnapped?”

“Me? No. My parents were kidnapped, but I was born out here. Say, listen, I was on my way somewhere, and I gotta go, but look me up, OK? I'm at the Empire Hotel. My name's Alice.”

“My name's Hank,” he called after her. “And I will.”


~*~

Splug and Thlad and Chinglad asked for a physical meeting with the station's management board. This was too important to take the slightest risk of having their conversation hacked into. They met in a small chamber, and when the habitual bickering among the eight committee members had died down, Captain Splug made the announcement.

“We were scavenging in a Kai graveyard, and we found some goo.”

Scromly, the town's Chief of Pirates, said, “You found what?”

“We found an ancient nanotechnology device.”

“I know what goo is. But I thought it was just a myth.” The rest of the committee were huffing and cursing, obviously upset.

Glinder, the second in command, said, “And you brought that into our town?” Two of the pirates pulled out weapons and shot Splug on the spot. He smoked and fizzed, and zoomed about randomly, bouncing off walls. Thlad and Chinglad were nearly shot too, despite their protests, before the pirates simmered down.

Repair robots towed Splug out of the chamber. A brisk argument broke out among the committee members. They finally agreed there was no choice but to go forward. The damage was already done. Muttering threats of revenge, they nonetheless got to work putting together a research team to try to talk the goo out of hiding.


~*~

When they got to the hotel, Toogodda excused herself and said she had an appointment at a crystal ship. Epfid'l and Hank bounded up spiral staircases and found their room. Making love was different for Hank now that Epfid'l was pregnant. "Deeper somehow," he thought. "Pregnant with meaning, so to speak...."

Afterwards he asked, "How long will it be before our baby is born?"

"A lot less than nine months," Epfid'l said. "You can already see her. Here, let me bring her closer to the surface." She pointed to her belly. Hank looked into her, and from among the tiny bubbles spiraling her blue depths a little blue embryo floated towards him.

"Holy cow!" he breathed. "She already has fingers. And toes. And a face. Her face is beautiful!"

Epfid'l smiled that proud and satisfied smile that only pregnant women know how to do. "Aren't you happy, cowboy?" she asked.

Hank grinned. "More than I've ever been...."

Eventually they got hungry enough to go down to the bar.

Usip was there, and he was laughing and pouring drinks. He introduced them to some tricameral friends of his, Werex and Zhanin and Yar. The room already sounded like a party was getting up to speed.


~*~

Ronam went to a video arcade with some old friends of his named Fazhingle and Paranay. The games were for robots, so they had no view screens. Ronam took hold of two handles on the housing of a game, and he suddenly found himself in a virtual reality, in a computer-generated body. Black and huge, he stood at the top of a malachite cliff. The ground shook, and great chunks of the cliff sluffed off and fell into the canyon below. He leaped for safety....


~*~

Ying went to a whorehouse she owned. “Welcome,” said the madam, and her accountant peeked nervously from behind her.

“Thank you,” said Ying. “Has anyone used my office since I was here?”

“Oh no,” said the accountant, horrified. "No one would think of it."

“Excellent,” said Ying, leading the way along a hall hung with brocade. Her office looked like a small garden. She'd worked on it for many years, and it had come to be a place of moss and blooms and satisfaction. She coiled her tentacles and settled among the moss and flowers, and then she connected internally to the whorehouse computer and went over the accounts.

“All in order,” she said when she was finished. “No one is stealing more than the customary 15%. Good work, Madam Flingny, Accountant Bibnag. I'm proud of you. I'm giving you a two percent raise as of now.”


~*~

Gowrung went to a shop to have the power crystal he'd found in the graveyard appraised. He was jubilant when the technician told him it was almost three-quarters full. Toogodda was in the rear of the shop to pick up some crystals she was having tuned, and she came over to see what Gowrung was crowing about. “I want to celebrate!” cried Gowrung.

“Well,” said Toogodda, “a party was starting at the Alien Slopspot when I left. There's no better place to go.”

By the time they got to the hotel, the party was in full swing. Epfid'l and Usip were introducing organics from other ships to music, and the room looked like a battlefield strewn with twitching bodies. Since Gowrung and Toogodda were seasoned veterans, they joined in the dancing.

For once, for awhile, Toogodda forgot about her fascination. Her interest in the ancient signals that reverberated through hyper-space had gradually become an obsession. She had a theory that all of life came from an original egg somewhere. She thought of the egg on her home-world as the World Egg, and the one she listened for as the Universe Egg. The signals were in a sense the voice of the Universe Egg. Well, not really, since the original egg had no voice, but these ancient signals were closer to the source. Toogodda wasn't trying to find the egg's location. Rather she was trying to communicate with it, to reach back along some intuitive vector and touch it, hear it, let it speak to her in her innermost being.

But in the dancing all that faded away, and she lost herself in the music and the joy of exuberant movement as the music flowed through her body.


~*~

The next morning, while Epfid'l and Hank and Toogodda were out of their hammocks but hardly recovered yet from the partying the night before, Hofnog showed up at the door of their hotel room. He looked a good deal different as a robot, and for a moment no one realized who this stranger was. Then Epfid'l shouted, “Hofnog!” And for awhile there was pandemonium as they shouted and welcomed him by patting his body and pulling him into their room and asking him questions all at once.

As a robot, Hofnog was about as tall as he'd been when he was an organic, but he was more streamlined. His head still had the blunt nose and the crest, but they weren't as pronounced. His body was slimmer, and his arms and legs were twice as long as they had been. But he was the same color he'd been before: rusty orange-red. Only now he had freckles.

“How you doing?” Epfid'l asked.

“Good, good,” said Hofnog. “It was hard at first, though. I really wanted my old body back.”

“How come you resemble your old self?” Hank asked.

“The new body has to resemble the old one or it doesn't feel right. The tricky part of this one has been getting used to the long arms and legs. I reach for things and reach right past them. They are handy though.”

“What was it like?” Usip asked. He tapped Hofnog with a tentacle, the way he would have in the old days, and recoiled from the cool plastic.

“You mean dying, and waking up in the computer, and finally getting a robot body?”

“Yeah, that.”

“It's hard to describe. Death was the most frightening thing that's ever happened to me, right up to the moment where I was actually dead, and then it was incredibly beautiful and peaceful. I found myself floating in the dream-time, only it's so much nicer when you don't have a physical body. It was lovely. And my power animal was there to greet me.

“But then I fell over the edge into craziness. I was lost in a part of the dream-time I'd never seen before. I kept trying to find my way back here, and freaking out. Sometime I'll tell you stories about what we did, but never-mind that for now. After awhile the craziness wore off, and I found my way back to the Mefrina. And I woke up. It felt like an ordinary wake-up, only I found myself in the computer. With no body. And then I went kind of crazy again. The grief and the loss hit me, and for awhile I was kind of a mess. I talked to Chinglad a lot, and she helped me adapt to the change. And I talked with Ying, too. But she just laughed at me.

"By the time I felt up to it, they had my body waiting for me. Downloading into your new body is great. It feels like jumping into a pool of warm water. It's invigorating in an odd fizzy kind of way. And after floating around in the computer for awhile, it's nice to be able to do things in wake-time again.”

Through it all Hank was aware that they were welcoming Hofnog back, but he wasn't exactly back. He was a robot now, and so he had different concerns and a different life. He wouldn't be coming back to live in the dorm-pod anymore. He'd have his own pod. And he'd be hanging out with other robots, doing new kinds of work, entering a whole new way of living. Hank couldn't imagine what it would be like, and he felt scared because someday he was going to have to go through what Hofnog had gone through and find out. It was like being nervous when you're standing on a hilltop with a hang glider, ready to take off, only more so. "You take one step," Hank thought, "and everything changes."


Back to Top


Chapter 17: Alice



Hank was riding in a car with some other folks through a pleasant valley. It was mostly fields and farms. The road was on the slope of one side of the valley. They passed a ring of giant trees. The ring was about fifty meters across, and the trees grew so closely together that the trunks almost touched. There was barely room for a person to slip between them. The trees were incredibly tall, about thirty or forty meters. The ring was untouched.

Then farther along the road they passed another ring just like it. The second ring had boards nailed onto the trunks to make it easier for people to climb.

Farther along they passed a third ring. It had wooden steps, and in the upper parts of the trees were lots of tree houses.

Yet farther, they passed a fourth ring. It had more steps, and it was like a wooden city up in the tops of the trees. Hank pointed all this out to the other people in the car. Beyond the fourth ring all the ground of the valley was covered by a wooden platform and wooden steps.


~*~

The party was so lively that it wasn't till the next day that Hank managed to pry himself loose and go for a walkabout on his own. He got directions from the ship's computer and headed for the Empire Hotel. It was fabulous to be walking again, to be in gravity. The gravity was about a tenth that of Dirt, so walking was more like videos Hank had seen of men walking on the moon: bounding and leaping. It was fun.

Along the way he laughed at what a patchwork the buildings and houses were. They seemed to be built in a competition of whimsy out of pieces of old spaceships.

He passed the front door of a bar, and a guy out front was shouting and waving a crystal around. He was an organic who resembled a bear with long white feathers. He greeted Hank jubilantly. “Come share in my good fortune,” he said. “I just won this Nonk crystal in a poker game, and it's worth many a mug of ketones. This is my lucky day!”

“Good for you," said Hank. "Where'd you learn how to play poker?”

“A crewman from the Mefrina taught us. You wanna learn?”

“Oh thanks, I already know.”

“He tried to get us to listen to music, too. Have you ever heard music?”

“Oh yes.” Hank laughed.

“Pretty awful, huh?”

Hank grinned. “That doesn't begin to describe it. Anyway, I'm on my way somewhere, so good luck with your Nonk crystal.”

Hank walked on. When he got to the Empire Hotel, Alice was on the front steps waiting for him. She leaned against a pillar, dressed in a velvet lavender shirt and purple trousers. “The computer said you were on the way,” she said, smiling.

“Great! Nice to see you! I've been so curious about you, Alice.” Through her clothes Hank could see she had wonderful curves. He was suddenly glad he'd drawn some clothing from supplies before arrival. He was dressed like a cross between a hippie and an American Indian.

“Yes. And I've been curious about you. My name's Alice Fodinkley, by the way, from the ship Niroing. What's yours?”

“Hank. Hank Walker. From Dirt. And the ship Mefrina.”

“From where?”

“From Dirt. Oh, it's called Earth by the inhabitants. You've never heard of Earth?”

“No. Why, is it famous?”

“Oh, no. It's a podunk world in the middle of nowhere. But it's the home-world for our species, yours and mine.”

“Really? I didn't know we had a home world. Where is it?”

“I don't know, from here. I was kidnapped from there, and now I'm on the Mefrina.”

“Oh, I've heard she's a good ship. I've heard you guys found a shipload of treasure.”

“Yep. Just stumbled across it, really, I think.”

“And I've heard about poker, and music. Poker I can understand, but what is this music?”

Hank laughed. “I'll show you sometime. I don't think I can describe it.”

“OK, go ahead and show me.”

“Here? I think this might be the kind of thing you'll want privacy for, at first.”

“You're teasing me.”

“No, it's just that folks tend to kind of freak out the first time.”

“Yes, I've heard it's dangerous and subversive.”

“Oh no, not dangerous exactly. At least it never was on Dirt, but out here it seems to be. It probably is subversive.”

“Well, how about if you come to my room and show me?”

“OK.”

They went into the Empire Hotel's lobby. It was considerably more elegant than the Alien Slopspot. They clung to rising ropes and jumped off at the fourth floor. Her room was a sphere of delicate colors, partitioned by gauzy draperies and with a black floor. She stripped off her clothing, and Hank felt breathless. Her entire body was tattooed with floral patterns, and otherwise she was naked. "Holy cow," he said. "You're beautiful."

Alice smiled. "By coincidence," she said. She sat down on a couch, and braced herself. “OK. Show me.”

Hank stripped off his clothing as well, to be polite, and he sat on a couch facing hers. “Just a second,” he said. He called the ship's computer and asked it to pipe in “Dreamchaser,” by the Judds. The computer sealed the room first, and then it did.

The first sweet notes filled the air, and Alice looked startled. She started to ask Hank something, and then looked away, listening. When the song was over, she looked at him with her mouth open. “That's it? That's music?”

“Well, that's one song. There are many more.”

“How many?”

“Thousands. Maybe millions.”

“Wow! Can I hear another?”

And then she wanted to hear another, and another, though she became increasingly agitated. She burst into tears, and looked at Hank with such poignance that he felt it like a splash of cold water. Tears filled his own eyes, and Alice disappeared behind a watery veil.


~*~

Hours went by. They dipped through Tanya Tucker and Syd Straw, Dire Straits and Ravi Shankar, the Doobie Brothers and Patti Austin and Leon Redbone. They laughed and cried together, shivered and exulted, and they were carried down cascades and lofted on fountains.

Somewhere in there they made love. It was wonderful, which surprised Hank. For him it usually it wasn't till the third or fourth time that sex got really good. But this time it was as deep as his feelings could reach, and he felt emptied of anxiety like a cracked egg.

Alice seemed to make love to the music as much as to him, to be riding a vortex of energy that thundered through her. In a way that made it less personal, and in another way she grabbed the deepest strings of his heart. He felt like he'd been caught up by a tornado and taken for a ride through the stars.

Afterwards they held each other for a long time. “Cuddling is nicer when there's gravity,” Hank commented. They peeled lavender fruits the size of peaches and ate them while they talked.

"Now that you mention it," Alice said, “I vaguely remember hearing about Dirt from my mom and dad. As a kid I thought it was a space station, the kind of place you'd go for adventures. As I grew up and heard more about it, I got the impression it's not the sort of place I'd want to go at all. Dirty, and dangerous, and no freedom. I like life out here among the Reefs. My ambition is to move to a space-city called Sunstorm. It's lovely. It's a mammoth place, and it has everything. They play a game there called jai alai, in zero gravity, of course, and it's wonderful. I'd like to get to Sunstorm while I'm still young enough to play. My dream is to have a career on one of the teams there. That'd be so great.”

“It sounds wonderful,” Hank said. "They have jai alai on Dirt too, only in gravity." Actually he was thinking how incredible it was to see a real human female again. Wow! The most beautiful thing on Dirt was nature, especially the old growth forests he'd been in, but there was one thing more beautiful. And that was a naked beautiful happy woman. “They're like goddesses,” he thought, “and they don't even know it. Amazing! They have no idea of their power and beauty and attraction.”

“How about you?” Alice asked. “Do you want to go back to Dirt?”

“Sure. To visit. That'd be great. There's a lot of good stuff on Dirt. But not to live. My life out here is much better than my life was on Dirt. I even have a girlfriend. She's a shape-shifter named Epfid'l. And she's pregnant, so now we're going to have a baby. Now my family is out here in space.”

“How lovely for you. I have a boyfriend named Steenmar. Well, my main boyfriend. He's very nice.”

“Is he human?”

“Oh no. But close enough. He's good to me.”

“You say you've been here in Pirate's Rest a few years. You must have seen a lot of pirates go by. Have you met any other humans?”

“A few, but not many. We're not common out here.”

“Too bad,” Hank grinned. “I wish there were more like you.


~*~

Usip left the party and arrived in grand style at a tricameral lounge. It was invigorating to be with his own kind. He sipped from a cup of deuterium and chatted with a few folks, and then he drifted into the game chamber. He observed for awhile, and when a space opened up he joined in. The thread of this particular Object Game could be traced back 30,000 years, and it had become rich with complication. Usip shivered with deep pleasure.

To a bicameral the game would have seemed like random activity with a collection of knickknacks, and explaining the rules wouldn't have helped. But to a tricameral the game had sweep and subtlety, and it formed a grand vista within which the participants contributed new twists and turns of creativity. To quadricamerals the game seemed like a quick and childish sketch. When the quadricamerals played the Object Game, nebular clouds were lit from within by old stars going supernova. The winds from the supernovas seeded the clouds with new-born stars, which sparkled and glittered in patterns both traditional and improvisational.


~*~

Hank and Alice were sitting in an outdoor cafe under an awning, drinking spicy fruit juice. “How artificial are you?” Hank asked.

She leaned over the table and stroked his arm. “Not much. My life hasn't been very dangerous. One of my arms is new, and several of my internal organs. And I remember there was some kind of genetic problem that was corrected when I was a child. How about you?”

“Oh, quite a lot of me is artificial by now. That's why my skin is blue. I was kidnapped by a Zylosene and carried into space without protection, so the medics on Mefrina had to replace quite a lot, I'm told. I don't notice it. Do you have a robot to transfer into when you die?”

“Oh sure. That's the primary thing I take with me when it's time to move. I'll be a very pretty violet in color. What color will you be?”

“I'll be tan, the color I was originally. Do you ever get lonely?”

“Oh no. Sometimes I feel alone. Sometimes I feel like I'm the last of my kind. But I don't get lonely. I have friends and lovers, and life is good. How about you? Do you feel lonely out here?”

“I did at first. Very badly. But things have changed. I have friends too. Actually, I like life out here.”

“Ah! My point exactly.”


~*~

Meanwhile the robots had their own raucous party going on. Gowrung wasn't there at the moment, though. He was out buying supplies at a joke store, choosing carefully among the possible pranks on display.

He saw Jagung go by and shadowed him to an arcade. He waited till Jagung was plugged into a virtual reality game, and then slipped into the store and sidled up to the proprietor. Credits changed hands.

Jagung was weaving among glowing white balls scattered through a purple space when the environment suddenly segued into a small yellow chamber hung with gauze curtains. Jagung knew a Norlingis boudoir when he saw one. Hovering before him, veiled in smoke, was a Norlingis female, beckoning. Jagung was startled, and then waves of sexual longing swept through him, propelling him into her arms.

Later the proprietor apologized profusely. He protested that the machine had malfunctioned. Jagung didn't believe him, but he didn't who to suspect. It could have been pretty much anyone he knew.


~*~

Alice was surprised to find out Hank didn't know how to raise golems. “Really?” she said. “Would you like to learn?”

“Sure.”

“Wait a minute,” she said, and closed her eyes. She seemed to drop into a sound sleep, and then Hank felt a tug from the dream-time. Grabbed by a giant hand, he was plucked from the wake-time and tossed through clouds of sparks into dreaming.

When he managed to stop the spinning and the dizziness, he found himself sprawled on a forest floor next to Alice. She was looking at him and smiling. A red doe was standing nearby, and she and Hank's little green bird were looking at them. The green bird laughed, and then she and the deer picked Hank up and shook him like a sheet. All of a sudden he felt better.

Then the three of them showed him how to pull dirt up from the ground and break it loose and shape it and infuse it with consciousness. Once infused, it would come to life and romp around. Soon a bunch of little clay animals were playing around them.

When he had succeeded in raising a deer golem, a woman golem and a bird golem all by himself, they let him stop. He was exhausted. The bird golem was the hardest, making wings out of nothing but earth.

Alice and the red deer and the green bird seemed to be old friends. They chatted while Hank lay on the ground and recovered.

“Are you alright now?” Alice asked. Hank nodded. The three of them took off together and flew away into the sky. Hank tried to fly after them and found he couldn't lift off the ground. He was left on his own. It took hours to find a cave that led into the tunnels, where after more hours he found a mirror he could step through and make it back to wake-time.

He found himself in Alice's room, tangled in fallen draperies. She was gone, though she'd left a note on her computer screen. “You're a sweetie. I'll see you later. Thanks for the music.”


~*~

Spacrudda had struggled back from the burning forests of insanity at last. He remembered being killed, and the long struggle to get his balance back. He had sighed with contentment as he slipped into his replacement robot body. Wearing a body again felt soothing and grounding. He plugged into the grapevine and told folks he was back, and they were excited and welcoming. He asked Chinglad how the goo research was coming along, and was exhilarated to hear that the goo computer had yielded at last to a trial password, with much petulance and equivocation and a number of conditions. He took off immediately for the Pirate Rest's computer lab, out of the Mefrina and along the streets.

There he was roundly cursed before he was admitted. “What the bespunkin? What'd I do?” he complained. The Computer Team made various rude noises and showed him the partial catalog they'd been able to download from the goo.

But they didn't give him time to read it.

“As soon as the goo relented,” the team's leader said, “the Captain of the Mefrina sent samples to every ship in port. Most of them have already loaded supplies, turned off their grapple beams and accelerated out of here as fast as they could go. Well, you started this. The Mefrina brought the goo here in the first place. Now you'd better load up and hit the space-lanes too.”

Spacrudda knew he was right. How long would it take till Empire cruisers arrived to investigate? Not long enough. He jetted out of the computer lab and over the streets and buildings toward the docking piers and Mefrina's berth. He could fly faster as a robot than he could as an organic, and he liked it. He noticed that the marina was nearly empty. He zoomed aboard the Mefrina through an open stomata on one of the messpods at the rear of the ship. From there it was fifty meters to the main lounge.


~*~

Hank was finishing breakfast when an alarm went off. He bounded down a spiral staircase and went leaping along the street. Other organics were doing the same thing, and several times he almost hit someone. Above them flew the robots, missing each other by centimeters without dodging. Everyone was doing the same thing: heading back to their ships.

The Mefrina was busy reassembling herself, the pods squeezing in through the netting to their accustomed places.


~*~

When Spacrudda flew into the main lounge, he skidded to a stop. His jaw would have dropped if he'd had a jaw. The part of the crew that was still aboard the ship was partying. They looped joyfully in the air, accompanied by a hundred impromptu drummers.

Hank bounded into the main lounge behind Spacrudda, and had to grab a table to stop himself. He was startled to see Epfid'l hovering in the middle of the huge space, waving pseudopods she'd extruded. She was using the sound to open a fiery circular access directly into dream-time. Silver fire was gushing through the opening and bathing Epfid'l like a waterfall. Her body appeared to dissolve and re-solidify, and Hank was frightened. Her body looked like it was made of hot coals.

Chinglad flew in from one side and bumped Epfid'l out of the river of energy. “You've had about enough, my dear,” she said. Chinglad caught the full force of the energy stream and tossed it like a juggler. Gradually she knitted the hole closed. Epfid'l sparked and careened around the lounge, her shape changing like hot wax. She gradually slowed and settled into her porpoise shape.

On his way to Epfid'l, Hank found Toogodda. Together they towed Epfid'l out of the lounge and to one of the organic infirmaries. She couldn't speak. “She'll be fine,” Chinglad called after them.

Three robots were on duty in the infirmary. Flad and Bagignog popped Epfid'l into a tank. And as the tank filled, Chedunkin assured Toogodda and Hank that she'd be alright. Toogodda sat with Hank awhile beside Epfid'l's tank, and then went back to the party.

Hank sat by the tank for several hours, thinking about Alice and Epfid'l. He found it very strange to feel like he was in love with both of them, but he couldn't see any reason not to be. “With Alice it was love at first sight,” he thought, “and with Epfid'l we were friends first. It's not that I love one more than the other. It's different kinds of love. Though how you can have different kinds of something that feels the same is beyond me. How strange this all is. What mysterious creatures we all are.”

Once Epfid'l woke up briefly and looked at him. “You saved me, cowboy,” she said breathily.

Hank didn't think it was the right moment to say actually it was Chinglad, so he said, “I love you, Sweetie.”

Epfid'l smiled. “Just by concidence,” she said, "I love you too." And she went back to sleep.

It wasn't until he felt the vibrations of the inertial engines revving up and the Mefrina lifting out of her birth that Hank remembered there'd been an emergency. “I wonder what it was,” he thought.


~*~

The bridge was one of the few pods in Mefrina with an observation dome. Ronam liked to watch take-offs from there, so when he felt the inertial engines moving the ship, he left the party and went to the bridge. A skeleton crew was driving the ship away from Pirate's Rest's at maximum acceleration, and they were staying within an asteroid belt for cover.

Ronam flew into the dome. Beyond it were scattered asteroids, large and small, and beyond them were the stars. For awhile he floated there, contemplating these sparks of light, these sources of everything. They glowed steadily till he tuned his vision to include x-rays, and then he saw several pulsars flashing like beacons.

A small white butterfly drifted past outside the dome. Ronam was startled. It was dead, of course, and freeze dried. “How in coincidence did it get this far into space?” he wondered. “Did the jet stream carry it up here? Did it hitch a ride on a ship coming up?”

Mefrina revolved slowly on her long axis as she flew, and more asteroids came into view. Now Ronam could see there were millions of the white butterflies scattered in a thin cloud among them.

“And what does this omen mean?” he wondered. "Ei caramba. How strange to see space-bugs again."


~*~

The hyper-space crew tossed the ship up into hyper-space. Once there, the Mefrina dropped into a Glaugian canyon and followed it out onto a floodplain. "Thank the Gwunga," Mefrina thought. "The rest has been good for me, and it feels good to be whole and in action again. What a good time to be alive!"


Back to Top


Chapter 18: Colonists



Toogodda was hovering above a lizard who was swimming in solid rock. The rock was part of a great sheet, a vast continental shelf that stretched to the horizon in every direction. Toogodda was flying above the lizard, her fins trembling in the wind as she kept pace with it. She was trying to see the attitude the lizard was using to convince the rock that it wasn't solid. She bopped the lizard on the head as a test, and it went under the rock surface. It popped up a moment later, scattering pebbles like drops, and chittering in surprise. Toogodda still couldn't see the attitude.

Toogodda woke up. She was the only one in the dorm-pod. So for awhile she floated in her hammock, listening to the whisperings from the void with her crystal radio set. But she didn't hear anything new, so she got up and went to see what was happening at the poker game. Chinglad had joined the game, and she was winning handily. “It only offsets past losses,” she said sweetly, but no one believed her.


~*~

The Mefrina was hovering in a side canyon off one of the great space lanes, waiting for prey. Her children played quietly around her. A luxury liner was sighted, and excitement sparked through the grapevine. But she was escorted by a squadron of Empire fighters, and so Mefrina remained hidden.

Most of the robots in the crew were messing with goo while they waited. Ronam got interested in making tiny robot butterflies like the white ones he'd seen when they were leaving Pirate's Rest. “What a long way around to make an aritificial golem,” he thought. “But I guess the inventors didn't have access to dream-time. There's a strange thought. What would a whole culture be like if they had no access?” For awhile the ship was infested with his butterflies. To the point where he had to build in a shut-off switch.

Epfid'l made clothes out of the goo that looked like gold and silver lace, jackets and pants, gowns and furred parkas. When she changed shape, the clothing changed with her. And she made some lingerie to surprise Hank with the next time they sneaked away to make love.

Jagung used the goo to make ship models that were accurate down to the microscopic level. Inside their glass globes the wind blew and the waves leaped as the ships made way.

Hank got into making models of World War I biplanes, complete down to the pistons in the engines, and flying them in the hallways. They were radio-controlled, and it was hard to keep them from getting hit by the booby traps. For awhile races with his planes were popular.

Toogodda made a crystal radio out of goo. It was the best she'd ever had. It was as though it had been carved from a single crystal. It was self-tuning, self-optimizing. She could hear more clearly and farther back in time than she ever had before.

Usip used the goo to make a musical instrument that sounded like a cross between a clarinet and a tuba but was the size of a piccolo. So he took to carrying it everywhere he went and playing it at the most inconvenient times. At the next ship's meeting it was almost taken away from him altogether.

The Captain used the goo to rebuild the inertial engine to tolerances so fine that the hum when he started the engine faded into unnoticeability.

Spacrudda rebuilt the ship's weapons. And a small team was using goo to build altogether new ones, weapons no one had dreamed of before.

Most of the organic crew contributed to upgrading the cooking equipment, and the quality of the food improved markedly. Even Hank noticed it. “This ice cream is really great,” he commented to Epfid'l.

“The glork is good too,” she said, slurping away.

Thlad built an instrument to look for the stowaway. It could look right though walls and see the wavering shadows of the past as they faded. But even so he couldn't find the stowaway. "Nothing to it," said his parrot. "The grand schemes of death will be enshrined in pagan festivals till the Kai come home."


~*~

“....and that was a concerto for sitar and orchestra that was written by Ravi Shankar. It's on an album that came out in 1970. Before that we heard 'Eggplant' from an early Michael Franks album called, 'The Art of Tea.' And next we'll be hearing a cut from an album by Claude Bolling. The album is called 'Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano', and the cut is called 'Versatile.' Enjoy....”


~*~

Hofnog was one of the few crew-members not playing with goo. He built a combat body in the ship's machine shops, and he put it in orbit around the ship. He began practicing leaping from his ship's-body to his combat-body and back. While he was doing that, he discovered that a lot of the robots spent much of their time outside the ship, in their combat bodies, looping and rolling and practicing formations and diving in mock combat.

“Can I join in?” he asked.

They laughed. “Get some exercises from the computer and master some of the basic skills first,” said one, “and then ask again. Otherwise you'll just lose over and over.”

So he did.


~*~

Several days later a small freighter appeared on the most sensitive scopes. The crew had a meeting and decided to take him. “He's a Nastubian ship named Jadink,” announced the Captain on the PA. “And he's not known for being armed. Saddle up, cowboys, mount up, and let's get him!” The crew howled and ululated in approval.

They popped up out of a fold in the floodplain and had their grappling beams laid on him in microseconds. Jadink blew off the grapples immediately, and then he unlimbered his big guns. “Evidently things have changed,” the Captain said over the PA. The Nastubian ship proceeded to chase the Mefrina until he got tired of it and let them go about their business.


~*~

A week later a big cargo ship was sighted, and she seemed to be unusually poorly defended. Chinglad by coincidence was hovering next to Hank in the crew meeting. “It's probably somebody trying a high-risk venture,” she said to him. “Unfortunately for them, it's not going to pay off. Hopefully they have good insurance.”

“To battle stations!” the Captain roared, and away everyone went. The robot members of the crew jumped to their combat bodies outside the ship. The organics raced to pods on the ship's surface where their equipment was stored, suited up, grabbed their weapons, and jetted out the opening stomatas into space. Everyone took up their positions and waited.

They surprised the cargo ship as she came around a hyper-coral head. The firefight was brief. Hofnog hung back at a safe distance and watched, as this was his first fight in his battle-body. Sizzling bolts of energy lanced between attackers and defenders, and the defenders were quickly surrounded and disarmed. Hatches in the cargo vessel were popped open, and black battle-bots from the Mefrina streamed in.

A few minutes later the word came back on the grapevine, mixed with laughter, that the freighter was worthless. It was loaded with organic colonists in stasis. "The joke's on us," Captain Splug announced over the intercom.

Most of the crew had already gone back to the Mefrina before Respfid'l talked Chinglad into breaking into the cargo ship's computer. “Please!” she said. “No one else will help me, but I have a naughty idea.”

“Oh, really?” Chinglad said. “Naughty is intriguing.”

They quickly hashed out a plan. Then they picked up two members of the computer team, Garumpf and Cleeda, and flew over to the freighter with their tools. Respfid'l was in her space form, and since it was her idea she had to tow the bag of tools.

Breaking into the computer turned out to be a much longer process than they had anticipated. The rest of the crew were complaining and joking over the grapevine. Then Chinglad had the idea of overwhelming the computer's defenses with music. The first song the team tried was 'Watching the River Run,” from a Loggins and Messina album called 'Full Sail.' The computer's defenses crumbled helplessly, and they were in.

“Look at this,” Respfid'l crowed. She was pointing at a computer screen, to the descriptive portions of the passenger list. “Most of these guys were shanghaied. This isn't a colony ship. It's a slaver.”

“Ah," said Chinglad. "So it was probably on its way to the Empire. I wonder where they're from?”

“I have another idea,” Respfid'l said. “But let's open it up to consensus, if you don't mind.” She called on the intercom, and when she had the attention of most of the crew, she put forth her proposal.


~*~

The Mefrina flew along next to the freighter, and the crew used tractor beams to haul them close and tie them together. The Navigation crew found a Ploogian valley that would work for their purposes, and the Mefrina dropped into it and caught a tailwind, penetrating deep into the Empire.

In a week of silent running, the crew held a contest over the grapevine to pick out their favorite music. And everyone went into dream-time when they were alone and consulted their omens. The omens were good.

Chinglad explored farther and farther into dream-time in her meditations, following the red praying mantis. She only caught glimpses of him from time to time, and always he would give her the strangest looks and then teasingly withdraw.

Hank and Epfid'l spent time making love and talking about the baby. "What to you want to name her?" Hank asked.

"I'd like to name her Tling, after my great-grandmother."

"Cool. That has a nice sound to it. Rings like a bell."

"Has she started visiting you in dream-time yet?"

"Is that what that is? In my dreams there's a little blue girl that comes and plays with me. Is that her? She's very bouncy. And she has the cutest laugh."

"That's her. Babies at her stage of development spend all of their time dreaming." "Really? I wonder what her dreams are like? I mean the ones where she's not playing with me...."


~*~

Then one day when the time was right the ship went into red alert and dropped into normal space a planetary diameter above a world called Nareen. Nareen was a luxury world, a planet-sized casino and resort. The darlings of the Empire came here to play and flirt and be seen and make back-room deals.

The coupled ships dropped like a stone toward the planet. In addition to the usual barrage of computer viruses and false images, the Mefrina broadcast Eric Clapton's song 'After Midnight' on all frequencies.

A flock of missiles burst together from the clouds below the Mefrina, aiming at her, but then they were hit by the music. They wandered around the sky, exploding randomly.

The Mefrina and the slave-ship fell through layer after layer of defenses, music opening the way like water through tissue-paper. As they approached the ground, battle-bots riding on the outsides of both ships cut the tractor beams, and the ships were loosed from each other. The freighter turned on her rockets and came to a soft landing in the capitol city's central plaza, and the Mefrina came to a stop hovering above her, hanging like a giant raindrop.

For awhile nothing happened. The ground crackled and steamed. Hank was watching on a screen in the dorm-pod.

Then the freighter's hatches popped open, and the ex-slaves began to file out. They were of many shapes, but more than that Hank couldn't see because they were in brightly-colored spacesuits. All were armed. More emerged as fast as the resuscitators could awaken them, and they began to form into raiding parties. The Mefrina was hanging overhead, and most of her crew emerged and fell toward the surface, forming into looting squads as they fell, falling fast, and only slowing and then zooming off as they neared the ground. The ex-slaves running on the surface and Mefrina's crew flying above them quickly spread in all directions from the grounded freighter.

The city was in chaos. Inhabitants poured from the buildings into the streets. Sirens wailed. Geysers of water erupted from holes in the streets. Explosions could be heard all over the city.

Most of the looting parties were small. Pagile led one of the exceptions: a squadron looking for big stuff, so they had twenty crew-members and a flyer the size of a truck.

Hank was with Toogodda, Epfid'l and Jagung, all in their combat suits. Except for Epfid'l, who was in her space form. Since it was Hank's first experience looting in a hostile environment, the others were kind of looking out for him. They flew down a broad avenue.

The Nareenians mobbing the streets were of many different types. What they had in common was they all seemed to be running away screaming. The local police were trying to approach the plaza, and they kept going down beneath waves of fleeing office-workers, store-clerks, casino workers, con-artists and tourists.

Behind the panicked workers were small squads from the ships, immobilizing the police and military with violet beams that froze them in time, and setting up barricades by blasting ditches in the pavement. Fires were breaking out in many of the buildings around them.


~*~

The looting went on for three days, in an expanding ring, and mostly under a pall of smoke. The steady trickle of awakening slaves kept up an outward pressure, but the zone of chaos expanded far ahead of them.

On the second day Hank's party went up in a tall building to look for a sub-space transmitter for Toogodda, and when Hank looked out the windows he could see fires all the way to the horizon. “Holy cow,” he said in dismay. “That's horrible!”

The rest of his party laughed, even Epfid'l. “Imagine the suffering,” Usip said, mimicking Hank, and they all went off into gales of laughter.

Hank's only experience of war was in Vietnam. He'd expected for it to be like a war movie, but he'd wound up in the rear, being a radio operator for a helicopter maintenance battalion. Rockets were fired into his base twice a month, but other than that you'd never know there was a war going on out there.

But this was more like the fall of Dien Bien Phu, or the emptying of Phnom Penh, only on a vastly larger scale. Innocent people were suffering, by the thousands, maybe the hundreds of thousands.

“Come on now. Let's focus,” said Jagung, as they went back to filling sacks with anything of value. “You're supposed to be working on your ruthlessness skills here.” The sacks were computerized, and they called on the grapevine to robots who came and carried them to the Mefrina.

“Ruthless like a cream puff,” Usip chortled.

“Remember, cowboy,” said Epfid'l, “the omens were clear.”

“Yours were,” Toogodda said. “What about Hank's?”

Hank made a rude noise and went back to filling sacks.


~*~

By evening of the third day the last of the loot was being loaded. There wasn't room for any more.

Skrim was working on his plan to build a safety refuge for pirates everywhere by colonizing and terraforming Venus, so mostly what he scavenged was high tech equipment that wasn't in the goo catalog.

Usip and the other tricamerals had come back with a bunch of what looked like junk to the rest of the crew, and after much argument they were only allowed to keep what could later be sold.

Pagile's flier came back on its last run carrying only a gallon jar of onions. "Well, it was getting thin," Pagile said.

When Hank's squad got back, he went up to the bridge, at what had become the top of the ship. He sat for an hour looking out one of the observation domes. The fires near the ship had mostly burned out, but they had spread, and the far horizon was a twinkling line of fires. The entire sky was smoky.

“Before Epfid'l and I were lovers,” he thought, “I missed sex the most. After that for awhile I missed wide open spaces the most, being outside a pod and under open sky. Now I miss being one of the good guys. I used to recycle. I went to anti-war demonstrations. I was trying to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. But now it seems like the whole point is to be part of the problem....”

For the first time it sank in for Hank that the group he was now a member of really were pirates. It wasn't a joke. And he really was a pirate too. And he really had no idea what this meant or what the future would bring, for him or for Epfid'l or for Tling.

Respfid'l's party was the last one back. They'd been out looting artworks and delicacies for parties.


~*~

With a last broadcast message wishing the ex-slaves well in their new home, the Mefrina sealed the airlocks and began to accelerate up through the atmosphere. The Communications Team on the bridge scattered music behind them as they went, in case the planet had any defenses left. Buffeting diminished as the atmosphere thinned, and the higher the ship rose, the faster she went.

At one diameter the helmsman cut power to the inertial engine in the fore-most pod, and the Mefrina coasted while the hyper-space team assembled in the aft-most pod. With a shout, they heaved the ship up into hyper-space. There the Navigation Team found that the wind in the Plogian valley was still high. So they deployed the sails, turned on the stabilizers, and flew off downwind with a shipload of loot, hooting and singing in celebration.

Thlad left a bag of cookies and a bottle of champagne in one of the smallest hallways near the surface for the stowaway, and then went back to supervising the celebratory feast. "Stone the crows and call me a debutante," squawked his parrot. The meal was carried to organics on essential duties around the ship, but the rest of the crew feasted in the main lounge. There the babble of people all telling stories at once sounded like a flock of birds. The robots had the advantage over the organics. They could talk to anyone in the room, whether near or far. The grapevine was a similar babble of laughter, lies and exaggerated recollections.

Ronam was telling Hank that he’d released his butterflies on the planet where they’d left the ex-slaves. “I’m taking bets on how long it will take the planet to discover that the butterflies are made of goo. You wanna place a bet?”

“Not me,” Hank said. “You know my track record on betting. This was your way of introducing nanotech?”

“Exactly. The more places we give it to, the safer we become.” Ronam sounded smug. “I edited the catalog, though. I took out all the weapons. Why give them a running start, if you know what I mean.”

“Really? I’m surprised. You don’t think it’s ethical to spread weapons?”

Ronam burst into a fit of laughter. “Holy Frijoles! I forget how funny you are, space-bug,” he gasped. “No, it has nothing to do with ethics. It’s a way to get the Empire to come after us.”

“What? I thought we were running from them?”

“We are. At the moment. But the more they send patrols out after us, the more opportunities there are to ambush them, and corrupt them, and enrich ourselves.”

“Well, aren’t we cute?”

“Just to make it interesting, I’ve made access to the catalog a puzzle that will take years to solve.”

“Why?”

“Just for fun. And the beauty of coincidence. You've got to appreciate beauty.”


~*~

Feedop mentioned in passing that he’d seen an old map while he was looting, but he hadn’t bothered to pick it up. Gowrung, on the far side of the main lounge, heard him on the grapevine. “Feedop, how was it labeled?” he asked.

“Hmmmm, what was it? ‘NX15-98745127,’ I believe. Why?”

“What? You didn’t pick it up? That was a map to the Motherlode, you balingering fool. How could you leave that behind?” Gowrung went careening off out of the main lounge.

For the next week he was a nut case. He went from begging for the ship to be turned around, to threats he'd commandeer the ship, to trying to steal lifeboats. The fourth time he tried, Feedop finally broke down and sheepishly confessed that it was all a lie. And that he’d been put up to it by the Entertainment Committee for the weekly Show and Tell.

After that, Gowrung was a nut case for a few more days, fizzing with plans for revenge, to everyone’s further amusement.


~*~

Ying was in her quarters one day contemplating the intricate white sphere she’d found in the Kai graveyard and kept as a souvenir. Suddenly she felt a soft click in her mind. The sphere seemed to expand before her, and she saw a white trail leading into its interior. She anchored a line of intention to the wall of her pod and started along the trail. It was twisting and narrow for a ways, and then it opened out into a huge white world, shimmering with a light that was peaceful and brilliant and vast and quiet.


Back to Top


Chapter 19: Detour



Usip floated among the asteroids, surrounded by his family and friends. They chittered away at radio frequency. Bobbing like a school of yellow octopi, they drifted near an asteroid that was big enough to be spherical. One of Usip’s brothers called out in excitement, and Usip went to look. Part of the asteroid was composed of a crumbly orange stone, and Usip’s brother had found a place where fire opals were scattered through the rock. Fire opals were naturally spherical, colored like rainbows, and they had a fire in them that waxed and waned like a heartbeat. Excitement spread through the family, and they rushed to begin gathering the scattered treasures.

Usip woke up and ran the gauntlet to breakfast, yawning as he did so. Hank and Epfid’l were in the main lounge, eating and talking. Usip joined them. "What you talking about?" he asked.

"Baby Tling," Epfid'l said.

"I envy you," Usip said. "There's nothing that brings disorder into your life like having a child. They're practically chaos incarnate."

"You're so right," Hank said. "Ain't life wonderful?"

They ate awhile in silence.

“Did you hear about Pirate’s Rest?” Epfid’l asked.

“No,” said Hank and Usip. "What's happened?"

“Ships from the Empire arrived three days ago. And from the news accounts it looked like they off-loaded thousands of lawyers, accountants and auditors. They've been practically taking Pirate’s Rest apart looking for goo, and of course they’re finding it everywhere they look.”

“Holy cow,” said Hank. “Does that mean they’ll come after us?”

“That’s not the gossip on the bridge,” said Epfid’l. “More likely they’ll take goo back to the Empire as fast as they can.”

“What if they leave a detachment behind in Pirate’s Rest to keep martial law?”

Usip laughed. “That’s been tried more than once. You should read a little history about some of the times it's failed.”

“When they’ve done it before,” Epfid’l explained, “the administrators they left behind were so quickly corrupted that the effort wasn't worth it.”

Hank looked at Epfid‘l and Usip. “How do you guys feel about the raid?” he asked, changing the subject. “I mean, it’s been a week now, and it still bothers me that we caused so much suffering and destruction. It really doesn’t bother you?”

Usip perked up. “I love disorder,” he confided. “Even when it causes people pain. There's an old saying among tricamerals: I’m sorry about the pain, but disorder must reign.”

“What? What do you mean by that?”

“Disorder is the unstoppable urge of life to live, to breathe, to take action, to spread out. Order is crystallization and heat death. Disorder is the hunger for freedom, the joy of life blooming and blossoming.”

“But doesn’t that just lead to the destruction of everything?”

Epfid’l piped up, “There’s a fine line between destruction and disorder.”

“Seriously,” Usip went on, “there is a Great Destruction at the end of the universe, and it can't be avoided. Eventually everything returns to the dream-time. In the meantime, it’s not just these petty little pockets of disorder that I love, it’s the Great Disorder itself that I worship, that I long to unite with. The bones of disruption stride like a magnificent animal inside all the organic’s efforts to crystallize, to capture, to pin life down.”

“So you’re saying the organics are headed down the wrong road in their efforts to organize life?”

“Definitely.”

Hank was nonplussed. Epfid’l smacked her lips and asked Usip, “So what do you hope to succeed at then?”

“Ah, success! That’s a whole other question. I hope to be liberated, of course, to escape from the flesh into the beyond. Or better yet, to transcend with the flesh into the beyond. There’s nothing else to hope for.”

“And what do you think of the crew’s efforts to succed?” Epfid’l continued. "We try to go out and get loot, and we’re happy when we get it. We like to prosper.”

Usip waved a tentacle. “There's nothing wrong with that. But the tragedy of organic beings is that they can’t attain disorder and at the same time have a body. The tragedy of you bicamerals is that your allegiance is to order, and Dirt today is an example of where that goes. You don’t even catch a tiny part of the true depths of life. The tragedy of tricamerals is that we catch a tiny part, but we can’t reach the true source of our longing. Only the quadricamerals reach the real goal that organic life is meant for. The rest of us are steps and experiments on the way. Only the quadricamerals can go through the blazing discontinuity of the big bang before time had started without going completely crazy.” Usip finished on a triumphant tone.

"What?" asked Hank. "How can they go through the Big Bang?"

"One can use time-reversal in the dream-time and go all the way back to before the beginning," said Usip.

"Holy cow," said Hank.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Epfid’l said.

Usip laughed.

“If you think bicamerals are silly,” Hank asked, “why are you here on a ship that’s mostly bicamerals?”

“Because I like you bicamerals, and I like this life. And it doesn’t matter anyway, because all the organic’s efforts to crystallize life are doomed to backfire and generate ever greater disorder. What better place to watch disorder generate than among a group of people trying to stop it? Disorder is an endless goddess, and swallows all the others. You worship the wrong goddess, my friend.”

“Me?” Hank blinked. “I don’t worship any particular goddess at all. Unless you count the Goddess of Sex.”

“Yes, you do. You worship the goddess of coincidence. You can’t help it. You’re hard-wired that way. Left unchecked, you would freeze the universe with your order.”

“No, I wouldn’t.” Hank was taking all this personally. “The point is to have balance.”

“Ah, that’s my point,” said Usip. “There’s no balance within order, only between order and disorder. Did I ever tell you about the first time I met one?”

“Met one what?”

“Quadricameral.”

“Um, no.”

“I was wrecked in an asteroid belt, and I was trying to survive. I ran across a hermit’s nest, and it had been so long and I was so lonely that I approached him. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known he was a quadricameral. He had a scarlet shell, and four arms, and he didn’t say one single thing that made any sense to me. Before I knew what he was doing, he’d strapped a package onto me and turned it on. The next thing I knew I was floating in realms of shifting light, very beautiful. It turned out the thing had reverberated me along the edges between two hyper-spatial planes and dropped me right back into my home solar-system. Now how did he know which one that was, I ask you? No one there would believe I’d actually met a quadricameral.”

“But the quadricamerals on the Mefrina seem to make sense,” piped up Epfid’l.

"Ah," Usip replied. "They only seem to."


~*~

The Mefrina swung from buoy to buoy up the long ascent to Pirate’s Rest. They’d watched from hiding as the Empire ships departed. Now as they approached, worry spread among the crew because of the lack of the usual radio traffic. Cautiously the hyper-space crew dropped the ship into normal space, orbiting the moon Zinjan. When Pirate’s Rest came into view, the crew knew why there were no signals. The place was a wreck. There was no smoke, but all the buildings had been torn to pieces.

The Mefrina landed at her usual dock, in an empty space-way. Exploration squads found a skeleton reconstruction crew busy at their work. “When the Empire ships got here,” they were told, “there was nobody here but us janitors. And all we could tell them was that we had no idea where everybody went.”

“What did they want?” Captain Splug asked.

“Goo. And the people behind goo. And the people behind them. All they found was goo, and it seemed to make them angry that it was everywhere. They took everything apart, but finally they just took the goo and left.”

“How’s the reconstruction going?” Bos’n Thlad asked.

“Great. More crews will be arriving every day, and we’ll have Pirate’s Rest back to her usual rollicking good times in a couple weeks."

"The goddess loves dancing," said the parrot.


~*~

Bustle ran through the ship as a meeting was called in the main lounge. When everyone was there, the floor was thrown open for suggestions. Hank promptly suggested that they go to Dirt, and then was speechless when the crew demanded he make a case for his suggestion. “We don’t have the supplies to get to Dirt,” Bos’n Thlad said. “And anyway our holds are full of loot to fence. We need a place nearby to hole up while they rebuild the town. It needs to be a secret place, as there could be Empire patrols for awhile.”

"All the Empire's falling down," said his parrot.

The floor was thrown open, and a lively discussion swooped and veered and finally landed on a system within easy range that had a hollow moon. It wasn’t on the Empire charts, and if they dared do a microjump through hyper-space they could get inside and be in an ideal hiding place.

Hank asked Epfid’l what the risks to a microjump were, and she said, “Shhhh. I’ll explain it to you later”. As the meeting disbanded the organics seemed excited and nervous. Hank wondered if the robots were nervous. But who could tell about the robots except other robots?


~*~

Respfid’l threw a Microjump Party, and Epdfid’l dragged Hank off to it, even though he didn’t much want to go. “It’ll be good for you, cowboy,” she urged.

Epfid’l’s band was getting a lot better, and they played for an hour. They were called the Glee, Stomp and Perloo Society. They were kind of a cross between reggae and Swingle Singers. Usip made Hank get out and dance, and that made him feel better. Which he resented. Everybody got a little drunk, including Hank, and that made him forget about the resentment. The robots got drunk on aged electricity, and the organics got drunk on a wild variety of metabolic poisons.

Hank danced until he was tired, and then he floated over to the bar. Respfid’l was bartending. She gave him a squeeze-bulb full of something blue, and some cracker sandwiches. “How’s my darling boy?” she asked.

“Good, good,” Hank said. “How are you doing?”

“You being good to Epfid’l?”

“Of course. I couldn’t love her better if she were human. Wait. Um, I mean....” “You’re a goofy boy, and quite sweet. You scoot along and dance now. Mama’s a busy woman.”

A couple of numbers later Hank drifted back to the bar again, and by coincidence Respfid’l wasn’t busy. “I don't know much about you," Hank said blithely. "Tell me about yourself."

"I was very beautiful when I was young. The shapes I would shift into were gorgeous. I think that affects a person, don’t you? I was just talking to Falagroo the other day about the days of our youth. Happy days for me, until I was banished to the oort cloud for getting pregnant. My goodness, how can it be illegal to have sex, I ask you? But you know how it is, dear boy. Conservative times. And then over time I got older, and after awhile beauty didn’t matter so much anymore cuz I wasn’t beautiful any more. Isn’t it strange to have a great power given to you when you’re young and don’t know how to use it, and then lose it as you age so that when you’re old and do know how to use the power, it’s gone?”

“Yes?” was all Hank could think of to say.

“And then the next thing you know I had Neesfid’l, and she was the most darling child, and there wasn’t time to do anything but take care of her. You know how being a parent is....” Hank opened his mouth to say no, he didn't....

“And then I had Epfid’l, and suddenly I was twice as busy. It was great fun. I’d like to be a young mom again. It's the greatest. And in the middle of all that a chance to escape from slavery came up. I wasn’t even looking for it. I’d given up hope. But then a Sklimery ship went through the system and volunteered to free any Sklimery slaves and take them on. Well, that was a hoot, I can tell you. Overnight we went from slaves to having a creche. You can imagine how I felt! I’d have help raising the kids, I’d have a tribe to get them through the teenage years, the dreaming years. It was so wonderful!”

She paused and looked at him. “Well?” she prodded.

“Well what?”

“Don’t you have anything to say?” Hank opened his mouth to say that he had plenty to say, but she interrupted him and went sailing on. “Of course I don’t mean to say it was easy. Those were hard years in lots of ways, and got harder as the kids got older. I stayed as long as I could so they’d know something of their own culture, but it was hard for me to be a liberal in the middle of a ship full of conservatives. My goodness, they were stuffy. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, and I acted kind of outrageously. So we got banished from the ship.”

Hank perked up. “What did you do?”

“Of course, once we were gone I was glad. And life in the Reefs has turned out to be great. Just right. Neesfid’l and Epfid’l found it kind of rough at first. They were used to life in the great tribe, and it took a long time for them to get over being mad at me for taking them away. But I think it was good for them in the long run. I think they were getting too conservative. They’d never admit it, though, so you needn’t bother asking them about it.” Hank opened his mouth and said, “Really?”

“They’re good girls. They’ve grown up well. They stopped complaining, and until Neesfid’l moved to another ship, they had fun together.”

“It sounds like you’re a lucky woman,” Hank said.

Respfid’l smiled sweetly. “Coincidence,” she said. "And now I'm going to be a grandmother. The coincidences keep getting better."


~*~

The Mefrina dropped into normal space and proceeded under inertial power into orbit around the hollow moon. Hank and Edfid’l were making love when the ship flipped end over end so she could slow down, and they broke out laughing. Everyone was confined to quarters during the maneuver, and in the dorm-pod Usip, Toogodda and Jagung all laughed and whooped.


~*~

Electronic and etheric probes from the Surveillence Team confirmed that the moon was hollow and wild and idyllic. Tension rose in the ship as the hyper-space team gathered in the engine pod. Epfid’l had somehow never gotten around to explaining to Hank what the dangers were, but from the general stress level Hank was suspicious.

The Mefrina disappeared from normal space, and without going fully up into hyper-space, she arced back down into normal space again. Her children and the fireflies followed her like a psychedelic trail. The feeling for the crew was like being stretched internally in every direction and then allowed to rebound like a rubber band. Captain Splug came on the PA. “Crew-mates," he announced, “the jump was perfect.” The pod-mates broke into a cheer. Hank could hear whooping far along the halls.

At first he couldn’t make sense of what he saw on the screens. In every direction a diffuse brightness filled the view, as though the ship hovered in a glowing sky. “The inner surface of the moon has a natural luminescence,” Epfid’l explained. “You see the long thin clouds?”

“Like mares’ tails?”

“They’re clouds of ice crystals.”

“And what are those?” Hank asked. Toward the center of the moon there were clumps of green that looked like foliage, and occasional balls of glistening blue.

“Floating thickets of jungle, and floating lakes. And presumably a bunch of wildlife. Let’s go exploring while we’re here, OK? It's a good place for picnics.”

“What would have happened if we hadn’t made it?”

“Good question,” said Epfid’l. “If we’d materialized in the shell of the moon, or in one of those clumps of jungle, we’d have been at the heart of a thermonuclear explosion.”

“Oh. My goodness....”


~*~

The ship pulled toward one of the larger clumps of jungle. Details emerged: chains of forest, surface chasms, great channels plunging deep into the old growth, and flowers on vines everywhere. By the time the Mefrina hove to, five-hundred meters from the surface of the spherical jungle, the colors of the flowers could be seen. The petals were all the colors of the rainbow, including infra-red and ultra-violet. The only color missing was white.


Back to Top


Chapter 20: Lagoon



Hank was sitting in a living room that looked like it was in the 1800s. Kerosene lanterns sat on a big wooden table and hung on a peg by the door. The couch he was sitting on had a hand-made quilt covering it. An old woman sat in a rocking chair, knitting as she rocked. A young man sat at the stone fireplace, whittling on a peg. A little girl in a homespun dress was trying to talk him into playing the piano for her.

Hank sat down at the upright piano, and just as his hands struck the keys he realized he was dreaming. "Wait a minute," he thought. He turned to the little girl and said, "This is a dream." She looked at him with a puzzled expression and said, "Yes, so?"

Hank walked over to the young man and said, "This is a dream, right?" The man looked up and smiled and said, "Oh yes."

Hank walked over to the old woman and said, "Excuse me, this is a dream right now." She squinted up at him.

"Weren't you going to play the piano?" she asked. So Hank went back and played the piano.


~*~

The crew broke out for moonbathing. They put themselves into transparent inflatable bubbles and floated outside the ship in the warm light from the moon's inner surface. The endless poker game moved outside into a large inflated bubble, and the endless band practice moved into its own bubble. Tricamerals had a large bubble just for playing the Object Game. The consumption of intoxicants and psychedelics went up considerably.

Respfid’l moved her salon into a bubble on the side of the ship toward the jungle, since it was in the shade. She rounded up her usual crew of volunteers and set them to making fancy sandwiches.

The first natural inhabitants ventured out from the jungle, insects the size of humming birds and pteranodons the size of condors. Mefrina felt nervous because she could feel them building nests in crannies between pods all over the ship. It made her feel ticklish. Her fireflies felt nervous because the pteranodons kept trying to eat them.

The first expeditions set off to explore the bush. Gowrung led one a long distance along one of the large chasms, convinced as usual that he would find the motherlode, though he was no longer willing to say that out loud. He was getting tired of people making fun of him. His expedition found no treasure, but he came back undiscouraged. He told his friends that as they went into the forest, the light from the inner shell faded, and then the forest itself began to glow. The plants glowed green and purple and pink and yellow. And they’d seen flying creatures of all sizes, some of them giants.


~*~

“....That was ‘God’s Own Drunk,’ one of the all-time great talking blues songs. It’s from a 1974 album called ‘Living and Dying in Three Quarter Time.” Next we’re going to hear ‘High Falls,’ a classic 14-minute instrumental from an Ahlman Brothers album called ‘Win, Lose or Draw.’ After that you'll enjoy this: we’re going to get into some Doobie Brothers....”


~*~

Captain Splug and Spacrudda led a team whose goal was to change everything in the ship that could be changed with goo. Their first project was to make new space-suits for everyone. Hank’s old suit had felt like canvas. The new one felt like velvet.

Then they rebuilt all the tunnel walls. In part it was the endless remodeling that drove the crew out to moonbathing or Respfid’l’s salon or exploring the jungle. After the tunnel walls were finished, the remodeling stopped, as the team turned to making new musical instruments, and then to upgrading the ship’s computers and screens. The poker players cheered when the team came up with improved playing cards, ones that could change value and suit in mid-game. Accusations of cheating escalated considerably.


~*~

Hank had plenty of time to think, and he sank into a depression. Even being held by Epfid’l didn’t get him out of it. Even thinking about baby Tling didn't do it. He talked it over with his pod-mates, and they agreed his situation was hopeless. “You ought to go see the Captain,” Epfid’l said.

“Why, is he good at helping people?”

“Goodness no, but he’s in charge of everything, so he’s in charge of this.”

Hank didn’t want to go, but his dorm-mates cheerfully insisted and kicked him out of the pod, so he made an appointment over the computer and flew to the bridge. Captain Skrim had traded jobs with Fazhingle, so the new captain was a small purple robot with green eyes on stalks and lots of arms. She dragged him off to her quarters so they’d have privacy, and asked, “So what’s the problem?”

“I feel sad and hopeless. The whole thing with releasing the slaves affected me a lot. I don’t see how I can be a member of a crew which causes suffering and destruction. But I don’t see how I can avoid it either. At a larger scale, it seems innate to life that there’s suffering. It seems built in, and yet I feel helpless that I can't do anything about it.”

“Ah, yes,” said the Captain. “You’ve made a great discovery, one that everyone comes to sooner or later. If you’d take a look at this?” She handed Hank what looked like a yellow marble.

When he looked up again, Fazhingle was no longer a robot. She looked like an anemone, with green eyes on stalks and many purple tentacles waving. She was hovering above a vast black plain, and he was standing on it. A pearly sky was writhing over their heads.

“You’ve dragged me into dream-time,” Hank said sadly.

“Just so. Come with me.” One of her tentacles took his hand, and pulled him up into the air. They flew through a thunderstorm until they came to a lake. As the storm passed on across the landscape, they landed on the lake-shore.

“You’ll like this,” Fazhingle said, and she suddenly grabbed him by both arms and both legs. She whirled him around and threw him far out into the water.

There was a shock of cold as he landed in the lake, and then as he sank into the water he also sank into bliss. He watched without fear as the last of his air bubbled upward. He inhaled water, and the cold jolted his lungs even as he smiled with happiness. Then he could breathe the water.

Like a school of fish, Hank’s mind expanded and loosened. Thinking faded away, and joy crescendoed within him into a thundering fountain. He felt as though he were a venturi and bliss were pouring through him. Since the joy had no cause, it could never end. And it had no limit.

Eventually Captain Fazhingle swam into the water and fished Hank out. She carried him to shore, where she found a puddle and froze it with a gesture. She held Hank above it till she saw a good reflection, and then she dropped him through it into wake-time.

Hank landed in the dorm-pod. It was empty at the moment. He wandered through the halls and ran the gauntlet to the main lounge, enjoying the beauty of it all. Epfid’l was there, talking with Jagung. She was in her miniature dragon form, and she’d never looked more gorgeous.

“What happened to you?” she asked, looking at him quizzically.

Hank could barely speak. “I went to see the Captain,” he managed to get out.

Epfid’l laughed. “And she did what she always does.” She went off to the bar and came back with a dessert like fizzy ice cream. “Here,” she said. She seemed to understand that he couldn’t really talk. So they sat mostly in silence, enjoying the passing show as the crew went about their daily activities.

It took three days for the bliss to wear off. By then Hank wasn’t depressed anymore. He felt like he had an odd new perspective on things. “Perspective,” Epfid’l laughed when he told her, “is the hardest of all things to come by. Congratulations, cowboy.”


~*~

A few days later the Surveillance Team detected a large shadow approaching along one of the huge channels in the jungle. An alarm sent the sunbathers and salon participants scrambling for the ship, leaving their bubbles behind, abandoning their floating deck-chairs and bulbs of lemonade. They held their breath and flew through hard vacuum to the nearest stomata, where they disappeared into the ship. The robots jumped to their battle-bodies and formed squadrons.

Ronam was with an exploring party that was just emerging from the jungle when the alarm went off. They ducked back into the foliage and hid in the riot of leaves. Their space-suits and robot bodies went into camouflage mode, painting themselves to match the leaves around them.

The Mefrina powered up in emergency mode. The net that held the ship together tightened. The battery fish warbled at the sudden power drain. The ship was just starting to overcome inertia and get underway when a huge creature coasted out of the jungle channel into open view.

Hank had gone to his battle-station and put his battle-suit on. With Edfid’l, Jagung and Usip, he was watching the outside view on the screens. Toogodda came skidding into the pod, and started putting on her battle suit. “What’s happening?” she asked.

“A creature just came out of the forest,” Hank said. His first impression was of an ivory-colored cigar. Toogodda whistled. “Three hundred meters long. That’s nearly half as long as the ship. What is it?”

“I don’t know,” said Jagung. “But if it’s carnivorous, we’re in big trouble.”

The leviathan seemed interested in the ship. It arched it’s huge body and swam through space like an eel. The Mefrina was slowly accelerating, and the animal was catching up. As it got closer, Hank could see that it’s surface was covered with plates of shell. It’s tiny eyes were no bigger than Hank’s head. A ring of bumps encircled the dirigible shape near the aft end. Jagung saw Hank looking at them and said, “It must be using those to grab hold of space somehow.”

“Or maybe they’re natural inertial engines,” Usip said.

Hank was upset. “We’re about to get eaten, and you guys are talking botany?”

“Actually,” said Epfid’l. “I think it’s xenology.”

“Well," Hank said, “thank you very much.”

Creaks and popping sounds could be heard coming from all over the ship as she maneuvered to get away.

Ronam's squad of robots and organics, on the scale of mosquitos to the monster, swooped out of the jungle behind it and struggled to overhaul it. "Faster, space-bugs!" Ronam cried. Flying at their best speed, buffeted by the turbulence, they yodeled and yelled. They passed it's tail, and the surface of the monster crawled by like a convoluted wall. At last they got to the monster's eyes, and they waved their appendages while they hollered, trying to get it's attention.

“Look," said Toogodda. One of the screens in the pod had switched to a view of a dozen robots leaving the ship and flying toward the space-whale. They weren’t in their battle-bodies, so they were a colorful bunch. One of them was Gowrung, and he was carrying a lasso.

The monster got closer, and it loomed so large that all over the ship the crew was panicking. It’s mouth opened ponderously, like a cavern, but it couldn’t quite get that first bite before the Mefrina had pulled ahead just out of reach. All over the monster, robots had begun landing on its surface. Gowrung was riding on its nose. Ying was farther back. Hofnog was landing near the tail with a battle-squad.

The Mefrina had gotten her speed up now, and she led the whale a merry chase around the space between the jungle and inner shell until it got tired and wandered off to feed on some reddish trees, causing devastation with each bite. The riders stayed aboard till it noticed they were there and flew through a spherical lake to dislodge them. They all came back to the ship wet and laughing.

Later Ying asked Splug and Spacrudda how they’d liked the adventure, and Splug said, “What adventure? That’s what it was? We wondered why the ship was being moved. Say, take a look at this. We’re almost ready to substitute the new nanocomputer for the ship’s main computer. Maybe you can help us calm the computer down. It’s scared cuz it’s never been turned off before, so if you could reassure it that would be very kind...."


~*~

A day later people were out moonbathing again as though nothing had ever happened. Hank and Epfid’l were floating in their own little bubble, since the air in the hollow moon wasn't breathable for him. “I feel strange,” Hank was saying. “Bliss changes everything. At first when I came aboard I felt lost and hopeless and helpless. Then for awhile I felt angry. Then I felt mostly happy, though I’m a still a bit scared of the power of the dream-time. And now I feel embarrassed cuz I was so sure you were all wrong. I thought you were just being evil, and it was all so black-and-white. But it’s become obvious that if you’re evil, I am too. No, that's not right. I don't mean to say that. I mean, you’re playing a whole different game at a whole different level. You’re trying to get to bliss. You're trying to get everybody to bliss. Somehow that’s a whole different story.”

“Different from what?”

“From what I was doing before.”

“Which was what?”

“Just kind of going along, and trying to have as much fun as I could along the way. I wasn’t trying to get anywhere in particular.”

“But you were trying to avoid death?”

“Trying to survive, sure.”

She grinned. “There’s your mistake. Your society on Dirt is death-avoidant rather than death-seeking.”

“You say that like seeking death is a good thing.”

“Of course it is. Didn’t they teach you that on Dirt?”

“Oh no. You don’t think survival is a good thing?”

“No, survival is neutral. Life can be wonderful, and it can be terrible. When it’s great, then survival is a good thing. When it’s awful, then survival’s a bad thing. There are many things in life much worse than death. Sometimes it’s better to die and go into the dream-time.”

“That’s where we all go when we die?”

“For awhile, but then those who’ve died are able to go somewhere beyond the dream-time. Someplace wonderful. I was in the dream-time once and saw someone go beyond. For a few moments I could see where he was going. It was lovely beyond description.”

“So if dying is a good thing, then why do we have these robot bodies to go into when we die?”

Epfid’l laughed. “Fear of change. Fear of letting go. Having a mission that isn't completed yet. A truly fearless warrior dies when she’s done with this world and flies like an arrow through dream-time and transcends into the beyond.” She clapped her hands. “Ha!” she said.

Hank laughed. “Easy for you to say.”

“And easy to do, when you’re ready for it.”

“That’s a big when.”

“Oh yes. Neither you nor I will be ready for a long time yet, I should think.”

“I tell you what I am ready for," Hank said. "How about if you and I go off and hide in the jungle for some privacy?”

“You and privacy,” she laughed. “Sure, cowboy.” They took hands and flew in their bubble to the jungle, and then a ways into it. Hank took off his harness and hung it outside the bubble on a branch. Epfid’l was already in her naked woman form, so they fell to kissing and hugging. They were playful and sensuous and giggly. Their love-making was wonderful. For Hank it seemed to get better and better as time went by.

“You know,” Hank said afterwards, “when I was coming it was exactly the same feeling as when Fazhingle threw me in the lake.”

“I know,” Epdif’l smirked.

“What? What do you mean? How do you know?”

“I just know. For me, sex has showed me how to go into bliss whenever I want. Actually, I don’t even need sex anymore. I can go into bliss whenever I want.”

Hank suddenly felt lonely. “But then you don’t need sex. Or me.”

“I never did, silly. But I want you, so who cares?”

“Oh. Well, can you teach me how to go into bliss whenever I want to?”

“Sure. It’s not hard." But when she showed him, it turned out it wasn't exactly easy, either.

"It's going to take me awhile to get this," he said.

Epfid'l laughed. "Not that long. A week or two perhaps. Fazhingle gave you a good running start."


~*~

Jagung made his choice. Through long changeless days, lying in the warm light, he’d come to see that actually there really wasn’t a choice. "When a choice is obvious," he thought, "it isn't a choice anymore." Even though this one meant cutting loose from everything he’d come from and taking up this different kind of life forever, the way was clear. It didn’t really help that the old life was bad and the new life was better, or that the old life was safer and this new one a lot more dangerous. The choice was at a deeper level than those issues. It was about the poor quality of the life he’d have in the Empire, versus the richness and potential of the pirate way.

Usip personally was very proud and approving of Jagung’s choice. “You’ve taken an important step towards chaos and disorder,” he said.

"Oh really?" said Jagung.

He called Chinglad on the grapevine. “OK, I’m ready. Let’s go for it.”

“Really?” said Chinglad. “Fabulous."


~*~

Chinglad turned off her eyes and slipped into meditation. Her thoughts calmed and smoothed, and she dropped into dream-time. She found herself in the middle of a purple thunderstorm, and the turbulence tossed her like a leaf. She grabbed ahold of gravity, and she twisted it into a knot. Suddenly heavy, she fell like a stone.

She came out the bottom of the clouds above a jungle landscape. She let go of gravity about the height of the tallest trees and drifted down to hover just above the orange grass in a jungle clearing. On a rock in the middle of the meadow sat the red praying mantis. His eyes glittered.

"Hello," he said. "My name is Noko. Would you care to join me in a cup of tea?"

"With pleasure," Chinglad said. "My name is Chinglad."

Noko reached behind him and produced a tray with a teapot and two cups on it. "Do you like mint?"

"Mint is wonderful."

"One lump or two?"

"Two, please."

Noko stirred his tea with a red finger. "So, tell me all about yourself," he said. Chinglad smiled. She had a good feeling about Noko, as though they were going to be good friends. So she told him all about herself.

"Let me see if I understand you," Noko said. "Your deepest desire is to understand the nature of existence, what's going on here. Am I right, or am I riding the wrong Floognar?"

"That's it," said Chinglad.

"Excellent goal," said Noko.


~*~

Epfid’l liked to drag Hank along on expeditions into the jungle. Once he got started he discovered he liked it too. The floating clumps of thicket were varicolored and full of life. The foliage was sometimes closer to blue than green, and the flowers were iridescent and phosphorescent. Most of the native animals flew, some with wings and some with jets of squirted air. These jetted along like octopi, sounding like they are farting.

The deeper into the jungle they went, the bigger were the creatures they saw. And the animals had no fear of them. Even the biggest would come right up to them and check them out.

"Do I look pregnant?" Epfid'l asked.

"No, you look just the same to me. Why?"

"Dirt women bulge when they get pregnant. I've seen it in the archives. Sklimery women do too, but they bulge all over. If you measured me, you'd find I'm five centimeters bigger."

"Interesting. I hadn't noticed."

"Has baby Tling been coming to you in your dreams?"

"Oh yes, almost every night. She loves to play. And lately I've noticed that she's starting to fly. At first she just bounced around."

"I know. I've been teaching her that in my dreams."

"How wonderful. Does she come to you every night?"

"Oh yes. Don't women on Dirt dream with their babies?"

"Not that I've ever heard of."

"Oh. How sad. How do they teach them to fly then?"

Hank laughed. "They have to wait till after they're born, and grown up, and then they have to buy them a hang glider."

"That seems like a lot of trouble."

Hank was still laughing. "It is. Your way is much better."


~*~

From the longest-ranging expeditions came back word that they had penetrated all the way through the layer of jungle. It turned out to be 100 kilometers thick, and beyond it was an central empty space filled with air and tattered clouds. In the center a glowing core shone like a yellow sun. The foliage was various shades of green, and the empty air above it was filled with flying things that resembled birds and insects. Some of them sang as they flew, and the sound shifted like a vast orchestra endlessly tuning up.

“Ooh. Fun place to hang glide,” Hank thought when he heard about it.


~*~

On one of these long-range explorations, Pagile’s team was captured by aborigines. At first Pagile thought they were animals, but then he noticed the painted symbols on their faces. He was delighted, and immediately set about learning their language. By the time they’d tied up eveyone in the team and towed them half a kilometer deeper into the jungle, he had a hundred words or so. It wasn’t a tonal language, so it was relatively easy.

They were still trying to decide whether he was alive or not when he started speaking. They got so upset they got out their clubs and bashed him to pieces on the spot.

Pagile fell back toward the ship, feeling broken and free and exploded. Then he fell into a dream-time net that reeled him into a nest prepared long ago in the central computer. Since he was kind of crazy anyway, he didn’t stay in the disembodied state as long as most robots would.

A week later he was out of the computer and into a new body. Two days after that he was back at the aboriginal village, with friends. And they were welcomed like gods. Pagile’s reappearance when they still had the fragments of his body stored in a hut somehow changed everything.

Pagile’s party brought the entire clan back to the ship. The natives were in awe of everything. Toogodda taught them to make crystal radios. Gowrung enlisted them in pranks, telling them it was their religious duty. Jagung taught them to play poker. They were more delighted with poker than with music, since they had music of their own. To Hank it sounded like a flock of crows, but they liked their own music much better than anything Hank could play for them. They said they had learned music from the flying creatures in the central sky.

All the holds in the ship were bulging with loot, and the crew helped the aborigines poke through and take whatever they wanted. The natives congratulated each other on their incredible good fortune in getting to live for a time with the gods. They were endlessly curious to the point of being pests, and endlessly gullible.

All this was totally against Empire laws, of course. One is not supposed to corrupt a native culture. But the omens were clear, and the pirates had long ago stopped paying any attention to Empire laws anyway.


~*~

Jagung was given dream training for the jump. Ten or fifteen guys would go with him into dream-time and then pass him like a football through cloudy skies. At first he had a hard time relaxing enough to let them throw him from one to the next, but after awhile the flights became thrilling rather than disorienting. “Be an arrow,” he said to himself.

Hofnog spent most of his days fighting in mock battles. Squadrons of battle-bots zoomed around the sky, charging and outflanking each other. The simulated combat extended deep into the jungle, ambushing and decimating each other.

Hank and Epfid'l got back into moonbathing. Hank felt something soothing in the light, something that seemed to quiet his body right down to the bones. Epfid'l commented that Tling was more active when they were in the bright light. "She's more bouncy," Epfid'l said.


~*~

The Captain decided it was time to head back to Pirate’s Rest. The crew threw a farewell party for the aborigines and fired up the inertial engine. As the ship pulled away, the clan of aborigines hooted in farewell, weeping and clutching their treasures.

The hyper-twitch out of the moon was easy, since there was plenty of empty space to land in. Then the hyper-crew bounced the ship up into hyper-space in a move that left Hank with the usual feeling that his stomach had been left behind.


Back to Top


Chapter 21: Election



The little green bird had gone flying. She skittered along near the top of dream-time, just under the surface. When she'd built up speed, she took a short leap into the beyond.

Seen from below, the upper surface of dream-time was blue and green and iridescent, and it had waves that were upside down: they poked down towards the little green bird. Seen from above, the upper surface was smooth and golden and reflective and seemed to glow from within. Looking around her during her hops into the beyond, the little green bird saw ribbons colored like rainbows curling across the sky. There was a sound like billions of bees humming. Scattered around the sky were floating islands whose upper surface was covered with jungle. In the far distance was a ring of black mountains.

The leaps left her body filled with a fizzy exhilaration.

She spiraled down through dream-time and went to check on Hank. She’d left him in the tunnels, assembling the last attitudes he’d need in order to see the intentions of others in their auras. The problem was that Hank wasn’t strong enough yet to carry the assemblage over into wake-time, so the first few times she’d have to help him.

She positioned him in front of a mirror, and told him to focus on intention. When his aura had gone through the color spectrum to violet, she kicked him through the reflection of himself. His shout of surprise was cut off in the middle.

She flew off to help herself to some of the Golden Berries of Bigladoon. She’d heard they were ripe, and the view from high on the mountainsides where they grew was gorgeous and refreshing.


~*~

Hank woke up in the middle of a yelp, but without remembering the dream. He didn’t seem to have awakened his pod-mates. And in the darkness he noticed that he could see tinges of color in the air around them. Epfid’l was sleeping in her space form, and blue wisps like steam were curling off her. Toogodda was covered with clusters of faint orange sparkly beams. Usip seemed to have glints of color inside his body, like an opal. Jagung was surrounded by steam the color of chocolate.

Hank shrugged it off and went with them to breakfast. Somewhere in the conversation Hank mentioned frisbees, and after the meal nothing would do but that they go to the machine pod and make some.

By midmorning Hank and his pod-mates had organized a frisbee tournament in the main lounge. Most of the organics with free time showed up. Soon the bigger halls had heats going in them as teams competed and worked their way up the ladder. Normal ship’s business was disrupted pretty much into chaos. Usip thought this was wonderful, and Hank found himself trying to explain to Usip that chaos wasn’t the point of playing frisbee. “Then what is?” Usip asked.

“Having fun, of course,” said Hank.

“Imagine, for a moment,” said Usip, “being in a condition where chaos is fun....”

Hank frowned, and was about to reply when he was rotated through three impossible axes of rotation as the Mefrina dropped into normal space with a sound like a gong. She veered off through nebular veils like a manatee swimming through underwater seaweed. Her fireflies followed her like a swarm of tropical fish.

The Communications Team opened a channel to Pirate’s Rest. “Good news,” said the pirate manning the switchboard, “we’re doing great. Patching things up using the goo has made repairs go a lot faster. Of course we’re making the goo construction look like it was done the regular way. In case the Empire comes back. But in the meantime the banks are open, and most of the stores. The whorehouses and casinos never shut down, of course. Come on in. Your usual berth is open.”

“I hope you’ve paid off the right people,” Captain Fazhingle said.

The spokes-pirate laughed. “Time will tell, my friend.”

The Captain laughed too. “Time and coincidence," she said.


~*~

The Mefrina landed in her berth, and the crew spread out through town. The repairs seemed to be nearing completion. Most of the buildings looked nearly finished. Back at the ship, the transfer of loot to various banks and stores began. Long lines of transport robots formed at the open stomata of the holds, where they hoisted loads on their shoulders and went bounding away to deliver them.

When the unloading and the haggling over credit vouchers was completed, Hank went bounding off to the Empire Hotel. The place looked like a wreck, but there was a party going on anyway. “Has Alice been here?” he asked at the front desk, and an organic who looked like a giant purple frog said, “No, we havent’ seen her since last we saw you.” Hank left a message and went back to the ship, stopping at a couple joke shops and several book stores along the way. He was surprised to find a number of books from Dirt, including a complete collection of the Edgar Rice Burroughs series set on Barsoom.


~*~

After three days of shore leave, the crew straggled back to the Mefrina, and she lifted off from her berth. Up through the thin atmosphere she flew, and out into interstellar space. A feeling of relief at being back in her native element ran through the ship like a shiver. Then the Hyper-space Team heaved the ship into hyper-space. She was right next to the pinnacle of the hyper-needle that Pirate’s Rest sat on, and so for a long time she fell, with the wall of the needle going gracefully by.

When there’d been enough time for the crew-members to recover from hangovers, Captain Fazhingle called a ship’s meeting. Those who weren’t on essential duty gathered in the lounge.

“Well,” said the Captain, “We made out like bandits on the last foray. Everybody oughta pretty much be rich by now, and the ship is well supplied. So the question before us is: what do want to do next? Where shall we go now?”

“Let’s make another raid on the Empire,” Spacrudda suggested, and cheers greeted his proposal.

“I think we should look for the complete goo catalog,” said Flagroo, and there was a smattering of applause.

“I think we should look for the Ancient Egg," said Toogodda. “It’s priceless.” Nobody clapped.

“Let’s do a run through an anomalous hyper-tube,” said Hofnog.

“Whatever for?” The Captain’s eyes glittered.

“Because we’ll come out changed in ways that are mathematically unpredictable. We could change the entire universe for the better.” This got a big laugh, and lots of ribald comments. "Or for the worse," was one of them.

“Listen,” said Gowrung. “I’ve acquired a new map while we were on Pirate’s Rest and the rest of you were blithering around like idiots. It’s got a very possible location for the Motherlode, and so I think we should....” He was shouted down, with more laughter and rude comments.

“We want to go back to the space lanes and do some more pirating,” shouted Garmf and Nowrung. There was a lot of clapping, and a good deal of whistling and rude noises.

“Seriously,” said Fazhingle, “any other suggestions?”

“How about Venus?” Skrim asked. “You all know it’s been a hobby of mine to terraform Venus, but now that we have the goo we could really do it. It’s practical now. We could start by building a station, and in a century we’d have a colonized planet.”

Fing from the Legal Team piped up, “There might be a problem with that. The whole system is still a preserve, and so if the Empire catches us we'd all get sold into slavery. Pretty hard not to get caught when you’re changing a whole planet.”

“We’ll make it look like something natural. We’ll live underground. When the protectorate lifts we’ll have a head start. We’ll already own a planet and all the best orbits. Imagine the prodigious fortunes we’ll make.”

“What do you think, Bos’n Thlad?” asked the Captain.

“I think we should give Skrim’s idea to the Longterm Planning Team, but I don’t think we should do it now.”

"Duet for time and four violins," said the parrot.

“Well, how about Dirt?” Hank chipped in. He almost never talked at meetings.

“Dirt?” said Fazhingle. “We only want serious suggestions.”

“No, this is serious. If we went to Dirt we could pick up a whole lot more music. Instead of the 80 disks we have to listen to now, we could have thousands.” There was silence.

“And since we’re just going in and out,” Hank added, “it wouldn’t matter that it’s still a preserve.”

“I like it,” Hofnog chirped. “It’d mean more dancing.”

“I like it!” Usip cried. “Hooray for Hank! A vote for Hank is a vote for disorder!”

The meeting degenerated into chaos, groups shouting slogans at each other, knots of crew arguing fiercely, outright fights here and there. Hank shook his head in despair. He was startled to feel a nudge, and looked around.

“Well, cowboy,” said Epfid’l. “Get in there. Fight for what you want.”

Hank gaped at her for a moment, and then he threw away reserve and plunged into the battle. He shouted with the best of them, gathered followers, led sorties through the din of battle of fixed opinions. The conflict built, and at the height of it the crew-members rode the swirls of energy like surfers, as great waves of intention crashed into each other. An unexpected faltering in Spacrudda’s group and a split-second chance for an alliance with Skrim’s gang put Hank’s tattered band suddenly in the lead. Like a trumpet above the storm, Fazhingle called for a vote.

The storm fell into calm. Exhausted, bruised, with bent limbs and eye-stalks, the crew seemed too damaged to get the vote taken. But slowly, with much moaning and clashing, it happened.

Vote by vote the tally for Dirt mounted up. To his surprise, Hank’s pod-mates voted for him, as well as Hofnog, Thlad, Chinglad, Ronam, and Ying.

Ying didn’t say what her reasons were. But it had occurred to her that this would be the perfect opportunity to steal Jagung’s body from the Empire. It had to be done while orbiting a planet, since planets were alive and could therefore anchor one end of the bucket brigade that would be passing his body one to another through dream-time. And it had to be done from a planet unnoticed by the Empire or they wouldn’t escape detection. Dirt filled the bill.

When the vote was finally finished, it was for Dirt. Hank led the crew in an ancient victory song full of obscenities and insults.

“Well, congratulations,” said the Captain. “You’re now the new captain.”

“The what? I don’t want to be Captain. I just want to go to Dirt.”

“Tough petunias. It’s a package deal. If you don’t want to be the captain, we’ll have another vote.”

“Oh.” Hank felt worried. He had no idea what being Captain would involve. Then the fear fell before a rush of joy. He would see Dirt again! It wasn’t home anymore, but he still loved it.

Epfid’l was secretly worried for Hank. She had a feeling that being Captain could be dangerous for him in ways no one could predict. But she saw no point in saying so out loud.


~*~

The hyper-crew gathered in the hyper-pod, making a ring around the white ovoid of the hyper-engine, and waited for the Navigation Team to plot a viable course. When the course came up on the pod’s screens, they seized the engine with their willpower and flipped the ship up into hyper-space.

The Mefrina caught a wind billowing out across a Dyorlian field, heading for a Themusian star-track that would lead to Dirt’s home system. They were taking a short-cut, and like all short-cuts in hyper-space, it would take a little longer.


~*~

Whenever anyone in the crew slept, they leaped like flying fish into the dream-time. The crew as a whole churned through dream-time like a Fildic water-monster, noisy and turbulent. A few of the crew liked to do long solitary loops off of this main progress. Ronam, Chinglad and Ying were among them. They often ventured far away into the wilderness, into sweet and open country, full of silent water-holes and glades of tall grass, inhabited by blue butterflies and tiny barking lizards. Rock monoliths brooded like giants over vast grassy plains. Herds of blue antelopes and white bisons chased flowers drifting in the wind.

What Ronam loved most was the sound. A deep hum seemed to come from everywhere, and it filled him with serenity and vitality. "Holy frijoles," he thought. "This is great!"


Back to Top


Chapter 22: Rinj



Hank was swimming across a lake of snow. The lake was surrounded by snowy mountains, brilliant under a sky of royal blue. The snow was warm and fluffy, and he kicked up sparkly rooster tails as he swam.

Hank woke up in Epfid’l’s hammock, with her nestled against him like a warm spoon. In her sleep she had morphed into her porpoise shape. “My son,” he thought, and chuckled to himself, “don’t take up the ways of the pirate, or you’ll sleep with the fishes.....

A week had passed, and Hank had spent his days in a hustle of nervous energy, trying to master the basics of command. Thlad, Gonifra, Chinglad, Ronam and Sanooey formed his basic staff. Epfid’l was Chinglad’s assistant. And they helped immensely. But even so, Hank felt overwhelmed with information and responsibility. He came home exhausted each night to the dorm-pod and Epfid’l’s hammock and her arms. Or fins. Or her mermaid shape.

One night Hank came home and could tell, even through the blur of exhaustion, that Epfid’l was happier than usual. “What’s going on, Honey Pie?” he asked.

She beamed. “Tling has decided it's time to be born."

Hank was floored. Suddenly he didn't feel exhausted at all. "Already? Holy cow, that didn't take long. That's wonderful!"

"Isn't it?"

"But what do you mean Tling decided? She gets to choose the time of her birth?"

"Oh yes. Who would know better than her?"

"Right. Of course. But, I mean, right now? This instant?"

Epdif'l smiled. "If it's convenient for you, Sweetie Pie."

"What? Oh, you're kidding. So, do we go to the maternity pod?"

"No, not unless we get in trouble. I'd rather have her emerge here in the dorm-pod, since this will be her home."

"OK. Well, how long does labor take?"

"A few minutes."

"Really! That's incredible. When I was born, my mom was in hard labor for four hours, and that was considered short."

"Oh, we don't call it labor. It isn't painful for me or hard work. It's sweet."

"How lovely. That's great. When do we start?"

"How about now?"


~*~

“....that was ‘Take It Easy’ from the Eagles’ Greatest Hits,” said Usip. Since Hank was busy, Usip had taken over as DJ. “It was followed by, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ from the Creedence Clearwater album named ‘Chronicle.’ Next we’ll be hearing a Linda Ronstadt song: ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles,’ from her Greatest Hits album....”


~*~

Hank and Epfid'l floated in the middle of the dorm-pod. She had reverted to her elliptical form. "Watch," she said. "She's swimming to my surface now."

Hank looked into her blue depths, and through the galaxy of tiny bubbles he saw his daughter squirming into view. She was in her human form, and as she wriggled towards him, Hank thought she was the most beautiful being he'd ever seen. When she got to Epfid'l's surface, she spread her hands against it. And then she opened her eyes. They were amber, like Epfid'l's, and big. "Wow," Hank said. "She's looking at me."

"I know," said Epfid'l.

Tling touched the tip of her nose to Epfid'l's surface, and a tiny hole appeared. The hole got bigger, and Tling popped out like a fish leaping out of water. Hank tried to catch her, and it took three tries because she was slippery. When he had ahold of her and she was nestled in his arms, looking at him, he felt like he was falling into her eyes.

When he looked up, Epfid'l had morphed into her human form, and she was gazing at him with a look of deep and cheerful contentment. She smiled. "You're a father," she said.

"Amazing!" Hank said. And within him a huge realization was dawning. Like the opening of a flower, he saw that Tling meant everything to him, that to give his life for her would be an honor and a privilege. "So that's what the parental bond is like," he thought. "Far out!"

Baby Tling burbled and cooed. Epfid'l drifted close and wrapped both of them in a hug.

"How does it feel to be a mother?" Hank asked her.

"I once asked my mother that same question, when I was little. She told me that it's indescribable, and that only when I became a mother myself would I know. She was right. It is indescribable. But now I know."


~*~

Two days later several scout ships were sighted far across the Dyorlian field. They quickly fled, but Chinglad advised Hank to take the ship to yellow alert, and he ordered, "Make it so." They were on the bridge, and Hank was in the captain’s chair. It hovered at the center of the open space. In a rough sphere around him were the chairs of the people he commanded. Ying wasn't there because she was babysitting Tling in the dorm-pod.

“Mmm,” Chinglad said, in the Navigator’s chair. “The computer has used the silhouettes to identify the scout ships. They’re from a race of organics called the Rinj. It’s surprising to see them anywhere near a Themusian star-track.”

“Could they be after us?” Hank asked.

“Quite likely,” said Epfid’l from Chinglad’s assistant chair. “They’re pirates, but they’re so poor they prey on other pirates. This ship would be a treasure to them, if they’ve got a good-sized mother-ship to back up these scouts.”

“Should we take evasive action?” Hank asked.

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Chinglad said. “But there’s really not much action to take out here on the plain, unless we go to ground in an arroyo. And we don’t want them to catch us there.”

“How about if we drop into normal space?”

“That leaves ripples that would lead them straight to us. Best just to keep going and see what happens.”

“What do they look like?”

“The Rinj?” Chinglad gestured to Ronam in the Information Chair, and he called up a picture on the big screen. The Rinj looked kind of like blue long-haired kangaroos.

“One unusual thing about these guys,” Ronam said, “is that they don’t use robot bodies to do their fighting. And they're infamous for fighting like berserkers.”

Hank drew a deep breath and thumbed the PA button. “Red alert,” his voice sounded through the ship.


~*~

The Mefrina sailed with the wind. Her children and the fireflies had drawn in close to her. Working from the Nagivation Chair, Chinglad and her team worked on altering the course unpredictably. When they’d reach a place to veer, she’d shout, “Now!” And the ship would swing into a tack across the wind. Epfid’l was busy calling up navigation charts on various screens.

Several times reports came up to Hank about needing emergency crews in various holds where supplies had broken free from their moorings. Hank delegated Gonifra in the Expediting Chair to deal with the repairs, and then he thumbed the PA button again. “Battle stations,” he said. He was operating from a hunch.

The main screen showed the view ahead. Hank happened to be looking at another that showed the view straight down when a Rinj mother-ship popped up out of a crevasse directly beneath them. The mother-ship looked like a huge ball of black fluff, with grappling hooks sailing out on long black ropes. Chinglad hit the alarm button as Hank flipped the PA switch. “Prepare to be boarded from below!” he said.

All over the ship robot bodies went limp as half the crew jumped to their battle-bodies. Almost all of these were flying in space outside the Mefrina, and those that were above her went zooming around her to get between her and the attackers.

But it was too late. The Rinj ship crashed gently into the underside of the Mefrina and stuck like a burr. Immediately the sounds of explosions whumped through her halls as Rinj boarding parties blasted aboard. Bos’n Thlad delegated Sanooey in the Life-Support chair to deal with containing the damage.

"To arms, to arms!" called the parrot.

All over the ship the stomata of the most external pods were flipping open so that the battle-bots could zoom into the ship and fight the invaders on home ground. The ship’s atmosphere leaked away into space. This didn’t matter to the organics in the ship, as they were in their battle-suits.

Hank was working frantically with Chinglad, Epfid’l, Thlad and Ronam to direct the squads struggling to encircle and contain the invaders. "Maintain your equanimity!" cried Thlad's parrot. The Rinj responded by massing into several clusters and charging through the defenders’ shell. Firing ray weapons and tossing grenades, they rampaged into the main hall. A quarter of them died in the rush, and more died as they flew along the hall toward the bridge. Defending battle-bots poured out of the side halls into a running battle. More died on both sides.

“Here they come!” Hank yelled. He knew if the Rinj reached the bridge he was dead, and Epfid’l was dead, and the ship was lost. And this time death would be permanent because the first thing the Rinj would do is destroy the backup bodies.

In the main hall robots were screaming. The sounds of the battle grew louder. They reminded Hank of a soccer stadium, with the addition of screams and rebel yells. And singing. The crew-members were singing as they fought.

Hank had Gonifra direct the last of the incoming crew to stashes of weapons, and then they were thrown into the fight. The main body of the Rinj in the hall had been slowed, but not stopped. Ronam zoomed into the bridge, carrying an armful of exotic-looking weapons. “They’re here,” he yelled, and tossed a rifle to Hank. “Don’t shoot anybody on our side,” he said cheerfully, and he tossed weapons to the rest of the bridge crew. To Epfid’l he tossed a squirt gun with a 3-gallon tank of black paint.

Out of the bridge and into the hall they went with a rush. The battle boiled along toward them. For a moment Hank couldn’t pick out the Rinj, and then he realized it was because they were wearing mirrored armor. “Holy coincidence save us now," Epfid’l breathed. "And my baby," she thought.

Hank got off three shots before the wave of fighters engulfed the bridge crew. Then action whirled around him. As soon as they were in range, Epfid’l began spraying the Rinj with inky paint. This made them vulnerable to the ray guns the crew carried. Twinkling beams of blue and green danced around Hank and Epfid’l.

Hank was so scared he was doing grunt breathing, and at the same time a part of him wasn’t scared at all. Time seemed to slow, and a few times it even seemed to reverse.

Epfid’l was singing cheerfully as she dodged and sprayed.

Hank hit a Rinj on the helmet with his rifle, and in return he was smashed in the face. His nose spurted blood, and he didn’t even notice.

A Rinj with a projectile weapon shot Epfid’ three times through the center of mass. She laughed and squirted him in the face. Chinglad shot him from a distance with a violet beam, and he was dead.

Hank roared, and zoomed through a cluster of Rinj, clubbing three of them with his rifle before he remembered it was to shoot with. A Rinj swung an ax at his head, and he pulled up his feet in order to pull his head down. A miss. He shoved his rifle into the Rinj’s stomach and pulled the trigger. Life exploded out the back of the Rinj in a burst of orange blood.

Epfid’l was behind Hank, and they fought back to back.


~*~

And suddenly the battle was over. The fight had swept past Hank into the bridge, and the last Rinj had died by the inertial engine. Hank looked at the bodies floating in the bridge and in the main hall, some of them silver and some of them familiar crew-mates, and he spiraled down a dizzying whirlpool and passed out.

Epfid’l relaxed and went into a meditative state. The three bullets that had been fired into her pushed out through her surface and floated away.

A few minutes later she found a groggy Hank floating among the dead, and towed him to the infirmary. Gowrung had spent the battle filming the thick of the action with a hand-held camera and shouting whenever anybody came too close to him, and now he filmed Epfid’l towing Hank along the hallway.

Toogodda was in the infirmary pod when Hank was towed in. She was badly wounded, and was being several robots were putting her into a tank. Epfid’l handed Hank over to three medical robots and left to see who else she could help.

The medical robots stripped off Hank's battle-suit. He thrashed and flailed when he thought he was going to be put into a recovery tank, and then he wept with relief when he wasn’t. The medical robots got his nose-bleed stopped, splinted his nose, and bandaged various cuts he hadn’t noticed.

Usip came sailing into the infirmary, trailing streamers of violet blood. “Wow,” he said to Hank, “that was incredible! How you doing, cowboy? Are you hurt? Nothing serious? Me neither. What an astonishing experience! So much was happening so fast that I couldn’t think. All that training we do in martial arts class just took over. I was hovering in a peaceful state of mind, a wonderful place, watching the flow, the beauty of the action. Was it like that for you? What happened to you?”

Hank grunted. “I fought.” He could hardly think. “I killed one, I think. At least one.”

Usip looked at him perkily. “Oh! Wow! You’ll go down in pirate history as the captain who was on watch when the Mefrina was invaded all the way to the bridge.”

“What?”

“No no, that’s a good thing. What an honor! What a great thing to be remembered for! You fought this fight all the way to the bridge and were found floating among the dead. What could be more romantic?”

“You’re good to go,” one of the medical robots said to Hank. He flew out the stomata and back toward the bridge. Usip tagged along, chatting cheerfully. All Hank could think was, “Holy Cow, there’s a lot to do.”


~*~

And as soon as he got back to the bridge, it all had to be done at once.

Hank put Gonifra in charge of getting rid of the Rinj mothership. Everyone in a battle-body zoomed back out into space through the exterior stomata and got to work detaching the grapples.

Hank put Ronam to organizing a large boarding party to loot the Rinj ship before it was cut looss.

He set Sanooey to supervising first aid. Seven pods had died, and twice that number were wounded. Fourteen organics had been killed, and they were safely stowed in the central computer. A third of the robots had been killed, and were also stowed away until fresh bodies could be gotten out of storage.

He sent Epfid'l to the dorm-pod to check on baby Tling. Tling was a natural mimic, and she was mimicking Ying's shape. Ying was holding her and feeding her a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and pineapple juice. Tling was gurgling happily. There were three dead Rinj bodies floating in the dorm-pod. "I see you had a little trouble," Epfid'l said.

"Oh," Ying replied, "it was no trouble."

"Thank you," Epfid'l said, meaning it deeply. And she went back to rescue work. Rescue and recovery went slowly. It was three hours before the last trapped survivor was saved. "I wonder," Epfid'l thought, "if the stowaway survived."


~*~

Ronam led the boarding party. They found the inside of the Rinj ship was a tangle of tunnels, with an open space in the middle for a command center. They didn’t find a single living Rinj. What they did find were wonderful and curious carvings in niches in the walls of the tunnels. They were at their most ornate in the central chamber.

“Hey, look at this,” a yellow robot said to Ronam. He reached into a locker in the command center and brought out a mirrored ring half a meter in diameter. Since everyone in the boarding party could see auras, no one had to mention that the ring had a bright purple aura with a characteristic sparkle.

“Holy frijoles!" Ronam said. "What’s a Kai device doing here?” No one in his party answered.


~*~

Epfid’l flew into the bridge and said to Hank. “OK, we’re done. We’ve salvaged the last of the dead Rinj, and they’re in the computer. We’ve got enough robot bodies in storage for everyone, but it’s a good thing we have a bunch of extras.”

Hank smiled at Epfid’l. He didn’t even know about the three bullets she'd saved as a souvenir yet. She was in her human form, so she smiled back at him.


~*~

Ten hours had gone by before the Rinj vessel was completely detached. Then it was taken in tow. The Minefra put out her sails, and with a creaking of stays she accelerated till she was whistling across the open Dyorlian plain with the black burr of the Rinj mothership riding on a blue gravity-beam behind her.

"What will happen to the Rinj ship?" Hank asked Epfid'l.

"Oh, when the Rinj crew are all in robot bodies, they can have it back," she said.

"Really? What's to prevent them from simply turning around and attacking us again?"

"Skrim and Spacrudda are busy making some really big guns with the goo, and these will be pointed at them till they're out of sight."

"That seems very generous."

"Well, we kill people all the time, but it would be bad form to actually hurt anyone. Don't you think?"


Back to Top


Chapter 23: Orbit



Hank was sitting in a wooden box which had casters on the bottom. He was coasting downhill on an asphalt road, and he was going very fast. The road leveled out, and he continued to go very fast for awhile. When the box slowed to a stop, he was next to the ocean, and huge waves were crashing onto the land and flooding everywhere. Hank had to climb up a chain-link fence to get out of the water.

When the waves calmed, Hank climbed down and walked along the road. He came to a village that was a mixture of brick houses and laboratories. He went into one of the laboratories. A man in a white coat showed him a model of what they were building: an interstellar space-ship. "Humanity is going into space," he said. The model was a tube five centimeters in diameter and thirty centimeters long. It had been filled with plastic, and as the plastic dried it had formed tunnels like a sponge. The man pointed out the entrance to the ship: a hole a millimeter across at one end. "In real life this will be a hatch ten meters in diameter," he said.


~*~

The Mefrina came skidding out the end of a Malthusian hyper-tube with her sails fully extended, using them as air brakes. She was feeling sad and shaken. The death of the pods was saddening, even though she had several hundred other children. The crew couldn’t tell one pod from another, but to Mefrina each was unique and precious. She mourned them by remembering their stories, the places they had been and the good times they'd had in their long lives.

The ship was running on a skeleton crew since so few who had died were back out of the central computer yet. But repair work was progressing rapidly because of the goo. Skrim and Spacrudda had led the goo team, so they were feeling vindicated and exultant from the speed of progress.

Skrim was also happy because he was feeling more certain that he could colonize Venus. The goo made it possible. He couldn’t explain why this had become a dream that demanded fulfillment, especially since it would have to be done in secrecy and in great danger of discovery. But his personal omens were clear, and his imagination was gripped by the desire to live in low orbit in a station that swept at high speed through the exquisite aura of Venus.

The only thing he could remember that had affected him this deeply was the end of migration. Once every generation his race traveled from one planet to a sister planet in resonant orbit through a tube of air. They flew by the millions through what seemed to be empty space, with one great planet behind them and the other one spread out huge before them. Skrim would never forget the exhilaration he felt as they came out of the “mouth of the wind” and he could see the feathered hordes spreading out toward the landscape far below. They had come from one home to their other home. They whooped and laughed as they flew.

The poker game went on, though with fewer players. The poker game always went on.

Hofnog was one of the first out of the computer and into a new robot body. “I’m a little shaky,” he told Hank, “but it was much easier the second time around. Lots."

Toogodda was out of the medical tank, but she wasn’t out of the infirmary yet. Usip was his usual obnoxious self. Jagung had come through unscathed, and he was busy rehearsing for his mission. Epfid’l was planning a Resuscitation party with Respfid’l. But she spent most of her time playing with Tling. Baby Tling was learning to fly, and she zoomed around the pod, bouncing off the walls. When she got scared, she would make a dash for her mother and dive right into her.

Hank didn’t see much of his pod-mates. What free time he had he spent with Epfid'l and Tling. He and Epfid'l weren't having sex nearly as often anymore because playing with Tling was so important. And in addition, he was busy supervising not only the approach to Dirt but also the restowing of supplies in order to get the ship balanced, the mediation of several squabbles that had broken out among the crew and turned into life and death feuds, the correction of some minor fluctuations in the life-support system induced by the stowaway, negotiating an end to a strike by the cooks, the maintenance of an endless watch by the Communications Team, expansion of the central computer due to overcrowding by dead people, recruiting volunteers to talk to Mefrina to try to cheer her up, scheduling meetings for administration and planning, and of course a crushing load of paperwork. "Although it's odd we call it paperwork," Hank thought. He hadn’t seen a piece of paper since he’d left Dirt.

If it weren’t for Thlad and Epfid’l, Hank would have never made it. Bos’n Thlad was second in command, and his job was to relieve Hank of as much work as possible. "Chipper me hearties, and dive the sea-dragon!" said Thlad's parrot. And Epfid’l watched out for his mental and physical health.

One day he was in the Communications Pod struggling with some reports when she found him. “You need some rest, Captain Hank,” she said. “Come on. Take a break.” And she towed him off to a half empty storage pod where they could be alone.

“How are you feeling about all this?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Hank said. “I’m so busy with so many things that all have to be done yesterday that I hardly have time for feelings these days. Mostly, I love you and Tling. Tling is so beautiful. Isn't she? It's so wonderful to have a child. Nobody could describe it. I mean, I’m still excited about seeing Dirt again, but it’s kind of buried under a lot of other feelings.”

“How do you feel about Dirt herself?”

“I have mixed feelings. As an outsider now, I see her as being in bad shape, and that makes me sad. And I see the human race as having tremendous potential, if we can just get through the current crisis of the ozone layer. That makes me cheerful. And I feel sort of homesick to see Dirt again. She’s still home, in some deep way.”

Epfid’l grinned. “You don’t plan to come back, huh, cowboy? You’re just going to go down to Dirt and resign as Captain and stay there?”

“Oh no, Dear One. It’s way to late for that. Although I would like to resign this captain thing as soon as possible. This is way too much work.” Hank laughed.

Epfid’l laughed too. “You don’t see me wanting to be captain,” she said.

“Besides," he said, “I love you. And baby Tling. You're my family. And my home.”

“Ooh, goodie,” she said. “I like that. Home is where your spratling is."


~*~

The hyper-space team lifted the ship in a short hop. It made Epfid’l swirl inside. Since the ship could come out of hyper-space going in any direction and at any speed, they inserted her into high orbit around Dirt at five diameters.

Ying was in her residence pod. She dropped into a light trance, and felt around till she found her intricate sphere. It felt hot to her dream tentacles. She shifted the rest of the way into dream-time, and she split the sphere with one blow. It released a flash of light, and in that fraction of a second Ying dove through the center of incandescence into the white world.

She glided far above everything, in a whistling silence in the beyond. She could see the under-structure of dream-time itself, far below, shifting like waves on a low-gravity planet. She dipped lower and began looking for a path that would lead all the way from Jagung’s body lying in a cradle on a planet in the Empire to the Mefrina where she orbited Dirt.

Ying dimly sensed other members of the crew far below her, arcing up into dream-time on individual quests for omens.


~*~

The hyper-space team lifted the ship in another micro-hop, and she emerged in near orbit, 400 kilometers above the surface of Dirt. Hank was in the bridge, swamped with work, but the view was so gorgeous he had to pause and drink it in from the main screen. He thought he’d never seen anything so beautiful. With the exception of baby Tling. "How the heart twists," he thought.

Then he was recalled by the yells of his staff, and he plunged back into trying to get things organized. It couldn’t be done, really, but some things got done, one after another, until the ship was finally battened down. He delegated Gonifra to finish the assignments for the watches and maintenance shifts, and realized that for the first time since he became captain there weren’t fifteen things demanding his attention. He breathed a sigh of relief and completion, and headed for the main lounge.

Hank was one of the last of the crew to arrive, and he felt a stab of excitement and fear. Hastily he opened the meeting, and then he had to curb his impatience and fear because no one wanted to skip the Entertainment Committee’s Home Movies.

When they finally got to new business, Hank said, “Well, that’s it. We’re here. We had to go though a battle to get here, but we made it. To the whole crew, I’d like to say thank you very much. You're terrific! Now, what we came here for is to steal music. Because this is a preserve we’re trying to keep a low profile, so this is supposed to be an undercover mission. Only four of us will go down on the raid. I’m going cuz I’m Captain, and Epfid’l’s going cuz she’s my Sweetie Pie.” There was a chorus of hoots and catcalls from the crew. “And Gubby and Flizz will fill out the raiding party cuz they’re bipedal air-breathers.” Hank didn’t know Gubby or Flizz. He’d seen them around, of course. "And of course baby Tling is coming with us."

There was a chorus of dismay. And a fierce argument ensued because so many of the crew wanted Tling to stay. "We want babysitting!" they chanted. It was all Hank and Epfid'l could do to get them to let Tling go with her parents.

“Actually," Gubby said, "we’re ready to go now. And eager for the treat.” Gubby looked sort of like a six-foot lizard, with beautiful yellow stripes on his forehead and back. He had a long tail.

“You mean right now?” Hank asked.

“Sure, why not?” asked Flizz. He looked vaguely like a man made out of dark leather that was wrinkled like a Shar Pei.

Hank swallowed nervously. “Well, we all appreciate your enthusiasm,” he said. “Let’s get up and go.”


~*~

Hank and Epfid’l stopped by the dorm-pod to pick up baby Tling and her supplies. Tling morphed into her fish form and dived into Epdid'l for the journey. "What does that feel like?" Hank asked.

"Ooh, it feels penetrating and delicious. And it tickles."

Then they went to their Battle-Station Pod so that Hank could put on his spacesuit. But first he put on clothing, only the second time he'd worn clothes since he came onto the ship. They were fabricated by the Entertainment Committee, and considered to be appropriate. They'd given him a Hawaiian silk shirt, yellow bell-bottoms, hippie boots, a flat-brimmed hat, and yellow sunglasses. Epfid’l was in her woman form. She put on a long skirt, knee-high mocassins, a flannel shirt, a pink scarf tied around her neck, a yellow beret, and oversized dark shades. She struck a pose. “Do I look like a movie star?” she asked.

Hank laughed. “Yes, you look gorgeous! You look like a hippie-woman Dirt-mother movie-star.”

Epfid’l put on a space-suit to protect the clothing, and led the way to a large pod on the surface of the ship. It contained a disk four meters in diameter, plus the other members of the landing party and some people who’d come to say goodbye. Gubby and Flizz were already there in their space suits. Under their suits they were both dressed like hippies. “You’re kidding me,” Hank said to no one. “This is the Coordinating Committee’s idea of undercover?”

“Oh well,” he thought.

He was curious about the re-entry disk and flew over to have a look at it. The front side was convex and had a mirror finish. The back side was flat and had four seats for the crew to buckle into. The seats had them flat on their backs and radiated from the center like the spokes of a wheel with their heads together at the center. Between the seats were bundles wrapped in silver foil.

“What is this?” Hank asked Epfid’l.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re going to sit on this thing and ride it in through re-entry?”

“Yes,” she said perkily. "Fun, huh?"

“I don’t believe this. You don’t have a little ship to go in, a flying saucer?”

“No. This is it. Evidently you were too busy on the bridge to examine the re-entry plans in detail?” Still perky.

Hank looked at her. “This is crazy.” Hank looked around for Chinglad. “Change of plan,” he said. “Let’s take the whole ship in.”

“Won’t work,” said Chinglad. “This is as close as we can get with a planet that has a moon as big as Dirt’s. If we go any lower, the tidal forces will break up the ship.”

“This is really the only way, this shield thing?”

“It’s the ordinary way. Why? Are you frightened.”

“Duh.”

“I thought you said you’d done hang-gliding.”

“I have, but not from 400 kilometers up. And not riding on a plate. Holy Cow!”

“Well, that’s what you’ll have to do this time. We’re set to go. There isn’t time to start over and replan this. Think of it as an adventure, my friend. And it gets better. The bundles are four hang gliders, folded up. Once you get below the jet stream you can bail out from the disk and fly the rest of the way in formation. And you already know how to fly, so that’ll be fun. Right?”

“This is crazy! You don’t ask much from a guy, do you?”

“No, not at all. I mean, yes, absolutely. By the way, you have Skrim and Spacrudda to thank for these gliders. They’re goo gliders, and they change their shape according to conditions. We know you haven’t flown in awhile, but these are unusually easy to fly, and you shouldn’t have any trouble.”

“Well,” said Hank, “thank you so much. Say, wait a minute. While I’m Captain, I can order things. So I order you guys to make a landing craft while we're gone. You can do that with the goo, right?”

“Well, yes. You want it saucer-shaped?”

“Well, that would be a nice touch....”

Chinglad clapped her hands and said, “I hope you have a wonderful adventure.”

Hofnog said, “I wish I could go with you. It’ll be great.”

Usip said sadly, “I hope you cause devastation and chaos everywhere you go, and I’ll miss you.”

“Goodbye,” they said, and they climbed aboard the re-entry disk and buckled themselves in. The farewell party went into the hall and closed the stomata behind them.

Gubby was piloting the re-entry disk. He turned it on, and there was a quiet hum. He slowly swiveled it around so that the riders were looking at the outside wall. A large stomata right in front of them dilated. The air in the pod whooshed out into space, and the disk floated gently out with the dispersing cloud. Hank was looking at the glory of the unblinking stars when Gubby rotated the disk and Dirt came into view. Hank was instantly dazzled. Before him floated a beautiful blue pearl. He’d had no idea it was as beautiful as this! And it was so big, and so close....

“Hoowie,” said Epfid’l. “It’s so lovely! How beautiful to see a water planet!”

“All planets are beautiful in their way,” Gubby said, “but the planet you’re from is always the most beautiful, I suppose.”

Flizz said, “It’s gorgeous. From here it looks perfect. I wish I were from here.”


~*~

Hofnog had wanted to go with the landing party, but his omens were clearly against it. He joined the endless poker game for awhile, but it just didn’t interest him. He left the game and went to the main lounge. He got a battery full of ganooey juice from the bar and found an empty table.

One of the advantages of being a robot is that he didn’t need a computer screen anymore. He plugged into the grapevine and searched through TV shows coming from Dirt until he found one with dancers. He turned up the music. The sounds around him faded as he got caught up in the beauty of the dancers’ elegant motions. He wished he could do that. He wished he could be an escape artist. He wished most of all that he could be a stand-up comedian. It would be quite something to be part of the rich and bubbling society living on the planet below. So he went into the dream-time and looked for omens. The omens told him there would be a time to go to Dirt and do all these things, but it wasn't yet.

Usip wandered in and got a bulb of cactus juice at the bar. He joined Hofnog and waited for him to turn on the little red light between his eyes that said he was home. Usip had also wanted to go with the landing party, and had also been refused by his omens. He tuned the nearest screen to a TV show coming up from earth, a newscast. Usip loved the disorder of Dirt. He couldn’t think of a place where he’d seen such extremes. For a tricameral, Dirt was so delicious as to be intoxicating. For now he could only enjoy it on TV, but perhaps one day he’d be able to go there himself. Perhaps he'd go with Hofnog.

Bos’n Thlad came into the lounge, got a snack at the bar and joined them. “By the way,” he said, “I’m organizing sight-seeing forays to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Anybody who wants to go, let me know."

“Technically, that’s illegal,” said Usip. “I’m all for it.”

“Everything we’re doing here is illegal,” said Thlad.

“Well," Usip said, “OK. Considering that, I’m all for everything.”

"My mother was a lady," said the parrot, "and I'm a lady too."


~*~

Chinglad flew off to her pod. "Lights off," she said to the computer, and darkness thickened around her. She dove into the dream-time like a diver going into water. She found herself above a moonlit landscape, and she flew above prairies and forests following the wisps of omens. Up a mountainside she went, and then on a boulder on the side of the mountain she saw a familiar figure sitting in meditation.

She landed on the moss in front of Noko, and he turned to look at her. "Well, my friend," he said. "We meet again. How are you today?"

"I'm well," she said. "And I have a question. I've been wondering about the nature of things? What can you tell me? You're many centuries older than I am. What are your insights?"

Noko laughed like a chorus of sanding blocks rubbing together. "We have a saying on Trenamond," he said. "'Don't believe anything till you see it with your own eyes.' So I have a gift for you."

Noko untangled his long legs and stood up. "I'd like you to go stand over there. And then I want you to come running at me as fast as you can. I'll clasp my two front hands together, and when you get to me, step in them like a stirrup and jump as high as you can. I'll throw you to give you a boost, and let's see how high you can go."

"Really? Well, that sounds fabulous."

Chinglad backed off, and then she came running at Noko as fast as her two arms could propel her dirigible form. As she reached him, she put both hands in his, and he threw her straight up with a mighty heave.

The air whistled past her as she rocketed up, faster than she'd ever flown before. She saw the wavy top of dream-time approaching, and she went through it like an arrow through tissue paper. Up through the beyond she zinged, past floating islands and up through a sky lit from within like a sunset.

Above her she saw a mirrored surface, and in it she could see her approaching reflection. She met herself with a ringing sound like a great bell and a feeling like being stripped of most of her mint.

And then she was hovering quite still in a great space filled with light. She couldn't see anything distinct, though she had the feeling there were other beings around her. A sound like rolling humming sweet music swept through her with a thrilling feeling, and she felt warm and satisfied and safe. Nothing happened, and everything happened.

After a timeless time she drifted down into the beyond like a falling leaf floating and swaying. Slowly she descended in swoops, her mind coming back to her bit by bit. Down past the floating islands she drifted, carried in currents of wind.

She landed on the surface of dream-time and floated for awhile as though she were on the surface of an ocean. Then with a plop she fell through into dream-time. "Fabulous," she thought.

And without knowing how she knew it, she discovered she had come back from beyond-the-beyond with a piece of knowledge. She felt like it was the only thing she actually knew. "All sentient beings are immortal," she thought. "We don't die. The body dies, but the spirit animating it never dies. If someone had told me this it wouldn't have meant anything. Now I see what Noko means about seeing it with my own eyes. Oh frabjous day!"


Back to Top


Chapter 24: Descent



Chinglad was bobbing in a light breeze. She was in her purple dirigible form, and she was in the clear space between the ammonia clouds far above and the ammonia hydrosulfide clouds far below. Around her were some friends of hers, and they were on their way to a party. There would be dramatic recitations of ancient poems, and they would all get drunk by setting fire to bubbles of hydrogen and breathing the fumes.

Suddenly she realized she was dreaming. She let her friends go on ahead, and she hovered in place. She began doing a breathing exercise she'd learned from Hank. Slow breath in, no pause, slow breath out, no pause. Just to see what would happen.

Before her in the air appeared a circle filled with many colors. It was bigger than her, and it looked like pictures of stained-glass windows Hank had showed her. She continued to breathe, and then she went through the window into a marvelous and magical experience. It left no trace in her mind or in her memory. All she could think when she came back was, "Fabulous! I don't know where I went or what happened, but that was amazing!"


~*~

From the moment the re-entry shield swiveled around, Hank was lost in wonder. His fear vanished. The beauty of the vast living planet below him was so vital and so poignant that his breath caught in his throat.

Gubby received clearance from the bridge over his suit radio. He swiveled the re-entry disk so that the passengers were facing backward, and deceleration began. The ship moved past them as they slowed, and then it was past them, and they were floating free.

The planet rotated beneath them, but not as quickly as before. For twenty minutes they watched Dirt roll ponderously past. Hank felt heavy from the deceleration, and he was startled at the emotional reaction it brought up to feel weight. A wave of nostalgia went through him. He thought of the Byrd's song, "Eight Miles High."

Then the push faded, and for an hour they drifted weightlessly. Gubby swiveled the disk for the best view, and they hardly spoke, lost in looking. Hank was surprised that from this height he could see the separation between the clouds and their shadows. He was surprised, too, at how obvious it was that Dirt was alive. Even with waking vision he could see it. He let himself go into a light trance, and he could see Dirt’s aura, leaping with light like aurora borealis, all over the planet.

The entry shield began to tremble as the vacuum got softer. Gubby rotated the shield so that the convex side of the disk was facing the direction they were going. A rosy glow built up around the edge. Then orange fire began to streak past it, and it intensified until the crew was enclosed in a cone of fire. A roar built up till it penetrated Hank’s suit and his body and shook him like an earthquake. He remembered to be afraid. The shaking was terrible. He looked over at Epfid’l. She was grinning like a kid riding a roller coaster.

Then the roaring died away, and the flame too, as the shield skipped up out of the atmosphere like a stone skipping from the surface of a pond. Four more times the flame and turbulence built up and then ended as they skipped. On the last skip they passed the terminator and into night. Then the disk slowed enough for the fire to die away. It turned so that the crew was looking straight up, and then it

fell

straight

down.

The falling went on and on. Panic climbed into Hank’s throat. "And I used to do hang gliding," he thought. "I don't remember being afraid of heights."

They fell like a stone, looking up into the night sky. The sky looked all wrong. The stars twinkled. The full moon at least was familiar. "The Indians say there's a rabbit in the moon," Hank remembered. Gradually turbulence and roaring built up as they fell.

At five kilometers above the ground Flizz ejected, and then Gubby went too. Epfid’l looked at Hank and gave him a thumbs up, and was whisked away by the wind. Hank was about to ask the computer where the eject button was when the wind peeled him out of his seat. The air moaned about his body as he fell, and his stomach blanched. He noticed he was dangling from two silver straps. He grabbed them and looked up. There was a small silver parachute above him. As the air got thicker it got bigger, and then it morphed from a parachute into a hang glider. As the wings folded out, a triangle of control bars extended downward into his reach. “Would you like to fly seated or prone?” the glider asked over his suit radio.

“Seated,” Hank said. “Thank you." His harness altered itself around him, pulling him into a seated position, and Hank found himself sitting on top of the world.

Moonlight silvered the clouds and mountains below. The landscape stretched below him like a gorgeous painting. He could see all the way from Mount Hood to the coast. It looked like a night-time poster by Thomas Kinkaid.

Hank tried some gentle turns, and the feeling of flying began to come back. “It’s like riding a bike,” he thought. “You never forget.” He pushed forward on the control bar so that the nose of the glider rose a bit and the glider hopped upward. He put it into a bit of a dive and then pulled back up to normal speed. The glider handled really well. “This is great!” he thought. Then he realized he’d better stop playing around and wait for the others to catch up with him, and he looked around for them.

It was easy to find them because his battle-suit had goggles that showed him computer-projected images of the other three gliders, even when they were out of sight behind a cloud or his own wing. They caught up with him, and they all flew as a group for awhile. Then, as the air got warmer and thicker, they began to play. They carved 60- degree turns and dives and swoops and and pop-ups and spirals in a ballet like that of falling leaves. They were all laughing for joy.

Far below them in the night, the city lights of Portland, Oregon came into view. They were spread out like glowing jewels on black velvet. Hanks goggles painted their target on the ground: a field at the edge of the city, at SE 192nd and Powell Blvd.

The goggles also displayed wind direction and approach path, so it was easy to line up for a landing. “It’s your planet, cowboy," Epfid’l said over the radio. “You go first."

Hank followed the flight path his goggles laid out, enjoying the view as he got lower. They were going to land on a bluff above a residential neighborhood. He approached the ground till his feet were about to touch the grass, and then he leveled out. He stayed off the ground till the glider could fly no more, and then he flared and settled. Just like that, there he was, standing in a grassy field on Dirt again, dressed in a space suit and holding a hang-glider. “Wow,” he thought. “This is stranger than strange.”

He unhooked from the hang-glider and peeled out of his suit and sat on the ground. He watched the other three land in the moonlight, swooping in like graceful birds at the end of a migration.

They unhooked and walked over to stand near Hank and look around.

“Nice planet,” Gubby said.

“Yeah,” was all Hank could get out.

Slowly the hang-gliders folded themselves up into tidy packages with long legs.

“I like the moonlight,” Epfid’l said. “It’s quite elegant to have such a big moon.”

“And quite unusual too,” said Flizz. "Very charming."

The gliders walked off toward a stand of pines. They’d hide there until dawn in case the landing party needed to escape, and then they’d take off and circle aloft till they were needed again.

“I’m not sure I like this much gravity, though,” Epfid’l said. “It feels funny.”

“It certainly does,” said Hank. He stood up. “I’d forgotten it was so strong.”


~*~

"OK Tling," Epfid'l called. "You can come out now." She lifted up her shirt, and baby Tling poked a hand out her belly button. Then she poked out her other hand and pulled a hole big enough she could squirm out. Epfid'l hugged her, and then dressed her in a fringed and beaded dress and a pink bonnet. Tling was looking around and burbling with pleasure.

Hank carried Tling as the four grown-ups walked across the field. He noticed that his forearms were sore. He realized it was because he’d been hanging onto the control bar so tightly. "I've got to remember to relax when I'm flying," he thought.

They climbed over a locked gate. Then they turned left and followed Powell Blvd for half a mile, passing pine trees and houses with huge yards and a drive-in theater. When they passed a 7-11 Hank went in and bought ice-cream bars for everyone. He used up the last of the money he’d had in his pockets when he was kidnapped. “Wow,” he thought, “that was such a long time ago. And prices have sure gone up.”

They came to a bus stop, and Hank found that someone had left a raincoat on the bench. He checked it out and gave it to Gubby. “You are the one with the tail," he said.

Gubby put it on and turned up the collar. “I feel like an exotic spy,” he said.

“And you are,” Hank laughed.

They waited 20 minutes for the bus. Gubby entertained them by inventing new ways to wear his raincoat. Tling kept trying to fly in the high gravity, so she'd pop out of the arms of one of them and get caught by the next. When the bus came, Hank climbed up the steps to pay for the four of them, and he was surprised to find the bus driver enclosed in a plexiglass booth. He looked around and was surprised again to see how rundown the bus looked. There was gang graffiti sprayed everywhere. “How long have I been gone?” he thought.

“You paying for everybody?” the driver asked.

“What? Oh, yeah.” Hank dropped a handful of goo coins into the hopper.

“That’s a buck ninety apiece.” The fares had gone up too. “Say, what kind of coins are those?” The coins tried several denominations and settled into something that added up right. The driver blinked and looked puzzled, and then he dumped the coins into storage. He blinked again as Epfid’l walked by.

“Hi,” she said.

“Wow,” he said. “Is that some kind of costume?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m a princess.” She smiled and followed Hank, who trooped down the aisle with his little entourage.

The bus was about half full of people, and all of them stared at the foursome as they passed. Among the passengers were a group of eight young men dressed in military cast-offs and with black circles painted around their eyes. They grinned wolfishly as Hank’s little group went by.

Hank settled with his team on the back seat of the bus. Epfid’l leaned across Flizz to say, “Interesting what they have on the tops of their heads.”

“Yeah,” said Hank. “Hairdos have gotten a lot weirder since I was here. Buses have gotten weirder too.”

Four of the young men got up and swaggered down the aisle toward the back of the bus. “What are you doing on our bus?” the leader asked with open hostility. But about that time he got close enough to really see who he was talking to. He stopped in the aisle, and nearly fell over as the guys behind him ran into him. They cursed and protested until they looked past him and saw what a genuinely bizarre group occupied the last seat.

The lizard was wearing a tie-dyed tee-shirt with a saying on it: “186,000 miles a second. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.” The blue woman you could see into, and her eyes in the shadow from the bill of her hat glowed like an animal’s in the light of headlights. She was holding a blue baby you could see into as well, and it had taken off it's bonnet so you could see it had no hair. The leather guy had no lips, and his eyes blinked like a metronome. The guy with the blue skin and purple eyes was the weirdest of all. He looked like a normal person except that his skin was royal blue and polished, and his eyes had no whites. They were a solid violet color, so it was hard to tell where he was looking.

But worst of all, they had no fear. The gang leader was good at sensing fear, and these people had none. There could only be one reason for that: they were more dangerous than the gang.

“Never-mind,” the gang leader said. “You don’t mess with us, we won’t mess with you. Just a territory thing, you understand.”

“We do,” said Hank, and smiled sweetly. “The person I was when I left Dirt would have been an easy victim,” he thought. “Things have indeed changed.”

Epdif’l cleared her throat. “So you guys looking for a good time?” she chimed. “Or what?”

They broke and scrambled forward down the aisle. They stopped for a consultation with the other gang members, and two minutes later the whole eight of them were gathered at the forward end of the bus, waiting for the next stop.

Hank had to grin. “Welcome home,” he said to no one. "I remember a bumper sticker I once saw. It said, 'Heaven is beautiful this time of year.'”

"What's a bumper sticker?" Epfid'l asked.


~*~

Two stops later a couple drunks got on and staggered back to the rear of the bus. They did a good deal of blinking and attempting to focus. “Hoo boy, you guys been to some party back here,” warbled one of them. They both had bottles in brown paper bags, and they offered to pass them around. “No thanks,” Hank said, but the other three were interested.

Three gasps later, only Gubby and Flizz were still interested. “Holy coincidence,” Epfid’l said. “You drink that for fun?”

“Exactly!” crowed one of the drunks.


~*~

A few stops later Epfid’l was riding beside one of the open windows. It seemed to be late summer. “Oh,” she said, and took a small pouch out of a pocket in her shirt. She opened it, and a dozen of Ronam’s butterflies unfolded their wings and flew out. Several settled on the backs of seats in the bus, and the rest flew out the window.

“And the ancient cycle is re-started,” she thought. “Whatever happens, the old ways go on. Life leads to non-life leads to meta-life, all under the guidance on the Great Goddess Coincidence.”

In a decade or two there would be robot bodies to die into, and these would be better than most races got when they reached this point in their development because they’d be goo robots. Epfid’l smiled. Her omens had been clear.

Hank didn’t realize the significance of her casual action. Gubby and Flizz did, and they hooted with laughter and elbowed each other in the ribs. The drunks joined in, and the bus driver turned on his intercom and asked them to keep it down in the rear. They quieted down, and the drunks started trading riddles with Gubby and Flizz.

"What's green and has wheels?" one asked.

"I don't know," said Flizz.

"Grass," said the drunk. "I lied about the wheels."

"Why do ducks have flat feet?" asked the other drunk.

"I don't know," said Gubby.

"Stamping out forest fires," the drunk said. "Why do elephants have flat feet?"

"I don't know," said Gubby and Flizz together.

"Stamping out flaming ducks," the drunk said. The drunks laughed hilariously.

"What's an elephant?" asked Flizz.

"What's a duck?" asked Gubby.

"My turn," said Flizz. "What's brown and sticky?"

"I don't know," said the drunks.

"A stick," said Flizz.

"What jumps higher than a building," asked Gubby.

"I don't know," said the drunks.

"Everything," said Gubby. "Buildings don't jump."

"What's orange and sounds like a parrot?" asked one of the drunks.

"I don't know," said Gubby and FLizz.

"A carrot," said the drunk.

"What has four legs when it's born, two wings when it's grown, and eats fire?" asked Flizz.

"I don't know," said the drunks together.

"A Fleetnar," said Flizz.

"What's a Fleetnar?" asked the drunks.

"A kind of space-dragon," Gubby explained helpfully. "I guess it loses something in translation."

“I’m amazed at how primitive the technology is here,” Epfid’l said to Hank, “the bus, and the houses we’re passing. My goodness. This is so far back in time it's amazing. It's charmingly primeval.”

“I’m amazed at how strong the gravity is,” Hank said. “I can’t believe I lived in this all my life. Who'd want to live here? Fun place to visit though, huh?” Epfid’l laughed. Tling laughed too, mimicking her.

“OK, our stop, guys,” Hank said, and they trooped off the bus at Southeast 13th and Madison.

“Say, I like that stuff,” Gubby commented. Flizz said nothing, but he wasn’t walking straight either.

“Let’s see,” Hank said, and then he led them off toward 14th and Mulberry. “That’s where my best friend lived when I left,” he reminded them, “a guy named Ralph. We’ll see if he still lives here.”

They walked through the empty streets. The windows of the houses glowed in the darkness, and big trees made the street darker. There was a slight breeze, and it was a beautiful summer’s night. "What a wonderful place," Epfid'l said.

Tling was playing with the fringe on her dress.

“Here we are,” Hank said, and led the way up onto the porch of a two-story Victorian house. Hank pushed the doorbell button. “Sorry to wake you up, Ralph,” he thought, “but I’ve come an awful long way to do it. Wake up, wake up.”


Back to Top


Chapter 25: Ralph



Ralph was in the cockpit of a 747 that was just beginning its takeoff run. The acceleration pushed him back in his seat. Outside the windows was the darkness of night, but there was enough light to see that they weren’t taking off from a runway. They were taking off from a city street. Residential houses with glowing windows lumbered past.

They went by faster and faster until the plane lifted into the air. Ralph glanced back along the fuselage and noticed that the wings had been put on backwards. They slanted forward rather than to the rear.

The plane began a wide turn, low over the city. Ralph was distracted from the view by the captain, who was sitting in the seat ahead of him, turning around and pressing a pistol into his hands. “You’ve heard about the lights under the sea?” he asked anxiously.

“Yes.”

“The latest theory is that they’re star people. I think we’re being invaded by aliens of some kind from space. Take the gun. You’re going to need it.” Ralph had a theory that the lights under the sea were actually Chinese submarines, but he accepted the gun anyway. He cracked it open to check the ammunition, and found that one bullet had been put in backwards and another was oversize. He threw those away and kept the rest of the ammunition.

He looked out the window again. The airliner flew low over the last of the city, and then the beach and the shallow part of the sea. Ralph could see mysterious rectangles of light hovering just above the water, and then he realized they were sails caught by the last glow of sunset.

He was awakened by the doorbell. “Ah, what time is it?” Sasha stirred in her sleep next to him. She was a heavier sleeper than he was, but still he hurried to get out of bed, throw on a robe and head for the phone. No reason for her to be awakened too.

No, wait a minute. It wasn’t the phone, it was the door. He looked sleepily out a window in the door to see who could be on his porch, and he was jolted fully awake by the shock. Hank Walker? What the hell!

He threw the door open. “Hank! Cheese, man, where you been? Good to see you!” They hugged and patted each other’s backs. “Come on in. What’s with the blue thing? You get tattooed? I’ll go wake up Sasha. She’ll want to see you. These are your friends, huh? Come on into the living room. This is great, man! Welcome, everybody. Make yourselves at home. Everyone was so freaked out when you disappeared, Hank. We thought you'd been kidnapped. What happened? Never-mind, I’ll wake up Sasha, and you can tell us both. Anyone want something to drink? A Coke? A beer?” He hurried off down the hall.

The landing party settled on the couches and over-stuffed armchairs in the living room.

“What’s Coke?” Epfid’l asked. “Boy, the flat walls are strange.”

Ralph hurried back into the room, and came to a stop as he got his first good look at them. “You guys look like something out of Star Wars,” he said. “You just come from a sci-fi convention? Anybody want tea? I’ll put on the water.”

“Tea would be great,” Hank said, and Ralph bustled into the kitchen to make it. “Say,” he called from the kitchen, “if someone wants to start a fire in the fireplace, there’s one laid. Just open the damper.”

“Damper?” asked Gubby. Hank showed him where the damper handle was. Just as Ralph was coming back into the room Gubby threw sparks from his fingertips, and the wood ignited like it’d been soaked in gasoline.

Ralph freaked out so badly that the only reason he didn’t drop the tray was that he couldn’t move. He wanted to run. His teeth were chattering. The alien apologized for startling him, and then he took the tray from him and ushered him to a chair.

Sasha came down the hall, tying the belt of a terrycloth robe, her feet in fluffy slippers. Her eyes were sleepy, and her hair was tousled. “Hank? Saint Hedley protect us! Ralph said you were back. It’s really you? But you’re blue now?” She hugged him. “What happened? Where you been?”

“Long story,” Hank said. “Sit down. We’ll catch up. I’ll introduce you to my friends. How you and Ralph doing?”

“Fine. I mean, you know, doing alright.” She looked at his friends and did a double-take, and then she busied herself pouring tea for them.

“This is Gubby. He’s training to be a pilot. This is Flizz. He’s working on joining the hyper-space team. And this is my girlfriend Epfid’l. She’s a shapeshifter. And this is baby Tling. She's our daughter.”

“What?” said Sasha. “I thought you guys were in costumes.”

“No, actually this is what we really look like.”

Sasha looked blank. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“Me, too,” said Ralph. "Curious minds wanna know."

Hank got them to sit down, and he got them each take a cup of tea, and he told them his story. As he did, Ralph’s fear faded away into amazement. He would never have believed it, but every time he looked at the aliens he believed it. The aliens seemed to find Hank’s story very amusing. They slapped their knees and giggled and interrupted with ribald comments, except for the translucent blue woman, who just shook her head and chuckled and played with the baby. Baby Tling was crawling around and playing with everything she could get her hands on. And she kept popping up into the air like a grasshopper.


~*~

Sasha was a believer in all kinds of things occult and mysterious, and so she found Hank’s story easier to believe than Ralph did. When the story was over, and an hour of questions had been asked and answered, they finally got to go back to bed. But neither of them could get back to sleep right away. Sasha was exultant to have seen evidence of life beyond Earth. She kept giggling and talking to Ralph about first contact. Ralph lay there and listened to her and struggled to rebuild his mental image of life, his idea of How Things Are. The expansion was way too much to integrate all at once. His mind felt dizzy and skittish.

But eventually he fell asleep, long after Sasha did, and with the light of dawn brightening the sky. In his dreams he integrated enough to be sort of OK, but it was one harrowing nightmare after another. He was chased by aliens and space-dragons through a darkness filled with stars that didn't twinkle.

Hank and the aliens had gone to sleep on the couches and in the spare bedroom. Ralph and Sasha had an unused bedroom because their housemate had moved out, and they hadn’t found a new one yet.

Three hours later Ralph was jolted awake by feeling some of the aliens prowling around the edges of his dream. He got up and went to the phone and called in sick and drank a glass of orange juice and went back to bed and fell back into an exhausted sleep.

The aliens crept up on him in a band. He fled from them, and they chuckled as they easily overtook him. The grabbed his arms and his hair from above and pulled him up into a soaring flight above a landscape that never existed on Earth. Ralph’s fear melted away into excitement and wonder, and it seemed the perfect thing to swoop and soar with a flock of aliens from so far away it made the moon seem next door.


~*~

When Ralph came into the kitchen about noon, Hank was sitting at the table reading the newspaper. “It’s surprising what’s changed and what hasn’t,” he said. “Morning, Ralph.”

Ralph had almost got to thinking it had all been a dream, but Hank was still blue. And one of the aliens walked in. It was the blue woman with the amber eyes. “Say, this is good stuff,” she said, holding up a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. "Must have been a good year." She went back out of the room sipping it.

Ralph sat down at the table. “Wow,” he said. “This is unbelievable. I can’t believe you’re actually here, and you’ve brought aliens from outer space with you. The world is going to be amazed.”

“If we tell them,” said Hank. “You guys live in a preserve, actually, and you’re not supposed to know. Yet.”

“We’re not? A preserve? What do you mean?”

“Like a nature preserve.”

“We’re being preserved like wild animals?”

Hank laughed. “Exactly.”

“But this is the most significant event since the fall of the Roman Empire. Since the invention of fire. This is First Contact. Shouldn’t we tell everybody? Shouldn't everybody know?”

“You can if you want to,” Hank said. “Personally I don't care about the preserve thing. I’m too busy with being Captain of a pirate ship to worry about it. Way too low on my list.”

"Oh. OK. But you don't care if I tell people?"

"Nope."

"Well, this is wild. What are you going to do now that you’re back home?”

“It isn’t home anymore,” Hank said. “I wish it were, in some ways. But it’s way too late for that now. We’re just here on a lightening raid to steal a bunch of music. Well, and I really wanted to see Dirt again too, see Portland again. The homesickness never completely goes away.”

“I can see how it wouldn't. It must be weird out there. But what do you mean steal music?”

“We’re pirates. We have a code. We never buy when we can steal. And they don’t have music in outer space. It caused quite a ruckus, the few CDs I had with me. Now we want to get a whole bunch of new CDs. Then we’re off again. Oh, by the way, come to think of it, do you want my car?”

“You mean your old MG?”

“Yes.”

“Sure, I mean if you don’t want it.”

“You can see how I wouldn’t have any use for it out there. I’ll see if they can drop it off when they come to pick us up. I’m having them make a flying saucer.”

“A flying saucer? Oh wow, this is way too much like these articles that Sasha reads. She says the military has found flying saucers that crashed, and it’s a big cover-up to keep it secret from the public. It’s all true, huh?”

“Gosh, I don’t know. All I know is the Milky Way is full of people and robots and strange animals. There’s an Empire we try to stay away from. And then there’s the Kai, but they’re so ancient we almost never run into them. Whether anybody’s been here before or not, I don’t know. But it certainly could be true.”

“Way cool,” Ralph said. “What if a reporter went with you when you left and sent back stories? Wouldn’t that be great?”

“Here’s a better idea,” Hank said. “You come.”

“What? Me? Forget it. I’ve got a life here.”

Hank laughed. “I had one once, too.”

“Well, it’s a shame it won’t be known. No one would believe me without proof.”

“Oh, it’ll be known pretty soon anyway. As soon as the Kai take Dirt off preserve status, you’ll have more aliens than you know what to do with. They'll be coming here to live.”

“When are they going to do that?”

“Nobody knows, but the rumors say soon.”

“Oh. Well, how about we at least have a party before you leave. It could be a come-as-an-alien party. So everyone would be in an alien costume, and your friends would fit right in.”

“That’d be fun. My friends do like to party.”

“Sure. We’ll get drunk. Smoke some dope. Everyone will have a good time. We’ll do some dancing.”

“And they do like to dance.”


~*~

Ralph walked into the living room and found Gubby talking on the phone while the guy with skin like a Shar Pei sat on a couch. On the coffee table in front of Flizz was a pile of money. Sasha was helping Flizz count it into piles.

“Wow!” Ralph said. “Where’d you get that?”

“We made it," Flizz said.

“You made it? You mean it’s counterfeit?”

“Yep.”

“But that’s illegal.”

“Not where I come from. On Toolaraz it’s considered a work of art.”

“But what if you get caught here? It’s still kind of illegal here.”

“We won’t. The reproduction is accurate down to the atomic scale. Counterfeiters have a saying: ‘A perfect copy is not a copy.’”

“What about serial numbers?”

“Hank told us about those. We randomized them.”

Ralph walked back into the kitchen. “You knew about the counterfeit money sitting on the coffee table in there?”

“Sure. Standard procedure for an undercover landing party.”

“I thought you were going to steal the music.”

“The most elegant way to steal leaves the victims not even knowing anything’s gone.”

“But what if you get caught?”

“We’ll fly away into space.”

“But what if I get caught?”

“I thought about that. You should be compensated for your risk. How much money would you like?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Well, we’re planning to leave the machine that makes the money behind for you when we leave. So you can make as much as you want.”

Ralph was speechless.

“Pirates have a saying,” said Hank, “'The best way to make money is to make money.'”

Ralph had to sit down.


~*~

Gubby was leafing through the yellow pages. He was astounded at the clunkiness of the technology. “Amazing,” he said to himself. "Actual books on paper." He found the number he wanted and said to the phone, "Please connect me."

"That won't work," Hank said. He explained that on Dirt the phones are unconscious and inert. “They’re just machines,” Hank said.

Gubby was horrified. “Despicable," he said. "Phones you have to dial." He got busy calling truck rental places.

Epfid’l came bounding into the room, singing. Tling came bouncing behind her. They’d been for a walk around the neighborhood. “They have wonderful rose gardens here,” she told them.

“Did you get the rubber bands?” Flizz asked.

“Yes, there’s a marvelous little store on a traffic circle east of here, and the man was so nice that he gave me a whole bunch free.” She dumped a double handful on the table. "And he gave Tling an ice-cream bar. Wouldn't hear of being paid."

She sat down with Flizz and Sasha and helped them count money. They banded it into packets of a thousand dollars each, laughing and giggling as they worked. Tling ate some of the rubber bands.

Ralph followed Hank in from the kitchen, carrying trays of hot tea, and some hydrogen peroxide with ice for Epfid’l. Flizz and Epfid’l got to wrassling around, fell off the couch and knocked over the coffee table. Money flowed across the floor. Sasha sat on the couch with a bright look in her eyes. "Saint Hedley preserve us," she whispered.


~*~

Back on the ship, Jagung was floating in a meditation pod, coiling in on himself. Ying had told him that they were going to go for the body transport in a couple days. “So you’ve got about two days to get ready,” she said. “I certainly hope my saying that doesn’t trigger nervousness in you. I know I’d be scared to death.” And she went off whistling.

So Jagung was trying to center, trying to breathe calmly, trying to think it through. “Great Coincidence, what have I done?” he thought. “At this late date I’m realizing I could lose my body forever. Or I could be caught by the Empire Police and put in prison forever. Things could go wrong I can’t even imagine! What was I thinking?”


~*~

Gubby reserved a 24-foot truck from the nearest rental place, and walked off with Ralph to pick it up. Ralph’s job was to keep Gubby from blowing his cover.

Epfid’l got on the phone and found a bus tour of Portland. She and Sasha took Tling and went off to do that. “We’re going to talk about you, mostly, cowboy,” Epfid’l said sweetly to Hank as they headed out the door.

Flizz went off with his pockets full of cash to the store Epfid’l had discovered to get some more food. They were eating a lot of food, and Flizz wanted to try out more new delicacies.

Hank borrowed Ralph’s bike and went for a ride. He pedaled through some of the neighborhoods he’d lived in. Waves of nostalgia came floating up. He remembered his hippie days, chasing women, his hang-gliding days, what he saw now in hind-sight as the good old days. “Boy,” he thought, “there’s a lot of memories here. I was really attached to this place. This was my native home. I’d forgotten how beautiful and meaningful it all seems. Deep in my bones I feel I belong here. What in the world was I thinking?”


~*~

When Hank got back from the bike ride, Ralph and Gubby were back with the truck. “Goodness,” said Ralph, “you’d be surprised how easy it is to rent a truck when you’re paying cash.”

Hank laughed. “I’m not surprised. Did you have to show them ID, Gubby?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I showed them this.” He held out his reptilian hand. On it was a blank piece of paper the size of a credit card. “Then I put one foot into dream-time, and the truck-master saw whatever he expected to see.” Gubby laughed.

Ralph was startled. “You did what?”

“He went a bit into dream-time,” Hank explained, “so he could effect the reality around him.”

“What’s dream-time?”

“This gang of pirates are specialists at dreaming while they’re awake. They call it the dream-time.”

“Wow. I have no idea what that means.”

Hank laughed. “I’m not surprised. It took me a long time to have any idea myself. And I've been living with these rascals.”

Flizz came back with a grocery cart full of groceries. “Epfid’l was right," he said. “The man there was really nice. He let me have all this for five thousand dollars."

Hank laughed, and then Flizz wanted him to explain what he was laughing at. "You overpaid him," Hank said. "Little bit."

Epfid’l and Sasha came back from the tour, and they had pamphlets.

“I’m cooking tonight,” said Epfid’l, "and I’m going to cook you up a Fanublian feast.”


~*~

While they waited for dinner to be ready, Hank and Ralph went for a walk. “What’s going on here?” Ralph asked. “I mean, you had this weird accident and got carried off into space, right? And now you’re back, but you’re not the same guy anymore. To say the least. Like the purple eyes and the blue skin.”

“No, you’re right. This still feels like home, and I’m kind of tempted to come back here to stay. But it turns out I’ve changed too much in five years. I never would have guessed I’d change so much.”

“And now you’re a pirate? What’s that about?”

“I fell in with pirates, and it turns out that actually I’m just like them. I belong.”

“You mean you lost your ethics and morals?”

Hank laughed. “I guess you could say that. I'd say my values have changed. The pirates value different things than we do. They value dreaming, and omens, and dream-powers. And the odd thing, of course, is that they don’t care about killing or lying or betrayals. In fact, those things are positive to them. They value them. Some of them value chaos and disorder, too. They cultivate the very things we regard as evil.”

“But doesn’t that mean they actually are evil?” Ralph was starting to think that having these guys stay in his apartment was maybe not such a good idea.

“No,” said Hank, “weirdly enough, they’re not. For example, the pirates value death. But that's because they aren’t worried about it. When you die you go into a robot body that’s been prepared for you ahead of time.”

“A robot body? You’re kidding.”

“Nope. It’s tailored just for you.”

“What about you? Do you have one of those?”

“Yep. It’s aboard the ship.”

“So you’ll become a robot when you die? That means you’ll never die? That’s too weird. I can’t believe you signed up for this.”

Hank laughed. “Actually, I was drafted. For a long time after I was captured I was a slave.”

“Wow, you were these guys’ slave?”

“Well, not really, as it turned out. It was just a big joke the whole crew was playing on me. Though the part about paying my infirmary bill was not a joke. It’s a good thing the ship got lucky and I got rich, or I would have been paying the rest of my life.”

“Which,” Ralph said, “I think we’ve established could be a very long time.”

“Well, yes. Although having a robot backup doesn’t mean you live forever, actually. Just longer.”

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live the life you’re in.”

“Oh, it’s not so different. I have a girlfriend, and I have friends. By coincidence I even have a community. And we have adventures.”

“You know what the technical definition of an adventure is, don’t you?” Ralph asked.

“No.”

“It’s a miserable experience that makes a good story later.”

Hank laughed. “Oh. Well, that fits.”


Back to Top


Chapter 26: Mary



Sasha dreamed that aliens were invading the planet Earth. She didn’t see the first landing, but she happened to be outside and see the second landing. A huge spaceship came down and settled on an open field. The top of it looked like craggy mountains. It tipped over on its side, and the top cracked open. Inside were huge white chambers that opened and released the aliens. They were humanoid and white, with big beautiful eyes and mobile mouths and no noses or ears. They looked like people made of marshmallows. They weren’t violent, but people were fleeing from them anyway.

Sasha saw a woman and her child playing in a field. They saw the queen of the aliens walking along a nearby road with her retinue. She was wearing a transparent hat. The woman and her child knelt down. The queen told them they didn’t need to do that, but they did it anyway.

Some alien kids were jumping on a trampoline on a verandah of a tall building. They jumped over the railing and fell 40 stories to the ground. Then they rode up the elevator and did it again, laughing and giggling.

Someone dropped an alien egg over the railing. It looked like a black crystal the size of a potato. When it hit the ground it broke into a bunch of smaller crystals, and from each of them came a baby alien. "No wonder the human race is going extinct," Sasha thought.


~*~

Hank and Epfid'l and baby Tling had a bed of their own that night. They curled up together with Tling in the middle. Tling burbled and cooed. "How do you feel?" Epfid'l whispered.

"Wonderful," Hank whispered back. "To have time to be with you two is so joyful and satisfying. This is so great! I love you guys." "Me too, cowboy," Epfid'l whispered. "I never knew a happiness like this. It's a wonderful coincidence we get to have this."

Tling morphed into her elliptical form when she went to sleep. Epfid'l put her in a box lined with blankets by the bed, and she and Hank made love. For him it was deep and connected and satisfying. For her it was a curious completion. It felt like mysterious strings in the universe all came together and tied a wonderful knot of bliss and balance and exuberance. "Thank coincidence," she whispered into the darkness.


~*~

The next day Hank borrowed Ralph's bike and pedaled a mile to a neighborhood restaurant called Old Wives’ Tales. It was a sunny day in Indian Summer. Ordinary things were a delight to him. The sky was cloudless. Cars were parked next to curbs. People went in and out of houses. In a park he passed, kids played. How lovely!

He got to Burnside Avenue, chained the bike to a parking meter and walked in the door of the restaurant. His ex-wife Mary was sitting in one of the booths by a wall of windows, looking out at the parking lot for the Four-Square Church. When she saw him, she jumped up and gave him a hug. “Mmmm, good to see you,” she smiled. “I'm so glad you're back. What’s with this disappearing for five years? Where'd you go? And what’s with this blue look? And the purple eyes? You look like you're wearing shades.”

“Good to see you too again, Mary,” said Hank. "I love you."

"I love you too," she said. "That never goes away, does it?"

"Nope."

“So, sit down and tell me how you’ve been. And where. That was so strange you disappearing like that. I was worried about you.”

“I know. I'm sorry. I had no choice in the matter at the time. I was kind of out of phone range.”

“Well, I bet you've got a great story. At the time, people thought you must have been involved in drugs, and got busted or had to go on the run....”

“Oh no, nothing like that, as it turns out. Much stranger.”

“Well, what did happen, you dear sweetie?”

“I got kidnapped by a UFO.”

“What? You're kidding, right? Here, pull my other leg.”

“No, seriously.”

“Well, good heavens. So what's the story?” She looked at him through squinty eyes and burst out laughing.

So Hank told her. He had a bowl of mushroom soup with cornbread muffins, and Mary browsed the salad bar. They split a piece of coffee butter-crunch pie for dessert. “Boy, I’m glad they still have this,” Hank said, licking his spoon.

“So, let me see if I'm following you,” Mary said. “You say you spent the last five years living aboard a pirate ship? In space? That’s wild. What an adventure! And you say you were a slave at first, and then you worked your way up to being a crew-member, and now you’re Captain? Wow, sounds like space was a good career opportunity for you, right?”

“Well,” Hank said. “I never thought of it that way. I just felt like I was putting one foot in front of the other like anybody else.”

Mary laughed. "Life’s full of irony, huh?”

“I’ll say."

"So if you're a pirate now, does that mean you're an outlaw?"

Hank’s mouth fell open. “Well, yeah. I guess so. We're all on the Empire's wanted list.”

“Cool. What do you do as pirates? Smuggling and stealing things and boarding other ships, stuff like that? Searching for treasure?”

"Yep, that's exactly what we do. All in a day's work. We do what we have to do in order to survive. And to have fun. These pirates are very big on having fun.”

“Well, I like these guys. They sound like hippies.”

"Space-hippies." They both laughed.

"Have you ever had to kill anybody?”

“Actually, yes. In battle I've had to fight for my life. It was weird, to say the least. The good news is that in space death isn't exactly permanent. The people we kill we put into robot bodies and send on their way."

"Wow, now that is weird. Is that what will happen to you?"

"Yes. My robot body's in storage, waiting for me."

"How strange. I wonder if I'd want to do that."

"I can arrange it if you want. You could live for thousands of years. Barring accidents."

Mary laughed. "I don't know. I kind of like the idea of death. I hear the after-life is pretty nice."

"So it is," said Hank. "I've been there. We call it the dream-time. It's very nice. I'll leave you a space-phone when I leave, if you want. We can keep in touch, and you can let me know if you change your mind."

"You have to leave?"

"Oh yes. My life is out there now. I like my life there. I have a girlfriend named Epfid'l, and we have a baby named Tling. They're wonderful. Though I still love you too. There's no off-switch on love. You want to come with us?"

Mary smiled. "It sounds interesting, but my life is here. Like yours is out there."

"Too bad," he said. "I'd love to have you along. And you'd fit right in. You're bold, and you always believed in free love."

"There's no monogamy out there?"

"Nope. Everybody out there does free love."

"Well then, sailor," she smiled, "look me up whenever you're in port."

Hank smiled too. "You bet."

"Speaking of which," she said, "I live close to here. How about if we go over to my house and get reacquainted?"

"Yum," Hank said. Mary toasted him with her teacup and smiled and ate the last bite of pie.

So they did. They made love for hours. One of the ways Mary had changed is that she was now capable of continuous orgasms. Hank could tell when she was coming because he could feel her orgasms as though they were happening in his own body.

"That's happened with Epfid'l," he told her. "But that's the first time that ever happened with you." She laughed and kissed him and ran her fingers through his blue hair.

"You're my space-man," she said.


~*~

Afterwards they lay in her bed and snuggled. “You've changed a lot," Mary said. "You used to be timid about trying new things. I was amazed when you took up hang-gliding. That seemed out of character for you. Now you seem kind of bold and reckless. Now it wouldn’t seem particularly out of character.”

“You make me seem like a bad boy.”

Mary laughed. “I like bad boys. I like the new you. It makes you even more attractive.”

“Well, good, I guess.”

Mary snickered. “Getting kidnapped by a UFO has been good for you.”

“Well, that's an odd way to look at it, but I guess you're right. I do see things from a different perspective. But I think I still value the same old things. Love and friendship and sex. You’d be amazed what seeing Dirt from orbit does to you, for example.”

“Dirt?”

“Oh, that’s what we call Earth. Early mis-translation that never got corrected, I guess.”

She smiled. “I have a feeling that maybe you’ve changed more than you know.”

He smiled back. "Probably. Adventures will do that to you. Life will do that to you."


~*~

Mary dropped Hank off at Old Wives Tales, and he pedaled back to Ralph and Sasha’s place with mixed feelings. “Well, I'll always miss Mary,” he thought ruefully. “It’s strange how once you love somebody it's forever. I'll always love her, wherever I go. Everyone I've ever fallen in love with, I still love. I guess I pass the test of love, the greatest test. The other great tests seem to be wealth and fame and power. Most people don't pass those. Well, I don’t have fame, and I don't have wealth. Though I have everything I want, so maybe that counts as wealth. Technically I'm still deep in debt. Turns out power is a waste of time. Being captain is just crazy-making. It's a good thing love lasts.”


~*~

Epfid’l and Sasha came back from an aikido class. “That was great,” Epfid'l bubbled. “I like the tumbling part especially.”

Ralph had been baby-sitting Tling. "Boy, she's a tough kid to baby-sit," he said. "She's been flying around the room and bouncing off the walls. And she keeps changing shape. The only way I could get her to shit still was to show her a picture book of animals. So she changed into the shapes of all the animals."

"Good idea," said Epfid'l. "Add to her repertoire."


~*~

Gubby, Flizz, Sasha and Ralph got back from Tower Records with 8,288 compact disks loaded in the back of the rental truck. 148 in a carton. 56 cartons. Epfid’l got on the phone and hired a group of ten college students to come do the heavy lifting. They arrived in twenty minutes and got to carrying the cartons into the living room. Epfid’l fell to supervising in grand style. Ralph put on ‘The Dave Grissman Quintet’ and turned up the volume.

In the living room Flizz set up an assembly line. On the coffee table he laid a computer screen, face up. One college student took a case out of a carton, opened it and passed the disk to a second, who laid it face down on the screen for the moments it took the computer to scan it. He then passed it to a third, who put it back in it’s case and passed it to a fourth, who put the case in a carton and sealed the carton when it was full. More college students carried the cartons back out to the truck and refilled it.

Gubby made Seligriad stew for dinner, and used a goo device to make exotic fruits for a side dish. Ten college students, the landing party, Ralph and Sasha had a picnic lunch on the back yard, with much laughing and kidding around. Then they went back to work. Flizz set up two more assembly lines to speed up the work, and still it took seven hours before the job was done.

The college students met Ralph and Hank at the main library in downtown Portland. They went around to the back door on the west side, and unloaded the cartons into a bay set aside for gifts to the library, where they’d be safe from the rain.

Then the college students went off happily, ridiculously more than well-paid.


~*~

Sasha had to go for a walk. Epfid’l joined her. “You feeling OK?” Epfid’l asked.

“No,” Sasha said. “This is all so boggling. I feel dizzy and confused. It’s so boggling that you guys are aliens. It’s boggling that we’re not alone in the universe. But what’s a lot more boggling is the money. I've always had to scrape by just to make a living. But we just went to Tower’s and bought $120,000 worth of CD’s. And paid with cash. They got very excited when Hank said he wanted to pay cash, but after all that foofaraw they decided it was legal and they could take the money. Surprise, surprise. On the way home Ralph was so tickled about this, but mostly it just scares me.”

“What’s scary about it?”

“Well, for one thing, now Ralph and I can be counterfeiters and never have to work again. The hippie dream. But this means we're criminals. On our next tax returns the government will expect us to show where we got the money, right?”

“I don’t know anything about your tax laws, but I can tell you'll need a good tax lawyer.”

“They have lawyers in space?”

“More than here. Though they're usually robots.”

“So I guess it’s good we have the money machine sitting on our bureau in our bedroom, spitting out twenties and fifties at the touch of a button. That means we can pay the accountants.”

“Exactly. People think it’s easy being a pirate. It's not. Your life has changed altogether.”

“Exactly. That’s what I feel so boggled about. I’ve been dragged way out of my comfort zone. And there's no way back. I’ve seen on TV that most people who win the lottery, it ruins their lives. I don’t want this to ruin my life.”

“Then you’re going to have to be agile and flexible, girlfriend. You’re facing a warrior challenge. Because on top of all this, you have a man to manage. And he won’t always be agile and flexible.”

“Tell me about it. Well, then, can you leave me a radio so I can talk to you out in space? It’s not fair to drop in like this and change my life totally and then leave me in this mess, is it?”

Epfid’l laughed. “You've probably noticed that life isn't fair. But OK, here’s what I can do. We’ll induct you secretly into the crew. As a member, you’ll be on an under-cover mission. You’ll have the usual equipment, which includes a computer screen. You’ll be able to use that to communicate with the central computer, and also with members of the crew. Like me.”

“Oh, that would be great! I wouldn’t be alone.”

“No, but let me warn you, as a member of the crew you will be expected to do things you might not want to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll be an under-cover agent here, so you might be asked to get information, for one thing, or maybe to sow discord and chaos, too. As appropiate.”

“Please. I’m a hippie. I already know about discord and chaos. I wanna be a member of the crew. That’d be great.”

“Do you want to go farther and go with us when we leave?”

“Oh no, that’d be way too much. This is my home.”

“Things are going to change here, you know.”

“Don't say things like that. What do you mean?”

“Well, it won’t be long before Dirt is taken off reserve status, and when it is there will be a whole bunch of aliens landing here. Mostly traders and pirates and the scum of the galaxy. You’ll like them. And they'll like it here. They'll fit right in.”

“People like you?”

“Exactly. And the probable result is that they'll destroy the whole capitalist corporate social structure. Anarchy will arise from the ashes, so to speak. And then eventually the Empire will arrive and set up an embassy.”

“Will they take us over?”

“Oh no, it’d be way too expensive. So you’ll be just another rebel planet out on the lunatic fringe.”

“Well, we’ve always been that. I guess it’s a good thing I’m getting a head start, huh?”

Epfid’l chuckled. “I think you’re going to be fine.”


~*~

When Epfid’l and Sasha got back to the house, the others had already started eating dinner. Ralph was drawing stories out of Gubby and Flizz. Hank had heard them before, but he still laughed.

After dinner Hank took them all out to a movie. He took them to the biggest theater in town, so as to give them the full-bore experience, and they saw a movie that had just come out: Working Girl.

When they came out of the theater, Epfid’l said, “I liked that scene where she was dancing with the robot, and she didn’t have any clothes on.”

“I liked that one too,” said Hank, “but actually she wasn’t dancing with a robot, she was vacuuming the floor.”

“She was making it into a vacuum?”

“No, no, she was cleaning it. The vacuum in the machine sucks up the dirt.”

"Oh." Epfid'l giggled. "How delightfully primitive."

On the way to Ralph and Sasha's car, Gubby and Flizz staggered as though they were drunk, and dripped sparks that rolled away across the parking lot. “I liked that a lot,” Gubby said.

Flizz said, “Wooie.”


~*~

High above them on the ship, Jagung was feeling nervous. He’d been told that tonight was the night, and he’d retired to the dorm-pod to do calming exercises. When at last he fell asleep, he rolled out of his hammock into the dream-time, and stood up. He was in a large chamber that opened off the dream-tunnels. The walls were a translucent blue, and wavered like water.

Suddenly Jagung wasn’t nervous anymore. Ying was with him, and rather than her robot body she was in her original body, so she looked somewhat like a lilac-colored octopus with four arms. Ying grabbed Jagung by one hand, and puffed up the skin webs between her tentacles. She jetted out of the chamber, towing him along. She zoomed along the hallway like a small laughing rocket.

As she shot out of the mouth of a cave and up into the sky, Ying reached out with an intangible part of herself and twanged dream-time. Humans all over Dirt stirred in their sleep. Aboard the Mefrina a work-crew of 150 crew-members were already sleeping. Ying could see them far below, making their ways into dream-time. Some flew out of the mouths of caves, some stood up from beneath a centimeter of soil and left a cavity the shape of their bodies, some bobbed up from the surfaces of lakes and rivers, scattering bubbles into the air.

When the 150 were assembled in the sky, Ying told Jagung to follow her, and they led the rest in a long dive. They crashed into the ground and exploded through into waking reality, but without waking up. The Mefrina floated just below them, and beyond her was the blue planet. Ying flew toward the ship, and the rest of the 150 followed her, wheeling like a flock of birds.

Ying could tell which dorm-pod was Jagung’s, and she and Jagung went through the wall like ghosts. Chinglad was waiting for them, and Ying posted her to be the final catcher, hovering next to Jagung's synthetic body floating in his hammock. Then she and Jagung in his dream-body flew back out through the pod wall and began laying out a bucket brigade.

It was a long brigade. It had to span 70,000 light years. So Falgroo was placed 500 light years from Dirt, in a blue nebula. Afdaddle was 500 light years beyond him, near a double star with dozens of planets. Then came Fanfra and Klar and Stin, then Klig and Dinf. A lengthening string of aliens formed, crossing vast amounts of interstellar space like a twisting insubstantial ribbon, each as far from the previous one as their throwing range.

The crew-members who weren’t being posted yet darted about in dizzying flight, creating a sparkling wind that looked like a natural hyper-storm to distract any possible Empire patrols.

Respfid’l flew very high in dream-time, almost at the upper surface, in order to watch for enemies.

Pagile was placed in the bucket brigade, and then Gadig and Nodsfar and Fleering.

When at last the line was completed, there were six crew members remaining for the actual snatch. They hovered above the real body of Jagung, which lay sleeping in an Empire medical support chamber. Ying and Glinf and Deebi used their breaths to polish a mirror surface in the air above the body. Above them, Gonifra and Powaducket built up charges in their auras and dumped them into Fanfra’s. Her tentacles were sparkling so brightly no one could look at them as she reached through the mirror and grabbed Jagung’s body. She jerked it up out of its life-support cradle into dream-time and threw it to Oor.

Ying and Glinf and Deebi kept the mirror polished, and waited where they were. Oor threw the body to Falding, and then it went through the hands and tentacles of Nodsfar and Gadig and Pagile. From crew-member to crew-member it went, in long sizzling tosses through the interstellar dream-stuff. Eventually it came to Dinf and Klig, and then was thrown like a cosmic football from Stin to Klar to Fanfra. Afdaddle made the catch from Fanfra, and threw Jagung's body to Falgroo, who tossed it through the dorm-pod’s wall to Chinglad. Chinglad caught it and spun it around and dropped it into waking reality, hanging in the air next to Jagung’s hammock. In his hammock his synthetic body was snoring. The two bodies looked just alike.

And then they turned around and did it again, only the other way. Chinglad grabbed Jagung’s synthetic body out of his hammock and tossed it to Falgroo, who sent it whistling on its way along the incredible space-crossing span until it was dropped through the mirror into place in the Empire life support cradle in waking reality 70,000 light years from Dirt. “What a good joke. Let them figure that out,” Ying thought, and woke up.

The bucket brigade twinkled out of existence as all along it, members slipped back into wake-time and found themselves aboard the Mefrina. The organics yawned and stretched. The robots chirped happily at a good night's work.

Ying ducked back into dream-time and flew up into the sky. She found Jagung waiting for her where she’d left him. “Everything went well,” Ying said. “Your real body is waiting for you in your dorm-pod, so it might feel kind of strange when you wake up this time.”

Jagung was excited. “Well, let’s find out.” He woke up. “I don’t feel different at all,” he said to Chinglad.

“Good,” said Chinglad. “Not different is good.”


Back to Top


Chapter 26: Money



Hank walked out onto the street, and then he realized he was naked. Then he realized this was a dream, and so it didn't matter. He walked along the sidewalk, and came to a store with big plate-glass windows. A little kid walked right through the glass. "Ooh, that looks fun," he thought. So he walked through the glass four or five times, like passing through a soap bubble film. There was a peculiar little thrill when he passed through the glass.

An old lady dressed like she was rich came along the sidewalk. He stopped her and said hi. They shook hands. He asked what her name was, and she said, “Barbara.” She asked if he worked hard, and he laughed and said, “Don't we all?” Some young women came along. They stuck their heads through the glass of a nearby window and laughed at each other.


~*~

Epfid’l discovered the wonderful world of bar-hopping. Alcohol didn’t affect her at all, but garlic did, so she’d drink beer and eat garlic chips and get very cheerful. She liked being picked up and taken home by guys, or for that matter by lesbians too. She didn’t distinguish between the sexes. “Sex with humans is nice,” she thought, “though nothing like with a Sklimery.” With another Sklimery, sex would have been a different thing. The two bodies would have literally interfused, and each one would have come away with the life memories of the other.

She made no secret of her sexual escapades with Hank. “Oddly enough,” he said, “I don’t feel jealous. I think I might if you were a human woman, but I know you’re not going to leave me for anybody on this planet.”

Epfid’l laughed. “I’m not going to leave you at all, silly cowboy. What is it you've told me? There’s no off-switch on love?”

She also enjoyed playing pool. Since she could control the balls with dream-power, it wasn’t the game that interested her. It was the melodramas she could cause. Fights were the most fun, and very easy to get started. She'd slip a little bit into dream-time when they did so she couldn’t be hurt, and she’d try to escalate the fights up to the point where the police arrived to break it up. Then she’d slip a little farther into dream-time and turn invisible, and walk away chuckling.

But mostly she stayed home with Tling and Hank. For the first time since he'd become Captain, they had time to spend together. They had picnics in the back yard on a blanket spread out on the grass. They played with Tling, who was getting better at flying in gravity. She'd fly around them like a blue cherub, and then fly off and perch in the trees. Epfid'l would fly up to get her, and tickle her on the way down.

Sometimes Tling would go to sleep on the blanket. Watching her sleeping curled up in the sunlight was so satisfying to Hank that he tried to memorize just how she looked, like taking snapshots for the album in his mind. He knew these were precious times, and he wanted never to forget them.

Sometimes in his dreams baby Tling would come to him, and they would frolic in the dream-sky. "Like baby lambs gamboling in a meadow," he thought. "This is happiness."


~*~

Gubby went to skate-boarding parks every evening and stayed till they closed. “The gravity on this planet is great,” he’d say on his way out the door. “You guys are missing a golden opportunity here.”

During the days he spent time buying mementos and trying to build up some contacts with the criminal world. “There is one thing humans are good at,” he commented to Hank one day. “It’s curious that the majority of your race isn’t really motivated to master anything but crime, but at least you’ll fit right in when you get out into the galaxy.”

Flizz kept the college kids organized and fed with pizza. Every day another eight or ten thousand disks were scanned and beamed up to the Mefrina. Every evening they had a party in the back yard. Half the neighbors complained, and half joined in. The ones who joined in had a great time.

Flizz didn’t bother to stay in a light trance so that he could present whatever outward appearance he wanted. He told the college kids he was an ET from outer space, and they laughed and thought he had some kind of genetic condition, but they didn’t care either way. Anyone who met him could tell instantly and at a visceral level that he wasn’t human, but what surprised Flizz was that nobody seemed to care. "I guess there's some advantage to living in a liberal city," he thought.

Hank spent some time reconnecting with old friends, going out to lunch or dinner or to play video games. But to his distress he found his old friends were hard to relate to, by and large. Their lives seemed so small. They seemed so preoccupied with themselves. “Boy, if I were going to stay here," he thought, "I’d have to search out some new friends."

One day he felt like talking with Epfid’l and she wasn’t around. He picked up a computer screen off the coffee table and found Ying had time to talk.

“What would you do if you were in my shoes?” Hank asked her. "I feel torn."

Ying curled her tentacles. “Well, I don't wear shoes, so it’s hard to say. I was born on a planet so overpopulated there was nothing but endless city, hundreds of stories deep. From the time I was a hatchling I wanted to get away. Your situation is different. Your planet still has natural beauty. Is that why you’d think of staying?”

“No, I'm not really thinking of staying. But it’s the women. And the familiarity, the comfort of gravity and sky and a city I know well. There's an old song: ya gotta know your territory.”

Ying giggled. “Well, the question is, now that you’re aware of the wider galaxy that awaits you, would those familiar things be enough?”

“That is the question. It sounds like it was easier for you to let go cuz you didn’t have anything to lose?”

“It isn’t about how much you have to lose. It's about how much you have to gain.”

“You mean in the pirate life?”

“Yes, but it's more than that. You live in a bigger universe now. To me life on one planet seems so narrow. Besides, from what I hear on the grapevine, the whole preserve is being opened soon. Isn’t this one of those situations where you’re floating down a river and it doesn’t matter which way you float around the island, you wind up in the same place?”

Hank smiled. “I suppose you're right. But the scenery is kind of different on the left side of the island as opposed to the right side of the island....”

Ying chuckled. “Exactly. That's why we have omens, dear boy.”


~*~

Things had quieted down aboard the Mefrina, and Chinglad had time to herself. One day she withdrew into her pod and asked the computer tp turn the lights down. Her mind quieted until she could drift into trance, and then she deepened the trance until she dropped into dream-time. She felt as though she were a flower opening. Stress dropped away.

"And where will I find Noko this time," she wondered. "He's never in the same place twice."

She followed her omens through jungles and over cloud-topped mountains. A trail of tiny singing dragonflies led her deep into a thunder-storm. With lightening crackling around her and turbulence tossing her to and fro, she found Noko. He was hanging in the air in a pose of active meditation, as still as though he were carved from jade.

But then he turned and looked at her. "Welcome, my friend," he said. "I thought I'd show you one of my favorite spots." And he waved a hand at the light-show around them. Lightening made the clouds light up from within. Chinglad could hardly hear him over the thunder.

"Thank you for helping into beyond-the-beyond," Chinglad said. "You were right about seeing with my own eyes. Now I feel like there's something I actually know."

Noko laughed. "Dear friend, there's more. The reason you found me is because you're ready for more."

"I am?"

"Oh yes. The beneficence of coincidence is like a wish-yielding tree. So, come with me. Are you ready?"

"No," said Chinglad. Noko giggled and turned over into a dive straight down. Chinglad followed as best she could. Down through the storm they shot like arrows, and then down through the rain.

"Here's another of my favorite spots," Noko called over his shoulder. "The Inverted Well of Ganubria." Below them, in a clearing in a forest, Chinglad could see a stone wall around a wishing well. "What do you wish for?" shouted Noko.

And he accelerated even more, leading her in a screaming sizzling dive, whistling through the air, straight down into the darkness of the well's mouth.

There was a flash of light, and Chinglad found herself shooting up through the ceiling of dream-time into the beyond. The speed thrilled her. Past the floating islands she zinged. She watched for the mirrored surface of the beyond, and when she saw her reflection zooming down at her, she felt a great longing bloom. She met herself with a sound like thunder, and like a bolt of lightening she crackled up into beyond-the-beyond.

All was light and warmth and love. Shades of gods and goddesses passed by her, invisible, leaving only aromas like jungle flowers. Peace filled her, and bliss. All she could think was, "Mmmmmm."

Time passed without passing. After a long time that could have been a short time, Chinglad found herself falling gently down through the mirror sky into the beyond. Happy and content, she drifted down past the floating islands until she landed on the upper surface of dream-time. She sailed like a little ship, blown by a fresh breeze, until she heaved a sigh and sank.

Falling through dream-time like a happy flower falling from a tree, she realized she'd brought another gift back with her from her flight. "This world is not our home," she thought. "Not wake-time or dream-time or even the beyond. But there is a place that is. And everyone gets back there eventually. No one is lost or forgotten. Though some," she thought ironically, "do take longer than others."


~*~

Sasha spent her time knocking about with Epfid’l or Gubby. She hadn’t been hanging out with Ralph much since the aliens arrived. For one thing, he raised a lot of disturbing questions about accountants and lawyers and taxes and what they'd do with the money now that they had access to some.

“Can’t we just put the money in the bank?” she asked.

“If we deposit more than $10,000 at a time the bank has to tell the federal government. Then they’ll come knocking at our door wanting to know where we got it and if we paid taxes on it. What are we going to say? Oh, we got it from some aliens passing through?”

“You’re telling me we’re in trouble?”

“We’re in the same kind of trouble a dope-dealer would be in. We don’t have a way to explain any sudden abundance of money.”

“We have an embarrassment of riches, huh?”

"Yep."

So Ralph went to the library and started researching money laundering. And Sasha went to Epfid’l and asked her how to launder the money. “That’s easy,” said Epfid’l, “hire a lawyer. Lawyers can hide anything.”

“Lawyers again,” Sasha said.

"The problem," Epfid'l said, "is finding one you can trust."

"Ah."

For Sasha, this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, so she went back to focusing on learning what she could from the aliens and having fun while they were here. In a few days it would be over. Then there would be time for accountants and taxes and lawyers. The first thing she'd probably need is a personal assistant. "This is like becoming a celebrity," she thought, "but without the fame. Oh dear."


~*~

Hank had been out to Tigard to visit some friends he’d gone through veterinary school with, and he was on the freeway coming back. He’d borrowed Sasha’s green VW Rabbit, and he was driving north on I-5 when he saw a car stopped on the shoulder with the hood up. A woman in a business suit was standing next to it, hitch-hiking.

Hank pulled onto the shoulder ahead of the woman’s car, and she ran in her high heels to open the passenger door and look in. "That's amazing she can run in high heels," he thought.

"What a strange-looking man," she thought, "but that's Portland for you."

“Car broke down?” he asked.

“Again! Can you give me a ride?”

“Sure. Where you going?”

“Southeast Portland.”

“Oh, that’s easy then. I’m going there too. What part of Southeast?”

“It’s in Ladd’s Addition.”

Hank laughed. “What a coincidence. I’m staying with some friends who live in Ladd’s.”

“Really? How nice. You’re just passing through?”

“Yes, I used to live in Portland, but five years ago I got kidnapped by a UFO, and now I live on a spaceship out in space.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Nope, that’s actually what happened.”

“You’re crazy, right?” No wonder he looks so strange.

“No, though you’re not the first person to say so.”

“You live on a spaceship? OK, what’s that like?”

“It’s not for everyone, but I like it. It’s kind of like high school.”

“Are there women?”

“Not human ones. I mean, there are a few human women out there, but I almost never run into them. My girfriend is an alien. She’s a shape shifter, so she can look like a human woman. Sort of.”

The woman smiled. “You have sex with an alien woman?” When she smiled she was beautiful.

“Yep. She’s nice. Her name’s Epfid’l.”

“Ep what?”

“Epfid’l. She’s a Sklimery. Her race lives in big spaceships full of water.”

“They don’t drown?”

“No, they don’t need to breathe at all. They can go out into space without a spacesuit. Very handy.”

“Is your spaceship full of water?”

Hank laughed. “On no, it’s full of air. But there’s no gravity, so we don’t walk around in it. We fly.”

She grinned. “Like Peter Pan?”

“Yep.”

"Oh great, another guy who never grew up," she thought. “Who’s we?” she asked.

“The other crew-members are aliens of all different kinds. Well, about a third of the crew. Most of the crew are robots.”

“Robots? Like mechanical people?”

“No, they’re all kinds of shapes, but mostly not humanoid. They look like insects or octopi or tropical fish. Chinglad, for example, looks like a purple cylinder with arms at one end and eyes at the other.”

“Who’s Chinglad?”

“Good friend of mine.” Hank took the exit off the freeway that dumped them onto Belmont. He took a right onto Grand, a left on Hawthorne, and a right on Sixteenth. Now they were in Ladd’s Addition, and the woman directed him to her house. They pulled up in front of a classic Portland Victorian house, and the woman turned to face him.

“Would you like to come in for a drink?”

“Uh,” said Hank, “I don’t really drink....”

“Well, would you like to come in for sex?”

“What? Wow! Oh. Sure.” Hank was startled and amazed. “You're very direct. I thought you thought I was crazy.”

She laughed. “You may be. But more important, you’re passing through. No strings.”

“OK,” Hank said, and got out of the car. He followed her into the house. It was furnished in a casual way, with lots of house-plants. She kissed him in the living room, and they never made it to her bedroom. They were lucky to make it to a couch.

Under her business suit she wore silk, and under the silk her skin was warm and electric. She came twice on the couch and twice more on the floor. She kissed Hank all over his face and hands as her breathing slowed. “Holy cow,” he said. “That was wonderful!” He kissed her back.

“Once more,” she said. “And this time you come.”

His aura flashed when he came, and he felt like he arced up out of the mundane like a porpoise leaping out of water into sunlight.

Afterwards they snuggled for awhile, and then she drifted off to sleep. Hank wasn’t sleepy, and after awhile he got up to go. She half woke. “G’night, Jerry,” she mumbled sleepily.

He realized he didn’t know her name. He dressed and let himself out, and it felt odd that it was the middle of the afternoon. He drove the few blocks to Ralph and Sasha’s apartment, feeling a strange mixture of happiness and sadness. As a sexual adventure, the encounter had been a rare and wonderful escapade. As a connection it hadn’t been better than making love with Epfid’l or Mary. It hadn’t even been as good. “Sex gets better with time together,” Hank thought. “How odd that men are built that way. And how ironic that women prefer sex with strangers. Dirt may not be the strangest place in this galaxy, but I’ll bet it runs a close second.”

Hank remembered a bumper sticker he'd once seen: "The worst sex I ever had was wonderful!" "Probably written by a man," he thought.

No one was in the apartment when Hank got there. He let himself in and got a glass of iced tea out of the refrigerator. “I wonder where Epfid’l is,” he thought.


~*~

Hank tied two boards together in an X, and then tied eight or ten small angels with tiny harnesses to the ends of the boards. He sat in the middle and shouted encouragement to the angels. They fluttered their wings and lifted him, carried him to twice treetop height, and then along a green valley.

Hank felt tiny claws grab his left shoulder, and he turned his head to see the green bird laughing at him. With a rush he surfaced into lucidity. The angels and the boards faded out, and he was flying along in a seated position. The green bird urged him higher, and she took off from his shoulder to lead the way. Hank shifted to flying face-down, as though he were in a hang glider, as though he were Superman.

He looked back as the surface of Dirt dwindled behind him. They passed through clouds and kept going up. As the light became brilliant, Hank looked around and discovered he could see faint strings stretching out from his body in all directions. The drag of the strings slowed his flight, and the green bird came back to laugh and chitter in his face. Hank was surprised, and then had to laugh back.

When he looked back at the strings, they no longer seemed heavy. Beads of rosy light were traveling along them towards him. Each one impacted his body with a feeling like being tickled.

The green bird showed him how to focus on the string that happened to be stretched in the direction he wanted to go. He let himself be pulled through the air. It was faster and easier than flying.

Far away, in another part of dream-time, Epfid’l swam in a huge golden river. She was in her porpoise form, and underwater. She swam against the current, going toward the source. The swimming was invigorating, the turbulence along her body like caresses. Next to her swam baby Tling, mimicking her porpoise shape. Tling's giggles came out her mouth in little bubbles and streamed back along her sides.

They could taste the source in the water. It was delicious, with a taste like the smell of the exotic flowers that bloomed aboard the Sklimery ship when Epfid'l was a child. They swam on and on, ecstatic, thrilled, exulting.


~*~

Hank woke up crying. He didn’t remember his dream, so he didn’t know why he felt such a sense of loss. He didn't realize he'd made the final decision to leave Dirt forever. He didn't even know there'd been a decision deep down in his unconscious mind to be made.

Gubby and Flizz were in the kitchen when he got up. They were feeding baby Tling flowers with garlic and fruit fritters. He had breakfast with them, and he was sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper when Epfid’l walked in the door. She came over and looked at the paper over his shoulder. “Hmmm, police broke up a fight at a local bar last night," she said. "They’re concerned about a string of recent bar-fights in the area. Guess who, guys.”

Gubby and Flizz looked sceptical. “What have you done?” Gubby asked.

“Was that you?” Flizz wanted to know.

Epfid’l looked shy. “Yes, it was,” she admitted.

Gubby gave a bronx cheer. “You go, girl!” Flizz said. "Usip would be proud."

Hank said, “What? What are you guys talking about?”

“OK,” said Gubby, “enough fooling around. We’ve copied about 75,000 disks up to the ship. We’ve got music. We’ve made and spent a fortune. We’ve stimulated the local economy. We helped the library. We even got Thlad a saxophone. The ship has been monitoring the police radios here in Portland, and they say we’re getting close to being busted. So Chinglad says it’s time to close up shop and get back to the ship.”

“Ying tells me they made Jagung’s transfer,” Flizz said. “So that’s done. Everything's done. When we get back to the ship you can resign as Captain.”

“Not soon enough,” Hank growled.

Gubby looked sadly at Hank. “There is some bad news.”

“What? What bad news?”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the crew on the ship had a meeting, and you’ve been kicked off the crew.”

“What!”

“So you can’t come with us. You'll have to stay here on Dirt.”

For a moment the world spun dizzily around Hank, and then he noticed that Epfid’l was trying not to laugh.

“You guys!” he said. They laughed till Flizz fell off his chair.


~*~

Ralph and Sasha were surprised to hear the aliens were leaving. Ralph felt more than a little relieved. “Well, let’s throw a party,” he said. “I think we can afford it.”

That day Ralph and Sasha spent a lot of time on the phone, and Epfid’l called a bunch of the people she’d met while bar-hopping. The next night was bright and noisy with their Come-As-An-Alien party. The real aliens were a big hit, once people got a little drunk. Flizz won the Most-Enthusiastic-Dancer award, and Gubby won the Best-Alien-Costume prize.

Towards the end of the party Gubby fell asleep in an armchair. For a joke Flizz went around the house and set all the clocks ahead five hours, and then he fell asleep on the back lawn, curled up like a sleeping dog.

Hank and Epfid’l kicked a bunch of merry-makers out of the spare bedroom, and they made love on the king-sized bed. They were exhausted from the dancing, and tipsy from the beer and pot and garlic, but it was wonderful anyway. “This is the last time we’ll make love in gravity for who knows how long,” she crowed. “Let’s see how many times I can come.”

“You’re such a delicate soul,” Hank laughed. “Who’ll keep count?”

“You’ll have to. When I'm coming I can't even tell you my name.”

Afterwards Hank and Epfid’l snuggled awhile, and then she tipped over the edge and fell straight down into dream-time without going to sleep first.

“Welcome,” said her power animal, the white lizard.


~*~

Flizz’s joke went off the next day when Gubby got everyone up at six in the morning. “The transport comes at noon. We’ve only got an hour, and we aren’t even out of bed yet.”

Then he noticed that outside the windows it was barely dawn, and he checked the time on the grapevine. “Oh,” he said. “Flizz can stay up and pack. The rest of us can go back to bed.” And he lay back down on the couch. Flizz smothered his giggles and went back out to sleep on the lawn.

Hank and Epfid’l and Ralph wound up getting up anyway, and they sat around the kitchen table having an early breakfast. “I’m going to miss you guys," Ralph said. "But I'm not sure whether I like the changes. Before you came I was struggling to survive. Now I’m suddenly both rich and a criminal, and I have a whole different set of problems. The new problems are scary.”

Hank laughed. “If only we got to choose, huh?”

“Life is good though,” said Epfid’l, "even though it's scary." She saluted them with her cup of cocoa. “Here’s to sexual abundance.”

“Hear, hear!” said Hank.

“And to financial abundance,” said Ralph. "I think."


~*~

Gubby and Flizz went out to get a last few things. On the way out the door Gubby stuck his head back in and said, “Say, Hank, we might as well just meet you guys at the landing site. Where do you want the saucer to come down?”

“Let’s meet them back out at the landing field, and.... No, wait a minute. This is better. Tell them to land in Waterfront Park between the Hawthorne Bridge and the Morrison Bridge. We’ll meet you guys there at noon. This will be great!”

Gubby gave him a grin and went out the door. He and Flizz went downtown and bought some musical instruments, a tape measure a hundred feet long, and some toys. On their way out of the toy store Flizz asked a man with his arms full of packages to hold one end of the tape for him. “I’ve just got to measure a distance from here around that corner. You look like a nice person. Would you do me a favor and hold this? Thanks so much.”

He unreeled the tape behind him as he walked around the corner. He stopped a woman going by. “If you’d just hold this end of this tape measure, please? Just for a little bit? I need to check the other end. OK? Thanks very much.”

Flizz walked back around the corner, and just as he rounded it he stepped aside into dream-time and vanished. The woman at one end of the tape thought he’d gone around the corner. The man at the other end of the tape was trying to shift his packages to look at his watch. He looked around for Flizz, but he was gone. He looked for the guy that looked like a lizard, but he was gone too.


~*~

Waterfront Park formed a strip of green in the middle of Portland on the west bank of the Willamette River. Ralph and Hank were leaning on the stone balustrade looking at the water flowing by and saying goodbye. Near them Sasha and Epfid’l leaned with their backs to the river, people-watching. Epfid'l was holding Tling and trying to keep her from flying away.

“Well, that was fun,” Sasha said wryly. “Come visit anytime.”

“I’d love to,” said Epfid’l. “You were great fun to party with. And I’ve come to feel you’re a friend.”

“Me, too. You’re a nice person. Though you’re kind of shameless, girlfriend. My goodness, I thought I was a partier, but you take the cake.”

“Well, thank you. I think I discovered what Dirt is good for.”

“Dirt?”

“Oh. You call it Earth.”

“Oh. It's good for partying?”

"That seems to be it's natural function. We left you the computer scree. It works as an interstellar radio. So you can call anytime.”

“I will. I’m going to need your advice. There’s an old Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Well, it seems clear that we’re cursed.”

“Oh, indeed,” said Epfid’l.

Gubby walked up to them, carrying two bags of presents. “Where’s Flizz?” Hank asked him.

“He’ll be here in a minute,” Gubby said, looking around.

A silver saucer came down through the bottom-most layer of grey clouds 200 meters above the city and descended slowly toward the park.

“Here he comes now,” said Epfid’l, pointing across the grass.

Flizz came trotting through the scattered crowd. He had a sack of presents across each shoulder, and he was wearing a Santa Claus outfit, complete with fake beard. “Look, Mommy,” cried a little girl. “It’s Santa! Is it Christmas?”

People were starting to look up and point. The saucer floated steadily lower.

Flizz walked over to the little girl and gave her a bag of presents. "Merry Hanukkah," he said.

“Nice threads,” Gubby said to Flizz as he strolled up.

The saucer was getting bigger. Some people reacted by running away, and some reacted by running toward. Some tourists from Japan reacted by getting out their cameras. A dense crowd was forming in a ring underneath the landing point.

“Well, guys,” Hank said. “It’s time to go. It’s been good.” There were hugs all around, and then Ralph and Sasha stayed by the stone wall while their four visitors walked to the ring. Tling kept popping up into the air and then flying back to her mama.

They made their way through the ring of people and walked out into the open center. The saucer was the height of the tops of the old oaks in the park, and settling lower.

When the bottom of it was about three meters off the ground, the saucer stopped. A hole dilated in the center of the curved bottom, and an elaborate staircase unfolded out and down till it touched the ground. Toogodda came floating down the staircase wearing nothing but her yellow harness. “Take me to your leader,” she said, and her amplified voice reached everyone in the crowd. They gasped as one.

Hank laughed. “Very funny,” he said. Gubby and Flizz handed their bundles up through the hatchway and climbed up into the saucer. Waves of murmering went through the watching gathering. Epfid’l walked grandly up the stairway, waving like a movie star. Tling cooed and imitated her. Hank took a last look around, at the grey sky and the green grass and the crowd of human faces.

“Say, can you amplify my voice like that?” he asked Toogodda.

“Sure. OK, go ahead. You're on.”

Hank took a couple steps away from the stairway and opened his arms in a grand gesture. “Greetings, citizens of Dirt. I come to bring you a grand message from outer space. May you always have peace and love. And may the force be with you!”

He took a bow and climbed the steps. Toogodda floated up behind him, and the stairway folded into itself and withdrew into the saucer, and the hatch closed.

“Welcome back,” said Thlad. “Make yourselves comfortable.” There was a ring of seats below a cyrstal dome. Hank sat down, and the seat formed itself to his body. “Goo seats,” he said. “Nice.”

"Happy to the gills and brim," Thlad's parrot said.

“Everyone settled?” Thlad asked. “Good. I’ll be your pilot for this flight. Your attendant will be Toogodda, who will be serving refreshments of honey-baked peanuts and apple juice. And hydrogen peroxide for the ladies.”

The saucer lifted up to the height of the trees, and then higher. It went up a lot faster than it had come down, so it was soon lost in the grey ceiling at 200 meters. The crowd milled in the park as people hooted and hollered and excitedly compared what they’d seen and heard.

High above them, the saucer changed shape a bit to lessen the turbulence as it zoomed toward space. The rushing sound slowly died away as the air thinned.

The flight lasted forty minutes, and it was beautiful. Thlad turned the saucer over so that the view of the planet was superb. They watched the great panorama until they docked in one of the larger pods on the surface of Mefrina.

There was a welcoming group to conduct the landing party to the main lounge, where the rest of the crew waited, and they were in a mood to party.

The crew was delighted with the hoard of new music, and they wanted to hear Thlad play his new saxophone. He complied, with dismal results. He wasn't embarrassed at all. "Root a toot toot," the parrot cried.

“Before we party,” Hank announced, “I’d just like a round of applause for Epfid’l, Gubby and Flizz. Thank you, thank you. And I’d just like to say that the time has come for me to resign as Captain. I’ve come to have a new and heightened awareness of the dangers of responsibility. And so in conclusion I’d like to say, I don’t want to lead you anymore, anywhere, anyhow.”

The crew cheered, and the music started, and the dancing.

In the middle of the party Hank felt himself turned inside out twice, and he knew the ship had been pulled up into hyper-space and was on its way out of the system.


~*~

Forgotten, the hang-gliders were left soaring over the Cascade Mountain Range. They stayed so high that they were only glimpsed on rare occasions. Once the landing party had departed, the gliders drifted out over the Pacific Ocean, where they were sometimes seen from passing ships. They changed shape continually, looking sometimes like giant gulls or hawks or pteranodons. The sightings gave rise to strange myths. Arabian sailors said they’d seen the Roc. Chinese sailors said they’d sighted a dragon or a phoenix. Africans thought they’d seen various tribal deities. Russians reported flying dinosaurs, and South Americans talked of Quetzalcoatl’s return. North Americans said they didn’t know what the hell they’d seen.


Back to Top


Chapter 27: Dragon



Hank was a member of an expedition to discover the source of all evil. Linked by ropes, the five men climbed up a snow-field, with a white storm swirling around them. Higher and higher they scrambled, and then huge creatures loomed through the blowing snow ahead. Hank panicked. With his ice-ax Hank chopped through the ropes ahead and behind, and he ran downhill. He couldn’t see where he was going, but he ran anyway with huge leaping bounds.

The mountainside became less steep, and Hank had glimpses through the blowing snow of houses. He realized he’d come to a village. Just as he realized he was on a street, he lost his footing and fell. The street was coated with black ice, and he slid spread-eagled for blocks, revolving slowly as he watched the houses go by in the fog. An old man standing on the sidewalk called to him as he glided by. “Look out! Four blocks more and there's nothing!”

Looking ahead, Hank could see a rail fence crossing the street. He grabbed the lowest rail as he slid under, and he managed to stop himself. It was a good thing he did, because twenty meters beyond him the land dropped fifty meters as suddenly as though it had been cut by a bulldozer. Beyond the lip was empty desert, stretching to the horizon. The desert was polished and black.

Hank woke up feeling cold and lonely, and he slithered out of his hammock. He put on his harness and flew to the main lounge for breakfast. Epfid’l was hovering at a table, sipping from a flask of seawater, and feeding baby Tling miniature pancakes. Hank got a breakfast of fruit stew and cinammon cupcakes from the buffet and joined her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“What, is it that obvious?”

“It is to me.”

“I had a bad dream. I was looking for the source of evil.”

“Did you find it?”

“Yes. In a sense. In the dream I found it comes from the desert.”

Epfid‘l smiled. “Really? What did it look like?”

“I didn’t see it. But I felt chilled to the bone.”

“Great! Powerful dream.”

“But I don’t know what it means.”

“You will, someday. These things take time.”

"How's our baby doing?"

"Very well. She's happy. And she said her first word today."

"Really! What was it?"

Tling looked at him and smiled her beautiful baby smile and said, "Mama."


~*~

The Mefrina was in hyper-space, coasting down a Naburbian feeder channel. She was headed for a sea of wind that pooled on the lower surface of hyper-space. At the far end was an out-flow that was the only way to pass the Garilian reef which formed a natural dam. In a skidding turn Mefrina came out of the feeder channel into a major canyon, heading down-stream. Her pups chirped as they followed her, and the fireflies sounded like tiny violins.

A dark form like a shadow clung to the side of the canyon wall. It was monstrous, as big as the ship. As Mefrina passed, the darkness detached itself from the wall and leaped.

Alarms went off all over the ship and the grapevine. “Come on!” Epfid’l yelled, and leaped into flight across the lounge toward the main hall. Hank leaped after her, glancing at the computer screens scattered around the lounge. He saw a spreading black silhouette.

“What is it?” he yelled to Epfid’l ahead of him.

“Space-dragon,” she yelled back. They went out the door of the lounge at full speed. The hall was full of crew speeding towards their battle-stations. Toogodda came zooming out of the poker lounge and followed Hank through the teeming chaos.

Robots jumped to their battle-bodies outside the ship, and sang as they went into battle. The dragon batted them aside and hit the Mefrina without slowing. Reverberations caromed through the ship. Epfid'l, Tling, Hank and Toogodda were in a smaller hallway how, and the wall hit Hank such a slap that he was stunned. Toogodda looked back and yelled, and then came back for him.

Epfid’l was ahead, and she and Tling rode out the shipquake undamaged. She zoomed into the little pod that was their battle-station and grabbed her weapons out of her locker. She put baby Tling into a stasis ball the size of a basketball and turned on the time stopping function.

Screams and shouts echoed in the halls. The air in the ship shivered as the dragon tore chunks out of the ship. Emergency stomata snapped shut to seal off hallways.

Something in Gowrung’s battle-body had failed, and he was trapped aboard the ship. He was struggling to get forward to help defend the storage pods where the spare bodies were kept. If the dragon ate those, death would be permanent for whoever got killed. He raided a weapons locker on the way and took what he could carry.

On the side of the ship away from the dragon, Ronam and Ch’glop and Dinf wrestled a large device out of a hold-pod into space. Other robots joined them, and they dragged it in an arc away from the ship and then around it to get a clear field of fire. Ronam gave instructions over the grapevine to activate the device, and then he aimed and fired. "Ei caramba!" he shouted. A blasting, cold, crackling, blue beam hit the dragon in a shower of snow crystals.

Slowly the dragon turned from its feast, and a few of its many eyes locked on Ronam and the robots around him, just as Ronam fired another beam. The dragon snarled and leaped, and the ship spun from its push-off.

The dragon dispersed the robots clustered around the beam weapon with one swipe of a wing, and it batted the device away like a well-hit ball. Ponderously it turned back to the ship. The cold had slowed its movements, though, and Chinglad led a squad that was able to zoom in and chip off a piece of the dragon’s outer armor and get away again.

The dragon screamed in annoyance and went back to feeding. A small pod made a nice mouthful, with whatever was in it adding piquance. Sections of hallway had a richly flavored sweetness that was particularly delightful, because it was coupled with a delicate crunchiness that lent just a nuance of licorice.

Hank and Toogodda had almost made it to their battle-pod when the dragon snapped up that section of hallway and crushed them both between black teeth.

A great flash lit up Hank’s mind, and for a moment there was stillness and he saw everything with crystal clarity. Then a shock too immense to feel hit him, and he was whirled away in a dark hurricane. A whistling roar deafened him, and something-- not his body, but some core of him-- seemed to diminish as he shed a trail of sparks and flames. He screamed, but he couldn’t hear himself. His agony intensified to a fever pitch. And the charred nugget that was all that was left of him exploded like a very beautiful fireworks display.


~*~

Thirty hornet scooters swung away from an undamaged part of the ship and swung around to attack in a phalanx. Boson bolts crackled and thundered. The dragon spat at the scooters as they dodged away. Hofnog got too close and didn't care. He let off a bolt anyway and got caught in the backlash. He ricocheted away trailing smoke, and he died.

The squadron looped around and came in on another dive. Pagile didn’t realize it, but he was yelling constantly. The bolts from their scooters thundered, and the dragon’s flank was smoking. It curled around and snarled at them. Ying aimed at the tiny gap in the armor left by Chinglad’s squad and died in a suicide dive.


~*~

Hank floated up through inky blackness. Slowly it became lighter as he rose. It brightened and brightened, and then with a pop as though he’d come through some kind of surface, he could think again. “I can think again,” he thought. His body felt light and free, and he was wearing feathers. He lifted his head and found that he stood on top of a green hill that rose above the flat floor of a rift valley.

The sun was going down, and the canyon walls were bathed in red and golden light. Five meters in front of Hank stood Death, watching him with a smile. Death was also wearing feathers, black and shiny. He was surrounded by hundreds of soap bubbles floating in the air. His eyes were inconceivably cold, and with the tiniest of lights floating in them.

Hank wouldn’t have believed he could turn his attention away from Death, but feelings began to rise up in him, demanding feelings, all the feelings he’d stored up in his body during his entire lifetime. They emerged into his awareness as music, and he found his feet being tugged here and there, his arms lifted. In anguish he let go and danced out the story of his life in a strange nonverbal language that combined motion and emotion. His story rolled out, epiphany by epiphany. His feathers changed color as he danced, from black with brown accents, to red with splashes of green, to blue with yellow highlights. And by the time he was exhausted and finished, his feathers were white.

Death opened his hand. On his palm was a tiny soap bubble. It began to expand till it was bigger than Hank. Suddenly Hank felt as though he’d been grabbed by a giant hand, and he was thrown into the bubble. Everything outside looked blue.

Hank found himself looking far up at Death, who had become huge. Death flew away with his flock of bubbles. Hank could see that each bubble contained a being. One of them he recognized: Toogodda floated like a silver seahorse in a blue bubble.

And then a net of sparkling lights swept through space and caught the bubbles. Hank could see Death get smaller as the net carried them away.


~*~

The second wave of hornet scooters suceeded in driving the dragon away. It turned from the ship, snapping at the fighters like a moose attacked by dogs. It spread its huge wings and flapped away down-wind. The battle-bots fired some parting shots after it and limped back to the ship, towing the dead and wounded.

The damage was horrifying. More than thirty pods had died, as well as six organics and forty robots. The captain who'd taken over from Hank was named Spow. He had so much to do he was frantic, and he wept without noticing it as he worked. Rescue Teams hauled the wounded to infirmary pods. Repair Teams began what would be a long recovery process. The Computer Team began trying to get the central computer out of shock. The Ship's Accountants began totting up the losses. The storage pods full of spare robot bodies had survived. The Death Management Team made sure all the dead crew-members were safely stored in the central computer.

Some of them were singing, some of them were thrashing around in subjective space, some of them told long wonderful lies to no one, some of them dreamed of great adventures. All of them were temporarily insane, but some were more crazy than others.

The Ship's Cooks began preparing a meal for the survivors.

Later, when he had time for it, Captain Spow had the Maintenance Team scan for mass to see if the stowaway was still aboard, and he was.


~*~

The next day Janar was working a shift in the Communications Pod when he noticed a signal on the etheric detector. “Captain Spow,” he said over the grapevine, “we have a blip on the scope over here. We’re showing a scout-sized exhaust.”

The scout was trying to go up over the canyon wall. Captain Spow dispatched an attack force, and they leaped to their battle-bodies and overtook the little ship. It was a civilian cabin cruiser, the right size to hold one or two organics. The assault team blew its seals in less than thirty seconds and swarmed into the bridge, weapons ready.

A single organic being turned from the control console. It was roughly humanoid in shape, black in color, and the surface had a strange texture. As though it were shifting and moving on its own.

“A hive-being!” Barm shouted. “Stun him quick, or he’ll dissociate!” But it was too late. Tiny beings swarmed from the hive-being’s surface into the air, and it seemed to evaporate into a buzzing cloud.

“What do we do now?” Barm asked. “Anybody know how to put this guy together again?” No one did.

The team searched the vessel’s three rooms: bridge, galley and bedroom. The flitting swarm that filled the rooms made it hard to see. “Say, look at this,” Gleebi called. He held up a silvery glowing ring the size of a bracelet.

Barm whistled. “This dragon attack wasn’t an accident. It was lured here with this.”

“But that’s a Kai device,” Zarcool said. “What’s he doing with a Kai dragon ring?”

The team took the ring back to the Mefrina, leaving the hive being to re-associate on its own. It's challenge would be to reassemble and be back in control of the little vessel before it was swept out into the sea of wind. If it failed it would be lost and adrift for weeks, if not months.


~*~

Epfid’l grieved. She was up all night in the infirmary, crying while she held baby Tling, who didn't understand what was wrong. "Dada?" she asked.

A couple nights later Epfid'l was awake all night feeling angry. The pain of missing Hank was intense. Sometimes she thought she’d implode with sadness.

She spent her free time alone with Tling, and she spent time in the ship’s swimming pool. Baby Tling frolicked in her porpoise form. And Epfid'l spent time outside the ship in her space form. Tling zoomed around her like a little asteroid and was a great comfort. But still the pain was abyssal. "Why is this so heart-breaking?" she thought. No answer came.


~*~

A week after that she emerged from the grief like flying from shadow into sunshine. She spent the whole night lying awake, floating peacefully, exhausted and vulnerable. “Hoowie,” she thought, “when you don’t have problems in the relationship, the grief is a lot shorter. More intense, but shorter. How strange.” She still missed Hank, but it no longer hurt her to the core.

Oddly enough, she grieved longer for Toogodda, whom she’d known for years. Though the sadness was less intense.

“Life goes by,” she thought, “and it’s all crazy. And all one can do really is take hold of Mother Nature’s flipper and be as crazy as the rest of life. Which mostly isn’t that hard except when attachments are being ripped away. That part’s horrible. I wonder where Hank is now. Probably still in the computer. I wonder how he's feeling now....”


~*~

Baby Tling found Hank in her dreams, and they played together like two children. They romped through forests of giant flowers, and rode galloping around meadows on baby dragons. Sometimes they curled up together and napped on the petal of a huge orchid. Sometimes they flew among the clouds and played tag.

"Dada," Tling said, and hugged him.

"Tling," Hank said. It was the only word he could remember. Playing with Tling was like an oasis in the desert. When she was gone, he sank back into an ocean of insanity.


~*~

The computer screen lying on the coffee table made a sound like a forest of bells. Sasha happened to be in the living room, and she pushed the answer button. “Hi,” she said, “this is Sasha.”

“Hi, Sasha,” came the reply, “it’s Epfid’l.”

“Wow! How nice to hear from you.”

“Well, it may not seem so nice when you hear the news.”

“Really? What is it?”

“Hank was killed a week ago.”

“Ohmigod! What happened?”

“We were attacked by a space-dragon, and the dragon ate the part of the ship Hank was in.”

“Oh, that’s awful! Are you alright?”

“I’m OK now, though I was kind of a wreck the last week. But I know you and Ralph are old friends of Hank, so I thought you should know.”

“Yeah, for sure. It’s such a shock to know he’s gone.”

“Well, not completely gone. The ship’s etheric nets caught him as he died, and right now he’s in the ship’s computer. Soon he’ll be put into his new robot body.”

“He’ll be a robot?”

“Yes. About half as tall as he was before, but the same personality.”

“Wow, that is so weird. It’ll be so strange for him to never have sex again. He really liked sex.”

“Oh, he’ll have sex again, but only with other robots.”

“Robots can have sex?”

“Oh, yes. There’s some little ports that open, and male and female plugs. Sex is the same. They can have orgasms.”

Sasha actually laughed. “How ironic that Hank would die and come back as a sexy robot. Somehow that seems to fit. It must be sad for you, though. You and him can never be lovers again, right?”

“No. Not till I'm a robot too. I am sad about that. I’ll see him around the ship, and we’ll always be friends, but it’ll never be the same.”

“Welcome to planet Earth,” Sasha said. "No, I don't mean that. I mean, I'm sorry. For both of you."


~*~

When he wasn't with baby Tling, Hank was crazy. He was overwhelmed with feelings. Every feeling he’d ever felt came roaring up, all at once in a terrible cyclone of raw emotions. Thought was impossible. Terror at being alone, panic of the unknown, foaming rage, intense grieving, adoration of life’s wonder, sexual desire, ravening urges to kill, longing for an inconceivable satisfation, and hundreds of other feelings stormed through him in crazy proportions and a mad cavalcade.

Hank still felt like he had a body, but it was filled with creepy sensations and a tingling so brittle it was painful.

One by one, each exploding feeling had to be tracked back to its source. At first Hank didn’t realize he was doing that. But it was the only thing that gave him any relief, so he began doing it deliberately. He’d grab a feeling and immerse himself in it, following it back through earlier versions of the feeling, through memories and dream images that burst into his vision and then faded out, and eventually to an underlying belief. Many of these deep convictions weren’t ones he recognized or wanted to own.

“Everyone is alone.” “I deserve misery.” “I’m helpless and lost.” “God hates me.” “There’s a goal, but I’ll never get there.” “Love is real, but it’s useless.” “I’m stupid.” “I’m crazy.” “Life is meaningless.” "My needs will never get met.” “I deserve to be punished.” “I’m guilty.” “I’m a failure.” “I’m unreal.”

Hank discovered that he couldn’t deliberately change any of these core beliefs. All he could do was stay with them, hang out with them, they changed. And each belief released its hold on him. They changed into something true. "I'm real. I'm a success. I'm innocent." Slowly, with many setbacks, rational thought became possible again. Once it did, Hank discovered that his idea of who he was had changed. “I guess death is a good way to get to know yourself,” he thought, “though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Holy cow!”


~*~

Ying recovered a good deal more quickly than Hank since she’d done this before and since she hadn’t accumulated a lot of insanity since the last time. She worked through the exploding feelings and emerged feeling like she’d had a hot shower: clean and refreshed and invigorated. “Like the phoenix after the cinnamon fire,” she thought. “Some of these myths from Dirt are quite lovely.”

Spacrudda was busy leading the repair project. They were using the goo to repair those parts of the ship that could be fixed. Some parts couldn’t. The pods could only be replaced by tickling some of the young ones who flew like dark seals around the ship into metamorphosis. They would molt into tiny pods and then grow throughout their lives. The pod that was the main lounge was ancient, and the little pods would aspire to thrive and prosper and grow to be as big themselves.

Skrim was busy gathering volunteers to colonize Venus and packing his stuff. More than forty had decided to throw in with him. He went around the ship saying goodby to his mates, alternately excited and weeping. Through his tears he imitated himself as the Captain he'd once been and scolded his fellows, who wept with laughter.

Ronam got some goo from the Goo Pod and did some experimenting. He combined several items from the catalog and did some jury-rigging and came up with a new kind of robot body. It was crystalline. It didn’t look much different on the outside except for the shifting rainbow of colors, but on the inside it was comfortable and spacious in a way he’d never felt before.

When the other robots heard about this luxurious feeling, they besieged him to make new bodies for them. For several weeks Ronam was busy setting up the Crystal Bodies Pod and ramping up production so everyone could have a new body.


~*~

Jagung, now that he had his real body back, looked the same: like a large orange insect with four legs, and two antennae with hands on the ends. He still lived in the dorm-pod with Usip and Epfid’l and Tling. They were subdued at times, missing Hank and Toogodda and Hofnog. But they went together to the Martial Arts Pod for their daily training sessions, and his Jagung's shenanigans distracted them.

“It's such a hassle to be an organic,” he confided to his pod-mates. “I kind of envy Hank and Toogodda. They don't have to sleep anymore. Or eat, or bathe, or any of a thousand little maintenance chores.”

“468, actually,” Epfid’l said.

“What?”

“That’s how many maintenance chores there are for an organic body, class 2-C. Like you.”

“Oh. Well, that’s too many, in my opinion. Organic life is ridiculous.”

“Welcome to chaos,” said Usip.

“Not to mention all the little aches and pains.”

Epfid’l giggled. “And pleasures.”

Tling patted her mother's face with her tiny hands. "Yummy," she said.


~*~

When Jagung wasn't practicing martial arts with the other organics he was in training to become a member of the hyper-space team. One day Chinglad skidded into the Hyper-space Pod and took Jagung off to a meeting in a small lounge. Captain Spow was there, and Bos’n Splug, Thlad, Chinglad and Ying, who was already back from death and enjoying her new goo robot body.

“Well,” said Captain Spow, “you’ve accomplished what few beings in this universe have. You’ve gone from Empire agent to pirate in one long jump. Congratulations. So now that you’re a member of the crew, we thought it might be a good idea to have a little meeting and acquaint you with the facts of life.”

Jagung was startled. “What facts of life?”

"The little mad rabbit is jumping over the moon," the parrot said.

“Bos’n Splug, if you’d care to do the honors?”

“Certainly, thank you. It’s like this. I’m afraid you’ve run up a tremendous bill for the rescue. Holy coincidence, it’s high! So I’m afraid that until you get it paid off, you’ll have to be a slave.”

“A what?”

“A slave.”

“Of who?”

“Of us. Sorry.”

Jagung was so outraged his elbows hurt. He couldn’t believe the betrayal. “I don’t believe it,” he choked out. Everyone at the meeting but Jagung looked gleeful. They explained his situation in great detail, and eventually he did believe them. Then he was aghast and angry. He fumed and yelled, and the crew-members wept with joy.

“Why are you laughing?” Jagung yelled.

Through his tears, Bos’n Splug managed to gasp, “It’s just that you’re so perfect for all this.” And they went off into more gales of laughter.

“Perfect for what?” Jagung asked, but none of them could stop laughing long enough to answer him.


~*~

The Mefrina felt sick at the death of so many of her pods. They were her children. She flew far out into the sea of wind and called her young ones in. They crawled into the gaps between pods, and for awhile everyone was one mass of huddling sorrow.

When they came to the outflow over the Garilian reef, she released them again, and the youngsters shrieked with delight as they tumbled over the lip of the windfall. The ship fell, with her children rushing ahead and streaming behind. Their exuberance cheered the Mefrina. “Thank the Original Pod for the recuperative powers of the young,” she thought.


~*~

Usip was spending his off-duty hours mostly playing poker and going to band practice. He’d discovered that he was fascinated by stringed instruments, especially the viola. And he’d discovered that for playing the viola it was really nice to have three hands. Or in his case, three tentacles.

The band had grown. It was usually thirty to forty people now. Epfid’l was coming to band practice, and she was mostly playing flute and percussion these days. Her flute-playing had sweetened since Hank’s death. Thlad was often at band practice too, playing down and dirty saxophone. And getting better. His parrot played the maracas.

When Hofnog made it back from death, he threw a dance party. The band was sixty-strong for the dance, and during breaks various folk volunteered to be DJ for the ship’s massively increased music collection. The whole crew got so intoxicated the computer had to take control away from them and lock the ship down. They danced, they sang, they bounced off the walls. And Epfid'l made a little speech thanking Hank in absentia for music.


~*~

During his on-duty time Thlad was leading a team investigating the two Kai devices they’d captured, one from the Rinj and one from the hive creature. One ring glowed and one didn’t. Otherwise, except for size, they seemed identical.

The first discovery occurred when Chinglad tossed a small object through the glowing ring. It disappeared. Gone into thin air.

Tustom was a small robot with thin arms, and he volunteered to reach through the ring. His arm disappeared too, but when he pulled it back out it still existed. He stuck his arm through the ring again and felt around, but he couldn’t feel anything.

The next discovery came when Egfra touched the two rings together. The dull one began to glow too.

Kwing discovered that sound teleported through the rings as easily as objects. She spoke into one ring, and her voice came out the other with undiminished volume even when Tustom had carried the ring to the far end of the ship. “A communication device,” she shouted in excitement.

Next they discovered that a small object tossed through one ring came out the other. “A teleportation device,” Chinglad said. "It may not have been meant for that, but it seems to work that way."


~*~

Hank had discovered that he could use the walls of the bubble he was in as a screen on which to project his fantasies. “This is like learning to ride a bike when I was a kid,” he thought. He could evoke vivid dream realities. “It's like having my own holodeck,” he laughed. But they were closed pockets rather than true access to dream-time, so he was alone. And he felt lonely.

Suddenly a force from an unseen direction popped his bubble . He felt crushed. He felt exhilarated. A breeze grew into a high wind that blew right through him. Then it grabbed him, and in a long arc he flashed through gasping cold and flashing light.

He impacted, and he could feel the cratering of what he’d hit, and the seismic waves reverberating away from him in all directions.

When the huge bell sound had gradually died away, he found himself squeezed into a tiny place. In the darkness he could feel pressure from every direction. “This is intolerable,” Hank thought. He felt a weak place, a direction of softness, and he pushed there. A spark of light rushed toward him, and suddenly he could see.

He was in one of the robot infirmary pods aboard the Mefrina. Except that the pod was twice as big as when he’d last seen it. Chinglad was there, and Thlad and Hofnog and a few others. And they were bigger too, as big as he was. Hank felt boggled. “What’s going on here?” he tried to ask. But he heard nothing.

The pressure lessened. Something popped, and suddenly he could hear. “Welcome back, cowboy,” Chinglad said. “How are you doing?” But he couldn’t speak to answer.

Hofnog and Ronam were moving Hank’s arms and legs around for him like physiotherapists. At first he felt nothing, and then it did seem like the movement helped him to kind of feel his way into them. The first time his own hand and arm came into his field of view he was so shocked he almost fainted. They were made of metal. And the shape wasn’t right, more skeletal. Quite obviously not organic. Realization crashed in on Hank. “I’ve lost my body forever,” he cried. And he could hear himself speak.

“Quite right,” said Chinglad. “Welcome to our happy little club of the undead.”

"We happy few," said the parrot.

“You didn’t tell me it would be like this,” Hank croaked. Speech was hard because it didn’t involve moving a mouth.

“Oh, you mean going crazy? We knew you would. Everybody does. But if we’d tried to warn you, it would only have worried you for nothing. The only way to prepare would be to become completely sane before you die, and in the entire galaxy only a handful of people have done that. But we knew you’d survive. Everyone does. And you did, didn’t you? Here you are.”

“But I’m a robot now.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“No, I didn’t mean....”

“At least you’re through the worst time. It’ll never be like that again.”

“Even final death?”

Chinglad giggled. “Oh, I wasn’t talking about that. No one’s ever come back from that, so what it’s like is a great mystery. The only part that's not a mystery is that you're immortal. So you'll survive it.”

“You couldn’t be lying to me now, could you?”

Chinglad laughed out loud. “Of course I could. But I'm not. There's no longer any reason to.” Hank could see Chinglad's intentions in her aura. Auras were a lot brighter now. Hers was a rainbow-colored aurora borealis. Her only intention towards him was benevolence.


~*~

By the next day Hank could pretty much get around on his own. Having a robot body was starting to feel less strange. He found a mirror and took a look at himself. He was now a pinkish-tan robot a meter tall. His eyes were blue, in a metal head with pointed ears. His neck was a bendable tube, and his body was two pieces connected by another one. His arms and hands looked skeletal. "Holy cow," he said, flexing his fingers. He discovered that his fingers flexed both ways, so that either side of his hand could act as a palm.

Then he noticed his feet, and was he startled to see that they were now hands. “It’ll take you awhile to learn to use those,” Chinglad commented, “but you will.”

"I'm becoming more ape-like," Hank said. "And the circle is complete."

Later that day he realized why he felt so strange. He was awake and asleep at the same time now, all the time. It felt weird and uncomfortable at first, but gradually it was coming to feel more normal. Chinglad and Ronam hung out with him some of the time. They abused Hank’s feelings as though he were perfectly fine, which helped him to believe that he actually was. His shakiness was going away. He felt purged and mournful and floaty and glad to have company.

The first thing he did was change his skin color from tan to tie-dye. "I mean," he thought, "I am a hippie robot."


~*~

Three days later the staff in the robot infirmary told Hank he was unfortunately as sane as he was going to get, and they were done with him. Ronam showed Hank the way to the pod that would be his home now that he was a robot. It was nowhere near the organic dorms. It was way out in a robot residential section. The hallways were huge compared to his memory of them.

“Here are your new pod-mates,” Chinglad said. “This is Skred, this is Gooflim, say hello to Qung, and here's Freedop. They’ll help you get settled. Someday, when enough new pods have matured, you'll be able to have your own if you want. In a few days you’ll probably feel well enough that you’ll want to get back to work. Feel free to explore, play poker, go to band practice, get into trouble. You know, the usual.”

Hank felt a little queasy about it, but he went to see who was in his old dorm-pod. Epfid’l and Jagung and Usip were there, playing a sort of three-handed ping pong. Tling was trying to catch the ball in mid-air. They looked twice as big as he remembered them. Usip shouted in joy and gave Hank a hug that felt like being smothered in tentacles. Jagung was more sober. He said, “Congratulations, Hank,” and shook him by the foot. Tling hugged him around the neck. "Kiss kiss," she said. Hank was looking at Epfid’l, who was looking at him and crying.

“Hi,” she sobbed.

“Hi, Epfid’l,” he said. “It’s so good to see you. I was scared to come see you.”

“I know.” She changed into her naked woman form and gave him an awkward hug. “It's weird. But I still love you, whatever body you’ve got on.”

Hank sighed. “It’s different though.”

“Better than having you dead and gone altogether. And I do want to congratulate you,” she said tenderly. "You've made it through first death."

Hank looked at her. “I’ll miss you. I mean, I'll miss the old times with you.”

“I know. Me, too.”

“It was good.”

“Yes, it was great. Of course, it’s not altogether over. I made myself pregnant again with some of your DNA.”

“What!”

“You’re going to have a son. One of his natural shapes will be yours.”

Hank’s mouth would have been open if he’d had one.

“And it’s a Sklimery custom that it’ll be your honor to name him.”

"Oh. Wow. I don't know what to say."

Epfid'l smiled. "Say you're happy, cowboy. And say you'll help me raise him. And her." She gestured at Tling, who was flying happily in circles around him.

Hank would have smiled if he'd had a mouth. It showed in his aura. "I am happy. And of course I'll help you raise him. And her." He caught Tling and hugged her.

"Me too," said Jagung.

"And me," said Usip. "You know what they say: it takes a pirate ship to raise a child."


Back to Top


Chapter 29: Meeting



Usip flew through vast caverns, spinning as he went. To one side of him the air rippled, and Chinglad popped into being, flying along next to him. Chinglad was in her mini-dirigible form, and she was shooting along like a rocket. Usip knew her presence ought to remind him of something, and then he knew what it was. He shuddered through into lucidity. “Wow, that’s hard to do by myself,” he gasped.

Chinglad smiled. "That's why I'm here," she said.

She led him on a wild and swooping journey through smaller and smaller caverns till they were in the tunnels. A soft amber glow came from the tunnel walls. Chinglad zoomed around the twists and turns without slowing, and she didn’t decelerate when they flew into a vast dark chamber. Usip was scared nearly out of his wits, but he knew better than to lose her. Coincidence only knew how long she’d let him wander lost in the immensity of dream-time before she rescued him.

One whole side of the cave was a black lake, shining like a mirror. Chinglad headed straight for the surface at top speed, and Usip-- yelling like a Fleetnar-- was right behind her.

They burst through the surface into a vaster darkness. Usip could see nothing except small smoky fires scattered through a vast black void, and sparks rising up from them into the darkness. Usip reached forward and coiled the tip of a tentacle around one of Chinglad’s trailing hands as she flew. He was feeling dread. The void became thicker, deeper, emptier, more ominous. The fires flew past them like sputtering stars.

They came at last to the center of the void, and there-- coiled in darkness-- was a being floating in emptiness. The being was blacker than carbon, blacker than vacuum. It had thousands of smoldering red eyes. A vast mouth opened, and the interior glowed like molten lava. Plasma sprayed from its lips as it swung something like a head to focus on Chinglad and Usip.

Chinglad darted away.

But in Usip the fear crescendoed into a terrible exaltation. He genuflected by swinging into close orbit around the creature, keening songs of praise to the Gods of Chaos and Disorder. He circled in dizzy worship until Chinglad came in at a slant, snagged him and towed him away.

He howled his farewells to Chaos, and continued to sing like a drunk all the way back through the lake and along the tunnels. He was happy and angry and frightened all at once, and the throbbing hum of Chinglad’s ramjet soothed him. His singing slowed and stopped, and for awhile just being towed along by Chinglad was a rare and sweet experience. Then he remembered what he’d just seen, and he burst out crying.


~*~

Toogodda had emerged from her own wash-and-rinse cycle in the central computer telling jokes. Hank went to see her in the robot infirmary.

"You look good," Toogodda said. "You're the first person I've seen who was the right size. Though I like you better in blue." Toogodda resembled a mechanical seahorse made of crystal. She still had external ears and a back-fin, and she still had a horsey head and a tail and two arm-tentacles.

"They about ready to let you out of here?" Hank asked.

"Yep, pretty soon. I'm about used to this new body. "But I have a question for you, cowboy, now that we've both been there and back. It's made me curious. Now we know what happens after the first death. What do you think happens after the last death?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, aren't you curious? You and I were in bubbles being carried off by Death. I saw you. Then the net came and carried us into the computer. If we hadn't had the robot bodies to jump to, where would Death have taken us?"

"Good question. I don't know."

"All I've been able to find out is that it's somewhere beyond dream-time."

"Yes, I've heard of the beyond. Does anybody know what's it like there?"

"Nobody that I know knows. A few explorers have tried wrapping themselves in layers of dream-stuff for protection and then ballooning up into the beyond, but they all came back so dazzled that they couldn't say what they'd seen. All they could say was that it couldn't be described in words."

"Holy cow! That sounds great."

"Think of it. If a protective suit could be made somehow, you could hang-glide the beyond. Wouldn't that be something!"

Hank laughed. "Aren't you the thrill seeker? Aren't there enough thrills for you this side of the beyond?"

"Oh, sure. Plenty. But I have an odd longing to go there. I feel a strange kind of yearning that won't let go. And it's an odd coincidence that reality seems to be constructed in layers like a Fleeble-fruit. What do you suppose is beyond the beyond?"

Hank laughed. "The inconceivable, the impossible and the unmentionable...."


~*~

The Mefrina was crossing a Darlian tilted plain. Aquamarine, it stretched to the hyper-horizon. She was feeling better, though still depressed at times. Her dead children gave her pain, and her living children gave her hope. They frolicked around her, chasing the fireflies.


~*~

Hank was in the Engineering Pod talking with Ria when Chinglad called him on the grapevine and asked him to come to a meeting in one of the smaller lounges. Hank flew down the main hall, not even noticing the booby traps any more, and veered into the lounge.

Chinglad, Ronam, Thlad, Ying and Tustom were waiting for him. "Hi," said Chinglad. "Welcome to your orientation meeting. These are always fun, so we volunteered. Everybody gets one after the first time they die. Toogodda's having hers right now in another lounge."

Hank laughed. "I suppose you're going to tell me that you've been lying to me all along."

All five of them cracked up. Ying managed to gasp, "You've got such a suspicious nature. How could you think that?"

When they could control themselves, Chinglad said, "Of course we've been lying to you all along. We lied to you creatively and routinely."

Hank crossed his arms. "Well, I hope you're proud of yourselves." They were overtaken by fresh fits of laughter. "I can see this is going to be a typical meeting," Hank thought.

"Sweeten the beer, and call out the dancers!" said the parrot.

"So what haven't you been telling me so far?" he asked when they'd calmed down.

"Lots of things, space-bug," said Ronam. "You never had an infirmary bill, for one thing. That was a little joke we played on you just for our amusement."

"What? But I paid a ton of money for that. Where'd my money go, then?"

"Entertainment Fund."

"Oh great. That means I'll never get it back."

"Of course not. You being a slave was another joke, but you already know that. We had all the orghanics pretending to be slaves in order to fool Jagung, and then along you came. We were perfectly set up to fool you too. It was too good an opportunity to miss."

"Of course it was," Hank said. "For Pete's sake, don't you guys ever do anything straight?"

"Not if we can help it," Ying answered. "It goes against the Pirate Code. Remember that first meeting where we had to decide whether or not to space you? All a put on, of course. We'd never space such a sweet-natured dupe as yourself."

Hank's blue eyes darkened, his new version of a scowl. His aura had red streaks in it.

"Remember how your pod-mates helped you make escape plans?" asked Ronam. "Ei caramba, we had such a good laugh at that. And so did they."

"Remember when we put the helmet on you to take the mind-print?" asked Thlad. "Actually, we took your mind-print when you were first taken aboard, before you'd even awakened."

"That one I knew about," Hank said.

"We surely enjoyed ourselves with you," Chinglad chuckled.

"I'm sure your did. You love your pointless jokes."

"Oh, they weren't pointless. Not at all. They had the general point that all such creative acts have: to sport with power. But everything we did also had a specific point for you. You came to us riddled with self-pity."

"What?"

Ying whistled sadly. "You were an incredible and pathetic figure. And yet the omens said you were important for our future. We couldn't believe it! But of course we did what power demanded anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"We had no hope that we could squeeze the self-importance out of you in time for you to survive, let alone in time to help us with our mission. But we undertook the task anyway. We knew power was going to make severe demands on you, and we had no reason to think you'd succeed. You wouldn't believe the odds people were getting on your failure. And the fortunes that were lost when you didn't."

"You bet on me? You bet that I would lose?"

"Personally, I lost a great deal," said Chinglad. "But Ying lost much more than I did. But we did what was right. We threw you in with the organics and let them act like their natural selves. We all thought you'd break in some fashion, probably by going mad. But to our surprise and bafflement you made it. Some of the crew still don't believe it. Many fortunes were lost in the betting. Some people were ruined altogether."

"Not you, I hope," said Hank sweetly.

"Oh no," said Chinglad. "I hedged my bets."

"Well, you ruined me, didn't you? By the time I got back to Dirt I was changed so much I didn't belong there anymore. And now I'm dead. See what you've done?"

Then he had to wait for them to stop choking and gasping with laughter before they could go on. "The thing we love the most about you," Chinglad managed to get out, "is that with all you've been through you still manage to be riddled with self-pity." And they all laughed some more.

"So what's this mission you've mentioned?" Hank asked when they'd recovered enough to speak.

"We're on a secret mission for Death," Chinglad said, still shaking with giggles. "Ronam, you want to give him the back-story?"

"Sure. The original crew of the Mefrina was a party of travelers in an obscure back-water dimension where it rains all the time. We were lost there for decades, and then we were captured by a white Xinthorp and thrown into slavery on a mechanical world."

"What do you mean, a mechanical world?"

"A world of no organics, only robots and machines. We slaves were the only organics there, and it was during that enslavement that we began the process of transforming ourselves into robots. One by one we died and took over robot bodies. When there were enough of us we seized a ship and escaped."

“Holy cow.”

They were interrupted by a jelly organic blundering in. He’d been tricked by Gowrung into thinking there was an emergency, and he came in so fast the robots were knocked about like billiard balls. Hank pulled in his arms and legs and bounced about, feeling glad that metal doesn’t bruise. Or feel pain. The jelly guy waved his pseudopods as he apologized profusely. The robots could still hear him apologizing as he flew out the stomata and away along the hall.

"And the party will begin," said the parrot.

“So what does this have to do with a mission?” Hank asked.

“I was getting to that,” Ronam said, “when we were so rudely interrupted. As each of us died and jumped to a robot body, Death himself came to us and offered a purpose and a goal: to help Death get in touch with the Kai.”

“Wait a minute, you’re talking like death is a person.”

“Well, he is, in a sense. You saw him yourself while you were dead."

“That was real?"

All five of them burst into laughter. "Holy frijoles," Ronam groaned.

“Sounds like we need deeper back-story,” said Ronam. “Take it away, Tustom.”

“OK. To begin at the beginning: sentience is a white-hole phenomenon. Death makes it possible for each sentient to be born by pairing a tiny black hole with the tiny white hole. Death makes it possible to die by taking back the tiny black hole, which is larger but still tiny. You could think of Death as a sentient black hole.”

“Well, that explains a lot,” Hank said sarcastically. “Why would the Kai need to get in touch with Death. I thought death was universal.”

Chinglad took up the story. “It’s been so many centuries since a Kai died that they’ve forgotten how. The usual connections that Death has with every being were lost. Death told us that he had only recently awakened after a sleep of millenia....”

“Wait a minute, excuse me, you talk with Death?”

“Sure. You don’t know it, but a big part of your training has been to make it possible for you to talk with Death, too.”

“Me? ‘Oh, hello, Death, I’d like to introduce myself. I'm Hank Walker....’”

Thlad said, “Actually, Chinglad will introduce you.”

“Oh.”

"And the decorated barges will take you away to joyful summer," the parrot said.

“Anyway,” Chinglad continued, “Death doesn’t remember who had the shift before him, if he ever knew, much less what’s going on. But he finds himself in a war with a powerful enemy. Death tried to reach the Kai. They might become allies. They might know who the enemy is. But Death found his way blocked. We accepted Death’s goal and purpose, and became allies. But the unknown enemy has also succeeded in stopping us from reaching the Kai.”

“That’s the secret mission? We’re buddies with Death, so we’re going to help him get in touch with some other powerful buddies, who will help him in a smack-down?”

“You got it,” said Chinglad, “barring the disrespectful attitude, of course. I’ve never seen Death have a sense of humor about this.”

“We’ve been acting as scouts,” Ying said. “We were following the omens, and doing rather well, we thought, and when we got to the Kai graveyard we thought we were about to succeed. But the unknown enemy got a sniper to pin us down, and the Kai never even knew we were there.”

“That’s why you guys were so disappointed when we left?” Hank asked. “I thought it was because it turned out to be a funeral instead of a train of treasure ships.”

“Well, that too.”

“Why didn’t you do something to attract attention during the funeral?”

“We should have. We made a mistake. How embarrassing. We thought we had succeeded and there was no hurry. When the funeral was over, they’d talk with us. Things didn’t work out that way.”

“Did the Kai leave the goo for us?”

“No, that was an accidental find. Goo is even older than the Kai. They probably didn’t even know about it.”

“Well, what about me?”

“You mean, how are you part of the mission?”

“No, I mean, why didn’t Death say anything to me?”

All five looked at him blankly. “What?” said Chinglad. “Death didn’t talk to you?”

“No.”

“Well, this changes things.”

“How?”

“I have no idea. Anyone?” No one knew.

“You’ve been an anomaly right from the start,” Chinglad said. “The omens that took us into your system were quite clear. So were the omens on how to treat you. But since the Kai funeral nothing’s been clear. The omens are ambiguous.”

“What does that mean?” Hank asked.

“I guess it evaporates down to this: you can join the mission or not, as you choose.”

“Oh. Well, then, I guess I’ll take some time and decide about all this. I’ve got a lot to digest.”

The other five burst into laughter. “You’ll have to chew your cud later, cowboy,” Tustom said.

“Deciding isn’t how you make decisions anymore.” Ying giggled, and all five pounced on Hank. He squawked in surprise. The next thing he knew they were hustling him along the main hall, jetting along like a group of happy squids.

They zoomed through the main lounge and along the aft hallway. As they flew into the Hyper-space Pod he began to squirm. As they opened a panel in his back and disabled his inertial motor he fought desperately, but it was too late. The stomata into open space snapped open, and they threw him out into hyper-space.

“Well, that was fun,” Ying said as the stomata snapped shut again.

“Hank’s always coming up with surprises,” Ronam said. “Ever since he wiped us out with music he’s been one treat after another.”

“You going to the party, Chinglad?” asked Thlad.

“Sure. I gotta stop by the Intelligence Pod on the way there, is all.”

“See you there.”

"Hasta la vista," said the parrot.

The party was to say goodby to Skrim and the people going to Venus with him. It was lengthy and raucous, with plenty of tether dancing. Folks took turns being DJ, and the band played its heart out.

After the party and Skrim’s last lingering sentimental farewells, he and 43 others got aboard a small fleet of five saucers. The holds opened and emitted the flying saucers into hyper-space. They flew away from the ship. They couldn’t go back up across the Garilian reef, so they diverged at an angle across the tilted plain, headed by a circuitous route to a Themusian star-track and Dirt’s home system.


~*~

Ying missed most of the party. She flew back to her pod because she felt the dream-time beckoning. She took the intricate sphere out of its storage pouch and let it float in the air. She settled herself by twining her tentacles around each other, and then let herself gaze into it's center.

A white flower of light blossomed slowly before her. She let go of wake-time and fell into the tunnels of dream-time. The walls shone with ultraviolet light, and the passageways were filled with fog.

More and more for Ying the juice of life had come to lie in her voyages into the white world. The busy cares of the waking life fell away as though an intangible weight were lifted off her. In the white world her waking trance seemed to deepen and deepen without end.

It wasn’t that she did less or cared less when she was in wake-time. She was more effective than she had been. But she hardly cared anymore what happened and what didn’t, what succeeded and what failed. Life had come to seem like a subtle dance all the time, and not just when someone was playing music on the grapevine.

When she came back from the white world, she went back to the party. It was still going on. She joined in the dancing, and danced like a Fleetnar celebrating metamorphosis.


Back to Top


Chapter 30: Visions



Epfid'l dreamed that she was a creature shaped like a teardrop. She was black as outer space, and she had two large eyes. She had no mouth or ears or nose. Her body thinned out at the top into a long black thin cord that went so far up it disappeared from sight.

She was hanging in a canyon between two vertical rock walls, and the light was so dim she could hardly see. There were other creatures just like her nearby, and they could move around horizontally at will. Epfid'l felt a sense of companionship with them, though they didn't need to talk out loud.

Far above, the black cords ended in pairs of white wings. The wings fluttered to keep Epfid'l and her friends from falling. And they absorbed sunlight for energy. Since the wings were just above the edges of the canyon, they were always in warmth and sunlight.


~*~

Hank floated a thousand meters from the ship, propelled by the same hyper-wind that sailed the Mefrina across the hyper-plain. She had her sails spread, and she looked like a great beautiful soaring bird. Her tail of fireflies was so long that some of them surrounded him.

It was nice not to need a suit to leave the ship. He didn’t have to look through a face shield to see the scenery. A blue plain drifted past several thousand meters below, glittering with fractal patterns.

He’d gone through fury, depression, despair, terror and boredom, all in the first hour. He tried calling friends, and he tried to pull up music from the central computer, but his personal radio had been turned off.

He'd felt angry that these desperadoes would still treat him like this after all they’d been through. They’d initiated him into their crew, they’d fought together to save the ship, he’d been back to Dirt and left it behind, and he’d even been through death, and still they treated him with lies and deceit. He felt manipulated and used.

As his anger burned through, he realized that it was all true, but it wasn’t actually personal. It was just coincidence. Incredible sadness floated up in him. A great sense of loss blossomed in his chest. He had so many losses to feel sad about. He plunged into the feeling and let it hurt. And after awhile it became clear that the center of his sorrow was that death would someday find him so far from home, in a body not his own, and embroiled in affairs not of his own making.

He'd moved into fear when he wondered if the crew would come to get him. The more he thought about it the more he thought they might be ruthless enough to leave him out here long enough to die the real death. He hadn't thought to ask if he had another back-up body in storage. And then he’d find out where Death was taking his flock of bubbles....

Eventually he burned through the fear, and Hank found that he was bored. There wasn’t anything to do but think, so he did that. He thought about the crew and his life aboard the ship. He thought about the Empire, and Dirt being a preserve, and the Kai. He thought about Death and his enemy. “Who knew Death has problems?”

He thought about the life he’d had on Dirt, back when he was an ordinary person. “Who’d have guessed ordinary was so precious?” He thought about old girlfriends, and how strange sex seemed from this new point of view, now that he was dead. The hormonal storm no longer swept through him, and sex still seemed attractive, but the drive was gone. “This is odder than odd,” he thought.

“Actually, even organic life itself seems very strange from this point of view. I wonder if this is how butterflies feel about caterpillars. This is so different. I feel so clean in my thoughts, and in my feelings too. How odd. The background roar of the physical body is gone. Rather than making me less sensitive, I seem to be more so. I guess the body itself was damping down my sensitivity. And maintenance of it was taking up a lot of my time. As a robot I’ll have a lot more free time. What will I do with it? What will I have to care about? My friends, of course. The mission, I guess. I wonder what I’ll love to do?”

He remembered a TV show he’d seen long ago, a special on Lucille Ball. She’d said she felt lucky to have been able to make her living doing something she loved. “I think I’m finding this is even more important after death,” Hank thought. “Who’d have thought it?”


~*~

Hours later Hank watched the five saucers launch and depart. “Oh, that’s right,” he thought. “Skrim’s volunteers were taking off. I missed the party.”

He played with his dream-powers to pass the time, tossing sparks from his fingertips and balls of fire from hand to hand. He watched the ship’s aura. He wished he’d mastered telekinesis. He tried to go into trance and then into dream-time, but he wasn’t able to relax enough. “Where’s my green bird when I need her?” he wondered. He tried opening a hole in wake-time with his hands, but he couldn’t get it big enough to slip through. He tried making his body become vaprous, but he couldn’t get it to vanish altogether. If there had been any shadows, he could have traveled through them, but there was nothing around him to cast a shadow on.


~*~

Epfid’l spent a lot of time in her hammock, with her eyes closed. She could dimly sense Hank out there, and she channeled emotional support to him. She requested her favorite songs from the computer and let the energy vortex form around her until she could send it like throwing a bolt of soft lightening across a wide gulf to Hank.


~*~

On the third day the visions began. At first they were random vapors and specters flying by, things half recognized. Their numbers increased until there was a flock of them flying around him. And they increased still more till he seemed to be flying along a huge spiraling tunnel whose walls were formed of phantoms. Light from far ahead grew brighter.

Hank saw a tiny black dot in the center of the glow at the end of the tunnel. It grew larger, and at the last moment he realized something was flying straight toward him. It was huge. He flinched. Ponderously it fluttered, and braked, and shrank, and then the little green bird was flying along next to him.

“Holy cow, am I glad to see you!” Hank exclaimed. The green bird looked at him and laughed, and then urged him to speed up. “Fly faster,” she trilled. The light changed to crimson. “Faster,” she chirped. The light changed to blue. “You can do better,” she sang, and he did. The walls changed to purple, and the green bird fell behind as though she’d been carried away by the wind.

Hank looked forward, and the purple glow burst like fireworks.

He rocketed through a vast darkness, arcing down, gradually slowing until he fell like a falling leaf. He landed softly on something, and he stood up and looked around.

He was in a world where everything was black. The valley floor, the trees on the sides of the ridges, the snowy mountain beyond were all shades of black. Even the snow was black. The sky too was black, though there was a small sun glittering in it like a bright star.

His body wasn’t his robot body anymore. It was like his human body except that his skin was black, his nails, his hair, everything.

He wandered for hours among the trees and along the black river. He found no other signs of life till he heard noises coming from down-stream. It sounded like stones clinking on each other. He clambered over rocks and followed the sounds to their source.

To his amazement, it was a human-appearing child, except that he was black. Even the whites of his eyes were black.

He was further amazed when the child seized him without so much as a word and threw him into the black river. The current was swift, and before Hank could swim to shore he was carried into a rapids and nearly drowned.

He washed up exhausted on a beach, and for hours he simply lay on the warm black sand and rested. All he could hear was rippling water and sighing wind.

When he roused himself to look around, he found that the beach was at the foot of a tall cliff, and a statue several hundred meters tall of a seated man high had been carved into the face of the cliff.

A compulsion seized Hank, and he began to climb. The rock was rough and weathered, so hand-holds and foot-holds were easy to find. He got up onto the foot, and then began the ascent along the shin. The lap was the size of a football field. He chimneyed up the crack between the right arm and the chest, and a tricky bit of scrambling took him up onto the shoulder. He started up the neck, and was near the face when a sudden wind plucked him from his hold and spun him out away from the rock into a long fall. He had glimpses of the ocean and cliff and sky, and he knew he was about to find out what happens at final death.

He fell and fell, and then some part of himself that he’d never experienced before woke up and stepped forward and took control. He came to an instantaneous stop 10 centimeters above the ground.

He stood up on the sand, and after some thought he bowed to the empty air. “If the invisible teacher would perhaps manifest himself? Or herself?” A vagrant whirlwind consolidated into a spry old man, with skin the color of oak, dressed in rags.

“Thank you,” said Hank. “And you are?”

“My name is Noko,” grinned the old man.

“Are you my teacher, I mean my particular teacher, or are you one of many? Or what?”

“One of many. One of very many. I was in the neighborhood.”

“Speaking of which, where am I?”

“You’re in a part of the dream-time we call the Black World. Are you alright?”

“I think so. I feel alright. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, though. In fact, I have no idea what I’m doing here. Do you?”

“No, but I know where the bones of destiny are, so we can go find out.”

“Bones of destiny? What are those?”

“Come see.” The old man took Hank’s forearm by his hand, and they rose together into the sky. The old man built up a charge until the two of them crackled with sparks, and then he took them booming through realities, one after another like drumbeats.

They landed in a red reality. The air had a rosy glow. “It’s nice to be back in weightlessness,” Hank thought. Around them, as far as he could see, giant black columns floated in space. They were hundreds of meters long, and they were topsy turvy, strewn every which way. “Like jackstraws,” he thought.

The old man took him to a particular Bone, and they passed into it like going through a wall of water. Hank felt his ears adjust.

He was alone, in a vast space full of soft light. There seemed to be an arched ceiling, but it was so far away in the glow that he couldn’t really tell. There seemed to be a floor far below, faintly blue....

From behind a barrier that Hank hadn’t noticed before, a Kai stood up. He was gigantic, and he unfolded slowly as he stood. He seemed to be wearing ornate golden armor, and his hair went in all directions as though it were electrified. He turned to give Hank a look, and a chill wind blew through him. Although Hank couldn’t make out any features on the glowing face, it’s look was somehow quizzical, sad, humorous and deep.

One look, and then a whirlwind swept Hank away into darkness and unconsciousness.


~*~

Gowrung was spending his free time working on his motherlode library.

Respfid’l was working on the preparations for a garden party, to which she was hoping Epfid’l would come. It had been awhile since she’d seen her daughter. Respfid'l hoped she was doing alright.

Jagung was spending his time railing and grumbling, while doing his slave labor. Lifeboat drills, feeding the battery fish, polishing the hyper-lenses, scrubbing the scum-tubes. It was all a gigantic betrayal that left him feeling hurt and angry. He cursed the day he was fooled into dragging his only real body through dream-time from his home so far away and into the midst of these despicable criminals lost in space. “What a mistake!” he thought. “I totally ruined my life. I can’t believe it!”


~*~

Then Hank was catapulted out of darkness into a bedroom in Toledo in 1962, where a suburban couple were asleep in bed. He cried out, and they woke up. The woman screamed. The man yelled. “It’s OK,” Hank said, and leaped into the dream-time.

He swam away through ribbons of light. The ribbons buoyed him up. He body-surfed back to the ship and back to his body, leaving the couple to wonder if they’d been dreaming. “And if we were dreaming,” she asked, “why did we both have the same weird dream?”


~*~

Hank awakened in his robot body, floating in space a thousand meters from the Mefrina. He grabbed a fold in space with an ability the encounter with the old man had taught him, and he pulled himself to the ship and to a stomata on one of the outer pods. But it wouldn’t open. So he went to the bridge because it was always occupied, and knocked on the observation dome. A stomata opened, and he flew through the outgoing puff of air, and it closed behind him.

“Welcome home,” said Captain Spow.

“Welcome home,” said Epfid’l, grinning.

Hank’s aura glowed pink. “Thanks,” he said. “It’s good to be home.” He turned his back. “Would somebody mind fixing my inertial motor? I can fly this way, but it’s easier....”

“Sure,” said Ying, and flew over with tools in his tentacles. He opened a hatch on Hank’s back and turned the motor and Hank's personal radio back on. He slapped Hank’s back and said, “Glad you had a good vision quest.”

“Thanks. That’s what it was?”

“That’s what we call it.”

“Well, I don't think I found the visions. It was more like they found me.”


~*~

Out in the main hall Hank almost ran into Toogodda, in her new robot body. Toogodda laughed and slapped him cheerfully on one of his shoulders. “I just got back from my own vision quest,” she said. “It was great. I had no idea. I learned to spread a net of golden energy with my aura, and then to use that to travel through the dream-time.”

“Like a magic carpet?”

“What’s that?”

“That’s a thing they have on Dirt. No, I mean it’s a thing they don’t have on Dirt. But they wish they did. It’s a fable, an old story. You sit on a carpet and say a magic word, and it flies.”

"This is better," Toogodda said. "The carpet is woven together from beams of light."


Back to Top


Chapter 31: Search



Hank was in the yard of a wizardry school, and the students were learning to have red laser beams come out of their fingertips. Hank wasn't very good at it. He could only get a beam to come out of his left index finger. But next they learned how to fly, and he was better at that. He leaned forward on the wind, and he went up like a kite. By leaning forward and back he could control how high he flew. It was thrilling to fly. He flew for awhile and then came down in the yard. They were standing by a well when one of the other apprentices suddenly collapsed into being a boat, a little ship about six feet long of a rich amber brown color.


~*~

Five saucers dropped out of hyper-space into high orbit around Venus. Discussion about where to put the first space station was short because there was no argument against the ancient principle that middle orbit is best, because one can tether up or down from there. So Skrim ordered two of the saucers to hook up a line between them and do a long tether. This dropped one of the saucers into medium orbit and sent the other one out toward the asteroid belt, where its crew would begin building a space station to send back raw materials. The three remaining saucers began the slow deceleration that that would take them into medium orbit, where they would join the advance saucer. It's crew immediately began building the station, using the saucer itself for raw materials.


~*~

The Mefrina sailed along a Ryonian rivulet, sails spread, 500 meters above a hyper-river. The crew was holding a meeting in the main lounge. “So, moving to new business, what do you make of your vision, Hank?” Thlad asked.

"The sparks fly up from the flames," squawked his parrot, "and set the sky on fire."

“Well," said Hank, "I don’t know exactly, but it seems clear I have something to do with the Kai. So I must be part of your mission to find them. Isn’t that what you think?”

After some spirited exchange and several minor skirmishes, there was general agreement among the crew.

“So what’s the next move?” Hank asked. The entire crew burst into laughter.

“Our omens led us to you, cowboy,” Captain Spow managed to get out between guffaws. “So now it’s up to you.”

“Me? What do you mean, me?”

“We found you,” Chinglad giggled, “so that you could lead us to the Kai. You survived your apprenticeship without going mad, which is more than anyone expected. And a lot of people lost a lot of money, as you know. And now you’ve had your vision quest and found your omens, so now you are our leader.”

“What? I'm responsible again?” The crew laughed afresh.

“Not that you will be Captain,” Spow said. “We've done that once already. You’ll be the head of a task force. Within the limits of keeping the ship running, you can draft who you want.”

Hank was boggled. “You guys never quit, do you?” he cried out. “It’s just one thing after another! Now you want me to be responsible for doing your mission for you, huh?” The crew wept with laughter.

“Exactly,” Ying said when she could speak. “We’re so glad you understand.”

Hank saw no escape. “Alright,” he said. “How about if Chinglad, Ying, Ronam, Epfid’l, Hofnog, Toogodda and Usip, let’s have a meeting in one of the little lounges?”

The crew dispersed, chuckling and elbowing each other, those who had elbows, and Hank’s group flew forward along the main hall and then ducked into an unused lounge.

“OK, everybody,” Hank said. “Welcome to a great endeavor gone horribly wrong. No, I’m kidding. I think. I guess it hasn't gone horribly wrong yet. Where should we start? Perhaps we should start with a review of what we know. Somebody make Ronam and Ying stop fighting.”

"Ei, caramba," said Ronam. "We weren't fighting. We were merely having a spirited discussion."

The Committee moved to the Command Intelligence Pod for its specialized screens and computers and began to marshal their facts.

Hank was secretly amused and amazed at how often Epfid’l and Usip had to leave the pod in order to eat or sleep or shower or pee. “There's so much maintenance in having an organic body,” he thought. The robots only left for variety or recreation or solitude. When they were alone, they would turn off their eyes and float in the air, and then they’d slip into dream-time for an hour or two, and come back refreshed.

Three days later the review was finished. “What now?” Chinglad asked.

Hank said, “Well, let’s just do everything we can think of. Let's make a list. We'll call it ‘Things To Do.’"


~*~

The first thing to do was get through a region of hyper-space ruled by a Pirate tribe called the Vilicoxi. So they set the Goo Crew (as Spacrudda and the goo geeks had come to be known) to building an inertial engine, masts, rigging, a set of sails, and a set of hallways for a small version of the Mefrina. When it was done, thirty pods were unhooked from the ship and towed into place.

Hank, Epfid'l, Ronam, Pagile, Respfid’l and Spacrudda were among the crew chosen for the mini-Mefrina. Respfid'l was chosen because everyone knew she'd add an elegant touch. They waved cheerfully as they went aboard, and they continued to joke over the grapevine as the towline to their little ship was cut. They put out airbrakes and fell behind. The baby pods stayed with the Mefrina, but for unknown reasons the fireflies went with the replica. By the time Mefrina came out of the Ryonian rivulet, the tiny replica was a kilometer behind and lost to sight.


~*~

Epfid'l spent most of her time off playing with Tling. Baby Tling's favorite game was one which Epfid'l took to calling the Virtual Zoo. She would call up pictures on a computer screen of animals from all over the galaxy. Then she would morph into their shapes, and Tling would mimic her. This made Tling laugh in peals of giggles that sounded like boiling water in a little tea-kettle.

Hank spent as much time as he could with them. Playing with Tling was an endless delight, and each day her vocabulary increased. These days her favorite word was, "Yucky." Anything she didn't like was, "Yucky." Anything she did like was, "Yummy." She loved flying about the pod with Epdid'l and Hank pursuing her. She loved being tickled. She loved playing with her food. She had a sack of stuffed animals, and she loved playing with them. She had names for all of them. A teddy bear Hank had brought from Dirt was named, "Yucky."


~*~

“I hear the endless poker game is hot these days,” Epfid’l commented to Hank one day. They were in the bridge of the mini-Mefrina.

Hank laughed. “Of course. I think my greatest contribution to these pirates has been poker. What’s your subcommittee found out about the rings?”

“Well, we found out that teleportation through the rings takes three millionths of a second, no matter how far apart the rings are. Then we started firing probes through with sideways acceleration. The fifth one swerved enough to stay in the interim space.”

“What’s it show?”

“So far all we see is an endless blue space with points of light in it.”

“Points of light? You mean, like stars?”

“No, they twinkle. And they’re in an tetrahedral array.”

“Oh. How strange.”

“The points of light flare from time to time, randomly. And they seem to be tended by tiny blue bats.”

“Bats? How tiny?”

“Two centimeter wingspan. Oh, and one other thing: there’s the sparkle of the Kai everywhere.”

"OK. Great. Now we're getting somewhere."


~*~

Skrim was in the saucer that had tethered down to medium orbit. While they waited for the other three to arrive, Skrim had his crew-members construct a net in space around the vessel. The intersections of the net were faceted goo devices, and the strands were beams of dark matter. When turned on, it was iridescent and beautiful. "It looks like a net of gems," Skrim said. Until they turned it on, noise discipline had been strict. No one spoke aloud. After powering the net, they could laugh and joke as much as they pleased.

Pagile was the navigator, and he was chipper and busy taking exact readings of the neighborhood, the inner planets and the asteroids.

Franime was beginning to build a library of scans of the planet passing below. She was fascinated with its red-hot ecology, and she was finding she rather liked life aboard the little saucer, even in the middle of remodeling. It was kind of appealing to have life reduced to such a small scale. Kind of cozy.

Skrim and the other six were buzy as a hive of bees, beginning the expansion of the saucer into a real space station. They tore out most of the saucer’s internal structure in the process, leaving Pagile and Franime alone in a nearly empty chamber, with their equipment suspended by a spider-web of gravity beams.


~*~

Back on the Mefrina, Toogodda was the leader of a team devoted to listening. They had assembled the best crystal radio yet, a giant version in a large pod. They took shifts listening to the oldest whisperings from space Toogodda had ever heard. They could hear so far back that they could hear the Kai. Most of the messages they heard were mundane, spaceships requesting docking instructions, that kind of thing. But some were about their private lives, conversations with loved ones. And some were mysterious, so ambiguous no one on the Listening Team had any idea what they were or what they meant.


~*~

“....That was ‘If I Had A Boat,’ by Lyall Lovett. It’s from his ‘Pontiac’ album. Next we’ll be hearing, ‘Mister Sandman,’ from volume two of Emmy Lou Harris’ greatest hits.

But first we have a word from our sponsor, Maisie’s Badgirl Giftshop. You won’t find a better source for prank supplies, pornography for robots, contraband drugs and voodoo software of all kinds. If it’s illegal in the Empire, we’ve got it. So next time you visit Pirate’s Rest, don’t forget to make Maisie’s Badgirl Giftshop a favorite stop on your rounds of debauchery.

Now back to the music. Later in the show we’ll be hearing ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,’ from the Patti Austin album ‘The Real Me.’ And after that we’ll hear ‘The Glory of Love,’ from Tom Rush’s album, ‘The Circle Game.’....”


~*~

Hank got to talking with Jagung by computer screen one day. “It’s ironic,” Jagung said, “now that I have my real body back. Just when I'm feeling good about it, I get made a slave. What a bummer!”

“Tell me about it,” Hank said.

“I hate this. I hate the betrayal, and the humiliation, and the endless stupid labor.”

“Yeah. Extremely painful. I remember it all too well.”

“How did you put up with it?”

“I didn’t. I thrashed around and hated it the whole time. By coincidence I was able to work my way up out of slavery. I can only hope you have the good luck to make it in your lifetime, too.”

“Luck. I wish this weren’t dependent on luck. I wish this were dependent on something I could control.”

“Uh, good luck with that.”


~*~

The Mefrina dropped over the end of a Caringian rift and was caught in an ambush by six Vilicoxi fighter ships. Alarms want off throughout the ship. Most of the crew leaped to their battle-bodies. Since Toogodda didn’t have her battle-body yet, her job was to join a last line of defense protecting the spare robot bodies in case the ship was boarded. These had been decentralized since the attack by the dragon, and Toogodda was assigned to a cache near the bridge.

The Vilicoxi fighters attacked in pairs, throwing balls of lightening back and forth between them. The fighters themselves were sleek and crystalline.

Captain Spow was in the bridge. “Activate the hull,” he said, and the entire surface of the Mefrina turned mirror bright. The fighters circled like space-wolves, and then they lunged to the attack. The captain spoke into one of the Kai rings. “Now,” he said, and from a kilometer behind the Mefrina the replica deployed a golden net in what looked like a starburst. Purple sparks leapt from the net to each of the fighters, and they were flash-frozen into a time-warp that gave them electric green auras.

Boarding parties donned protective suits and cracked open the fighters. The Vilicoxi were a laminar race. The motionless pilots looked like they were made from layers of iridescent crystal.

In one of the fighters another Kai ring was found. It was glowing from within. "Well now," said Captain Spow. "Isn't this interesting?"


~*~

The Mefrina and the mini-Mefrina were reassembled into the old configuration. Then she dropped into normal space with the six fighters in tow. She was near an ancient star-gate, a huge torus of super-dense matter in orbit around a neutron star. It had been invented before hyper-space was discovered. The torus rotated slowly on all three axes. Normally ships waited till it was aimed in the direction they wanted to go. And then they flew through the middle in order to leap at near light-speed through normal space.

But the crew of the Mefrina used gravity beams to toss the fighters through it at random. It would take the Vilicoxi pilots a long time to get back home from who knows where. The Mefrina lofted back into hyper-space and went her way.


~*~

It started out as a joke. Hank and his advisers had become known as the Dream Team. They assembled twenty crew-members to go together on a dream-quest in search of more omens about the Kai. Gathered in a temporarily-unused storage pod, they made a motley group. “We’re gathered here,” Hank said to them, “to have a whole lot of fun. Everyone good to go?”

He didn’t see anything but happy and excited auras, so he turned to the blank wall of the pod. With a wave of one hand he opened a portal the size of a barn door into dream-time. He and Epfid’l and Ying led the pack as they flew through it.

They burst from the face of a cliff, scattering in flight into a loose mob. They flew back together and reformed into a spherical group, checking in and looking around. They were above a pool of fog that filled a vast bowl-shaped valley. Black mountains ringed the valley under a sky full of thunderheads.

The party hovered, bobbing in the wind and looking for omens. A bird fell from a great height and dived past them. They followed it. Hank was yelling in exultation. “Power dive!” he called.

They went through a layer of cloud, and then another, and then another. The bird was out of sight. Hank looked back. “There it is,” he cried. The party braked to a stop.

Everyone looked back. Each layer of cloud formed a circular rainbow. “It looks like a three-layered rainbow cake,” Hank said.

“Just like you,” Epfid’l said, “to be thinking of food.”

"Not anymore," Hank said. "Now I drink sparkling lightening and eat frozen St. Elmo's fire."


~*~

In Epfid’l’s Subcommittee to Study Kai Technology, someone thought of stacking the three rings. The rings stuck together as though they were magnetic.

The team investigated with their instruments and found that a faint sound could be heard coming out of the hollow space that the rings enclosed. The team amplified it, and they found it was tunable: the sound got louder and softer as one rotated the rings, as through it were a directional antenna. They did some fine tuning, and then presented the captain with two directions to go, 180 degrees opposed to each other.

In a crew meeting Captain Spow flipped a coin, and then they took the down-wind direction anyway. By coincidence, they’d made a lucky choice. The sound from the rings got louder.

“Terrific,” said Hank, who was in the bridge.

“Lucky break,” Epfid’l said. “But the trouble with luck is that you don’t know till afterwards whether it was good or bad.”

Someone yelled. Everyone was looking at the screens that showed the view ahead. “Like now,” Epfid’l said. On the screens could be seen a spinning darkness that was approaching from downwind. Even at a great distance it was obviously far larger than the Mefrina. Hank noticed that the ship’s own aura had turned red. “What is it?” he asked Epfid’l.

"I don't know," she said. "It's not a space-dragon." She sounded scared.

A lightening bolt from the darkness nearly hit the ship. Alarms clanged and whooped. Everyone leaped for handholds. “Evasive action!" the Captain cried. The ship accelerated violently. Another thunder-clap followed another near miss.

Usip was on the bridge, too. He was thrilled. He was frightened by the danger, but he was thrilled by the guess that this dark whirlpool might be the God of Chaos that he’d seen on his dream-voyage with Chinglad. They felt the same. They had they same utterly austere magnificence, the same terrifying implacability.

The Mefrina dodged sinuously, but the darkness was approaching rapdily, and the near misses were missing by less.

“What an end this will be,” Usip thought in triumph, “a death to sing heroic songs about, maybe even country western ballads.”

A bolt that should have intercepted the ship was caught by a cloud of needle-crystals that had materialized in its path. The darkness slowed. Mefrina darted away to one side. A huge convoluted golden ship emerged from hyper-space in a shower of sparks. The whirling darkness attacked the new ship, and it responded with more flights of needle-crystals.

The Mefrina was away and accelerating. The darkness recoiled from the golden ship. Now the Mefrina had the wind with her, and she unfurled all her sails. Locked in battle, the golden ship and the darkness dropped behind. When last they could be seen, the darkness was retreating, swatting at occasional flights of needles, and the golden ship was glowing as though it were on fire.

"I think," Epfid'l said to Hank, "that was a Kai ship."

"Oh, really? Our research said no one's seen a Kai ship in this part of space in many centuries."

"Well, I think we just did."

"The question," Hank said, "is why?"


Back to Top


Chapter 32: Ascent



Sasha dreamed that she and some other people were building a structure out of light. It looked kind of like a huge lotus flower. Sasha showed some people how to do it. "See, I spread some light up here with my hands," she said, "and then I smooth it down to here and attach it." At a certain point the structure became self-maintaining. And in a few weeks it's was going to take over the world.


~*~

The three saucers who had taken the slow route caught up with the nascent space station. Skrim and his crew had been busy building. Immediately they pounced on the three saucers and started stripping them for raw materials, and the space station grew more. Everyone was busy. And they sang as they worked. "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go...."


~*~

Epfid’l’s Subcommittee on Kai Technology discovered that if they stacked the three Kai rings they could throw objects through them into the strange interim space, where space itself was blue and there were glowing lights in a tetrahedral array. It turned out they could throw objects that were much larger than the diameter of the rings, since the objects shrank as they approached the rings.

Hank assembled a traveling party to find the Kai. The crew immediately began calling it the New Dream Team. The omens were clear as to who should go: Hank, Ronam, Epfid’l, Ying and Jagung. “Oh great,” Jagung said, “it’s the lot of a slave to be used for dangerous experiments. Don’t try to comfort me. I’m used to it.” Everybody laughed at him.

The Mefrina furled her sails and dropped out of hyper-space into normal space. The chosen five gathered in the vacuum a thousand meters from the ship, attended by Spacrudda and the Goo Team. Jagung was in his space-suit, Epfid’l was in her space form, and the robots were in their battle-bodies. Hank’s battle-body was sleek and black and armored.

The stack of three rings floated free in space, and it was surrounded by a glowing purple aurora. The five members of the party lined up and flew toward the rings. As each member approached the rings, they were sucked into them like a bubble going down a drain. The sensation was much like going into hyper-space, only it swept through the body in a wave.

Hank went first, and then he turned around and watched the other four pop into existence. They were in a vast blue sky, endless in all directions. Fires like stars stretched off in regular rows.

They sent out sound probes, vision probes, electronic and etheric probes. Nothing. “Ei caramba," said Ronam. "Then I guess it doesn’t matter which direction we go in, does it?” He flipped an imaginary coin, and Ying called it, and they flew off in a random direction.

They flew for hours. Jagung whined and complained. The rows of lights continued unchanged. Occasionally they flew through clouds of mist. Once they saw in the distance what looked like a giant blue bat flapping lazily along.

They came at last to a flat wall stretching up, down and to either side, endlessly into the distance. “What is this?” Ying asked, looking around. “This looks artificial.”

"Holy frijoles," said Ronam. He flipped another imaginary coin, and they flew along next to the wall in a random direction.

After an hour, Epfid'l suddenly called, “Wait a minute." She’d seen a hatch.

The hatch was sealed by a computer, who refused to open it without proper identification. They argued with it for twenty minutes without results, and then an idea occurred to Hank. He waved his hands, and the crew-members went into five-part harmony in a down-and-dirty version of ‘Sultans of Swing’. The computer squawked and begged for mercy. By the second verse it's circuits were fried, and the hatch flopped open helplessly.

They flew through the hatch one at a time, and found themselves in a dark metal hallway. Jagung turned on his suit light, and the robots' eyes emitted light like flashlights. The hallway stretched away like a perspective drawing.

"It looks like an office building," Hank said.

“A what?” Epfid’l asked.


~*~

Itsip was on hyper-space duty with three other members of the Hyper-space Team when the central computer said to them, “Warning. Excuse me, but the hyper-engine is destabilizing.”

“What do you mean destabilizing?” Cleep asked.

“Instabilities are emerging spontaneously from the interior. All efforts to damp the effect are failing.” The organics looked at each other in alarm. Without a hyper-engine, they’d be stranded in normal space, far from anything.

The hyper-crew burst into furious activity trying to save the engine. The normally glowing surface of the engine was getting brighter. Tiny red cracks appeared and ran across it like cracking ice with fire underneath. “Warning! Evacuate immediately!" said the computer. The crew ignored it.

Despite the crew’s frantic efforts over the next few minutes, the cracks deepened. Inkta cried out in anguish and gave up. “The computer’s right,” she shouted. “Let’s get out of here!”

“It’s too late!” Cleep yelled.

The glow of the engine increased till the organics could barely stand it, even though they were in protective suits, and then it shattered into fragments. A radiant creature unfolded out of the pieces of eggshell, winged and taloned and beaked. Itsip barely had time to form an impression of it before it leaped and stretched it's wings and was gone. It flew through the ship like a samurai running through a paper house, tearing though pod walls, and then it broke through the last wall out into open space.

The organics of the hyper-engine team followed the creature helplessly, and they were sucked out into space through the last torn wall. They floated in space and watched the glowing creature spread its wings wide. The wings caught the starlight, and the creature began tacking away from the Mefrina.

“What happened?” asked Cleep, watching it go.

“I don’t know,” said Inkta.

“This is ridiculous,” said Zlast. “I didn’t even know the engine was alive.”

"Neither did I," said Paroom. “But what are we going to do without an engine?”


~*~

Ronam flipped another imaginary coin, and Jagung, Epfid'l and the three robots flew along the hallway. They stoppped whenever they could get a hatch open, and they found huge dormitories, laboratories full of unfamiliar equipment, kitchens, dining halls, spas, recreation halls, and gardens under artificial light, all built for humanoids about five meters tall. As they went along, the walls began to glow blue. After awhile the light got bright enough that Jagung's suit turned its lamp off, and the robots' eyes stopped glowing.

"What am I doing on this expedition?" Jagung was thinking. "What in coincidence have I gotten myself into? This isn't comfortable. This isn't even fun. This is dangerous!"

Epfid'l was thinking, "This is great! What a hoot! This will make a great story for Tling someday."

They had just flown through a huge room with storage shelves in rows and were back in the hall when Ying suddenly yelled and veered into the floor. He crashed and bounced along, and right behind him Jagung, Hank and Ronam crashed too. Epfid'l was bringing up the rear, and she was the only one to stop in time. "What's going on with you guys?" she asked. "Spontaneous craziness?"

Ying pushed away from the wall, and let go, and smacked back against it. "Magnetism?"

Hank pushed away from the wall with both arms, and suddenly he realized what it was. "Gravity," he said, and he stood up.

"Gravity?"

"Oh."

Jagung stood up on his four legs. Ying stood up on four tentacles. Ronam balanced on his hands. Epfid'l morphed into her woman shape and eased into the gravity zone. "Wow," she said. "It feels like being on Dirt."

Their flying abilities were gone, so they walked along the hall. Now that there was an up and a down, they discovered that the hall slanted up. They began a long climb. Epfid'l and the robots were tireless, but Jagung was soon whining and complaining and wanting to be carried. So Hank carried him awhile like a backpack, and for a ways he sat cross-legged on top of Ronam's upper shell. "Now this is my kind of climbing," Jagung said. "Get along, little dogie!" he sang. "It's your misfortune, ain't none of my own...."


~*~

The Mefrina was angry. "Eight pods were injured," she thought. "None fatally, thank the Gwumba. But this whole expedition is turning out to be just terrible. More of my children have died or been injured than any adventure I've ever been on. This is unacceptable. What can I do about it?" She couldn't think of anything, and that plunged her into grief.

She was following the creature that had broken out of the hyper-engine. It fluttered brightly ahead of her, and it was flying so fast that it was all the inertial engine could do to keep up. She was glad for the chase. She felt like a workout. Her children and the fireflies stretched out ahead of her as though they were eager to catch the hyper-griffin.


~*~

Toogodda and the Listening Team were listening to the radio-frequency wash left by the hyper-animal's wake.

Bos'n Splug and several dozen others were in their battle-bodies flying ahead of the ship.

Captain Spow was in the bridge supervising the tracking of the beast.

Chinglad was in the Command Intelligence Pod figuring out if the ship had enough supplies to follow the hyper-creature much farther, or whether they'd have to turn back soon and head for Pirate's Rest. "It's a good thing we're in range to make it on our inertial engines," she thought, "or we'd be in serious trouble. And where are we going to get another hyper-engine egg? Now that we know it's an egg...."


~*~

That night Chingled settled into relaxation mode and drifted off to sleep. She dreamed she was at a party on her home-world. Dozens of other Chanooey were gathered in a clear space between layers of clouds. The sun was low, and the clear layer glowed with a mellow light.

The party-goers were circulating and chatting and sipping from bulbs of condensed hydrogen. Many of them were drunk, bobbing in the endless wind like multi-colored dirigibles and telling raucous jokes.

"I wonder if I should teach them to sing?" Chinglad thought, and the disparity between realities made her realize she was dreaming. And then she noticed that circulating among the guests and having a good time was a large praying-mantis in a tuxedo. "Well, well," she thought.

She flew up to him. "Welcome to our little party, Noko," she said.

He bowed and radiated happiness. "Glad to be here, my friend," he said. "How are you feeling?"

"I feel well. And you?"

"A warrior always lives a life of joy. Not so?"

"I'm not that good a warrior yet."

"But you're close, my dear. Quite close. I'm proud of you."

"Thank you."

"Are you ready for another jaunt into beyond-the-beyond?"

"Can I? Really? How wonderful! How can I get there this time?"

"Well, let's see. Coincidence has presented us with a marvelous opportunity. Let's take advantage of it."

Noko clapped his hands. The sound was like a large gong. Everyone at the party turned to look at him. "Dear friends," he called out, "would you all do your friend Chinglad a favor and give her a rousing send-off?"

He was answered by cheers and hooting. So he bustled about assembling the guests into a circular web with Chinglad at the center, everyone holding hands with their neighbors. Then he hovered above them and began to sing. It sounded like Tibetan throat-singing.

The web began to undulate up and down. The waves increased in amplitude until Chinglad was oscillating up and down so wildly that she was dazed. Then they increased even more. And with a roar from Noko and a shout from all the party-goers, Chinglad hit the top of an oscillation and popped loose. She shot up through the dream-time like a space-dragon with it's tail on fire.

"Here we go," she thought exultantly as she zoomed past the floating islands. She looked up for the great mirror, and there was her tiny reflection zooming toward her. It got big, and she crashed through it with a sound that rang through her like the singing of a vast flock of space-birds.

"And here I am," she thought with what was left of her mind, the peaceful part at the center, the core. The light was soft and warm. Unseen beings danced around her. Time had no meaning, and she floated in bliss. "Yummy," she thought.

Time began again as she drifted down through the mirror, and past the floating islands. She bobbed in the waves on the surface of dream-time until she had reassembled enough of her corporeality. Then she fell through and laughed during the long fall back towards wake-time.

"Another piece of knowledge seen with my own eyes," she thought. "How can I ever thank Noko? Everyone is in bliss all the time. Who knew? Though most of them aren't aware of it, of course. And won't be for some time. Still, it's always there, underneath, the ground of our being. The birthright we can never lose. How fabulous...."


~*~

The hallway become steeper and steeper until it was nearly vertical. Then it suddenly leveled out. Hank and Epfid'l climbed up over the lip. The walls of the hallway were iridescent and looked as though they'd been sculpted by flowing water. "Beautiful," Epfid'l said.

They turned back and helped Ronam and Ying haul Jagung up the last hundred meters by cable. When he was dragged over the edge he was exhausted, and he flopped on the floor. Epfid'l stayed with him while the robots explored ahead.

"There's a garden room near here," Ronam said, when they'd returned from a short scouting foray.

Epfid'l said, "You know, rather than wait for Jagung to recover, we could make some golems to carry him."

"Good idea," said Hank. "But where will we get the mud?"

"There's probably dirt in the garden room." There was, and she and Hank hauled back a tub of mud and poured it out on the floor. They grabbed handfuls of the wet soil and molded them and dunked them into dream-time to animate them. When they had a hundred of them, Epfid'l waved her hands, and the golems picked Jagung up and ran tirelessly along the hallway floor. They flowed like a living carpet over obstructions. "This is humiliating," Jagung said. "Why do these things always happen to me?"

"Because you're available, dear," Epfid'l said absently and patted him on the head.

They hallway began to slant down, and then the floor disappeared into water. Looking ahead, they could see where the ceiling disappeared underwater too. Hank dipped a finger in and tasted the liquid with sensors on his fingertip. "It's fresh," he said.

The golems put Jagung down and ran into the water and melted. Jagung sat on the edge of the water and took a drink. "Tastes like mud," he said.

"We need to find a way around this," Ronam said. The robots set off to explore.

Epfid'l said, “I’ll do what I do best,” and she ran toward the water and leaped over Jagung in a dive. She morphed into her porpoise shape in mid-air and entered the water with hardly a splash. "Hey!" Jagung said.

Hank and the other robots came back with reports that they hadn’t found a way around the lake. Jagung was sleeping by the water. Epfid’l walked out of the water in a shape like the Monster From the Black Lagoon, and then laughed and morphed into her woman shape. “It’s underwater for a thousand yards,” she said. "And then it comes up again."

“Well, there’s no way around,” Ronam said.

“Across then,” said Epfid’l.

“How?” Hank asked.

“There’s a game we used to play when I was a hatchling,” Epfid’l said. “All we need is a rope. It’s called Tow Away.” They found one in a nearby storage room, and they tied small loops into it every two meters to act as hand-holds. They waded into the water until it was deep enough to swim, and then swam till the ceiling went underwater. Epfid’l morphed into her porpoise form and took one end of the rope in her mouth. She towed them underwater for a thousand meters. The robots didn't need to breathe. Jagung could breathe because he was still in his space-suit. And he could still complain. Which he did.

They crawled out of the water on the far side of the lake like a surreal advertisement for life emerging from the ocean. After Jagung and Epfid'l had a snack they'd brought with them, and the robots sipped some Kai electricity from wall outlets, exclaiming at how delicious it was, they hiked on along the hall. “Look,” said Ying, pointing with a tentacle at the murals on the walls. “These are paintings of the Kai. We must be getting close to something.”

He was right. They turned a corner and there was a Kai a hundred meters ahead of them. She was kneeling and doing something to the floor at the junction of four hallways. They all broke into a run, yelling and whooping. By the time they got to her, she had stood up and closed a panel and put her hands on her hips. She was five meters tall and looked like she was an Aztec goddess made out of gold. “Well, my goodness," she said. "And what are you doing down here?”

Everyone tried to explain at once, and she burst out laughing. “We've been expecting you," She said. "Only we didn't know exactly how you'd get here. Come along. I know just who you want to see.” And she set off rapidly along one of the halls. Hank's team followed at a run, chattering with each other and calling questions to the Kai, who ignored them.

They went up stairs where the risers were a meter high, and Jagung required a robot holding each of his hands as they bounded up the staircase. They ran along a wide, white, grand hall, and they bounded up more stairs. Then the Kai led them along a hall with arched windows looking out into a garden. She pushed open a door seven meters tall and stepped back to usher them in. “This is the office of Ruwa,” she said. “He’s the director of the Department of Curious Affairs. And he wants to see you. But he’s in a meeting right now, so he’ll join you as soon as he can. I hope you don’t mind a little wait.”

The group babbled, and the Kai smiled, and they went on in. She closed the door behind them.

“This is an office?” Epfid’l asked. They found themselves standing on a tremendous ledge on the side of a vast glowing blue canyon wall. Groupings of large furniture were scattered about. Hank could see other ledges on the opposite canyon wall, and Kai moving around on some of them. The sky roiled with pink and orange and purple clouds.

Jagung found a giant table laden with food and nearby a built-in hot tub, and he couldn’t be talked out of taking his space-suit off. He shed it and hopped in the water and munched on the treats. “Ignoshian pastry,” he murmured. “I haven’t had gnosh like this since I was a young cockroach. Yum....”

Epfid’l and the robots walked to the edge to look over. Near the edge Hank walked into an invisible bouncy barrier, and he rebounded and fell down. “Look at these, cowboy,” Ying said, pointing to a line of little red balls along the edge. “Force-field generators.”

“Now you tell me,” Hank said.


~*~

“Oh look,” said Epfid’l. The office door had opened, and a Kai had come in. He was carrying a pile of golden boxes. He looked like an Aztec god, with a headdress and arm bands and a necklace of gold plates. “Welcome, friends,” he said. “I’ve been following your journey with tremulation, and my congratulations on your arrival.” He sat down on a lounge chair near Jagung’s pool. “Sit, sit,” he said. “Make yourselves at home.”

“Hurray to that,” said Jagung.

“Where have we arrived?” Epfid’l asked.

“You are in the Kai homeland, inside the black hole at the center of the galaxy. I must say, you found an interesting way to get here. Most people don’t wind up in the sub-basement, but whatever works, eh?”

“Who are you?” Hank asked. “We’ve heard myths and stories, but we don’t actually know anything about you.”

Ruwa laughed. “We’re a remnant left behind by the first race to mature in this galaxy. We’re guardians, and we try to nurture conditions so that other races can mature as well. It’s not easy, I can tell you. We’re woefully understaffed. Oh, but you don’t want to hear about my problems....”

“What’s this war we seem to be caught up in?” Ying asked. “We were stymied at nearly every turn by an enemy we never saw.”

Ruwa chuckled. “Actually, you saw the Enemy only once, face to face. You almost didn’t survive. We were able to intervene, or it would have had you.”

“What?” Hank asked. “Which enemy was that?”

“The vortex of darkness. We had to send a small ship to help out.”

“The golden ship was yours?” Ronam asked. “Why didn’t you contact us?”

“We tried. But we failed. So we did the best we could and woke up the Mefrina's griffin."

"Their what?"

"What you call the hyper-space engine."

"That's a griffin?"

"Actually, it's the egg of a griffin. The result is that your ship should be arriving sometime soon. We did that to get you here. What a hoot that you made it on your own."

"Why did you need us to come here?"

"We’ve been trying to get ahold of Death ever since we lost him.”

Hank was startled. “You lost him?”

“Something went wrong the last time the shift changed. The new Death was supposed to wake up in his creation cradle. We don’t know where he woke up, but it wasn't here. Since he wasn’t in his cradle, he woke up without memories. We don’t know how the Enemy did this, but it was a master stroke.”

“Who is the Enemy anyway?” Epfid’l asked.

“We don’t know. It came from inter-galactic space about a million years ago. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to reproduce, and so far there’s only one of them.”

“That's the good news?” Ying said. “So it sounds like you've had us under surveillance?"

"As best we could. It was intermittent and spotty."

"What about those rings we found in the hands of people trying to stop us? What were they doing with Kai devices?”

“They stole them. A large number were lost in a raid a long time ago, and now they’re commonly used throughout the galaxy as communication devices.”

“What about the tunnels?” Jagung asked. “Did you build the tunnels in dream-time? Did you build dream-time?”

“Oh, no,” Ruwa laughed, “dream-time and the tunnels were made by the dream-serpents before time was set loose. Dream-time itself is maintained by the rainbow serpents, and they’ll do that until time is recaptured. We Kai can travel freely in dream-time, and we can take short leaps into the beyond, but essentially we’re inhabitants of time just like you.”


~*~

“You, on the other hand,” Ruwa said to Hank, “had a personal mission in addition to the crew’s mission. Whenever a system is about to be taken off preserve status one of the aborigines has to come to headquarters and give their permission.”

“Aborigine? I don’t even have my old organic body anymore.”

“You have arrived somewhat the worse for wear, that's true, but we’re willing to overlook that since you managed to get here. Coincidence selected who the aborigine would be. We originally set out to bring someone else. The Zylosene was sent to Dirt to get them, but by coincidence it encountered a Lyr mercenary, so he had to take who he could get. He took you.”

“I was kidnapped by accident?”

“Oh yes, completely by accident. And then you were captured by a bunch of pirates, and we lost you. That was when we were able to pick up some surveillance of the Minefra. It was spotty, and we weren’t able to get a message through, but we could see you some of the time. And we saw that you survived, though a good deal of the time the odds here were running against you quite heavily, I can tell you. Not only did you survive, but here you are. So, as representative of the Kai, it’s my privilege to ask you this. Do you, Hank Walker, as representative of Dirt’s home solar system, give your ceremonial permission for the removal of your territory from preserve status and it’s entry into the wider community of the Chanubra Galaxy? That's what you call the Milky Way.”

“What?” said Hank. Everyone in the Dream Team chuckled.

“You don’t have to decide now. I know this is all rather sudden. Would you like some tea? But while you’re deciding, there’s another decision to be made too. Since your mission is now completed and you are more or less at loose ends, we’d like to offer you an ambassadorship.”

“A what?” Giggling among the Dream Team became more pronounced.

“You might consider returning to Dirt as an ambassador both from the pirates and from the Kai. I believe this is called double-dipping, yes? Your job for the Kai would be assisting your race in reconnecting to the dream-time. Taking Dirt off preserve status will catalyze that event anyway, but you can participate in a more personal way if you’d like."

Hank couldn’t think of most of the questions he suddenly needed to ask. “What does that mean: reconnect to the dream-time?”

Ruwa laughed. “When your race is exposed to dreamers, there will be a massive rush to reclaim lost dream-powers. And then as your race gets back on its feet, nature will awaken. The trees will come alive, animals will regain their super-powers, nature spirits and devas will become visible. It’s going to be a great and exciting time. You can be in the cutting edge of that process of rebirth if you choose. Take your time. Let me know.”


~*~

The hyper-griffin leaped up from normal space into hyper-space. The Mefrina was so close behind that she was sucked up into hyper-space as well. The ship deployed her hyper-sails and followed her bright target across an Ambient plain and over the edge of a precipice down a Gazurkian hyperbole, plunging recklessly, the turbulence of high speed whipping at her.

Then Mefrina and the speck of light ahead of her skipped across the surface of hyper-space like glowing rocks across dark water. Each skip brought them closer to the immense pit created by the black hole at the center of the galaxy, and time rippled and distorted around them.

The hyper-creature plunged through the event horizon. It dropped in a searing curve into the black hole. Mefrina followed, and she took the turn with internal klaxons blaring. Reality exploded into fragments around her, and still the hyper-beast fluttered ahead. Darkness boomed again in a flash of light. And Mefrina found herself diving towards the face of a blue cliff.

The hyper-griffin burst through the force field at the edge of one of the ledges in a shower of sparks, and he bounded up to the nearest Kai. The Kai bent over and patted him on the head. The Mefrina threw everything she had into veering and braking, but she was too late. She hit the force field and rebounded like a Fleetnar hitting the edge of time. The recoil broke the ship up into her component pods and scattered them into a long, long whistling fall down a canyon with no visible floor.


Back to Top


Chapter 33: Conference



Hank dreamed he was a little girl, and she was with a young man. They had been searching for a long time for the source of the bliss experiences that were sweeping the world. They were standing on a vast lawn dotted with shade trees, and in the distance they heard a bunch of birds making a ruckus. She look at him in excitement and said, "That's it, isn't it?"

She ran toward the sound, and as she ran she began jumping up into the air. She sailed through the air in long arcs, touching the leaves of the trees as she went by. She went into bliss more and more, and the arcs become longer and higher. In the distance she saw a young woman in the air, maybe twenty feet off the ground, just hovering there, and a few men walking around below her. The birds were quiet now.

She discovered that if she kicked her feet like a swimmer the arcs become even longer. The man was running along behind her. When they got closer to the people she saw that one of them was a man sitting on a telephone wire. He had the head of a man, and the wings and body of a bird. He turned this way and that so they could see his beautiful feathers.


~*~

Ruwa stood up from his lounge chair and rubbed his hands together. His jewelry clanked together like shells. "Well, gentle pirates," he said, "if you'd care to come with me?"

Jagung scrambled up out of the pool and shook himself to dry off. He grabbed his suit and joined his team-mates following the Kai out the door. They followed him along a hall, Jagung dripping, jumped down some stairs, leaped up some stairs, and walked through a pair of vast doors into a huge auditorium surrounded by red pillars and domed by the same red stone. Light came from the glowing floor. Furniture was scattered over a glowing stage in the center and over the floor-space of the room. Several hundred Kai were scattered in small groups throughout the auditorium. Some were busy with conversations, and others were operating strange machines that seemed to be made of rods and bubbles.

Ruwa cheerfully ushered the pirates down the sloping floor to the stage. Hank made a stirrup with his hands, and Jagung put one foot in it. Hank flipped Jagung up onto the platform. He landed in a forward roll and threw out his arms. "Ta da," he said. Epfid'l and the robots chuckled and leaped up onto the stage.

Ruwa stepped up onto it and ushered them to a group of giant-sized comfortable chairs. He asked Jagung if he would like a milkshake and Epfid'l if she'd like a glass of hydrogen peroxide, and when they said yes the containers appeared out of thin air standing on the arms of their chairs. Jagung took a sip. "Delicious," he said.

They watched a crowd of Kai who had begun to pour into the amphitheater, filling up the scattered chairs and the floorspace around the stage. It was like watching a crowd of glowing golden Aztec gods and goddesses. "There must be thousands of them," Epfid'l said.

Ronam scanned the crowd, and said, "Six thousand one hundred twenty four at the moment."

Epfid'l said, "Oh."

Ying stood up on her chair and pointed at the door. "Look," she cried. The first of the crew from the Mefrina were pouring into the room. The trickle turned into a stream and then a flood. The first thirty or so ran down to the stage and climbed up onto it. They clustered around the Dream Team, clammoring questions.

Chinglad was in the middle of the pack, carrying Tling. Tling popped up out of her arms and flew to Epfid'l. "Mama yummy!" she cried. Epfid'l flew up into the air and caught her, and they whirled in joy at being reunited. Then Tling jumped out of her arms and flew to Hank. "Dada yummy!" she murmered as she hugged him.

"Tling yummy too," he mumbled happily. Their auras looked like pink fireworks. Epfid'l looked out over the crowd from where she hovered. "Wow," she said. "This looks like most of the crew are here."

Romam climbed up onto the back of his chair and looked around. "Nine hundred eighty two of them so far," he said. "At the moment."

In the middle of the excitement the Entertainment Committee called an emergency meeting. They were thrilled. "We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here," Bos'n Splug said. "It's never been done before. We might be able to get off a zinger on the Kai!"

"Ei caramba!" said Thlad's parrot.

Ruwa raised his arms in the air. "Good pirates," he said, and his voice rang through the arena. "Excellent Kai, if we could bring the meeting to order?" The hubub slowly died away. "Most of you are familiar with the quest our guests have been on. Most of you have been following their progress, and a good many of you lost wagers on it, because here they are. They've been acting as an advance party for Death, and I think most of you are familiar with our own search for Death, so we are happy to see them both as guests and as ambassadors. In short, we heartily congratulate the crew of the Mefrina and the ship herself for completing their mission."

The audience warbled in applause. Hank was startled, and reminded of the ululations of children playing Cowboys and Indians.

"So," continued Ruwa, turning back to the pirates, "one of you must be Death in disguise, not so?"

A shiver like wind bending trees ran through the crew. One of the robots standing in the back of the room stepped forward and laughed. He was a black glossy robot a meter tall.

"Congratulations," he said. "You've guessed my little secret." He walked down toward the stage. "I've been the stowaway you could never find. You couldn't find me because I hid in plain sight." He laughed. "You've known me as Forshning." He jumped up onto the stage and walked over to Ruwa, and as he strode he changed into a humanoid shape three meters tall. He looked like a hollow in space. He looked like a transparent container filled with roiling black clouds.

Death and Ruwa shook hands. "It's good to be here," Death said.

"On behalf of everyone," said Ruwa, "let me say that it's an honor and a pleasure to have you back."


~*~

An hour later everyone was served a celebratory feast. Exotic dishes and intoxicants were brought in and served to the organics, and aged Emperial electricity and condensed gravity were served to the robots. The Kai absorbed energy with their fingertips from bowls of light, and ripples of luminescence ran over their bodies. Rainbows fountained from their gestures as they laughed and talked. They molded fizzy balls of light with their hands and tossed them back and forth. By the time everyone was ready for speeches, the whole room ran with Saint Elmo's Fire.

Hank, in a moving and drunken speech, officially declared Dirt and its related environs removed from preserve status, and he accepted the position of rogue ambassador. "I will try to make good," he said, "and if I know you guys, then in order to do that I'll have to make a lot of bad." Usip and the other tricamerals cheered. "I'm counting on you guys for disorder, chaos and confusion," he cried. "And I know you'll contribute whole-heartedly. I know I can count on you for trickery, sculduggery and shameless conniving. And I want to thank all my shipmates for their ceaseless treachery and loyalty. Let's hear it for the Mefrina!" Hank raised his arms and basked in the ululating applause.

After Hank drunkenly fell off his giant chair, Ruwa stood up and held up his arms. "This party wouldn't be complete," he said, "without a few words from our guest of honor. Let's give a big welcome to our good friend and benefactor, Heironymous Death."

Death stood up and took a bow. When the warbling had died away, he said, "Gentle Kai, good pirates, it feels lovely to be home again and among friends. It was terrible without you, and it's satisfying to be back. And now that I'm back, the Great Work will begin again tomorrow!" He was drowned out by applause. The pirates looked around puzzled.

"For those of you who are looking around puzzled," Death said, "let me give you some back-story. Before I was kidnapped and carried off into the hinterland, death was very different. And starting tomorrow it will be very different again. For one thing, with the Kai technology up and running and myself at the center of it, you won't have to lose your memory at death anymore. Nor will you have to lose your memory at rebirth. And dying will be voluntary again. Once again the phrase 'it's a good day to die' will have meaning. I will still show up to carry you away in a bubble of time, as I always did, but where I take you will no longer be the part of dream-time we like to call Limbo, or the Elyssian fields, or the Happy Hunting Grounds, where you wait for another birth. It won't even be a part of the dream-time at all. I'll be taking you beyond-the-beyond to your true home, your ultimate destination, the source from which you came and from which you do not have to return. Unless you have a wish to join in the Great Work. There's always work to do, and I can use the help. But from now on you'll have freedom of choice."

There was prolonged warbling. The pirates applauded even though they didn't understand what he'd just said. It was a party, after all.

Edif'l turned to Hank. "Well, cowboy," she said. "We made it."

Hank grinned. "Ta da," he said.


~*~

After the last of the speeches, gifts were given. Death had a gift for every member of the crew of the Mefrina: amulets that glowed whenever Death was near.

The Kai also had gifts for the crew. Each of them was given a golden egg containing personalized goo patterns, just for them. Ronam's had designs for miniature models from all through history. Ying's was for a hyper-racer, like a fighter only streamlined and lots faster. Pagile and Franime's (to be sent to them on Venus) was for a body built for two. Respfid'l's had underwater technology. Tling's was for toys. Epfid'l's was for a small spaceship to take her and Tling to their home planet whenever they wanted to visit. Hofnog's was for dancer robot bodies. Toogodda's was for hyper-space transmitters and receivers. Usip's was for chaos generators. Jagung's was for pastries, deserts and treats from across the galaxy. Thlad's was for a space-lab. His parrot's was for a nest and a shipping container for a mail-order mate. "Liberating spirals of candor," shouted the parrot in joy. Hank's was for hang-gliders of numerous designs.

In addition, each of them got the complete goo catalog. "This is like Pandora's box," said the presenting Kai. "In here you will find many troubles and many treasures. Please be careful what you do with them."

After the presentations were concluded, Gowrung and the Entertainment Committee put on a skit. They had drafted members of the crew who were good at impersonations, and they lampooned the entire mission. Death wandered about saying, "What's going on? Where am I? I can't remember, I can't remember." The Mefrina's captains were invariably incompetent, and the ludicrous situations were only saved by the common robot. The crew cracked up over the imitations of Captain Spow, Spacrudda, Chinglad, Ying and the rest. But their heartiest laughter was provoked by the organic imitating Hank. Hank frowned. He didn't get it. He didn't find that part particularly funny. And he didn't think the jelly guy was a very good actor. And he didn't think his wearing a blue wig helped.

For the finale the Entertainment Committee had saved music. They were gambling that-- overlords though they might be-- perhaps the Kai had never heard music before.

Their gamble paid off beyond their wildest dreams. The feast disintegrated into chaos. Kai were frozen in place, or curled up on the floor, screaming, or running wildly across the room, leaping over furniture, or flying through the air like released balloons. In amongst the music, Hank could hear them ululating.

The crew of the Mefrina had to form a defensive position in the middle of the stage, and fend off unintentional assaults by the big and heavy Kai. The crew began singing along with the music as they struggled to throw back the randomly rampaging golden humanoids. "This is marvelous!" thought Usip. "This is grandiose! This will forever be remembered as our most glorious prank."

Baby Tling flew in circles above the chaos and discord, singing like a little bird. It was a song she'd made up: "Yummy yummy me. Yummy Mama yummy. Dada yummy yummy. Tummy yummy yummy. Yummy Ying yummy. Yummy Chingle yummy...."

Some of the Kai were weeping in sorrow. Many of the Kai were weeping for joy. A few of them had used the thrill of music to leave this world altogether and journey in long leaps up into the beyond. When they came back, they would find it impossible to put anything into words about where they'd been. "There are no words," would be all they could say.

One of them would try. "It's the one true love," she would say. "It's the mesothini."

The Entertainment Committee was wild with triumph. In the middle of the defensive ring they were having their own little party of celebration.

"We pulled it off!" Gowrung cried, dancing joyfully.

"We did it!" the rest of the Committee shouted happily. Their joy knew no bounds.


Back to Top


Chapter 34: Homecoming



The little green bird sailed through the clouds of emotion that welled up from wake-time. She shaped the clouds, pulling them into place using the strings of their common colors, crashing them together and building them up into huge thunderheads. Then she dove underneath them and snipped the strings with her beak to let them rise like balloons into the beyond.

When she got one built that she really liked, she clipped the strings and then dove into the center of the cloud-mass. It broke the surface tension and left time, and she went with it. In the heart of this thicket of feelings, she carefully selected threads to line her nest. She could feel the heaviness of the eggs in her abdomen, and she was eager to lay them, warm them, nurture them into hatching. She knew she wouldn't have to sit on them continuously. She'd be able to flit to the edge of the thicket occasionally and watch the passing of eternity. The view was like a landscape of clouds: obscure, strangely convoluted, colorful, indescribable. It was her passion to appreciate these delicate nuances of the beyond, and the way she felt bubbled out her thoat as song.

The rainbow serpents swam through the light, elegant and translucent. Sometimes they came nearer when she sang. Once one sang back, and the experience left her shaken for awhile.

There would be plenty of time for the children to be hatched and get through toddlerhood and learn to fly before the thicket lost its buoyancy and drifted down to the surface of dream-time again. Plenty of time to forget about her mission with Hank, which had been to darn a hole where wake-time was coming unstuck from dream-time. It had been wonderful to play with the rainbow serpents, but organic creatures were such a clumsy medium to work with that she'd been glad when Hank metamophosed. And she'd been even gladder when her part of the mission was completed.

When the thicket landed on the surface of dream-time, the waves would soon sink it, and then the green bird would take her children to find the main herds of the dinosaurs. They'd left wake-time sixty three million years ago, and then they'd porpoised up out of dream-time thirty million years later. The trail where they'd left the dream-time so long ago was still clear, and the green bird was sure they wouldn't be hard to find.

Somehow as long as she was by herself the green bird was happy, but she wanted her kids to get to know more than just the stragglers who hadn't yet been pulled along on the great migration. She wanted them to know the great races of dinosaurs, the grandparents, the ancients, the ancestors of all animals with feathers, the great repository of wisdom and knowledge and stories and humor. She wanted her childrens' lives to be exciting and full and rich. "These things are important when you're young," she thought. "And actually when you're old, too."

The thicket rose high into the beyond, riding on the wind, and the bright light penetrated even to the heart of the jungle where she sang and built, built and sang.


~*~

The Mefrina was flying towards Dirt. She still felt bruised and sore from impacting the forcefield, but she felt oddly cheerful anyway. She had a feeling that maybe her luck was finally turning. One of her presents from the Kai had been a new griffin's egg to take the place of the old hyper-engine, and it was so beautiful that she was very pleased with it. She tacked up over a Carongian reef and then spread all her sails to glide down a long Myrenian scarp.

The crew were sorting through their new catalogs like kids looking for new toys.

Epfid'l was exploring the technology for underwater life and figuring out where to use it. She had an idea. Tling was playing with her toys. Hank was playing with baby Tling.

Toogodda was building hyper-space receivers. Suddenly she could imagine catching whispers from so deep in time they were older even than the Kai.

Hofnog was building robot bodies specialized for dancing. He was making plans to move to New York City to begin a dancing career.

Usip had been busy building a one-organic needleship with souped up motors, and after an uproarious party he got in it and rocketed away. He was on the way home to get his clan. He knew they'd love the disorder on Dirt, and the asteroid belt and the Oort Cloud just cried out to be settled.

Ronam took off for Venus with Pagile and Franime's present, and a complete goo catalog for Skrim and the growing colony there. Fourteen robots who'd decided to settle Venus went with him.

Jagung spent his time cleaning slop tubes and complaining about his servitude. "Why me?" he wept. "What misery life is."

"Look at this!" Ying said, but she said it so often that nobody listened anymore, as she liked everything.

That night Ying left her body meditating in her pod, and she went into the white world. She'd planted a seed the last time she'd been there. Now it was a tree. A stream flowing nearby fed a golden pool, and she sat down by it. Her tentacles writhed in contentment. Realization soaked into her mind like the ripples of tiny waves. Everything seemed to be one thing: a sea of light-filled bubbles that danced in the air.

Only Chinglad was missing. Her present from the Kai had been a Kai body. And she had stayed in the black hole at the center of the galaxy to begin her Kai training. She was much missed. "I'll be forever grateful to her," Hank thought. "She was one of a kind."


~*~

Hank and Toogodda were hovering at one of the refreshment bars in the main lounge one afternoon, topping up their batteries. "You know, cowboy," said Toogodda, "I've been wondering if maybe you and I should have sex."

"What?" said Hank.

"Well, we are robots, and robots do have sex. Have you ever thought about it?"

"Um, no. I've been kind of busy."

"Well, you're not busy now, are you?"

"Um, no."

"And we're good friends, aren't we?"

"Um, yes."

"I don't mean we should be lovers or in a relationship. But aren't you at least curious?"

"Um, yes."

"Do you still have your privacy thing?"

"Um, sort of."

"Then let's go find an empty storage pod and make love."

"Wow, this feels very strange. But OK. Why not?"

They flew down the main hall and cut off toward the surface till they found an unused pod. "How do we do this?" Hank asked.

"Um, you have some built in patch cords. And so do I. Here, open this hatch, and plug that in here. And I'll plug this in there. Ooh, that feels good already...."

They made love for a long time. Slowly and affectionately, and later passionately and enthusiastically.

"Wow," said Hank. "That was different."

"Wasn't it?"

"Orgasms are somehow clearer and stronger, aren't they?"

"Un huh. And the connection is too. Nobody ever mentioned that sex would be better."

"No, they didn't. I wonder what else they didn't mention...."


~*~

The Mefrina coasted down the Themusian startrack that led to the Solar System and dropped into normal space in high orbit around Dirt. "I'm glad that particular transition didn't get harder after I became a robot," Hank thought. "Maybe it's because I've got no tummy anymore to upset." Now it was only his mind that felt twisted inside out in two directions.

He was in the Scanning Pod, eager for any news from the planet below. He'd spent some of his time since the conference making another flying saucer so he'd have a way to descend to Dirt in style. "A man needs a ride," he thought.


~*~

"....That was, 'The Second Star to the Right,' sung by James Taylor, from the Disney album, 'Stay Awake.' Next we'll be hearing, 'Old Man River,' from the album, 'Stephen Grappelli Plays Jerome Kern.' This song is remarkable for changing key five times in three bars...."


~*~

The Mefrina was happy and freaked out at the same time. She couldn't believe what she was about to do. Yes, it was one way to reproduce, but it was so shocking!

She deconstructed herself into two ships half her original size. One half contained the main lounge and both engine pods, and it stayed where it was. The other half decelerated with a new inertial engine into middle orbit, shedding pods one by one as she slowed. Half her children and half the fireflies went with them. The Mefrina knew that each of those pods would someday become a space city, but still she wept. "Mixed feelings are painful," she thought. "It's hard to see the young ones go."


~*~

The crew in the Communications Pod had managed to patch a line through to the President of the United States. "Mr. President?" Hank asked.

"Whom am I addressing, please?"

"Hi, my name is Hank Walker. I just thought I should give you a call. I'm the liaison with the starship Mefrina, I guess you'd say, or perhaps the ambassador. You've probably noticed by now that an extra-terrestrial ship has been releasing pods into orbit above your planet for some time."

"Yes," the President said, with his teeth clenched.

"You're probably wondering why. I'm happy to inform you that Dirt used to be on preserve status, but you've recently been taken off. So here we are. We're only the first of what will be a wave of settlers. Pretty soon the Lagrange points will be full and the low orbits will fill up. It's going to be a whole new world, Mr President, so I thought you should have a head's up."

"If this is some kind of complicated hoax...."

"It's no hoax, sir. It would have been better for you if it had been. The reason I'm speaking English to you is that I was kidnapped five years ago from Oregon. And I've been their slave ever since. It's been a horrible existence! Just terrible! And I'm sorry to tell you, Mr. President, that very soon the human race will all be slaves to these aliens."

“What? You....” The President spluttered incoherently.

“Sorry, sir. You’d best prepare the people, I suppose.”

“Tell me more, son. You say you were kidnapped by aliens? And they’re about to enslave the human race? I must have some kind of authentication before I can believe this. Surely you....”

“Holy cow!” Hank yelled. “They’re coming to get me! Monsters!” He screamed and hung up.


~*~

Spacrudda left to found an orbital swamp for his race, the Karooey.

Epfid’l had finalized her plans. She was going to go partway down with Hank, and then peel off to colonize Dirt’s oceans. She’d sent out a call on Toogodda’s hyper-space transmitter, and two shiploads of Sklimery were on their way. And Respfid’l had decided to join them. So Epfid’l was feeling quite happy. To live in an ocean again with her own people was a dream she'd never expected to come true.

She felt like a pioneer. They had goo technology to deal with the pollution in the water, and if necessary with the humans causing it. They could put goo dams across the mouths of rivers to strain out the pollution if they had to. They'd clean up the garbage patches in all the oceans. The nice thing was that once a planet was off preserve status, the aborigines didn’t have any more rights than the arriving settlers. And it wouldn’t be long before the aliens in the system hugely outnumbered the humans.

At first humans would go out into space because that's where the good jobs would be. They'd be working in the growing city-stations in orbit or in the Lagrange points, or they might work for tricameral miners in the asteroids. Then they’d start buying used space-ships to homestead the Oort cloud. And after awhile they’d have to get off Dirt, once they were outnumbered, because they’d get voted off. And then the bison could come back. And the mastodons. And the giant ground-sloths.

And eventually humans would settle the Kuiper Belt and then the Oort Cloud, spreading out until it touched the Oort Cloud of the nearest star. And they'd settle that too.

Toogodda was staying with the main body of the ship. She planned to continue the pirate life. "For one thing," she thought, "the listening is far better in outer space than it is in a planetary system. And for another, I like the freedom. Hank doesn't know what he'd getting himself into with this ambassador thing. Good luck with that."


~*~

Toogodda and Thlad threw a goodbye party for the folks who were leaving for the surface. There were toasts and speeches, and Hank was presented with a pair of shoes. They were purple and green, and they were made to fit his robot feet. "If you ever need to run for it," Toogodda said, "you'll be ready."

Hank thanked the people at the party for the tender gesture. "Put them on," someone cried, so Hank did. They were full of whipped cream.

Hank burst out laughing, and then found he was crying at the same time. "You guys...." he said through his tears.

Now Hank's time to leave the ship really had arrived. "The ship has changed," he said to Epfid'l. "It's only half its size. And I've changed. I'm not even organic anymore. You're the only one who hasn't changed."

Epfid'l laughed. "Oh, I've changed too. But the ways I've changed aren't visible. And now both of us are about to have our lives changed bigtime."

"Bigtime," Hank agreed. "You'll be living under the Pacific Ocean, and I'll be living in San Francisco. I think it's really great that we can get together for tea from time to time. And I can come visit you and the kids underwater."

"As often as we can," she said. "You'll be busy being Mister Ambassador, and I'll be busy with the whole building-a-civilization-in-the-sea thing."

"Yeah. And with raising our children."

"They'll be spending summers with you. I'm so glad they'll get to grow up in an open ocean. But I'll always love you, cowboy. You'll always be my Sweetie Pie."

"Me too," Hank said. "Love is forever."

"Of course if I died and became a robot we could have sex again...."

"Ooh," said Hank. "Now there's a thought. I can't wait...."


~*~

"All those leaving for Dirt," said the computer over the PA system and the grapevine, "can gather in the Departure Area outside the ship." 347 robots and thirteen organics were eager to take up life on the planet, and they came flying out through many stomatas into the vacuum, with their luggage in tow. Ying, Jagung and Hofnog were among them. Ying was eager to observe the collisions of social forces and the disintegration of a civilization. Hofnog was on his way to New York City. Jagung wanted to get his feet on some dirt. "And where better to do that than Dirt?" he asked nobody in particular.

It would take 19 large saucers to carry them all, and they hovered in space, ready to go. "All aboard," cried Hank.

"Yes, Mister Ambassador," everyone said in unison.

"Oh, stop that," he said. Robots and organics flew aboard their assigned saucers and settled into their seats. Epfid'l sat with Tling next to Hank in the lead saucer, and the seat conformed to her woman form. "Well, isn't this convenient?" she said.

"It's all who you know," Hank said.

When the luggage was stowed, the saucers turned on their inertial engines and began to slow into lower orbit. There below them was a vast blue planet, beautiful as a dream. "I'd forgotten she's so exquisite," Epfid'l said.

"Me too," Hank sighed.

On the way down Epfid'l and Hank mostly enjoyed the view. Tling flew from person to person, playing with everyone.

Some in the saucer were talking excitedly about a project to set up a railgun. "We can make a fortune sending supplies up into orbit," said Flibner, "before it becomes illegal to send matter off the surface."

Epfid'l passed out cordial bulbs and batteries. "A toast," Hank said. "We're off to begin what the inhabitants will regard as the wreck and ruin of their planet. The shock of being opened to the galaxy will be enough all by itself to shake them down to their stocking feet. But being opened up to dream-time will be even more of a shock, and the awakening of nature will put the cherry on the banana split. They'll sing songs about these times thousands of years from now. And they'll blame us. Usip, the toast...." Usip raised his cordial. "Here's to chaos," he said.

"Disorder," the rest responded, and they drank. Some drank Kiblai fruit jucie, and some drank old electricity aged in Kai cellars.

"To Dirt," Jagung cried, and they drank again.

"To Life," Epfid'l said, and they drank once more.

Outside the saucer's windows the vast planet rolled underneath them. The saucers began to leave trails of flame as they entered the atmosphere. "Ooh, yummy," said Tling.


~*~

"The war between the Kai and the Enemy goes on, but far from Dirt," Hank thought, looking out at the untwinkling stars. "This landing party is looking forward to making treaties which will later turn out to be illegal and invalid, of course. And business deals that will turn out to be terrible scams. And generally enjoy themselves and have a good time. There's plenty of rich cream to skim off in the early days of opening a planetary system, they tell me. And the pirates from Mefrina are aiming to go down in history as some of the greatest scoundrels, villains and rapscallions of all time. And some of the greatest travelers, but the aborigines don't know about that yet. My people, I should say. Well, they're riddled with self-pity just like I used to be, but not more than usual, so I think they've got a good chance. How curious this is all going to be."


~*~

A diameter and a half above the planet orbited the anthropologist Spakool. She was thrilled to get to observe a time of emergence. It was a very rare opportunity. A lot of books would come out of this, and many interviews, and she would achieve much face. She'd get interviewed on Oprah, for starters, and later there would be ticker-tape tours in the Empire. She felt pleased.


~*~

Far below the top of the atmosphere soared the hang gliders left behind by the landing party to steal music, now in the form of silver birds. They were at 30,000 meters above the Pacific Ocean. They'd collected from being scattered all over the world because they were sure the Mefrina was near. They could feel her presence high above them. And they were right.


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