An excerpt from Quantum Women by Tyree Campbell
A Nice Girl Like You
“She just sat down at the corner table,” said Big Gooey.
I braced myself with a slug of bootleg Jameson's before turning my head discreetly toward Tsebieh. “She looks human,” I said, after he had wiped the counter around my drink with a flourish. The maneuver failed to repair the maculate condition of the faux hardwood.
“DNA splice,” explained Big Gooey, as he probed his ear with the point of a tusk the size of my forearm. He looked strong enough to have removed it from the creature while it was still alive. His mustache bristled, the last twitch of a sepia burrowing animal that had crawled onto Gooey's lip only to succumb to his breath. “Experimental thing. She shoulda died.”
I looked again. Tsebieh was not of that physical type which invites second glances. She was sitting on a bench at a window booth on this side of the Universe, at just enough angle for me to catch the tiny downward curls of the corners of her mouth while a stevedore from a galleon newly arrived at the Spaceport braced an arm on the table and broached his offer. Nobody ever fell in love here in the Tarry A'Dea, but now and then some of the patrons tumbled into lust. Anyone could see from the expression on her face that she was having none of it—anyone except the stevedore. As he leaned down, placing more weight on his arm, Tsebieh made a little move quicker than my eye could follow, and in the next instant the stevedore's chin cracked on the tabletop and the wrist of that arm was in her grasp just above the debris-cluttered floor. She had slender, pale fingers, delicate-looking in the shadows under the table, yet clearly she held his limb in a grip of iron. Her mouth moved, and words whistled just far enough to reach his ears and his alone. Then she released him, and he departed, rather more swiftly than he had arrived, blood welling through the gash in his chin and dripping onto his traveled gray pullover, where it added to an unsavory retinue of other stains.
“Does she ever say 'yes' to anyone?” I asked Big Gooey.
For an instant Gooey's eyes darkened to tangerine, and I knew I'd asked a borderline question. Everyone has a history. Those who don't want theirs probed sometimes migrate out here to Chthonia, living ad hoc lives, unable for a variety of reasons to return to their worlds of origin, and he was wondering whether I'd meant to violate the no-pry rule. Then the eyes reverted to their normal color, not quite lemon, not quite pus, and under the mustache his thick lips parted in what was, for him, a flicker of amusement.
“Depends on the question, Mac.”
I'd seen no need to burden him with Emer Bridget McClafferty, which is what appeared in the natal records long ago and far away, or with any of the other names I'd adopted during the subsequent thirty seven Standard years. Big Gooey would presume an alias no matter what I gave him, and “Mac” was generic enough to render plausible, if necessary, a case of mistaken identity.
Nursing the first two drinks, I hadn't revealed what it was I wanted to ask Tsebieh, only that I had need of assistance from someone of her reputed talents. It was unnecessary to add a wink and a nudge. Big Gooey knew damn well what I was referring to, and he wanted in the worst way to ask me just how the hell I'd come to know about her, but he, too, had to maintain the no-pry protocols, although, being a bartender, he was permitted considerable leeway.
I scanned the rack of tins against the wall behind him. “Warm up a bowl of gretel, please. And side it with some of those crackers.”
Big Gooey's eyebrows merged like rutting caterpillars as he fulfilled the request, setting the nuke to a proper 356 degrees Kelvin and the timer to twenty five seconds. I spread three small silver coins on the countertop, and as the nuke signaled the end of its programmed task they disappeared into Gooey's huge paw. Whatever his opinion of my imminent ploy, he would not interfere.
The uncovered stoneware tureen Gooey presented me on a saucer contained a viscous brick-red liquid full of pink and reseda vermiform chunks. Proper gretel resembles nothing so much as “entrail stew,” and although this had come from a tin, it retained the pungent, distinctive odor of decomposition. Gingerly I carried the tureen and its steaming repast to her table, and noted the do-not-disturb frown with which she greeted me.
She had the rich voice of a cello, played with a taut steel bow. “I ordered nothing.”
“This is for me.”
She arched one auburn eyebrow at me, her only response.
I remained standing. “I can't remember whether you mix the crackers into the gretel, or eat them separately. I was hoping you'd know.”
She gave me a five-count. “It makes no difference.”
“Thanks. I didn't want to insult the meal by—”
I did so. After another pause, Tsebieh said, “Gretel probably won't do you any harm, but I doubt you'll like it.”
“So you think I should just eat the crackers?”
“You've done your homework.”
“Some of it. Not enough. Would you care for this, then?”
She gazed out into the moonless night, her pale eyes shadowed by the infinite black and by a past I could only guess at. You don't escape from GenTail's Abyss without killing someone. Even someone with her gifts would have to dispatch the field generator tech.
“It's not magic, what I do,” Tsebieh said, still fixed on the blackness. Her words spilled onto my ears like spring rain, just before the flowers come up. If I hadn't remembered she possessed an alimentary canal capable of digesting gretel, I might have been entranced. “It's mathematical. That's why the field generator works. There are limitations. I can only go to places I've been, or seen, or have a clear vision of. And I must be in physical contact with the world of their location. And no, I don't read minds. They had developed the DNA splice for that, but upon further consideration realized that their own minds would become transparent as well. Possibly one day they'll develop a splice that will enable someone to block a mind probe...” Suddenly her eyes widened. Then, turning back to me, she said very softly, “No. Besides, all the data for the telepathy splice is on computer. No hard copies. And the computer is absolutely impenetrable. It's the ultimate no-hacking zone. There's even a dampening field surrounding it, a countermeasure against explosives.”
Tsebieh was talking too much. I wondered how long she had examined the possibilities from all angles, weighing this method of entry against that, measuring obstacles against her abilities, until futility set in. She'd begun life as a vegetable, and now, on Chthonia, she was regressing to that mental state.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the tureen of gretel slid across the tabletop to her...and vanished, as did she. But she left me the crackers.
Like taverns everywhere that cater to clandestine activities limited by various ill-conceived statutes, the Tarry A'Dea let rooms on its second level for various periods of time, some measured in minutes, some in years. During prolonged absences from their normal surroundings, people become lonely or bored, and biological relief without the complications of emotional attachments can be had, like any other goods or services, for a price. (You pay someone to cut your hair, right? Although you could cut it yourself, someone else, properly trained, makes a better job of it, right?) On the way to the stairs and up, I received no less than three come-hithers, including one from a young woman whose maculate attire and disheveled condition clearly bespoke a desperation for funds. Passing her by, I scrawled a mental note to have Big Gooey present her with a complimentary meal or two, and arrange for her to “find” a couple leafs of folded currency. As to the other offers, while I certainly appreciate a man who comes and goes, I was not in the mood. Tsebieh had vanished from the booth, but now that we had established contact, however tenuous, she might pop in at any time. And there are some activities that should not be popped-in upon.
I'd taken a room at the far end of the hallway, next to the emergency exit—events that constitute emergencies are not limited to fires, and in my line of work it's always prudent to have multiple escape routes. The touchpad on the wall beside the doorjamb accepted the code Gooey had given me, and as the door slid open the traditional odors of old exhalations, stale love, and something edible left out too long whistled past me and down the hallway like liberated ghosts. A dim ceiling panel began to glow at a touch to the wall pad, yielding just enough light for me to see that the single room was unoccupied and that the bed was empty, covered, and too small for two—although, to be fair, couples in this room seldom slept far apart, if at all. The single window was closed, the heavy drapes pulled, and I doubted there was enough light to silhouette me to the casual viewer outside. In the shadows of a far corner stood a rack on which I might hang my clothing, and beside that a commode and a sink. If I wanted a shower, I'd have to use the common room.
The bed squeaked when I sat down, further dampening any nocturnal ambitions I might have had. There were places in the Universe where the rhythms of life were accompanied by cheers and applause, but not here, where yielding bedsprings announced the vulnerability of one or both of the participants to anyone who would do harm. Perforce celibate, I could only wait for developments, and doze cautiously in the meantime.
I reckoned more than half the night had passed by the time Tsebieh entered. She did not use the door. In one moment I was alone, in the next she was standing before me, and in the next I had the ancient military automatic pistol out and aimed at her gut.
She withdrew a pace. “What is that?”
I carry a pistol because most security detectors are keyed to plastic and energy cells, not to metal, and because firing it makes enough noise to startle an adversary, a useful advantage in the event the first bullet fails to find its mark. I did not tell her this.
“Next time, knock,” I groused.
Long ago Tsebieh had been developed as an alien sentient species—they'd done good work on her. The light that shone from above and behind her cast her face in delicate grays and glows, the humanizing effect startling, and I averted my eyes, blinking away the entrancement.
“I'm not going back there.”
“You don't have to,” I said. “Just get me inside.”
And I thought, Insane is what they did to you.
Between the booth and now she'd changed to a rugged travel outfit of cammie jacket and denims, and sturdy black boots. Chthonia is not known for ease of terrain. She'd made up her mind to flee into the hinterlands.
So why come to see me?
I patted the bed beside me. “Sit down, Tsebieh.”
Given what usually took place in this room, her hesitation was understandable. But she obeyed, maintaining a discreet forearm-length of distance between us, pale eyes wary in the dim light. A hint of lilac mixed with the musk she emitted, the blend as effective as pheromones. In my research I had not considered how the spliced DNA might affect her sexuality, except to hypothesize that they would not want her to reproduce unless it was under their auspices. Now, in proximity, she became a liability to my personal and mission security.
“The firewall is impenetrable,” Tsebieh said in a low voice, hands clasped between her knees as if to avoid gestures and, perhaps, physical contact. “Passwords comprise the respective DNA of those few who are authorized access. And GenTail will backtrace any attempt to access data, even to Chthonia.” She turned her face toward me. Eyes the color of fresh rainwater sought answers from mine. Once again I felt as if I were a snake rising from the basket to the rhythm of her charms, gently swaying. “Surely you are aware of this. Yet you have a plan you must think will work, else why come here.”
I forced myself to look away, to break the hypnotic hold. “If you are about to leave, this no longer matters to you.”
“They will find me. They will trace me through you.”
Light filled the room in that moment and haloed the dark figure who entered. A millisecond too late I recognized the destitute woman on the stairs—still disheveled, but now aiming an energy weapon. I did a tuck and roll and came up with my own weapon. And in the next instant Tsebieh was holding my pistol. Five times it bucked in her hand, the reports slamming off the walls as if we were inside a barrel, and the woman spilled back through the doorway.
Leaving me on one knee, on the floor, staring in disbelief at my own empty hand.
The tavern shook, and I knew it was Big Gooey, stomping along the hallway. At the door he paused over the body on the floor, then turned a face like a parboiled walrus on me.
Before he could vent his rage over the violation of his establishment, Tsebieh said, “She tried to protect me, Gooey. She had nothing to do with it. This is something else.”
I rose and crept warily to the corpse—bodies, like weapons, are always presumed to be loaded unless you unload them yourself. This one had a crimson quincunx just under the sternum. You could have covered all five dots with a coaster.
On the floor under the woman, a puddle began to form. Its color matched that of the splatters and streaks down the fractured wall opposite the doorway.
“You use hollow points?” said Tsebieh, hushed, as she passed the pistol back to me.
I tucked it under my belt and pulled the jersey over it. “It's not a toy,” I said. “And what I do is not a game.”
“I think both of you should leave now,” said Big Gooey.
As soon as we left the Tarry A'Dea it began to rain. Nevernow, the settlement of which the tavern was the centerpiece, consisted of rough dwellings and shops, small irregular gardens, and clusters of orchards managed by an expatriate populace that regarded strangers the way the Cyclops viewed sailors in distress. Shelter was unlikely.
Tsebieh nudged my arm, and gestured toward the distant escarpment southeast of the settlement, a forbidding dark mass whose broad shadow cast by Vanth almost reached us. Nyx, Chthonia's other moon, lurked just below the eastern horizon. When it rose, we would easily be visible, even in the storm, silhouetted against the night like paperboard targets. I was about to set off when I felt a brief but intense wave of dizziness. When I opened my eyes again (I did not recall having closed them), Tsebieh and I were standing inside a cavern. The burble of an underground stream replaced the hiss of rain. But I could still smell her lilacs.
“I'm impressed,” I told her, regaining my equilibrium. Apparently she came here often—the cavern was lit by a charcoal brazier that stood in the middle of the uneven floor. But the air inside the cavern was cool and moist and old, and I began to feel chilled. “What's your range?”
Tsebieh turned away, and seemed to find something on the cavern wall worthy of fierce attention. Her chest heaved in the aftermath of the effort she had just made, and between breaths she gasped, “I'm not going back there.”
“I told you—”
“You can't get there from here.”
She folded her arms and straightened her spine, unyielding as the wall she stared at. Water dripped from my hair down my face and back, and I blinked as if it were tears. With a stark assertion she had dismissed me. Yet I was still here, even if shunned. What was it she wanted to hear from me?
Outside, lightning flashed, and I caught a glimpse of it through the narrow slit off to my left. A malnourished child might slip into the cavern easily enough, but Tsebieh was safe from adult intruders who lacked her teleportation skills. I squeegeed the rain from my hair and went to peer outside. Briefly the sky lit up, revealing massive banks of black cumulus. Grumbling shook the air seconds later.
It looked to be a long storm, and a long night.
Tsebieh had stowed some rations in a small plastic cooler near the brazier. I rummaged around inside it and finally extracted a stalk of something green, and began to munch on it, remotely wondering whether I was devouring one of her long-lost relatives. Suddenly that thought took solid form inside me—I might have violated her personal repository, and not a food bin.
Tsebieh whirled—she'd disclaimed telepathy, so perhaps I'd made a sound, of disgust, annoyance, apology. Across the cavern our eyes locked, and hers seemed to penetrate to the back of my skull. I felt like the marionette of an absent-minded puppeteer wondering what that wooden cross was doing in his hand. Then time resumed, and I could move the strings. Again Tsebieh turned away, and drifted to a rock ledge beside the underground stream, and sat down. Her demeanor issued an invitation for me to join her there. I did so. Ancient waterflow had worn the ledge smooth, with a shallow depression that fit my sitting contours comfortably. In the stream glinted the silver of quick, tiny fish. They flitted from one spot to another so swiftly that they might have employed the same method of movement as Tsebieh. Like stars they sparkled. And they had no eyes.
For a while we sat in silence, watching the little fish. They swam as if they possessed an innate sense of position relative to their environment, negotiating the channel with an economy of movement, darting hither and yon without collisions. The attraction they held for Tsebieh was perhaps subsensual. And there are many kinds of darkness, and only one of them involves the absence of light.
I was aware of her, sitting there, on many levels. Long ago, confronted by personal disaster, I too might have fled. But I'd received training in the operation of weaponry and the applications of force, and these I'd turned against those who had provoked me. The price on my head was far less than that on hers, but it was enough to warrant—
“She was after me,” I said, blurting the realization as it arrived. The fish scattered briefly at the sound of my voice.
Tsebieh was trailing her fingers in the silver water, creating little eddies in which hopeful silver wraiths searched for food, her silver eyes now on me. The force of her persona came not from this world. Like some ancient queen, half leader, half temptress, she cast out her aura and netted me. Had I been encased in stone, I could not have been more immobilized. And she still smelled like lilacs.
The susurrus of her voice might have hypnotized a predator. “Not, perhaps, for what you think. You are the woman called Loba?”
My throat tightened. How could my purpose have been known in advance? “Among other things.”
“May I know your true name?”
“Emer, yes—the great love of Cuchulainn, faithful to the last, despite his many infidelities. Tell me, Emer, what are you faithful to?”
Of their own accord, my fists clenched to stone. A desiccating, pungent stench reached the nostrils of my memory—burnt hair and bones, lingering long after the event. Charred framework like skeletons. Leafless trees from an early Van Gogh sketch. With a mighty effort I turned that page.
“You want me to distill a philosophy of twenty words in ten seconds from three decades of experience. I won't even try.”
“There are bad people out there,” Tsebieh said quietly, succinctly. “And you kill them.”
“That's one level of definition.”
I thought I knew what was coming next: the tired, specious argument that a killer of killers was morally no better than those she killed. But history has amply demonstrated (though few have learned the lesson) that only dead “bad people” harm no one. Morality be damned, someone has to stop them from harming others. Why not me?
But recently I'd retired from contract work. Of late it had grown tedious, and so I'd opted for voluntary assignments—such as this one.
“And the corporations will not intervene,” Tsebieh whispered. “No matter what the harm done, the corporations merely cluck and tisk and then find a way to profit by it.” Abruptly she scrambled to her feet and strode away, toward the narrow opening, once again illuminated by the charged black clouds. The glow from outside swirled around her like a creek flowing past a boulder, and cast her in pale silver and shadow as she stood hugging herself, though the warmth from the brazier now filled the chamber.
We'd entered a time of darkness, the interruptive light dangerous. The storm raged as if against her universe, but within the chamber, inside her impregnable fortress, she was safe. She might retreat here from all save her conscience. I'd heard the undertones earlier, in her voice. To deprive GenTail of the ultimate toy...but could it be done?
I could not know Tsebieh's thoughts. Perhaps memories flashed before her, and she was reviewing them for inspiration, for guidance. Of a sentient species, she'd begun life as a reject: a clone no longer needed to provide vital organs to its primary. They'd allowed her to flatline in the repository, and stored her for general harvest, until GenTail purchased the rights to her DNA, as it had done at the commencement of so many other experiments. Revived in GenTail's own concept of image and likeness, they'd spliced into her selected characteristics of cheetah, Polychaeta, and spinach. And other things. Given sunlight, she could never starve—the chlorophyll in her skin would activate if hunger grew extreme. She might adapt to cold by hibernating. And her feline quickness served her well in defense.
But the feline in her also rejected the docility GenTail required of her. Tsebieh came to brook no more experiments, no more alterations. No longer would she submit herself—the cardinal sin in the eyes of those who regarded themselves as in authority. The fates thrust the necessity of escape upon her, and she created the opportunity she needed, taking with her the genetic imprints for telekinesis. She was the only one of her kind, if GenTail was to be believed.
And I believed them in this instance. Tsebieh had been their prototype. Forgotten, unwanted, the GenTail technicians might do with her as they wished, and if the experiments ran awry, they might with impunity convert her to so much dust. But she had escaped before they'd conducted sufficient tests, and they were reluctant to alter another being until the test results confirmed their hypotheses.
I might confirm them: I'd witnessed the disappearance of the gretel and of herself. But nobody was going to ask me.
Reluctant, was GenTail...but not unwilling. The longer Tsebieh stayed away, the safer she was. There was no shortage of subjects on whom to conduct experiments, and sooner or later the testing would resume. Unless someone prevented that continuation.
Unless someone stopped them.
And there was only one way to do that.
In the shadows by the wall, to one side of the narrow entrance, Tsebieh turned back around. Eyes like freshly stamped coins gazed through mine to the back of my skull. I don't read minds, she had asserted in the booth, but I could feel her inside me, rummaging around. Again I asked myself: what was it she wanted to hear from me?
Across the floor of the cavern she drifted, slowing as she drew up to me. I'd not been aware of her height until this moment—her eyes, on a level with mine now, bored into me. I could see my reflection in them. And still I smelled the lilacs.
“If you should obtain this genetic program for telepathy,” she asked, “this Teleos Splice, what do you propose to do with it?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “Destroy it somehow.”
“Not sell it to the highest bidder? Not attempt to profit by your theft?”
“Is that what you think of me?”
Her hand grasped my arm. “Who are you working for? At least tell me that much.”
“In this instance I am self-employed.”
“Altruistic? A hardened killer with a soft spot? You, Loba?”
“Call me Emer,” I told her. “I prefer that. I have my reasons.”
Slowly she nodded, to herself, as if she had confirmed a suspicion. “I think I see. Your one good deed. Very well: what computer skills have you, that you might attempt entry?”
“None that are unusual.”
Tsebieh threw up her hands in exasperation. “Then how—?”
I told her.
Her voice came out between a gasp and a hush. “I never thought of that.”
Although Tsebieh continued to hint at misgivings about the project, the subtle conception of my plan cheered her somewhat during the Track to Mendellia, the aptly-named planet on which the headquarters and laboratories of Genetic Detailing were located. Even so, it was a rough three hours. Confined inside my Tisiphone, she became a pacer stalking the gangway between bridge and galley, while I dozed. From time to time there came a clattering from the galley, a rattle of utensils and containers, after which she would emerge porting small plates heaped with crackers and spreads. She munched nervously and sloppily, brushing crumbs from her cammies, and spoke little until we had drawn to within half an hour of arrival.
“Tisiphone?” she said, finally alighting on the starboard captain's chair. “That sounds Greek. Not one of the Fates, surely.” She shook her head once, as if debating with herself. With the movement, the overhead illuminative panels gave her short chestnut hair an iridescent sheen. “Furies, perhaps?”
Early in my career I'd succumbed to a maudlin impulse and so christened my 'skip, a blatant advertisement of my occupation and my purpose in life. I'd even dubbed my 'skip's computer Alecto, and had thought of adopting Megaera as a professional name. But I had sobered, and the silly sentimental gestures passed deservedly by the wayside. I'd retained the 'skip's name because it was familiar. Because, in some ways, the 'skip herself was a familiar.
“She was the 'Avenger of Murder,'" I told Tsebieh.
She was silent for a moment. Then: “Someone was taken from you.”
The ingenuous statement struck me like a mallet. I busied my hands with the intercom toggles, with a crease in my black denims, with a lock of loose hair. And all the while, Tsebieh allowed me my diversions, waiting patiently for her response.
After my two years at Corporate Security Academy and a year of the usual low-profile security and investigative assignments while I got my professional bearings, I'd taken a brief furlough back to the village of my youth. It wasn't there. They'd razed it. Killed the inhabitants, torched the buildings and the orchards and the fields, plowed everything under. Parents, friends, first loves, even the two stray dogs I'd fed nightly from the back porch despite Mom's admonitions. All gone. The land was scheduled for development...
I checked the virtual distance indicator. Ten minutes to deTrack, fifteen to destination. There was enough time to remember. Damn Tsebieh, anyway. But the malediction was unfair. The memories were hardly her fault...
And as I stood on the spot of the village square, I caught whiffs of what had happened. My hair had gotten too close to a campfire once, when I was a child. The stench surrounding me was like that, only a thousand times more powerful. A thousand villagers, counting the livestock. All gone. Because someone had the power to erase them. Because the land was scheduled for development.
My voice was just audible over the memories. “It was long ago and far away, Tsebieh.”
“Now there are things wrong which must be put right, is that it?”
I felt a growl catch in my throat. “Is everything so goddamn simple for you? Kill bad people? Right wrongs?”
Tsebieh did not respond to the jab. Seven minutes to deTrack. The extreme port side of the instrumentation console houses several bits of non-standard instrumentation that would probably violate the 'skip's warranty, if discovered...if the Tisiphone had a warranty. I flipped a toggle and gave us a new transponder identity—one that would, I hoped, deflect suspicion from our arrival.
“I won't justify what I do with a platitude, Tsebieh,” I said at last. “In the beginning, no, I was...enraged and outraged. I lashed out at the innocent and guilty alike, Tsebieh. Sometimes I had a contract...sometimes not. I wanted justice...I wanted balance for my loss. But Space denies us that expectation. The vast distances preclude effective law enforcement. Oh, maybe here and there local laws apply. But nobody was going to call the murderers of my village to account.”
“So you held them accountable.”
How could she know precisely which ghost to confront me with, how?
“I did nothing of the sort. I have no idea who destroyed Liffee—my village. In time, Agriculture Corporation built and operated banks of storage bins there—so it might have been AgCor Security who 'cleared' the land for this...or it might have been some other corporation. It hardly matters, now.”
The Tisiphone shuddered briefly, and we deTracked. The stars returned. And 10,000 kilometers ahead hung the mottled blue-green and brown orb of Mendellia. We were visible to their sensors, to their security satellites.
“I changed nothing, Tsebieh,” I continued, talking more now to relieve my tension. It occurred to me that I'd spoken more words with her than with any other person in the past ten years. Why the talking jag? Because she listened? “In fact, some of those killings created job openings desired and paid for by other corporate personnel. In fulfilling my contracts, I was doing them favors. I solved nothing. I changed nothing.”
“You might have run away,” Tsebieh pointed out. “If you can't change it, then get as far away as you can and hope they don't find you.”
“What you did.”
“But you found me.”
I shrugged. “You made it easy. You stayed on Chthonia. You grew roots. That's one reason we might succeed here. Corporations are not mobile entities. They can be found.”
She swiveled the chair to face me. “Why, Emer, is that a note of wistfulness I detect?”
“Go to hell.” I made a face, at her and at the universe in general. “I can't afford the vulnerability of roots...but yes, if you must know, yes, I'd love to have at least a pied a terre. At least that.”
“As would I,” she whispered. “Roots...a place to return to.”
“They tend to burn those. Or haven't you noticed?”
And her response was lost when the port communications monitor hissed and a red light on the console began to blink. Someone wanted to talk with us. I heard Tsebieh swallow hard. My own heart was a stone, sinking. I keyed the XMIT, and the hard, stern face of a young man appeared in the monitor.
“Identification and purpose?” Clearly he was a man of few words. He favored a bristle cut for his light brown hair, and his eyes, of the same color, lacked depth. The ideal employee—one day to be bred by GenTail, if the experiments on Tsebieh should prove successful.
“Captain Stahl of Corporate Security, aboard the Sternweg,” I said. “My aide, Corporal Jensen. We're here for business and pleasure. I wish to see your commanding officer, Captain Bogaty, about...some security matters. Also, my aide and I wish to go fishing.”
“Stand by, sir.” The monitor blanked.
Tsebieh hissed. “Are you—?” she began, but obeyed the chop of my hand, cutting her off while I flipped the Mute toggle. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Probably. Tsebieh, I have several 'borrowed' transponder programs. I know Captain Stahl...enough to know that Bogaty has heard of her. You, I made up...nobody's going to check on the aide. It's the day shift down there; Bogaty will be busy with normal routines. We'll have a couple hours of unsupervised visit. Understand?”
“That may not be enough—”
“Hush,” I snapped, as the monitor reactivated. The man of few words had a few more for us. The Captain would see us at the end of the duty day, in three hours. We had a room in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters, behind which we might downdock the Sternweg, and permission to fish the lake half a kilometer to the south. We'd have to provide our own tackle, and our own flatbottom, or fish from the shore.
“You are also instructed to avoid downdocking within half a kilometer of the galleon Bremerhaven while it discharges cargo,” he said. End transmission.
I set the Tisiphone to autodock and pocked a knuckle on the point of Tsebieh's shoulder for attention. “I've cammie CorpSec uniforms stowed aft. We should change.”
“We're not going fishing?” She got up and followed me to the stateroom. “The lake is closer to the GenTail R&D Labs.”
“Low hatchway, watch your head.” I ducked inside and made for a stack of bins set against the bulkhead next to the bunk berths, and drew open a drawer. “I'd prefer we remain close to the Tisiphone, if not aboard her,” I said, tossing her a folded set of CorpSec cammies and a set of corporal's pips. “If we do have to be seen, I want us to blend.”
Fortunately Tsebieh and I were almost of a size. She sat down on the lower berth and began to unlace her boots while I laid out a uniform for myself on the upper. It was impossible not to notice that she still smelled of lilacs, not to be aware that she was doffing her clothes. I had not prepared for the sheer impact of that awareness. I felt as if I'd just walked into a stanchion I'd not seen.
I backed away from the berths. Already she was naked save the undies, and was about to climb into the trousers. “Tsebieh...”
One leg in, one leg out, she looked up. Her “Oh” was barely audible. I watched her chest rise and fall, ever so slowly, with a time-weary sigh, not quite of exasperation, not quite of regret, as she straightened to face me, arms at her sides, defenseless. “It's the lilacs,” she whispered. “I'm...sorry, I cannot turn them off. But...the attraction you feel for me is only physical. If that helps,” she finished lamely.
My throat felt parched, as if by desert air. “A lot of relationships begin that way.”
A light impact trembled the Tisiphone, bringing her to ground and the two of us back to our purpose. We had arrived. Tsebieh turned away from me and resumed dressing, as did I, and we spoke of this no more.
The GenTail R&D Labs were located not merely on the other side of the lake, but some eleven kilometers under it, encased in continental granite and virtually indestructible alloy. To physical, electronic, and energy field probes the Labs were opaque and impenetrable, but the encasement was as nothing to someone of Tsebieh's telekinetic abilities. But in the euphoria of having persuaded her to assist me on this self-imposed contract, I'd neglected to determine the parameters of her abilities. I'd supposed that distance was irrelevant—and then she had stipulated that her type of telekinesis needed to be performed from spot to spot on the same planet. That obstacle had been overcome with our arrival on Mendellia.
Mass imposed certain limitations of its own. I hadn't expected her to move an entire planet, or even a continent—merely myself, all 178 centimeters and seventy seven kilograms of me. It seemed simple enough.
But Tsebieh sat down on the lower berth, and shook her head. “You are hardly a bowl of gretel, Emer. Think of it this way: you exert your muscles in moving an object in standard gravity. The telekinetic neural module in the brain is not a muscle, of course, but the principle is similar. The more massive the object, the greater the strain, whether physical or telekinetic. Worse, if the object is sufficiently massive, you could strain a muscle, rupture a tendon, tear a ligament. The brain can suffer analogous injuries.”
I stared at her. “You mean you can't do this, after all?”
“I do not mean to disappoint you, Emer. I have some idea of what this project means to you.”
I turned away, walked to the bulkhead, and kicked it. A low gong resonated throughout the Tisiphone. “Do you really? And what do you think that is?”
Her voice was just audible over the echo. “Redemption.”
I barked a laugh. “For what?”
“Your life. Your career.”
Her stab was accurate—only partly so, but enough to sting. It was an effort to face her, to meet her eyes with mine. “I regret nothing, Tsebieh, except the lost opportunities to do something positive, something constructive. My anger got in my way. But not this time.”
“Tell me more,” she urged.
“We haven't time for this right now, remember?”
“Tell me more.”
I kicked the bulkhead again, and leaned against it, arms folded. My eyes felt hot now. I spoke in a voice not mine, of thoughts only partially assembled and forced prematurely into the light of analysis. “Very well. There are always people who fight back, who do not care for what they regard as senseless rules imposed upon them. Some of these people are malevolent, that's true enough. But others simply want to be left alone to live their lives, make their mistakes, indulge themselves as they choose, generally without harming others. You find them in many places, Tsebieh...on planets like Chthonia, and in places like the Tarry A'Dea. It's not easy, but even now anyone who truly wants to and is determined to do so can opt for freedom by escaping to the Fringes...to the regions where Corporate control is negligible at best. As the Corporations expand, so do the Fringes...and there will always be Fringes. There will always be a place for the likes of you and me to flee to, to live.
“Or so I had supposed. But the Teleos Splice, in time, can destroy the Fringes. It is the ultimate in social and economic control. It can be used to compel everyone, no matter how distant, to operate on the same frequency, so to speak. The Fringes will die of neglect; eventually no one will want to flee there. Everyone will be doing whatever they are told to do, forever. That is what the Teleos Splice makes possible, Tsebieh. We will all think the same thoughts, forever. We will think what they tell us to think, do what they tell us to do, buy what they tell us to buy, love and hate what they tell us to love and hate. Those who are in charge, they've been doing that to us for millennia, in one way or another, but there was always somewhere else to go: new lands, new continents, the New World, the Solar planets—but now, once the Teleos Splice is perfected, they can enforce their uniformity of thought, of belief, of behavior. They can compel orthodoxy. I want no part of that society, of that universe. Now please, get me inside there and let me do what I came here to do.”
Tsebieh did not move from the bed, nor did she lift her gaze from the floor. “So this is personal, for you,” she said quietly. “It is not altruism which impels you. This is a selfish act.”
I shrugged. “So it's a selfish act.”
Tsebieh's voice dropped to a whisper, the eye of the storm. “Everything they did to me, they said it was for my own good.”
Slowly she lifted her face. In the dim light of the stateroom her skin took on an odd reseda glow, powered as if by some internal source, and her eyes shone silver at me. She did not speak of the unimaginable horrors of having her thinking processes experimented upon, of undergoing compulsory alterations in the very core structure of her being, of her spirit, of her soul. She spoke only of the interior of the R&D lab. The lack of inflection in her voice emphasized her furious control over the lightning and thunder behind it.
“The only room of interest is the computer room itself,” she said, and I strained to listen, to catch her words. “Security is less than you'd expect. Because unauthorized entry is impossible, no sensors are emplaced. However, I cannot know the effect of telekinetic penetration of the dampening field that surrounds the room. It is possible that porting you through it will raise an alarm. If that should happen, you will have from five to eight minutes to complete your task—the time it takes for an individual who is authorized entry to reach the entrance to the computer room, confirm his or her identity, and enable the doors open. It is also possible that your body might interrupt various signals. The computer is not hardwired in any way. Exchange of information is done through variable-frequency microwaves—another reason why the computer is unhackable.”
I strapped on my shoulder rig, and verified the full load in my pistol. “I'll use the commo tube to keep you advised of my progress,” I told her. “You can transmit from the bridge comm.”
Tsebieh shook her head. “The transmission might be detected, and certainly the dampening field will kill it.”
Like this, Emer. They can't detect this, yet.
My knees buckled. “I thought you said you can't read minds.”
Not can't. Don't.
“They experimented with the Teleos Splice on you, then?”
But they've no idea how successful it was.
I shoved aside a billion questions and instead drew a deep breath, as if preparing to dive under water. “I'm ready.”
A wall of dizziness slugged me like a crashing wave in a storm, inundating me. Pressure on my chest inhibited my breathing. In its wake I was aware of a hard surface under my boots. I could barely stand. I braced my arms on top of something—a desk or table—and waited until the universe decided to hold still again. My pounding heart continued to flood adrenalin throughout my body. I was as ready for anything, including my own death, as I would ever be.
Balance returned, and in the darkness I switched on the pencil beam on my cap and scanned about. I was standing inside a cube approximately three meters on a side, beside another cube perhaps one meter on a side that rested on the floor—the computer. This face of its cowling was blank, so I walked around it until I came to the maintenance door Tsebieh had assured me would be there. It felt made of structural plastic, and slid open to the left at my touch. To a computer curious about my identity, I might have been a systems engineer.
Right here, Emer.
Her “voice” sounded strained. “What's wrong?” I asked her.
Inside to the right is a small control panel. Look for Release, or Cowling Release, and enable it.
I scanned the interior of the main computer. I saw a mass of compact technology and heard some faint whirring. I saw nothing that might indicate a control panel.
Tsebieh's silence was long enough to make my heart begin to stutter. Something was not as she had expected, or had given me to expect...but what?
Look again. It has to be there.
“I don't see it.”
Omigod. Oh, God...
My mind clenched like a fist—the effect of Tsebieh's panic. Instinctively my hand dipped to the weapon under my arm and grasped the butt. The cold metal comforted me only a little. If Tsebieh lost the telekinetic connection with me, I was trapped beyond rescue. With luck I might dispatch one security guard per round when they came for me, as inevitably they would. I felt reasonably certain that GenTail had far more security guards than I had bullets.
“We're running out of time, Tsebieh.”
But you promised me...you assured me...omigod...
“Tsebieh! What should I do?”
I thought I heard her scream, the shriek of an eagle mortally wounded. It might have been my imagination. Then a light puff of air buffeted my right side, and I caught a hint of lilacs. Her shoulder brushed mine as she leaned forward, bracing her arms on the cowling. She was making little sounds with each rapid respiration—uh ugh uh ugh—as if she were suffering from an acute coronary disturbance. In the light of the pencil beam she turned horror-filled silver eyes toward me. She looked on the verge of passing out. I tried to steady her, but she drew from a reservoir of strength and shrugged violently away.
Damn you, Emer.
“Don't talk!” she hissed. “Shut up shut up shut up.”
“It's a blown mission,” I said. “Let's just—”
The wrath of her “No!” reverberated in the small room like a thunderclap. Snatching my pencil beam, she peered into the opening, studying the layout, comparing what she saw with what she remembered, the way old friends do who've not seen each other for years. “You're right,” she said dully. “It's not there.” She aimed the beam at the floor and finally scuffed her boot at some object there. With a little whimper she sat down tailor-fashion on the floor, hunched over, mewling.
The beam trembled in her hand. She brought it to bear on a corner of the cowling, where it joined the floor.
“They've bolted it down,” she whispered.
“Then we can't move it,” I said. “We can't steal the whole fucking computer. The mission is a scrub. Let's—”
“Shut up. I can't think.” Tsebieh pressed fists to her head as if to compel thought by the pressure of her terror, and began to rock back and forth the way autistic children do, listening to their own music. She was withdrawing into her own black depths, and there was nothing I might do for her.
On the other hand, I wasn't going anywhere without her. I knelt down and slipped an arm around her shoulders. She stiffened at the contact, but otherwise did not resist. The scent of lilacs was overpowering. “If we leave now,” I said softly, “we can come back. If they come here and catch us, we lose that option.”
Tsebieh continued to rock against me, making little mewling noises, as if the spirit of her no longer inhabited her body. I heard something squeak and scrape, and aimed the pencil beam in that general direction.
The bolt on the flange at the right corner of the cowling had emerged a full two centimeters from the floor, and ever so slowly was turning.
Another faint sound reached my ears, as if a small terrestrial creature were crawling through dry leaves—against the sleeves of my cammies the fine hairs on my forearms were coming erect. I stood as paralyzed as a bird before a snake, watching the dark magic unfold. The bolt twisted round and round, slowly, inexorably, emerging, another centimeter and another. Tsebieh was gasping for air. The light from the pencil beam reflected back at me from the perspiration on her pale forehead. Eyes squeezed shut, she was focusing all of her unique energies on the task at hand. Beads of water dripped from her nose, the point of her chin. And finally I heard a dull clunk as the bolt fell free.
Every evil thing they had done to her for her own good, she was turning against them.
“That's one,” she whispered, breathless.
Behind me the next bolt protested its astral extraction. If one could summon the dead, they might make that sound as they emerged from the floor. I felt the urge to light a candle. But the pencil beam was sufficient unto the darkness.
A clunk, followed at a longer interval by another. Tsebieh was leaning against the cowling, her breathing shallow, her face chalky. She peered up at me through half-lidded eyes.
“Don't try to stop me, Emer...”
I knelt down again. “But you're dying.”
Drained of her physical strength by the effort she had put forth, Tsebien pushed against me ineffectually. “One more, Emer. Then we can take this with us.”
I stood up, and put my weight against the cowling, testing its resistance. “With only one to secure it, I should be able to snap the flange—”
“Not structural plastic. And don't speak, please.”
Enfeebled and wan, Tsebieh returned to her task. Unable to assist, I found that I could not bear to watch her exertions and the effects they had on her. By the time I reached the far corner of the cowling, the bolt securing the flange was all but free. But at what cost? And what might we accomplish now?
“Your concept,” she gasped. “My purpose.”
I dashed around the corner, fearing the worst, but she had managed to pull herself erect, albeit on unsteady legs. I gave her a once-over with the pencil beam. Many in the past I had killed, or watched die, enough to recognize that she was on the verge. Her death was a consequence I could not permit. If someone was meant to die in this venture, it should be me. I had initiated it; I was responsible.
But Tsebieh was having none of it. “Ready, Emer?”
“Damn it, Tsebieh, at least pause for breath!”
She shook her head once, emphatically, the only gesture she had the strength to make, and slumped over the top of the cowling. Before I could protest, darkness buffeted me, a sensation rather different from my telekinetic journey into the computer room. If she expired while I was in transit, would I be condemned to walk a night like Hamlet's father, but in a night that existed for myself alone? Would I ever catch the scent of lilacs again?
I came to in a darkness that seemed to confirm the worst of my fears and expectations. The floor chilled me through the cammie fabric, and some massive object with canvas straps supported me. My fingers crept along them to the buckles. In my other hand I still grasped the pencil beam. I had to will myself to raise it and enable the light.
I was not aboard the Tisiphone.
Around me stood stacks of cargo crates, secured to the bulkheads as proof against zero-gee. The stencils indicated a wide range of disparate products, the sort of inventory one might find in a delivery craft. Scanning for Tsebieh, I gave them only token attention. Belatedly it occurred to me to hail her through my thoughts. But she did not respond. My heart sank.
Although the crates were secured, I was not, but the craft was still bound by the gravity of Mendellia. I climbed to my feet and waited until the waves of unsteadiness abated before panning the beam around the cargo bay. A lump in the shadows against the adjacent bulkhead looked dishearteningly familiar. I dashed to it, to the echoes of my footfalls on the deck, and fell to my knees beside her. She was barely conscious. I folded my legs under to create a lap, and cradled her head on it. Silver eyes shone up at me.
“You were the target, Emer,” Tsebieh whispered hoarsely, “and not myself.”
What the hell are you talking about? Aloud I added, “Huh?”
“GenTail must have suspected you had a purpose for me. You had to be stopped. But of course they wanted me alive.”
The woman who intruded on us in the Tarry A'Dea?
“They knew we might be coming here, Emer. But they did not expect...what we did.”
And what did we do, Tsebieh? Where is the computer?
“I put it aboard the Tisiphone. I enabled the automatic pilot after 'creating' a few astrogational glitches. The course will accidentally take the cruiser into the Mendellian star, which it should be reaching...about now.”
They're following it? GenTail is chasing it?
Tsebieh's head rocked in my lap. “No...monitoring only. It's all over for them...for now. We deprived them of much more than the Teleos Splice. Everything they had done, all their records of all their projects, were stored in that invulnerable and impregnable computer. They have decades of work to recreate, perhaps even a century of it. We hurt them beyond their ability to calculate. Fortunately for you, they'll believe you dead aboard the Tisiphone.”
“You hurt them, Tsebieh,” I said.
“Yes...yes, I did, didn't I?” The deck under us trembled gently, and I knew the cargo craft—the Bremerhaven, I remembered—was tracking into a position around Mendellia preparatory to departure for the next leg of its journey. Tsebieh seemed to be listening to other voices. “They've cleared us for departure,” she said at last. I felt a momentary queasiness as zero gee took effect. “I rather thought they would. According to the captain, your next port of call will be Zlatka.”
“Our next port of call, you mean.”
“Someone like you can reach the Fringes easily enough from there.”
“Don't talk. And do not weep.”
I drew a wrist across my eyes. “I'm not crying. The air in here is dry.”
“You'll have to disappear for a while, Emer.”
“Tsebieh, no.” I leaned over her, and embraced her, to hold her there. But I could not restrain the part of her that would leave.
“Right here, Tsebieh.”
“Aboard the Tisiphone...when we changed clothing. You would have kissed me?”
“More than kissed.”
“Kiss me now.”
Lips tasting of tears are always best for kissing. Despite her condition, her mouth was wet and inviting, and I longed to linger there forever. But the contact could not endure. And I felt a sharp pain in my lower lip—she had bitten me.
Confused and a little frightened, I drew my face from hers to stare down at her. Her lips were stained with my blood. “Tsebieh, what was that for?”
But the scent of lilacs had faded, and she was gone.
Five years passed before I dared return to Chthonia. The escarpment southeast of Nevernow had changed little, although the terrain in front of it was less than familiar. It had rained the night Tsebieh and I had fled to the safety of her cavern, and it had rained the night I buried her on the gentle slope in front of the entrance. It had still been raining when I slipped into the Tarry A'Dea to arrange discreet transportation elsewhere.
The Chthonian sun shone brightly these days of late spring, but I was shaded where I sat reading meditative poetry on the grass under the tree that had grown so swiftly on the slope near the entrance to the cavern. A low tray beside me supported a tall glass of gin and tonic and a small bowl of nuts and dried fruit. From time to time I glanced at the tree, both in reverie and in awe. The trunk seemed sturdy enough . . .
The trunk seemed sturdy enough, but the elongated growth within it had now spread the bark almost to the bursting point. I turned a page, and put a finger to the scar on my lower lip, and wondered whether our daughter would have eyes of silver.
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