Raid

 

The room was dimly lit; its sole illumination a single candle flame. Shadows gathered in the corners, darting forth as the flame flickered. Scents in the wax filled the air with a smoky tang.

One wall was covered in hangings of a deep red cloth with green-gold designs woven into it. The red glowed somberly in the light. A wall unit stood against the drapes, its shelves and tabletop loaded with a miscellany of objects. On top of it, reflecting the scene in miniature, stood half a dozen bronze goblets. A small plant in a dish straggled its tendrils across them, and down to the shelf below. There, six almost identical volumes, black, embossed in gold, lay gathering dust. A model in glass of the Snowflake, the Linkers' orbital station, stood on top of them, sparkling in the light, like the half empty jar of marmalade beside it. The ebony black of a display screen filled most of the next shelf, but the room that was left accommodated a stack of tatty looking paperbacks.

The desktop itself was cluttered with papers. There were signs of past attempts to stem the tide, and confine them to corners, but they covered now almost the entire area. In the sole island of open wood were the remains of a dinner, a greasy plate, and cutlery, a couple of saucepans, an empty can that had contained fruit. A jar of coffee stood on the open page of a file. It had left a dusty brown ring on the display of intricate curlicues. One of the desk drawers was open, and the sleeve of an unwashed shirt trailed out.

The end wall was wood panelled, in some golden wood, and three doors opened from it. One led out into the hallway, the other two were a cupboard. They were shut, hiding the confused disarray of clothes and cases within, and barricaded by a table that had been pushed into the corner. It bore a kettle, and a cup of coffee, cold and forgotten, a cassette player, and a rack full of the pale blue crystals. Their colour was strange in the golden light of the candle that burned on the bed head a foot sway from the table. It was short and squat, and the wax was orange.

A girl lay on the bed, reading by its light. She had blue eyes and long, light brown hair. She wore a fleecy black jacket, and an ankle length skirt of grey green, her feet were bare. On the wall above her was a poster of a nude blonde, a view of old Earth from space, and a poster of the view towards the center of the galaxy.

The fourth wall served as a window. It had been opaqued against the night, but the low scratching noise of a bush as it was blown against the glass, and the quiet rushing of rain, served as a reminder that the outside was still there. The floor was carpeted in dark brown, speckled with black, and above, the ceiling was a cinemural of a starry sky, slowly changing.

The girl reached down one hand to search the floor, and found a piece of card that she had kicked under the bed a couple of days before. She placed it on the open pages of the text she had been reading, closed the volume, and put it on the bed head by the candle. She swung around to stand on the floor, and hesitated for a few moments to brush her hair back behind her ears. She stretched, snorting ecstatically, trying to reach the ceiling, but falling far short. Even on tiptoes she wasn't five feet tall. She relaxed, a sad sleepy expression on her face. Quantized fields might be interesting, but the mathematics involved didn't make for light reading. She would wait a year, until the actual course, before playing around with its consequences.

She favored the neglected coffee with a distasteful glance, and at arms length, she carried it out into the kitchen to dispose of it. She swilled it out and, rather than dry it, shook the loose drips out onto the floor as she returned. By its heft, the kettle still held more than enough water, so she switched it on, and slotted a cassette, chosen at random, into the player.

She sang along to the music while she measured out the coffee and poured on the water. The tunes were majestic and sad, conjuring familiar imagery in her mind, of endless caverns, deserted cities beneath swollen suns, landscapes of crystal under a distant sun. She clung to the warmth of the cup as if it were a hope of salvation, sitting at the desk and doodling.

She had written the words Nancy Elanor of Wolf / Honey McLain and began to decorate the curves with flowers and stars. She answered to both names. The first was indeed hers by birth as sixth in direct descent from the Lady Jeanne Marygay, first daughter of Trixy Linda, mother to her clan, but it was the second that she used here. During her first term at the University, she had gone around openly as a Clan member, but during the vacation it had been decided that it would be better if they changed their names and faces and rooms, to protect them from attempts at physical violence against them.

The University authorities had agreed to the changes, hoping the confusion would halt the rapid worsening of student violence. Confusion, all the students of the Old Clans agreed, was what had been achieved — they shared a file now, listing a full who's who, stored under high scramble in the Central Access system. They would have to trust to the integrity of that Linker-run operation as the Clan council had trusted the Linkers at the University, but at least it had meant that they were less likely to shoot at their own friends. The violence though? That had just grown worse.

Nancy scribbled out the doodle on the paper before her, then carried it over to the candle. The light of its burning was almost blinding in the sunset dimness of the room. The black and fragile ashes, she crushed to powder in the waste-bin; and to counter the heavy pall of acrid smoke in the room, she switched on the air conditioning, selecting a fresh spring scent. She slouched in her chair, and continued to sip her coffee, her thoughts lost in the music.

A quiet voice broke her reverie.

“Alan Harford is at the door, my Lady. It is raining and he requests admittance.”

“Let him in then. Time?”

21: 26: 13.

“Thanks. Switch the news on at half past.”

Nancy wriggled her feet into a pair of slippers and shuffled out into the ball. Alan was there, pushing his never too tidy hair, now slicked with rain, back from his forehead. His face glistened with damp, and his clothes were dark with it.

“Sanctuary?” he asked.

“Sure. Coffee? What brings you here?”

“Thanks, black, one sugar. Everyone else I know is at some tedious party. I'm not disturbing you, am I — I mean, you're not working, are you?”

“This time of term?”

“I suppose not.”

Nancy retrieved the kettle from the bedroom, and with Alan following her, drifted into the kitchen to prepare his coffee. He too was a mathematician, but a year her senior, and from another college, their first meeting though a mutual acquaintance. Nancy wasn't even sure if she liked the guy, but they had kept up a distant friendship. She had never had many friends outside her clan, and many of them had fallen by the wayside when she'd changed name and face.

Sure, she had a repetoire of acquaintances she would acknowledge with a nod or a greeting, or even talk to, though only on whatever limited topic formed the overlap of interests that had brought them together, but very few of them were any more than faces she recognized, without really knowing from where.

Alan seemed the odd man out. He didn't seem the uninhibited socializer that all the other people she knew did, but was quiet and shy. He seemed almost afraid of her, sometimes casual, sometimes stiffly formal, but always there was an underlying seriousness that was neither forced nor obtrusive. In repose, as when he was lost in the music she put on, his face seemed wistful, troubled, but as he spoke he would always seem alert and even happy.

Nancy could understand him, alone in a crowd, for that feeling of emptiness was with her too. They were both dilettante people, playing at life to avoid ennui, and locked behind masks they had built up to protect themselves. They talked casually about work, but Nancy scarcely paid attention to the play of words — in the long seeming gaps, her mind worked on, and she wept metaphorical tears of bitterness at her inadequacy at interacting with people.

Had Alan been a girl, it might have been easier. There would have been less chance of misunderstanding and mutual humiliation, but as it was there was always the chance that he would think she fancied him, that that was what motivated her concern. She wanted to scream, but dared not. The joyful painted facade stayed up, and the small talk continued to hide her desolate anguish.

“The news, my Lady.” The grey unemotional voice of the automaton gave a brief purpose to her existence, and she obeyed it. The picture on the Tree-V coalesced just in the final second of some program trailer, and then faded to the station identification, and thence into the news.

The newscaster looked up, with no discernible emotion on his reptilian face, but the tone of his voice was clearly tinged with gravity.

“Less than one hour ago, Senator Lady Aelia Min-Koë, Chair'an of the board of directors of the Five Castles was shot and killed, apparently by a terrorist. She is dead. We here just received a film of the incident…”

The picture was replaced by what was obviously an amateur film, showing the Lady Aelia as she walked across the lawns outside the Council Hall, towards her car. There were a few people about, some of them well known. It was near sunset and the light was red. An explosion made a sudden punctuation mark, a full stop. Half of Aelia's head vanished in a gory spray and the camera zoomed in on the slowly crumpling, corpse, before wheeling around. There was no sign of the assassin in that blurred pan, and the focus turned back to Aelia. Her chauffeur had leapt out of the car with medical equipment, and knelt down by the body, but the effort was obviously useless. Though the body might live again, the person was dead. It was the first time she had seen someone die, was so unreal.

She did not notice for a few moments that the picture had changed again, and the newscaster was beginning a eulogy. Shaken, she reached out and switched it off.

“The filthy bastards.” Alan had spoken first to shatter the pall. He looked livid. Silence resumed, for Nancy was unwilling to speak, and Alan volunteered nothing.

A change came over his expression.

“I think I'm going to be sick…” He stood up from the chair, took one step forwards, and collapsed.

“Alan?” She hurried over to him, and knelt down beside him. He opened one eye.

“Terribly sorry. I think I must have fainted. Just let me lie here; I'm feeling better already. I'd never fainted before.”

Nancy fetched his coffee and some biscuits from the kitchen and gave them to him, reckoning that low blood sugar had something to do with it.

He had propped himself up against a chair by the time she returned, but was still looking pale. He nursed the warmth of the coffee against himself, and gingerly nibbled at the biscuits.

“I think I'll be moving on; try and get an early night in for once. Is it still raining?”

“No, sir,” answered the computer system, “Cloud cover is now down to 48%, but the main storm of this system is approaching, and should reach here in one and one half hours. The rings are presently 37% obscured, but this percentage is decreasing rapidly as the storm moves. The air temperature…”

“OK, OK, that'll do.” He turned to Nancy.

“Does she always give you a full report like that?”

“Sure — don't you, Melanie?”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Each to their own, I suppose… Melanie?”

“That's what I call her, yes. So?”

“That's my sister's name.”

“What do you call her then?”

Alan paused, uncertain. there was a sudden rush of color to his yet pale features.

“Nancy — after, of all people, Lady Nancy Elanor of Clan Wolf.”

Time seemed to sag to a halt. Nancy swallowed her immediate correction of Alan's form of address, pointing out that the correct form was the Lady of the Clan, and concentrated on keeping her mouth from falling open. She couldn't think of what to say or do. She had only met Alan earlier that term — he couldn't know who she was, beside Honey McLain, nonentity — or did he suspect — and how come and the sixty-four dollar question — if he suspected, what would he do? Would he betray her, or keep that confidence, or…

Blackmail? It would be what she would do under the circumstances, and she had an idea what his price would be.

“Ambitious ideas you have.” She tried to keep a wistful tone to her voice.

“Hell — why not aim high. I don't reckon I've got a hope in hell of getting a girlfriend. I can count the number of girls I know to visit on the thumbs of one hand, and you've already got a girlfriend.”

“I suppose she is good looking, in a way. I tell you — I wouldn't mind getting my hands on some of that fortune, but I suppose I've got as much chance at her as you have. She's probably already shacked up with her sister or someone…”

Someone… The Lady Tricia Katherine of Wolf, her mother's cousin, in a kaleidoscope of images scattered across Nancy's thoughts, regal in her natural silver and grey, lithe and laughing in her new shape, as Carol Mastersen, blonde and freckled.

“You said you were going home. I'll come with you — A girlfriend of mine…”

She let the false explanation trail into silence. What really drove her was loneliness. Outside, she could be her own company, lost in the world, but in her room in the evening something had come to haunt her. She tried to put a name to it — Hayward? Death? Fear? Vengeance? Vendetta? What did it care for names? — cold thing, it needed none.

While Alan waited, Nancy returned to her bedroom. She kicked her slippers into a corner, and drew on boots of soft smoke grey leather, that had been hidden under the bed. From the cupboard, she retrieved a coat, large and heavy. It was made as of fur, silvery grey, streaked with black and white.

A smaller cupboard within the main one, opening only to her palm print, yielded up a squat, flat heavy package, encased in plastic scored with sealing lugs. She removed the end cap, revealing a gun butt. She drew the gun forth, and cycled the action, checking that it ran smoothly, and that a new clip had been loaded The assembly then slid into coat pocket and locked there. There wasn't the time or the place really to hold a test of the system in action, but she was willing to risk the minute chance of malfunction; it had been working fine that afternoon.

Coat half on, she hurried back into the hall : Alan stood there, patiently waiting. When he saw her, he opened the door briskly, and snapped almost to attention as she passed.

The world outside was a gleam of silver in the almost sourceless glow of the rings that arched high overhead. The clouds were like quicksilver ghosts, and the trees seemed beaten from metal, the rain glistening on them. Ignoring the rather circuitous path, they headed towards the center of the college, not speaking a word. Pale glows of color, seen distantly in the silver light, far between the trees, marked out other occupied rooms, in azure, emerald and coral. The aftermath of the rain still dripped through the new leaves and its sound mingled with the rush of their own footsteps through the leaf litter of the past seasons. The air was cool, and damp, bringing smells of the wet earth.

An open gash in the trees ahead of them marked the course of one of the paved path. To one side of the path, out of the direct ashen glare of the rings, two people embraced. Just for an instant, Nancy looked enviously at them, then turned her head. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw Alan looking blankly into space, his face marked by lonely sadness. Still without speaking, she edged closer to him, and then, as the impulse died, returned to her usual distance. The gun butt was warm to her hand now. For a second, their footfalls rang from concrete, as they crossed the path. The decision was mutual, each independently wishing to avoid people; they were sufficient in their loneliness. Each sought something deeper than the shallow gaiety of the people they might meet.

“One thing I miss here,” said Alan, when they had regained the shelter of the trees, “is the stars. Did I tell you that I'm from Goldenstone? The nights there are almost as bright as this, with stars. We're thirty lites away from a newborn supergiant — it almost hurts to look at it, and the dust and gas paints the sky like some abstract. Here all you can see are a couple of planets and a handful of washed out stars. It looks like the universe has been switched off. It's worse than a full moon and it's every night.”

“I like the rings — they make me feel tingly — alive, all that cold shivery light. I went to Starforth — that's the next system along the Link towards Earth, and that's only got a moon. The nights didn't feel right there. The stars look alright from space, but they're awful down on a planet.”

Conversation proved too much of an effort to sustain, and they lapsed again into silence. There was not enough meeting ground for there to be a topic of trivial conversation that could endure against their introspection.

The trees thinned and failed about them and they walked across a wide open space of natural gravel, and heathland plants, and, as they reached the crest of a small mound, they could see a geometrically perfect line of shining moonsilver, running like a river beneath the sky. It disappeared from sight behind bushes and spindly trees, as they descended into a narrow gully, and they did not see it again until they were within a few feet of it.

In daylight, the slideway would have been arctic blue in color, swirled with white, but now it was an almost uniform grey. The material crunched like fresh snow as they trod on it, and began to move, accelerating until the wind roared about them, numbing, faces and making their eyes water. From across the open area, the trees raced towards them, and engulfed them in a shadow flickering dark.

All too soon, it seemed, that gave way in its turn to the bright lights of Harkvale, Alan's college. She waved him farewell as he skated down the access branch. Now he was gone, she felt freer, but lonelier.


An hour further elapsed, as she drove furiously around the University, trying to lose herself in the elemental thrill of speed, before she wearied of that pastime, and drove almost grimly for her home.

As she opened the door, an insistent fluting tone assailed her ears.

“Just a minute, I've only just gotten in.”

“OK. I'll put the call through then.”

Another voice replaced the imperturbable tones of the automaton.

“Honey — it's Jilly. Where are you?”

“Hanging my coat up. Just a minute, and I'll put the call through to this terminal.”

Nancy pushed her coat into the bedroom cupboard, and after a little shoving, actually managed to shut it again. Heartened at that success, she strode over to the terminal and pressed her thumb against an opalescent panel. The screen burst into life, to show a black girl, with cat-like green eyes. She called herself Jilly Dyson in that skin, but the person was Astrid Elektra of Wolf. Four years Nancy's senior, she was a history graduate, and only distantly related, tracing her ancestry through Trixy's fourth daughter.

Her hand moved nigh imperceptibly on the desk, indicating a tile of golden plastic. Nancy nodded, and opened a drawer. Amongst the discarded papers were a number of similar tiles, and a small grey green box. Her gold tile went into a slot in the box. The picture broke up into snow, coalescing again a few seconds later.

“We've got a roust on — Jean Silvers — one of the Connors girls — has been ambushed on her way home. She managed to elude them and go to ground in Chan's museum.”

“How in Hell's name,” Nancy asked, “did they break her cover? Do we know how much they know?”

“Jean thinks it's because she was defending the clans at a Union meeting, rather than because they think she's O but I don't think it'll make them temper their actions. What we're going to do is spring her, and get her back to the Castle Abiding. We rendezvous at the Greywater Bridge. You'll identify with one-one-two-four-three, we match one. Be there in ten minutes.”

The screen went blank. Nancy removed the scrambler card, and just sat there.

“Oh damn!” she muttered. For the third night in a row, some excuse had come up for the Clans to assemble and take pot-shots at the matts, and in turn to get shot at.

If only there had been a watertight excuse, some way to avoid the risk, without losing face. Much as she regretted it, Nancy had a sense of honor that acted like some atrophied conscience — she had agreed to rally round, so she could not go back on her word without a convincing let out.

At least, she reflected, no-one had yet been more than temporarily killed, but one day someone might get unlucky, and 'someone' might be her own self.

From depression, she turned to optimism — she would be well protected, part of a strong team, and probably with surprise on their side.

Wearily, she began to assemble her combat kit.


Alone, she travelled again along the slideways, unhurried, casual, on an indirect route, fearing ambush at every step. A sigh of relief marked the passing of the last habitation on the way, and she steered herself into the fast central flow. Here, the slideway ran trough a five yard wide clearing through the forest, and it ran almost directly east-west. The shadows, such as the rings cast, of the trees to the right, were ankle deep about her legs, like the foamy fringe of a sea, or curls of dark mist. to her left, in the direct light, the scene was as if arclit, against a backdrop of the deepest velvet black. There was no sound; or if there were, it was lost in the turbulent roar of the wind as it streamed through her hair and pummeled her face. She stood still, her feet gripped by the anisotropic material of the slideway, while the whole world of greys rushed at her.

The bridge over the Greywater appeared ahead, a cessation of the trees and of their shadow, a long open run of bare ring silver. Conscious of the exposed position, Nancy jockeyed for the last reserves of speed the slideway afforded.

Two seconds only was she out in the light, but in the elastic perceptions of subjective time, those seconds stretched to their ultimate. She was alone, unguarded. Anyone waiting could kill her, like they had Aelia Min-Koë; kill her, though potentially she was immortal.

The suddenness of her deceleration, skidding and slowing to come to rest a hundred yards beyond the bridge, disoriented her for a while. She stood, readjusting, for a few seconds; the looked about. As far as she could see, she was the only person left alive in the Universe.

She called the watchphrase boldly. It seemed unnervingly loud against the silence, a silence intensified by the recent cessation of the roaring wind.

The response was fainter, and it came from across the road. It was certainly the other Clan girls — the phrases had been taken from a song written — or so Nancy gathered — by one of their ancestors. No-one else was likely to be able to guess or find out such an unlikely counterphrase.

The team halted at the edge of the woods. Before them lay nearly a quarter mile of almost completely open ground, where the only cover to be had was from the occasional bench and from ornamental shrubs which were even more sparsely distributed. The light hid nothing. Every movement would be as plain as a signal to any onlooker, and though the clouds massed towards the storm, to wait for it would take too much time. Here, in the deep southern latitudes, the rings arched to the north of zenith, and the clouds moving up behind them had not yet reached the overhead point.

The gardens seemed empty of all life. Even with infravision binoculars, there was nothing to be seen. Jilly, as team leader, decided that they were as safe as they could ever be. The yogis — the origins for that nickname for the security staff were lost in the folklore — were not yet out in force.

The teams moved out in order of seniority, Jilly's team first, then the intermediate one, and last, Nancy and Carol. Their approach was to be most direct, heading along a right line to the museum, or at least, trying to. The air seemed ominously still as they broke from cover.

All now wore combat uniform as of corporals, the lowest rank in the clan militia, their overclothes in a cache in the woods where they had assembled. Each carried a tag with their true names, and they wore the wolf's-mask badge of their clan — but to counter that blatant revelation, so it seemed that eyes and mouth opened out of the outer void.they had blacked their faces

Turn and about, sprinting between what cover there was, and hoping for dozy guards, the two girls edged slowly, towards the buildings, to assault their solid front. As they crossed the gap, the buildings rose up in front of them, and the clouds behind them, like the jaws of a vice, or hammer on anvil. Distantly thunder rumbled, and the still air stirred in a fitful breeze. Like ants they moved towards the shadowed wall ahead.

They paused behind the last cover, a bush some four feet high. Fifty yards now lay before them, ten yards grass, twenty open concrete, and twenty more in shadow. In that dark, some forty feet to their right, an alcove, where decades ago, students had installed a ladder so official looking that it had remained in place. There was no sign of a sniper at the top of it, nor a window where it seemed an ambush might lurk.

Together, without warning, they sprinted for that goal. Not a shot was fired, nor a voice raised in challenge, but the two girls did not hesitate or slacken their pace until almost at the top, where the briefest of checks served to assure them that a booby trap had been placed there. Smiles showed on the girls' shadowy faces. Born and raised in Castle Wolf, some twenty square miles of architectural sprawl, in a continuous mass, they had learned to climb at about the same time as they had learned to walk. This lesser complex, by comparison, hardly constituted a five finger exercise.

Following the natural footholds in the masonry, they climbed up beside the ladder, and silently eased onto the open roof. Directly opposite them, a guy in the uniform of Hayward's original resistance group sat with his back turned, looking out over the site, safe in the thought that the back door, as it were, was safely blocked. His expression, as the cold metal of a gun muzzle was pushed against the back of his neck, was wasted on the open air. Nancy fired a single needle, and he coughed, collapsing inert onto the concrete.

His previous preoccupation was obvious. This point afforded an overview to a wide part of the complex, and the girls spent a few minutes watching for enemy action in the fading light. Already the rings were almost obscured. A couple of gunshots sounded faintly in the distance. Nancy cursed the operational limits they worked under to achieve secrecy. No radio — it was far too easily detected by other ears than were intended; lasers were out, for there was no way of determining their target, and the powerful range of gravitonic equipment would be instantly detected by the many Linkers around the campus.

Thus blind, they could not tell what was happening in the distance, and so had to ignore it, as they prepared to descend. There was no ladder here, but notched stonework aplenty that was just as good to trained hands and feet. They moved rapidly across the surface, well aware that in the last of the light, they still made good targets, but still no-one took up the opportunity.

In the deepening gloom, they moved along the asphalted roadway, a fifteen foot gash between walls of windows, behind any one of which foes could lurk. Amplified by constraint, the wind blew blasts of grit at them as they walked along, and rustled and moaned. There was no other noise, just the scent of impending storm.

The way bent sharp left, and opened out into a small courtyard, at the center of which rose a monstrosity of abstract statuary, the only cover in their traverse, and forty feet away.

Three shots rang out as they entered into the opening, and the ricochets whined dismally only feet from where they passed. To stop and go back would be to lose the advantage of surprise, and leave them unprotected too long. There was no real decision to make.

They pressed forward, rolling from for cover behind the steel and concrete construct, and sat there, panting softly.

“You all alright, Carol?” Anxiety tinged Nancy's voice as she asked, and her mouth seemed dry. The pause before the reply opened like an abyss, and any number of doomladen scenarios played in her imagination.

“Sure. But what do we do now?”

“Pray. Those were at least from three different places. I saw the muzzle flashes so they've probably got both sides of this ghastly thing covered, and'll be waiting for us to stick our necks out. All we can do is shoot it out.”

“Okay. Ah-one, Ah-two, ah-three, ah-now.”

They took up Nancy's suggestion, raking the roof tops with flights of whispering needles. After the first sweep only one position responded, and they concentrated their fire on it. That too ceased fire, and a second complete sweep brought no response.

“I hope they're not just playing out. Only one way to find out. To the door — run in panic!”

They were out in the open, running, and beyond cover, when, from another location, a sub-machinegun opened fire on them, stitching a line of pocks across the concrete in its attempt to catch them. One slug tore at Nancy's sleeve, but she didn't see how big a hole it left. Her concern was more for the explosion of a ricochet just below the sole of one foot, almost as she placed it on the ground.

The doorway was scant shelter, but it had to do. She whirled around on one heel and began to return fire on full automatic. Carol slammed into the doorway beside her an instant later, and joined in the effort.

Her gun discharged in less than a second's firing, Nancy grabbed the passkey chained to her belt and opened the lock. Maddening instants passed as she fumbled the insertion, but eventually the door opened, and she dived through, dragging Carol with her.

In that last possible moment, as they fell out of sight of the machine-gunner, Nancy felt agony pluck at her left arm, as a ricocheting bullet hit her. Dazedly she shut the door behind her and roared out her pain. In the fluorescent light, she could see blood already staining the cloth of her sleeve. The pain was intense, burning bright as a star, a pain more intense than any she could remember, and she moaned at it. The sleeve was torn raggedly open and beneath, soaked in blood, the wreckage of her arm. The whole arm hung limply. Coldly, she judged that it was broken, but there was nothing actually visible to support that; everything was covered in bright red liquid that seemed to pour without limit from the devastation. Red it was, as she had intellectually expected, but all her instincts, used to her usual frame, expected grey.

It was that color, more than anything else — pain, shock or blood loss, that locked her into a horrified nauseated daze. She stood, benumbed, jaw agape, just staring at the carnage, while her head swam, and her heartbeat pounded in her ears.

Clean, sharp, excruciating agony cut like a white hot blade through the glamour enfolding her. Carol had grabbed her roughly by her intact arm, and the jolt was enough.

“Keep moving,” the command was low, but almost venomous.

“My arm…” even in her daze, Nancy could feel how lame that sounded. She averted her gaze, not wishing to gather up the strands of that morbid fascination, and followed her girlfriend's lead.

Around a cross-way they paused, but there was no sound of doors opening or being forced, no hail of fire to follow them and as her motive power ceased, Nancy let herself slide to the floor.

“Let's have a look at that arm.” Nancy thrust the offending limb in Carol's direction, and smiled weakly at the gasp of disgust it evoked. Nancy slipped her right arm from its sleeve, and together, they edged the other arm out.

She didn't look as the operation proceeded, Though the wound had been sprayed with anaesthetic, she could feel that something was going on, something that didn't translate into any sensation she could lay name to; and how it felt dissuaded her from watching. Carol didn't look too healthy when she declared the job done, and held out the gory and misshapen lump of metal responsible for the damage, now thankfully hidden under a mass of rapidly congealing quasiflesh.

“I hope you know what you were doing of there.”

“So,” Carol's reply was brusque, “do I. You might have to do the same for me someday. Now shut up and let me put that arm in a sling.”

“Thanks, Tricia.” Nancy whispered Carol's true name, and struggled with her jacket, to drape it over her left shoulder. Then, casually, almost as a throwaway asked, “You want to come over to my room after?”

“Sure thing, Nancy. That's if you feel you can manage with that arm.”

“Just try me.” She smiled, and then became serious.

“We're going to have to avoid doing any climbing now…; If the matts don't hold the Gallery Bridge, going by the tunnel, and then over the bridge would be the best.”

“And if they do?”

“Panic. Try some other way out. Or scream to the yogis.”


The darkness was almost complete as they emerged onto the bridge, and the silence was like a great weight. The storm felt close, and all the world waited for it. They seemed the only players on a board long deserted, out of time and place. Only a few lights, like earthbound stars, and the faint distillation of the ringlight illumined the scene.

The span they crossed seemed a paler grey than the dark below them, as if they crossed an arch of mist over the final abyss. No-one awaited them at the far end of that graceful arc of bone white, to bar their entrance to the asKorran Museum of Pre-Partnership Artifacts. The name was diffuse, covering a multitude of sins — but that same could be said of the museum, as it stretched out its pseudopods to engulf the nearby buildings.

What they had reached was one of these tendrils of expansion, a part that Nancy had only heard of before that night. Access from the bridge had brought them into a lone hall, populated by constructs that seemed to be merely fantastic abstract sculpture in wire and gems. In the dim light of the now inert ceiling panels, an aura of menace seemed to hang like a cloak about them. Some were so far beyond reason to make Nancy glad of the poor illumination.

Silence roared at them, buffeting their ears like some malignant force, moderated and motivated through the artifacts on display. Weapons ready, as if to fight off some physical attack, the girls moved quietly forwards, running the gauntlet.

At the far end, a spiral stair rescued them from that level, taking them upwards, to other new and unfamiliar regions. Ever interested in the pretty and spectacular effects that some of the ancient relics could produce, and not at all anxious to return to the firing line, Nancy took the opportunity to do a little sight-seeing. The first level they came to had little in it to interest them, but in the next, where only a small room was accessed, there was enough to make her call a little halt — ‘for a rest’ she said.

In one corner of the chamber an amorphous blob of darkness swirled, and in it, lights circulated, visible yet seeming to cast no illumination for all their brightness. Coolness and calm seemed to radiate from it, but Nancy fancied that she could discern hints of other forces moving under that surface of innocence, like monsters, deep under a tranquil sea.

On a pillar, crafted out of red wood, and concealed in a little alcove, she found something to make her gasp for surprise, and call Carol over. There, without ceremony or warning, as if it were an every day thing, there only by right of its superior workmanship, a blivit, a real, honest-to-God blivit, with a handle, just like a tuning fork. She tried to locate the point where the three round columns merged into the two square section rods, but it eluded both hand and eye, skittering away like quicksilver from her touch.

A little mallet hung from a hook on the side of the pedestal, both of golden bronze, contrasting with the pure silver of the blivit. She struck a note from the tines, and it sounded out, loud and crisp and clear. Yet in contrast, it sounded weird beyond description — it faded and changed, it seemed contrary to any commonsense idea of what any sound should sound like. Though it was long in the process that alien tone faded and was gone. Or rather the physical sound ceased, but in her mind it endured, echoing and reechoing around her brain like some devilish lament.

She screamed to release the torment, and its sound tore at her throat, and screamed again. Not until Carol slapped her soundly around the face twice, did she calm down. Blessed silence covered the raw wound in her mind, and the dark and the whirling lights in the far corner seemed to drain out the poison, and fill her with perfect peace.

“What happened?” Carol asked.

“Did you hear that…, thing?”

“No. It's got a quietwall on it. Why?”

“You are just born lucky. It was hell — if there is any absolute wrong in this whole goddamned universe, that is it factorial. Don't try it.”

Carol looked at the blivit sitting innocently on its stand, and shrugged her shoulders.

“Come on,” she said, “we can discuss metaphysics, later at your place, eh? Right now we've got a roust on our hands.” She leaned forwards, and kissed Nancy lightly on the lips, but Nancy broke the contact. The change of mood was too much.

“Later — we do have work to do.” But it was not really that, but the about face from sombre introspection, to purely physical action that she could not face.

Once more they climbed the stair, and into a gallery that, uninterrupted, reached out to span the gulf between that building, and the Museum proper. Only the windows showed that there was any change. The darkness now was even more intense, as if the light was being actively drained. The wind moaned faintly, and it brought a feeling, a scent, of tension in the air. Soon, soon, the storm must break. Everything seemed to be reaching its climax — the weather, the search; on a grander scale, the politics. The feeling of doomsday was in the air.

“Which floor?” Carol asked, her voice hushed and intent.

“Down one. That's if we're not too late, and they're already finished. I circle clockwise, you circle anticlockwise; that suit?”

“Fine by me. See you around the far side.”

They separated at the end of the cantilever, she going left, and Carol right, to circumnavigate the maze of that level. Instantly she felt isolated, cold, defenseless. There was no one just to be there, comforting by their presence.

The silence that closed down was almost palpable, heavy on the mind, like thick velvet, undamaged by the quiet whisper of her feet on the carpeting, by her breathing or by the rushing of her heartbeat. There was no light but these few incandescences in the ebon night beyond the windows, scarcely enough to enable her to distinguish vague shades in the dark. Something of the same menace as in the hall of the statues grew and pulsed in the air. Her imagination began to conjure demonic hordes to lurk in the shaded depths of the halls, and supplied the half-heard sounds of them, and fleeting movements to signify their enduring presence.

Always she could feel someone, something standing behind her, ready to pounce, should she relax, yet able to gather the night to itself, should she try to seek it out.

Had only the sky been clear, and the rings bathing the land in their light, there would have been none of this trouble. She could have gathered the light about herself, enjoying the warm protection it seemed to afford her. But the heavens were veiled, and she was reduced to stealthy progress, with gun ready in hand, sometimes down on hands and knees. She spoke Jean's name, but only in the faintest of whispers, so the demons could not hear.

She was halfway around her patrol when the wind suddenly arose, coming down from the south, like a wall. It howled emptily, gustily, and its force rattled the windows. Nancy started at the sudden assault on her senses, keyed as they had been, to their most sensitive ranges, and in that moment of disorientation, opened her mind to a thread lost in the windcry. It grew in the fertile and prepared ground she offered, and its blossoms were like the flames of Hell. When she had hoped to have lost it for ever, the hellsong of the blivit screamed in her head like a song. caught in an endless loop. As it flowered within her, like a chorus of demons in full song, she saw, faintly and from the corner of her eye, a deep blue light, flickering like the flame of alcohol or carbon monoxide.

It drew her to itself, with an attraction that she recognized as frankly sexual. Her heart pounded, her stomach churned, a cold sweat dewed her skin. With all her will she fought to cut that snare, to reject the desire that was not truly hers, but she could hot break the spell. The concentration it required was lost, and she was beginning to respond to its allure.

Slowly, her body was answering not to her control but to its compulsion, to approach, and to take . Over it all, distracting, gloating, the non sound of the blivit roared, echoing and reechoing through all the cavernous reaches of her skull.

The silence, the awful pull, the darkness, the memory of sound in her mind : all were shattered, as a mighty bolt of lightning roared down from the clouds. It lit the scene in bright electric blue against the purest of black, like a cardboard cutout, and if there were other sounds, they were lost in its imperious crash. In its aftermath, as if in answer to its call, the rain came. Hesitant at first, it but streaked across the windowpanes, pattering lightly like an army on the move, but it grew as she listened. The faint traces were augmented, and whole traceries of water built up, clinging like some living jelly, flayed alive on the glass, and its roar grew to challenge all but the mightiest thunderclaps.

Nancy wiped the cold sweat from her face, and pushed away the hair that had stuck to her forehead. Then, with the storm there to exorcise the demons of the dark, she walked on, proudly, calling Jean's name loudly between the explosions of thunder.

Faintly, above the insistent drumming of the rain, she heard what might have been a reply.

“Jean! Here!” Her cry was almost a shout.

“Honey? — it's Carol. Jean's OK. Come on.”

She continued forwards, falling back to the stealthy progress just abandoned — NO! Don't remember too well — despite the fresh trails of memory it kicked up. Wary of a trap, she had her gun ready, and waited behind a column of darkness as voices approached her.

Lightning flared, its brief light enough to show Carol, and with her, a young man, in Clan Brady uniform, to whom she could put no name.

“Here I am”, she announced, stepping from concealment

They started, and for the briefest of instants Nancy feared that they were ready to shoot.

“Oh — hi. Come on. Let's go!”

“Where?”

“The rendezvous — all the time we took fixing your arm — we're the last ones here.”


Down in the basement in one of the conference halls, an unofficial meeting was in progress, The two girls and their escort were greeted by one of the Tegrith Shan. He was tall even for his race, and just one blow from his mighty arm could kill. He grinned as they passed.

“Been enjoying yourselves?” he asked.

“I damn' well wish I had been!” Nancy snapped. To her mind, flippancy was uncalled for at any time, least of all under such circumstances. Had her prospective opponent not been nearly nine feet tall and four broad, she would probably have hit him.

She was still boiling with petty anger, and angry at herself for that as she entered the room and took a seat. Jilly requested her report, and she outlined what had happened, what damage they had sustained, answering questions with short snappy answers, and always sarcastically. In her attempt to be rid of something, she poured all her venom into being exceedingly bitchy at the slightest opportunity. She hated herself for it, even while she did it. It didn't live up to her own standards of complete self control, utter placidity, and she was ashamed, yet she had to let out all the emotion festering in her soul.

Sometime later, though she didn't notice when, being too wrapped up in her own feelings, the decision was made as to their route out, and she followed out mechanically with the crowd.

The rain continued yet, cold and heavy, its wrath feeding Nancy's spleen. She couldn't even bear Carol's attempts to cheer her, even though deep within, past the barriers of pride, she longed desperately to hold her, and be held in her arms. On the more practical level, the storm drove them indoors, wherever it was possible to avoid having to dash across open streets. There were, fortunately for all concerned, no ambushes set up on the route they had chosen. Either the would-be ambushers had decided to seek shelter rather than conflict, or, more likely, the sheer size of the task, in the face of the enforced organizational difficulties, had made it impossible to cover the ambushes properly.

That is not to say that they encountered no hostiles. A couple of times, a signal to halt passed down the party, when the point team encountered solitary matts — once even a yogi on patrol — but such hazards as were encountered, were quickly neutralized.

The perimeter posed more of a problem than the trek there. The main exits were by archways through the buildings that faced the complex; each could be made impassable by just a couple of guards. It was inconceivable that anyone should be as foolish as to leave them unmanned, so to avoid capture or unseemly bloodshed they were forced to use one of the ladder routes.

The cold of the outside air, blowing along the corridor from the open doors, woke Nancy from the drowsiness that had begun to unfold her. She shivered and drew her coat closer about herself. The dampness in the air was but a foretaste of what was to come. These were the last doors, the last shelter they would use, before they came again to their own rooms.

She hesitated for a moment under the final shelter, looked out into the night, then at Carol. She smiled, and Nancy managed a weak smile in return, then looked out again.

A sodium vapor lamp, high on a building to her right, cast its wan light onto a square court. five trees, trimmed into cones, and arrayed in quincunx, occupied the otherwise bare area of uneven and patchy asphalt. Deep puddles had collected, and the reflections of the amber light showed the rain shredding their surfaces. The air blew cold and strong with the bite of winter still at its command.

Half-seen figures already climbed a ladder on the opposite wall, and moved across the quad, through the golden mist of rain that filled the intervening space. As soon as the person just ahead of her reached the ladder, Nancy sprinted out in pursuit. She tried, and failed many times, to avoid splashing in the puddles. The rain hammered on her hair and clothes, and stung her face, before, with its force spent, it cascaded down her.

A small waterfall, cascading from the roof top, poured in a ragged tongue beside the ladder, and disintegrated into a spray hardly distinguishable from the rain. The gusts of the wind generally kept it away from the ladder, but for occasional instants, the force died, and a coherent mass of water would descend like a blow on the climbers, and drench them through, chill and half drown them.

The metal was cold, and that hurt the hands, and its satiny surfaces were slick with water on the thin grease film protecting them. Now, though climbing required constant attention, Nancy was able to climb without relaxing the grip of her good hand. She was able to slide her hand up the side of the rail, though the cold benumbed her fingers, and in that way, managed as good a time as anyone else.

Even so, by the time she finally gained the rooftop, eighty feet from the ground, every last thing she was wearing seemed saturated, and cold water trickled down her back and across her face like a swarm of insects. Her sleeve and trousers clung, clammy and chill, and heavy about her limbs. She allowed herself a momentary feeling of relief as she swung over onto the roof, above the cascade at last — and then sank ankle deep into the black and icy pool which rushed out into the abyss, the catch-point of all the evening's rain on that roof. mentally, she damned the pool, allowing it the freedom of choice as to location, provided that it was suitably unsavory, then waded after the chain of figures, nearly lost in the darkness. She warmed her chilled hand against her flank, and hoped that she would trip into nothing.

Their route lay parallel with the axis of the building here, traversing the gap between the ladder they had ascended and the one nearest on the other side.

She stood at the brink of the descent. There was absolutely nothing to be seen out in the night, though she could imagine the trees, the open park, the paths. She would descend, and then fade into the distance. Home — and a promise made to Carol and a more recent one for herself a roaring fire, a dry towel, a hot drink. In a mood of pleasurable, but grim, anticipation, she set her first foot on the ladder.

She had descended two rungs further, before she realized that the noise she had heard, indistinct in the drumming rain, had been a gunshot. She flattened herself against the ladder, with her arm looped about it for enduring support. Below her everyone else had stopped, and she felt that it would be less than prudent to ascend, so there was nothing else to do.

Though the Clan forces at the scene had numerical superiority, they had been caught at a time of maximum vulnerability, with many troops caught on ladders, and unable to fight, and that left the matts with both position and surprise on their side. Only the rain was neutral, antagonizing both forces.

Nancy didn't bother to number the minutes of hell that passed, as she waited in the pouring rain, sheltered only from the gunfire, and completely helpless. She could see nothing of the action, all concealed by solid concrete, and only hear the rattle of shooting from both above and below, faint above the relentless splashing of the rain.

The raindrops on her face itched as they trickled down to her throat, and she could not brush them away. She was cold and wet and thirsty. Her arms ached and her scalp itched; the damp clothes she wore a heavy and clinging torment to her. Nancy reckoned that this was the true hell, and her whole past life, just a cruel illusion, and writhed and moaned to relieve her suffering.

A stray shot hit the sole sodium lamp that lit the scene, and its explosion distracted Nancy from her own afflictions. The vapour flared orange in the dampness, and blobs of the liquid metal rained down in fire. Electrics sizzled, both arc noises and the boiling of water, and blue light flickered for a few moments, before a circuit breaker opened.

Darkness closed in, and with her retinas scarred by afterimage, Nancy felt that it was even darker, more oppressive than it had been before.

The firing also ceased, as the snipers waited for their night vision to return, all those who had noticed the explosion, and while they waited, and hid, they removed all targets from those who could still see.

As the red/green splotches faded, Nancy could make out, though the dark was no less, faint shapes in the sky, and a lightening on the horizon where the rings could be half seen through the squall clouds that were outriders of the storm.

Three flares soared into the sky from somewhere in the darkly massing huddle of buildings. Someone yelled from a roof high above where Nancy hung. One word, and the firing died raggedly away into silence. Yogis' By custom, in the face of a force that could take them in fair fight, and had also the mantle of authority with it, both sides fled the field in haste. Official persecution was worse than the almost stylized vendetta fighting, and neither faction wished to court that dubious distinction.

The ground was thickly muddy, slippery and clinging, but welcome. It was release, and a removing of responsibility and honor. Unashamedly, Nancy departed like a coward from the fray.

The security guards, when at last they arrived at the recently deserted battlefield, found nothing but spent cartridge cases and bullet scars in the stonework. They returned to shelter with all haste, the grounds beyond were not their responsibility, and they had little taste for a policing action in the prevailing weather. They too honored an unwritten convention, that stopping a fight without personal risks was better than catching the culprits red handed and risking injury, and finding no battle in progress, were content not to pursue the matter. Besides, the actual identities of those involved were common knowledge; one merely listed all those students who were Old Clan, or who expressed militant Commoner views, and to act against either — or both — would be politically uncomfortable.

They realized what was going on, and had decided it would be unhealthy to be involved. All that was required was to threaten intervention, a mutually satisfactory arrangement, provided that it remained tacit.

Certainly, as Nancy and Carol went home, it was to their complete satisfaction. And it was one of the things furthest from their minds.


© Steve Gilham 2000
© Mr. Tines 2000


Prologue

Chapter 2 — Impasse

Table of Contents