Impasse

 

The morning dawned bright and clear after the storm; only a few puffy cumulus clouds hung in the sky, gleaming brilliantly white in the new-washed light of the sun. They sailed, in irregular rows, across the deep blue vault of heaven, from the north, under the misty arch of the rings, to vanish in the pastel shading around the southern horizon. A light wind urged them on in their majestic flight, and rustled the leaves in the trees. The lizards sang in the branches, to greet the dawning of the new day.

Nancy, for her own part, received the tidings with a more reserved reaction. She drifted imperceptibly from dreaming to awareness over a period of several minutes reluctantly surrendering the last gossamer webs of comfortable unreality. Her eyes were still closed, though she woke, and she lay for a while, trying to order the sequences of her dreams. One hovered at the edge of recall something that had frightened her, but was now forgotten, save for one blurred still of a ring of standing stones. Regretfully, she abandoned the tantalizing memory.

She forced her eyes open to the brightness of morning. The shadows of the trees fell sharply outlined, silhouettes of total dark, on the quasi-frosted surface of the window. They danced gently as the wind blew, long narrow ribbon shapes of leaves, crossing and opening and every once in a while, casting through transient pinholes foreshortened projections of the sun's disk.

Nancy watched their hypnotic dance, until the motion, and the glaring contrast of the light, made her eyes too heavy to hold open. She did not fight the warmth and drowsiness.

Time passed, in indefinite quantity — seconds, minutes, for all she knew or cared, an hour — before again she woke. She had turned over while she had dreamed and this time could see the clock function set up on the display screen. It indicated a time a few seconds before 08:30. Continued oblivion cast its Lorelei lure, but she had a lecture at 10:00, and decided not to risk it. Instead she would allow herself until the half-hour, watch the glowing digits as they rolled on, and then stir herself to get up.

Fifty eight, fifty nine, zero zero. The last numbers counted off like the final moments of the universe, reached, and passed the time appointed. Nancy stirred gently, so as not to disturb Carol, who slept beside her. Having slipped out from under one of Carol's outstretched arms, she sat up, tenderly nursing her injured arm. She stood, and walked out to the kitchen, kicking on her slippers as she went. She poured herself a glass of fruit juice, pale green, and sharp flavored, to cut through the dryness of her mouth, sipping it slowly, lingering to make the relief longer enduring.

With that, and a handful of sultanas, she returned to her room, and began to work at the desk display console. She ate, and drank, seemingly disinterestedly as she checked the progress of one of her little projects — a randomly wandering program that had passed along the interstellar telecoms links, had now reached delta Pavonis, only a score lites from Sol, with relatives in computer complexes in nearly twenty percent of the Partnership systems. She noted down a few items of interest, then cleared the screen.

Another set of codes, and this time she gained access to a routine she had unofficially inserted into the operating system, and then was allowed to reset its countdown to one hundred days. Were that count ever to expire, the routine would set to work on a thorough destruction of the system, at least as far as the actual normal use of it was concerned.

She wondered what she should do with it. In less than a week, the Clan Wolf would depart, acknowledging the public opinion against them — ironically the complete contradiction of the main charge levelled against them, that they cared nothing for the feelings of anyone not of the Old Clans.

In those circumstances, she would be unlikely to be able to do anything after then, and then, in course, the Armageddon would come. She hesitated, began to type in the code that would erase the routine, but halted with a pang of remorse. Could she really destroy out of hand something so beautifully nasty?

She negated the line, and logged off. With a little work, it could be made specific, to act as her instrument of revenge against those who would remain. There would be time enough for that to be done. She cleared all trace of that secret transaction from the screen, downed her drink, and went to prepare her breakfast.

A fat wedge of pinky-red melon lay, bleeding its sticky juices onto the tabletop, the remainder being returned to storage, when a startled yell of “Ohmigodwhatsthetime!” emanated from the bedroom, announcing plainly that Carol had abruptly woken.

“Just gone twenty five to nine,” Nancy called back, “Want something to drink?”

“Of course. Hot, cold or alcoholic?”

“Gageapple juice suitable?”

“It's wet, isn't it?”

Nancy poured two glasses of the juice, and shook the carton. As its weight suggested, and the silence confirmed, it was empty. She threw it into the bin, then retrieved the melon and cut a second wedge.

Collecting the whole lot on a tray, she returned to the bedroom, to find Carol sitting up in bed, wide eyed, and with hair tousled. Nancy set the tray down on the desk, studiously disregarding anything already there, and handed one to Carol.

“Two gets you ten it clouds over by the time lectures are over,” she commented cynically, “Weather?”

“No — the weather will remain much as it is, with the cloud cover diminishing to 5%. Air temperatures — presently 285, but rising to 298 later this afternoon. Do you wish a more detailed or extensive forecast?”

“See.” Carol smiled. “There's no need to be so bitchy. Okay, we've got an algebra lecture, and we both agree it's a pain — so we both suffer. Besides, it's the last one.”

“Anyway, on a different tack entirely — how's you arm this morning?”

“A bit stiff, hurts if I strain it, but it'll last until we get home, give it some proper attention.”

“Good job it wasn't your writing hand, then.”

“Mmh. Thinking of that — I wonder what the matts'll do after that.”

“I can't see what they can do. The yogis will be out in force for a couple of days, and by then it'll be the end of term, and we'll all be home.”

“That's never stopped us though, has it?”

“I suppose so.” — Carol paused — “but I don't think they'll try anything lethal in public. That's if they can recognize us out of uniform — I'm certain they can't and anyway, if we stay in crowds…”

“That's all very well — but what do we achieve? What did we achieve last night? Tie up or drug a couple of matts, a couple of yogis, wound a few more, and they do the same to us. We stay thinking one thing, they another.

“Why is it that people are so stupid? Us too. If we resort to force, we're just as bad as they are. Only luck no-one's been killed yet.”

“Achieve?” Now it was Carol's turn to sound cynical. “How can we achieve anything? We aren't politicians — we can only react to what's going on. We're being shot at, so why not shoot back?”

“But they can't shoot at us if we don't identify ourselves as Clan. You said they can't recognize us. But then how can they hole up one of us in the museum if they don't know who we are? Or was she just jumpy?”

Carol didn't reply to Nancy's rhetorical questions. The subject had been debated so often before, and always failed to reach conclusion. Nancy's gaze roved around the room seeking some anchor point, some idea for conversation. She heard, without bothering to notice it, Carol setting her glass down. A few moments later, Carol's long slender, dextrous fingers began to massage her neck and shoulders.

“Don't take it too hard, Honey. I'm scared too, when I go out on one of these things. Only — what five days, then we'll be shot of this planet. I suppose you saw the news last night.”

“Yes. I feel scared sick when I think about it. Today's the day, then.”

“Uh oh, I see. The twelfth.”

“Very ‘Oh’ very correct. The final reading of the outlawry measures. And vis-à-vis that news item we were discussing — and not to be a stickler for tradition — one guess as to our chances of a reprieve.”

“About zero. They get Aelia, and our only acceptable spokes'an is gone. I doubt Jeanne will be able to work up enough public sympathy to swing it, either.”

“Do you know where we're going to go next?”

“Not for sure, but I hear gossip. If we can get Guild sponsorship, it'll be to a place called Cimarron — it's just about to get its gate. I looked it up. It's about four thousand lites swan and a little coreward. One point eight gees. Rather boring place, in fact.”

“Tedious.”

Nancy drained her glass.

“Eat, or shower first?” she asked.


As she had been assured, the weather remained fine during lectures, and when they emerged, the massed ranks of clouds were gone, only a handful of stragglers remaining. Now revealed, the rings poured like misty waterfalls, gossamer veils marring the azure perfection of the bowl of the sky, a great ring, set with the sun as its begemming.

The white concrete, so abundantly employed in the construction of this complex of buildings flared fiercely in its scarcely moderated light. Only the rows of trees along the middles of walkways, dividing them into lanes, their dark greens, and the greys of the shadows provided haven, directions in which the eye could rest without bedazzlement.

Nancy waited, sitting on the edge of the steps that led up to the lecture hall, while Carol went to collect some notes. The wind of the early morning had died, or at least was diverted by the buildings, and in the sheltered square, the air was almost perfectly still, its only movement like the brushing of silk against her skin. She closed her eyes, and sat there, basking in the warmth of the spring sunshine, relaxing her, feeding her, it seemed. She shivered deliciously in the warmth, and smiled. Now, for a few brief moments, she could let all the cares of the world pass her by, absorbed in that elemental pleasure.

The hurried footsteps behind her, up and down the steps, might belong, any one of them, to friend or foe. She toyed with the idea, found it amusing, but all the same, there was the ominous expectation of some blow about to land between her shoulder-blades.

And land, such a blow did. A hand, large and unintentionally rough, clapped her on the back, and a gruff voice behind her boomed “Evening, Honey.”

Nancy started, nearly fell to the path below. She gasped for breath, and clutched at her chest as though her heart had failed, and with her other hand shielding her eyes from the glare. As the tone of the voice had suggested, the speaker was a Hrulgani. But though she recognized the mannerism, she could not remember the name that went with it.

“G'morning. You gave me a fright there. So long since I saw you last, I can't remember your name.”

The girl, marked as such by the crest of golden hair running back from forehead to nape of neck, sudden against the dark brown of her pelt, wore a long, short-sleeved dress of some lightweight cloth, in white and purple , the colours divided along its vertical symmetry. It could clearly be seen that she wore nothing else beneath it, her ursine frame as neuter as any teddy-bear, the dress only worn for its copious supply of pockets.

“Jayso Corvall.”

“Jayso, of course. Sorry, I'm still not used to all the new faces appearing here this term…”

True, but misleading — Nancy admired her own subtlety.

Jayso agreed with Nancy's statement, but though she was of one of the old and clannish families of the first-in ships, the problems of Clan politics had not affected her personally, and she was content to reciprocate.

“Doing anything special this afternoon? Or are you just hanging around to kill time?”

“Hanging around,” Jayso replied, “I'm shot of lectures for the term now — for once I have no need of an excuse to do nothing this afternoon.”

“You lawyers bitch too much. If you can face some of your courses — symbolic logic, axiom theory, and what is it — algebraic legalistics?”

“Algebra of legal systems.”

“OK, algebra of legal systems — if you can sit through them, you could have done the foundations course in Math, and gotten as much free time as we do — more if you chose your courses right. I've got no sympathy for you — glutton for… Hey! Carol! Over here!” she waved to her girlfriend, and then hesitated. “Sorry — where were we? Oh yeah, you didn't have anything set up for this afternoon. We don't either.”

“Tell you what — we can go to Dean's Tower for lunch, then assemble a crowd, and descend on someone. Should keep us busy 'til dinner.”

Carol walked back up the steps to them.

“You going to be all day there?” she asked.

“No — hey, Carol, this is Jayso Corvall. She's a lawyer.”

“No accounting for tastes. Hi!”

“And what do you do?”

“Math, like Honey. I'm Carol Mastersen, her tutorial partner.”

“Another mathematician. Is there no escape?”

“You could try staying away from our haunts — like back wherever it is you get your lectures. That's out North Pines way, isn't it?”

“That's right. Say, did I tell you about one of the things that happened the other night…?”

Dean's Tower stood in the centre of the site, looking like some relict growth, around which the University had built. It seemed organic, growing from a broad base to a tall and narrow spire, topped with a roughly egg-shaped fruiting body. In contrast to the stalactite like veils that constructed and were woven into the tower's irregular and constantly changing section, the bulb that surmounted it was smooth apart from the seemingly random scatter of large gaping widows like eye sockets. Like a forlorn intelligence, petrified, and abandoned, it stared sightlessly down at them.

The three students took a window table in the restaurant in the upper part of the tower, a window facing south, and away to the green of trees and grass beyond this island of artificiality. They talked excitedly, exchanging snippets of gossip, exaggerated tales told at third hand with glorious embellishments, but when the meal arrived, and mouths were put to alternative use the conversation flagged and died, reduced only to the level of Pass the salt. and What's that you're eating? It was no surprise — Carol and Jayso hardly knew each other and had little in common to provide conversation after the initial rush of talk, while Nancy, their interface, was lost in gloomy contemplation.

The time was but a few minutes after 13:30. In five hours, the most crucial parliamentary debate of the planet's history would be at last over, at the conclusion of a division already certain. In that instant, the old Clans of the Five Castles combine, heirs to a thousand years and more of gloriously checkered history, would be deemed outlaw, and to claim membership, in any way or means, an illegal act, punishable by ‘re-education’ a remedy but one step short of mindwiping, and about as distasteful.

Nancy shivered. There was a faction, likely to be little opposed after the final count, that pressed for the denial of Linker sanctuary to Clan members. They would be welcome to try and take the contingent at present safe in the University. Though their scattered stockpiles of doomsday weapons might not be able to sterilize the whole planet, they could have a damned good try. They could make the attempt rather less than cost effective.

In all probability, self-interest would probably restrain such actions, and the Council would pursue an aggressive hands-off policy, keeping everything looking fair. Wyvern could ill afford the sanctions that the Linkers could impose — their dependence on intersystem trade was still great — if the system industry was blockaded, there would soon be rationing and shortages of high technology goods.

The Castles however, they would be fair game. Any nut with a grievance, however imaginary, would be there, with any and every weapon they could lay hands on, or simple build. But the resistance would not be merely passive, armed as warships of the void, working relics of the early days of flight, when they must sail through real space between the stars, by ramscoop, twirl or flicker, and there be prey to the things that wandered between the starts, the Castles could fight back. The fight would last as long as would be required. Six days or less and all the Castles would have lifted, they only waited now while the lifter units were reset to the new configurations of mass. Time — it was so obscenely short. The minutes fled like autumn leaves, rushing headlong as if to find some grand finale, and ever eager in their search, mortal man was swept along with them.

Futile anger, formless, and unfocused, welled up like bile, furrowing her brow, taking the taste from the food she ate, mechanically.

“Who shall we call on first?”

“Uh, what was that, Carol?”

“Who shall we call on first? Your friends, mine, Jayso's or any of the possible combinations?”

“Whoever's nearest,” Jayso suggested, “Sssaa Merissaa is in Cedars East, so unless you know anyone in Riverdene or Cedars West…”

“No — but there's another lawyer I know in Cedars East,” Nancy, swallowing her mouthful, managed to catch Jayso's momentary pause, “A girl called Tracy Craig — she's from Goldenstone, I think.”

“Tracy Craig — you know her? Did you know she's Guild sponsored here? And that's not her real name?”

“No. Is she O?”

“Old Clan? No — her family have connections in the regional assembly — there's some sort of trouble at home, I gather, and everyone decided it would be safer to get away from things.”

“I thought it was 'cause she was an esper she was Guild sponsored.”

“Could be — that and influence together do it for certain.”

“Anyhow, we can take our time — wait 'til everyone's back from lunch first. We can kill half an hour or so in the Archaeology museum when we finish here, just to be sure of it.”


Nancy surreptitiously steered their path through the museum to the level she had crossed just the previous night. What motivated her to do that, she was uncertain — there was curiosity, and a desire to do something, prove some vague quality that might be courage or equally foolhardiness, to herself. Whichever it might be, she could not say, only that she was doing something that in either case, seemed totally out of character. For a professed and shameless coward, she was acting disturbingly bravely.

Reassuringly, as she approached her goal, her resolution began to fail. She remembered all too well what had happened when she had been ensnared by the blue glowing something, how it had drained her will, or diverted it, enslaving her body, if not her mind, to its bidding. She could only change her mind, though, if she could find some valid reason, for now steeled to the task, she doubted if she could find the courage again, and always there would be the nag of curiosity unsatisfied.

She let the adrenaline surge expectantly through her system, bothering only to conceal her gasping.

She reached the place, or what she thought was the place — there was so much difference in the daylight — she turned to the windows, and took a deep breath, and another. The desire she had known in the dark burned again within her, like a warm ember. She could resist that remanent effect, but if she were to wake it to full life, she might not be able to.

Moments, like eternities, passed, and Nancy stayed poised on the brink of decision. Then, without reaching any conscious. Deliberated, conclusion, she had made the decision, and began to structure in her mind the nonsound of the blivit that had woken it before.

As she had feared, something came to life behind her; she could feel something that was complete and aware reaching out for her. It drove her, fed its insinuations into her mind, but she raised up walls of denial. They were to little avail. The attack poured through the cracks, like fluid, to lie in the depths of her mind, and release its own thoughts.

It became imperative that she reach it, poor defenceless thing, and take it to herself, guard it and keep it, and in return, it would give warmth, and comfort, shelter and, most precious gift of all, companionship. She loved, yes, truly loved, the thing that called her, above and beyond merely desiring it, like some brutish beast.

And she hated, and feared what it was doing to her mind, her identity in its barrage.

Slowly deliberately, she turned, whether under her own volition or that of the thing attacking she could not tell, and passing between the cases there, came finally to a small display against the far wall.

At last, she could look at the thing that had drawn her. For a few instants, she could not see what it was, but then it drew her gaze, and held it. It was a necklet, or some similar ornament, a chain of one inch links, wrought of fine wire — platinum according to the label — to hold a square, an inch and a half on a side, of the same silvery metal. Set in it exquisitely cut, a stone identified only by a classification of its internal structure, and the name of its finder. Fiery glows chased and flickered in its blue-violet depths.

Beautiful it was, beautiful as she herself measured beauty, on a scale she knew had not fallen to its assault. Her defences trembled; she could not believe that harm could come from something so precious, but deep within her being, where yet she was an animal, she feared and that brutish will maintained the barriers with all the sheer intransigence she could summon.

She watched, as if from outside of herself, from the sidelines of the conflict between her id and the entity in the necklace. Her arm drew back, the fingers clenched into a fist, ready to break the glass that imprisoned the jewel. The whole power of her conscious mind she threw into the battle, to try and stop that blow, but it seemed she had forgotten how to control her body. The arm twitched, the muscles spasmed, and cramping pains chipped away at her strength, and yet that alien will, tireless, immune, continued the struggle to dominance.

The position could be held static, but it took all her efforts to hold it so; and had she not expected that mode of attack, she might have unwittingly given in. The game was yet only in check, and not mate. She would face the greater test, and if luck favoured her, she would prevail. It seemed reasonable to her, in the light of last night's events, that to break the enchantment, she would have to break first the memory of the demonic wailing that continued, half heard, in the background of the world. Some formal prayer, some litany that she knew, believed and could place all her faith in, be it unto death : that focus, she was sure, would be the best way, the surest agent, but she acknowledged no deity, had learned no ritual, could petition no power in that hour of need. Now, for the first time, she regretted that aid and comfort that she had rejected, however illusory it might be, but she allowed herself only an instant of that, and began to execute the plan she had devised for her own escape.

Mechanically, monotonously, she began to recite to herself the lyrics of the first song she could dredge out of her memory. Then, to the cycle of words, she began to force the music, slowly, again and again, strengthening at each repetition, while the words became just meaningless jumbles of potential sound. No matter, its invocation continued to cycle over the music which was gaining the shape that the words lost. At last, in a sudden quantum jump transition, the hellsound in her mind snapped like a thread of steel. The music rose to take its place, coming perfectly to flower, and it played triumphally, with all the will she had mustered to the struggle against invasion, and with all the joy of victory. It was like a mighty river, and it could wash away all the tainting of her mind.

Her fist, unnoticed during the turn of the mind war, was now bare inches from the glass and the whole arm was distorted, cramped and unusable. Sweat drenched her body, and her breath came in loud, ragged gasps. She was half afraid that she had begun to sing out loud at the crescendo of conflict. Warily, she looked around for Carol and Jayso : they still browsed the displays, and appeared to have noticed nothing untoward happening.

She looked down at the vanquished foe. The metal seemed to have become duller, leaden and the gem had clouded to an opaque, lustreless grey-green; but it was not dead, but merely quiescent — it still cast its allure. Next time, assuming that such a match was brought to pass, next time that she faced the construct she knew that she could, as a matter of sheer dispassion, break the power as she had broken it just. Raw power, however, was not its weapon but the ability to sap the will. It might be that she just didn't want to resist — even at the time of victory, she had tasted that uncertainty. There was nothing, as a point of sober fact, nothing whatsoever to indicate that its purpose was, what use it had for her.

Clumsily, with an arm reluctant to do her bidding, she wiped her forehead, and pushed her hair back into place. Had she been alone, she would have left immediately, and with all haste, but she was not; and the desire that nothing at all that might be considered unusual should be brought to the notice of others was stronger than the urge to flight. She stood a few minutes watching her reflection in the glass and waiting for the suggestion that they leave. She herself was on the verge of that suggestion, when Carol, checking her watch, declared that it was after two o'clock, and a suitable time for them to leave.

Nancy agreed, and followed her lead, keeping her feeling of relief secret to herself


It was gone 18:00 when finally she managed to disengage herself from what had become a floating group of about twenty people. She had lost count of how much she had eaten, how many cups of tea and coffee she had consumed, as many supplied by total strangers as supplied by friends. She had excused herself by saying that she wanted to get an early dinner, though the only thoughts she had of food were ideas of how to gain a respite from it. Behind her fabrication two ideas drove her : first the wish to find out how the debate on the motion of outlawry went, the second to escape the party. She was there beyond many of her social group, and the whole tone of the gathering was changed. There were a growing number of people she felt uncomfortable to be near, the more physical types, sports fiends, boisterous socializers of what Nancy considered the lowest kind.

She was thankfully alone on the slideway, speeding along, and totally free from the constraints of being with people. The sun shone bright as it descended to the horizon, but already she could look momentarily at its disk, and the air was already chill. especially in the unrelieved shade. She had chosen her route to follow the eastern side of the valley of the Greywater, inasmuch as its meanderings possessed an eastern side but even there, the hills across the valley cast long shadows that reached over and up to the path.

In brief glimpses through the trees to her right she could see the river, its waters as steely as its name suggested, pouring turbulently over its bed of grey rock.

Around her, waist, on a belt of white leather, she now wore openly the gun that she had carried secretly all that day. In that she had not been alone. Carol had carried one, that she herself had loaned to her, and she had noticed a couple of people whom she suspected of being matts, also displaying slight bulges that were either the mark of sloppy tailoring — unlikely — or concealed guns — almost certainly. If there was an ambush set up and waiting for her, she would be ready.

But ambush there was none, and as she came closer to the more travelled routes about her own college of Greenhollow, she buttoned up her jacket to cover the gun — the whipping of the hem in the slipstream would adequately conceal its shape. She began the manoeuvre into the lane she would want at the interchange.


She entered her house only after approaching cautiously from out of the woods, and then by one of the windows, where she had placed her own security lock. It might not be strictly necessary, but it was fun, and it provided a sense of the dramatic.

Having gained the sanctuary of her room, she headed straight away to the console in the main room, calling for the Tree-V to be switched on, to catch a summary of the debate.

It was all proceeding to the pattern she had expected, there had been not one surprise, one last minute change of alignment. The speeches, the jibes, had all been old and tiredly familiar, heavy with empty rhetoric that gleamed and conveyed no information — one speech of twenty minutes was auto-summarized succinctly as Someone should do something about this, you know.

Tired, haggard, and pompous, all the speakers were following, for what seemed the thousandth time, the same hypocritical choreography that had been established on the first play of the issue. Disgusted with the endless childishness of politics, she turned on the live coverage.

The summing up was beginning, with the three faction leaders in the Senate opening. The Land-owners' representative had finished the elaborate rituals, and began the speech. He spoke eloquently, and said nothing, a self parody on the party's proverbial lack of policy, and it was a relief to hear some clear statement of intent from the Young Clans albeit an affirmation that they had been bought body and soul by interstellar big business. Standing to gain most in the short term from a peaceful removal of the Old Clans they urged the acceptance of the motion under a stay of execution of one week, to safeguard lives and property all round.

The Lady Jeanne took the floor next, and the whole assembly fell silent. This was the important speech, by it the Clans would stand or fall in the eyes of the jurisdiction. She spoke tersely, and to the point, an event unprecedented in those hallowed halls, and common sense, an equally new, face in the gathering, was its mainstay.

The Clans, she argued, were going to leave, within the week. There was no need for this law, and it would be a point merely of honour in its winning or losing. If people really wanted to slit their own throats, Jeanne bad no objections, provided they did not bleed on her carpet, or leave a mess to dispose of.

There was nothing of politics in her speech, she knew the debate already, to be lost, so she spoke her mind, naming names of those with interests in corporations with declared aims on Wyvern. Magnificently wrathful, she ignored the jeers of “Royalist!” or “Dictator!” — catchphrases of their opponents, they had lost their meanings, and so she spoke as if through the hubbub of a farmyard, her face burning with a joyous exhilaration. Blood they seemed to want, so blood in copious quantities would she supply them — their own here by words, but were battle joined, the, blood would be real.

“Honesty!” she called, “whatever else, we do, we must have honesty — if you've been bought — like the honourable members I named, have the good grace to say so. If you believe in a cause — like you think the Guild oughtn't have a monopoly of long haul trade, say it. If you just hate our guts because your family always have, say so. I've just this one speech here as leader of the Old Clans — let me at least leave you with the custom of honesty.

“I think you are all bloody stupid. If you think you can run a planet better than we do, you ought to go somewhere else, and stake a claim, not try to jump ours. If you think our collaboration with the Guild is bad, argue with the Guild. We were here first, we built this planet up to civilization, we supplied the kernel of the system economy, and then you think you can just edge us out.

“We're bending over to accommodate you, and not a word of gratitude do we get. If you really want to lose credibility as a thinking, reasoning being, vote for the Bill. Hell — we're going anyway next week. Are you bloodsuckers not content with that?

“Think before you vote, all of you — and think more than two days into the future — you don't know when this could be used against you. Thank you.”

Jeanne sat down, she looked old and tired, every one of her more than eleven hundred years etched on her face. Weary and small, she turned to her companions, while the camera turned to show the next speaker.

What applause there was came from those sections of the hall dedicated to the Clans, and it was weak, and drowned out in the jeering, and it continued for the next speaker, the leader of the Traditionalist party who would also throw his support behind the Clans. His speech was less emotive, more strictly parliamentary than Jeanne's, and even his support was lukewarm. He would have to stay behind and try to survive in the new political climate after the departure of the Clans, so was trying to show his supporters that he remained faithful, yet able to respond to the imminent change. His was an unenviable situation, his stable platform torn away in the sudden and dramatic about turn in the vocal consensus on the Clans, and it was all that he could do to survive, but even so, me managed to make a good argument opposing the motion on purely economic grounds.

The Moderate leader, who followed, though nominally not in favour of the clan system and the monopoly of trade negotiations the Combine had held, was at pains to make clear that equally he was not in favour of the extremes urged by the more vocal opposition, and on those grounds called that the motion be voted for amendment only. He sat down to only a ripple of applause. The vote that was answered by the reaction of the council showed what appeared to be a great decline in their fortunes and the roar of applause for the leader of the Populists showed whom the rabble appreciated most.

The speech he made was neither as cogent as those made already from the floor, nor as straight spoken as Jeanne's. Windy, packed with cliched rhetoric and vituperation, it served no other purpose than to sway the weak willed to his cause, and to exhort the ranks of the ‘converted’. As a perfect textbook example of the procedure, it could not be faulted, but the total lack of intellect behind it appalled Nancy. The speaker conjured up visions of a better future when the healthy stimulus of the larger interstellar corporations came into the system, but did not mention that the same combines would be able to just buy them without even thinking about the cost. In the name of freedom he would open Pandora's box, and the unthinking men who listened, cheered with all their might.

The closing speech, was by the leader of the council, and of the majority Republican party. He said little in his speech, trying to sail between the Scylla of the Combine, and the Charybdis of their opponents, and succeeded in being, shouted down by both factions at once, in a rare display of common purpose. Eventually, however, it emerged that he wanted people to accept the measure, but to leave the degree of acceptance to their own conscience. Thus knowing, that a vote to amend would take more than a week to process, he had neatly sat down on the fence, which satisfied the party's division on the matter.

He called for the votes to be cast, and, to a storm of applause, sat down. For some minutes, there was a pause, and then figures came up, both on the score-board in the Council Chamber, and synthesized on the screen:

Returns from the Assembly
HOUSE ACCEPT AMEND REJECT NO VOTE
FLOOR 503 181 287 29
SENATE 18 97 193 4
RESULT FLOOR ACCEPT MAJORITY  
  SENATE REJECT MAJORITY  
  COUNCIL ACCEPT MARGINAL  

So close the verdict, despite the vocal bias against the Combine. Had four fewer people registered acceptances from the floor, or fifteen more of the Senators rejected the Bill, it would have gone to a Select Committee for amendment, there to be lost. Now, it had been ratified, and she was outlaw on that planet.

She felt sick — how many people, especially in the Young Clans, had supported this, thinking, that they were safe from similar action? Far too many, she felt. One day, the precedent of Outlawry might be used to drive Young Clans, or the Land-owners into exile, so that a grateful People's Corporation could reap their profits. People did not change. They always had been blind to the days after tomorrow, and would presumably continue to be. One day, in the long run, the Partnership would come up against a society in which all its members could think on truly long term time scales, and would promptly go under.

She wondered idly, could that be the secret behind the success of the Linkers' Guild. Perhaps simply that was their long hidden secret. Perhaps — fooey!

On impulse, she tapped out her sister's phone number. The screen flickered for a few seconds, hazed over with static, and then stabilized. For a subliminal instant, a message appeared, red characters on black, but before she could read any of it, it had gone, to be replaced by a picture; a girl of the clan, floating against a background of billowing colour, predominantly green, with islands of blue and orange. The girl's hair was grey, but in places was streaked with black. Her face was chillingly beautiful, innocent and eternal.

“Hi, Jenny — where's Tracy?”

“Out in the grounds somewhere. I'm sending out a mobile unit to find her. I suppose you're calling about the vote in the Council, just.”

“Only indirectly. A part of this is to kill time before I go to dinner. How's the move going your end?”

“Still on schedule — five days, give or take a few hours. Then up, up and away. Perhaps this time we'll be lucky, and find a place to stay more than a couple of hundred years. It gets a girl down, all this moving about. Ah! — I've got Tracy on the line.”

“OK, put her through. See you soon, Jenny.”

The simulated picture collapsed, to be replaced by a view of Nancy's sister. She was sitting on a rock, and beyond her, the land sloped away to a valley lightly dotted with elegantly cut trees, like dark grey lollipops against the paler grey of the grass. Their shadows were blotchy pools of darkness about their feet. All was colourless in the ring glow.

The audio channel carried the low sighing of the night wind, and the distant sound of the sea.

There in the foreground, however, dominating the scene, was Tracy. After the idealization of the Clan's design, slim, boyish, even neuter; for a female, comparatively hard-bodied, that was the construct image of Genevieve, the Castle's sentient computer, Tracy came as a surprise. She was aggressively pregnant — had been so for several years — and if, and when, she decided to permit the birth, it would be the third such in the history of the clan.

Even without that, she would still seem to be asserting her femininity. She had always seemed plump, compared with her peers, but what seemed buxom to those accustomed to Clan tradition seemed slim, or at least normal, to those outside.

“You've heard the results?” Nancy asked.

“No. I presume we lost. How much by?”

“That much.” She held up thumb and forefinger, a quarter inch apart. “Two dozen votes would have turned it. So you don't know when we're going to be hauled home?”

“Not for sure. Tomorrow, probably, tomorrow your time, that is. Though I'd say you were safer at Uni — lots of Linkers around so you can run for help — we've had a couple of snipers already, just trying to take out windows mainly, but a couple of people have been hurt.

“I'm just taking a chance to get out and about before the siege closes in for good. If you want to find out what's really happening, I should think Mum would know.”

“Mm — well, I'll find out in good time. I mainly called to waste time before dinner. We can save all the gossip 'til I get home again. Be seeing you then, Tracy.”

“And you, Nancy. Bye.”

They blew each other kisses as the picture faded, and Nancy leaned back in her chair, suddenly happy. She had been speaking with someone who just clicked with her, despite the fifty year difference in their ages. She also found herself longing wistfully for Carol, but even she was just a little too far away in spirit to match so much.

“The time is 19:15, my Lady.” Melanie's announcement startled her into sitting bolt upright.

“Thanks!”

She stripped to her underwear, throwing the cast-off garments to be cleaned, and rummaging in the chaos of her wardrobe. At the bottom of one side, she came across the dress she sought, ankle length, sleeveless, and midnight blue in colour, and with it, matching ankle boots. For one last time, she would go out looking smart, and not dressed to hide a weapon. The dining hall was two hundred yards away, and even in her mediocre state of physical fitness it would be only half a minute's run.

She pulled the garment on, and her gown, and pausing only to tidy her hair, departed.


She sat down in the dining hall, and as soon as she had settled down to wait for the meal to begin, she regretted the decision to leave her gun behind. Too many people seemed to be crowding in, and there was something not quite true about the mood of the gathering, and she reached helplessly for the gun she had left behind. The hairs on her neck bristled, and the stench of wrongness burned in her nostrils.

No-one else seemed to notice it. About her, the trivial chatter of daily life went on as usual, unheeding of the warnings. She felt that she must stand up and call out her warning, but what senses advised her of the tension, and what precisely she could sense, she could not say, and without that firm assurance, she was unwilling to be made to look foolish in public. She sat at the table, fretting., and tearing distractedly at a piece of bread.

A Hrulgani male, black furred and green eyed, his mane vast and silky, sat down beside her. Like Nancy, his gown bore the silver trim of a scholar.

“Evening, Honey, I'm Esteen — I'm” — he touched thumb and forefinger briefly together — “too.”

“Evening.” Nancy looked around, quickly, to check what their neighbours were doing, and saw no-one interested in them.

“Keep this to yourself,” she whispered, “but I think something's going to go up during dinner. You armed?”

“Uh huh. Two needlers — but a roust — here — you must be joking — how do you know?”

“A rumour going around. Could you lend me a gun — I didn't bring any of mine.”

“Okay then. Here.”

The butt of the weapon nudged against her thigh and she clasped it in her hand, and rested it on her lap. She clung to it as if it were endowed with powerful charms of protection, and thanked Esteen.

Across the hall, a gong sounded, triggering off first a quietening of the talk, and then an explosion of rasping noises as chairs and benches were pushed away, as their occupants stood. The fellows filed in, led by the Mistress of the College, Linker Jean McRae, she in the black and silver formal dress of the Guild, an outfit that seemed almost to drip with diamonds and platinum Behind her, in their drab academic dress the high ranking philosophers of the College.

An idea took root in Nancy's mind, growing to horrible fruition, an idea as to the event that she seemed to be forewarned of. Surely there could be no-one so bereft of his senses, no-one so philistine, as to try to murder in cold blood, a Linker, and ten or more of the finest minds on the planet. Though the academics would be unable to defend themselves with any vigour, a Linker, hampered though she might be by the twisting, of space-time in such close proximity to matter, would be able to more than adequately defend against any conceivable threat.

She tried to set that idea aside, but it would not budge, until a more outrageous idea supplanted it — the matts might not try for the fellows, but for the Clanfolk. Personal danger, however unlikely, managed to wonderfully concentrate her mind. If they had found out the faces to fit the names of Wolf, Connors, Brady, Tsia, Shan and Min-Koë, by whatever unlikely means, they would use that knowledge to the full…

She ate the soup course left-handed, the gun ready in her right hand to fire at the slightest irregularity. Despite the tension, however, there were no noticeable deviations from the norm of procedure. Glasses clinked, and silver cups. Conversation was a low formless roar punctuated by occasional expletives, and the robot servants wheeled around in mathematically precise patterns, dispensing food, and drink.

Her bowl emptied, and was taken away, but still the aura, of danger remained and had even grown into a feeling of tautness. She eyed suspiciously the plate handed to her, but the meat and vegetables offered no threat, but the threat existed, and was close by.

Though suspicious, she began to eat, ignoring what the food tasted like, too preoccupied…

Then, the tension snapped, and a feeling of relief surged for an instant in her. The doors had opened, and through each filed half a dozen people. Each wore camouflaged combat uniforms, and carried a variety of home-made and commercial weapons, and on the breast of each the emblem of the Matts, a green globe, bound around with with a broken chain.

Silence, descended with a roar, 'til there was no sound but that of the robot waiters and of breathing. Nancy halted in the action of bringing a piece of food to her mouth, and there were many others stopped, as if frozen, in the actions of eating, The freeze lasted a few seconds and slowly people began to place down their cutlery, and to edge forwards in their seats, to get a better view.

When all was again settled, a further group entered, a girl, with the rank badges of lieutenant, escorted by two Hrulgani. She dismissed the guard halfway up the Wall, and continued alone, up to the high table. She looked disdainfully at what she saw, and then vaguely nodded to Mistress McRae.

“My Lady. In the name of the Free People's Command of the Planet Wyvern, I demand that all members of the Old Clans, now by due process of law pronounced outlaw, be handed over to us. We will then take them to trial on charges of oppression against the peoples of the planets of Lindisfarne, Starbow, Luthien, Sharrowhan, Kalarim, Heartward, Toehold and Last Gasp.”

Jean laughed. “You ask me, in the name of an organization that is politically unrecognized, and in pursuance of a law which was passed by a body with no jurisdiction here to hand people over to trial for crimes committed before their births.

“Are you insane?”

Exit one propaganda scoop, though Nancy. But that was only one facet. In her response, Jean McRae had brought the situation to a region of instability. In that instant of chaos, a chair squeaked loudly as its occupant rose to his feet. He carried a heavy handgun which must have been almost impossible to conceal.

“Conversely,” he said, “I see you support the cause of Matthew Hayward, or at least you wear his badge.”

“Be quiet,” snapped the girl.

“You too — Hayward was no saint — Or do you not remember his atrocities?”

The situation screamed for release.

“Shut up, I'm warning you!” the lieutenant shrieked.

The massacres of the spread owners on Danestar, or the friendly hobbies of his secret police…”

The speaker paused, aware of what his coldly angry speech had done. The was a pause, while the matts tried to keep everyone in line simultaneously, and while Nancy tried to think of a way to avoid harm in the coming shoot-out. Very soon, people might very well be hurt, and the idea did not appeal to her.

Some item of cutlery dropped to the floor, and momentarily diverted attention. Someone, trigger happy, fired a few shots, and the room exploded into action. Nancy hurled her plate at the nearest matt, and as he ducked, pushed the table forwards, and hauled her gun from under it, and held the trigger down. Her fire caught two before anyone noticed, but the third target fired back, using a lethal projectile weapon. He missed, but began to correct his aim, and Nancy sprayed needles in his direction. In those frantic milliseconds, something happened to the universe, distorting its laws. A sub-machinegun had opened fire, and the sound of it rolled slowly across the room, like the sound of distant ocean swell. The bullets too were slowed, arcing lazily across the room, to bounce, their momentum spent, from anything they hit.

The quality of the light changed, becoming purplish black in essence, and distances and directions were distorted as if in a mirror insanely warped, or as if by the effects of hallucinogens. Even her body had been twisted, and her viewpoint wrenched loose from it.

In that sea of madness, figures moved, veiled in a mother-of-pearl mist, totally unaffected by its effects, and even seeming to reimpose reality about themselves.

Then, as suddenly as it came, the distortion ceased. The matts were missing, the tables moved slightly from alignment, but apart from that, all seemed as before. The tension was stilled, and only a bewildered silence filled the air. Jean McRae hammered on the table with a spoon, and the incipient buzz of conversation was stifled.

“I wish to apologize to those of you caught unwillingly in this situation. I hope none of you have suffered discomfort from the effects of the Qbedel field, but this deep in a gravity well, it's not precisely controllable.

“Those of you who resisted force with force, did, I feel, follow, what would have been the best course, had there been no Linkers present. However, I would like to remind you that the carrying of weapons in the University is forbidden so I would ask you to leave your guns behind as you go.

“There were four deaths, and a dozen people were injured, but they are all in hospital now Most of them will be out again by morning, though I gather that one girl who was killed may need to be kept in for a couple of days while her heart heals .Now get on with your meals.”

Nancy checked her watch. Incredibly, ten minutes had gone by while they had been under the Qbedel field. Even more than before, she felt certain that to attack a Linker was rank folly for any normal person, and many supernormal ones besides. The magnitude of the effect, produced by maybe ten of them at an instant's notice, showed what a powerful weapon it must have been in the wars of the 28th and 29th centuries, when hundreds of minds had combined to saturate planets with its influence so that small teams of Linkers could go down and take over governance without a drop of blood being shed.

Another point that had come out of the incident was the reaction to the pro-Clan resistance. For someone supposedly unbiased by profession, in all matters of politics, Linker McRae seemed rather to side with the clans and those who had demonstrated their active sympathy for them. Nancy had expected to undergo much the same treatment as the matts, and an equal punishment meted out, but she had not even been hindered. The reaction of relief left her feeling weak at the knees, dazed and slightly soggy for the rest of the meal.

As she returned to her room, through the darkening gloom of evening, where only the palest of sunsets remained, she wondered whether that had been a desperate last fling by the matts, or the beginning of an intensified campaign, both from within and without the University. In either case, she would not care to sleep alone that night, and that not for pleasure, but with the practical aim of allowing a watch to be kept.


© Steve Gilham 2000
© Mr. Tines 2000


Chapter 1 — Raid

Chapter 3 — Homecoming

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