Homecoming

 

It was night-time, and probably well past midnight, and she was all alone. Above her, Dean's Tower thrust like an obscene mushroom into the sky, its windows leering, emptily at her. Pursuit was close behind her, and her vulnerability was something almost physical enough to be felt.

She was running, so the passing buildings blurred into formless masses of grey and black. There was no time, no need to concentrate on that inflow of information — her subconscious could sample what it needed to keep her from stumbling. The next sight she consciously noted was indoors. She now ran along a corridor that seemed to stretch forever both ahead of her and behind her, but she had no conscious memory of ever entering a building.

In the blind panic that had caught her up, she had chosen a route that could quite easily kill her — if she couldn't get out of the far end before her pursuers entered the corridor she might as well stop and blow her own brains out.

“Nancy!” Ahead of her, a figure beckoned from the doorway at the end of the passage.

“Astrid — what are you doing here?”

“Come on! Hurry!” That seemed enough answer to Nancy — elaborate conversation could await a somewhat safer venue. She followed her leader through the doorway.

She halted there awhile, alone. About her, the plain stretched in all directions to the distant horizon, the grass waving and tufted, like a silvery ocean in the light of the rings. Above her, the sky was a complete hemisphere of black, without shading or feature.

From nowhere, a wind came, and rustled the grass until it sounded like breathing, and a muttering of conversation. She strained to catch meaning in the talk, but it eluded her.

Ahead, and slightly to her left, was the sole feature of that barren landscape, a stand of trees, about fifty feet across, and dark in the harsh, merciless grey light. It was, she knew, where she must go.

She walked forwards cautiously, then faster. The grass was like mist about her feet, and the ground firm and level. As she approached the trees, the grass thinned, and a path appeared, worn by the passage of feet over the years, and she followed its lead, and called sword to her hand. The blade burned with a cold and malevolent flame, like a captive moonbeam.

The trees were about her now, lining a path, long and straight, to the heart of the place. They arrayed themselves as a guard of honour along the route, and spread their branches above her head like fan vaulting, a cathedral in ebony and argent. Small splashes of light fell onto the path. It was dust, dead and dry.

A hundred yards away, or thereabouts, a light showed at the end of the tunnel. It grew as Nancy moved towards it, seeming to drift through unreality, until she stepped out into a vast clearing amongst the trees, where short grass grew. In its middle, this expanse sprouted a spiral pattern of standing stones, that reached inwards to some centre of power, hidden by the uncertain light.

Nancy's flesh prickled to the feel of an interplay of unknowable energies. There was a heavy aromatic smell, pleasant but nauseating, drifting on the wind. It passed and all be came still. Involuntarily, she shivered.

With reluctance, she stepped forwards, to enter the vortex, knowing that it was the only course of action open to her. In following it, she might gain her unknown goal, or she might encounter and succumb to the powers in there with power enough to destroy her, and more. To stay behind was folly, especially with pursuit so close behind…

From the outside, it had seemed that the ashen skylight fell as brightly within the compass of the stones as outside them, but on passing the first stone, Nancy had stepped into darkness. Yet if the light from beyond did not reach her, that did not mean that the dark was absolute. Rather the path and the stones flickered with potassium purple flame, and between and beyond them, small disks of light, always in pairs, blank and either red or yellow, that first appeared and then vanished again.

Fear attacked her, suffocating her, and clamping her heart in a grip of ice. She could see no shapes, but without doubt, those lights were eyes, and on that cue, the adrenaline had been loosed into her system. Her hands tightened on her gun as if it were a talisman of power against all the evil in the universe. Detachedly she felt amusement. Ask her on an open street in broad daylight about evil, and she would deny that the word had semantic value, yet now she could sense it as plainly as she could see the stones.

With quiet inevitability, she moved to the heart of the manifestation, and with every step, she could feel strength flowing from her. A heaviness, like shackles of black velvet, weighed her down; sight constricted to a narrow cone, as if she looked the wrong way down a telescope, and around it the colours behind her eyelids played like fireworks gone mad. The violet fire grew and caught at her ankles.

She fired her gun wildly, hosing, its blue fire about her as if it were water. The pale tongues of purple drank it quietly, and did not seem to change, though its clutch seemed to weaken slightly. There was no thought of turning; her footsteps slowly led inwards, and as she went, the higher the clinging flames rose, the slower and more infrequent her strides became.

One turn from the centre, the leaping violet tongues were at her throat, she had almost ceased to move. She felt torn apart, as if she was dissolving slowly in that fluid. Even to breathe was now an effort. The culmination was now close; a wave of flame that finally submerged her rolled around the curve and at her.

She had no time to feel fear, only surprise that she remained, and now but a discorporate viewpoint, seemingly free from all restraint. She turned, and caught a fleeting glimpse of something lost in flame, before its shape went, and the fires collapsed into the formless carpet of their origin. She did not name to herself what was she had seen.

Now loosed, her movement into the vortex was no longer hindered — instead she was drawn almost irresistibly towards the centre. Without any other choice of action, she surrendered herself to the steady drift towards the central nexus.

The force ceased, as suddenly as it began, at the edge of the central arena. In the centre of that void, some thirty feet across, a circular platform of white marble streaked with grey floated. It was lit in white light, as if by spotlight, in contrast with the purple glows beyond. A perfect disk of polished stone, six feet across, it was a contrast with the rough blocky pillars of the way.

Upon it stood something to make her hackles rise. It was her own form, save that the silvery hair was waist length; far more than she herself had ever bothered to grow, and on the brow, proud and imperial, she wore the silver and adamant crown of Wolf. An incongruous wave of lust rippled through her consciousness, turning to revulsion as she saw the alien necklet burning blue at her throat.

The husk stretched forth imploring arms.

“Join me, come to me. We are one, we need to be together. Please do not stay apart. Think of your needs…”

The tongue spoken was not Tweenspeak, but something alien, and yet she understood it, and instinctively rebelled against it, fighting to be out. She tried to scream when she found that she could not resist the allure, but even voice failed her now. She could only struggle helplessly as she was drawn towards the silver witch who wore her body.


She woke, and knew that it had only been a dream — or was ‘only’ really the right word to use? She had dreamed that same dream, event for event, detail for detail, only the night before She could only remember one possible instance of another dream recurring, and enough time had elapsed between and since for memories to become garbled by lying dormant.

To dream twice the same dream, on consecutive nights, a dream with far more solidity and coherence in its imagery than her normal dreams was unlikely. That in both instances she should notice the alien artifact, yet had only found out its true form between the episodes put it all beyond the reach of unaided probability.

On the first time, she now recalled, when the viewpoint had reached the centre of the stones, she had not been drawn inwards, but instead gone on to some other, more friendly theme of unreality — something about the castle, she recalled, or possibly the University, or possibly some weird fusion of the two. The second time was different — she had allowed the thing entry to her mind for a second time, and even if she had won the battle during the day, she had lost the day's campaigning, and it kicked a gut reaction into life, a quiet nausea, a hollowness.

Last night, she had not woken, but now she was wide awake, and despite a faint kamikaze regret at not having seen the dream through to its conclusion, she was glad of that.

She opened her eyes. The grey light that softly illuminated the room showed the first hints of dawn, and she twisted around until she could see a clock. In pale green figures, distorted by the angle at which she viewed them, it announced that the time was now 04:12, and as she watched, the minutes figure advanced one step.

Carefully, trying not to lose her balance in the gloom, Nancy stood up. Through the window, she could see out to the arch of the rings cutting across an almost clear sky. Few stars were visible in the washed out heavens, that already paled towards the east, but a couple of the other planets of the system showed as brightly unwinking points. She picked up her dress from where she had discarded it, and pulled it on, and gathered up her boots.

The room around her was littered with the dark shapes of people asleep, and the sounds of breathing. and snoring formed a backdrop that she had heard even in her dream, yet which seemed to fade from conscious perception by virtue of its familiarity.

She shuffled forwards, lightly on her bare feet, until she could touch the edge of the work surface that ran along one wall, and then with that as her guide, moved towards the door, delicately stepping over the bodies. On the shelf, at the foot of a mural depicting a hunting scene, a girl lay, limbs asprawl, deeply and quietly slumbering. Her face was non-human — feline in its inspiration. Its half seen form, a hunter's face in repose, imprinted itself sharply in Nancy's mind, recalling, the gem that now snared her mind.

She paused a few moments in the hallway to clear the disturbing image from her mind. Across the way from her, light spilled out from under a door, igniting the carpet to a fiery red glow. There was the sound of voices, and faint music. She entered the room, and all conversations ceased. For a few moments no one moved, with everyone staring at Nancy and Nancy doing her best to return the compliment.

“Nancy,” one of the girls remarked, “you're grey!”

“Yeah — so what.” Pause. “Oh my God.”

She let her voice trail away into silence — she had noticed the bare flesh of her arm. No longer pinkish brown it was a normal, healthy, mid-grey, save where she had been wounded the previous night. There, stretched beyond its repetoire of imitative adaptation, the quasiflesh patching was a cancer of pinkish grey, obscene and sickening. The sudden seeming change left her feeling dizzy.

“I didn't know you were Change-immune. Were you told about this?”

The speaker was a young man wearing a clan Brady armband.

“No — I didn't even realize such a thing was possible.”

“Its rare — Change is just a tailored gene-cancer virus — some people are just lucky enough to be immune to it or can develop immunity. Would have been useful fifteen hundred years ago. As is, it's a nuisance, but usually masked by stronger patterns.”

“Oh damn the technicalities. What am I going to do now? We can't stay here all day, can we?”

“Not really — if you were seen here like this… You can't really hide in a set like this. Any ideas?”

“Go back to my room — I've still got some of the old Asrovene outfits we wore last term — get me behind a mask and then stay loose, I suppose. I only need to be in my room to pack, and that won't take long. We'll be getting a lift out at 10:00 anyway, but it's those hours when people are up and about… Any better suggestions?”

No-one ventured anything.

“Okay,” Nancy decided, “Wait until its light enough to see by outside and then we can go Now who is there here who hardly goes to Greenhollow — The less familiar any faces are, the better.”

“I'll go.” It was the young man of Clan Brady who volunteered first, and he was joined by one of the Min-Koë girls.

While they waited for the light to improve, the team breakfasted, and when they returned from the kitchen, they found that someone had turned the radio on to a news channel.

“…and locally, the main item of news is the arrival in High Prospect of the regional director of the StarLine shipping concern, along with Vors k'Shamarra, the president of the Shamarra Funding Cartel to join in talks with representatives of the Free Traders League and senior government ministers.

“Although no statement has been issued, it is widely understood that these talks are a forerunner to a renegotiation of the relative position of the Linkers' Guild and the Free Traders and the Treaty of Foundation, following the demise, in yesterday's sitting, of the Five Castles regime.

“For a fuller analysis of the situation, we hand you now over to…” A switch clicked, and the voice was stilled.

“Ho hum!” someone commented, with mock levity, “The ink's hardly dry on their last little game, and they start selling the planet to the highest bidder — and people actually voted for them…”

“But think of the money,” it was suggested.

“Crap — who needs money — it's power they're after, and they're too damn naïve to realize that they're selling themselves down the river. I'd like to see the expression on… what's his name — the guy in the Populist party, Edvarton — when he finds out he's only one grade up from teaboy (Junior, Third class) in Shammara Funding or StarLine. If only they would show some decent, civilized apathy…”

“And one more time…” Nancy's comment was edged with enough sarcasm to be bitchy, “I am sick and bloody tired of that same old moan about politicians who don't have two brain cells to rub together, only an undernourished self interest, it's too much like descending to their level.”

“Okay, Okay, I know! But, hell, it makes you sick when supposedly responsible people do absolutely loopy things for supposedly altruistic motives. If that's government, I'd rather see anarchy.”

Nancy looked out of the window — fortunately, it seemed to be light enough, outside, and glad to get out of a rapidly developing, debate on political theory, suggested that a move be made.


It was indeed brighter now, the few stars and planets that had been visible were gone as the sky had paled, and on the eastern horizon the first tinges of the dawn provided a faint colouring to the scene. In the open, there was almost enough light for Nancy's colour vision, making the green of foliage truly green, and not a peculiar type of grey.

They had decided to strike across country, firstly deciding that if the roads were being watched, the extra speed could do them no good anyway, compared with the scant likelihood of being spotted in the rough, and secondly that it was as good a way as any to kill time that would be hanging heavily on their hands that morning. Fortunately, the course their would take meant that they would not have to cross the river. Though a generous bend in its course put the river across the direct path, both colleges were on the same side of its valley, and the extra half mile of detour would save them the bother of being out under open skies, or crossing, a river, or killing another ten or twenty minutes.

The college was as a city deserted. There was no traffic on the pathways, no loiterers in the empty courts. In all the windows, the glass was opaqued, showing, a pearly silver now that there was no light inside the rooms.

In the woods, however, beyond the arbitrary boundary of taming, night still held sway, and once out of sight of the borders of its shaded domain, the three paused to let their eyes adapt to the gloom, and when they could again see clearly to avoid pitfalls in the broken terrain, they moved on. The forest floor about them was carpeted in flowers predominantly pale lilac, with here and there a patch of pink, or of yellow, or more rarely, blue. In places, the efflorescence was so dense and full that they could not avoid walking on it, and crushing the flowers underfoot.

The trees around them were gnarled and old, and closely packed, and heavily leaved. Even at noon, though thirty feet above them might experience glaring sunlight, here a green cool dusk would hide. Yet, as they walked, and the ground sloped upwards as they gradually moved away from the river, striking south to avoid its curve, the texture of the woods changed. Slowly, while the soil beneath their feet changed in quality, the woods opened out, and the trees became taller, sixty to eighty feet tall. Here the leaf canopy, though about as dense as it had been, was made up of layers, each individually thinner, and occasionally large patches of blue sky could be seen. About them, visibility extended fifty or more yards, showing the local topography. There were puddles still from the previous night's rain, trapped in hollows in the clay soil, and everywhere the autumn's leaves carpeted the ground in oranges and yellows.

High above them, in the trees, lizards sang. Any other wildlife seemed to be content to remain both silent and out of sight, all save one slink. It had draped its tawny body across a branch, and slept there as they passed under it. At their approach, it lifted its feline head, and opened one golden eye. It considered them as they passed, its gaze following them intently, then hesitated. It seemed to pause a few moments in thought, deciding whether it was worth bothering to hiss at them, or whether it might be more stylish just to ignore the intruders into its domain with a regal contempt. Eventually it decided that it would close its eyes, and go back to sleep.

Nancy and her two companions, for their part, pressed on, through yet another mood of afforestation, where all the trees had sprouted clusters of thin trunks, to form a shoddy leaf cover, of leaves the size of thumbprints, at four inch intervals on thin twigs that themselves provided more cover. A few branches obstructed their way, with tangles of lesser twigs and a few vines for good measure, but they all broke brittlely at the slightest touch. They seemed dead and dying, here on this carpet of the leafgold of their own coining, and it depressed Nancy. She hurried, jogging through the rustling carpet of leaves and snapping twigs, with her guards following close behind.

She was glad to begin the descent to a small tributary of the Greywater, where taller live trees grew, and brambles and small succulents, and patches of grass coloured the floor with patches of green. Her running had faltered to a walk, but as the slope, became noticeable, and she began to recognize the countryside around her, she hastened once again, down to the brook.

It was on a tree stump near the stream that she was sitting, when her companions again caught her up. The waters babbled quietly, and above the gravelly bed, small creatures darted back and forth, carried by the flow. A few yards upstream, a log had been thrown across the channel as a bridge.

“Nearly there,” she called softly as the two approached.

“Just over the rise, that's where my room is — and I suppose that's where we'll part company. No point in being seen together. Just keep me in cover until I'm inside.”

“Okay by us. We'll spread out now, cover you from either side.”

“Right on. Call on me when sanity is resumed.”

But there was no incident, no shoot-out, as Nancy reached the crest of the rise, and saw her own chalet. She saluted the two who had accompanied her, and then set off down the last fifty yards. The door opened to the coded infrared signal from her key ring, and she closed it again behind her.

Home again. It was so incredibly mundane that she could hardly believe the events oh the previous two days. Here she could believe that life went on as before, and paranoia was a disease rather than an asset. The morning was bright, and soon, the sun would rise. It seemed such a pity to waste those precious moments of peace in just packing her belongings.


It took her less than an hour. The sun could still be described as newly risen, and yet the last items had been stacked away, ready for her to pick up her suitcase, and go, all save a bundle of clothes lying on the bed, an outfit in the style worn by the Asroven. The Asroven were a desert people, from a small world, with pronounced axial tilt, and they had evolved from a small fox-like creature. Life had always migrated from hemisphere to hemisphere with the seasons, from small sea to small sea across the merciless deserts, and its people had become nomads, for fifty thousand years of recorded culture. Released from the cycle of the seasons by off-world contact, they had built cities that were more than semi-permanent trading posts, and had exploded out into the galaxy, retaining their distinctive style of dress, reminiscent of the Arab burnoose.

Nancy packed her dress, and pulled on baggy pantaloons, tucking them into her boots, and took up the long-sleeved cloak, and the shimmering leather gauntlets, tying the hood under her chin. A silver mask of elaborate workmanship, depicting a sharp, vulpine face remained on the bed. The eyes were wide, and filled with golden sparkling iris, with horizontal slit pupils, though from the other side, they appeared smokily transparent. Nancy took up the mask, and standing in front of the mirror, attached it to the fastenings inside the hood. Now to the casual observer, she would seem to be a totally unremarkable figure, a sight seen every day, and even a careful observer could only distinguish her from the real thing by noticing that she lacked the barrel chest of the Asroven, developed to suck in the thin air of their world.

Alone and unobserved, at least according to the sensors she had deployed around her rooms, she departed, with the intent of killing time until her transport arrived.

She was nearly at the slideway before she realized that she was retracing the path she had walked that evening with Alan. The thought of him troubled her — he was almost kindred spirit, but not quite — they could share a bond of sympathy, but would rather be alone. On a whim, she decided to call on him, and say how she had deceived him.


The slideway was a band of burning ice under her feet, deep as the unmelting polar snows, its blue with hints of darker and deeper tones below, and covered in turn by smoky trails of white, and it carried her on, while the wild wind of her passage whipped the cloak she wore, and tugged at her trousers. Its touch was chill despite the bright and unchecked sunlight and caressed the bare skin under the garb with icy fingers.

Yet despite that minor discomfort, she was disappointed when finally she coasted to a halt on the big rink at Harkvale centre and took a few unsteady steps onto the stability of the concrete border, and then with confidant strides, set out along the path to Alan's chalet.

The small house was made to much the same design as her own, with but minor stylistic, differences to distinguish them, and it was with a feeling of familiarity that she beamed her identifier signal at the door sensor.

“Alan is asleep right now,” came the automated reply, “but he is only sleeping lightly and not dreaming. If you don't wish to disturb him, leave a message.”

“Could you wake him for me — it's important.” She was determined to go through with this thing, now she had decided it. The computer system acknowledged her demand, and then was silent.

There was a long pause, and then, after perhaps two, three minutes, Alan appeared, unshaven, and wearing only his trousers.

“Honey? he asked what are you doing at this time of the morning, and dressed like that?”

Nancy took off her mask.

“Nancy!?” Alan's face writhed as he tried to find a suitable expression. “But how come? I mean, why? Come in, my Lady, quickly.”

Nancy followed his lead and took a seat in the living room, while her host disappeared. He returned a few minutes later, having undergone a complete change of image — he hadn't quite gone to the extremes of putting on a dinner jacket, but then again, he hadn't stopped far short of that.

“Would you like something to eat, something to drink?”

“What have you got?”

He drew a deep breath, and opened his mouth, obviously about to list the contents of his larder, and then, thinking better of it, said, “Come and have a look.”

They breakfasted together, on cereal, sitting at the kitchen table. Nancy had thrown her hood back, and let her hair fall back.

“Were you really Honey McLain?” he asked, after a long pause in the conversation.

“Yes.”

“Then the other night when I called on you… I didn't offend you, did I, My Lady?”

“No, in fact — well, I was more surprised than anything else. In fact, thank you. No one's ever said anything like that to me before. I suppose with relations, familiarity does breed contempt. She's a first cousin, once removed, by the way.”

“Who's that?”

“My latest girlfriend, Tricia Kathrine. Just as a matter of interest, that is. I thought I had to tell you.”

“Thanks. I… I can't think of what to say — it's such a surprise seeing you — I never even dreamed that I'd ever actually talk to you, let alone this…” He swept his arm about, to indicate their surroundings.

“Never mind. I'll tell you what — any time you want after all this is over — call on me. And if you decide to change sex in the meantime… I'm sorry — I don't really fancy men and I'm not that curious.”

“I think I know what you mean.”

“Yeah, I suppose you would, at that. I'd never thought about the view from your position.” Nancy paused, considering the ramifications of the idea, and then laughed. “Strange, thinking of it like that.”

“I suppose it would be. I suppose this is one time when telepathy would be useful — just finding out how other people see everyday things, what makes them tick. I suppose you could do with that these days. It might mean an end to all this squabbling your family has suffered these last thousand years. Though I don't suppose there, is any such thing as a ‘right’ answer to the problem, it might just make negotiations easier.”

“You said everyday things — and, my god, is it ever an everyday problem for us. I sometimes wish I'd been born someone totally unspecial — but I would miss the Castle. It's a marvellous place to live, and explore. It'll take me century or so to finish it, if I don't get bored meanwhile.”

“I wish you luck, then. I hope none of it gets damaged before you go.”

“Not much chance of that — even the original small castle was armed like a battleship — all the planetary defence lasers we could lay our hands on. I can't recall the figures, but I can recommend a few books on the subject.”

“So if that was what the place was like then — what is it like now?”

“Uh-uh — careless talk costs lives — and other clichés. Anyway, I don't know — but I wouldn't like to try taking the place without heavy orbital support, which fortunately, is unlikely. We have a lucky star which never sets, if you take my meaning.”

“You mean a certain place not twenty three thousand miles from here.”

“Indeed. And I suppose it's really your telepathy idea in practice. Not that you could get a Linker telepath into a Council meeting, without someone screaming for the privacy of their own nasty minds. Not that I blame them too much — there are things I'd rather no-one else knew, about.” Nancy stepped, metaphorically, on the stream of examples that rose to conscious awareness.

Alan's expression seemed to indicate that he too had a few private memories that he didn't care for and his face reddened.

“I don't need to be a telepath to guess that one,” Nancy remarked.

“Yes, I suppose not.”

“It doesn't worry me. I've not got anything against you personally, in fact I like you — but…”


Finally, she departed, leaving Alan at 09:30, and the University but a few minutes later. She was regretful now the moment of departure had finally come. She was leaving friends behind, however few in number, however distant they seemed to her, and she would be leaving them forever. The world was cruel to her, and it filled her with an anguish, that kept her silent during the flight home, and apart from her cousines who shared the minibus


It was approaching 18:00 local time, or midday by the time-zone they had departed, when they approached to within spotting distance of Castle Wolf. They sped low over the gun-metal coloured ocean, with the sun at their backs, and ahead of them, grey cliffs rose, and white towers, gilded by the sunset light. A darkness hung over the towers, even to the great silvery shaft of the Upside Control, a darkness that formed part of a spherical surface, on which the skeins of smoke writhed and oscillated like the colours on a soap bubble. That feature was new, only established a few weeks previously; for the first time in nearly two centuries the lift fields were up, though yet not at full strength, but still adequate as one layer of their defences.

The minibus circled once about the castle, while security checks were carried out and they drifted slowly through a gap that opened in the veiling. Below them, now, at last, massed the score square miles of castle, spread like a cancer of city upon the green land. They descended further, and then, even that analogy seemed to break down.

From a location near its heart, and at no great altitude, the world became castle, there was nothing else that could be seen, save the mountains miles inland, which seemed to grow from the outskirts of the castle. A world indeed, Nancy thought, my world

But a world which had to acknowledge an outside. The rooftop where the bus landed was guarded by a fireteam equipped with full combat support equipment, ready for a kamikaze attack on the part of supremely clever terrorists, and Nancy had no doubts that a further squad were concealed in vantage points overlooking that rather open roof.

Nancy Wolf and a small part of Castle Wolf in the background

Nancy returns home

Suitcase in hand, Nancy stepped out onto the concrete, and looked around her, seeking her bearings from familiar locations. As well as the shifting veil above, there were vague shimmerings that might well be soldiers on watch with heavy countermeasure shielding up. For an instant, she also saw one of the laser batteries open up. Her eyes followed their line, mistily traced in ionization up to the lift veil, which sparkled, and then blossomed into an explosion, black smoke, about a roiling heart of dull red fire. The thump of detonation came about two seconds delayed.

“Mortar shell,” one of the guards explained. Across her helmet, the name Terry had been stencilled. “They come in about every ten minutes, and then the automatics get them. I think they're just trying to stop us getting a good night's sleep before we leave.”

In rapid succession, two more explosions rang out, followed a second later by a third.

“I thought you said every ten minutes.”

“Yeah — one pattern every ten minutes, there's some random element in their arrival times — Genevieve has the exact statistics to every decimal place that means anything but I do know we've got a good chance of eight minutes before the next bunch. It averages four shells per pattern — there's sometimes five, occasionally three, and I can't recall any larger or smaller runs ever taking place.”

“Where are they coming from then?”

“Westfield — which is about the only reason we haven't laid a nuke on the launchers — we can't even run an airborne raid to put them out 'cause they're being launched from a ship on the tarmac there. Damn' nuisance there's a Free Trader port on Wyvern. At least you can trust the Linkers even if they're against you.”

“Well, at college there, was a rumour going round that the Traders supplied arms to the matts there — they certainly weren't all using home-made stuff. A couple of the guys I know are on Trader scholarships are definitely matts. What more do you need?”

“About five days. Hell, if the Traders are prepared to act that openly, and at that sort of level even before the Bill was passed. There's going to be something big lined up for half midnight tonight.”

“Uh?”

“The twenty four hour hold Jeanne got put on the ratification.”

“I hadn't heard about that — when did they pass that?”

“Two hundred years ago — it's in the Treaty of Foundation, cleverly disguised as a popular check on the powers of the Council. When petitioned by any citizen, the Leader of the Council must grant a twenty four hour stay of execution of any measure not given the unanimous assent of the Council, so as the public can register complaints. Jeanne was the only person who seemed to know about it and she was probably responsible for it, which might be taken as an explanation. I'm fairly certain it was designed with today in mind. Now they have to hold with it to maintain any sort of credibility on the interstellar scene. Otherwise we'd be knee deep now in protesters and petty bandits…”

“Unfortunately we are just that — have you seen a radar view of the local area recently? When we were coming in, it was like flying through a snowstorm. I'd reckon there are about a thousand vehicles of one sort or another out there, and if more than one percent are legit, I'd be very much surprised.”

“Just like vultures. A pity we can't go out and shoot down a few. I'd like to take this rig out for real, one time.” She indicated the combat support suit she wore.

Cousine,” Nancy suggested, “I'm sure you'll have more than enough of that before this is over. It's your turn to be shot at now. I can tell you that it stops being fun as soon as the other guy starts to shoot back. How old were you when we left Last Gasp?”

“Negative something.”

“Count yourself lucky. We've had to fight real primitive, not all mod cons like you'll have to. Have fun. See you around.”

“See you, Nancy.”

Terry looked around, and decided that she was no longer needed to watch the aircar. A scintillating, shimmering veiled her as she took off to resume airborne patrol. Nancy watched her fade from view, and then turned, and headed for the door. A smoky veil across the opening told of a low-pass field in operation, making the indoors cooler and darker than otherwise it would have been. After the horizontal evening sunshine in her eyes, she needed to wait, until her vision was adjusted again.

The floor on which she stood was polished stone, pale green, with mid grey swirls lined with white. The stone continued to her left, where it made a stairway, climbing to a landing, then doubling back above her head, and out of sight, and it continued to her right, to make three steps down to a cross corridor, carpeted in a matching pale grey green. A swirl of cool air reached her from the right hand arm of the passageway, bearing the scent of flowers.

On the wall to her right, was a map of that level for the adjacent area, and she checked it for names, to confirm her location. As she had expected, she was close enough to her main set of rooms not to need to descend to the transit levels. She would instead go direct.

The right hand passage was the most suitable route she decided. With a few shortcuts, it would be less than a quarter mile's walk.

Fifty yards on, the corridor ended, and through a door, she came to a stairway, leading down. Two levels she followed it, and there parted company to rejoin the corridor net. Her way led northwards now, along a passage with wood panelled walls, and a floor tiled with wood in a herringbone pattern. To her left, windows opened to an abyss that descended beyond where any noticeable illumination fell. From the depths the sound of rushing waters rose a hundred yards below.

Two hundred yards, the majority, almost, of her journey, she followed that corridor, until it, T-junctioned. The right-hand arm was only five yards long, ending in a leather panelled door, which revealed when Nancy pushed it open. a small room carpeted in red, and furnished with two wooden chairs, their seats upholstered in a like manner to the door.

Across the chamber, another such door, leading her onto the gallery around a great hall. There were three long tables on the floor below, and benches along them, to seat the diners. Old paintings, darkened with age, formal portraits of the once important, lined the walls, which were of a dark oak. The musty odour of long neglect tainted the air, and dust specks drifted in the shafts of golden sunset light that poured in through a window in the far end wall.

Another door opened ahead of Nancy, not quite directly across the hall, and she went to it, her footsteps echoing in the empty chamber as they trod on the oaken beams. The far door took her into a tall, narrow passage, with a diminutive door at the left-hand end. She hurried, not liking the cramped corridor, and wanting to be out.

Out was a lumber room, seemingly neglected for centuries. Junk of generations past filled it, and dust covered it all in a soft white fur, save where her previous transits had worn a path through to the floor, plainly visible, though slightly covered again by the encroaching tide. She skirted the heaps of books and paintings, toys and models, to a wooden stairway, without handrail, and so steep as to be almost a ladder.

On hands and knees, she climbed, into the room above. In direct contrast to the room below, this was brightly lit and empty, and the floor but bare panels of unvarnished pine, covered by a silvery dusting of grit that crunched underfoot. Below the window, open, unglazed, to the elements, was a wooden box.

Nancy leaned out of that window. From its sill a crude bridge spanned the emptiness beyond, a twelve inch flanged girder of bright orange structural plastic that she had found, and epoxyed into position to save a five minute walk. The handrail was of similar origin.

Using the box as a step, she climbed out onto the bridge, and crossed, not looking too long at the asphalt paving of the open ground, two hundred feet below. Above her, the sky opened out, and above the roofs of the immediate buildings, only a few feet above her head, the further ranks of structure, dominated by the mile high Upside Control.

Another empty room welcomed her after that crossing, and she passed through, into a totally featureless corridor surfaced entirely in a slick grey plastic with a spongy texture, and illuminated by long opalescent panels in the ceiling. No one lived here; the only scents she could discern were of machines, the robot cleaners that were ever out of sight, possibly they were stored here. Whenever she took that route, Nancy decided to check whether that was the case, but she had never yet gotten around to it.

The passage turned, and she was almost there, in that little island in the castle where she had sat up her primary residence. At last a borderline was behind her, that indefinite interface where one style of architecture gave way to another. With lightened steps, she skipped down the corridor to a broad spiral stairway, with an open core five yards across that plummeted all the way to ground level. Twice she circled that plunge, and then away along a passage to a locked door that surrendered to the touch of her hand. She put her case down, and flopped onto a couch.

She sat there for a few seconds, just absorbing the familiar surroundings; a table left in disarray under the windows that lined the far wall, and beyond them, past the towers of the castle, and the forests beyond, the mountains of the Shalan Ti, grey and white against the washed out blue of the eastern sky, and clouds that were the final backdrop.

The end wall, to the right of the windows, there was painted a mural, the work of one of her cousins who had been the previous occupant of these rooms. It showed a group of riders, all women, like a valkyrie band riding to war. They were all dressed alike, as if for a uniform, in leather jerkins, part unlaced in the heat, and leather breeches.

Their leader, her arm raised in command, seemed to have reined her horse back only feet away, and now looked imperiously out into the distance. To her left, and behind her, the standard bearer held aloft an orange flag, charged with a hexagonal device in blue. The lush grass through which they rode rose so high that it hid the riders feet.

Around the corner of the room, the scene continued. The grass became shorter, then gave way entirely to red sands, and the blue sky became a lowering greyish red, streaked as if with gradations of clouding, with white and grey and crimson. Mushroom-like trees, and fragile soaring towers rose out of the dunes, and in the distance, hills rose to the horizon, in a landscape from some fabled Mars.

There was a knock at the door, breaking Nancy's trance.

“Come in!” she called.

“Hi there, Nancy.”

The newcomer was a younger girl, in T-shirt and jeans, taller than Nancy, and with longer hair.

“Hi there yourself, Julie. You sure didn't waste any time getting here. What gives?”

“Boredom. You're likely to be one of the few people with something new to talk about, anything except politics which unfortunately seems to have dominated the talking here for the last few weeks.”

“Okay. I'll try and think of something — but I tell you, it won't be easy. We didn't have much else going on this term. I'll just be glad when its all over. I suppose I could show you my war wounds. Let's find a medikit…”

There was one in a desk drawer, and Nancy selected the items she would need.

“I caught a bullet in this arm the other night she explained and I gummed it up with pink flavoured goo.We can see how its healing and change it for grey if we need.”

She stripped off the shirt she had substituted for the Asroven cloak, and displayed the ugly wad of quasiflesh.

Julie wrinkled up her nose.

“That it?”

“What do you want? Scars? Buckets of blood?”

Nancy moistened a swab with solvent, and began to remove the dressing, peeling it away in long rubbery strings, to reveal unbroken, healthy flesh beneath.

And when the last scraps of the dressing were gone, there was no visible evidence that she had ever needed it. There was not even any sign that she had even worn the dressing, no puckering or clamminess of the skin; just ordinary, unremarkable arm.

“That's a bit of a pity. I'd hoped to have something to show for that. I got a ricochet there a couple of nights back, sure looked nasty enough at the time. I'll show you the jacket — lots of nasty red blood on that.”

“Red? I was going to ask — I thought you lot out at Uni had Changed — how come you're grey?”

“I woke up like that this morning. Last night I looked just like any of the cargs.” She smiled to herself — being home had one advantage above all the others — no longer the need for secrecy. Here she could use Clan slang of a sort that could have won her a knife between the ribs at college. Deriving from ιcargo᾿ the term ‘cargs’ had been one of the more demeaning titles applied to the hapless colonists who had been chosen to settle Tau Ceti III. By extension it now applied to anyone who was not a member of the Combine or who used haemoglobin as a blood pigment. “Now all I've got to show for it is a few inches of light brown hair that'll need dyeing some time before I see Tricia again.”

“Tricia — she the one decanted along with you?”

“Uh-huh. You can tell the model just to look at… My year, short, slim and flat chested was the style. Certainly changed before they nipped you — what were you? second batch after mine — nearly fourteen?”

“Yes. I've looked at my specs — it'll be a couple of years before I stop growing — six foot eight, and bulky. Not at all nice. When I can be bothered, I'll get modified more like you.”

“Thanks. It's nice to know someone else who thinks small is beautiful.”

“Easier to climb with, provided you don't care for long reach, if you want a practical point. More so if the new place has the silly gravity I hear it has. And you don't squash the person you're sleeping with so much. Talking of which, Nancy…”

“Which we weren't, but I can take a hint when I hear one. Am I correct?”

“Essentially.”

“OK,” she decided, “Call on me some time after dinner. I should be here, even if it is to do my hair. Now we've got that settled, what's been happening around here? How long till take-off?”

“Five days, a bit over. As for happenings, like every ten minutes we get bombed, and then there's a crazy sniper who keeps on taking pot-shots at lighted windows. Things like that we couldn't do anything about.”

“I used to complain at college, like that, even when we were able to go out and shoot back. But we can't do anything, of any meaning. I don't suppose anyone can. As long as the clans endure, there'll be idiots who read their history books and then decide that we are a Bad Thing — in capitals — and try to do their bit to help everyone else. We're on the defensive against the whole range of zanies and nutters, and that's on thing we can't get rid of.

“Face it — what we're dealing with is the perversity of human nature — people too stupid or too dedicated to realize the essential worth of enlightened self interest, and apathy. Too goddamn many people feel they've got to do something, so by damn, they go out and do it, even if it hurts, because it's Right — all capitals. Unfortunately, the cargs don't have a monopoly on that sort of thing, like sister Astrid with her bright ideas about going out and shooting back when we could have all been tucked up nicely in bed.”

Julie smiled. “With each other,” she suggested

“With the bloody matts if need be. ‘Make love, not war’ is not exactly a brand new idea, and a lot more fun. At least if doesn't have you gallivanting about roofs during the granddaddy of all thunderstorms. There was one of their girls I fancied only she was straight as a die. Always the way I suppose — and that's another advantage of being home.”

“Never mind. I'll see you tonight, then.” Julie walked away, pausing only to blow Nancy a kiss before shutting the door.

“Genevieve!” Nancy called, as soon as the last sound of footsteps had faded, “I'm not in, not to anyone except Tricia. Could you run me a nice warm bath, and get me something to make my hair look normal again.”

“At once, my Lady.”

Nancy resumed her exhausted sprawl on the couch, until she was able to transfer to the bath, and continue that urgent exercise. She lounged in the warm water, letting all the frustrations of term unwind, and fade from her consideration.

The time had flown, and not only the last couple of months. The years too had caught her unawares, with not one, but two, of the younger batches of girls growing up now. How Kari and Sue, and Astrid and Tessa thought of it, all too soon she would find out, crossing from her comfortably junior position among those of University age. She was worried about growing old at seventeen, while there were those in her family sixty times that and more. Change, rather than age, was the key. After, say, two hundred, things would alter little as centuries passed, but for now she had to wait a long while before she would have half a century to her credit, but she had undergone more change in her first handful of years than ever she would again — she was nearly the finished product now, awaiting the final, and long protracted, polishing.

To hell with that she decided while she was young, she would, act it to the full.


Her watch indicated 13:28, the wall-clock nearly half past nineteen hours, when she emerged from the bath, her hair now restored to its wonted silver, with a change of clothing waiting for her.

The sun was set, its last colours reflecting from the mountains far away, fading even as she watched, while she dined, or as she reckoned it, lunched, alone in her room, and read a magazine.

But when she had finished the last mouthful she gave up any hope of continuing to read. Quietly something was fermenting at the back of her mind, now that the initial elation at her homecoming was past. She felt disjointed after the sudden change in environment, in culture, in pace, and direction of life. She felt regret now, rather than relief, at being home and away from university, trapped at the intersection between those worlds.

She would have liked to have been able to stay a few more days, with friends, with minds and interests that matched her ideas of fun, and not with family. A few more days, and everything, would have been all right. That thought seemed to tag itself along at the end of her wishful thinking, like a thing alien, welling up from the depths of her mind rather than being deliberately formulated, as if she had caught a whiff of someone else's thought.

A few days, and all would be righted, they would be off-world, and once again, free to do as they pleased, even if that did exclude Wyvern. She shrugged and sighed. She already missed the friends she might never see again. Damn it, she was lonely here, even though there, were more people here she would talk to than at University…

She pushed away the thought that she might be growing out of the Castle, and stood up, and pulled on a jacket. There was something that seemed to push her to action, to achieve some goal, and she could only lighten her soul ache by following it. She left a message for Julie and then was gone, through the corridors and west, taking the secret ways which only she might know, to a suite she had set up and secretly maintained, high in the Red Towers.

A while, she sat there, and watched the castle, and than lay down on the bed, and contemplated the ceiling, and browsed a few books, and then she could not ignore the feeling of emptiness any longer.

She found a bow, and a quiverful of arrows, and in a cupboard, a rather decrepit target which she set up in a nearby corridor and then filled with arrows until it was ragged and her fingers sore, and. then tiring of that game ran. She flew quite aimlessly through gloomy halls and corridors that seemed to have no end, past windows, murals and sombre paintings, wishing, that she could somersault, or even turn cartwheels, running until she had to suck in breath in great gasps.

The activity had filled her, but without it, the melancholy took her once more, and she walked on. She found a small garden, with a swing. The evening was already too chill for her to lie on the grass, and swinging on the swing required too much effort — and besides, she had little enough breath to gasp out on the downswing, and it made her feel slightly sick.

Time was stalled, it crept by, tormenting, her, asserting its right to withhold the resolution of her turmoil within. Slowly, the sky darkened to night grey, and the tingling silver of the rings built up about her, and yet the hour was only little past twenty, and Julie unlikely to be out of dinner for another half-hour. She looked forwards to their night together. It would provide welcome hours of amusement during which she could effectively shut off her mind, and then after that, sleep, which could be extended an indefinite time, and then Julie would still be there… Properly managed, that little escapade could kill a large span of time. She treasured that anticipation as she walked by the river, slowly back to her rooms while the cloak of night gathered itself around her

Every ten minutes or so, the bombs came, ticking off the passage of time, and lights came on around the Castle, and sometimes off again. She had almost finished the detour.

A bell. Twenty and one half hours of the day. Dinner would now be finished. With lighter tread, and faster, she hurried to her room, with first the gravel path beneath her feet, then concrete, and then wood.

Julie was already whiting when she arrived, and she smiled.

“I've been waiting for you.”

“Not too long, I trust How about a drink?”


© Steve Gilham 2000
© Mr. Tines 2000


Chapter 2 — Impasse

Chapter 4 — Flight

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