Flight

 

All was dark; and in that darkness, something stirred, a primeval, bestial force. Nancy felt it bubble up from the lightless depths of her self, like marsh gas, bringing with it taints of all she disliked about herself, dragging her in its wake, from the borders of dream, reluctantly to full wakefulness. Raw, hot animal desire was uppermost in that turmoil of id-thoughts washing up from far below the lighted shallows of consciousness, and drowsily, she began to respond. Already she held another in her arms, so she nuzzled closer, caressing, the cool skin of her back, and kissing her, before she had finished waking.

But the unveiling of her consciousness brought clarity to the drive that had grown within her. She opened her eyes and considered the scene. It was not the young girl with hair of silver brightness in the ring-glow, the fine slender body against her own, that was the focus of her lust, but an inert construct of stone and metal, tens of millions of years old, a chain and a gem in a museum a quarter of a world away.

Her first impulse was to sick fear, but that door was denied her. There was to be no easy flight into hysteria, and that, intellectually, frightened her still more, for she would be perfectly aware of all that would be happening if it erased her. Coldly, then, she turned to fight, to drive away the attack upon her will, but there was no clear avenue by which to direct her counterthrust, no point of especial weakness, apparent to her, and without such guide, her resistance was foredoomed to failure.

Reluctantly bowing to the inevitable, Nancy decided to cease the struggle, to yield to the pressure. Maybe there would come an opportunity to break free, maybe not, but she would wait, and be ready should it come. As for the present, she would do what she had to.

Nancy slipped carefully from Julie's loose embrace, rolling her gently away. She snored slightly in the new position, but otherwise it seemed that her sleep was undisturbed. Even so, Nancy watched all the time for the slightest signs of awakening, as gently she wriggled out of the bed, and crawled onto the floor. Only when carpet was beneath her hands and knees, did she attempt to stand, careful not to misjudge her balance in the uncertain light.

She moved across to her table, disliking the rustling of her footfalls, to check the time by her watch. It showed, now adjusted to the local values, 23:49, a comparatively early hour, as the lights still burning aplenty in the windows she could see agreed. Early enough, maybe, that the Castle as a community would still be awake, yet too late, by an hour and a half, to reach the museum by the 00:34 deadline

She shook her head, attempting to clear her mind, but all she achieved for her pains was vertigo. The compulsion remained, now become part of her she could neither isolate nor subvert. She turned her back on the brightly ring lit black and silver roofscape, and went in the next room to find clothes and equipment for her task.

White was the colour of her choice, a colour that would be camouflaged against the white of concrete, should she be forced onto the rooftops or open boulevards. It was certainly for no other reason, practical or symbolic. Coveralls she chose, with boots of white leather, and a belt of the same material. Contrasting with these, she unpacked two guns, a stunner, and a blaster, home-made both, and of unpainted materials, save, on the latter where radiator fins had a black crackle finish. They were ugly but functional, and had no part in her outfit other than of pure practicality — they could never be aesthetic.

There was nothing else that appeared useful, as far as she noticed, either in rummaging through her case or searching through her room. So she would travel light — it suited her fine.

She sat down at the desk, and switched on the computer console, selecting the non-sentient part of the mechanism.

She paused, sighed, and began to type her message, so that Julie would know where she was going, and why, and Nancy's guesses as to what exactly was happening.

As Nancy slipped out though the door, an instruction for Julie to read from the file glowed blue-grey against the dark screen, like the rings beyond against the vaster and paler screen of the night. The room she left admitted no more light, by her instructions, than was required to see by and not walk into things, but here, in the corridor, the illumination was greater, and she trusted herself to jog-trot, trusting that living in a mainly uninhabited block, no one would be abroad at that hour.

She paused only at junctions, to check that she went unobserved, retracing her route of that afternoon, taking her bridge at a run, and the pausing in the far corner of the room to readapt her eyes. Through the soft darkness of the junk-room she crept, stepping gently over obstacles, until she recognized, in the distance ahead of her, what was the cause of the sound she heard. Voices nearby were raised in revelry, in the midst of a precinct rarely disturbed by human presence.

Stalking the source of the sound, she passed along the corridor, and with every step she took, she became more certain, until at last she beheld with her own eyes that the old hall was full of feasters. She felt reluctant to pass by in view of that gathering, urged to it by the thing that piloted her. She toyed with the idea of calling for help, however reluctant she might normally be, but she could not step from thought to action, and instead resorted to silent curses against the group that made the hall its meeting place.

Resignedly, she tuned back, considering the possible routes she might take to her aircar. It would, she decided after careful deliberation, have to be the roof — only just over twenty minutes remained until the deadline expired, and local airspace became unfriendly. She regained the bridge, and looked up and sniffed. She muttered faintly to herself and then began to climb along the piton route set there. The climb itself was more annoying than strenuous but had she not travelled that path before, to set pitons and improve footholds, it would have been impossible

Standing on the flat roof, she had two choices — a two mile walk, or a quarter of a mile of climbing sloping roof. The first looped back the way she had come, longer than she dared contemplate; the second began ahead of her, where the grey tiled roof of the hall rose from the dark and glistened damply in the ring-glow. Golden light, and festive noise spilled out from the small window in the end wall, which a few hours before had admitted the last afternoon light.

Nervously, she checked around, and saw behind her spray of pale lines spring into existence, low in the north-east and there to dance nervously around — the time had come for another bomb run, and one of the minor batteries was acquiring targets. The dance halted, and the pencils of light began to spread out from their source, at first slowly, then bursting out. One whipped towards Nancy, scratching sparks from the lifter field as it drank in the energy.

Three puffs of light, and a drumroll of sound marked the perfection of mechanized marksmanship, but failed by orders of magnitude to overwhelm it. That would come soon however, in a continuous rain of saturation bombing, until something got through.

In the remade still of the night, Nancy began her climb, barefoot now, trading comfort for purchase on the cold and clammy roof, aware that she would bruise her heels properly that night. While she climbed, a single, half-hearted explosion, presumably something to do with the previous three, roared in the night above, and its suddenness startled her a little, but not enough to interrupt the climb.

On hands and knees, she crossed the roofcrest, following its narrow purchase, and to her minor annoyance, accumulated grey and green smears on the knees of her coveralls. There would be more of that in time, as she gathered moss and lichen stains from other rooftops.

At the end of that section, a six foot drop brought her onto a stretch of flat roof — ahead, the corridor she had followed that afternoon, and to the right, for a score of yards, another with a crested roof crossing it. She headed for it at a run, her momentum carrying her up the slope, and grabbed for the crest.

For a while, she waited there, looking at what lay ahead. At the bottom of the slope, a four foot gap opened, separating roof from roof, showing her the top floor windows in the opposite block. One window was lit slightly to the left of where she lay, and the occupant was sitting in plain sight. She was blonde, her skin light brown, and that was enough for Nancy to recognize her. Tricia — no doubt in one of her own secret apartments.

Nancy swung herself over the roofcrest, and slid down the far side. There was a small wall, about a foot high, around the roof, and another on the far side, and they were wide enough to make reasonable stepping stones, despite not having, been designed with that purpose in mind.

She stood on the first, not caring to let her gaze descend to the fifty yard chasm at her feet, and estimated the jump. Given grass, or some such, so she could land asprawl if need be the gap would be trivial to cover, even from a standing start. As it was, she could do it without especial effort, it would hurt is she overshot.

Carefully she dropped into a crouch, swinging her arms to gain momentum, and sprang. An interval without duration severed the chain of her existence while she flew through the empty air.

Her heels impacted painfully on the far wall, the gritty surface harsh beneath the blow. She was off balance tending to fall forwards, and with arms windmilling about to compensate managed to regain an upright stance. As soon as she dared, she stepped down, so that the wall now prevented a fall

Coldly she checked the time — 00:15. Nineteen minutes. It would be far more efficient to get inside the castle again, and the force that commanded her movements assented to that decision.

She knelt down, and unclasped her gun belt, lowering it over the edge to knock against Tricia's window

“Hey! Out here!” she called

From where she watched, she could only see that the window gave onto a lighted room, with four inches or so of green carpet under the window.

“Carol Mastersen! Is that you?” still no response.

“Tricia! It's Nancy. Wake up in there!”

A window opened, and a face looked up, and smiled

“Nancy,” she asked, “What the hell are you doing on my roof at this time of night?”

“Long story. Help me down, and I'll give you the whole sordid story. Deal?”

“Deal,” then, “Wait a minute, I'll just get something to stand on.”

Tricia disappeared, but there were noises of movement from the opened window, and eventually a table appeared in the part of the room she could see.

“Nancy. Just swing yourself down, and I'll guide you.”

Nancy sat down on the edge of the precipice, and swung her legs over the edge, then turned, and lowered her body by her arms.

“Can you reach me?”

The only reply was Tricia's grasp behind her knees.

“Okay. I'll reach down for the gutter now.”

This lowered her another fifteen inches. The guttering creaked, but held. She had checked the design specs — the actual safe loading was about twice her weight. If anything was likely to fail in the near future, it was her grasp where the gutter edge cut into her palms.

“That it?”

“Yes.”

Tricia grabbed her around the waist.

“You can reach down one arm to the window frame now. I've got your weight, that's it. Now the other arm — hang on to the window frame and I'll lower your feet to the table. OK now. Done.”

Nancy slipped the embrace, and jumped down onto the floor, sweeping her gaze around the room, seeking a door out.

“Nancy — what is it?”

She hardly heard, that question, locked in that alien trance until Tricia shook her by the shoulder, and asked again.

“What's the matter? Why the guns?”

“I can't explain properly, I've put the details under keyword sapphire in my part of the general archives. It'll say it better than I can, face to face like this. I've told the whole story, or as much as I know. Please don't tell anyone until midnight thirty. Promise me, Tricia, It's important.”

“What have you been smoking?”

“Nothing. I wish I had been. I think I might be burning out at last. I mean that — I think I'm going mad. I'm also armed. Please, Trish, help me!”

“How — I don't know what you're doing, or why?”

“I'm going back to Uni.”

“Nancy, don't, please. I love you — if you get killed out there tonight, it could be forever.”

“Don't you think I realize that? If I had any free will in this matter, I'd be safe in bed with Julie Marie. Hold me, Trish, tell me I'm dreaming this.”

Tricia held her, with Nancy's head rested on her shoulder, pressed against her hair. Nancy felt her throat constrict, and her breathing disintegrated into sobs, but the tears did not come. She tried to force herself to cry, but the attempt failed.

“Nancy, Nancy, what is it? You can tell me. Please. I won't mind. I'll help you.” Tricia forced herself to speak words of reassurance, as much for her own benefit as Nancy's, while she played the situation by ear. She had never had to deal with this sort of thing before.

“You remember the other night,” Nancy replied between long dry sobs, “in the museum, the blivit, something from it got into my head, and while we were looking for that Connors girl, it woke up something else. Then yesterday, when we went there again, it called me, stronger than before. I thought I'd beaten it, stopped it, but I haven't, it wants me to go to it. I'm scared, Trish, scared sick, but it won't let me be. Can you feel that?”

She forced her month shut, and took a deep breath, and another, and slowly lifted her head, intending to look Tricia straight in the face, perhaps to show herself, perhaps to stare her down, perhaps to kiss her, but she never completed the action. As she lifted her gaze, she saw first the floor, and then the window, and through the window, the clear argent greys and ebon blacks on the far wall leapt out at her, to torment, and tear. The siren-like compulsion clawed at her brain like barbed wire.

“Oh God,” she swore, “The night. Kill it, Genevieve, Fill it. For Hell's name, Genevieve, shut those windows and opaque them.”

She threw herself to the floor, moaning.

“Shall I, Tricia?” Entirely neutral, the servitor mode checked with the registered occupant the orders it had been given.

“Yes. Quickly.”

“Will that be all?”

“Yes, thank you.”

From where she knelt, Nancy listened to all this in uncomprehending hysteria. She could only see the night, which seemed to identify itself with the compulsion that had planted itself within her mind. So slowly, it seemed, the open panel slid into place, and the material became opaque and when the last sliver of night was hidden, her skin crawled, and colours swam across her sight. There was a funny dark grey green taste in her head, and her skin felt cold and clammy, and everything was becoming strange…


When they sorted themselves out again, she was lying on a bed, with Tricia sitting by her. The room was apparently without windows, and was lit by a couple of groups of candles, not in the cone of her direct sight, She brushed the hair from her face and found her forehead slick with cold sweat. She checked her watch again 00:18. sixteen minutes to the deadline — sixteen minutes before it would be totally unsafe to leave the Castle, sixteen minutes before any decision would be made for her.

“You all right now?” Tricia asked her.

“Ooh. Nnh. I think so. Can I have a glass of water my mouth tastes all yrrg.”

“Sure. you stay right there, and after you've had your drink…”

“Oh, cut that out, and get me some water. This is goddamned serious.”

“Alright. I will.” She stood up, and walked, unspeaking away. Nancy regretted her temper but couldn't find the words for apology.

When Tricia was gone, Nancy levered herself up onto one elbow, and looked around the room. Her attention was caught and held by two paintings, apparently of her, on the opposite wall. She qualified that statement. Certainly, it seemed that the girl who had been the subject for the one, had been subject for the other, though the styles of painting differed.

The first was a formal portrait. The girl was dressed in black, and sat with her left quarter to the viewer. Her right elbow rested on a table in front of her that appeared only in the bottom of the frame. The edge of a chessboard with a game in play, showed there. Her haem-coloured hand entwined itself in a lock of her long blonde hair. Her face which was Nancy's true face, but for its coloration, the same as Nancy's, was woken into a smile of bright and even teeth. She wore a necklace of fine gold chain, with a small ingot pendant from it. The background was a garden of hedges, and flowers and blue skies.

The second was radically changed from the first. It was a full length study, obviously drawn from the imagination. Nancy saw her almost-self from the inside of a building standing in the doorway. She wore green combat dress, like that of the Clan. Behind her, a tracked vehicle moved along the street, and beyond it,. wrecked buildings, and a blue sky with faint clouds. The horror of it was the face that was not quite her own. While her hands held an assault rifle and poured a hail of lead into the room, her face showed neither hate, nor glee engendered of sadism, nor even a determination to finish a regretfully necessary task. Rather, it seemed, she believed herself to be spreading some holy blessing of violent fearful death. Could she be capable of that, she wondered disquietingly.

“Did you paint those pictures?” she asked when Tricia returned with a tall glass full of water.

“No — I found them, in a junk heap that hadn't been touched for the last five hundred years or more. I've asked Genevieve, but even she doesn't know or can't remember who she, except that she is strongly of the opinion that this is, or was, a real person.

“Mother Trixy painted them herself — the chess playing one is dated November 2105, the, ah, other one, spring, year three of the landing. That's 2134 ADT reckoning. You can see she was right off her rocker when she did it.”

Nancy gulped down her water, greedily, letting part of it run down her chin and onto her clothes and the bed. When she had drained it she sat up.

“What can I do, Trish?”

Tricia's expression changed abruptly, as if that was a key to some distasteful memory. Nancy matched that expression as the great weight of despair settled again on her, dark and formless and empty. Tricia ventured no suggestion, so forced back to her own discretion Nancy made her own decision. She would face the thing now, while there was still a chance of arriving safely at the University.

“Give me my guns back, Tricia. I'm going out there.”

She was reluctant to comply, but despite that, she took them from the bedside cupboard, but did not hand them over.

“I've got to — can't you see that?” Nancy implored, reluctant to use force against the only person that she might be considered to love. “It's getting stronger all the time. This is the first time it's attacked me so strongly outside of the museum, and it's thousands of miles away. It only gave me dreams before.

“If I don't go to it tonight, I'll be called again tomorrow, and again and again, and stronger all the time until we leave — and possibly after that. I can't hide from the night forever. It's night in space, after all, and if it can call from light-years away… If I go now, before it gets even stronger, I might succeed in stopping it — and anyway, if I go now, I've still got a margin of safety, while I'm on my way.”

“I'll come with you then, whatever happens to be with you, in case…”

“In case it deletes me.”

“Yes.”

“No, Tricia. Stay here — you're safe. It might get you too. If anything happens on the way there, or on the way to the Guild port, there's no need for both of us to die true death. Come with me to my car, if you want, and then give the alarm. A few platoons of the guard will be more use to me, however much I would want your company, I'm afraid.”

“Oh Nancy, why did this have to happen to us?”

“Why not? The Universe doesn't care — I was just too nosey for my own good. That's all. There are now only thirteen minutes left before local airspace becomes unsafe. Give me the guns.”

Tricia handed them over. Nancy stood and holstered them, and looked at Tricia.

“Are you coming, just as far as the car?”

“Yes, I will. I'll just get a coat.”

And Tricia took a cloak from a peg by the door, black, lined with red satin, shimmering green as it moved, and she draped it around herself. Their eyes met, an unspoken reconciliation.

Nancy held out one hand, and Tricia held it and moved closer, and draped the cloak about the two of them.

“Twelve minutes. Let's go.”

“As you say.”


There were no other people about, their absence underlined by the lifeless silence in which they walked. Neither girl spoke, each had matters too urgent, too overriding to occupy their minds.

For her part, Nancy had to plan her moves for the hours ahead, always with the knowledge that whatever reserve of safety she might yet have was fast slipping past, into the dead aeons of history. She was afraid, but had claimed a purpose, and dared not let herself be distracted. No matter what else followed, if she failed now, she would fail her own exacting standards of honour. Not for the first time, she regretted the honour that served her as a conscience.

Beside her, Tricia was still overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events. She had never conceived the possibility of something like this — it was something that had before always remained safely fictional, or at worst, had happened to someone else. Whatever the past, the girl who walked beside her now made her feel acutely uneasy, for she doubted her sanity. She felt strongly for Nancy, and the sense of impending loss, that the person she had known for a lifetime would soon be changed beyond recognition, grieved her. There was no training for that sort of thing in the life she had led. Immortality, the slow changes, apace with ones own maturation, the extended family among whom. she lived — all had served to insulate her from the loss of those she knew. Hours before, she had parted, presumably irrevocably, with the friends she had won in four months of University life, and that had been a shock to her. Now, the chance that she should lose someone so close served to throw her thinking into confusion.

She walked as if in a dream, the culmination of the nightmare that had grown over the last year. Her body took over for her, walking. without needing her direction, holding close against her companion, down, into the windowless depths of the ground levels.

Nancy, feeling the night to be crucial to the geas upon her, and desiring to cling to her integrity until she no longer could, had chosen this easy defiance, but even so, she had at last to climb to the level of the courtyard where she had parked her aircar.

A sense of apocalyptic doom mounted like a thunderhead over her, dark and oppressive, and even her awoken sense of self preservation, goaded into outraged action, could not shift the fatalism it engendered. Adrenaline might be poured into her bloodstream, to make her pulse race, and stomach churn, but even to sigh quietened the impulse to cower. Besides, there were only six minutes left as she climbed the last stair, before the cease-fire was at an end.

Ahead of her, to the right at the top of the stairs was a doorway, and they stopped there, before taking the final step that could not be turned back. Nancy faced her cousine, sadness on her face.

“This is it. The end. Once I step out there, it's good-bye. I will still be there, but something else will be at the controls. Remember, Tricia, remember me in case I fail… In fifteen minutes, send a message to the Lady Jeanne, tell her what's happened, tell her to send guards, about two platoons — and remember to tell her the rules we operated under. I don't want to be in the middle of any escalation if she sends in any cybersoldiers. If you want anything more, I wrote all I could think of in the file under keyword sapphire.”

She held Tricia to her, and kissed her, feeling the warmth of her body, against the cool of the night air. For a minute she held that embrace, though the time was precious, then slowly, and with regret, broke free. There were tears in her eyes, and in Tricias'.

“Don't cry, Trish. It's all my fault. Just remember. And remember — I love you.”

Tricia pulled her cloak tightly about her, suddenly chilled. Nancy retrieved the car keys from the ledge above the door. She put her hand on the doorknob, and, partly out of reluctance to do what she purposed, partly from a warped sense of the dramatic, turned around one last time.

“Now I suppose it should be famous last last words time. ιIt is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done before᾿ and so on. Crap. Be seeing you, Tricia, my love.”

The door opened, silver light spilled in where the seal had been broken, and now opened wider to admit the flood. Out on the concrete of the court, an aircar stood, waiting for her. Nancy stepped out towards it, cringing as she exposed herself to the sky, as if she awaited physical blow — but none landed. There was only the solitary, metronome beat of her footsteps on the paving, and the faint sighing of the breeze; above the changeless dark of the sky, cut by the gossamer flame of the rings, about her the castle, painted in the light, and underfoot, the grey concrete.

The door-handle was chill to her grasp, but the door opened crisply when she pulled it, and she climbed in, settling herself in the driver's seat. She began the cursory preflight checks, and with only part of her mind occupied by the task, noticed that the change had already come upon her, subtly changing her motivation. No more was she committed to the escape by pressure of expediency and fatalistic curiosity. Instead she was overcome by an intense and yieldless desire for the artifact — for it as if it was almost a person, not merely for the possessing of it as some cheap and gaudy trinket or work of high and fine art.

That, and that alone was the total change, to the best of her ability to determine it. In any other respect, she was her own mistress, provided that her action didn't directly or potentially interfere with the main mission. Whatever had planted that drive was possessed of consummate subtlety, developed to excruciating precision. It needed nothing as tactless, as brutish, as full control of her body, when her own guiding intelligence had been subverted, and could do whatever controlling was necessary.

She shrugged, and slotted the key card into the dashboard. She would conserve her will for the showdown, the climactic denial of that control, when at last she would be in a position physically to destroy the objects that were the foci of the control. At the present she was more concerned with the array of lights woken on the dash, and the system messages on display screen.

Long term considerations were relegated to the job queue as she fed power to the engines, and let the car lift from rest. Four minutes, she noted coldly as the car reached rooftop level, and she engaged forward thrust. She kept speed down to avoid being noticed by the aerial patrol, but as high as she dared. One minute of freedom was all she asked, in order to gain enough speed and altitude to make interception not worth the hassle.

The light was uncertain, and deceived her eyes, yet she was reluctant to use any of the active sensors, for fear of premature detection, and arrest. Rooftops became planes of grey against irregular shapes of utter black, lighted plaques adrift in an otherwise empty universe too vast and distant for there to be any perspective, cold flames of torments as she strained for focus. Exhaustion fought to claim her for itself, as the reaction to the nervous strain.

She didn't comprehend the ending of her punishment, that the last rooftop was behind her, until she saw the final barrier ahead. She turned her head; and indeed the last high stone wall was past. Below, grass grew, untamed and wiry, and she let the car descend to it. A hundred yards that stretched, before the world ended in cliffs, to a sea of gun-metal below their plunge.

Halfway there, a seam was cut in the land, as far to left and to right as her eyes could discern, a line where the dust boiled to waist height, where the pilot layers of the lift fields intersected the surface. As yet only at about fifty percent capacity, the rest not likely to be fully operative until five days hence, yet stretched to cover the same volume as the full network would handle, the cover that resulted was sloppy. The effect was smudged over a band a meter wide, or thereabouts, as far as she could judge. It made, thankfully, surreptitious passage — whether entry or exit — safer, though less comfortable.

The time was 00:32, and she felt disinclined to waste any more of the last hundred some seconds on caution than were absolutely necessary. She eased power to the forward thrusters, and the car leapt forwards at her bidding, at what she hoped was a judiciously gauged acceleration, a compromise between fast and slow passage.

The groundspeed indicator showed forty miles per hour when she hit the field, enough she judged, to hit the easiest passage. Too fast and the discomfort and potential for damage would be increase, too slow and she would remain needlessly long in the zone of hazard.

She watched it coming up, and at the last moment, let go of the controls. The car passed through the veil, and a shock of ripping pain hit her, followed by the disquieting feeling that her mind had been pulled from its moorings and then allowed to snap back without any ado.

The car rode out into the free night, rocking slightly as the autopilot compensated from the ripple of upthrust imparted to it, and out over the ocean, beginning a long slow dive.

Nancy, recovering from the disorientation of the passage, unprotected, of the field took up the controls again, and looked around. Below her, under the heaving, distorted sheen of the sea, and the clash of foam lining the cliffs, on the platform at hundred foot depth that was the true sea-bottom, on which the Castle had landed, there were lights. Friend or foe, she could not tell — either an aid for underwater patrol by the cybersoldiers of the Clan, or the first preparations of an early arriving group of marine sentients — they would seem the same from her vantage point. She would notify the castle later, in case they were hostile, but that was after she had settled the immediate problem of leaving the neighbourhood.

She pulled the wheel hard back with one hand, and with the other, advanced the thrusters to their fullest extent. Motors whined as power was fed to them, the airspeed and groundspeed monitors began a steady climb About her the sea and sky rotated, as the horizon fell out of the forwards view, and spun about a vertical axis, in a screaming turning climb for the thinnest of the local air traffic. Almost ahead, was a star, and she altered her course, centring it in the screen. The drives moaned as Nancy kept them on the edge of overload though the acceleration held her down into the seat. Let them think that she rode something with orbital capacity, if that would discourage initial pursuit. Orbital capacity would have been nice — would have cut her journey time from two hours to twenty minutes, but would have required her to register with the Guild and on open access files at that. Such disclosures would not exactly be politic — and nor would her new programming consent to that. Be content then, she thought, with something that gulps air as reaction mass.

As she approached the car's ceiling, Nancy edged the climb into a grand arch, aimed the nose at the western fall of the rings, and locked the controls. Her business now was a little more inspired than moment to moment piloting — she would be a long while on the car's phone link. The proximity alarm would serve her against the approach of craft with hostile intent.

The onboard processor and sensors had already locked into the closest overhead relay comsat, and at the touch of a switch, a beam of near ultraviolet light reached up to it. On the screen a symbolic representation of the keyboard's numeric pad appeared, indicating that she should dial.

Her first call was for the weather charts, both local and continental, all the way she would have to go, seeking a route that would give her maximum cloud cover to hide beneath, away from the prying eyes that orbited the planet masquerading as resource monitor platforms, or similar euphemisms; anything indeed that permitted or required the installation of high resolution cameras trained onto the world below.

The final course she chose wove and tacked, taking every advantage of every last scrap of water vapour condensation existing or projected to exist on her arrival.

That was number one. She committed the weather charts to store, and cleared the call. As soon as the keypad symbol showed, she punched in another number.

The bell flashed on and on, when she had completed the code. Could he have chosen this night of all nights to be out? With the back of her mind she counted the flashes as they mounted into the twenties in number. Come on, Come on, she urged Answer it answer it. Snafu — why now, when so much was riding on it.

And when she had almost despaired of hope, the screen lit up. Nancy drew a deep breath.

“Evening, Auntie Shar.”

“Evening, Nancy. How come you're driving about now — it's after the twenty-four hours, isn't it?”

“Yeah, just I just didn't tell anyone I was going. Is Uncle Chan in?”

“No, not at the moment he's at dinner with some of his students.”

“When'll he be back?”

“Half an hour or so. Can I take a message for him?”

Nancy hesitated a moment — what could she say.

“Yes,” she eventually decided, “Tell him I'll call again at 19:15 your time, and that it's important I won't say more — I don't really trust the line.”

“I will. Is that all?”

“I think so, at least that's all I can think of in the way of business…but there's not any interesting gossip. Everything's politics, these days. I'll sign off, I suppose. I want to stay loose. See you.”

She broke the connection, and powered down the communications laser.

Now in the privacy of the car, she felt free to swear, and did so, albeit monotonously, for the next few minutes.

Though the delay was not yet crucial, she couldn't go ahead with any other preparations for the evening's business.

She tuned into a news channel of the Tree-V network. Expectedly, she caught a running commentary on the situation she had left behind.

They were presently showing a live picture, obviously taken with high resolution cameras from several miles away, of the Castle Wolf, with commentary from the being on the spot.

“Here at Castle Wolf, which must surely be the most famous and controversial of the Clans, the situation is much as at the other locations. Nothing has changed, now the deadline has expired, the internal watch of cybersoldiers is still at its original strength, although we have no idea as to how many more have been mobilized inside its walls. Just a reminder to those of you who have only just tuned in, the deadline for the vacation order expired five minutes ago, and we're showing a replay of the serving of that order on channel 162 if you're interested in seeing history in the making.

“One event here that broke the monotony of the last few minutes occurred only a few seconds before the deadline. A vehicle took off from the castle, heading slightly south of west as it climbed. It's below our horizon at the moment but from the way it was flying, it's my guess that it was an orbital craft, probably heading for the Snowflake.

“We'll give you confirmation on that when we hear. Back on the ground, however, as you can see, some cars are landing near the castle. From interviews we carried out on the radio earlier today, it seems that these will be peaceful protesters in the main but a few cars declined to answer us. This is Kerry Qorwen, handing you back to the studio.”

In the studio, the commentator sat in a plush armchair, in front of a map of the western half of the continent of Embrys, in featureless green, against a featureless blue of ocean. Five chesspiece castles, in a nearly regular pentagonal array, showed in red. One of the two coastal ones, the northernmost, flashed slowly. That was where Nancy's home was.

The commentator, avian, tall and slender, reacted slowly to the change of scene.

“And that was one of our live coverage units, he announced after a few seconds had passed. As you can see, the Clans are taking tonight's events rather casually — as I suppose they well might. However it might be to us, we must remember that for the Clans Wolf and Connors, this will be the seventh time that they have been expelled from a world that they tried to claim as their own.

“On the more strategic level we can say that the vehicle seen leaving the Castle has not gone into orbit, but has remained at an altitude consistent with it being a standard aircar. Further there has been no flight plan lodged with the Guild. We have not yet identified the pilot, but we would conjecture that it was one of the Clan fleeing for the Guild port at High Prospect.

“Meanwhile the sporadic bombardment to which the Castles have been subjected is intensifying, now that they have been finally declared beyond the law. We have contacted the Linkers' Guild on the question of the legality of the use of high trajectory bombardment of this sort, and it appears that the shells do not exceed the fifty mile altitude that defines the edge of space.

“On the political front, the talks began early today between the Council, and the representatives of the Free Traders' League, to renegotiate the status of Westfield Port, and the League itself under the treaty of Foundation. Comment has surrounded the appearance at the preliminary talks between the Ministers concerned and Trader captains who are in port — and that makes about all of the captains who make a regular run here, the appearance of Esseval Kingarra of StarLine and Vors k'Shammarra of Shammarra Funding. Informed opinion inclines towards their appearance being primarily ostentation, for although they are not directly party to the negotiations, they own large interests in the fleet that operates through Wyvern, and it is assumed that they will act as advisors to the Trader captains. At this juncture, it may be interesting to note that the Linkers' Guild seem to have waived their right to have an observer on the committee. No-one that we have spoken to seems to know whether this action was an oversight or intended as a deliberate snub, and the Guild themselves have declined to comment.

“Other relevant business in the council, today, went on despite the depleted numbers, and the primary measures under debate were concerned with the status of various activities against, the clans over the last months. There is a growing movement to quash the sentences imposed upon many people under the Public Order Acts, for activities against the Clans during the last few months. This position is interesting, as the precise wording of the acts involved, and the Foundational principles they invoke are comparatively involved. Remembering that these laws were all composed by the late Lady Aelia Min-Koë and the rest of the Board of Directors of the Five Castles, we can see that the legal wrangling may go on for quite a while yet.

“As there seems to be little action at any of the castle sites at the moment, let's go over to Krsss Namell for a review of the historical perspective of the problem.”

Nancy switched off the program. She had no real wish for another history of the problem, with authentic anti-Clan bias thrown in. She was annoyed enough by being one of the prime stories of the evening. At least her phone conversation hadn't been broadcast to the waiting millions — and they had in her ignorance misjudged her immediate goal. It would seem now that she would in all earnest need the guard platoons she had asked Tricia for.

There were over twenty-five minutes left until the time she had specified for calling Uncle Chan, and still no cloud cover for hundreds of miles. She set the car into a long and very shallow dive, that would bring her down below the cloud deck when, hundreds of miles ahead, she encountered the first cloud.

She watched the time tick slowly by, with mounting anxiety, as she rehearsed the lines she would say, polishing a phrase here, deleting one there, scrapping them, and starting again, and all the while, stage fright threatened to overtake her before the crawling seconds expired. Silently the figures flowed, shape into shape, green on black.

Nancy never looked up, never exposing her face to the orbiting eyes, anxious to remain out of the public gaze, hide what last vestige of privacy remained to her. She was crouched over the clock, entranced by it, as if in prayer or meditation.

The time appointed came, and was past, before Nancy realized. Witch actions clumsy though haste, she switched on the laser and dialled.

The screen belled twice, before lighting up, to show Chan, now returned.

“Hello, Nancy. What's up?”

“Everything, absolutely everything. Uncle Chan, do you swear on your House that you'll help me, even though I sound mad?”

“Daughter, do you realize what it means for a Han-Chiaki to swear on his House?”

“I think so, my Uncle. It means that you hold your life, the freedom of your dependents and their descendents and your honour forfeit to me if you break the oath, and that in that case, your name will be erased from the Tower of Record.”

“Aye. That is essentially it. Now what do you wish me to swear? I'll accept public records as suitable for the transaction.”

“I want you to swear that you will help me as I ask or at least offer me no hindrance in what I must do, regardless of what danger I expose myself to.”

“I have that recorded. I, Chan as'Korran of the third line of the Great House of Tarnweft swear on my honour and my House to follow that command of the Lady Nancy Elanor of Wolf. Now what sort of help do you want?”

“I want you to get the keys to your museum, the files of records, a small arsenal of non-powered weaponry, and a telepath.”

“What are you planning to do?”

“I don't know — it all depends what the telepath can do. I could give you a few guesses, but they're wild, and I don't really trust this line. I promise under my honour to tell you everything when I arrive. Please have everything ready then. Believe me, I wouldn't be doing this if I had any choice in the matter. I'm bound as much as you are, or probably more so.”

“Don't worry, Nancy, everything will be all right. It'll all be ready for you when you arrive.”

“Thanks, Uncle Chan, thanks awfully. I'll be there in about an hour and a half. See you then.”

“See you too, Nancy.”

She broke, the connection first, and began to dial again. While the screen rang, she picked up a cloth and covered the camera lens at her end.

Answer came almost at once, this time, and Nancy spoke quickly, before there could be any acknowledgment of the connection.

“Alan, this is Honey McLain. This is important — are you alone?”

“Yes, but…”

“May I check that with your in-house systems?”

“Be my guest.”

She saw him key in the appropriate command. Part of the screen blanked to show the readouts. He was indeed alone.

Nancy removed the cloth.

“Sorry about that, but I had to make sure. I may have to drop by later this evening. Will you hide me if I do? I promise that I'll only do that if I'm sure I'll lose any pursuit.”

“OK. Nancy, one thing — are you the car that was on the news earlier?”

“Yes. Do you want to change your mind?”

“How do I know? Remember, I want to stay nicely neutral 'cause I happen to like being alive. If you don't draw the heat, it's okay.”

“Thanks, Alan.”

“Thank you, my Lady.”

That was, she reflected, not a nice thing to do to a poor guy like that. She could mould him to her whim And she had done, and he wouldn't bring himself to refuse her. Even if she now told him to forget it, he would not — he seemed to enjoy the role of gentleman too much, and having beguiled her knight, she was likely to wreck him as much as she had in her turn been wrecked.

Even war would be cleaner than the sickness on the world now, and the taint of it was on her. She thought longingly of escape. The Guild port was comparatively close, on the scale of travel she was working with, to the University. She tried to reset the course, to get herself lifted away from this prison world, but her demon and her honour were agreed on the matter. To run would solve nothing, would leave her incomplete, still tied to Wyvern, and unable to return. Even the Partnership of Worlds was finite, and far too small to sustain her for a lifetime's running. There was no course open to her other than to see this thing through or die in the attempt. Only afterwards would she be free to wash her hands of the whole sordid affair, and depart in peace.

She looked out on the deceptive peace that surrounded her, at the rings rising from the ocean, soaring up, and over her head, like a support for the dome of night. Their reflection was a path of cold metal on the water, from archfoot to archfoot across the palely phosphorescent ocean, a cold and delicate blue at the breaking of the waves.

Ten miles below, the scattered coral islands that dotted the waters showed themselves as occasional anomalies in the pattern of light and dark. Any of them could hide a force sufficient to capture her, and the smallest rock house a missile launcher sufficient to destroy her. In a craft not built for combat, she could rely only on what element of surprise was still with her, and enemy inactivity.

Everything she had planned seemed to be working, so now she could only wait. Her home was already twenty five hundred miles behind, and she was not yet half way to her rendezvous. She was alone in the distance and the dark, with only the dark things in her mind for company, and with nothing to occupy the time that she could devote her concentration to. There would be entertainment broadcasts, but she felt unwilling to make the effort to follow a storyline, and any news channel would be pouring out much the same material as she had heard earlier, which was not really entertaining even when viewed with a sick sense of humour.

Her consciousness seethed with a mass of conflicting thoughts, half verbalized, half feelings, painful things that she would rather not think about. Regrets, that she had turned down Tricia's offer of company, that she had not refused to take part in any of the violence of the past months, that she had gone to the museum, by that route and to that floor, that she had gotten into the situations that had led her inexorably to this, and for other things, smaller, more private, friends slighted and crazy boasts. Fears, for her own safety, for the success of this hare-brained venture she had committed herself to, for family and friends, and fears of the things that had ensnared her mind and called her to their bidding. Faint, and half lost, her secret hopes for the future, and her cynical projections of the same.

The wind whistled faintly about the car as it tore through the upper troposphere at four times the speed of sound, quiet in the relative calm behind the bowshock. In the otherwise silent ear, the wind and the motor hum were all that Nancy had to listen to, and she listened intently to the sound.

In that rush of wind music, her mind pieced together from faint cues, and forgotten memories, the banshee wailing that she had heard less than two days before, the sound she had heard when she had dared to strike the blivit, that dark midnight so recently past. The sound hovered, menacingly, at the bounds of perception, like a demon wolf held at bay by the light of a camp fire, working on her fears through its own ghostly presence and its darkly hinted potential for what she could only term evil.

She shivered, uneasy now, feeling a sense of presence outside the car, a malignance that might reach in and take her, a force with more definite aims than the one that had already entered her mind. She wanted to hide herself away from it, but there was little she could do. There were no bedclothes to pull over her head and cower under nor yet any source of spiritual solace for her to draw on, and turn against the threat All that was left her was the capacity to opaque the, dome, and turn the lights on bright, to banish the night, and loud music to mask the sound of the outside, and so to fool herself that they were gone away. Sleep without dreams tempted her, but always sleep meant dreams as real to her as life, and she didn't care for the dreams that she might have that night. Drugs would serve to get rid of that, but they would also prevent her from taking the controls at an instant's notice.

The only other relevant drugs in the car's aid kit were combat-hysteria inducing and she was reluctant to do further mischief to her mind. There was really little alternative to sitting, and losing herself in the music until the time came to do something; and meanwhile the minutes and the miles rolled slowly past her.

Thirty minutes past one. An hour out from the castle; an hour from the University, and she was still over the wide, and open ocean, and only slightly over half the way to the further shore. There were no islands now, only the rolling topography of the abyssal plain, three miles and more beneath the silver of the sea. Even the sky was empty, from horizon to horizon no traffic opened itself to the navigational sensors.

Now, if she lacked friends, it was also sure that she lacked enemies, her only companions on the voyage, the fish of the ocean and the birds of the wide seas far below her course. That thought appealed to her and seemed to calm her though it was a drained and hollow calm. She killed the music, and let the wind take up that emotion, work its variations on it, like an escort of lost souls, and its emptiness removed the threat.

She let the windows become transparent. The world, the rings, the sea, were all still there. High in the West, her guide star hung; a finger's width from the rings, the Snowflake served as a beacon for her journey.

A star detached itself from the firmament ahead brightening from obscurity to low negative magnitudes as she watched, swinging away to the left, and down, until it was below her, and lost to sight, a piece of the rings now fallen to earth. Running into massive stones like that was an accepted hazard of high altitude flight in low latitudes but it was the first time that she had seen a bolide from above. A few words from a half remembered song passed through her mind, something about shooting stars, but it was lost in the hollow crescendo of the wind.

Nancy shrugged. The song could be remembered some other time. For the moment, the night, the journey, the loneliness, they were all she needed.


© Steve Gilham 2000
© Mr. Tines 2000


Chapter 3 — Homecoming

Chapter 5 — Acceptance

Table of Contents