Life~Trip

 

But initial elation tuned to disappointment as she saw the drop completed, having lasted all of two seconds before its overwhelming by her own cynicism. Help now was no closer than it had been all through this madness of evening, only a hundred yards away — thirty seconds dash, even with stairs to climb in between. Unfortunately, it was about as accessible as the centre of a planet.

Uncomfortable phenomena known as enemy lines lay between her and rescue and the rather high probability of detection and capture that would be involved in crossing them made any attempt to reach her rescuers close to potentially fruitless, defeating all the object of the exercise.

She did not have the time to waste on idle regrets of what might have been if the rescue had been carried out with just a little more finesse delaying their arrival sufficiently much that her message could be relayed. Then she could have been picked up from a rooftop without fuss or fight. Now that message could prove more of a liability to her as any movement would be copied by the matts, and would be in great force.

Reluctantly she discarded all hope of help from the force at the eye of that hurricane of combat. She sketched out a worst case projection of what might happen, that her message intercepted or deduced by the matts would bring the whole hunt after her, so would try her own independent escape. There was at least Alan, still at the University, whom she had set up against such an eventuality, but there were other of her friends who were still in residence. Some of them, which would be fortunate for her, even had their own aircars with them, aircars which could be borrowed for the half hour flight to sanctuary at the Guild port. Those without transport — well, they might at least provide some help — at the very least, she might be able to acquire enough make-up and a change of clothes to hide her all too distinctive appearance.

Enough of time-wasting. Though she was for the moment safe, it would not remain that way, and she had best capitalise on that asset. Abandoning caution in favour of speed, she trotted out into the corridor, and turned right, accelerating to a sprint. Her footfalls cracked on the hard tiles of the uncarpeted corridor, and in its emptiness, rang out loud, too loud, she felt, to go totally unnoticed with people so close by. The corner approached, turning only left past the occupied offices.

She fought to override the animal panic that held her to the run, forcing herself to walk slowly and calmly down tthe corridor, as if she had every innocent reason to be there. It was hard to cease her gasping for breath against future need, and to do so felt like self-strangulation, but when she turned the corner, she walked quietly as if nothing at all was amiss.

No more than fifty yards long, the corridor ahead of her seemed to reach out for miles. Eight of the doors showed light through their windows, eight places, at least eight people who might notice her. Had she been of the opinion it might help, Nancy would have been thinking small and insignificant at the top of her mind, and for every inch of that journey. Lacking that faith, however, she must needs walk on without any such aid, and glance cautiously into each room as she passed, so as to know on the instant if her presence had been noticed.

Much to her surprise, work, of all things, seemed to be under way in two of them — or at least one of them. In that one, a lone student was writing confidently in great sweeping pen-strokes — the other held a group engaged in earnest discussion at a board, but she could not make out what the subject was they discussed — it might equally be some diagram of game play.

Apart from these exceptions, things were proceeding much as she had expected — the occupants of the rooms were to be seen staring out of windows, or into blank display screens, with, where this could be determined, expressions signifying the agonies of a failure of inspiration. In one of the rooms, work was clearly not even under consideration; of five occupants, four were engaged in some card game, while the last sat to one side, eating sandwiches, and reading.

Yet in all this, there was some pervading sense of wrongness, of strangeness never seen before. It was as if she watched this place through someone else's eyes, and felt their reaction. She might have inclined to put it down to shock, but though she might have escaped grave harm at the mercy of the artifact she wore, it seemed to her that she had not entirely gone unscathed, and that something new to her had been planted, and was taking root, a personality whose original was megayears dead, come once again to life.

The thought did not panic her, indeed could not — she had been terrified all evening, and there was no way for her to respond to further stimulus. All that mattered to her was that she get out, and find somewhere to rest for a long time. She was just incredibly weary, washed out, and needing replenishment.

Intellectually, she a realized, with cold precision, that her legal status here was a violation of neutrality, in as much as she had called for troops. It had seemed a good idea at the time, but now… Though she had lived in the University, and came of a family that had close ties with the Guild, she knew little of the tenor of the justice they meted out, of how much was law, strict and by the book, and how much was tempered with compassion.

She would not give herself up, even though the off-chance might be a safe bet — her stupid pride would not let her. Instead, she would show everyone and win her way home again.

She had reached a junction. To her left, the corridor went through a more densely occupied region — ahead it reached out as a catwalk across a large hall, and then into another corridor. She chose the way ahead.

The light in the hall came from windows set high in the right hand wall, and in tongues of yellow light pouring from corridors on the level below. The roof was ten feet above her head, so near, and yet so far.

At the sound of voices, she stopped and crouched down, reckoning the elevation of the catwalk sufficient to hide her from casual observers — but she readied her guns, just in case. Thew voices came from below her, and to her left, and were approaching the hall. She thought she recognized one of the voices. Safe in her concealment, she watched from that vantage point for them to come into sight.

As she had hoped, she did indeed recognize one of them, small, of feline stock, and heavily maned. Apart from his companion, a female of some avian species, there was no other person to be seen, or within earshot.

“Hey! Althan!” she called down to him.

He looked up.

“Nancy? What the hell are you doing here?”

“Hiding, escaping. Do you have a car somewhere nearby I can borrow? I'll buy a new one, if needs be.”

“Sorry, I walked here — beyond the obvious, are you in trouble?”

“Yes — there's a whole gang of matts and a couple of squads of clan grunts having a fire-fight a couple of hundred yards away, and if they don't get me, then the Linkers will. Good-bye — and sorry.”

Althan and his companion collapsed under a spray of stunner fire — they would stay that way for ten or fifteen minutes, long enough for her to be well clear. Nancy did not look back as she went, only forwards to note the doors from under which light showed, where she must tread softly as she passed. In one room, a faint whirring noise indicated some mechanism working at speed, but all the others were silent behind their anonymous doors.

Ahead, the corridor split into a T-junction, with dim light reflecting in uneven patterns from the semi-gloss finish of the wall. There was a door half in view to the right, and next to it, a fire extinguisher, red against the prevailing grey-green colour scheme. Following her earlier choice to turn right, she turned right again, determined to deviate from the course she had previously transmitted that she would follow.

She sought stairs — anything to change levels, up or down. This building seemed to oppress her, close her in. Her mind felt trapped in her skull, helpless to extend itself beyond the barrier of bone.

Suddenly, there was a tension in the air, as if it had become ten degrees warmer and sixty percent more humid, and it clung and cloyed about her. Sweat was on her brow, and her body damp. Her armpits were chill with evaporation. There was a scent of musk, and other heavier, deeper or darker fragrances that she could discern, but put no name to, and she knew it was her own terror that she smelt.

She walked, did not run, and she knew that the air temperature here was maintained at 290K, with a humidity of 35% — and despite that, she was sweating like a pig, and probably the headache she now had was related to that. From her reading, she guessed it to be a fever, though how she had caught such a thing, where, and from whom, was a mystery. The whole concept of illness, beyond digestive upset from over-indulgence, was something she had always before regarded as something out of the unclean pages of history.

She was, however, not totally ignorant of the subject, and knew that in cases of fever, crude and direct lowering of the body temperature had been used in the treatment, and also that were she to keep on like this, she would most likely suffer from thermal overload. She mopped her brow with one hand, and the skin burned at the touch. The sweat left a greasy stain on her flank where she wiped the hand clean on her coveralls. She opened the front zip about halfway from throat to waist, and felt the air touch icily on the open skin. She needed out, now, out where the air was at least five, maybe ten, kelvin cooler, just to escape the tropical atmosphere here.

Help? did she need help now? But whose? Anything that helped, she would accept. She could see stairs, about a thirty yards ahead, but dared not, could not, hurry to them, when the air wrapped her like a heavy blanket. She needed a thermometer, to satisfy her curiosity as to exactly what temperature she was running.

She balanced haste against stealth, and decided to break into a jog, that grew into a dash as she reached the stairs.

Her momentum carried her up the first flight in two strides, and she swung around on the bannister there to get what advantage she could maintain for the next. It was shorter, only four steps, and she took it in two strides as well, and at walking pace, was on the next level. Before the effects of trying to maintain such a pace set in, she continued the climb at a punishing fast walk that made her thighs and calves ache with the strain and the build-up of lactic acid.

The next level was the top, and the stairs up had that familiar, indefinable, but definite air about them that always signified the hardly used ways used only for service access. At the top of the last stairs was a structure just large enough to call a hut or cabin, with a landing at the top of the flight, extending above the previous one. The door was at the end of that, and separated from the open stairwell by a handrail.

Nancy waited by the door, and listened. The door was warped, and split darkly down the middle, and fitted only approximately in is frame. A chill breeze filtered through the cracks, and the ring-light showed through the same apertures. Its cool was welcome, but not enough to relieve Nancy's feeling that she radiated a conspicuous amount of heat. Getting up above the windbreak of the buildings might make her a glaring target to infrared, but she craved the chill air.

Now near the outside, she could hear the sounds of battle above the whistling notes of the night air as it forced its way in to her. Occasionally — every five or ten seconds — there came the noise of shots. After the initial fling, the fire-fight was going the way of all fire-fights that there had ever been, with the Clan troops now well dug in, and both sides only shooting when someone moved too close to the edges of concealment, and then it might just be one round expended in token.

The smouldering stage the battle had reached brought Nancy most anxiety. She knew how easily a group of three or four people, moving in concealment from vantage point to vantage point could mimic the presence of a whole platoon for quite a while, before the opponents realized that anything was amiss — more than enough for the rest of the platoon to withdraw, and move to encircle or retreat. Tonight, with both sides seeking her amidst the sprawl of buildings, both would be trying as soon as they felt it to be possible to deceive the other. Neither would be deceived, but each had to try to disengage some forces, in case the other also succeeded. And with everything played by standard doctrine, and with the likely intelligence available to either side, it would behoove her to get as far away as she could from where she had intended to be.

She pushed the door open a fraction. It creaked a little in protest, but as soon as it was clear of the frame, it was quiet. No people, or shadows to indicate their presence. She opened the door fully, and stepped out. There was no mocking voice, no gunshot, to greet her. The wind was alone, blowing cold where it could reach. The expanse of roof before her was empty of movement or the shapes of people, and a taller building intruded between her and the museum.

Nancy turned left, continuing on the path she had set for herself, where the roof opened up for her into a road of harsh white running without turn or deviation for at least a hundred yards. She would have to take it in straight sprinting to minimize her time of vulnerability on a roof singularly lacking in cover, and also to build up her lead against the time when even a score of yards could tip the scales between reaching final cover, and capture.

She ran with all the speed she could muster, a small fleet figure, hard to see in the cold grey light, camouflaged so that her shadow was more visible than her reality. Her feet rasped on the rough surface, her breath coming in long gasps, and her arms swinging furiously. There was only the long restrained imperative to move, to reach her immediate goal.

And the keening of the wind, shrill around the buildings, fluting from any opportune projection, in its sounds, she caught once again the thread of the blivit's note, and remembered once more its triumphant elfin song. The sound grew, became fleshed out, louder and deeper, and its timbre far more resonant. It was a song now, and not a note or melody, for all that it lacked words. It was wild, and earthy, born of bursting untamed life in its steady round of seasons, powerful and irresistible.

The song was taken up from other quarters, by the deep tolling of bells that seemed to originate from the depths of the planet below, as if that mass of rock and magma had been struck and set vibrating at some overtone. She had heard such, through some manipulation of the recordings of seismic traces, as masses were dropped onto dead, airless moons, but the sound she heard now was not so crude as that. It was the planet itself joining in the song, adding its own voice to the chorus as it proclaimed the mastery of life over the unliving, of blood, breath and the good earth over dead dry rock.

The great bells echoed and re-echoed about her, as if the heavens, night dark beneath the soaring rings, gave back that sound as it bounced around inside the cold black dome.

Filling the spectrum from the infra-basses of the earth-bells, and the screaming trebles of the night air, it was a whole host, a forest, of sounds, like flames or blades of emerald grass. Terrible and beautiful, the faerie choirs and orchestras, the great bells and bass organ pipes, together the drowned out the rest of the world.

Nancy stumbled as she ran, overcome by this sudden suspension of reality, this rush of beauty from a night of ugliness. It surpassed anything she had dreamed of, and far more, anything she had ever expected to experience. Some quiet part of her, not yet caught up and washed away by the streaming, roaring, flamelike splendour noticed, unsurprisedly, coldly, that tears streamed now freely down her face. The beauty of it broke down barriers she had set herself, barriers that kept all of the deep emotions, the dark and powerful feelings, guarded far inside her, lest through them she became vulnerable to hurt. The surge of release, as she experienced all these things that she had believed that she would never safely be able to experience, lifted her away in the pyre of green and blue fire that rose around her.

That fire was, or became, her, and she flowed in the flames that burned awesomely in the darkness, and she too was the song, a glory in a world too long silent, a song that would — must — rouse the whole world of nature and bring it into harmony. Her body, a husk both limited and physical was, in that timeless splendor, so small a thing, and of so little true worth, that she felt she could ignore it in preference to her communion with the wild and the growing things, its sisterhood of blood and breath.

As if from above, she noticed the battle fought for the possession of her, but only in passing, an insignificant episode in the vast tapestry of life. Though she knew little poetry, and that which she did was usually limited to single lines of phrases, out of her scattered repetoire one sprang to mind, a line, she thought, from Tennyson, that captured the moment — what is it all, but the troubling of ants in the glare of a million million suns? It was a small darkening of the flame, one speck of soot, one dark thread in the tapestry, one half heard discord in the song of life.

Fuelled from the reserves of her self that she had opened to it, the flame burned up, more radiant, it seemed, deeper and hotter. It had started as green as the grass, but the flecks and threads of green drifted away, their sources burned out, and the true flame was revealed. Blue it was, more intense and more pure than she had ever seen, and infinitely deep. It was the real colour, to which the alien gem was but a mere approximation, a half-hearted fake, masking the reality, rather than revealing it. Its song, more than the roaring of mundane fire, grew with its light, rising towards crescendo. It reached to heights of transcendence beyond the imagination, powered by mighty organ notes, and the throbbing of great bells, driven by the voices that freely poured forth the wordless song, ranging from deepest bass to inaudible treble.

As listener, rather than participant, the song would have brought Nancy to tears many times over, for the joys it brought her in her drabness, and for the balancing sorrow that played counterpoint, that together were so bitter-sweet, heart-rending. She was feeling now, in those few instants, more emotions, and more deeply than any before — save perhaps hate, and fear, and anguish of regret. There had been those things, composing her life in crimson. black and umber, but now there was blue, like sky or tropic sea.

Tears there would have been, for other more mundane reasons. To hear the song but once would be to remember only partially, and only the most distorted fragments that could but hint at the reality they would be drawn from — and even that ghost fragment would have been trapped there. Untrained, without specific design, she was unable to communicate non-verbal sound to any other being, and with that awesome word of song forever locked within her, she would surely have lost what last holds on sanity she yet retained.

The climax came, but only after a build-up that seemed to endure for æons. It exploded in terrible splendour of brightness, spreading out from the very heart of her being. It did not come as the total disintegration of ego into that external flow of fire, and breath, that surge of untamed and unbounded ecstasy, that would suffuse the Universe, to and beyond its ultimate heat death, an annihilation that she had expected, had feared, and had secretly hoped for as an end to this pantomime. Instead, it seemed, the goal of the entire spectacle was a firmer integration of her identity, on a level above its previous structuring. The concept of a harmonic to her original consciousness was how she herself, still dispassionate, chose to regard it. Whatever it might be named, the fire and song were now hers to command and the merest of whims, and she drew their strengths about her like a cloak, a mantle of power sublime, beside which even the powers her civilization could wield were but feeble beginnings.

The night was crisp, its blacks and whites and shades of silver delineated to impossible sharpness, but as if by knife-edges of monolayer thickness. On the air were scents, too many, too subtle and unfamiliar for her even to distinguish, let alone begin to name them.

In this wondrous night, beneath the sky, following the finely etched pattern of debris swarms orbiting above, Nancy walked, a tall, and beautiful and imperial figure, ethereal, but with a terrible and insistent solidarity about her. Her height was not a thing of meters and their fractions, but borne of a sense of presence, to make her tower tens of centimetres above any she might meet. She was singing, her song a song of great rejoicing, with a voice and tongue that were not her own, and all the while, the world was singing to itself and to her, in belling tones of triumph.

Nancy was one, an individual, with her own unique identity. yes, but a One that brimmed over and poured itself unstintingly over everything that lived.

At her breast, focusing the stream of charisma, the stone that had carried this message of divinely human joy down the long and empty ages…she thought that, and immediately there was a picture of an endless black corridor through which dead winds whistled. That was thirty and more million years, a timespan beyond her appreciation. The stone burned starlike, lighting her way in nova light, with coronas of indigo and ultramarine.

Physical azure light surrounded her like a fog, taking on her shape, and extending it to godlike proportions, and wafted away like mist, ever to be renewed from its source. The shape had eyes, and they were hard points of neutral, deep sky blue, flashing starlike streamers of light on the optical imperfections of any there to see.

There was one such, and he was no friend to her. Not knowing what he saw, or even beginning to guess or comprehend its true nature, he was aware that anything he did not know that moved on the roof was not his friend, and in the belief that what faced him was without the powers of a cybersoldier, he aimed, and fired.

Like a lance, or arctic gale of winter, sickly purple light reached for the demigod figure, and its stream began to wash away at the blue aura, and its serpent's hiss seeped into the song of life, sowing its discords in the music. In Nancy's mind, and in the earth below, the great bells clanked and clattered into silence. About her, the choirs faded back into the howling of the wind that had engendered them. The song of joy faltered on her lips, and ended as the words and tune were washed from her mind. The light was extinguished, and she herself diminished.

There was no longer music in the night, only the sickening ugliness of life, with all its stupidities, failures and shabbiness. Anything that might have been joyful had been burned out in those long seconds of stunner fire.

She staggered as if heavily drugged, in a shambling and pathetic attempt at speed struggling with a body that had recaptured her. Nausea filled her, direct and bodily in its origins, and pain, things that she had forgotten even the potential existence of. From fire, she plunged into cold; from joy, she reaped misery; from soaring freedom, she plunged into unwholesome confinement. The sweat that dewed her brow was cold now, and her guts felt curdled and sour. Dully, she realized that saliva trickled from one corner of a mouth gone slack, its sticky stream mingling her tears.

She sobbed deeply, but was too drained to weep again, and her breath bubbled through the aftermath as she fought to clear her nose and sinuses. Tears were too special and precious for this time.

The force that had kept her moving through the song motivated her still, but now with narrowed aims — the animal urge for refuge, for somewhere to crawl away to, to hide, and to die there undisturbed. There was never thought of firing back, without knowing a target, or being able to extract suitable revenge, or enjoyment, from the deed.

Her mouth filled with the taste of bile, and her belly churned with its own life, shot through with deep anguish at each jolting footfall, as if something fermented there. She gasped for breath, needing to yawn or belch to relieve that aggravation, but only able to such at the air for some tenuous sustenance.

Only an insignificant time, a mere handful of seconds, passed before she gained sanctuary, the first approximately suitable location she had found, at the corner of the roof, by an air-conditioning installation, closed off to the other long side, and one short side, by the edge of the roof, and ten feet by two of gravel-set roof where she could lie, and expect not to be seen. She felt infinitely wretched, lying curled up for warmth on the cold, hard and uncomfortable rooftop. How ironic, after mere minutes ago having been overheated to the point of discomfort, to be at the mercy of the cold. It sucked what warmth she had away, greedily, and without sating. She went into a spasm of shivering and chattering of teeth that she had to force away by will. The cold wind pushed roughly through her clothing, despite the resealing of the zip; and the icy touch of sweat-dampened cloth caressed her body uncaringly.

She waited in profound misery for a resolution of events. In these depths of suffering, anything, even the emptiness of death, would have sufficed, if only her torment would cease.

She needed to yawn, she found, and opened her mouth to try, but failed. She longed desperately to be sick, to purge herself, to end the agony inside her now, and be gone. To hasten matters, and force the now inevitable conclusion, she tried to stick fingers down her throat, but even the anticipation of briefest touch seemed only to lock her body in an indefinable heart stopping rictus, separated from her volition.

She tried again, but only blackness and red against her field of vision resulted. Nor could she yawn, despite attempts that seemed to dislocate her jaw. She relaxed, to rest a while and try again. She looked out over the rooftops.

There was only a moment's warning, enough time to almost involuntarily lunge forwards and hold her head out over the abyss, while the contents of her stomach rushed up her gullet.

She moaned as the warm slurry poured from her mouth to splash faintly on the ground below. Its consistency offended her, as if it were somehow gritty, or papery. She watched it fall from somewhere at the back of her skull; distantly through eyes filmed with tears. Without pause to relax, she vomited again, but when she threw herself into the next retch, she brought up only a mouthful of bile that she had actively to spit out. She let herself tauten into the spasms of retching twice more, gurgling in torment each time to retrieve a few cubic centimetres, no more, of gooey fluid that seemed slightly fizzy. She spat as often as she could, to clear out the worst of the taste, with am ought now dried up.

Weak and exhausted, she lay there for a little while before thinking of tidying her self up, blowing her nose to clear whatever measure of regurgitation had been misrouted, and wiping saliva and vomit from her chin and lips. The smell and taste still clung to her, and her stomach's acid burned in her throat, making her teeth feel strange, almost pasty soft.

Sweaty, chilled, and weary, she sat up. She had weathered the storm, and was combat ready again. She looked out from her shelter, ready indeed for combat. She was angry now, coldly so, and her anger was directed at the person who, unknowingly or not, had stolen from her all the beauty and glory of life, tearing her down from truly living to painfully existing.

Wistfully she tried to recapture the feeling, build again the song and the fire, but it was extinguished. The night had become very still, and only a flickering blue flame burned in her mind, a tantalizing reminder of what had been destroyed. For the first time, she had acquired a reason for her existence, and it had been snatched away.

Nancy drew her stunner, and with cold glee, set the drain to maximum and narrowed the beam, until at short range, its touch would be lethal. What had been done to her was worse than mere death, for she still existed, chilled, with the stench of her vomit in her nostrils, its burns in her throat, able dimly to remember the transcendent feelings that had been here. From a heaven, she had been dragged down into hell, and for that she would see justice done, and scrupulously exact her revenge. The only vengeance she could bring about to match the crime was the penalty of death, without mercy, slowly, and in agony, such as could conveniently be caused by a body hit with a full power stunner beam; and even that would be insignificant beside what she suffered. They would last only minutes, but she would have to endure for an indefinite time.

A figure rose from concealment, away across the skyline, at first cautiously, and then, as no fire was directed towards it, with growing confidence. It moved towards her, leaving its safety, and silhouetting itself against the rings. Nancy let it advance — it was clearly male — enemy — and was coming closer, presenting an ever growing target. Coldly, calmly, she aimed, until she was certain of her hit, and squeezed the trigger. With awesome disdain for haste, or so it seemed, a ray of intense purple light reached out to touch its target. Nancy watched it splash from and caress her victim, like a gentle hand of death. In that instant, she understood the expression on the painting she had seen in Tricia's room — and felt her own expression drawn into that maniacal grin.

The figure began to crumple, and Nancy ceased her firing — it was no part of her plan to give, however accidentally, a head shot which would kill instantly and without pain. A gun clattered quickly to the floor from a relaxed grasp, to be followed by the soggy sound of dropped meat. Half gasped moans of agony showed that she had achieved her aim.

Now, while she might still have some of the advantage of surprise with her, Nancy vaulted from her shelter, to run. Her immediate desire for vengeance was stilled, and her unashamed urge to self-preservation now overrode it. Twenty-five meters away, over open rooftop, without possibility of cover, a stairway that she had half noted earlier. Two to three seconds — a fast count of five — only. Halfway, while she was out on the naked arena, a stunner beam swept past her. Without breaking stride, Nancy wheeled around on one foot, bracing against her momentum with the other, and with her gun held steady in both hands, she fired.

Her stronger light reached out, and as it swept by, briefly it kissed the source of the weaker. That lesser fire flickered, and died as the hands that held it relaxed. Only its last guttering spurt touched Nancy, brushed her but only for an instant. On low power — not the killing intensity she had been using — all it could do was cause pins and needles where it touched.

Enemy fire suppressed, and without hardly ceasing to move, she continued her pirouette and accelerated away. So close was the stairway, that she was still accelerating to a full sprint as she crashed through the door. She rolled onto the floor and landed sitting in the far corner, with her stunner pointed down the stairs. Thankfully, there was no need to fire it — as she had hoped, she was the first to reach such an out of the way place.

She picked herself up, and returned to the door, opening it carefully, gun first. To her sight, there were five figures, unidentifiable, moving on the roof. None, however, were human, and that was enough for her. Three of them failed to spot her and try for cover in time, and to each one, Nancy extended the blessing of purple light and agony.

With the fall of the last unlucky one, she checked her stunner. Ten seconds she had used it, at most fifteen, and almost all of that at full drain — and that had used eighty percent of the charge. She lowered the intensity as far as she dared, and then turned it up a little. She needed instant results, and she guessed that at the new setting, and short range, it would provide her with near instant results for fifteen or twenty seconds.

“Are my sisters there?” she called out in formal.

The only reply was an obscenity. Her worst case estimate had proven optimistic. She must have been spotted by a scouting party of matts, while their companions were likely still harrying the Clan forces who would be following her earlier message in blissful ignorance. They were heading north now, and she, east. Homewards, she thought, with mild interest, but home was six thousand miles away. Six hundred yards would see her safe. She wondered, could she have subconsciously betrayed herself like that? The thought was idle, irrelevant, and she let it go.

The roof remained still. As far as she could tell, there were no other hunters on the roof, beyond those she had driven to cover, not any arriving by visible routes. She could not wait pinned there, while a force reached the stairs from inside, and she could not flee, for there was no way to secure the door against pursuit. Unable to stay, whatever she did, she must depart, and so that required her to destroy pursuit. Reluctantly, she drew her second gun.

This was no toy weapon for ladies of delicate up-bringing as the stunner had been, but a self-contained, if markedly toned down, version of the direct fire weapons of cybersoldier equipment. Its touch would maim, if indeed it did not kill outright from shock; each cartridge would burn a two-inch hole through steel plate a foot thick, and proportionately more through flesh, whoever it belonged to.

She fired one cartridge, pouring out that terrible power at the nearer of her pursuers. The beam was invisible, and lasted but an instant. All there was to see was a transient glow of ionization, and the yellow of concrete that had absorbed some of that energy. Sounds there were, however, enough and more than enough to make up for the deficiency of visible spectacle.

Air cracked, whiplike, where it had been displaced, and the concrete, thermally stressed, exploded in tiny fragments. The spent rod tinkled quietly as it struck the floor, and the person she had hit screamed, and gurgled.

The other hid, but it availed him little. Nancy knew exactly where he cowered, behind a vent for the air conditioning. Another shot left smooth-edged holes in the aluminium about twelve inches above the ground. She had cruelly allowed him that much mercy — if he didn't succumb to systemic shock before help arrived, he would live. Meanwhile, he would not be enjoying his situation. The metal glowed at first, but soon was quenched, heat sinking into the whole structure. She reholstered her gun, but only when satisfied when none but the dead and dying remained, and closed the door.

Nancy took the stairs at the fastest speed she could maintain without stumbling and falling, almost skiing or skating down each flight. She toyed with the idea of sending a second message, to correct the first, but decided that the time she had would be better spent in flight.

That last exchange of fire, however one sided it had been on its own, had not been to her advantage. It had slowed her enough for others perhaps to find her, and it had been noisy. The sound could have been heard easily a hundred yards away through closed windows, or rooms that faced away; and there was more than the physical noise. The located, intense gravitic effects employed would have woken any Linkers in the vicinity, at the instant of firing.

She did not trust their reaction to this multiple invasion of their domain. Of necessity aloof, their neutrality made them at best fickle allies, and she dared not hope for a repeat of Linker McRae's kindness.

She was alone on the dark stairs, descending to a ground floor that was just as dark and quiet, and though she waited on the last landing for a cautious check, there was nothing to beware of. In front of her, ring glow spilled through the glass doors of the atrium, and in that same light, the pathway beyond was deserted. Across the way, and slightly to the left, another set of doors, flanked by elaborate ornament, enough to identify for her the location, despite it being a place she had rarely frequented. Knowing where she was, she began to detail her route of escape.

Her own chosen habitat, the wide roofs, had become too predictable, and now, far too crowded as well. They had served their purpose, as a short-cut, but now concealment was as important as speed. She bounded down the last stairs, and tried the doors. They had been locked, but a nearby window hadn't, and she scrambled awkwardly through, to land in the ornamental flower-bed below.

Ignoring the crushed vegetation, washed of its colours in the pallid light, she remained crouched, ready to spring at the slightest sound or sight of threat. In front of her, and above, a few lights still burned on the upper floors, hopefully signifying that the main doors opposite would be unlocked.

A dash, a couple of instants of painful exposure and vulnerability to harm, brought her to the doors, and they parted at her touch against them. At a slower pace, to conserve her strength for the quarter-mile of open ground that surrounded this efflorescence of structure, she turned to her left, to follow a corridor from the entry.

The silence was complete in that empty passageway, and where her footsteps broke it, formless flowing thing that it was, it healed again in the instant, as good as it had been before. Desertion and long neglect seemed to taint the air, a feel of people once there, long ago, and now, only their memory, less than a ghost, remained to show that they had ever been there. Nancy felt deeply, poignantly alone, but quiet with tired resignation. She was crushed by the great conspiracy that had been built up against her. Linkers, matts, even the clans, seemed to have no other purpose than to frustrate her, abandon and persecute her. Her wonted melancholy returned, her yearning for true companionship of the spirit, a sharing of feelings and thoughts between equals, freely given and freely accepted. Anyone — no, not any one; they would have to be psychologically in accord with her. She had said that she loved Tricia — but really they were sisters with too much familiarity; and with seemingly different temperaments; Tricia would be irritatingly light hearted were she here with her now. But then even the incandescent joy of the… experience of minutes ago revolted her.

What had that been? She could not tell, except that it had been centred on the stone she wore, and it had been powerful and splendid, bitter-sweet in memory, just like love. Somehow, she preferred to hold back in sadness, tormenting herself with the idea that such a thing was possible, but not for her, as far as any conceivable future ran. If before she had walked in a blue flame of emotion, the colour of her reverie was now a deep crimson, the colour of dying embers shining on a cloth of regal red. It was too deep, too slow moving to be called a flame, and too sombre. It was an inversion, a perversion — as much in the mathematical sense of a turning inside-out — of what she had known, a thing born of the stillness of the night and not the song of the wild; born of eternal loneliness and not the unity of all things living; a thing essentially of herself, and not imposed from outside. Comforted by that last, she abandoned many regrets, and surrendered herself to it, taking on that cloak of night.

The corridor ahead branched right. Her eyes noted it, but her conscious mind did not concern itself with such trivia. What was practically an autopilot system, that she had built up over the years, did noticed it, and took it, turning mechanically. Her conscious mind began to drift to sleep, now that a continual state of battle-readiness seemed unnecessary, aided by her preoccupation with her emotional plight.

In dark perspectives, the corridor diminished into distant obscurity before her, and from the formless dark, shapes appeared and solidified. Doors, turnings, light fixtures, all emerged from nothing, grew and passed. All fell on unseeing eyes. Instead, Nancy was seeing, by turns, as her concentration wandered from interest to interest, snapshot memory pictures of her route out, as she had seen its sections before, at each point guessing the threats that might be posed, the counterplays she would have to make. She sketched and rehearsed the dialogues she would have with her friends when she found them in their rooms, and asked their help. Increasingly often, the dull work of second-guessing the future took second place to idle musings.

She remembered Tricia, and their farewell, as a girl so nearly the ideal she craved, and so tragically, so minimally flawed. Unbidden, as if she had started already to dream, the picture in her mind changed. She saw the main command chamber of Upside Control, watched the urgent action of those who staffed it. That was one of the places where all the action would be most truly located, for if it were not the actual site of any event, it would be more than likely that the happenings would be guided by the wills of those quiet, intent figures. Those there, and others like them, in the other centres of political and military power on the planet.

Some were openly declared — each one of the five castles — and they were the nexi for most of the military manoeuvring; but there were more. Whatever the matts, in their various schismatic groups, used as high commands, publicly known but secretly located; and the public headquarters of organization clandestinely involved — the Free Traders, Shammarra Funding, StarLine, whichever political factions had been brought in or bought, motivated by either financial or political gains to be made, if only the castles were removed.

And here she was, caught in the middle of it, a pawn with no intrinsic powers, unwillingly mixed up in the web of decisions made by one of those secret wills, those hidden chess-players, and she with only the information of her senses to guide her. She wondered at whose final bidding she had been ambushed here. Shammarra, perhaps, or Kingarra: either of the directors who had recently appeared on Wyvern, just at the time when all their ιside’ could use a helping hand? Or just a local cell, motivated by hate for the clans, or more abstracted political ideals, whose commander had tried to gain prestige from her capture, without the order, or possibly without the consent, of higher echelons? There was little practical value in sorting back through the chain of command to the relevant decision maker. The problem was posed, the question of authorship, immaterial. Now, with just what she could see and hear to guide her, she must make her play.

There were doors before her again, these bearing glyphs in white on red that declared them to be intended for emergency use only. She ignored the admonition, and slipped out through them, almost certain she was ahead of the pursuit, if indeed she had not lost it.

Nancy continued south, her path now looped almost into a half-circle, taking the path ahead of her, trusting herself to the open sky again. Here the light faded into a dusky intermediate between the direct glare, and the gloom of unlit outdoors; buildings rising high on either side were responsible, hiding a major part of the arc of the rings. A few pale shreds of scudding cloud moved across the limited view, straggling remnants of the overcast that had shielded her arrival at the University.

A planet, number four in the system, showed yellow near the height of the arch, below it to the north. Three stars of first magnitude, the vaguest hints of others, were all else in sight in the washed out skies of her home.

Wryly, she remembered her last nocturnal visit to this place. In those last swift fifty-odd hours, events, it seemed, had gone full circle, save only now that she, and not Ginny, was the person hunted. Worse, there was no expedition coming to her location, and she was unable to call help without alerting the matts. All that she could count as a positive change was the clear sky. If it had been raining, as it rained then, it would have been the last straw. For all the tactical help it might have offered, she had endured misery enough this cheerless night. Full circle? nice as a phrase, there were enough changes in the balance of initiative and resource to make U-turn more apt.

To her left, all this while, lay the last barrier between herself and the open, a solid length of offices and lecture theatres that formed one wall to the complex. Every so often, every fifty feet or thereabouts, it sprouted buds, so that from the air it would seem like a crude comb for a titan, or a heraldic label of many points, a score or so in number. In one bay, between the teeth, opposite the closest approach of untamed wild, clansman Dr. Peter Brady had his office, and despite his return home, the office should have been left, as always, prepared for the passage through.

The place was marked by a thick growth of rhododendron bushes along the southern wall, and Nancy hid herself behind the cover of their profuse leathery leaves. The smell of the dusty soil was very heavy in the still, sheltered air, and the bark of the main stems was covered in its fine dust. There were cobwebs and rustling sounds of tree lizards disturbed from sleep. Against a wall covered in dried soil and dust splashed there in past rain-storms, where the rings cast a matching dusty grey light, mottled and shifting, she moved slowly.

In the corner, where the darkness seemed almost absolute, her hand touched metal, a spike driven deep into the structure, and by searching with her toe, up and down the angle, she found another, part of a ladder of pitons.

She climbed quickly, aware of her vulnerability as she emerged again into the open. The fickle wind was blowing again, softly cool against her skin, and above its low whispering, Nancy thought she could hear another sound, faint and itself wind-like, but in one instant more, it was past. She did not strain to hear it again, but climbed until she was level with the ledge that, following the building, ran under Brady's office windows. The window was fractionally ajar, opening towards her, and stepping from the pitons, she began to edge towards it. She turned about in the corner, where the angle of the ledge made a better place to stand, and on her heels, shuffled to the window that was her gateway to sanctuary.

Beneath the window, as she stepped backwards through it, a chair had been placed ready to serve as a step for anyone choosing to enter by that route. She pulled the window to, latching it shut — there was no purpose served in letting anyone guess where she had gone, and crossed to the desk. She would leave a message, now that she felt safe enough, and this time, it was in clear, brief and to the point. Sorry, it read I went East. N. If they didn't understand that, the help that might have been wouldn't have been worth it anyway.

Under the desk, in a small recess in the knee-hole, she found a key-ring, with one key, that to the office opposite. That office opened onto the outside world, and the way she would have to take. She went back and forth, opening the door, then replacing the key, but each time, the corridor remained thankfully deserted.

At long last, however, she stood looking out at the grassland, and three hundred some yards away, the forest. One minute to climb, another to run, and she would be almost impossible to locate. There was no movement out there, and even the shadows seemed devoid of menace. With the time of danger so short, it was unlikely that she would be intercepted, and so, before her mind could start generating its own Rorschached threats, she began the descent.

She paused in her movement for the briefest moment as she reached the last piton, and hung, some eight feet up from the ground. Faint and far away it was, scarce heard above the quiet wind, her strained breathing, was another, unidentifiable noise. She steadfastly ignored it, to prevent her fears latching on to it, and let go her hold.

She dropped, and as she hit the tarmac, she turned and was in that instant running as if all the fiends of Hell were at her heels. Stride, legs scissoring, cover ground, that was what she must do, what she forced her body to. The earth was soft beneath her feet, and her track was left visible in the grass that slowly recovered from the crushing.

The wind roared in her ears as she ran, and under the light of the rings, it seemed so natural to her that she should select the proper cues of tone and waveform, with talent normally beyond her, to make the life-song again, and in the song came the fire. Easily, she ascended to and achieved that different awareness, as she had so fleetingly known before. She was with all the world of nature, but uniquely an individual, marked as such by the gem she wore, almost as a medallion. She noticed without surprise, that this time she did not need to sing herself — the artifact had taught, and she was learning.

But what had she learned? What more could and would it enable her to do? She could not tell, but the fancies that sprung to her mind frightened her with visions of godhead. The Q'l-hrui had been termed Ancient Gods simply for their apparent powers, but now she feared that the reality was more a literal interpretation. Nancy, goddess of… Nature, perhaps? The concept fascinated her in a terrible way. The only sort of god-hood she had sought was that of great age, as her ancestors had achieved.

What was the stone and setting she wore, that they had belonged to a pre-flight race, who also possessed blivits, even if not of local origin? Temple site, Chan had said — an apt enough place, if her ideas were correct.

Nancy felt in her heart that even she would perform obeisance to someone wielding that which she had won the custodianship of. She was not going to be able to fit in her old niches, might not even fit this culture, unless perhaps she were to remake the Partnership, or dissolve it.

If she could… it gave her something that she had always craved, completeness in herself, without needing any other, and that could be painfully addictive, as perfections always is.

Roar — yes, the wind roared about her, and conjured up the song, but there was another sound to jolt her from the in-turned rapture. Still under enhancement, she noticed a droning, soft, but apart from the windsong that woke her.

Nancy turned to look for its source, casting quick glances over her shoulder as she ran. To her horror, she saw that what was responsible was an aircar, drifting towards her on muffled jets. An aircar, moreover, that bore the globe and chain insignia of the matts. It was this, she guessed, that she had heard so faintly before, as it patrolled the perimeter in case she should get that far.

She ran even more frantically than before, the adrenaline again surging through her bloodstream. Cover she sought, but all that there was nearby was a single bench, with a litter-bin beside it. It would have to do, and she dived behind it for cover.

Her blaster was in her hand as soon as she stopped, and her first hurried shot cut a glowing hole into one side, unfortunately missing any of the vital systems, and before the could fire again, the gun was hot in her hand. She flung it away, and her belt too, where she carried two extra clips, dropping behind the bench as soon as she had discarded them.

They exploded noisily under the influence of the dissipation field, in a firework display of light. One of the vortices of energy released drifted through the bench beside her, cutting a clean edged hole as it went its own way. The bolts avoided the aircar which only rocked gently as the blast hit it.

Totally disarmed, for her stunner had been still holstered, she had no other strategy open to her other than to run. At least, she reckoned, it would give the matts a run for their money, requiring them to at least make an effort to capture her. And who knew — she might even escape yet. Fifty yards she covered, and now only a hundred remained when a stunner beam hit the ground off to her right. She cringed, looked away, and kept running. The purple crawled towards her, jerkily, as the gunman tried to compensate for the relative motions of the aircar and the target.

Nancy felt a burning soreness across her back as at last the beam struck her, and slight disorientation, but she continued to run. The amulet she wore — what was it that it functioned so — grew almost painfully hot, as if it were absorbing the blast in the aura of azure around her.

As the seconds passed, however, she revised that opinion. Make that most of the blast, she muttered aloud as she ran. Soon, she was feeling as if drunk, and her vision went all distant. Thankfully the effects were not as gross as they had been before… she could still run, unnauseated, until something cold and wet enfolded her.

It grasped her in an unyielding rubbery grip, binding her arms and legs. She tripped, stumbled. The ground rose up to meet her. Distantly she felt the impact, the pain in nose and mouth as they hit the ground, mere feet from the first trees. She could feel the earth and the grass, and taste blood in her mouth. Her breath bubbled in her nostrils, and her face was wet.

“My first proper nosebleed,” she thought to herself as the night closed in on her mind.


© Steve Gilham 2000
© Mr. Tines 2000


Chapter 5 — Acceptance

Chapter 7 — Capture

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