••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••The two men wrestled the luren's body into one of the bunks while Kyllikki read the manual on how to activate the bunk's stasis facility. As pod medic, she had been drilled in this routine, and knew that even for luren it could be fatal. Even the newest designs weren't reliable.
Very carefully, following the step-by-step diagrams, she primed the bunk and set the control probes in the body. She found three cautions specifically for luren suspected of being dormant, not dead. Idom hung over her and double checked each move before returning to the pilot's station.
Only after the translucent cover had been pulled down isolating the bunk, did she dare to think of the body in it as her friend, Zuchmul. Then she blinked back tears and clenched her hands together. They were cold and shaking.
A strong, warm arm came around her waist. She was too tense even to be startled.
"I guess he was a friend of yours."
She looked up into the face that had haunted her for days. His distinctive mental tone permeated her body.
She wanted to turn into his arms, lay her head on his shoulder, and cry. Instead, not trusting her barriers, she tried to pull away. He held on to her, a move she hadn't expected. She was wearing a Com Officer's uniform. Who would treat a telepath like that?
"Elias, no." She freed herself.
He stepped back. "I only wanted to help."
A conviction came from nowhere. He didn't recognize the Com Officer's uniform. She presented her sleeve, stretching the device out for him. "I'm a telepathic communicator, with commercial level skills, but sometimes when I'm upset… well, I wouldn't want to invade your privacy accidentally." It was hard to say after giving hundreds of earnest reassurances that she didn't read minds uninvited.
He stepped back and came up against the opposite bunk. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm upset, too."
He's a passenger, and I'm supposed to be crew! "Elias, we're going to make it to Barkyr just fine. We're not in any danger. So all you have to do is lie down on that bunk again, and let the healer do its job on your head. Meanwhile, I'll see about getting a meal together."
By the time she got the food on the table, cross checking everything against the healer's readouts on Elias to make sure she didn't poison him, she had cheered up considerably. At least they could eat without guilt. Zuchmul wasn't starving anymore.
Maybe he'd planned to ride back in stasis anyway!
When she'd released Elias, he, too, had looked considerably less white-lipped and dazed. But he was as taciturn as ever during the meal. Idom related how it happened that his rescuers had arrived in a life pod. Elias listened with interest, but in the end, all he said was "I guess I didn't thank you enough. When I first saw you, well—I took it for granted that someone would come."
It hadn't seemed that way to Kyllikki, but she wasn't trusting her perceptions of Elias. The key to the working realm still floated like a seared afterimage in the back of her mind, and if her barriers slipped, the strange echo effect to Idom's words returned and the shadowy impression of Zimor haunted her. As she poured a cup of steaming shaid, which she'd sweetened heavily, she asked, "Elias, I'm curious as to why you were traveling by courier, if you can say.
"It was by Imperial order."
Idom commented, "That sounds awfully melodramatic."
"Not really. Some people can afford to have what they want when they want it. It's my business to be what such people want." He raked Idom with a glance, then focused on Kyllikki. "I'm an entertainer."
Elias didn't seem to have any awe for Idom's colorful and distinctive uniform, even now that it had been cleaned and renewed. The astrogator had shed the dark purple silk cape, but the white cassock and black robe underneath still showed not only the Guide Guild's insignia with Prosperity's blazons, but also the sigils of academic rank normally covered by the cloak. However, Idom didn't need heraldic splendor to intimidate. He projected an air of understanding what was happening because of what he knew that others didn't.
"Etha Ckam told me you were," offered Kyllikki.
"When did you talk to Etha?" shot back Elias.
"We'd been exchanging traffic when she died."
"Oh." He looked stricken.
Ckam would have been wearing stripes identical to Kyllikki's, but Elias hadn't recognized them. Was he only now realizing Etha might have read his mind? "She said you were to entertain at a court function. What do you do?"
"Music. I sing, play instruments, dance a little."
"That doesn't sound very—exotic," said Kyllikki.
"My instruments are unique, I compose my own music, and I use a phonic scale that's… different. All my material is original. I'm told it appears exotic."
"What have you recorded? Do you use your own name? I don't think you ever told us your last name."
"Kleef. Elias—Kleef," he offered with an odd hesitation between the names. "No, I haven't recorded anything yet. If I do, I won't get any more rides on courier ships or yachts. The powerful don't want popular; they want exclusive, high culture, and rare."
What a position for a spy! Playing all the richest parties, the most exclusive clubs, court functions. If Zimor were to plant a spy, that's how she'd do it.
"Apparently, there's also danger in such a life these days," observed Idom. "Perhaps you should record."
"That's a thought. But now all my instruments, my notebooks—everything was lost with Otroub. And since I won't be getting paid because I won't be showing up, I'm broke."
"In that case," said Idom, "you'll be stuck on Barkyr, possibly as long as we will." He looked at Kyllikki.
It was a speculative look she recognized. Idom knew as well as she did that the healer's probe had given Elias' genetic makeup as human except for four or five small quirks.
Dressed now in the pod's brown coverall, Elias looked gorgeous. He had pale blond hair streaked with white, a coppery complexion that almost matched the coverall, sizzling blue eyes, sculpted lips, and a gauntness that emphasized his muscular shoulders; taut, trim buttocks; and long legs with bulging dancer's calves. He couldn't be much older than Kyllikki. Idom, who considered most of her problems due to her recent, sudden celibacy, was matchmaking again.
Elias had not missed Idom's suggestive undertone, but he answered the older man's words. "Then maybe I'll have a chance to thank you both properly."
He'd never touch a telepath, she thought, especially if he's a spy, and if he's Zimor's Bonded Dreamer, he's probably figured out who I am, might even be planning to capture or kill me for her. Capture, most likely. Shog.
But nothing he said or did for the rest of that night supported that theory, and by the time Idom woke her for her watch, she'd discarded it again.
"The drive is humming along smoothly," he reported as he turned over the pilot's chair, "but the air scrubbers and temperature regulators have been erratic. Watch them."
She settled in place and eyed the indicators. "Don't mention it to Elias," she said. "It's probably nothing."
"It's possible they've been doing that all along."
"I'll read up on it just in case. Get some sleep."
But over the next day, the strange fluctuations increased. They alternately sweated or shivered, and occasionally panted as carbon dioxide collected.
Then Kyllikki regained contact with Lee. The flight of pods from Prosperity had nearly reached Barkyr, and every available craft was busy collecting the passengers. Every one of the pods had experienced an assortment of malfunctions ranging from serious to amusing, so nobody wanted to trust those pods to make a safe touchdown on an inhabited planet.
Lee told her, //There's no way they can spare a ship to come out and get you. How bad is your situation? Will you need to go into stasis?//
//I doubt it. We can make it, but we could use a little technical assistance.// And she explained their problem.
Under directions from one of Prosperity's mechanics, Kyllikki and Idom stabilized the temperature, but couldn't do anything about the scrubbers.
Two more days went by, and they began using breathing masks when the carbon dioxide was high. Then they noticed a foul taste to the recycled water. They still had four days to go before they could expect pickup.
Idom and Kyllikki worked on the water recyclers all the next day, but had to reassemble them without much hope.
Over dinner, Idom said, "Even Zuchmul couldn't do more."
"I wish I could be more help," offered Elias, who had, after much careful instruction, taken over the galley chores for them, "but I have no mechanical aptitude."
"We noticed," said Kyllikki, reaching for the hot shaid.
"Kyllikki! Elias, she didn't mean that."
She was framing a weary apology when her shaky barriers were penetrated by a piercing whistle. She jumped, sloshing hot shaid all over her hand. The two men leapt to her rescue, blotting up the mess, searching for ice to treat the burn, and demanding, "What happened?"
Shog! //Lee! Pods aren't telepathically insulated like passenger liners! What's the matter with you?//
//Sorry. I've been trying to get your attention. Barkyr is under attack. A fleet of Teleod ships is coming from the opposite side of Barkyr, the side away from Station Prime, but the first attack destroyed Barkyr Defense. So the Paitsmun are already offering surrender. They've pulled back all their orbital craft, leaving half our pods stranded. Barkyr doesn't want to seem threatening to the Teleod fleet. If you have an option, change course. Don't come here.//
She relayed to Idom and Elias.
Idom shoved away from the table, towering over Kyllikki. "Tell him we don't have an option. We're coming in. We'll try a landing if we have to. I'm going to see what our screens are showing."
As she relayed that to Lee, her mind dwelled on what would happen if some zealous Teleod officer recognized her. Within days, she'd be back in Zimor's stronghold.
She shuddered. //I'll let you know if Idom comes up with something. Right now I've got to go—//
//No, listen!// returned Lee. //I know this is a sore point with you, Kyllikki, but you're the only one here who'd know. Is there any chance these ships have a communicator who can hear us like you heard that attack coordinator?//
He knows how I did that. She tried to think. //Lee, there's a chance they might, but it's a very, very small chance. My Metaji trainers told me I'm the only one trained in the Teleod who's ever tried the Metaji's com training and survived. I've never heard of any Metaji-trained telepath attempting the key images—you have to start that much younger than Metaji training. So I don't see how they could have someone who can work both systems.// She took a deep breath. //But since I can, they just might have someone.//
//I was right! That's how you did it!// The flash of avidity and horror that came with his words was very unprofessional. Then the disturbing whirl of mixed emotions was gone as quickly as it had come.
She admitted, //I can do it now, but not before that battle. I had to try something to stop those ships.//
//Hey, I'm not criticizing. Our escort did destroy the jump-cannon, so Defense got all the other ships before the Station blew. I'm just glad you're on our side.// But his contact voice was meticulously formal, not friendly.
Adopting her most professional voice, she urged, //Lee, think! I defected. Some Metaji telepath might have defected to the Teleod, without attempting to learn Teleod methods. So they could have someone who can hear us. Have you done a Search toward the fleet?//
//I've been afraid to. What if they spot me?//
She knew what his problem was. With Wiprin dead, he was in charge, but he wasn't ready for the responsibility. //Even if they have a Metaji telepath, they'd never send him to capture an obscure colony like Barkyr! And without such a telepath, the only way your Search might be spotted is if you get careless and emote. Basic emotion bleeds through, so any Teleod telepath working the realms might notice that.//
//So I've heard, but you never know what to believe.//
He was right to fear. She'd once seen a Metaji telepath yanked into the working realm. It had taken the poor woman a year to die. //Lee, a Teleod telepath would perceive your emotions as a distinctive but sourceless glow. They'd know they were being Searched, but not from where. We have to plan, and we can't unless we're sure communications are secure.//
//You're right. Their standard procedure is to kill all Metaji telepaths. But you ought to do the Search. At least you know what you're doing.//
There was nothing for it. She had to admit it. //Lee, I can't. Remember when you found me in the Window, and I couldn't control my barriers? I'm still getting headaches. I don't trust myself, at least not at such a distance. You're closer, and you're steadier.//
Reluctantly, he agreed and she left him to it, wrapping her silver brick wall around herself and finding to her dismay she'd also wrapped both arms around her middle and dropped her chin to her chest. Her hand throbbed cold.
Elias was standing behind her, muttering reassurances as if he really cared for her. When she looked up, he said, "Let me see your hand, Kyllikki. Is it blistered? A minute ago, you seemed to be going into shock."
She was faintly surprised to see her hand wrapped in a white cloth filled with ice. She unwound it. "No, it's not blistered," she said with some amazement as she got to her feet. "Come on, we have to talk to Idom."
Watching Idom work the scanners, she filled them both in on what Lee had told her.
Idom sighed. "And there's no avoiding it. We are about to become prisoners of war."
He flashed a display on one of the screens and turned it so they could see. Pointing, he said, "Those, those, and these over here represent Teleod ships. There's Barkyr. You can't see our pods on this scale, but they're here. In less than a day, the fleet will be in spectral range of the planet, at which point the surrender will become official. With no other habitat in the system, we've no place else to go."
"Do you suppose the Station got a message capsule out before it blew up?" asked Elias with real anguish.
If he were a spy, he wouldn't be upset about being captured. "I wasn't monitoring the Station at the time," admitted Kyllikki, "but later on, I'll ask Lee."
Idom muttered abstractedly, "His Search won't find anything. If the fleet had one of our telepaths, they'd be in direct touch already and the surrender would be history."
Elias offered, "Otroub's Guide claimed that Barkyr's importance in the war is its location. Doesn't that mean the capture won't go unchallenged?"
Idom watched the display, where the larger dots were separating into flocks of smaller ones. "For technical reasons, Barkyr's location is more convenient to the Teleod than to us. Still, as soon as the Imperial forces discover it's been taken, there'll be a counterattack. The Teleod knows it, so they'll be looking for valuable civilian hostages." He glanced up at Kyllikki. "The crew knows who you are. Can the Teleod telepaths get it out of them?"
"It won't take mind invasion. I'm sure there are crew members who believe I'm the spy who set this whole battle up. Someone is bound to mention it."
"Spy? What do you mean, spy?" demanded Elias.
"I'm a Teleod defector," said Kyllikki.
"And a loyal Imperialist now," added Idom.
"If they catch you working for the enemy… Kyllikki, they'll kill you… or worse." It was just what Lee had assumed, only Elias glowed with fear. Real fear.
She blinked it away and repaired her barriers, reassured that Elias couldn't possibly be Teleod. Whatever it was about him that eroded her barriers, it hadn't anything to do with Zimor or Dreambonding or spying.
She fixed her attention on Idom, who watched the display, counting the dots with the avid intensity he normally reserved for astrogation. "All they'd dare do with me is ship me home." Probably. "And, Idom, if they find out just who you are, they'll likely ship you home with me."
"They can't make me work for them."
"They might," she cautioned.
Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Elias shudder. He covered it by turning to her and asking, "Is anyone going to tell me who I've been rescued by?"
"There's no point in keeping it from him," said Idom, fingering his beard thoughtfully. "Most of the crew knows anyway. Someone's bound to talk."
"Idom's one of a handful in the Metaji Empire who understands the theory of Pool construction and operation, of how one Guide or a pair of Operators can 'fold' a whole ship through a Pool that's built into the ship's framework and make it pop out where they want it to."
"And Kyllikki," said Idom, "used to be one of the Teleod's best Pool Operators."
Elias' eyes widened. "Yes. They use telepaths in the Pools That's what this war is all about. Is that why you defected?"
"No. That's something I don't talk about." Zimor had used Kyllikki's talent as an Eight Families telepath and Bonder to make her into a powerful Pool Operator, but it had been the using she'd objected to, not the Operating. When she'd arrived in the Metaji, where Imperial policy called for the execution of all known Teleod Operators, her only chance for an exemption had been to volunteer for a "dangerous medical experiment"—retraining as a Metaji communicator. Part of the price she'd gladly paid to gain certification was the oath never to enter a Pool again, and having survived the mental probes and conditioning, she'd been given her freedom, as the law demanded. But very few below the rank of Duke other than Guild members knew the whole story. "I don't appreciate Idom bringing it up."
"Considering what he may face with us and because of us on Barkyr, he has a right to know," insisted Idom, examining Elias. "Of her own free will, Kyllikki has forsaken the Pools because, despite her retraining as a Metaji telepath, any transit she made would probably be just as damaging to the substrata of space-time as ordinary Teleod Operation."
"Lots of people seem convinced that's what's causing ships to disappear," said Elias.
"It's true," said Idom with all the authority of his Guild. "Every passage of a Teleod ship leaves a gouge behind it that can throw the next Metaji ship off course. Routes have become so damaged that now Teleod ships can't get through, and they're using stronger methods that leave deeper gouges. They think that solves the problem. They think they can keep on devising ways to punch across the scarred tracks. The only reason no one in the Metaji is afraid that the firmament will collapse is that our calculations show that civilization will crumble long before the damage is serious."
"You mean," he said cautiously, "no more interstellar travel?"
"Isn't that what I said?"
Elias' expression froze, but Kyllikki was certain she detected a frisson of real, personal fear beneath it, and a curious sense of bereavement. "I've seen the calculations," she said, "and I'm convinced the Teleod Operators are causing the problem. It can be stopped. It's political, not scientific. It can be done and it must be done."
"You see," added Idom, "Kyllikki will never add another scar to the crazing that's already there. She's doing all she can, at terrible personal cost, to help the Metaji abolish the Teleod Pool Operators before it's too late. For that, we owe her all the protection we can devise."
"Idom!" protested Kyllikki.
"It's nothing but the truth and you know it."
It wasn't anything of the sort. She was no Metaji patriot. She was just a refugee from Zimor's power. Unable to face her cousin down, she had run. "It doesn't matter why I'm here. If they catch me—"
"Sovereigns Be!" swore Elias. "Com Officers handle sensitive military traffic! If they can get into your—"
"They can. Not just me, but Lee and all the Paitsmun as well. The technique invariably kills the subject. That's why we need to agree on fictitious identities."
Elias shook his head. "It won't work—not for long."
"True, but they won't have many telepaths assigned to interrogating prisoners. I can get Lee to pass the word to protect us. It might gain us some time before someone slips or sells us out, enough time for what we know to go stale."
"Maybe," agreed Idom with a disturbing light in his eye.
She suppressed a shiver of foreboding, telling herself that Idom wasn't really foretelling the future. No science could do that, not even the one that could just count things and foretell where a ship would pop out of its Pool.
After that, they destroyed their uniforms and adopted the brown coverall the pod supplied. Idom insisted Kyllikki pick the new names, and she complied readily. She would be Kyllikki Abtrel, a trainee in Prosperity's infirmary. Idom would be simply Idom Shigets, a very common name, and he could be listed as an in-system helmsman.
"You don't need a new name," she told Elias. "But I'll get Captain Brev to list you as a passenger, and you can continue to be a musician who's lost his equipment. The worst they might do is ask you to sing. But if they discover you were a passenger on Otroub, they'll take your mind apart to verify the reason."
Lee reported that his Search had found no trace of a working telepath in the direction of the approaching fleet. Kyllikki explained their plan, and he thought as little of it as they did. But he relayed their new biographies to the Captain, adding one for himself, and the Captain adjusted his log to support their claims. The Paitsmun were also cooperating, as their strategy called for their telepaths to disappear without a trace into the general population. Hours before the official surrender of Barkyr, the Guides' Guild office was closed, the personnel dispersed.
When the official surrender came, Kyllikki, Idom, and Elias gathered around the pilot's station, tuning and retuning the equipment to catch every crackling nuance of the invader's signal. Coherent spectrum conditions this close to the star were not good, and their receivers were old and far from adequate. They were able to hear Barkyr, but the fleet's transmissions were barely intelligible even after filtering.
At first, things went badly for Barkyr. The Attaché aboard the flagship of the fleet who was authorized to speak for the Teleod refused to accept the surrender from the Paitsmun who claimed to be Baron of Barkyr.
The Baron spent a good while attempting to establish credentials, but the Attaché was having none of it, and the Baron could not understand why. But Kyllikki did.
Schooling herself to remain strictly in audio-analogue, she gave a mental handclap aimed at the Paitsmun communicator she'd dealt with before the battle. //This is Prosperity Com Third. Tell your Baron that the Attaché will only deal with a human. She can't grasp the idea that a nonhuman might have ranking authority, and she may in fact have instructions to deal directly only with humans.//
The nonverbal consternation that came back from her opposite number on the planet's surface was eloquent.
//Kyllikki?// It was Lee. //Is that you?//
//It is, Lee. Did you hear what I told them?//
//I heard. Barkyr Control, this is Prosperity Com Second. My Com Third is absolutely correct. You must relay her information to your Baron for a decision.//
//Acknowledged, Prosperity. The situation is going to be much worse than we ever imagined. Thank you.//
Shortly after that, they heard the Baron break off and ask the fleet to stand by. There was a long silence.
The air in the pod had cycled through unbreathable and eye searing back to tolerable by the time they heard a new voice, and they were now close enough to pick up some fuzzy visuals from Barkyr. "This is Sir Timend of Vrai, speaking for the Barony of Barkyr." The human insisted on direct contact with the Attaché and then spelled out the terms of surrender the Baron had offered.
This time, there was no temporizing. The Attaché issued counterterms, Timend counterproposed, and they settled with Timend gaining a few concessions Kyllikki hadn't expected, including the Baron's demand to have Prosperity's refugees picked up immediately and brought down for medical treatment.
Not long after that, the fleet dropped a swarm of smaller ships, tenders, Captain's launches, and scouts, that shot on ahead of the fleet, querying the pods about their problems with a severe military efficiency. Then they assigned a pickup schedule. It would be another two days until Pod Fifteen could be met.
What surprised Kyllikki through all this was the way Idom sat and counted the Teleod fleet over and over as it came closer. The more ships he could distinguish on the poor resolution screen, the happier he seemed.
Kyllikki didn't argue. The random happenings of the universe, the relationships of numbers and probabilities were Idom's field, not hers. He had once tried to explain how he could trace probability waves by observing the manifestation of numbers. It only seemed like foretelling the future, he'd said, while actually it was just understanding the present, but she didn't see what difference it made if the approaching fleet consisted of two hundred or two hundred seventy-three ships. It was the people on the ships that mattered.
"I agree completely," Idom said when she put it to him. "I'd love to know how many people there are on those ships."
"And I'd like to know who they are," she countered.
That got his full attention. "Anyone high ranking enough to recognize you won't be dealing with passenger ship refugees. We'll keep a low profile and see what happens."
"They may not recognize me personally, but few Teleod citizens are unable to recognize the Eight Families!"
"Humans are humans the galaxy over," replied Idom serenely. "Speak, move, and dress like a working woman of the Metaji, and who could take you for an aristocrat of the Teleod? Even if you look somewhat like them?"
"The Teleod doesn't have aristocrats. The Metaji is an Empire, the Teleod elects its leaders."
"Politics! We both know what side you're on."
"I'm sorry. I guess the waiting is getting to me." It was only a question of time, and she'd be back on a Teleod ship, under Teleod law. "I'm going to check on Zuchmul."
She left Idom to his ship counting, and went aft to the bunks. Elias was lying in his bunk, curtain open. With one hand he tapped out a slow rhythm on the bulkhead while he whistled softly between his teeth. So far, he'd never offered to sing for them, but there was always music inside him, and sometimes it soaked through her barriers.
As she approached the stasis unit, he propped himself on his elbows. "Does it really need checking that often?"
"Probably not. There's not much we could do if it fails, and nothing we can do to prevent it from failing. But somehow it makes me feel better."
"I know what you mean. I feel guilty about what happened to him. If I'd stayed in the bunk, he'd be alive."
"There's no point to looking at it that way." She turned to examine him, wondering again about where he was from. His accent certainly wasn't Teleod, and his cultural assumptions didn't seem to form a pattern either. But then she didn't know much about the Metaji cultures. "If it would make you feel any better, talk to Idom about it. He could probably count the tools in that drawer that got loose, and the number of links in Zuchmul's radiation suit, and explain why the accident was inevitable." She gave a shrug and smiled.
He laughed. It was tense and a little rusty. None of them had laughed at all in days. But it was a real laugh.
She joined in with a chuckle. "All right, so I tease Idom. But what he really does do seems just that absurd to me. After all, numerical harmonics and probability resonances—accidents—
aren't my field. Astrogation, Guild style, is the creation and control of accidents; telepathy occurs on a level where the concept 'number' is not defined. Elias, Zuchmul wouldn't hold you responsible, but Idom could tell you why you're not."
She bent over the stasis indicators. She leaned on the bubble that enclosed her luren friend, wondering if there was any hope for his revival. What would the occupation force do with a luren in stasis? She had to hold her breath against the tears. There was no time now for pain. Their lives were still in danger.
She didn't hear Elias move, but his hands came onto her shoulders and he pulled her back against him—the only way he knew how to offer comfort. And for the first time since she had threatened him with mental invasion for his trouble, there was no tension in him, just warmth. She firmed up her barriers and tried not to resist, remembering how the Paitsmun crewman had criticized her for her unconscious mannerisms. They could give her away both as a telepath and as Eight Families. If she was going to be Kyllikki Abtrel, Metaji paramedic, she had to practice.
"That's better," said Elias, and his voice was a caress. "It won't be too bad. If they catch you, they'll just ship you home. Surely, that's not so terrible a fate."
She whirled in his arms. "I'd be better off dead!"
"You can't really mean that?"
"I can, and I do. Doesn't this war mean anything to you?"
"It does. Oh, it does. But," he said, glancing at Zuchmul's shadowy form, "you have friends here, you must have had friends at home. They'd be glad to see you. They'd help you. It must have been terrible—to leave all that."
She studied his expression, wanting to thin her barriers and read the emotions that always whirled about him in glowing spirals. But it hardly took a telepath to feel the wistful yearning of an exile who lacked hope, nor the solid trust he had in her Metaji Communicator's principles.
She put one hand on the stasis case. "I had friends, yes, and a lot of them might side with me now—if there was any political advantage in it. But Zuchmul wouldn't care what anybody else thought or did. He'd defend me anytime, anywhere, against anything. And I'd do the same for him. Elias, that couldn't happen in the Teleod. Zuchmul is luren. Do you understand what that means?"
"But luren are human."
"Here, yes. There, no, not quite human enough."
"Do you? This war isn't about enfranchising nonhumans or about protecting the firmament from permanent damage. It's about power, and the abuse of power. In the Teleod, the reins of power are in the hands of the Eight Families, and right now that's mostly just one person, my cousin Zimor, Lady of Laila. The Lady of Laila."
"I thought you said the Teleod elects its rulers."
"It does, but only members of the Families are eligible to be elected, and only wealth buys the right to vote. The Families control the great fortunes, which rest on the ebb and flow of trade. And all of their power rests on their control of the Pools, on control of ship movements. Destroy the Pool Operators, put the Pools into the hands of the proven impartiality of the Guides' Guild, and even the Families' telepathy couldn't keep them in power. Anyone, even a Paitsmun, could amass great wealth, or even political power. And the nonhumans outnumber humans."
His face had turned to stone. "I'd never heard it put quite like that before."
She didn't think she'd said anything that any Metaji news commentator might not have said.
"But if the hold of the Families on the Teleod is based on trade, why do they oppose protecting the shipping lanes from being destroyed?"
"The Families don't—not really," said Kyllikki. "Zimor does because she doesn't believe there's any real threat from the traditional method of Operation. She's convinced the Guild's crying doom just to break her power. It's hard to explain to someone used to thinking in Imperial terms. Here, the people who hold power don't get it because they want it—they get it because they're best suited to the job. And they have it for life so they're not always looking over their shoulder wondering who's going to take it away from them. I mean, a Count or a Duke has to be really bad before the Emperor would remove them from office. And their incompetence has to be proved before the Imperial courts. There are laws here that prevent the kind of thing Zimor has been doing."
"What has she been doing?"
She missed the guarded tone of that question. "Oh, anything she pleases! She's insane, Elias, paranoid, and totally oblivious to the pain she causes as she pursues her own goals. There isn't anything that can stop her—except maybe the massed power of the Metaji Empire."
"So that's why you're here? Because you want to stop your—cousin."
"Elias, don't judge me too harshly. It's very hard for anyone raised in the Metaji to understand the use of military power as a political tool. That's why it took so long for this war to get started, but there is no other way to stop Zimor. However many lives it costs, it's fewer lives than will be lost if she's not stopped. I couldn't do anything against her. I just—ran. Ran away to hide.
"You really believe that."
"It's true. I'm not proud of it.
"Anything that your courage can't stand against has to be pretty formidable."
Shog! He really means that! "I've never had to use any courage here. It's a much better place to live."
"Are you sure? I mean, how much of it have you seen?"
"Well, I haven't met the Emperor, but I've dealt with some Counts, various Guild officers, and an assortment of ordinary people, a lot of whom were much less human than Zuchmul. There was even one Duke who wasn't human who treated me with respect when nobody else would. You won't value what you've got here unless Zimor wins this war. And then it will be too late."
"So after the war, presuming we win, will you go home?"
"I—I don't think so."
"Because home won't be there anymore, and I'm not the same person I was when it was home. Does that make sense?"
He cocked his head to one side and studied her. Then, gravely, judiciously, he nodded. "Strangely enough, I think it does. At least, I hope it will. It's certainly something to think about."
It didn't seem that difficult an idea to her, but she shrugged. "Where do you come from?"
He pulled her over to his bunk and they sat while he recited his life's story, liberally embroidered with tales of musical achievements, triumphs in contests, and great performances. Even though the grand moments he described were emotionally real to him, the rest seemed to be recited by rote from some biography or publicity release. It made her uncomfortable, and she had to keep reinforcing her barriers.
Before she found the right questions to ask, Idom called them to eat, and then she did a stint on watch in the pilot's seat. When she went to take her turn sleeping, Idom and Elias were still up, playing Thizan with an improvised board and pieces. Idom was winning and Kyllikki couldn't understand why. He wasn't that good at the luren game.
Wrapping herself in her most impenetrable barriers, she fell into a deep, undisturbed sleep, and woke thinking about the enigma of Elias. She had slept straight through without waking, and she never did that when Elias was sleeping at the same time she was. No matter how much care she took with her barriers before she lay down, she would wake every few minutes to find they were full of holes and her mind was dwelling on what she should have done and said during past confrontations with Zimor.
But this time, the shield of silver bricks that guarded her mind was still in place, reflecting away every wisp of thought. If Lee had been whistling as loudly as he could, it would not have wakened her.
She started, then saw Idom standing over her. "Yes?"
"At last. You've been sleeping as if you hadn't slept in days."
She swung her legs over the side and sat up, tugging her coverall into place. "How long did I sleep?"
"Two shifts. Elias went to sleep a while ago."
She peered into the adjacent bunk. Elias was curled on his side, his oxygen mask obscuring his features, one beautiful hand curved as if cradling an instrument to him. She peeled off her oxygen mask, which she always wore when sleeping now, and stretched. The air stank.
The air was so bad, and the water so slimy, that none of them had any appetite. Idom went to sleep, leaving Kyllikki on watch, waiting for the air to cycle back to breathable. She waited and waited, and for the first time began to doubt that the cycle would ever reverse. She counted the units of oxygen remaining for the masks, wondered how long the vacuum suits' supply might stretch to, counted the hours until they might expect pickup, and worried.
She was facing the fact that they weren't going to make it, that they'd have to risk stasis, when she was startled out of her reverie by the voice-com. "Pod Fifteen, this is Fleet Captain Iyadee's yacht, Fine Time, Pilot First, Drimar, commanding. Stand by for orbital correction data."
She grabbed for the transmission controls, fumbled, then produced a horrid squeal before she got it right. "Fine Time, this is Pod Fifteen, uh, Kyllikki Abtrel, Medical Trainee. We—" She broke off, reminding herself she was not a professional communicator. It had been just luck that she had fumbled the controls. Now she had to play it out. "Uh—we have an emergency, I think." She described the amount of oxygen left, and read off the composition of the air. She slipped in the data on their dormant luren in stasis as casually as she could, realizing it would be foremost on a medic's mind. Omitting it now would cause trouble later.
When Drimar wanted to talk about the orbital correction, she called Idom, who likewise took care to stumble.
Kyllikki was sweating by the time they had forced the discussion to take three times as long as it should have taken, but they won a higher place on the priority list.
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copyright © 2002 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.
Those of My Blood copyright © 1988 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
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