••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••"Only one thing to do," announced Idom, turning toward the control console. "Find the instruction manuals."
"In that compartment." Zuchmul pointed.
"No, this one," said Kyllikki. "That's blueprints."
Neither contained the manuals. "Well, has to be this one then," said Kyllikki and opened the slim door placed symmetrically to the one she'd just opened. And there were the three gleaming manuals, each able to display data in the three main languages of the Metaji. Idom grabbed one and Kyllikki took another, set the display language, and settled into the only chair. The manual had its own power and memory, so it could be consulted no matter how ignorant the user was. "Pod pilot," she muttered, "is only a two day course. We probably have that long before pickup. Maybe longer."
But in a few moments, she abandoned the instructions, finding that the display controls were familiar enough. The pilot's station was designed for one person to manage helm, environmental, communications, and basic course plotting.
Kyllikki's head was pounding, her body felt pulverized, and her vision was blurring, but she had to know what was going on out there in the space around them.
The detectors on the pod produced displays that were like caricatures of the real thing, but she did locate the four remaining attackers on course for the Station. "I think those little blips there are Barkyr Defense ships," she told Zuchmul, who was hanging over her shoulder, mesh mask fastened over his face. She filled in her companions on what she'd seen from the Window. "Defense may be able to handle those four now they've been warned and now that the jump-cannons are gone." At the price of six lives, but they're gone.
"How close are we to Prosperity?" asked Zuchmul.
She shifted the display and read the figures, feeling Zuchmul's apprehension. He knew the pod's hull wasn't able to protect luren from all the sorts of radiation they were sensitive to. "But I've no idea what that means for you."
Idom leaned over her other shoulder and poked at the helm controls. "I've figured out how to steer. Move."
She traded places with him and leaned over his shoulder so she could see while he played with helm controls. "There they are!" she cried as the screen filled with tiny green flags. It was the cloud of pods ejected from Prosperity. A few had jockeyed clear and were driving toward Barkyr, but most were drifting, moving with the ship toward Barkyr while drifting away on ejection momentum. Not far enough away.
Zuchmul pulled out the third manual, muttering, "We must have a com-projector to reach other pods." He broke off and clamped a hand onto Kyllikki's shoulder. "You're the Com Officer! Get Wiprin and get this mob organized! Wiprin's probably with the Captain's pod because he's Com First—"
"Wiprin's dead, I think. Crew's quarters were holed and he was on sleep shift. Lee went off to pack the passengers into pods, and I never saw him again."
"Well, find out where he is."
She suppressed a convulsive shudder.
"Kyllikki?" The air around the luren throbbed with low level Influence. Zuchmul was perhaps her oldest friend in the Metaji, close enough that they'd discussed their common resentment of the strictures placed on them by law, as well as their mutual fear and distrust of each other. "Kyllikki, if he's dead, you won't get anything. If he's injured, he'll be drugged, and you won't feel his pain. But most likely he's fine and as bewildered as the rest of us."
His power carried his conviction through her defensive wall of silver bricks, setting them humming tunes of responsibility and duty. She felt her own perceptions aligning with his. Her uncontrolled reflex struck his hand from her shoulder and slapped his power from her mind.
Zuchmul gasped. Idom spun to stare up at her, then at Zuchmul, whose mesh-shrouded hands covered his masked face. She pulled his hands down and held them. "Did I hurt you?" Her eyes went to the base of his throat, where the mandatory Inhibitor was missing. "Zuchmul, are you all right?"
He pulled one hand free to finger the empty spot. His naturally chalk-white complexion paled. Even in the Metaji, use of luren Influence on others carried a death penalty, which wasn't fair because, after all, it was a natural reflex.
"Listen, Zuchmul, living here in the Metaji, there're things you might not know about the Eight Families. Don't ever use Influence on me the way you just did. It triggers a defensive reflex as natural as yours. Understand?"
He licked dry lips. "Yes. I know. I'd forgotten I'd lost the—I was with the orl when the alarms—"
She nodded and broke eye contact. Yet even while feeding, he should have had the device secured on his person, not set aside to be lost in an emergency. Still, she really did understand how he felt soiled and unable to feed properly with the thing anywhere near him. Now that emotion might ultimately cost him his life. "You'll just have to control yourself carefully, so that later we can testify for you."
And if he can't, it's partly my doing. With the Inhibitor attenuating his power, she had tolerated his covert communication simply because she hungered so for more than the mental speech she was allowed. But that was one thing. Influencing her mind was something else.
His hands clutched themselves at his waist, and she could feel his power retreating into himself, leaving the space around her empty, almost as if he were telepathically barriered. Good. He has the discipline. She flashed him a smile and, turning back to the screens, she schooled herself to audio-analogue. //Lee? Are you clear?//
Her mental voice didn't project beyond her silver brick wall. It should have gone right through it—or around it in another dimension—or however it worked.
She buried her face in her hands and scrubbed at the tension. It's not possible. The two levels don't mix like this! They were as incompatible as the Teleod and Metaji methods of using a space drive.
"Kyllikki?" It was Idom. Doesn't she realize the ship's going to blow up any minute now? Or is she hurt?
She flinched from his private thoughts. "I'm all right. I can do it." She had to reach Lee, so she had to dismiss her barrier image and approach him in the pure audio analogue. I can do it. But the key image to the working realm glowed persistently, burned into her mind by the deaths of the linked telepaths. It seemed to have destroyed her selective barrier control, but Lee must not see that.
"Hey, look!" said Zuchmul, thrusting a display of directions under her nose and pointing with one long finger at a control, taking great care not to crowd her. "There! That should give us a channel to address all the other pods."
She touched the switch. Sound roared through the pod. Idom, startled, dropped his manual and then swore.
Kyllikki thought she heard Captain Brev's voice shredded among all the others babbling at each other. They'll never get anywhere! Lips compressed, she vanquished the silver wall. //Lee? Are you clear?//
//Kyllikki? You made it.//
//You with the Captain?//
//No. And—Wiprin's dead.//
//I figured. Any telepaths among the passengers?//
There was a pause, and he answered, //Clerk here says no. Not registered, anyway.//
Hesitantly, she suggested, //You know I could reach the Captain, address his mind directly, relay for him to everyone else. None of the pods are yet out of my range for that.//
//No! Kyllikki, no! Your oath. The Captain will have us organized shortly. Listen, I can't get anyone at Barkyr. They're not Searching. And I can't raise Station Prime for relay, either. You have better range than I do. You try.//
//Yes, sir.// She lifted her attention to her mental horizon. There was a new Com Officer on duty, a different Paitsmun. She listened to the traffic for a few minutes, then attracted the attention of the Paitsmun at Barkyr because the Station was busy organizing for battle. //This is Prosperity life pods, Kyllikki, Com Third.// She outlined their problem. //Do you have an estimate on pickup for us?//
//Pickup? Life pods? Prosperity blew? I don't have lightspeed scan yet. What is your exact position?//
She gave him the numbers from the pod's instruments. //Our Captain needs to know about a pickup point and time.//
//Depends how the Station does in the next skirmish. Could be a couple days. Head in-system.// He provided orbital data to facilitate pickup and she copied it.
//Thank you, Barkyr.// The Paitsmun turned away to talk to ships on the other side of the system, ships deployed in case the six attackers were just a diversion. Kyllikki brought her attention in closer. //Get that, Lee?//
Not taking time to puzzle out what she'd done wrong that had kept Lee from following the exchange, she told him while repeating it all aloud for Idom and Zuchmul. At least Lee didn't catch me invading his mind again!
But now she was struggling to sort out the internal mentation of her companions from what they were saying aloud and what Lee was projecting. In the background, she was getting the rhythmic traffic handling of Barkyr planetside, and the military cadences from Station Prime where Barkyr Defense was located. It made an insuperable babble against the backdrop of the Captain's voice coming from the speakers, outshouting everyone else. Under, over, and around it all like a roaming ghost image, the key to the working realm pulsed lurid colors in time to the throbbing of her head.
It was as if her brain had been riddled with holes, letting data mix into a senseless jumble. She'd never experienced anything like it, never heard of anyone enduring anything like it.
She was about to tell Lee she was going down for the duration when she felt something very strange. But it was also familiar. Chasing it around the edge of her mind, she found she was staring at the monitor, which now showed the outer area where Otroub had blown apart. The bits of debris didn't show on the toylike display, but she knew that by now the cloud would be very large. There was a shimmering image on the screen, though—no, it wasn't there. Or was it?
She pointed. "What's that?"
"What?" asked Zuchmul, leaning closer, his voice sounding like six of him speaking in near unison.
Idom chorused with himself, "There's nothing there."
"There's something…" And then she knew. The life pod from Otroub. "He's conscious. He's terrified." She knew. She didn't know how she knew. She just knew.
"The passenger!" She recounted what she knew of Otroub's passenger without mentioning her impression that he could be a Dreamer. That, of course, was nonsense. "And Barkyr says it will probably be days until help can reach us, never mind him. He's hurt. He can't pilot that pod."
Idom pivoted in the seat and took her hands. "Kyllikki, it's at least six times as far from here to that pod as it is from here to Barkyr, and the distance is increasing rapidly. Child, there's no way you could be getting anything from a nontelepath you don't even know who's that far—"
She pulled her hands away. Idom was old enough to have the right to "child" anyone on Prosperity—even the Captain. But fighting the smearing echoes in her brain left her no patience. "Idom, when I tell you how to count a ship into a dive, then you can tell me what I can and can't do!"
Their eyes locked.
He's right. It's not possible. Admitting that she'd been injured in some strange way, she doubted her sanity. Like the light-etched key image that still burned behind her consciousness, the vision of the passenger as Ckam had seen him possessed her mind's eye. It all whirled and mixed and beat at her, and she couldn't think straight.
But— "Regardless of what I do or don't know now, I knew when Otroub blew, that one pod had escaped. Lightspeed scanners never showed the beacon ignite. It's a defective pod. Are we going to let him die? Out there? Alone?"
Idom sighed. "I do think I can move this thing now, but I programmed Barkyr as our destination. We are being carried in that general direction by momentum—"
"Recalculate," she said implacably.
He stared at his readouts, nibbling his lip as a strange expression crept over his face. "This pod ejected with a momentum component toward Otroub's last known position."
"So? That just makes it easier."
He twisted to scrutinize her. "This pod has only jets, sails, and gravitics. It's a pathetic little toy. And we can't use that pod's beacon to get a fix. We can't just wander out and look around until we find it."
The babble in her head was driving her crazy. She closed her eyes and struggled to reconstruct her silver wall, taking care with every detail of every brick as she had learned to do almost before she could talk. Gradually, the insane babble retreated. To her dismay, it was still very perceptible, but at least it was reduced. I'll make it.
"Move," she snapped at Idom. "I think I've got the figures." She had seen Prosperity's helm display, and had tracked that single life pod. If there was one skill that Teleod training developed, it was visual memory.
With a touch here and a stroke there, she recreated the helm displays. "There. Is that enough, Idom?"
"For me, yes. For the Captain, maybe not."
They traded places as the Captain's voice burst from the speaker against a backdrop of silence. Lee must have relayed the message from Barkyr the moment the voice channel cleared, for the Captain was ordering the pods in-system. "Pod Twelve, take course parallel to Pod Six. Pod Eight, deploy sails as soon as Pod Fifteen is clear, and Pod Fifteen—"
Kyllikki searched the controls, trying to find out which pod she was in and discovered it was Fifteen. "Captain Brev, this is Com Third in Pod Fifteen. We need a decision."
"Go ahead, Com Third, but keep in mind Prosperity may blow at any moment."
"Pod Fifteen contains only crew—Idom, Zuchmul, and myself. There was a defective pod ejected from Otroub with their passenger aboard unconscious. A passenger on a courier is likely to be important to the war effort, sir. Request permission to go after that pod. Idom says we can do it."
She twisted to catch Zuchmul's gaze with a silent interrogative. "Yes, we can do it," he agreed.
Brev said, "Idom and you are not exactly expendable."
"I understand, sir. If you have a pod better situated, I'll relay my course data to them." It was a bluff. She intended to argue each pod he elected right out of the job.
After discussion the Captain decided that Pod Fifteen's ejection velocity was the most favorable for matching course with Otroub's pod and they were the only one not carrying passengers. They got the job. But Kyllikki didn't like the look Idom turned on her. Analysis of the random processes of the universe was his field, so he often saw significance where others saw only chaos. And that was the look in his eye, Kyllikki realized—as if she were an element of chaos suddenly imbued with significance. She shivered.
The Captain went on assigning courses to the mob of tiny ships while Idom followed orders and switched frequencies to consult a Helm Officer in another pod, plotting their course correction, avoiding the mines spreading in the wake of the attackers. Within minutes they had a course with a return roughly calculated and had begun to accelerate away from Prosperity at a more reassuring rate.
The Captain came onto their frequency. "Pod Fifteen! Idom, what do you think you're doing? You'll have no fuel for the return. Go out on a slow, economic orbit!"
Idom glanced back at Kyllikki, swallowed visibly, then said in the hard, level tone of one delivering indisputable fact, "The man's injured. Time could be critical. We'll return on gravitics or tack in using the sails."
"I've got my log dump from Prosperity now, and I'm not showing any such skills among the three of you."
"That's right, sir," answered Idom. "We don't have those skills yet, sir."
It was an old argument. The Captain trusted people to do only what they'd been taught and drilled in. He expected his crew to do the same job always in the same way. Idom, however, never did anything the same way twice if he could help it, and it never occurred to him that anyone had to teach him a thing before he could do it. Kyllikki was definitely of Idom's persuasion in this matter and knew it added to the Captain's distrust of her competence as a ship's officer. Brev cleared his throat. "You haven't thought this through! Idom, you're supposed to be in command there. How do you expect to get that passenger out of that pod?"
Kyllikki leaned over Idom and spoke into the pickup. "Whichever way you order us to, Captain, of course." She, herself, had no concrete ideas. She knew only that it was possible to do pod-pod transfers in space. "Since I'm aboard, you can have Lee relay your orders even after we lose voice-com and coherent spectral transmission. We'll be out of touch only for a short while. Don't worry. We can handle it." If I can just get my head back in proper working order!
The Captain's pod was accelerating in-system now, and already the voice channel was crackling with noise. It was too late for the Captain to order a turnaround, so when he came back, he said, "Pod Fifteen, you are to proceed with the rescue, but use both the docking tube and pressure suits. There have been too many pod equipment failures. Don't trust anything. We'll send you a pickup as soon as we can."
Watching the green flags representing the pods moving away, Kyllikki said, "Yes, sir. Docking tube and suits. Now, I suggest you check with Lee. He should be picking up Barkyr. And the Defense ships from the Station are now engaging the attackers—"
Just then Prosperity turned into a fiery energy ball. Zuchmul recoiled, cried out, and reeled away from the bulkhead back toward an inner compartment.
Kyllikki searched the overhead for a sign that the radiation alarms had been activated, but they were silent. The hull had stopped most of the sleeting rain of particles, just not enough for a luren. If the detectors are working!
She hunkered down before the one cabinet she knew, then came up with a brightly painted case. "I doubt we've taken a dangerous exposure, but it's better to be cautious. Here." She handed Idom an injection ampoule and selected one for herself. Its code bands indicated it ought to be safe, but in the Metaji, she was never sure. The genetics of the Eight Families weren't normally considered by Metaji physicians writing the codes. Still, it wasn't likely to do any real harm. She pressed the ampoule to her skin.
Idom asked, "Is there one for luren?"
"I'm looking." The pod-medic training hadn't included luren. Luren were a race of human stock, but a splinter branch more different from the norm than the Dreamers. The luren and the Dreamers were the last two remnants of an era when humanity had experimented with its own genetic material and produced some very dangerous and disruptive variants. Tradition had it that the Eight Families were the descendants of those who had done the experimenting.
"Here," she said, selecting two ampoules. "I'll take these to Zuchmul and see what he says."
Zuchmul was curled into a storage closet behind an insulated stretcher. Knowing how he preferred the dark, even while wearing his protective eye inserts as he always did under normal ship's lighting, she didn't turn on the light, but just offered the ampoules and some encouragement. When she convinced him that the sheeting blizzard of particles had abated, he crawled out of the closet and examined the ampoules, selecting one but commenting that it probably wasn't necessary. "Luren tend to heal fast."
She chuckled at the understatement, but his skin looked raw and there were pain lines graven about his mouth. His power was still clenched tightly to himself, not a thrum of Influence pervading the space between them. She admired his control, wondering if she'd have done as well under the circumstances. "Maybe you don't need it, but it could help you feel better even faster. We may yet need your skills."
Zuchmul had been Prosperity's number two environmental technician, but he'd worked on many sorts of ships in various capacities. He was a hardware expert, as overqualified for his job as Idom was for his.
For the first time, Kyllikki added it up, and began to understand the meaning of war. The government had wanted to transport dangerous weaponry unknown to Teleod spies. They'd arranged to use one of the few passenger liners that carried life pods. They'd picked a military Captain who was just a bit too old for combat and an astrogator who was one of a handful in the Metaji who really understood astrogational theory well enough to take any ship anywhere and get back again, even if they got lost on the way. They had added to that a Com Third who had a greater range than most Metaji telepaths, and overqualified technicians who could improvise anything. The weapons would arrive safely.
Was it just an accident that we were in the way of those Teleod ships? Or had Zimor's spies known where the courier and Prosperity would be, so they could cut an incoming orbit to hit three targets with one run?
Three targets. "Come on, Zuchmul." She headed back for the controls. She realized that for the last several minutes she'd been internally tensed against the onslaught of distant deaths. The voice-com now emitted nothing but white noise.
Checking with Lee, she found that he could now raise Barkyr as well as the Station, and though their instruments couldn't penetrate the cloud of particles to reveal the battle, he told her the battle was over and the Station was out of communication. //Defense got a couple of the Teleod ships, but a lot of people died. I think the Station's gone. Be glad you're moving away so you didn't feel any of that.//
//You have my sympathy, Lee.//
//The Captain says you should take extra care because if the Station is gone or even badly damaged, it'll be a very long time before they can send you a pickup. He really expected Defense would win this one.//
//So did I,// she told him and repeated everything aloud for her companions.
"We could be in a lot of trouble, Kyllikki," said Idom.
"We'll make it," she predicted grimly.
Satisfied that the course was set, Idom locked down the automatics. It would take several days to close the gap with the retreating pod. They were all too tense to rest, so they sat at the galley table, nursed their headaches, and read the manuals to each other, sketching plans until none of them could see straight anymore. After a sleep period, Kyllikki went to take inventory of their rations and discovered to her horror that there was nothing aboard rated for luren.
She should have expected that. There were only a few million luren scattered among the Metaji's multibillions.
"Don't worry about it." Zuchmul shrugged. "I expected as much when I didn't make it to my assigned pod. I'll be all right for the six or eight days this will take, and there'll be stored supplies I can use on Barkyr."
"Sure you don't want to try some of this digested protein? It's supposed to be good for any race of human."
"No. Really. I'll be fine."
She'd heard stories about luren hunger, about luren becoming like animals that would go for anything with blood flowing in veins. But they were just stories. She didn't really know the facts of luren tolerances and felt it was too personal to ask about—at least at the moment.
There were plenty of supplies for her and Idom, and they passed the time eating, sleeping, and worrying over the manuals and their contingency plans. Gradually, the riddled-full-of-holes feeling in her head subsided. The key image still glowed darkly in the back of her mind, no matter how stringently she applied the banishing for it. Before she'd lost contact with Lee, she had repaired her barriers and felt secure once more in what she had dubbed the "realm" of audio-analogues. The headaches diminished and she could often hear her companions' spoken words without echoes.
As they drew closer to the disabled pod, she became aware of the passenger's consciousness. He didn't know they were coming, and he alternated between fear and despair. She knew when he started to consider suicide. As soon as they came within range for spectral equipment, she began sending a recorded voice message. His receivers might be working even if his transmitters weren't.
And she knew when he heard it.
Her growing sensitivity to the passenger was eclipsed only by her awareness of Zuchmul's hunger. After his third refusal, she stopped pressing him to try the rations, and pointed out that the medical stores held various sorts of blood. He evaded until she pinned him down, then, checking that Idom was in the pilot's seat, he drew her into the rear chamber of the pod, closing the hatch for privacy.
"Kyllikki, I admit that human blood is tempting, but most kinds would make me so ill they'd hardly be worth the bother. Legend has it that there are some kinds that are compatible, but if they exist, I don't want to know about them." He squirmed uncomfortably. "You know I have my—disagreements—with parts of the law governing luren. But there's a good reason for the law forbidding us human blood."
"But you're starving." It was her turn to be uncomfortable. "They say… I've heard…"
He moved closer, bracing one hand on the wall behind her. His powerful field of Influence flowed around him like a cloak, barely caressing her body, conveying a kind of sensuous relaxation rather than any sort of intrusion. He wasn't using it on her. It was simply there, part of him, and intensely arousing. "My hunger is no danger to you or Idom or anyone. You have my word on that."
Did her acceptance of that come from some insidious effect of his Influence? "Zuchmul, I've heard there have been times when luren have had to be hunted down by other luren—because they killed for human blood, and the human blood wasn't poisoning them fast enough to stop them."
He inspected his feet, then pushed back and folded his arms as he leaned on the wall next to her. "That could happen only if I died and you ignored the law and let me revive spontaneously. There is a rage to the hunger that comes then. I could kill you, then hunt humans and never know why I was starving. That's the reason for the strict laws governing luren corpses."
"I—I didn't know." Even in the Teleod, near the luren homeworld, this wasn't common knowledge.
"It's not something we're proud of, or wish to advertise. If someone were tempted to gain control of a luren to use as a weapon—well, we don't advertise how to go about it."
His eyes, shielded by the filtering inserts, seemed unfocused, as if he were considering other frightening vulnerabilities of his kind that he wasn't ready to reveal to her. "Kyllikki, it wasn't too many generations ago that the galaxy was all set to destroy the Dreamers, the Eight Families, and us, so no one would be tempted to gain control of us and use us as weapons.
"But in the end, they let luren live under a law that is cruel and stupid in spots, but wise in others. And they interdicted the Dreamers, to make sure no member of the Families who carried the Bonding gene could ever get power over both a Dreamer and a luren, or a luren over a Bonder, or a Dreamer over us all, and there would never be another Triumvirate, never another galactic holocaust. Even this war is nothing compared to that." He turned his face to her.
She felt him lose interest in history, his Influence becoming a caress that transmuted hunger to passion. He murmured, "At least you and I are free in the galaxy. If the price is that I must never taste human blood, then I shall not. And the truth is, I don't want to. There are other, more pleasant and less dangerous, ways to taste you."
The need to kiss him burned in her chest. Oddly, something about the raw-edged intensity of that need was actually repellent. She lunged away from the corner, breaking the spell, then turned with a shrug. "I promised Idom I'd go check the instruments. You're supposed to be studying the gravitic manuals."
And how am I supposed to concentrate on that!
It wasn't her thought. It was his. Jolted, she reinforced her mental barriers on all levels, and went to do the superfluous checking.
Some hours later, Zuchmul apologized. "What I said—about tasting you—was inappropriate. Consider it unsaid."
"Without further thought," she replied automatically, but his apology raised all kinds of questions she had no time to consider. They had arrived at the target area.
Without a beacon to home on, they had come only to the approximate position. Now they began searching.
After a time, she began to doubt her reconstruction of the data. Several times she was on the verge of telling them that she must have been wrong, that they'd have to give up, and each time the sense of the passenger's mind stopped her. After long, back straining hours over the display screens, Idom jabbed a finger at a blip. "There! That's it!"
He ran in the data directing the computer to dock them. The other pod lay inert, showing no emissions, apparently unable to link to their guidance computer for easy docking.
"Let's just hope he doesn't discover his maneuvering jets while you're out there doing it manually!" said Zuchmul as he climbed into his vacuum suit to take the pilot's place.
Idom and Kyllikki suited up and went to the rear chamber, where they'd found the oversize air lock with the docking-tube apparatus. The tube was a fabric cylinder reinforced with the same kind of fine mesh particle and magnetic insulation that made up Zuchmul's protective gear. He might even be able to tolerate going outside into the tube, but they'd decided he'd do them the most good at the pilot's station.
The control panel beside the air lock showed ready lights, and Zuchmul's voice came over their suit phones: "Standing by for the grapples?"
"Go!" answered Idom.
"That should do it," said Zuchmul. "Did it?"
They felt a faint thump as some mechanism outside the air lock functioned. Kyllikki said, "This panel now shows grapples deployed, for whatever that's worth." They were all well aware that this particular mechanism may have answered its self-test program for them, but it had never been used.
"That's it, then," said Zuchmul. "Docking complete. Go ahead and deploy the tube."
Kyllikki flipped the protector off the proper control panel and entered the command on the brightly glowing touchpads. Nothing happened. She tried it several times, checked to see she had the command right, let Idom try—nothing. With Zuchmul reading them directions, they opened the very stiff safety door and deployed the manual control. It took both of them using all their strength to ram the lever down into its receptor socket, but they were rewarded with a very definite thump-whump-bang.
But then the pressure reading in the tube did not come onto scale. "Something's wrong."
"Didn't I tell you?" said Zuchmul. "That pod is not designed to mate with this one. Otroub was new, carrying life pods according to the regulations made since ships began disappearing. Prosperity was ancient, built before we stopped putting life pods on ships that never needed them. Two different sets of specs. Just be glad both ships had pods at all. Most ships in space these days don't."
"So we'll have to go out and attach the cowling to the other pod manually." Kyllikki sighed.
"Yes. And there should be caulking for that stored inside panel number six right over the air lock."
They found it, cycled the air lock, watched the pressure gauges on their suits carefully, deployed safety lines, and then she and Idom went out to explore their dangling tube.
Kyllikki had no trouble with the free-fall maneuvering. She'd always loved free-fall, but she knew the passenger would be driven to mindlessness by the disorientation. They needed the tube secured.
"I think I see how it has to go," said Idom. "See, here this pod has a small flange where we have a large groove, and that's why the catch didn't seat properly. We should learn to take Zuchmul's word for things in his field."
"I heard that," commented Zuchmul.
While Idom experimented with the caulking, Kyllikki anchored their safety lines and studied the other pod's air lock controls. The manual for them was, no doubt, stowed inside the craft. By the time the tube pressurized into a nice, secure corridor, she thought she had the puzzle solved.
On the fifth try, the outer hatch opened. They convinced it to close again, as if there were vacuum outside, just in case the seal didn't hold, then they were facing the inner lock, watching it open on darkness.
She hit the light switch, and before them stood the man Kyllikki had seen through Ckam's eyes. He was taller than she'd expected, with bright gold hair, and sharp features with a peculiar racial cast she'd never seen before. His body was reed-slender, with sculpted muscles showing through his light blue ship's clothing. Masculine musculature.
He leaned casually against the bulkhead, posture and movement giving no clue to the riptide of emotion she could feel tearing him apart. There was a clumsy bandage tied around his head, with a spot of blood soaking through. Good thing Zuchmul isn't here to smell that!
He smiled, more in the eyes than with the mouth. "Won't you come in? I've been expecting you." His baritone voice was rough, as if to disguise a tremor.
She fumbled her helmet off and when she finally met his naked gaze, she blurted, "Get dressed and come with us. Quickly." It wasn't what she'd planned to say. The order came spilling out as if she'd suddenly returned to her Family position and was dealing with an indolent retainer. She hadn't used that tone since she'd left Zimor's household.
But he cocked his head to one side, essayed a crooked grin and answered her banteringly. "Is it a formal affair, then? I must have something appropriate aboard."
Idom had his helmet off now. "Space suit," he said. "Hurry or we'll have to recalculate our return."
"I see." But he remained unmoving, studying them, especially Kyllikki, warily.
His voice and tone held a familiar cadence. Or was it in his mind? She tried to tighten her mental barriers to listen only to his words. "I think we've done this badly," she offered, and introduced them by name, explaining the situation. She was favored with all his attention.
When she'd finished, he breathed, "Kyllikki!" It seemed he hadn't heard a word beyond her name. "Kyllikki."
For one dizzy moment, she thought she heard Zimor spitting her name like a curse. She could almost see Zimor's face superimposed over his features, but she blinked it away.
"Kyllikki must be a common name," he said, and it was just the pleasant velvet voice of a gorgeous man asking an inane question at an inappropriate moment.
"Not very," she answered, "but that's a long story."
"Space suit," insisted Idom. "Hurry."
"Gladly," he answered, unmoving, but she sensed his balance shift as he watched Idom. "My name is Elias."
He doesn't know where it is and is waiting for a clue! Only then did she note the dimness down the open corridor behind him, emergency lighting. Either from injury or ignorance, he had done nothing to normalize the pod's function. She started opening the larger storage lockers at random and found the suits on the third try.
Reminding herself that he was passenger and she crew, she followed the drill for stuffing a groundling into the sacklike, untailored vacuum suit. They had to try three helmets to find one that worked, explaining that they had little confidence in their caulked vacuum seal.
It took both of them to jockey Elias through free-fall into their pod, then she installed him in a bunk and treated his head wound while Zuchmul went to the other pod to see if they could salvage some fuel, and return on jets rather than playing with systems they really didn't know how to use. But the fuel cells were incompatible.
As soon as Kyllikki had adjusted the healing lamps over Elias, he fell into a deep slumber, the strain of meeting them on his feet having drained his last reserves.
Staring at his unconscious form, everything in her wanted to believe he was a Dreamer. If so, and if he was Bonded to Zimor, the subliminal effect of his presence even at that distance would explain why Kyllikki had been so irrational for hours before they'd contacted Otroub. But that was the easy way out. Blame him, or Zimor, or call it one of her periodic spells of Bonding need, and she wouldn't feel so guilty over the mental invasions she'd committed.
Gritting her teeth, she went to Idom at the pilot's station and apologized as she should have the moment she'd seen him in Prosperity's hold, finishing, "I should never have done that to you, Idom. Consider it undone."
"Without further thought, Kyllikki."
She felt better, the knot of guilt unraveling. Returning to check the settings on the healing lamp, she considered Elias again. She had of course heard rumors of secret enclaves where the Families bred Dreamers from those captured centuries ago, Dreamers who were given to those Bonders who were loyal. But she, like all reasonable people, discounted that. She couldn't believe her relatives would sink to such depravity. Besides, even Zimor couldn't get away with something like that.
As for Elias, no Dreamer raised as a slave could possibly exhibit such self-possession as Elias had after days alone, days of anxiety and terror. People didn't develop such nerve from living a sheltered life.
So he couldn't be Zimor's Dreamer. But planting a dreamspy in the Metaji was just what Zimor would do—if she could. No. The idea was absurd. Even if Zimor had gone totally insane, kidnapped a Dreamer from their home planet, and sent him to spy, what were the chances Kyllikki would meet up with him? I've got to get hold of my imagination.
"Kyllikki! We're ready." It was Zuchmul calling from the aft chamber, where he was sealing the lock and releasing the docking tube. The gravitic drive was also there.
Kyllikki secured restraints over the unconscious man in the bunk, then straightened. The cramped aisle of the pod was lined with bunks. To her left, beyond the facilities and the galley, Idom manned the pilot's station. To her right was the aft chamber.
She joined Zuchmul, ducking under the cargo crane stored overhead on a swing-down arm, ready to serve the oversized rear lock. There was also a jigsaw puzzle of beams, tools, and raw material for use in surface survival, leaving just enough room for her and Zuchmul to stand side by side before the gravitic unit. It was barely as tall as they were and only a bit broader than the two of them. It wouldn't develop much power, so their return would be slow, but still, going down into the gravity well, gravitics would be faster than tacking in against the solar wind. Or so the manual claimed.
She took her place and opened the com to the pilot's station. "Ready, Idom?" If anything has to fail, let it be the com. I could shout that far.
"Here come the final figures now. All automated. I never realized how easy a helmsman's job is. Perhaps this is what I'll do when I retire."
"Sure," said Kyllikki, knowing him well enough to know he'd never retire. She read him the figures as they appeared on the screens before her, then they did the whole thing again just to make sure. Finally, Zuchmul engaged the drive.
For a moment, it seemed nothing would happen. Then everything went crazy. The lighted readouts before Kyllikki blinked, turned to pyrotechnic spirals and disappeared. The deck bucked and shook as if the pod were about to tear itself apart. The air beat at them with pure sound.
Clutching the gravitic housing for balance, Kyllikki danced on the unsteady floor and tried to help Zuchmul, who was down on his knees prying away a lower access plate. He shouted, "It's bleeding into the interior gravity plates!"
She squatted down to lend her strength to his and together they popped the cover off the mechanism.
She heard Elias' voice cursing the restraints.
"Hand me that Radikov tuner, the little one with the red handle," demanded Zuchmul.
She found the tool in the drawer under the housing and gave it to him, but before she could slide the drawer shut again, several of the tools bounced out, then the drawer came off its tracks and slid toward the hatch leading to the bunks. Just then Elias rolled out of his bunk, one hand on his head, where she'd removed the bandage.
As Zuchmul struggled to insert the tool accurately, he twisted to catch a glimpse of Elias. His expression was unreadable, but she knew he could smell Elias' blood.
"What's wrong?" bellowed Elias, gripping the hatch cowling and peering over his shoulder at Idom, then turning to look at Zuchmul again.
"Stand still!" ordered Kyllikki. To her surprise, Elias did. She sat down and thrust one leg over Zuchmul's folded knees to make a table and told him, "Lean your elbows on my leg. It'll steady your hand."
"Good. Hold it!" he grunted, drawing a bead on his target and thrusting the Radikov into the mechanism.
The Radikov lit up bright orange, spat, shrieked, and went dark and silent. Instantly, the jiggling stopped, and all they heard was the smooth whine of the gravitic drive. She repossessed her leg and they climbed to their feet, panting and grinning, Kyllikki between Elias and Zuchmul. The luren faced the controls, while, over his shoulder, Kyllikki noted the readouts claimed nominal function. She turned to Elias.
Without warning, the gravity gave one more lurch, throwing Elias into the chamber. As he staggered toward them, one of his feet came down into the loose tool drawer.
Dancing frantically, he grabbed at the overhead maze of equipment and caught a strut, regaining balance for a second. Then there was a loud snap, and one end of the strut broke loose. It slid out of Elias' grasp. The free end slashed down in an arc, aimed directly at Kyllikki's head. Elias staggered forward, arms flailing.
"Duck!" screamed Kyllikki, grabbing Zuchmul's shoulder as she went down. But the luren twisted to look for the hazard. The sharp end of the beam just missed Kyllikki's head, then slashed through the soft flesh of Zuchmul's throat.
Elias landed with a cry of pain.
A gout of bright red blood fountained onto Elias and splashed onto the floor. The swinging beam reached the end of its arc just short of the gravitic panel and swung back over Zuchmul.
"Idom!" yelled Kyllikki, scrabbling around to examine Zuchmul while keeping her head under the beam's arc.
The pulsing fountain of blood subsided with a shocking finality before she could touch the wound.
"I killed him," muttered Elias, glassy-eyed. "I didn't mean to—Kyllikki—"
She thrust her hand behind Zuchmul's head and felt his neck, watching as the head moved normally. She felt no grinding of broken vertebrae. The beam had hit him sideways, slicing through the front of his throat and the main arteries at the sides, but not touching his spine.
Idom saw what had happened, and snapped, "Elias, help me!" He grabbed the flying beam to drag it to a halt.
Elias rose up and wrapped his arms around the beam, and their combined mass finally stopped the swing.
"I think he's all right, Idom," said Kyllikki.
Elias, arms wrapped around one end of the captured beam, cried, "All right?! He's dead!"
Idom knelt beside Zuchmul and turned the body on its side, inspecting the spine and the wound. "Missed by a fraction. You're right. He should be all right." He looked up at Elias. "It's a good thing he's luren."
"It's hard to believe, just reading about them I know, but I've seen them recover from worse."
Kyllikki watched Elias' expression. He's never heard of luren. Granted, there might be a few people in the Metaji who'd never heard of the only human race that routinely died and revived, but they weren't likely to be riding around in courier ships.
"Help me get him into a bunk," said Kyllikki. "That's not much of a wound. We've got to get him into stasis right away." She didn't dare think of the risks of stasis itself, never mind if the stasis machinery malfunctioned. He might never wake up, but she knew he'd prefer that to what would happen if he revived out here, without the help of his own people. And so would they.
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copyright © 2002 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.
Those of My Blood copyright © 1988 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Dreamspy copyright © 1989 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg