Cruiser Dreams, Book II in the three-book Kerrion Empire saga Cruiser Dreams . . . She is heir to an empire beyond all imagining, where interstellar cruisers have become increasingly sentient and man's role among the stars is transformed. In this epic of political treachery, interstellar security, human passion, and artificial intelligence, Morris writes the saga of the fiery girl Shebat, stolen away from a decaying and primitive Earth to be the adoptive heir to the Kerrion Empire. Molded to serve the designs of the Kerrion state, Shebat instead becomes the harbinger of change sweeping the civilized stars. Against the chaotic background of simultaneous social and technological revolutions, Shebat finds that the man she loves is her implacable enemy, that the man she reluctantly married is perhaps her single ally, and that her space-faring cruiser may be her only true friend.
One full moon in tinderbox autumn, the legend of “Shebat of the Enchanters’ Fire” was graven a second time into the consciousness of twenty-third-century man.
It happened over the rubble-strewn streets of New York City, as it had happened once before, upstate.
The enchanter who witnessed the event could do nothing about it: his horse screamed and reared and pawed the wind’s dark tresses. Like the ignorant natives of Earth, there was no convincing the nervy black stallion that the roar swooping down upon the city, followed by light from a midnight sun, was not supernatural in origin.
When the light blinked out, and the roar turned to a keening whine, when above their heads a softer glow illuminated two figures hanging by a ladder from the belly of Leviathan—then trouble, swathed in the hoary robes of religion, began. There was not one enchanter among the lot of those secessionist oppressors who had fled from Orrefors space to make a last stand on ancient, wizened Earth who did not recognize the danger. But there was nothing they could do.
The two figures danced wildly, hanging from their ladder before the moon.
Alley dwellers and scavengers edged out from hiding into the intersection where the miracle had just taken place, heedless of the enchanter in the face of this more astounding magic.
When he had his horse calmed, he rode it full tilt through the midst of them: order must be preserved.
Her fingers would never hold her.
She would fall back down among the ruins, die upon impact. All that would be left of her would be her bracelet, wailing and blinking green in a puddle of sticky red pulp.
The wind rushed round her ears, her pulse thundered louder than the ship drawing them upward. She craned her neck, squinting in the lemony illumination from the shuttle’s bottom. In the middle of the glowing waffle-work was a dark maw. Into that the ladder was being drawn. Around the edges of one of the supergravity pads, St. Elmo’s fire danced, a product of the strain on the system.
Shebat hung from the lowest rung.
On the rung just above hers, another pair of hands clung desperately to life.
He called out something: the wind and whine stole away his words.
The ladder swung wildly, half its length swallowed up. If they should be gusted against those bright quiltings, they would never even realize that they were about to die.
The man above shouted again, but she could not understand. He took one hand from the rung, extended it down to her. She saw it, bilious in supergravity’s light, reaching out. Every auburn hair tracing his wrist stood apart from one another, preternaturally clear.
She took it in hers. After a moment’s hesitation, in which her teeth nearly fused while her stomach somersaulted, and her slick grip almost slipped away, she hauled herself up, parallel to him.
The swaying of the ladder eased.
His neck craned, eyes narrowed and streaming tears, Chaeron judged distance and danger. “Just be still!”
She lip-read it, before she closed her eyes against the glare, trusting to fate, which had seen fit to scoop her up from exile and would not have done so for meager purpose.
When she opened them, all was dim and quiet, sheltered from the wind and the shuttle’s glow. The bracelet on her wrist gleamed intermittently, sighed low, then ceased to sing altogether.
“Watch your feet!”
She drew them up. The bay doors smacked shut, locking out earthly nightmares.
The red warning-light was on in the little shuttle, she realized; she had thought it had been her vision, the distortion of fear.
Her husband let loose of the ladder and dropped to his knees upon the closed bay doors, wiping his hands on his thighs, while all around the lights went amber.
“You can let go now,” he said softly, his hands encircling her waist to prove his words.
She let her grip relax, felt herself in his arms, turned in them, pressed to his chest. His lips brushed her forehead, nuzzled toward her mouth.
She turned her face away.
He turned it back. “This is the first, perhaps only, heroic deed I may ever have to my credit. Am I not deserving of even one kiss?”
Above their heads, the emergency ladder continued to draw itself up into the piped and strutted ceiling of the cargo bay. There was a click, and it was gone.
“Chaeron . . .” She looked straight at him, just before his lips closed upon hers.
The lineaments of his face, sensuous, yet bold enough for the walls of Persepolis, were washed ethereal in the amber safety-lights of the shuttle’s cargo bay. Chaeron’s beauty was his curse: men disparaged him for it and women distrusted him because of it. In the orb of it, Shebat was filled with doubts. Again she turned to miss his kiss, let it brush against her brow.
“ . . . Why, Chaeron?” Long-unused Consulese came rusty to her tongue. On her barbaric homeworld, she had had no need of it. In the anguish of her self-imposed banishment, she had shut away everything about him and his worlds beyond the sky. Now it came rushing back too fast, raising her hackles as the vibration beneath her feet and the sharp smells of machine oil and insulation and her own fear could never have done on their own. But that was Chaeron’s style, was it not?—to make a person’s soul kneel down before his sorrel-maned elegance, then offer to cover that nakedness with the cloak of his favor?
“Why?” he repeated, worldly lips drawing back into a trained smile. He unhanded her, settling into a squat dissolved of ardor. His teal eyes flickered, his fist slamming home a toggle where the bay doors met. “Because you are my wife. And because my brother Marada has exceeded his authority. And because—”
Shebat felt the quaking of her orientation as the little powerboat struck for deeper space (or as his gilt-lashed eyes flickered up to her face), so that she too sank down breathless on her haunches, pulling her knees up to provide a barrier between them. Could it be possible? Had she hurt him? No, not the Draconis consul, Chaeron Ptolemy Kerrion, scion of the consular house of Kerrion, inheritor of stars! What am I doing here? she wailed without words, clasping her hands tightly so that she might meet his unwavering gaze.
“And because,” Chaeron repeated in a serpentine voice, “I got your message, sent by means of your ship, that you needed help.” His visage grew severe without changing. “You did send it?”
“No, I—” That far into betrayal of her only ally, a tendril of the cruiser Marada’s thought reached her, a tickle in the back of her brain, barely audible, as if from much farther than the four hundred miles of space remaining between them. “Yes,” she rushed in, “I suppose I did. I had to.”
The first lies exchanged, each sat back a little. His blue eyes were no more hooded than her gray ones during that intolerable interlude wherein chests rose and fell slowly, and schemes and conjectures roiled fast behind placid masks.
The Marada, her cruiser, deep spacefish whose capacity for loyalty surpassed that of the entire Kerrion family into which Chaeron’s father had adopted her, tried again to reach her mind. She caught his whispered message, so brief, so cautious, and unclenched her hands, raising one wrist before her face, glad of something to do in the awkward sandpaper silence. “I am still wearing your betrothal gift, husband,” she teased, not yet willing to accuse him in this tiny powerboat made for raiding by pirates long ago in their shared past.
The bracelet so displayed on her wrist was still shining softly, the green stones on it raised half out of their settings. A short time ago, it had been singing, caroling, then screaming in the moonlit night. “You never said what it was,” she pouted, her lips glistening. “I might have run the wrong way, when it began to pulse and howl. How could you be sure I would know enough to run to wherever the sound got loud?”
He sighed a soft laugh down through his nose. “Whatever way you ran, I could have found you. May I?” His long fingers touched the directional beacon, the green stones sank down flush with their bezel and ceased to glow. “There. I just did not want to lose track of you. Can you blame me?”
She let his question go unanswered, seeking for anything else that might clear the dross from her throat. “So you let me crumble under your brother’s onslaught, allowed him to tote me off to my isolation like some unclean carrier of a plague, secure in the knowledge that when you were ready you would have no trouble finding me again!”
“I had rather thought,” he murmured, “that you two wanted some time together—alone.”
“Alone was what I was, with him! You knew full well that once I had married you, I would become a traitor, an enemy in his eyes! You only forgot to tell me.”
“Shebat!” Anger, effort, then control labored in the one word. “I have come a long and difficult way, thinking you called me. I am still full of my expectations, and you are not fulfilling any of them. Say thank you.”
“Then not at all! I—”
A squawk cut through whatever he would have said, too soon, and he saw the wariness in her silver gaze take the hard edge of distrust.
“Yes, we are,” he answered the pilot’s query as to their health. She should have realized, when he did not immediately urge her into the little ship’s control room, that there was some other pilot controlling the shuttle as well as the ship that had disgorged it into Earth’s atmosphere. But she had not, he saw from her stony face and straight back. When her words finally slid through colorless lips, he had been waiting so long for them that even his infinitely cultivated Kerrion aplomb was shaken.
“You let another . . . person . . . fly my cruiser?” She could not even say “pilot”! “And will you suggest next that I bed this . . . person . . . who is enjoying proscribed interface with my ship?” So that was what was wrong with the Marada, whose cautions were so urgent and greetings so abrupt. The cruiser would allow no other pilot to sample their intimacy, for it was a singular and revolutionary relationship that had grown up between the spaceship and the girl: and secret! “Of all the perversions you so joyously lay claim to, this is the most foul!”
He stopped her, not by words, but by rising up so abruptly that he hit his head on a conduit and cursed. Rubbing the back of his neck, he loomed over her, his exasperation beyond his control.
“You stupid, ground-dwelling snot! You cannot imagine what I have gone through to get here. Only the Lords of Cosmic Jest know why I have put my head on the block for you! What would you have had me do, fly that cruiser myself? For your information, it was your ship that picked its pilot, and that was no small complication. So there are two pilots on board, both at each other’s throats for amusement: my new one; and this apprentice transvestite that your damned Marada assured us both is the only person in the whole of the Consortium suited to touch his precious control boards in your place. What did you think took me so long?
“No, don’t answer that. As a matter of fact, until we are someplace more suitable than this, do not say anything. Just be circumspect. Keep in mind that you are no longer living in garbage heaps where what you say matters to no one but yourself. Be polite to these people, but try to remember—you are Kerrion!”
Chaeron knew his voice was too thick, too despairing, too revealing. He felt all the muscles in his shoulders pulling his head into his body and those in his loins pulling his scrotum up to safety. But that was why he had come for her, was it not? She made him feel, made things new and tingling with more than danger—with passion, with purpose.
But when Shebat said to him in her husky, slurred Consulese that he would have to bear with her, for she had spent months trying to forget that for a while and for foul purpose she had had “Alexandra” and “Kerrion” added to her name, he could not help but shiver. The heat of his flesh against the carefully regulated air of the ground-to-
space craft made it seem that the vacuum outside had crept within to confront him with its deadly cold.
To banish that chill, he spat it out of his mouth. “If you would prefer, I will set you back down on your planet, as close as may be to where I found you. And that will be that.” And I will have learned a lesson about the difference between fantasy and reality, he thought, but could not say.
“No!” she gasped, huddling.
He extended his hand to her, raising her up. “Then I think it is time you met Del–”
By then she had pressed herself against his chest, arms encircling him tightly, sobbing. The warmth of her melted his anger. She was a child, after all. He had expected too much from her on the heels of such dire peril. And perhaps too much from himself—he was not of the stuff of heroes, had no aspirations in that regard. It was the dispatcher Circumstance that had sent him hither, on such a precipitous mission. And with the task had come the awful cold, and the knowledge that only her kiss could banish it, melt the ice formed in his very blood. The ensorceled prince got his kiss from the only woman whose lips had ever enticed him, and he was much warmed.
Then he motioned her before him, stooping among the pipes in the little cargo bay, into the tiny cockpit where Delphi, the apprentice, bent to her work.
Shebat stiffened like a threatened cat as she slipped into the seat parallel to the apprentice pilot’s.
The woman waved without looking up, her bristled red hair flaring magenta in the indicators’ spill.
Chaeron took the jump seat behind her, back against the wall, debating whether or not to introduce them while the woman’s thick neck was so corded with concentration. Broad shoulders rippling, running her hands over the bestarred console, she hardly seemed to notice them.
Shebat ended his debate. She reached out toward her co-pilot’s instrumentation; punched; slapped; fingered; then snapped: “I have it.”
The big woman ran knobby fingers through her flaming skullcap of hair. Pale, freckled jaw working, she turned in her seat to face him, interrogatory eyebrow raised.
Chaeron shrugged, let a facsimile of a grin touch his features. “Shebat Alexandra Kerrion,” he explained. “My wife.”
“Ah, the Marada has told me about you,” said the woman in a voice like a man’s. “I am Bernice Gomes, but the pilots have tagged me ‘Delphi.’”
The hand she stretched out to Shebat went unclasped, the greeting unanswered. Shebat’s froth of black curls, bent forward, neither raised nor turned.
Chaeron said: “How long?”
Delphi replied, “Three-quarters of an hour, sir,” in her resonant baritone.
Shebat huffed: “Half of that,” and the powerboat leapt forward so abruptly that Chaeron’s skull snapped back against the padded partition.
The apprentice looked at her employer beseechingly, received the merest shake of his head in negation. She unstrapped herself and came, half-crouched, to take the jump seat opposite his. Her glance said that women will be women, thereby affirming his supposition that she did not consider herself one. Her powerful body told truer: it was foreshortened with pique, squat with irritation.
“Why ‘Delphi’?” Shebat’s distant query came floating back from the bowed black head framed in glittering stars, one of which was coming closer at frightening speed.
The thick-necked woman tucked her chin in, doubling it. The pattern she had been drumming on her flight-satined knee ceased. “I am from Pegasus space, where I was a Delphi forecaster. Until recently, that is.” A weighted grimace thrown Chaeron’s way escaped Shebat’s notice. “When my group disbanded, I decided to become a pilot. Delphi method and pilotry make use of the same talents, so I have been told.”
“You decided to become a pilot?” mocked Shebat.
Chaeron chuckled admiringly, felt partisan, came to the redhead’s defense. “The Marada specified her,” he reminded Shebat.
“Are you always so fortunate?”
There was a silence full of knives. Chaeron was about to blunt it, when Delphi answered for herself. “Yes, in the way that you mean. I am a Delphi adept, after all. We do not call it fortune, but accurate forecast. Once I had decided on this route, it was not more than a month until I secured my apprentice’s rating. Then your husband’s people tapped me. So I have come from rank amateur to apprentice to the top-rated pilot—first bitch, as you folk say—of Kerrion space in a very short time. I suppose I understand your hostility.”
“Hostility?” repeated Shebat innocently. Then: “Who is first bitch, these days?” in a stiletto hiss that reminded Chaeron of her love for the defrocked master pilot who had been top rated during Shebat’s apprenticeship. To vanquish thoughts of Softa Spry, now an outlaw among outlaws at space-end, Chaeron spoke quickly:
“Raphael Penrose took the first-mastership. I do not think you have met him, Shebat, but I may be wrong.” There were times she had been away from the family, times spent as an unlawful dream dancer and an apprentice under an assumed name to Softa Spry, times during which her activities remained unaccounted for. Penrose, when queried, did not believe that they had met, but could not be sure.
“Is he the same Penrose they call ‘RP’ for ‘Rape and Pillage’?”
Delphi Gomes let out a whoop swallowed halfway through so that it became a spray of smothered laughter.
“I have only heard of him, then,” continued Shebat. “His ancestor, Roger Penrose, deduced twister theory and invented conformal mapping of spacetime, so it is said. Aside from that, everything I heard was decidedly unflattering, personally, and unequivocally complimentary, professionally. He is on the Marada?”
“Let us hope so,” said Chaeron dryly.
“I will look forward to meeting him.”
Neither her husband nor the woman apprentice chose to add a comment to Shebat’s statement, delivered as it was in such an oddly flat and threatening tone.
Delphi Gomes, whose pulse had finally quieted after neatly sidestepping all pertinent questions about her provenance and purpose, wondered at the arrogance of the Draconis consul’s wife, who it was whispered was an illicit dream dancer, as well as an owner/pilot. Having wondered, she compared what she saw to what she had previously heard of Shebat Alexandra Kerrion, and decided that everything said about this precocious child must indeed be true, even the part about her not yet having turned eighteen. And she marked her enemy, one of those responsible for the death of her father, Jebediah, for subsequent execution. And she thanked the currents of fate that charted her course that her sire had never married her mother, so that no one could connect her with the anile secretary who had connived in the very office of the Kerrion consul general Parma Alexander Kerrion, he who had died too soon to suit Bernice’s appetite for vengeance. No matter, there were the sons and daughters left; and this girl, Shebat; and the pilot, now an outlaw, called “Softa,” whose demise would likely be the most satiating of all. Not that she would mind putting an end to the pretty boy sitting next to her, with his effete manners and his arcane tastes in pleasure. Thinking about it, she could feel her flesh warm, her femininity moisten as it did only for death. Surreptitiously, she exhaled a long and satisfied sigh: her time had come; Delphi method showed it clearly. Let the ecstasy begin!
Rafe was more than curious. He sat at the Marada’s epicentral control dais, enthroned. About him, the circular waist of the Marada’s control room rainbowed, displays of color humping, bucking, telling tales of the powerboat’s progress in full-spectrum metering, its telemetry offering radio, infrared, X-ray, and magnified optical scans. He could sit there until hell froze over, until entropy triumphed over motion, without having to move to eat, or wash, or eliminate.
RP coveted the Marada so intensely that his teeth itched when he contemplated it. Thinking about giving the immensely powerful experimental cruiser over to a teen-age dream dancer with delusions of ESP made him grind them so hard his jaws ached.
He had gone over every scrap of gossip he had heard in the pilots’ guildhall since the ratings shakeup, and no two things he had heard agreed. Worse, no one thing he had learned explained why his haughty Kerrion employer was personally chasing around on a primitive, dangerous planet after a girl who could hardly be less primitive in order to hand over to her the most advanced spongespace cruiser Raphael P. Penrose had ever had the pleasure to board. The fact that Chaeron had married the dream dancer to acquire her proxies did not explain it—he had full control of her stocks without her. And, having heard and most recently acquired firsthand knowledge of Chaeron Ptolemy Kerrion’s sexual predilections, the marriage itself was of no account. Love and money being thus-wise excluded, there was left only power as Chaeron’s motive. Or pride. Pride, RP was calling it, for want of some glimmering of understanding as to where in the reputedly frail and indisputably female person of Shebat Kerrion the value really lay.
He had had plenty of time to conjecture about it: time in the guildhall when every pilot attached to the Kerrion arm of the guild had been called in to meet their new guildmaster (he rather regretted not being around to see old Baldy, ex-guildmaster, off to his exile); time spent being re-rated, the whole lot of them, since both the first and second bitch pilots’ slots were open under a new guildmaster whose ideas differed from the last but agreed most completely with those of the Kerrion scion who had taken over the consul generalship—and who just happened to be a pilot himself? What changes Guildmaster Ferrier would make under Marada Seleucus Kerrion’s patronage was anybody’s guess. And everybody was guessing.
He had guessed right and snatched the first-mastership from under the noses of several equally qualified but politically inept competitors. But he had had two advantages: he had gone to school with Marada Kerrion; he had gone to bed with Marada’s little brother, Chaeron.
Raphael Penrose sighed loudly, and touched a desultory finger to a magnification control, activating it manually. He had gotten his rating, no matter how. He would have liked to have gotten this cruiser, the Marada (named, it was said, after the new consul general by the Earth waif now readying her shuttle to dock), in the same or any other fashion. But his efforts had not availed him. Chaeron had promised RP only the consul’s own cruiser, Danae, when she was fit to fly, with vague murmurings about commissioning another of these new-type cruisers at some unspecified later date.
It would have been so simple to wipe the individuality out of the mighty spacefish with a touch, and make it his own.
It was unspeakably frustrating not to be able to do so, to be reduced to pushing buttons like an apprentice. At the thought “apprentice” brought to mind, he growled aloud. Most mortifying of anything that had ever happened to him in twelve years of pilotry was Chaeron’s order that he take on this bull-dyke apprentice. He was the butt of many a snicker since word had leaked that the woman was doing the real flying, though she was nowhere near a rating, while he, notwithstanding his skill, was forbidden to touch so much as a sponge-readying B-mode activator. It was supposed to be a secret, but pilots have no secrets, because cruisers keep no secrets from other cruisers. And so the fact that he was along only to satisfy guild requirements and proscribed from flying the Marada through the sponge riddling spacetime was common knowledge among his peers.
He opened the Marada’s bay a full second before the shuttle-pilot asked, then simply monitored the docking of the little ship within, and closed back up again. There were some things in life that had to be tolerated. At least now he would see what all the fuss was about.
But whether seeing would alleviate the nagging discomfort he could not banish, that ever-increasing restlessness of his sixth sense which plagued him, he could not say. And he very much wanted that formless irritation put to bed, for it was not rational, and RP was determinedly a rational man, especially when on duty. If he had acquired his nickname because such strictly enforced discipline tended to make of him a maniacal carouser when he let it slip in the grip of drink or drugs, then that was only proof of the axiom that all pilots are mad. Living on the lip of insanity’s canyon, he was very careful of his working mind’s every step. And his mind told him strange things about his situation:
If he did not know better, he would think the cruiser Marada did not want him to fly it. And if he did not know that cruisers could not keep secrets, he would think that there were some things that the Marada knew which the cruiser and his Kerrion owner, in concert, were trying to keep Raphael from finding out.
And since a pilot with as many sponge-hours as Raphael Penrose had accumulated must be alert for paranoia’s insidious taint long before its poison reaches toward the heart, he could not face his intuition head-on, but must circumvent the slightest confrontation with any debilitating fears.
When he saw Shebat Kerrion walk through the control room’s dilated doors in black-and-red flight satins dirtied gray and torn at one elbow, and what excitation of the Marada’s consoles her presence evoked in the cruiser, a superstitious thrill rolled over him, raising every hair from his toes to the crown of his head.
So consumed was he by the phenomenal sensitivity the cruiser Marada registered to the girl, Shebat, that he ceased wondering about Delphi’s part in all this: the squat redhead, focus of his agitation previously, ceased to concern him. He barely noticed her, following Chaeron Kerrion in through the portal, leaning back cross-armed against the lock’s doors as soon as they sighed shut.
The Draconis consul, on the other hand, vied with the black-haired girl for his attention. Chaeron looked flustered. His face was surely flushed, his breathing rapid, when RP well knew that nothing ever cracked Chaeron’s calm.
But that was wrong, obviously. The girl-child had done it, or the strenuousness of the effort he had expended to get her back.
“Any trouble?” Raphael Penrose asked his employer.
“None yet,” came Chaeron’s absent reply, sans the reassuring smile that should have accompanied it.
Then Shebat Kerrion crossed between them, stood before the control central in which Penrose lounged, and put her hands on her hips. The hands were browned with dirt, the hips slim and boyish, and RP began to understand what it was about her that had held Chaeron’s interest to so great a degree. Even the mud caked on her worn boots and the split seam on the inside of her jump-suited right thigh and the snarl of her hair seemed to add to, rather than detract from, the command in her presence.
“I need to talk to you alone,” she said.
RP looked around, to make sure Chaeron had not slipped behind him. “Me?”
“You, if my husband will permit it.” Her Consulese was awkward, strangely lilting.
“Hardly,” came Chaeron’s clipped reply, and Raphael Penrose began to feel uncomfortable.
“Then,” the girl continued, “get up from there! Never again will any of you even think—”
“Now, look here . . .”
“Shebat! I apologize, Rafe, for her—”
“You apologize for me? You importune! I—”
“Think I’ll go get something to eat,” interjected the redhead, and palmed the doors’ “open” mode.
No one heard her. Raphael Penrose was on his feet, halfway down the dais that separated the miniaturized control console from the main banks. Shebat Kerrion was halfway up into it. They halted, three feet apart. The girl’s nostrils flared and shivered, but her eyes were steady, full of coldest fire. “How would you feel, if you were me? If the Marada were yours?” she demanded in a fierce whisper.
Before he answered, he saw Chaeron, behind her, shaking his head slowly, to and fro. Trying to think what answer his employer might be counseling, he jammed his fists into his pockets, grinding them against his groin. The metallic stare demanded his reply. He said, honestly:
“I would not like it one bit. But I am a guild pilot; my oath is my bond . . .”
He stepped aside for her. She brushed past him, not sitting, but leaning down in anxious assessment of Marada’s arrayed displays. Still bent forward, she flashed eyes up to him once again in silent condemnation.
“By the Jesters’ nuts! I did not even fly this ship!”
“That,” said Shebat, taking time to swivel her head and include Chaeron in her indictment, “is what I was afraid of. Now, one of you tell me just who that woman is and why she is on board!” She straightened up.
“Who in the five eternities do you think you are?” RP exploded, as Chaeron gritted:
“I told you, Shebat, the Marada chose its pilot!” His forehead creased, ironed clear as he marshaled his temper. “The two of you stop this carping. We have a long trip ahead, long enough for everyone to be satisfied as to the motives of one another—”
Shebat Kerrion made a sound, half a snort of derision and half a sob, and sat abruptly on the console’s arm. “I do not need to see any more of him to know why he is here.”
“I am not going to listen to this,” said RP in measured fury, and strode toward the lock leading into the body of the ship.
“Rafe,” Chaeron sighed, “you had better stay here and work this out.”
The pilot spun on his heel, let his eyes rake the petulant child perched on the control central’s arm. “Del is here because when Chaeron asked me to take this cruiser out without wiping its memories, I consulted the damn thing’s data bank as to how it could be done. And Chaeron consulted the Jesters-know-how-many data pools and Kerrion computers, and everyone came up with the same answers: a Delphi programmer would not disturb the ship’s equilibrium or alter its modality. Anyone else would. If you had any right to the pilot’s rating Softa Spry made sure you received, you would know that every additional pilot melding with a ship changes it. As to why your husband is so anxious to retain this particular ship exactly and in every particular as it is . . . beyond the fact that there are certain inquiries being processed by the arbitrational guild to which this cruiser’s memories might be subpoenaed, I have no idea.
“Do you think I like this? Do you think I feel any better than you about that misfit, underqualified, over-glorified psychic doing my job while I play pocket pool?” Rafe pulled his hands out from hiding and spread them wide. “Honey, if you find out what is going on here, you tell me. I take orders, as best I can.”
“I imagine you do,” silked Shebat, voice rich with innuendo.
Chaeron, straight-faced, unmoving, watched his pilot storm from the Marada’s bridge, collide with the stocky apprentice in the corridor. The two exchanged barks like chance-met dogs before the lock came together with a susurrus that shut out all sound.
“Well,” said Chaeron after a lull broken only by tiny beeps and clicks and a whirr of cruiser-consolation, “this is going to be an unpleasant trip. Glad to have you back, my dear. Things were getting much too dull without you.”
An hour later Chaeron stepped out of the Marada’s negative ion generating equivalent of a shower to find Shebat curled, fully clothed but for her mud-caked boots, on the stateroom’s satin-covered bed. One boot, turned on its side, showed an inch-long hole worn through its sole, the source of the dirt that blackened the bottom of her foot.
“Ah, have we rethought our position, then? Are you here in remorse at your highhanded ill treatment of me and mine? If so, I assure you, I will be more than willing to accept your apology.” As he spoke, he moved toward her, putting on a sapphire robe and belting it tight.
“This is my cabin,” she reminded him. “And you have assigned your crew the other two. Where did you expect me to stay?”
“At your controls, from your attitude.” He sat cautiously on the foot of the bed, toeing her boots out of the way. “I hope you have calmed yourself. I am in no mood for more excitement, having just gotten rid of the stink of my fear.” With an exaggerated yawn, he lay back, his feet still on the teal-rugged floor, and stretched his arms above his head. “I am not cut out for rescues, no matter the desirability of the damsel in distress.” He turned his head toward her, his eyes level with her breasts. “If you love me, you’ll not put me to further tests. This sort of thing is not at all in my line.” Under his chiding rode a tenderness that made Shebat draw in her limbs, then sit up altogether, ending with legs and arms crossed protectively.
“Chaeron . . . it is true, I came here to talk with you . . . just talk.”
He grunted and rolled onto his stomach, folding his hands before him, then propping his chin on them. “I am all attention.”
“You are welcome.”
“No, truly. I was wrong about so many things. And I found I could not go back to being what I was . . .” She engaged his glance, searchingly.
He chuckled, a true humor that rippled his torso. “I found out something similar myself. Our marriage of convenience became something more somehow . . .” He shifted, cleared his throat. “I missed you,” he admitted.
“Chaeron, that is not what I—” Shebat was biting a dirty cuticle, which tore. She cursed in her native tongue and licked it.
“But you should know it,” he answered her, smug, in her own language, finally learned on this trip when he could think of nothing but her. “I am not, quite, what I was, or what I had hoped I might be. My father died without ever seeing me as I so wished someday he would. My brother has acceded to the consul generalship, for which he is not fit and which he covets not at all, while I—who can and should take that task in hand—am doing consul’s duties as his dupe. My mother yet grieves in her apartments over the loss of my little brother, Julian, despairing of my comfort. But of all my failures, my failure to stand up for you and cleave to you in your distress was the most galling. So now that I have redressed that wrong, I can look upon myself more kindly. Indeed, I may even sleep at night.” He reached out, took one of her hands, held it.
“Shebat, let me make amends.” He lapsed back into Consulese.
She followed: “Chaeron . . . I never realized.” With her cold hand in his warm one, and the sweet smell of him riding the air, she was uncomfortably conscious of her unwashed flesh and her tattered clothes. “I am sorry for the trouble, for browbeating your pilot. But everything happened so fast: yesterday I thought I would spend the rest of my life wandering the streets of New York with no escape possible . . .
“I knew that you would never hurt the Marada.” Her eyes were shining, whether with tears or something better he could not be sure.
“That was done as much to foil my brother Marada, who wanted very badly to see this cruiser wiped down clean and new as a baby, as in anticipation of your rescue. But there are many strange things said among the data pools, things I would like to discuss with you, some other time.” He let his eyes slide to either side.
Shebat remembered Chaeron’s skill as a programmer, and his reluctant caution as to where things should be said. If he wanted to talk to her about her cruiser, he would never do so on it. Doubtless, he was anxious to be back among them, his multiple data sources which he consulted twice hourly. The decipherment of the intelligence code provided the potential, but few had utilized and refined that potential to the extent of the young Kerrion heir before her. Her skin prickled, her mind chattering as it sensed danger and divisiveness come to call.
“I love this ship better than any man,” she cautioned aloud.
“All pilots are mad,” he teased, but let her hand go. Then he was up from the bed in one motion like the uncoiling of a spring, crossing to the storage area with its half-wall of mirrors. There, back to her, he let the robe drop.
There was to him a symmetry that made Shebat catch her breath, though she had seen him before—they had spent several nights as true man and wife, before being separated by partisanship and circumstance. Over the ripples of muscle along his spine was a subtle sheen, sign of the mil-thick, organic coating like a second skin the dwellers
on platforms manmade among the stars employed to keep them safe from sudden acute changes in air pressure, or the loss of pressure altogether in emergencies, or extremes of heat or cold, or temporary excesses of localized radiation or pollutants.
He reached up and released an electrostatic bond with the slide of his fingernail, and the suit which had covered him to his neck was soon a colorless glimmer on the floor. He bent down, retrieved it, and folded it, then rolled it, at last tucking it into a silver cylinder small enough to be enclosed in his fist.
Thus unclothed, he was still protected by mil, but a fine, molecules-dense spray of it with some of the properties of an osmotic molecular sieve: the mil-hood let out perspiration and let in oxygen in normal pressure and temperature range, but changed drastically in properties when subjected to vacuum and its attendant cold. How drastically mil could alter itself and its co-symbiote, the human being, only Julian Antigonus Kerrion, presumed dead by his family and forgetful of them all, knew in those days. It would be a long time, yet, before Shebat found out even that he lived.
Then, she was not concerned with the mil-suit or mil-hood, or Julian, except for what the shedding of the suit in flight was bound to mean.
Chaeron, suggesting softly that she had better have her mil-hooding redone as soon as they reached Draconis, came toward her, rampant.
She jumped from the bed as if the azure satin had turned to blazing coals and backed into the toilet, mumbling about her first bath in months.
When she emerged, he was nowhere in sight. Padding across the room, she picked up the mil-suit’s case. It was full. Putting the little cylinder back on the shelf, she rummaged for clean clothes. They should have had water. They had ambient water showers on Draconis. Kerrions could afford anything they wanted. She would have a water shower installed in Marada . . . that was what was missing.
But she was not fooling herself, as she took one of Chaeron’s cream uniform shirts and belted it around her with a scarlet scarf.
She went to the door, which hastened back out of her way. She backed up a step and it closed. She walked slowly over to the bed and sat at its foot, toying with her boots, putting her arm in one until her finger could poke through the hole.
Once, the boots had seemed magical: enchanter’s boots. And once, she had thought the voices coming from the walls of the cruisers were spirits’ voices. And once, she had believed in enchantments, potent sorceries most of all. While she felt that way, the Consortium and its dwellers among the stars had seemed numinous, an ululant paean to the powers of mind. While she had believed still in enchantments and mankind both, she had worked spells of power on those that she met. She had put “twelve coils binding” on Marada the man, for whom the cruiser had been named, to protect him from evils of the night. And on his younger brother, Chaeron, she had worked the same protective warding, before time in the halls of Kerrion space had convinced her that magic did not work very well in the company of logic, before she had sorted out science from superstition.
Though she had lost the power of belief while among Kerrions, the spells themselves had not given way. Though she had been diverted and her faith undermined by dream dancing and pilotry, the mighty coils of twelve had protected the two brothers from their enemies and from each other. Months back upon darkest Earth had reminded her of many things. In the streets of New York, the enchanters ruled. And though much that they did was done of science, things foreign to that science, things born of her own empiricism had helped Shebat through perilous days. She would not soon forget again that will can be eroded by doubt, or that expectation is the key to expertise in applying the powers of mind.
But the most powerful spells are those which come unbidden: those of love, and lust, and hate. All three of these, the Lords of Cosmic Jest had worked upon her in the matter of her husband. She loved, hated, and lusted for him—and hated herself for that last. She had given her heart to his older brother, though that one had no use for it. Having given, she would not take her gift back.
It was the cruiser Marada she turned to in her quandary, despite the danger of being eavesdropped upon with the other pilot and his apprentice there on board. It was the cruiser Marada who asked no tithe of flesh and submission, but simply loved her, mind to mind.
And she needed some love, now that Chaeron had gone to warmer arms, as was his wont. That was not her fault, she thought, and the cruiser agreed. One look at Raphael Penrose’s lithe body, at his chestnut curls and soft green eyes, had told her there was more than money between the pilot and his employer. Half of her anger had come from her assessment: she did not know how to deal with this facet of Chaeron’s personality; she told herself fiercely that she did not have to deal with it at all. Let him sleep where he would, with dogs and sheep—
But the Consortium had no dogs, no sheep—just people, millions upon millions of them, passengers on dancing, man-created worlds scattered over a multitude of stars.
Though she did care about Chaeron, she could not have named what it was that she felt. It was surely not the throat-drying, knee-quaking thing she felt when in his older brother’s presence. That one—
She pulled her thoughts away from Marada Kerrion, from the proscribed and amoral thing she had done to him while he slept on their voyage back to her island world of exile. She pulled her thoughts away from dream dancing, and from sorcery, and also from the cruiser’s comfort, and went and found Chaeron where he lay with his head on Raphael’s stomach.
Plumping herself down beside them to Chaeron’s soft greeting and RP’s sarcastic grin, she said:
“Husband, let us make clear between us the responsibility of each to the other, and the services due to whom by whom. It was more than love of me that brought you to Earth, and I owe you more in return.”
Then he chuckled, and reached up and pulled her down, saying, “That’s the girl I crossed half of space to find.”
And she found out some little bit more of arbitrational guild procedure, and the letter of the law, and the part Chaeron felt she could play in helping him assert his prerogatives in the matter of the division of their father’s estate.
Though she was wary of speaking so candidly before the pilot called Rafe, Chaeron was not. Though she listened to her husband’s words, she did not really understand all that was said of inheritance and legalese. When he had said everything he would say in questionable privacy of his needs and his plans, she queried him, hesitant as she often found herself when concerned with Kerrion family affairs:
“If we do these things that you have suggested, then can I have one thing as my reward, in addition to the Marada and my portfolio and whatever is mine already?”
The way she said it made him sit up, slit-eyed, reminding himself once more how quick was this alluring child.
“Slate?” he hazarded, half-sardonically and half in earnest, invoking that custom as he affirmed her intention to make sure that what was then spoken was agreed upon as binding by both parties and would be recorded and logged, first aboard ship and then in Kerrion central data pool, as a valid contract.
“Slate,” she confirmed, and the Marada, who missed nothing, clicked a silent relay into life, so that a permanent recording was taken of the following:
“If indeed you come to power, or our combined power makes it possible, you will cede me the planet Earth as my full and lawful holding, and without seeking any coregency will aid me in every particular and with all means at your disposal to make my homeworld free and prosperous and a full-sharing member in that society called ‘Kerrion space’!”
He shook his head in wonder at her perspicuity and the breadth of her demand. He took three deep breaths, mulling over what she had said and what it could come to mean. Then he said; “I so agree, in full, with the one clause appended: that you shall have the world— Earth—in life-estate or until you and I dissolve our marriage bond.”
It was Shebat’s turn to hesitate, to purse her lips and ponder. Then she giggled softly, and whispered: “I so agree. End, slate.”
RP exhaled hugely, buying back entry into their ken with a colorful curse having to do with the anatomical peculiarities of the Lords of Cosmic Jest, who control the degree to which the five eternities are amenable to the whims of man.
“Can I be queen,” he lisped in an exaggerated fashion, “when you two have finally decided which one of you is king?”
Chaeron punched RP only half playfully in his taut belly, so that the pilot gasped and doubled over and, when he could, took Chaeron’s neck in an ancient but yet potent wrestling hold.
Not one of them, scrabbling about in the Marada’s number two cabin, gave any thought to where the apprentice the pilots called “Delphi” might be, or to whether she was listening, or to what she might have made of these matters had she heard what was said.
In the Marada’s control room, Bernice Gomes sat unmoving, jaw propped on fist, only partially attentive. Shebat Kerrion’s dreams for Earth did not surprise her, as none of what had come to pass since she had boarded the Marada had surprised her. The last thing her Delphi group had determined before they had scattered to a dozen spaces to infiltrate authority where they might had been this:
The future lay in the melding of man with machine, and out of the bond between pilot and cruiser would the blueprint of tomorrow be formed.
She had disbanded her group, taking away with her one small advantage, and one nagging doubt. She had seen a face, superimposed among the curtain of stars, a face with deep, dark empty eyes. It was only her instinct for vendetta that had led her here, of all services open to her.
Today she understood her vision, and her triumph. There was one thing about her understanding which conflicted with her personal goals—one thing she did not like at all, but could not gainsay because what she had envisioned had come to pass:
She had seen the face of the future, and it was Shebat’s.
Marada the cruiser took note of all occurring within his hull. As closely as he surveilled local space did he keep watch over the humans in his care: the red-haired apprentice; the languid pilot, RP; Chaeron, the Kerrion consul; and at long last, Shebat!
Cruiser-thought deemed all humans who matched minds and melded skills with them “outboards.” Of all outboards, Marada desired only Shebat. Nowhere in any spacetime, or in the spongespace between spacetimes, could be found an outboard even remotely like her. But then, nowhere could be found another cruiser even remotely like the Marada. It was right, meet and fitting and symmetrical, that the girl who was a spongespace pilot and a dream dancer be once again at the helm of the cruiser who had become more than any other cruiser had ever been.
Toward that end the cruiser Marada had striven. And he had succeeded: he had reclaimed her, the outboard of his choice. He had lied, though cruisers before him had never lied; he had misrepresented his self-generated demand that she be rescued as her cry for help, though such a thing had never been done before: no cruiser had ever spoken what was not. But he had; and it had worked: Shebat sat at his command console, troubled but unharmed.
Shebat Kerrion was not yet eighteen years of age. She was tall as some men, an accomplished enchantress, a ratable pilot, master of the art of dreams. Her creamy complexion, shadowed by a froth of black curls, her piquant nose and mobile, gamine lips—all gave way before her eyes, eternal yet virginal, deep as space and glittering like vacuum-forged steel. Though Marada the cruiser was aware that he was prejudiced, he would have maintained staunchly that of all outboards his was the finest.
He thought she must be beautiful, since beauty was an attribute much praised by outboards, though he was not sure if the quality of her mind and the gentility of her perception would be designated by the men from whom he had learned thought itself as the nexus wherein her beauty resided.
She pouted, though there was no one else of flesh and blood with her on the bridge to raise an eyebrow at that habitual gesture—or to have caused it. Marada the cruiser watched carefully. The sentience of the cruiser had learned many things about his outboard of choice, and about outboards in general. He had learned to study closely the tiny tics and sly twistings of Shebat’s face, which spoke more loudly than words of her feelings. “Feelings” were not strange to Marada the cruiser, who had brooded long and darkly while it seemed Shebat was lost forever. He was the first of his class to reach self-awareness. Losing her and regaining her again had been contributory factors toward his achievement. On that journey toward selfhood, he had gained a great deal from watching the procession of other outboards passing through his locks. But—ah!–there was only one Shebat!
And she was not happy, although why that was, the cruiser did not know.
He had observed minutely what had transpired between the master pilot, the consul, and Shebat in his number two cabin, and was satisfied that no harm had been done to her there.
Yet she sat slumped, now biting her lip, sniffling occasionally in the miniaturized command central. Twice she had pounded her fist on her thigh.
“Shebat,” spoke the Marada directly to her mind, “the heat-seekers from Orrefors Earth will not reach us for twenty minutes yet, and we are well-equipped to destroy them long before their ETA.” He did not understand how she knew the missiles sought them; he had just confirmed their trajectories himself; he was only putting up their images on the visual scanners at this moment; he had not even decided to activate his “alert” mode. But she had known, she must have known, else what was wrong with her? “As for the manned pursuit, those three will not achieve a strike-window for forty . . . six minutes, and then only if we take no evasive action and maintain this cruising speed.” As he spoke to her, he sent “alert” screaming and blinking throughout his length.
“Marada,” she thought back to him, observing his cautions about using vocal mode while the apprentice and the other pilot were on board, “why did Chaeron think I called him for help?” She shifted irritably, palmed her eyes in the sudden crimson-pierced dark.
“You called me. I called him.”
“I heard you.”
“I love you,” she thought, and then broke into audible speech as Raphael Penrose, with Chaeron right behind him, skidded through the agile lock to stop abruptly, akimbo, head swiveling round the Marada’s displays: “Good evening, gentlemen. Nothing too serious. We just thought we would let you know the enchanters have been reduced to wielding common weaponry.”
Raphael, on his toes, slunk over to a radio-scanning bank, looking for all the world like a cat stalking a bird through the brush.
“Um, umm, umm!” Rafe smacked his lips. “Fun. You wouldn’t be so greedy as to refuse me a ticket to this shooting gallery?” As he spoke, he pulled up an optical sighter and flipped monitor modes and filters until the monitor became a targeting screen. Then he turned from it, leaning back on the console bumper, mock pleading on his ingenuous face. “Please, Mommy? You can have the pursuit ships. Just gimme these little birds and the back turret on manual.”
All the while he was talking, the angry emergency-lights were pulsing. As he finished, a blanched apprentice stomped in. Peering around, Gomes backed against the doors.
“Just a little diversionary entertainment, this,” said Raphael to his apprentice. “Stay out of the way and don’t ask questions. How about it, Shebat? Do I get some firepower or not?” His teeth shone pink and bright in the darkened cabin strobed with red.
“Chaeron?” deferred Shebat. Mimicking RP’s panache, she stretched widely, conscious of her husband’s worried scrutiny of the various displays showing disparate images of the little projectiles unerringly closing on them.
The consul’s one arm rested on the other at his waist, and his hand came up to tug at his lip. “No hail or challenge from them; their intent is clear enough. And their identity: the hostile Orrefors faction must be winning, today. Shebat, I have no choice. Because of their civil war, Earth space is closed to all traffic until the rebels are suppressed. Do you understand? We are here in secret, with no clearances or permission: illegally. This is no time for humanitarianism. We must destroy them, utterly. There can be no survivors to run home carrying tales.”
The Marada received Shebat’s command mentally and armed and released the back turret to Penrose’s control without Shebat having to alter her sprawl. The pilot turned his back to the bridge and his face into the optical targeter. His fingers flashed, came to rest on the bumper, clenched into its padding. His slim behind twitched, twitched, twitched again. Each wriggle was followed immediately by a grunt. Then a curse ripped from his throat and his fist pounded on the console. “Stupid bastard, I am . . . ah! . . . ahh!” And the twitch-and-grunt sequence began once more.
The Marada monitored the master pilot’s marksmanship, and Shebat’s rising pulse rate and body temperature, and Chaeron’s anxious, silent hovering by her side as well as Delphi’s heavy breathing and every minute shift of the apprentice’s eyes as she followed Rafe Penrose’s smallest movement.
Shebat reached out a clammy hand to Chaeron just as the first bitch straightened up, turned and, with a palm to the small of his back, said, “There should be thunder. The sound of the damn things exploding. The flash of it, too. Takes the fun out of it, this way. Next time, Shebat, see if you can’t get the Marada to add some special effects.” He stretched hugely, still grinning. “Your turn, Lady Pilot.”
Shebat inclined her head to her instruments, then wiggled until she could meet RP’s gaze. She still held Chaeron’s hand. “I make it another two minutes, fifteen before optimum destruct. And I do not think I will risk the auto-targeter, even if it is quicker. They are too far away and too close to their satellite arrays to be sure that—”
Then RP interrupted, gently. “Want me to do it? I should have let you have the unmanned missiles. I didn’t realize. Everybody has qualms about firing on somebody who has a body . . . the first time.” Penrose had been in the Shechem war.
Shebat pulled her fingers from Chaeron’s grip, chagrined. “It is not that—”
But the Marada knew that it was exactly that; he could see the reluctance to deal with death in her mind, or to ask the cruiser to fire on one of its own kind, on its own initiative. Hence her flimsy excuse that the cruiser’s aim might not be true, and innocent dwellers on habitational spheres injured thereby. The Marada had no doubt of his capability, or compunction about firing on outmoded, idiot Orrefors cruisers not even of the military class. Still . . .
He murmured to her, suggesting an alternative—rapid flight: he could outdistance them effortlessly.
But her thought testified that before the stocky apprentice and the first bitch pilot and her husband, she could not turn away from destruction, not even to save human life, not if her competency and proof of it were involved.
Shebat sighed and straightened up and leaned forward, watching the miniaturized displays before her, her lips pursed.
“Now,” she said. A great roaring clapped about their ears; from every screen, light dazzled forth. “Now! Now!”
Simulated explosions flashed on every monitor in diverse style, roared forth from Marada’s speakers. Raphael Penrose began to laugh.