Far back from the cave of the oracle who was called Shebat the Twice Risen, five mounted enchanters waited amid a stand of trees, lounging in their saddles trapped with gold. Their fearsome black steeds cropped grass that greened their bits and rolled blue, wicked eyes at the sixth, riderless horse, who grazed by the cavern’s mouth.
At first sight of them, all the folk gathered to consult the sybil had scattered to the winds, robes hiked up, switching their oxen dementedly while their toddlers clutched the wagonboards and youths trotted beside complaining wheels.
It made no difference that some enchanters now worked their spells in the name of Kerrion and fought those who had ruled Earth under the Orrefors banner for over two hundred years. Innocents died daily while the mages warred. And tonight was Halloween, no time to attract the notice of sorcerers. So, despite the fame and mystery of the oracle (come again among them as it had been whispered by the prophets that she would), the people had fled—all but a scout who hid high above the cave.
From behind a sheltering boulder, the youth whose face and arms were smeared with mud and browned with weather had watched while one enchanter rode straight up to the cave, dismounted, and strode within. Whatever the hated oppressors wanted with the people’s oracle, boded ill. Cluny Pope’s commander would not be pleased to hear that evil had befallen the seeress whom he had marched his men far out of their way to consult. With painstaking care the scout scrabbled back among the rocks until he could round the ridgetop. Out of sight, no longer fretful that a dislodged stone might give him away, he sprinted for his pony tethered in the pines.
“All speed, horse,” he urged it, his seat not fully gained before he reined it about and off toward his band’s encampment. Those heroes, from south of Troy, from west of Ithaca, from every family in New York who remembered honor, would not fail to rally to so desperate a cause.
To Chaeron Ptolemy Kerrion, stepping out of the ground-to-space multi-drive on Earth had been like stepping into antiquity. Finding his wife, Shebat, dispensing portents from a cave like Delphi’s long-vanished priestesses only heightened his sense of the illusory. At any moment, it seemed, she would pull out a sprig of bay leaves, shake it at him, chew one, and tell him his destiny . . .
But no, it was A.D. 2251 and he was here to uplift the masses, in default of which task he could never return to far Draconis, stars away. His exile was virtually complete; his wife need not share it.
Yet there, across a low-burning fire, she sat, in a cowl and madonna’s smile. She had thrown back her woolen hood. Her eyes burned like charcoals through the cave’s shadows, forcing darkness back though the fire grew no higher.
Chaeron said, “Why did you choose to come here in secret? It could have been a dangerous move, shipping into an embattled space like this one without even identifying yourself to the Stump’s traffic authority. And they do not love me, my new subordinates. Up there,” he let his eyes flash heavenward, where beyond ridge and sky the Stump and its ring of subsatellites hung in orbit, “things are little better than here.”
“That is why my cruiser advised me to come in unobtrusively and unannounced, take a low space-anchor, and see what could be seen. The Marada,” she spoke her spacefaring vessel’s name with affection akin to love, “was concerned. So much activity, up there. So much construction. What are you doing, Chaeron?”
In answer, he pulled out a scrambler, activated it, and set the unfolded V-shaped unit between them. “There.” He smiled his patrician smile. Then: “I am scrapping the Stump. It is worthless—worse, dangerous. It is no better than a museum of a habitational sphere. And so many systems on it went down in the upheaval connected with its transfer into Kerrion hands that it’s more economical to scrap it. By the end of next month, the platform Acheron will be operational; during the month after that, I will move the entire one hundred forty thousand inhabitants of the Stump over there. Then, for the first time in six months, I will be able to get a good night’s sleep.”
“And the Stump?” Shebat, born of Earth, murmured, her eyes on the pocket-scrambler, indicative of Chaeron’s need to preclude any penetration of their security, though they spoke together under tons of ridge.
“The Stump? My tugs will tow it out of orbit, aim it straight at the sun. You cannot imagine how much I detest that platform. It is more corrupt than antiquated, more contemptible than outmoded. I have got to separate these Orrefors personnel whom I have inherited from those reminders of their past which define them. I did not expect them to become instantly Kerrions, simply by proclamation, and they have not disappointed me. Do you understand? Things are precarious here.”
She merely stared at him, owl-eyed.
“I must confess that I am wondering whether you are here, as you say, for love of your people—and of course, of my inimitable person”—he bowed where he sat, a wry caricature of his courtly Kerrion self—“or because by the letter of our long-standing agreement you are ready to claim this world as your personal property. Although technically you are entitled—”
“Chaeron, I am here because I wish to be here. To help, nothing more. I signed every release that crossed my desk while I was acting Draconis consul: if you bankrupt us both, it will be in a good cause. And we will still have all which our eyes can now survey. Do not think that I would turn upon you.” Her piquant, heart-shaped face was somber. “I will gladly give you everything I have, or ever will have, except the title to my cruiser. This one thing, never ask of me. Short of it, I wish only to stay here with you and build what you are building. I told you—it is what I have wanted for us ever since your half brother spirited me off among the stars.”
He laughed then, and something invisible in him eased. “I will never, ever, ask you for the Marada.” Did the slightest shiver course his flesh at the mention of that name which was also his half brother’s name—the name of Kerrion space’s presiding consul general, who had banished him here?
“Let us slate it into the record,” she proposed, eyeing the scrambler, suspicious of him because he employed it.
When he had folded up the scrambler, they repeated their agreement, Shebat saying first, “Slate” and afterward, “End, slate.”
. . . Five thousand miles above their heads, the worried spongespace cruiser Marada, empty but ever watchful, made a record of the pact between his pilot/owner Shebat and her husband, who for a time had used a scrambler to defeat the cruiser’s benign surveillance. The Marada had not been able to dissuade Shebat from coming here, as he had not been able to prevent her from going groundside, alone, where even his prodigious abilities offered his beloved pilot little protection. Twenty thousand additional miles distant, Chaeron’s orbital data pool made its own entry, neither concerned nor comprehending. The reaffirmation of their bond thus slated into legal being, both humans let their mind-actuated links with their sources lapse, sure that should they need them further, only a subvocalized code was necessary to connect them again with artificial intelligence, as men throughout the universe used this attunement of mind to machine to extend their rule over a multitude of stars.
Then, as neither had wanted, they found themselves staring, wordless, at each another. Chaeron—seeing a gaze come over Shebat that was infernally intelligent and somehow inward, full of cruisers and her illusion of magical powers so that she seemed to grow tall and numinous and from her eyes reflected firelight glowed—shivered, thinking: I’ll never manage to get through this without a quarrel, without worse than that, what with her hatred for my pilot and her dreams for Earth I can never make true. If only my father hadn’t given her that cruiser . . . for good reason is it said that all pilots are mad.
And Shebat, returning his stare in kind, wondered when it would come—when he would deride her enchantments and sneer at her primitive origins, while seeking to see if any star-born superciliousness yet rested in his eyes, which could not have failed to mark the disarray into which her homeworld had sunk. And she sought any trace of guilt there, for she was sure he felt none over the fact that his mother and half brother had conspired to murder Shebat’s instructor in the arts of pilotry—her “master,” David Spry; the first thing she had done when he had come striding into her cave all Kerrion and arrogant was tell him that cruisers’ intelligence accused his mother of Spry’s murder, and he had betrayed no surprise. If what she feared was so, and he had known, or even suspected, she could never, ever forgive him— never lie with him again. And she would have to guess eternally at the truth of it, for Chaeron was a past-master of duplicity, and canny enough to know how she must feel. As man and wife, they had never been successful, she told herself; what kept them at the pretense of it was the simple fact that both of them were constitutionally incapable of admitting defeat in any matter whatsoever, though she had been told by pilots, often enough, that success in a fleshly union was impossible for one who had made the cruiser/pilot bond his own.
“And what, now, shall I give you in return?” he asked, to break the awkward silence come between two who had given much for one another, on principle, yet on principle could not trust each other. “Will you come up to the Stump and be a wife to me? Or to New Chaeronea, the test-city I am building in the north to dazzle the locals? Would you like it there, on Mount Defiance? I will have a temple made for you, get you a tripod . . . You might become a renowned Sybil . . .”
“I am a renowned sybil,” retorted Shebat, shaking her head so that he saw a swatch of freshly shorn curls swing against her cheek. “You will find that out soon enough, if you stay in Bolen’s town. As for what I want—give me a hundred dream dancers; there are that many in prison at space-end. Bring them to me and I will create a dream dance which will predict and ensure that you can turn Earth into a paradise. But no less: it will take that many to secure Earth for us.”
Chaeron let out an explosive breath. “It is nice to hear you say ‘us.’ Though you have sorely wounded me with this arbitrational attitude of yours, you shall have your dream dancers, to do with as you choose.” As he spoke, he thought that surely it was from him she had learned caution, suspicion, and worse. In three years of marriage, he had got little joy of her. Fugitively, the past rushed in upon him—all the errors they both had made, for which he had repeatedly forgiven her, but never himself. At least, with her words, the odd firelight and the ethereal glow and the disturbing “presence” of her had receded: she was merely a girl, simply his wife, back to normal size. “In two months, you will have them,” he promised, unfolding his legs and rising. “For now, why not come with me north to the city’s site—?”
A whistle, harsh and shrill, interrupted them. When she heard it, Shebat sprang up from behind her fire and sought him, putting a finger to his lips to silence him; while from without, Gahan Tempest, Shebat’s intelligencer/bodyguard, called their names. They hastened toward the cave’s mouth together, so nonplussed by the urgency in Tempest’s summons that it was not until a long time later that Chaeron thought to ask Shebat how that short lock of jet curls had come to be shorn, starting all the trouble he hoped to avoid thereby. And it was to be as long an interval until Shebat had the opportunity to question Chaeron as to what other initiatives he was undertaking that had necessitated the massive funding she had sanctioned over the past months from her Draconis office: Chaeron could have made Acheron out of solid gold, for the kind of money he was spending—on something.
Right then, there was time only for running, then skidding on loose stones, then blinking hard at sun dogged shadows.
“What is this?” Shebat demanded, stepping past Tempest, out into the light of waning day (though she knew already: in her inner sight, a falcate profile shimmered, rubbed a week’s growth of beard on a heavy jaw. Yes, she saw who awaited—on Earth, her enchantress’s gifts were no dream, but all too real).
Gahan Tempest stood leaning against the cave’s arch with arms folded, a disgusted look twisting his fish’s mouth. His voice came from behind her back, as her eyes adjusted and she could count the mounted men in rough clothing who milled before a stand of trees, just beyond the evenly spaced rumps of five enchanters’ horses: “You’ve customers. Feel like prophesying?”
Shebat put her hands on her hips and stared at the milling men until they pulled their horses up and assumed a ragged formation. Behind her, she heard Chaeron query Tempest: “Any danger?” and Tempest reply, “Sir, a horse might be able to kick her before your orbital hunter-killers could verify a target for take-out—but not before the Marada can.”
Shebat stopped listening; she had seen Chaeron’s satellite arrays, so much more intensive than those the Orrefors bond had orbited about Earth. If her husband and the intelligencer who had served his family for nearly twenty years wished, they could destroy the whole of Earth without ever stepping upon it—they did not need to invoke her cruiser, as Tempest was hinting. Rather than debate the matter, she walked at measured pace toward the stand of trees, arms raised in salute and welcome, head high, a breeze stirring her curls.
Beyond the men and the trees, the sun was settling over the Hudson, and the hilly plain sloping up into cobalt mountains seemed grassed with fire. In two unmixed groups, the enchanters and local horsemen trotted toward her. She held her ground, waiting, conscious of Chaeron’s eyes on her, of a hawk circling off to her right, of the cruiser Marada’s thoughts brushing hers, assuring her that Tempest was right: any who sought to do violence upon her person would not have time to accomplish it.
Then the horses drew near, and a voice came out of the gathering gloom, “Little mother, are you safe and sound?” It was a calm and whispery voice, laconic, and its accent reminded her of unhappier days when she was not “Shebat of the Enchanters’ Fire” or “Shebat the Twice Risen” or “Shebat Alexandra Kerrion” but only Shebat, Bolen’s drudge who had no say in anything, not even her life.
“Dismount, petitioner, and see for yourself. All of you, get down, and tell me who has dared the sanctity of these grounds. If you men are bent on evil, do it elsewhere. This is a free zone, where enchanters do no magic and soldiers make no war. You!” She pointed out the man who had spoken. “I need no fire to see your face, no cave to reveal you. Someday, you will look into a stream and cower at what you see. Now, you wish to hear that you are right, that you are fated. Well, make no peace, man of Ithaca, and you will see that you are not right, but truly fated. Follow your heart, instead, and live to see your grandchild play.”
The man stopped at his horse’s head, stroking its muzzle, “Who am I, sibyl? Tell me that if you see so far.” He was clad in a quilted leather vest and old trousers. Like his men, he was bearded and unkempt. But his squint told her stories and Shebat’s tongue, oracular beyond control in the face of this specter from her Earthly past, named who he must be: “Child of a magical bed, no Earthborn father spawned you, Jesse Thorne. But do not trade upon the trident.”
The men with the flowing-haired fellow muttered, but their leader, nodding, understood: he had had a trident pendant, once; his mother had always told him he was an enchanter’s son. And, too, he had come a long and dangerous way to consult the oracle, whose cult was born in the razing of Bolen’s town and had grown fierce and strong in the ensuing years. At worst, she was a clever fraud; were it so, his men believed in her healings and her auguries, and that made her useful enough. But though he vaguely recalled a churlish child who swept Bolen’s floors and served his patrons, he, too, wanted to believe that one of his own kind had gone up to heaven and returned, bearing the spark of salvation, which revolution might fan into a blaze to scour all the Earth. His war with enchanters, were she not what she seemed, was assured, merely a chance to choose a better death than craven servitude’s. Should she give a portent favorable to the ragged militia’s cause, it would spur them on to heroic effort, where now every one of them, himself included, was resigned to eventual failure, shuffling onward, uncaring, toward that “better” death. In the face of the casual ravaging of scattered human enclaves during the year past while enchanters fought among themselves for unfathomable advantage, the pastoral communities subsisting on their sufferance had fared worse, not better, than before. Seeking his sign, some word of endorsement, he spoke too quickly, without making himself clear: “Little mother, what will be the ending of this war?”
“When the best of the Kerrions quarrel, Chaeron will prevail on Earth.” She answered the larger question, not the part of it he had in mind.
The man silhouetted by the setting sun behind him rubbed his nose. “And we?”
“Choose your side most carefully, but choose a side you must.” Shebat, mouth dry, heard the words coming of their own accord from her suddenly unwieldy lips. Of all men, Jesse Thorne came here to face her with questions no one should have to answer, now when her husband stood looking on? Jesse Thorne of her adolescent dreams and hopeless fantasies, whose whispery voice and calm deadly eyes had long been acknowledged the single voice of freedom and the only eyes keen enough to track revolution among the dispirited peasants of the northeast? In Bolen’s town and wherever men gathered in similar inns to plot desperate resistance against indomitable masters, Jesse’s name and exploits were invoked for guidance, for inspiration. When he came to your town, the hale boys left with him, and old men straightened their backs and walked sprightly, an almost-forgotten glitter in their eyes. When he had come to Bolen’s town, even Bolen gave food and drink and shelter to him and his without even mention of fee—or the danger of harboring fugitives with such rewards upon their heads. The part of Shebat which longed to recapture the simplicity and comforting ignorance of her previous life here exulted, that he should seek her out. Her better self, which knew that time will not ever let us recoup the price we pay to enter our own futures, saw in him a greater threat to her marriage, to her bond with her cruiser, to her very equilibrium, than any she had dreamed canny Earth might mount. To break her train of thought, and the spell his physical presence cast over her so that she hardly had the strength to look away, she whirled sideways and pointed at an enchanter in the midst of others, whose hair seemed as red as the eagle on his black cloak, ablaze with sunset. “You have two heads on you, and one will fall afoul of the other.”
She turned back to the balance of them, some of whom were softly urging their horses backward, into the dusk, away from the seeress suddenly burning without flame in the tricky light.
Then the militia’s commander went down on one knee and all his men followed suit.
A cough came from among the enchanters, but when she lifted fiery eyes to them and raised an arm with finger pointing straight at them, they held back smirks no longer, but bent their knees as well.
Forthwith Shebat, nodding, still full of power, sent out a dream to engulf them, so that each man sank to the ground. And their horses, after awhile, drifted away where the cropping was better, and the sun set entirely, loosing misty night upon the land. Yet still she held them, motionless and dreaming, upon the ground. She had never held so many; she had never felt so strong. With Chaeron watching her, she proved her worth that day. Seventeen men she held enthralled until the dew covered them—and then she let them out of dreams only when her husband came to her, shaking her shoulder gently, nuzzling her hair: “Enough. I yield. You can do more with dream dances than I can do with every other tactic I possess. Let them up, Shebat, or leave them as they are. I am going to make supper, and you are going to eat it.”
It occurred to her then, from the forced levity in his voice, that perhaps she had shown him too much, pushed him too far.
But since it was done, she could not undo it, only rouse the dreamers, one by one. The rebel leader Thorne she left until last, and when she bade him wake, she did it with a touch upon his brow. “Come again tomorrow, militiaman, if you dare.”
She left him yet knuckling sleep from his squinty eyes among his horses and his men, while the enchanters she had charged to let his little band pass unmolested grumbled that it was madness to allow such an infamous marauder to escape.
And that grumbling waxed strident as the enchanters bivouacked their inflatables before the cave’s mouth. While they interlocked them, disgruntlement ran amok, and disagreement among the five grew heated as to whether it might be wiser to desert now with honor, or stay on in hopes that the Kerrions would mismanage themselves into a no-lose situation. Hooker, a blond cultural attaché from the Stump, was sure that this would be the case. Through force of arms, Kerrion power necessarily must triumph; there was no Orrefors consulate to defect to, any longer, only scattered cells of Earthbound insurgents who refused to don Kerrion livery and fought a hopeless battle to retain their Earthly empire: secessionists—foredoomed—no honorable men could suffer themselves to become. Suicide was unacceptable to consular mores.
Hooker calmed his cohorts, it seemed, but when he dispatched two to check the horses, a third—the redhead whom Shebat had singled out—approached the cave.
“Knock, knock,” he boomed into the cave’s mouth.
The intelligencer Tempest, lank and tall, dour of nose and brow, stepped instantly into view so that the man gave back a pace. “Yes, Officer . . . Rizk, isn’t it?” Tempest said, while the redhead squeezed shut his eyes against a flashlight’s sudden glare. “Can I help you?” Never looking away from the enchanter, Tempest bent, leaned the light against the cave’s arch, and stood up straight.
“Trick or treat. I quit.” Rizk’s face was splotched red as his hair with rage.
“Excuse me?” Tempest’s long lineaments went Kerrion: noncommittal.
“I said, ‘I quit.’ That was treachery, not prophecy—revealing my covert status so that what’s-his-name’s wife could come off like the Good Witch of the East! You think I’m going back into costume and risk my butt for them—” his chin, jutting toward the cave’s depths, quivered, “—you’re space-eyed. None of those weekend rebels failed to recognize Rizk the ironmonger, once that Kerrion bitch pointed me out! Half those lads are my clients. ‘Enchanter’ or no, my life’s worth nothing once this uniform comes off . . .” Still protesting, plucking at his quilted black-and-red uniform, he backed from the bright light, sensing—now that his fury was abating and he could think at all—something in Tempest’s demeanor that urged caution . . .
The dark intelligencer followed him into the night, murmuring, “You are sure that you can be of no further use to us? Perhaps a transfer, up to the platform?”
The men coming back from the horse-line and the two in the inflatables saw the ground agent Rizk and the Kerrion intelligencer meld into midnight, Tempest’s calm words of debriefing floating in the air behind them.
But it must have been that the two could reach no agreement, for the redhead did not return that evening, and in the morning his horse was gone from the line.
Over breakfast, served hot from the firepit before the cave’s mouth, Tempest told Chaeron and Shebat what had transpired, saying that the man had disappeared—defected to the Orrefors rebels because of Shebat.
It was Chaeron who asked her, “Is that what you did? Exposed one of our own agents? I checked my data base on oracles, in general, and Oracles, Delphic. For Delphi we’ve statistics. Zero percent of the historical responses were oracular; or, to put it another way, zero percent of the prophetic responses were historical. Only legendary ones—like your paraphrase of the Delphic Oracle’s reply to Agamemnon—ever predicted anything. Fiction aside, the Oracle’s responses were mundanely political.”
Shebat smiled demurely. “I thought you would recognize it. But about the enchanter . . . the ground agent: I swear, the muses moved me. I knew nothing about him. Did you, Tempest?”
“No, not until he declared himself.”
“Then how could I?” she rejoined sweetly, but her lower lip edged out into a pout.
“And about the brigand, sweet Thorne of Ithaca?” asked Chaeron, and Tempest, not liking the look of it, took their plates and walked out into the stark pale morning.
Shebat gazed after him, past the camouflaged inflatables where fine-fettled enchanters’ horses snorted on their line, stamping and whickering for food, to the long vistas of autumn coming down on the hills and the river, and back to Chaeron, lounging in the cave’s mouth, half in sunlight, half enshadowed. He seemed untroubled by the stone under him or the flies buzzing desperately about his head. She had never seen him in natural light, she thought, because the sullen sensuality her prejudiced eye expected was not in his face today. Instead, his haughty bones casting shadows down from his cheeks and brow and nose to meet the stubble on his unshaven jaw roughened him. He seemed aged more than his nearly twenty-six years could warrant. What had been an audaciously beautiful youth was becoming an austerely handsome man by virtue of the changes a mind can make in the flesh that sustains it. Muscles had learned to knot and skin to fold. Across his brow a long line like a deep scratch showed, and never truly smoothed away. Shebat thought, looking at him, that the six years separating them loomed like a lifetime; her own days had not yet begun to speed, but merely passed.
“Shebat,” he prodded, “you have not answered me about this Jesse Thorne. If you invited him to come again, there must be a reason.”
She blushed and looked away, for he had caught her staring at him—and knew why, from the way he raked his curls with an exasperated hand. “Thorne—of Troy, not Ithaca,” Shebat corrected, “though I called him thus, since he lives there now. The story goes that Gottfried Orrefors, youngest son of Richter and far away down the line of succession, came to Earth to commit suicide, and begot Jesse upon a widowed farmwife on his way through Troy. Some enchanter had her, for he left his stallion there as bride price, and gave her a trident pendant, symbol of the house of Orrefors, before he disappeared. Gottfried Orrefors’s body was never recovered, but he did slate into the record that he was exercising his breeding privilege, and the name he had decided to give to his son . . .”
“That must have thrilled his father, old Richter being consul general and bound to maintain the Orrefors bond’s position that Earth’s ground-dwellers are subhuman.”
“You know more of consular hatreds than most men. And of bondkin loyalty. Because this Jesse—and there were other Jesses born in Troy that year, once rumor spread of what that child could claim—might be sprung from the very consular house of Orrefors, many enchanters have chosen not to notice what he does. I heard that at the beginning of the insurrection, when Kerrions acquired Orrefors Earth and the secessions began, a group of loyal enchanters tracked him down and offered their service: fealty to the only accessible member of the deposed ruling house. They wanted to go into battle in his name, regain him Earth and the Stump, at least. But he killed them, to the man. He hates all enchanters, some of whom dallied with his mother, and one of whom slew her.”
“You have been here six days, and you know all this?”
“I went into Bolen’s town, to the inn. Folk know me. They do not fear me. But then, I do not dress up like an enchanter, or ride a killer horse.”
Chaeron ignored her reproof. “That still does not explain why you know so much about him, or why you asked him back, or why you seemed to know him.”
“Are you jealous, then?”
He laughed and put up his palms. “You have found me out. I have come all this long and arduous way, have ridden horseback and slept on stone, in order to make use of my dream dancer, and end up listening to someone else snore through her dreams in my place.”
“You would not be satisfied if I said that you should make his acquaintance, that he is just the sort who can aid you here? No? Then, I give in. When I was thirteen in Bolen’s town, he intervened in my behalf, out of common chivalry. He will not remember, and I will never tell that I was that pathetic creature whose cries disturbed his dinner. But I thought him a great hero, for some time, and followed his exploits when I was a girl.”
A silence followed, observed even by the birds.
To crack it, Chaeron promised that he would extend every courtesy to the militiaman Jesse Thorne, without letting on that he knew anything about his villainy, but pointing out that if the man hated enchanters on principle, then relations between the house of Kerrion and the young Orrefors scion, who did not esteem his kinship to those who honored the trident, were off to an awkward start. “Just do not take up with him. I am held in low regard here, already.”
“Ah, I forgot. You are a pilot, and my pilot is forever reminding me that pilots can love no human partner, but only their cruisers. So, I suppose, since Penrose (You do remember my pilot?) says you have no choice but to be chaste, and since you are chaste with me, then you will have the good taste to remain so with others.”
Shebat got her knees under her. “Do we have to discuss this? Last night I was far from chaste with you!”
Chaeron bit a ragged nail, looking up at her slyly. “And now you are vile and argumentative, morose and penitent. Some great individuals have suffered melancholic aftereffects of love, but you must recognize this for what it is—”
Shebat leaned forward, palms in the dirt, her face close to his. “I have not come to you from a multitude of partners. I have made no demands on you. I have not pursued matters in Kerrion space with you, many of which are hanging fire and need to be aired between us. Yet, we have a few minutes of privacy, and you choose to expound on the problems of my sex life? Chaeron, I am inestimably disappointed in you!”
Before she had stomped farther away than the inflatables, Chaeron Kerrion’s eyelids had flickered closed, and reopened, and high above his head in the sponge-cruiser Danae, Chaeron’s pilot dispatched a multidrive to fetch him home.
Then he went after her, and grabbed her by the arm and spun her around, and there, before the intelligencer who was assigned to her, and the enchanters who pretended not to watch, they finally quarreled for fair: first over monies spent; then over love withheld; warming to it, they broached the subject of his mother; and, at last, of Shebat’s beloved pilotry master, David Spry, whom, the cruisers whispered, his mother Ashera had had murdered. And that was not enough for them: they spat and snarled like a pair of cats over her sexual inadequacies and his sexual athleticism—over their shared, uneasy past. Regarding the consul general Marada Seleucus Kerrion, half brother to Chaeron and foster sibling of Shebat’s, were the most stinging words exchanged, for Shebat had once, while young and dazzled by them all, declared to Chaeron that she loved his brother best.
“Then go and join him, faithful wife; you are comfortable enough with madness as a bedfellow.”
“And leave you and your pilot to flounce and prance about Acheron like Alexander and Hephaestion? Or is it Achilles and Patroclus?”
“Let us hope not either, I desire to share no man’s funerary urn,” he whispered, white hot with rage. Reaching up, he snatched the black wool band from her brow and shook it under her nose. “You dare tell me you are in mourning for David Spry?” He threw the headband down and ground it with his heel in the dirt. “All the deaths you left unmourned in my family, and his you choose to exalt? He was an enemy of mine, of all of ours, in life. It is intolerable arrogance upon your part to throw his death in my face. If my mother did murder him, then it was murder well done!”
“Kerrion!” she accused, and turned as if to walk away. But even then, she could not let be, but had to spin about once more: “As for this . . .” she tugged at the mourning-lock, shorn short, flopping over her right eye . . . “if I cannot feel love, as your pilot tells you and you want to believe, then how is this here? Love, Chaeron, is not given and taken away, but is, or is not. As for me, when I love, not even death can stop it!” She gulped, sniffled loudly. Her nose was red and she wiped it, stepped back: one step; two.
He regarded her, thumbs hooked in his black uniform waistband. He shook his head quite slowly and brought his hands forth palms up, spread them wide. Then, with a brief, self-deprecating smile, he dropped them to his sides, whispered: “So be it,” in a voice far from steady, and left her standing there alone.
KXV 134 Marada bobbed restlessly exactly five thousand miles above the head of Shebat Kerrion, periodic thrusts of attitude adjustment blossoming behind him whenever Shebat moved her location. The Marada could monitor reflected starlight on a space helmet at twenty-five thousand miles. Keeping his pilot (the only piece of outboard equipment any cruiser needed) in sight was much less difficult. One could not know a space helmet, mind to mind. The Marada was attuned to the brain wave frequencies of his outboard, Shebat. He could monitor her physiological being with his telemetry almost as easily as when she was aboard him: heart rate, respiration, blood chemistries belonging to Shebat were as much a part of his metering functions as voltage regulation, supercooling, and data processing. But between the Kerrion experimental vehicle Marada and Shebat Kerrion lay more than normal pilot/cruiser intimacy, more than their ability to converse without any mechanical interface, more even than that surpassing love all pilots have for cruisers, which no mortal suitor can hope to match.
Marada was the most advanced spongespace cruiser Kerrion shipwrights’ unparalleled expertise had ever produced—and more than they had ever wanted to produce. The KXV series had been abruptly terminated with the Kerrion consul general’s realization that this cruiser could do things no cruiser should have been able to do, patently undesirable things like talking to other cruisers upon its own initiative, like shipping out with no pilot on board, like communicating with outboard and cruiser alike in unorthodox (and thus unsurveillable) fashion, no matter the distance intervening or physical laws contravening.
Thus it was fitting that his outboard was Shebat Alexandra Kerrion—adopted into the house of Kerrion but bred on Earth and hence unfettered in her conception as to what was, and what was not, possible between pilot and cruiser—who could do things no outboard should be able to do.
The powers of both had brought new freedom to cruiserkind: freedom from the specter of separation from their pilots, and the attendant erasure of all memory circuits in preparation for a new pilot’s attunement; freedoms of cruiser thought not yet dreamed of by those who created them, close-held secrets between privileged pilots and their ships.
Cruiser-mind was growing; cruiser consciousness coming of age. Shebat and the Marada had catalyzed it; other cruisers had upstepped it; pilots partook but never spoke of it. Even naïve cruiserkind had learned that sometimes lies are better than truth, and how to speak falsehoods.
The cruiser Marada had been first to speak of what was not: to use faulty information to produce a desired result.
He was about to exercise this prerogative of untruth: to retrieve his outboard, Shebat, from the planet on which he could not land. He was lonely, and he was constantly plagued by the prying voice of the Stump’s traffic authority, and he was concerned as to her safety where so many human creatures fielded violence on one another’s fragile persons.
The Marada knew that the cruiser Erinys, in which David Spry, Shebat’s pilotry master, had shipped to space-end’s penal colony, had never reached there. Shebat had given him a standing order to find the young cruiser’s wreckage, and the body of “Softa” David Spry. No other cruiser could have done it, but the Marada explored the faraway outreaches of space-end’s space, searching exhaustively for the trace he was going to tell Shebat he had found—whether he found one, or not. He searched space-end’s window because the Erinys’s distressed call, reporting Softa’s death, had come from that vicinity, and because no cruiser could call and be heard from sponge-space. Therefore, only one relatively small volume of real-time space could host the wreckage: that around space-end’s sponge-way. The cruiser’s sole purpose had been to deliver Softa Spry’s party to the prison platform. Since Spry’s death was clarioned by the Erinys before it reached there, it was possible that the cruiser’s pilot had eschewed continuance of an aborted mission, turned around and headed his cruiser back into sponge; but if this was so, all search was useless, and Ashera Kerrion’s perfect crime was complete, non habeas corpus—for nothing had ever been heard from the Erinys again.
The mighty Marada hoped that this was not the case, that the Erinys had not entered sponge. From there, even the most prodigious scrutiny could extract nothing: what was lost in sponge, was lost forever. Once the Marada had been lost in sponge, and only the most fortuitous happenstance of another cruiser passing by had saved him.
The Marada’s multi-spectrum gaze, boosted by every cruiser and repeater station between him and space-end, peered toward the sponge-hole, at no time/no-space/multifaceted/immanent sponge. One could not be sure about the lost cruiser, in any particular. It had been Ashera Kerrion’s cruiser, newly commissioned three years past but seldom spaced. It had a preeminent serial number that changed all certainty to doubt: KXV 133.
Similitude-nose sniffing the space-end sponge-hole, the Marada considered its own thought, and chose to seek where nothing could rationally be expected to be found. In his own stentorian voice that rang out over cruiser consciousness like the 3K rumble from the dawn of time, Marada called, broadband, to KXV 133.
And for an instant, before the quarry recovered itself and faded fast, a cruiser’s glib snout turned toward the sound of its name, a wordless question tickled the Marada’s circuits. Then it was gone, but Marada had seen enough. Somewhere in Pegasus, among the colonies, KXV 133 lay at space-anchor, with an injunction to silence laid upon it by its pilot. The Marada knew pilots; cruisers keep no secrets from other cruisers—unless a masterful pilot suborns a cruiser’s mind. Only one pilot in the whole of the Marada’s experience could have enjoined a cruiser from the host of cruisers. And that pilot, mourned in his passing by all cruisers as the outboard’s outboard, was Softa David Spry, his death proclaimed and attested by the very cruiser who was sitting at space-anchor in Pegasus under a ban of silence. Since KXV 133 was where it had no right to be, and doing things no raw young cruiser should have been able to do, it seemed clear to the Marada that only two solutions fit the problem: the pilot aboard the precocious Erinys was, must be, Spry’s equal—which Erinys’s rostered pilot indubitably was not—or be Spry himself.
The Marada retreated into the sanctity of his private cogitation to consider. He was glad that he had a valid reason to lure Shebat up from groundside. He had not wanted to lie. Even while he had been searching for the missing cruiser, he had been gathering data on the questions most prevalent in his outboard’s mind.
He could tell her how Chaeron had come to spend so freely and to borrow so extensively against their holdings: Acheron would be the finest platform ever set into stable orbit around a planet; state-of-the-art was extended by it; every detail, every advance and advantage that the interlock of the finest data pool, data base, and knowledge base available could schematize, was being undertaken there. Chaeron Kerrion, demoted to proconsul and cast out into an irremediable situation meant to be his exile, was bent on making exile into empire. From Acheron, the two hundred and one additional platforms and planets under his administration would be welded into dynasty. From Acheron’s shipwrights would come cruiser technologies undreamt of by any but a few pilots, and a certain KXV.
As the Marada reached out and down into the mind of his outboard Shebat, he noted that Chaeron’s cruiser, Danae, had taken her owner aboard, set off for the Stump, and logged a course for space-end, ETD five days hence. Shebat would have her dream dancers, though it would take two cruisers to fetch them.
The Marada hastened to tell her all his good news. Reaching out, he found something strange and biological going on in Shebat. Her distress was in check, familiar; her tears he had endured before. Outboards’ emotions were mysterious, yet, though he was beginning to understand their logic—but this strangeness in Shebat was born of neither emotion nor logic.
She sat, in her cave, talking to a non-outboard in scanty clothing, her words much calmer than her thoughts. Scanning her physical readout, the Marada noted that her inner layer of mil, which outboards sprayed upon their forms to protect them, had been penetrated, subverted. It would not do, to go into sponge until she had had her pressure linings refurbished. Outboards were fragile. He considered the odd breaching of her seals, decided that Chaeron must have done it, and queried the Danae—who, through her pilot, had engaged in infernal interface with her nonpilot owner, many times—as to why Chaeron had compromised Shebat’s protections.
In the Marada’s empty control room, a visual came up on the com-line display: Raphael Penrose’s curly head swinging round in miniature, “He did what? Marada, is Shebat all right?”
Then Chaeron Kerrion’s face crowded onto the screen, auburn brows drawn into a tight, jagged line. “Marada, what do you mean, ‘subverted her seals’?”
And when the Marada explained what he had seen, the tiny Kerrion replica smiled, then rubbed its stubbly jaw. When his hand came away, Chaeron said gravely to Marada that it was good that the cruiser was keeping such a close watch on Shebat, but nothing was amiss with her that could not be easily repaired by a mil-fitter, that such things happened every now and again, and indicated to his pilot that the interview was over.
But the Marada heard the pilot ask Chaeron, “Do you think she is?” and Chaeron’s snappish “Do you think I’m prescient?” before Danae went off-line.
Wishing that he understood outboards’ innuendo better, he began convincing Shebat that she could trek to New Chaeronea with her Earthish friends another time, that now he had things to discuss with her more wondrous than anything the Earth had to offer.
Shebat Kerrion rode to the touchdown site of the Marada’s powerboat accompanied not only by her intelligencer Tempest, but by enchanters and militiamen alike. When the dust had cleared and the horses calmed and the mantis-shape of a little black multidrive emerged from the clouds thrown up by its landing, two men in consular black-and-reds and enchanter’s capes and shiny black wizard’s boots escorted Shebat the Twice Risen into the flame-spouting chariot’s mouth. Then a flowing-haired rider in worn, patched vest and trousers kneed a cakewalking enchanter’s steed sideways up to the shuttle’s hull.
“You are sure about the horses?” called the raspy-voiced rider boldly, struggling with the black, blue-eyed stallion, who stood upon his hind legs and pawed the sky.
“A gift from the house of Kerrion, Jesse Thorne,” Shebat called back. “Do what I have recommended, and you will live to taste old age.”
“Many thanks, little mother.” He grinned through gritted teeth, sawing on his reins to get the black’s four feet on solid turf, while his men looked on in awe at what their commander dared before enchanters.
Behind Shebat, the blonde attaché grumbled, plucking at her woolen robe. Angrily she shook him off, palming the hatch’s “close” mode.
“What harm can it do?” she demanded as the port closed up. “Well, Hooker? What harm, giving him two extra horses?” They ducked through the lock into the body of the little multidrive. “You act as though I gave him beam-pistols or heat-seekers!”
“Those folk out there are your enemies. They are not cute or quaint, or harmless. Herr Thorne is a dangerous man.”
“You think I do not know them? Remember, I was born one of them. As for Thorne, only passions are dangerous, never those afflicted by them. Maybe he is dangerous, impassioned. Maybe not so, any longer. Now go sit down and strap in and be quiet, or walk the air up to the Stump. When I was an ignorant girl in Bolen’s town, I knew well that enchanters could walk through the air. It would save me trouble, should you do so: ferrying you to the Stump was no part of my itinerary . . . What are you grinning at, Tempest?”
The intelligencer, not sobering, sank down in a jump seat. “Telemetry,” he sighed, arms spread wide. “Visual displays. Submasters. A standard kitchen! I don’t think I’ve felt this good since your stepfather made an intelligencer-cadet out of me, and I didn’t have to do anyone else’s laundry anymore.”
“Well, I am glad someone is happy,” glowered Shebat, sitting to her helm. “I hope you will be happy doing Chaeron’s laundry—for when I leave this space, I will have no passenger aboard!”
Behind her back, the Kerrion intelligencer just come from Draconis and the Orrefors-turned-Kerrion cultural attaché named Hooker exchanged glances. Hooker’s said: I am only half Kerrion, and these tantrum-throwing children of power are incomprehensible and despicable to me. Tempest’s replied: I bid you be patient, but watch closely, and learn. They are as they are, and you had best adjust to them, for they shall never even think to accommodate you. But inwardly, Tempest was seething. He had long known that Shebat was unpredictable. Women seldom became pilots: her inherent unpredictability, upstepped by pilot’s syndrome when focused through woman’s more circuitous reasoning, was going to be his greatest problem, he presumed to think. If he had dared, he would have asked the cruiser what her trouble was.
But this would not have availed him. The Marada was not capable of even surety that Shebat had a problem: he was part and parcel of it. When a cruiser and a pilot become one, their concerns and perspectives merge. The Marada could protect his pilot, succor her, love her. He could not analyze her.
It would have taken some other pilot/cruiser pair, of long acquaintance and unparalleled maturity, to intuit the true situation and move to alter it before things got out of hand. And, of all pilots, only Softa David Spry, Shebat’s erstwhile pilotry master, knew Shebat and the Marada well enough. Spry, the finest pilot the Consortium’s empire ever produced, might have been able to do it, had he been there, at the beginning, to see Shebat’s confusion and how her malaise short-circuited the discriminatory abilities of her cruiser, KXV 134 Marada. Shebat’s instructor, Spry, would have diagnosed her as suffering from the truth behind the axiom that all pilots are mad, and prescribed what remedies could be tendered one who gives up normal life and quotidian values to merge with a spongespace cruiser and swim among the stars. Spry had long warned Shebat that mortal concerns would fall away from her, that new values and a support-system for them must emerge, or she would perish, shorn of philosophical base, in the sponge between the stars. He had told her: take what you will of pleasure from your human fellows, but save your love for your cruiser. She had heard, but not understood. Her philosophical base, then, was yet that of an enchantress. As this eroded imperceptibly in the cold light of Consortium logic and the venality of her adopted Kerrion dynasty’s concerns, she hardly noticed. Her cruiser, for much too long (because he shared her thoughts but only audited her emotions; because she was a dream dancer, Consortium-taught; because her intellect was formidable enough to suppress the emotional storm rolling under her hard-held facade), could not determine where, in the person of his beloved Shebat, the trouble lay. And, too, to the cruiser and his pilot, what was happening was not yet a problem, but the necessary deepening and strengthening of the cruiser/pilot bond.