Extract from Operational
Orders to Madam-Captain Bentine, Link-Ship William Goat.
... you are therefore directed and required to
ensure at any cost the safe arrival of Major Leopold Orsini and his
charges at the designated area on Gathol.
FOURTHLY, the Temple has requested, and the Minister has agreed, that
one Sik'r Born Smallhorn, Sealed to the Goddess, should accompany you,
and consistent with Ship Standing Orders you are to provide him with
the fullest cooperation.
FINALLY, it is understood by the Minister that this may necessitate the
risk of capture of your ship. He has requested and obtained from the
Temple, and I hereby transmit to you permission, as Servant to the
Goddess in right of your command, to complete the Ritual for your
passengers, your crew members and yourself at such time and in such
manner as you in your sole judgment see fit.
L. C. Benoit
Office of the Admiralty
Attached note from Operations Commander
Rear-Admiral The Honorable Dame Carruthers-N'Gombi.
My Dear Piggy,
It has just been confirmed that the Imperial Fleet has installed, in at
least a few ships, a tracking device effective in Shift-Space, and all
our ships are grounded indefinitely. I've been as high as the Minister
to keep you down too but the old fool as much as told me he was under
The crew room at
Staging Post Gamma-Three was small, with walls and ceiling the
iridescent green of the rough cut local rock. The floor had been coated
with plastic to give a smoother surface, but an irregular half was a
darker green than the walls, and the remainder, possibly a thrifty use
of leftovers, two shades of blue and, at the ship-tunnel door, a splash
Jo Crane lifted
his eyes from the floor. Gruesome!' he commented.
disposed to argue the point.
O'Hara, the Drive
Engineer, shifted from one lean buttock to the other. His hand
stretched out automatically but the accustomed glass was absent, and he
swore gently and without much conviction. The Madam-Captain was
seated on the largest chair in the room, her incongruously tiny feet
square on the floor, and her head still bent over the two flimsy sheets
of Orders and the note she had clipped to them after reading both:
this, thought Crane uneasily, at least ten minutes before.
His eyes wandered to
where one of the twins lounged on an obsolete acceleration couch, rough
welded to a supporting frame of water piping. As he looked, her
eyes opened and she regarded him gravely. Emilie, from her perch on the
table, arms folded around legs and chin on knees, turned her eyes on
him at the same moment, and he realized that they, too, had been
watching the captain.
deepened; the twins had an uncanny instinct for trouble. He
thought with exasperation that the talent would be more useful if their
idea of trouble did not range from death and disaster to any threat to
their cat-like love of comfort. All at once the quiet in the room
became unbearable, but he had to clear his throat before he spoke.
'I don't expect luxury in a staging post, but I don't expect to be
left on hold indefinitely either. How much longer do they expect
us to swelter in here?'
The Captain glanced
absently at the instrument panel above the decontamination chamber
lock. 'Fifteen minutes at the most, they brought the charge to
peak at l8.40. They have to lift at l9.10 or leak the charge, half an
hour's the outside limit, you know that, Jo.' Her mind was
still concentrated on the orders.
'Well, certainly I know that. But I have never known them to hold at
peak for more than the few minutes it takes us to scramble from here to
the ship and they begrudge every minute of that.' Crane was
becoming more nervous the more he talked. 'It's begging for a
Fleet Cruiser to pick us up before we can Shift. Why are we holding
anyway?' He was struck by a horrible suspicion and his voice
rose. 'We're not carrying dead-weight, are we, for a drop?'
The Captain looked up
at last and smiled at him. 'Now, Jo,' she said soothingly,
'we've made drops before, that's what we're for, Jo.'
Crane got slowly
to his feet, his stomach heaving. 'It took us three days to
get back in, last time, from a routine peep and run. Briefing said no
more drop missions till the Fleet reinforcements were called off.'
Then he said in relief 'Is that it? They've been recalled?'
His voice tailed away as the Captain shook her head regretfully.
He sat down again and put his head in his hands.
O'Hara eased his chair down to a firmer base and set his feet on the
floor. In a carefully neutral voice he asked, 'Where, Ma'am?'
Crane lifted his head
and stared at her. 'First?' He repeated in outrage, 'First?'
at him silently, the surface of her body breaking into ripples and
eddies, a phenomenon which Crane still viewed with awe despite his
It was indeed
sweltering in the crew room which was sealed off from the rest of the
Staging Post by the multiple locks of the decontamination chambers, and
served, not very efficiently, by its own ventilating system. As
Crane had pointed out, it was only intended for use while the crew
filtered through decontamination, and prepared to pass up through the
long shaft that was the umbilical cord linking the deeply buried
Staging Post to the ship. No-one liked the system, but Staging
Posts had a low life expectancy so they inclined to be makeshift
affairs in all but the absolute essentials.
chambers were a luxury the crew would have been happy to do without,
particularly the last one, the deep-deek, which for an endless moment
churned everything under the skin into a soft jelly. It left
Crane, in particular, sick and shaken and was a poor preparation for
the passage from the comparative safety of the buried Post to the
unknown dangers awaiting him.
object was to provide a reasonably safe alternative to the long
quarantine period that had previously been necessary for ship crews
returning from unsurveyed worlds. However, they worked both ways, for
Earth organisms could be lethal too. The Goddess, and those who
served her, were tender to life in all its shapes, though little
concerned with individuals and not at all with their comfort.
The Captain glanced
again at the clock, and turned in her chair, so that she could see all
four of the crew. Like the others, she had stripped to go through
decontamination, and her enormous body glistened with
perspiration. She was grossly fat, but that it was a wrestler's
fat and overlaid a sheath of formidable muscle was apparent from her
sure and controlled movements.
Like the others,
also, with the exception of Crane who was stubborn in small matters,
all her body hair had been removed, and all from her head except for a
swath starting high on her forehead and falling like a horse's mane
below her shoulders, a fashion that had become a tradition with
side-effect of repeated deep-deek exposures turned hair the blue
shadowed white of snow in moonlight, it was as much a badge of office
as the ruby glowing between her eyes. This was the only visible
sign of the implanted network that let the crew link minds directly
with the ship's computer system, and gave them their single advantage
over the better equipped ships of the Imperial Fleet.
'You'd get this when we link anyway, but if I let you have it now,
maybe Jo can go off and vomit and we'll all feel better.' She
was often coarse, but this was a simple statement of fact. 'First
drop is on Gathol, a com. es. major, and the three Gans Charley Horse
brought in last year. You went down in the Tender with them,
didn't you, Emilie?'
Julie talked for both when words were needed.
'Where next the Goddess knows, but one of Her Sealed is coming along
to tell us. Judging by the other Servants we've carried he'll
want a drop into the Throne Room of the Palace on Tios.' She
glanced sideways at Crane. 'But I wouldn't worry about that,
Jo. You've heard the rumors about the Fleet having a Shift Space
tracer? Well, they're not rumors so we'll need a miracle to get even as
far as Gathol, and I've never heard that the Goddess deals much in
miracles.' She folded her hands over her great belly, and
looked at them kindly.
There was a moment of
stunned silence, and then Julie began to recite, in her husky, resonant
voice, the Out-Fleet litany.
This was the work of
many dedicated hands, and had grown and been polished over many
years. It began with an improbable but obscenely detailed
description of the conception of the Minister of External Affairs, and
continued with an analysis in depth of that staid bureaucrat that
ascribed to him every unnatural vice practiced or imagined on all the
human and alien worlds. It was a work of art, and Crane felt
obscurely comforted when she had finished.
'Very nice, honey,' said the Captain approvingly 'Where did
you pick up that new verse? Someone's got one hell of an imagination.'
Julie and Emilie
looked at each other and giggled.
'I don't believe it' She was intrigued. 'Anyway,
to be fair to the old bastard, I think the Temple forced his hand on
this one. At least, that's the word from Queenie N'Gombi.'
She looked at Crane
with concern. 'I wish you could go off and be sick and get it
over with Jo. We'll have to scramble quick, once the dead-weight
Crane shook his head
and spoke thickly. 'We're finished. If the Fleet don't get us
before we Shift, they'll catch us on the drop for sure.'
O'Hara looked up from
an absorbed contemplation of his bony knees. 'He's right,
Ma'am. If that Fleet tracer works, we won't get time to orbit for a
drop before they hit us.'
'Only one thing we might try - Jo, how far into the Gathol system
could we go in Shift without being sure of bursting the bubble as we
come out? I know one system diameter is standard safety practice,
but what leeway does that give?'
'Nobody knows for sure; we still don't know enough about Shift Space
to make even a reasonable guess. The Gathol system's low density
but -' He had obviously thought about this before, he made a
good second-in-command because of his settled conviction that the worst
would always happen sooner or later, '- Even if we were in
completely unstressed Shift Space, we certainly couldn't get closer
than the orbit of Tiryns, that's fifth from the sun. If you want
to commit suicide that would be sure enough.'
'You can't call it suicide when no-one knows where ships that burst
the bubble go,' said the Captain reasonably. 'We know what
will happen if the Fleet catch up with Billy Goat. I'll have to
press that little Finally button, and it won't be any consolation to
you, Jo, to get the Ritual first. Fact is, it won't be to any of
us or we wouldn't be here. Julie and Emilie may have been devout little
handmaidens once but they've backslid a long way since then. The
Goddess I follow is not She whom the Temple preach, nor is O'Hara's.'
O'Hara had relaxed
again in his chair and, grinning, whistled a little lilting tune
through his teeth.
'Just so,' said the Captain. 'As for you, Jo, if you believe
in anything but Jo Crane and his delicate belly, you've never let it
through the Link.'
Crane looked at her
morosely but said nothing.
'Allright, then. I can't see a Fleet Cruiser breaking standard
procedure, even if their tracer is able to show them how far we're
going in on shift, which seems unlikely. That should give us a
big enough lead in normal space to make our drop, at least, and maybe
even get far enough out to Shift again. We can't work out the
details, or make a final decision, until we're Linked, but think about
it. You especially, Jo, you've got to make your mind up how far
we should risk going.' She chuckled. 'Just decide
which scares you more, the button or the Bubble.'
'Stop teasing Jo, Ma'am,' said Julie reproachfully. She
swung off the couch to her feet, stretched and yawned. 'I wish
- ' She broke off, her attention caught by a light flashing
on the instrument panel. 'They're coming through.'
As she spoke, her
sister, her back to the panel, pointed to the Ship-Tunnel door, which
had opened automatically, and at the same moment the hysterical whoop
of the scramble siren filled the room.
O'Hara was on his
feet instantly, and on his way to the tunnel with Julie and Emilie just
behind him. The Captain too was on her feet, but paused to speak
to Crane. 'You wait and hurry them through, Jo. When you
have them tucked up, climb in a tank yourself, we'll manage without you
on the lift.'
Crane nodded, trying
to control his heaving stomach, deep in his own little personal hell of
flashing lights and mind twisting noise. He had forgotten, as
each time he forgot, consciously, the sickness of this moment.
I have been favored by
(may the Other turn Her face.)
I was born in a northern town,
on the shore of a great inland lake.
First there, then on the Island Temple,
and now here, my life has been linked
to the source of all life; through my ears,
the small, contented murmur of placid
waters, the thunder of storm seas crashing
on the island cliffs; through my eyes,
as the dawn light woke
to stretch and shiver on a dark lakeshore;
through my blood's pulse,
quieting beside this tideless sea.
From the Testament of Sik'r Born Smallhorn, awaiting ritual execution at
Tios in the six hundred and sixty second year of the Grace.
'Jo! Jo, we're going to Shift. Wake up,
Jo.' Crane swam up from a deep pit and opened his eyes.
Julie, who had been bending over him in concern, pantomimed relief
expressively and turned her head to call 'He's all right Ma'am. He's
coming out of it now.'
The Captain's voice,
though not obviously distorted by the speaker system was somehow
remote. 'Can you get him up and into the Link?'
'I don't know, I'll try,' replied
Julie. 'Come on, Jo, upsydaisy.' She slipped a wiry
arm under his shoulders and pulled him upright with an effort.
She had found time to put on the brief wrap-over kilt that was the
ship-board uniform for all of them except the Captain and had one in
her hand for Crane.
She was small and
slender, with skin a warm brown that in sunlight glowed red. Her
very full lips and the nipples of her small round breasts were a dusky
pink, very light in contrast. Her face was mobile, changing constantly
with her moods, and her eyes, which tilted oddly upwards to follow the
lift of her brows had huge hypnotic pupils. The silver mane from
the crown of her head to her waist, and the ruby between her eyes,
accented a barbaric quality that fitted her well; she and her sister
were cheerful pagans who had no place on the dedicated world of the
They had been
completely happy on their Reservation, but were lost when they had to
leave, unlike the other teens who returned to settle contentedly into
the sober adult world and in later life remembered the two years of
unrestricted liberty only with a tolerant smile. The faith that made
life a full and satisfying thing for the great mass of people on Earth
and Mars was meaningless to them. They drifted aimlessly for a while
until they found that somehow they had gravitated into the Outfleet.
Supporting Crane with
one arm, she managed to wrap the kilt around his waist, one layer of
fabric clinging to the other as they touched. 'There!' she
said, panting a little, 'Now, come on Jo, the harder you try the
sooner you'll be in the Link, and then you'll be all right, you always
Leaning on her, Crane
took a few fumbling steps. Then, as the haze of the Tank began to
clear, with memory, panic struck him. He felt a desperate urge to
reach the Link so that his sickness and fear could be dissipated among
the other minds of the Link, and the impersonal, yet somehow friendly,
intricacies of the ship's circuits. He broke into a shambling
run, but his legs gave under him, and he fell, pulling Julie with
him. She cracked her elbow against the floor as she went down
with an awkward twist, trying to ease Crane's fall, and began to talk
to herself earnestly.
'I'm sending Emilie down to help.' The Captain's voice was
amused. 'Jo doesn't sound too good.'
'I've never seen him this bad.' Julie grunted the words,
exerting all her strength to lift Crane, who had gone completely limp,
though his eyes were still open. 'You should have waited till
he could join the Link before lifting, the tank only makes him feel
worse when he comes out.'
She sounded and was
worried. Although all of the crew experienced some malaise at the
beginning of each mission, Jo's mental disturbance was so much outside
her own experience that she was incapable of understanding it.
She felt it and disliked it, and was not looking forward with pleasure
to the first few minutes after he joined the Link.
'Julie, while you're waiting for Emilie, get that Sik'r fellow and
the Major out of the tank. Leave the Gans in, you might have trouble
with them if Orsini is slow in recovering. And stop worrying
about Jo, he's tougher than he looks.'
Julie mouthed an
obscenity in the general direction of the Control Room, but eased Crane
back on the floor obediently. The tank was in fact two
separate pods, one attached to either side of the lower rear quarter
section of the ship. Each was nested partly into a separate
sealed compartment and formed one of its walls. They were
designed to be dropped from a close orbit, and had a simple power unit
and automatic guidance system that was enough to set them down on a
planet's surface without damage to their occupants, who were drugged
and floated in shock-absorbent containers during the trip.
The crew found them
convenient for keeping the deadweight out of the way during liftoff or
in action. If they were feeling particularly unsociable,
passengers were quite liable to be hurried into the tank at a Staging
Post, and to wake from it alone under an alien sky; a traumatic
experience which Operations tried hard to discourage.
Julie went over to
the bulging tank wall and switched the scanning screen on again, to
confirm her first glance when she pulled Crane out that only two of the
remaining places were occupied, and although the screen gave its usual
blurred picture, both by humans. She pulled down two numbered
switches in succession and waited patiently. She knew that Emilie
had come into the room and stopped to bend over Crane, but words were
unnecessary between these two; the rapport common between identical
twins had been
reinforced by long periods of duty in the Link.
She heard the locks
in the inner wall roll up, and then as the outer locks went up also,
the two couches slid out onto the floor and the locks closed behind
them. She had checked the medi-gauges on the main panel earlier
and now gave a cursory glance at the duplicate panels on the couches
when she was startled to hear Emilie speak, only one word, but even
that indicated a rare emotional disturbance.
'Link!' It conveyed a world of astonishment and disbelief.
There was nothing odd
about the Major except that she was a very young girl, by far too young
to have left the Reservations and spent enough time in training to
become an officer in the Communications Service. Julie thought,
looking at the slight body, that even allowing for the luminous
fragility that a few generations under the domes of Mars gave to its
women, she could not be more than sixteen. But that was a minor
puzzle. As she looked more closely at the man she experienced the
same emotions that had shaken her sister.
The Link-ship crews
made up a small and intimate body. Even if they had not served
together, and acquired the intimate tie that was inevitable once they
had been Linked, each one knew all the others and knew also that in one
way or another they were apart from the rest of their race. They
guarded their peculiar status jealously and took a perverse pride in it.
Julie and Emilie had
merely been amused when, on a recent leave, they had found that the
latest fad of some of the younger gangs on the Reservations was for
hair cut and dyed in a copy of the Out-fleet fashion. What the
teens did in their two free years was, somehow, so unrelated to the
real world that however outrageous it did not bother anyone, but this
was an adult and the ruby between his eyes did not look like an
ornament. As she stared in indignation, Emilie stepped up to the
couch and ran the tips of her fingers delicately across his forehead
and over his scalp on each side of the silver hair.
She looked at
her sister and nodded. Although the fine and very complex network
under the skin was invisible it was barely detectable to the
touch. Without words they decided that this needed the Link to
pass on to the Captain and went over to Crane, got him to his feet with
one arm over the shoulder of each, and supporting him with difficulty
made their way to the Control Room.
This was a large room
luxuriously furnished, at least in contrast to the spartan simplicity
of the rest of the ship. The floor was covered with soft thick
fabric and the walls were painted in subdued colors, all in shades of
tan and green. There were no gauge panels or controls, not even a
viewing screen. The chairs scattered at random over the floor,
although shaped to take and grasp the whole body, were little different
from many in everyday use. Each had a low table beside it, but a
light flexible arm looping from behind the headrest of each, and ending
in a circular plate, and the absence of a view wall, were the only
obvious signs that this was not the inner common room of a home on
The Captain and
O'Hara were relaxed in two of the chairs, the flexible arms bent a
little more so that the discs rested against their foreheads.
There was a half empty glass on O'Hara's table. Julie and Emilie
helped Crane into a chair. Julie slipped off to her own place as
Emilie pulled down the disc to his forehead, and juggled it expertly
until it caught and held with the slight vibration that meant a
completed contact. Crane's eyes closed and his contorted face
Into the nightmare,
triggered by the deep-deek and fed by the tension in the crew room,
building up in his drugged mind until it was crammed full like a
stuffed turkey at Fall Festival, around its edges now hovered a smell
of oil and ozone that was, he could not remember why, familiar and
reassuring. With it now came wisps of other smells, other
associations. He was no longer aware of himself as Crane, Crane
alone, the ever lonely I. He was again the We of
the Link, his torment not gone, but become a minor item among other
pains and other pleasures, not all human.
He shifted in his
chair to ease the itch of a pimple on O'Hara's rump. He squirmed
with the animal gratification of Emilie as she sank back into foamed
cushions and let tired muscles loose. He felt them all at once,
as a man is barely conscious of the different parts of his own body,
but it was much more than that. Imagine if you can that your big
toe has its own thoughts, your intestines ambitions, your elbow
memories, then imagine that you are not you but say that thoughtful
toe. And imagine again that the brain in the body of which that
toe was a small part was not a human brain, but made of ceramic and
metal and plastic, and smelled of oil and ozone.
That was the Link.
Crane let it swell
over him like a man relaxing into a hot bath. For a short while
he, and the organism of which he was now a part, remained without
thought, content with the purely sensual, the almost sexual experience
of conjugation. The Link had dangers and this was one of
them. The temptation to float in that thick sea of sensation, to
become merely a toe and not a thinking toe was very strong. But
in their own way each of the crew had one thing in common, a high
degree of egoism.
Crane was glad to
ease his problems by sharing them, he was very happy to be again merely
a part of a greater whole but he could not lose himself in it
completely. A small stubborn part of him insisted that it was
also good to be Crane, even a sick, scared Crane: Jo Crane and his
delicate belly; two Fleet cruisers still on our tail, closing fast; the
ruby and the network under the scalp; Shift Beacons fixed on Gathol
grid, drive energized; sixty to shift; a girl, too young; forty to
shift, beam on screen; thirty to shift, relays over; a Sealed with our
stigma?; twenty to shift, beam hit, shield power drain; ten to shift;
the smell of fresh-brewed coffee; shift; slip; shift; and in the quiet
'That was a hell of a time to think of coffee!' The Link
was breaking up. Crane reached for his own connection with an
effort and eased it free.
'I suppose it was you Emilie. Take yourself off and make it
then, and make plenty. You'd all better pray to the Goddess that she
doesn't think of sex just before we Shift sometime, or we'll need a new
pair of men.' The Captain was worried. Partly it was
the irritability they all felt on breaking off from a full union in the
Link, accentuated on this occasion by her share of the hangover from
Crane's emotional jamboree. But her disturbance went
deeper. She had been with the Out-fleet for a long time, and
although she held the official rank of Ship-Captain only, she had
intimate friends in the Admiralty, and even in the inner circles of the
She knew that some
twenty years ago the Second Empire had, for the first time in more than
four centuries, started to make all the preliminary moves for expansion
beyond its settled borders, and what the Temple feared might be the
result. She knew of the recently accelerated research into the
mind sciences, stimulated first by increased contact with the Gans, and
later by the breakthrough that led to the Link.
She should have
known, and this was the crux of the matter, if any unexpected
development had occurred which would enable a Link to be formed without
a shipful of equipment and physical contact. She could think of
no other reason why one of the Sealed should be implanted with a Link
network and wasted on a mission that, she had realized as clearly as
Crane from the moment she heard of the Shift-space tracer, was the
final one for all of them.
And the little
Martian girl was another puzzle, but that could wait until she saw
her. Julie's fleeting impression was vivid but not necessarily
accurate. At least Jo was back to normal, though he still looked
dazed. She was going to need him.
happy. This time it had been very close. Next time he might
cross that infinitely near and infinitely distant boundary. He
took a sip from his glass and felt the bitter sting of alcohol
transmute in his throat. It must be next time he did not think
there would be a time after. If this had not been their first
full Link in months, if Emilie had not exposed that mischievous memory
of the fragrance of fresh-brewed coffee - he was sure he had seen Her
just as the bubble formed, tall, and white with a burning radiance, the
fawn at her feet.
Julie hugged her arms
around her breasts and shivered, she was not happy. More of Jo's
misery seemed to rub off on her than on the others, and just before the
bubble formed she had felt - she did not know what, she did not want to
know. One world contented her it would always, but for one short
moment she sat staring with wide eyes down a vista of universes.
Emilie made coffee
and a song.
Below them a slight
figure moved on her couch, her head turning and her lips parting,
though no words were audible, and in the pod on the other side of the
ship a powerful furred beast stretched against the foamed plastic
moulded around it and relaxed again.