The Scarlet Thread
by Wesley Williamson

Chapter Two : The Outfleet

Chapter 1: The Palace Chapter 2: The Outfleet Chapter 3: The Trader
Chapter 4: Shift Space Chapter 5: The Imperial Fleet

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 Temple orders.
I'm sorry.

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 of orange.

Jo Crane lifted his eyes from the floor. Gruesome!' he commented.

No-one seemed 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.

Tis uneasiness 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.

Very cautiously, 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?'

'Gathol, first.'

Crane lifted his head and stared at her.  'First?' He repeated in outrage, 'First?'

Madam-Captain laughed at him silently, the surface of her body breaking into ripples and eddies, a phenomenon which Crane still viewed with awe despite his other preoccupations.

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.

The decontamination 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.

Their principal 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 Link-Ship crews.

Since a 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?'

Emilie nodded.  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 comes through.'

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?'

Crane shrugged.  '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 the Goddess,
(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 Goddess.

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 are.'

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 Earth.

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 smoothed.

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 bubble.

'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 Temple.

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.

O'Hara was 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.

Chapter 1: The Palace Chapter 2: The Outfleet Chapter 3: The Trader
Chapter 4: Shift Space Chapter 5: The Imperial Fleet