The Scarlet Thread
by Wesley Williamson

Chapter Four : Shift Space

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


Born at Cappella, Dome l4, Mars, 2760.
Family transferred to Batu Pahat, Eastern Hegemony, Earth, 2764.
Ultrament potential extrapolated by Cappella Oracle from Tiosan bloodlines, confirmed at First Examination, 2766.
Parents and sister died in boating accident 2767; he was the only survivor.
Submitted for Dedication by grandmother 2768, rejected 2770. (Submission carried to full Council 2768, 2769, 2770 without agreement and resolved by appeal to the Goddess.)
Ultrament capability measured at Second Examination, 2772, as 7.3 on Aberth scale, but reading distorted by adverse psychological development.
Pahang Reservation 2775 to 2777.  No strong ties formed.
Refused Temple Fellowship 2778.  University of Kuala Lumpur 2778 to 2786.
Doctorates - Electryonics and Ancient Literature. Combined thesis, 'The development of the Oracle, Freud to Orlov.'
Communications Service, 2786 to 2791. Transfer to Out-Fleet requested 2788, refused; 2789 (twice), refused; 2790, accepted.
Link network implanted 2790 From that time, on Link-ship William Goat, eight out-system missions.

That's the bare bones of Crane, but I had to scratch through a cube meter of Oracle store to get it. He's a queer bird but no queerer than the rest of that crew (so I got interested and looked them up too, no extra charge).  If his Oracle couldn't get through to him how do you expect me to help? This is certain, he's balanced on a fine edge. Right now he's as secure as he ever will be; the crew all form one unit, they've been able to cushion his stresses. If he lost them, only the Goddess knows which way that coin would tumble. One thing though, no psychoshit, straight from the record. Look at it. He's managed to find himself the only niche in this system where he could survive and stay his own mixed-up self, and don't tell me the Temple didn't bend all the rules to keep that potential from being wasted on the Out-Fleet, we both know better. So look out, you may be hitching a ride with a tiger. Pull the Emperor's beard for me.

Deirdre Bor'Neill

Linda Harris opened her eyes and blinked. Bending over her was a young man with a shock of white hair cut in a most peculiar fashion, with what appeared to be a jeweled ornament set in his forehead. What was more, she noticed as her eyes fell from his face that not only was he quite naked, so was she. She let her eyelids droop again and thought with composure, What an odd dream! I wonder how the Oracle will interpret this one.

"Good morning -- I think. Does my nose deceive me or do I really smell coffee?"

The words barely penetrated Linda's drowsiness, but the hint of a fragrance made her nostrils twitch, and suddenly she was wide awake. She sat upright with a jerk, instinctively pulling up her legs, pressing her knees together, and folding her arms over her small pointed breasts, but the man now had his back to her with his head thrown up like a dog sniffing the air greedily. As she sat up, he turned and smiled at her.

"It is coffee," he said with satisfaction.

He appeared so completely unconscious of their nakedness that she lost some of her embarrassment. The last few hours before she got to the ship had been passed in a daze. Everything happened so quickly. The Gans, for once, had themselves been excited; the screen they normally kept up to protect her had slipped and her own emotions had been confused enough without having to fight off the backlash from theirs. As a result, she remembered passing from the Tender through the Staging Post to the decontamination chambers only in brief flashes, and nothing at all after they entered the final chamber, except a sudden turmoil of emotion from the Gans.

The man was one of the Sealed, she remembered that, and the awe she had felt when she learned of it. The Dedicated servants of the Goddess were admired and respected but they were not set apart. Most of them lived among the people and frequently one met them socially, though naturally there was always a little constraint in their presence. Those who had taken the Seal were met and even seen rarely, except perhaps at the great Spring Festivals, when it was a subject of conversation among the girls for days afterwards.

He was rummaging in a locker on the opposite wall and she studied him covertly. He was only of medium height, and slim, though his shoulders were broad enough, and as he stooped she could see long muscles flex on his back and thighs. She was conscious of a slight feeling of disillusionment. She was not quite certain what she had expected of one of the Sealed, but surely more than a pleasant, ordinary young man. He might have been a boy on a Reservation, as she watched on the view-screen at home, thinking that this might be the one she would meet, and perhaps love, and even, maybe, stay together with afterwards. But she had lost that chance. She would never know the feeling of complete, uncontrolled freedom to do as she wished and she did not even know why. As he turned towards her, she saw that he had a length of dull blue fabric in either hand, and he reached one over to her.

"Our Out-Fleet friends seem to dress simply," he said, "But it's better than nothing. I intend to get that coffee, and somehow I find I would prefer not to roam around a strange ship wearing only my skin."

She accepted the kilt with gratitude, and copied him, as he wrapped it around his waist, slipping off the couch as she did so. Nakedness was not taboo now as once it had been. Certainly clothing was not a necessity under the domes of Mars. A minimum was usually worn in public if only for protection against accidental embarrassment, and usually a great deal more for decoration. However different standards applied in a few homes in Mars, and Linda's was one of them.

Unlike Earth, Mars had been divided at the time of the revolt.  Although the Tiosan faction was crushed despite the help of an expeditionary force infiltrated from Tios, the descendants of the Tiosans were still, even after so many years, not completely assimilated. They used the Oracles, of course.  Their children went to the Reservations like other girls and boys, though usually in groups.  However they adhered to an older code of morality, and even though they followed the Goddess now, remembered another tradition.

Linda blinked back a tear as she thought of her mother and father, whom she had not seen since she was taken from Mars over a year ago, just before her fifteenth birthday. She would have had to leave then anyway, but it would have been to go to a Reservation with her friends, after talking and planning and dreaming about it since she was a child, not into the unknown with three - monsters, she thought, and felt immediately guilty, for she of all people knew well that they were not.

She looked up to find him watching her quizzically, and flushed. "I'm sorry, I was daydreaming." He smiled at her but she felt he understood, and she began to like him.

"Unless I'm daydreaming too, someone's making coffee and I want it," he said. "Shall we dare the unknown together?"

The thought chimed in with hers so neatly that she laughed as she took the hand he held out, and went through the door with him quite cheerfully. He seemed to be following his nose as he turned left, then right, along bare corridors which had the sheen of metal, though the floors were warm under Linda's feet. Then they heard the sound of low voiceless singing to a little trilling tune that only pretended to be sad, and came to an open door. Sik'r went in, joining in the song.  As he did, a man emerged from another opening in the same corridor, and they stared at each other. The other's hair was also that strange blue white, though it was not cut to bare his scalp, and he too wore the ruby ornament. Linda thought he was the ugliest man she had ever seen.  Then he smiled at her and his face was transformed.

"You passed out in the deep-deek, so I don't suppose you remember me. I'm second-in-command here, Jo Crane."

She saw now that he was not really ugly.  Her first impression was completely wrong but his face was curiously asymmetrical, as if the two halves of his head belonged to twins almost, but not quite identical; joined almost, but not quite, in the right places. It explained the blinding brilliance of his smile which (did he practice it, she wondered?) was just twisted enough to push one half exactly into balance with the other. She discovered to her embarrassment that she had been staring and hurriedly said, "I don't know why I fainted. I hope you didn't have any trouble with the Gans without me."

"I didn't have any. You see the deep-deek hits me as badly as it did you, so the Sealed had to help us all." His tone was light. "I've just pulled them out of the Tank but they won't regain consciousness for twenty minutes or so. Come up to the Control Room and we'll have coffee while you meet the others."

"As you see, I have anticipated your invitation." Sik'r spoke cheerfully as he appeared at the galley door, dragged down on one side by the weight of a large urn.

Linda was relieved of a problem as a small, exotically pretty girl came to the door behind him. She had been afraid the crew might all be male.  Having had to leave all her belongings with her clothes behind at the Staging Post and with no idea of the length of the voyage, she had been wondering how she would manage. There was also a more pressing urgency, which she had been too shy to mention to Sik'r. The girl grinned at her, and quite casually came over and kissed her, then put her arm around her waist, and still without speaking led her along the corridor.

Sik'r looked after them consideringly. "Yes," he said, "That certainly needs attention, but I think, yes, I think I can maintain my equilibrium until after at least one cup of coffee. If you will lead the way I shall follow." Crane moved to take the urn. "No, allow me, I intend to work my passage I assure you."

Crane, though he did not copy the fashions of the Out-Fleet, was still jealous of its peculiar status.  Despite himself, he was disarmed. He did not himself follow the Goddess for much the same reason as he did not have his hair removed - plain stubbornness. But he was a voracious if undiscriminating reader, and he knew that life under the Goddess on Earth and Mars was immeasurably better than it had ever been before. It was not the life he wanted, but he was intelligent enough to know the fault lay in himself. He envied and respected and disliked the Servants of the Goddess whom he had helped seed in the Second Empire, for the calm certainty that was characteristic of them and especially for their cheerfulness as they traveled to appalling risks.

Crane was quite prepared to die if he had to. He risked his life - all the crew did - on every mission, but he resented the necessity.  He was terrified of the preliminaries and he would continue to complain bitterly about the details while he still had breath, even if neither gods nor men were listening. Now that the strains of lift-off had been relieved, he was able to think clearly, but he had come to the same conclusion as before; this was their last mission, whether they were able to make the drop on Gathol or not. He was sorry for the little Martian, she was an attractive child, but even if they got her to Gathol he did not think she would have much chance of survival on that savage world, though she would have the protection of the Gans, he supposed.

He spoke over his shoulder to Sik'r. "What's that youngster's name? What possessed the Temple to send her, she can't be more than fifteen?"

"Linda Harris." Sik'r was breathing hard, Crane had not accommodated his pace to the load the Sealed was carrying. "She's sixteen, and the Temple had no choice. She and Orsini were the only two people in the system with minds completely open to the Gans, and Orsini killed himself yesterday."

That startled Crane; suicide had become extremely rare since the widespread use of the Oracles. He pushed open the door of the Control Room and stood aside while Sik'r went through.

"Put the coffee over there." He indicated a table in a corner.

"Ma'am, Sik'r born Smallhorn, Sealed to the Goddess."

Sik'r disengaged himself from the urn and turned to face the others. The Captain was not such an overwhelming spectacle in the loose blue robe which was her usual shipboard garment. She looked at him closely and then snapped her fingers.

"I thought I remembered the name, you were wreathed at last year's Festival." She spoke to the others, "He's a poet." Her voice was accusing.

"The greatest living." agreed Sik'r, "And only modesty makes me add the qualification. I am about to write an ode to coffee, Ma'am, but I find I have forgotten how it tastes."

Crane laughed, this single-mindedness amused him, and went over to the table. O'Hara, who was still on Link watch, spoke in a voice which though normally pitched gave an odd impression of distance.

"He wrote that little song Emilie was so taken with when I showed it to her." He was speaking to Julie, who nodded. Her eyes had been fixed with unblinking hostility on the Sealed since he entered the room, but now doubt showed in them. "She's been trying to make music for it ever since."

Sik'r took the cup Crane handed to him and drank deeply before he said, "She was singing it when I met her," and drank greedily again. He found that they were all looking at him and laughed. "Oh, no magic of mine, it was all hers. I take it she doesn't use words much; she doesn't need to. Give me leave to know my own song when I hear the only music that could match it."

Just then Emilie and Linda came into the room, and as Emilie passed Sik'r on her way to the coffee table she casually took the cup from him to refill it. Julie relaxed and turned her attention to the girl. She trusted her sister's judgment and Emilie had accepted him. The Captain, who trusted no one's judgment but her own, and had a poor opinion of both poetry and poets, was not at all satisfied, but postponed her questions while she greeted the girl.

"I'm Captain Bentine, my dear." She went over to Linda who was still flustered by the informal dress of herself and the crew.  She did not know whether to salute or to curtsey and compromised by taking the hands the Captain held out and bowing slightly.

"Lieutenant Linda Harris, Madam, Communications Service."

"What in the Name are you doing in Com. Es.? At your age you should be kicking up your heels on a Reservation." She turned to Sik'r, "Do you know anything about this?"

Crane answered for him. "Orsini killed himself, and apparently Lieutenant Harris is the only other sensitive available who can handle the Gans." He was frowning. "Though I still don't understand why they took her before she went to the Reservations. I thought only the Dedicated missed the Free Years." He looked at Linda but she shook her head.

"I don't know, I wish I did. I asked Major Orsini but he wouldn't talk about it, and this is the first time I've been outside his laboratory since I left Mars." They were all looking at her with sympathy, and for the first time in a year she felt that she was among friends, people who cared for her as an individual, and not as a piece of laboratory equipment, to be adjusted, kept clean and sterile, and switched off when not in use. Her eyes filled with tears.

Julie had been listening attentively and looked puzzled. "Couldn't you ask your Oracle, honey? It would have known, wouldn't it?"

Linda shook her head again. "I suppose so, but I couldn't ask one. There wasn't one anywhere in the whole building, at least not one that worked properly."

Well, that explains Orsini, thought Crane, now why did the Temple let it get to that stage before intervening? The Captain, who was glaring at Sik'r voiced the same thought more forcibly, and in language which startled Linda.

The Sealed sighed and put down his cup. "We knew, of course, that he was not using the Oracles, but he rarely did. We were beginning to suspect that he might be unbalanced, but we had no reason to believe how seriously. And if we had, it would not have made much difference." He nodded to Crane. "As I told you, he and Linda were the only two with minds open to the Gans." He shrugged. "We are only Her Servants, human and fallible."

"As you know well, it is difficult enough to run the gauntlet of the Fleet and get out people to the Empire's planets, impossible to get them back. You pick up messages when you can, that is difficult too, but it is the only way that we can get news from the Empire. One reason for bringing the Gans to Earth was in the hope that we might find some means of direct communication, training others to be as sensitive as Linda. That was not possible. But they learned much from us, as we did from them and we think that when they return to Gathol many things may come of it."

"Well, that is for the future. At present, we are all in the same boat." He paused to smile at his use of the phrase in the circumstances. "Not just us here, but the millions on Earth and Mars. At any moment the Empire may decide to lift the Interdiction by eliminating us, which it can do. The decision may already have been made; we do not know, but we think not yet. If not, there is the chance that we can delay it, and even, though a small chance indeed, that we can influence it. That is why -"

He was interrupted by a moan from Linda. As they turned to stare at her she pressed her hands to her eyes and cried out again.

"What is it, child?" asked the Captain, putting her arm around the girl's rigid body.

"The Gans, they feel something, some danger, they're afraid." There was a note of wonder along with the terror in her voice.

The Captain turned quickly to O'Hara who shook his head. "Nothing showing, but there never is in the bubble."

"Just in case, we'll Link," decided the Captain. "Here, you, get her into a chair," she told Sik'r, and when he came over to Linda, she moved to her own place. Before she reached it, Linda screamed shrilly and collapsed on the floor, and Crane and Julie who were already in the Link both shouted incoherently.

Unbelievably, the ship was lifted and shaken in the hand of a giant, the lights went out, and the Captain found herself falling through the air in the darkness. Her last thoughts were oddly disconnected: the Sealed was hiding something; and with some amusement, I hope I don't land on Jo. Then an even deeper darkness closed around her.

"My father was manager of a number of factories which assembled component systems for the Oracles. He was not of the managerial elite. He had raised himself to the position and to leadership of the local bourgeois, by unremitting attention to ambition in every detail of his life. He was an admirable man, but I could not love him. He, and my mother, dedicated me to the Temple when my elder brother was badly hurt in a gang fight on his Reservation. This was common enough, and as I now know they had been told by our family Oracle that my destiny, whatever it might be, was not to become a manager. But I was only ten years old and I did not understand. As well as being hurt I was frightened , for I had heard the usual children's gossip about the Dedicated, but before long I was relishing my new status and imposing on it. I once met a man who had made a rare adult dedication, and he told me the hardest thing to bear was the change in the face of a friend, afterwards. I must have been an unpleasant child. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Luckily the Temple sent for me soon. It is not good for a child to be set apart from family and friends, not for him or for them."

From the Testament of Sik'r born Smallhorn

Crane had just made the Link connection, and the feel of the ship sensors had barely had time to permeate his own nervous system when he felt, or rather the ship felt, the nape of the neck bristling, spine tingling alertness that meant the concentration of all its faculties on something unprogrammed and therefore potentially hazardous. He felt O'Hara's shock; it was impossible. The cubic kilometer of normal space inside the bubble that carried the ship with it was a closed universe, in miniature certainly, but in theory as unbounded as the one they had left. It was impossible to go outside it, but equally nothing could enter it once it was fully formed.

The only danger was during the transition period. In an area of high field stress the partly formed bubble might burst, and anything then inside it vanished. Possibly it went into Shift-Space, whatever that was, but since communication was impossible from within the bubble, no-one knew. If the Fleet had a tracer, the thought drifted from someone, that was a beginning that might change the pattern of space travel.

Simultaneously, the realization of what had alerted the Link became clear. The navigation sensors fixed permanently on the Shift beacons were disturbed; another signal still comparatively weak but increasing very rapidly was interfering. The other minds in the Link were quiescent. This was for the ship and Crane, the brain and that specialized part of it which took the brain's collected information and assessed it, and made the huge and purely human leap from fact to fancy, from the fixed past moment to the probable or possible or almost unimaginable future one.

Time in the bubble had a constant relation to normal time; time in the Link had not. Less than a second had passed since Crane and Julie had Linked. If the Captain and Emilie had joined too, he might have found an answer, but it was already too late. Whatever the Beacons were, one was being born near the path of the ship; as the realization came, the bubble was in a maelstrom of energy and the overloaded beacon sensors sent messages of stress screaming through all the nervous systems of the Link while the overload relays took their interminable millisecond to close.

Neither Crane nor Julie ever remembered clearly how they felt at that moment. Much later, though, Crane had a nightmare in which he became a worm-like many headed creature, floating alone in space among the billions of stars; looking at them with unbearable hunger and beginning to eat and grow and eat again, until his writhing coils turned back on themselves as they filled the Universe, and only one dim star still held back the eternal dark. As his mouth closed greedily on that, he saw that it was not a star but a ship, and woke with his heart pounding and his mind starting away from a horror he dared not remember, just as it did now.

He dimly remembered the lights having gone out, but they were on again now and the Sealed was slapping him lightly. Crane did not recognize him at first - blood was welling over his face from a deep gash above his right eye.

"The Captain, is she all right?" It was the first thought that came to his mind, the last thing he had seen with his own eyes just before the lights went out; the Captain rising grotesquely from the floor, her robe billowing.

The Sealed straightened unsteadily with a sigh of relief and wiped the blood out of his eyes with his forearm. "Not dead. I think she may be badly hurt." He anticipated the next question, "No one else, as far as I can see. What happened?"

"It looks like we went through a new beacon, one just being created." Crane knew he should return to the Link and check on damage to the ship, but he was afraid of what he might find, of where they might be. He saw that Sik'r was waiting, his face calm and grave under a mask of blood, and swallowed with difficulty.

"I must get back into the Link. Try to bring Julie and O'Hara around."

He pulled the Link contact back onto his forehead and saw with relief that they were still in the familiar bubble. Alone in the Link, although he could sense directly the ship functions, there was no illusion of being part of them, and for the moment he was glad of that. The ship was damaged.  He could not tell how badly since many of the sensors were either blown or tripped out of the circuits. The control room was undamaged though coffee was splattered over one wall and still dripping down it. Emilie was propped against a wall in one corner with the little Martian girl lying across her legs. As Crane looked he saw them both move. O'Hara was still unconscious, but Sik'r had Julie out of her chair, and was supporting her as she took a wavering step.

"Julie!" Her eyes were dull, but she looked up. "Madame is hurt." It took a moment to penetrate, but then she saw the bulk of the Captain where she had fallen, sprawled obscenely over one of the chairs. With a little cry she pushed Sik'r away and staggered to her.

"You, Sik'r!" Crane forced himself to keep his eyes and mind from the Captain. "Try to get that girl, Linda, try to get her up and check on the Gans." The Sealed nodded obediently and again wiped his arm over his eyes.

"No, wait, there's a medi-kit store in the wall, to the right of the door. Fix that cut first."

He let himself look over quickly, and saw that Emilie had joined Julie. Responding to some deeply buried instinct they had rearranged the Captain's dress to cover her legs. They should not have wasted the time but Crane was glad they had. The crew knew each other's bodies as they knew each other's minds, with an accustomed intimacy like that of an old married couple. Whatever their needs or desires, they were satisfied with as little thought and with the same casual affection with which Emilie had made them coffee. Conscious, the Captain's gross body was seen by Crane through the filter of her personality, her amused resentment of her grotesqueness, and his own respect. Unconscious and helpless, her sprawling naked legs were a pathetic indignity which made him feel a little sick.

He felt O'Hara join him in the Link and ignored his dazed questionings. He was using his responsibilities, the necessity of organizing and ordering, to help him forget what had happened. He passed the Link watch to O'Hara, and went over to where the Sealed was standing with his arm around Linda.

"We're going to be busy with the ship and the Captain." He was nerving himself to find out how she was and putting it off. "How's the girl, do you think she could check on the Gans, if any of them are hurt?"

He had been speaking to Sik'r, but Linda answered him shakily, "It's all right. The Gans aren't hurt either, or at least not seriously. They're in contact with me."

"Well," Crane was afraid there might have been damage to the pods, "Better get them up here. Sik'r, you go with her. Seal the pod compartment off behind you, do you know how?" Sik'r nodded and turned. Crane could put it off no longer. Julie was putting a hypo gun back in the medi-kit. "Well?" He waited tensely. He knew that he depended on the Captain. He was beginning to realize how much and it frightened him.

Emilie looked up and her face twisted as she tried to speak, then she shook her head quickly and looked down again.

"Is she dead? Julie, is she dead?" He went over and caught her roughly by the shoulders turning her to face him, and he saw that her eyes were wet.

"Not yet. Maybe not for hours. Oh, Jo, she's so hurt." For the first time since he had known her she was weeping and as her sister came to put her arms around her, Crane realized that they were turning to him for help. Even through his own grief it appalled him. His knuckles were white as his fingers dug into Julie's arm, though she did not wince, and he caught both girls against him - as much, he thought wryly for his own comfort as for theirs.

Over their heads he could see the Captain. They had managed to ease her bulk into the chair and there were no visible signs of her in juries. He clung to the two girls a moment longer, feeling Julie's tears wet on his chest. Then he let them go and stepped back. There were many things to do, and they would all be better off kept busy doing them. He had to find out one thing first, and it was difficult to ask.

"Will she be conscious before she dies? Julie!" he spoke sharply. "It's important, Julie." Julie wiped her hands over her face and held them there for a moment as she visibly braced herself. "All right, Jo. I don't know, she's so broken up, I think inside too." Her voice quavered but she went on. "I can try to make her conscious, but-I don't know, Jo, she's so badly hurt. I've given her a shot, just in case, but - Jo, it might be better if she didn't waken."

He shook his head. "I can't believe it, I can't -" he took a deep breath. "Well, we'll wait and see. First, we have to look after the ship. If there's nothing more you can do for her -?" It was a last appeal but neither of them looked them in the eyes.

"All right. Join O'Hara in the Link, do as much as you can linked, and then you go with O'Hara, Julie, and check damage on the spot. Get the beacon sensors in operation again as soon as you can, the Goddess knows where we are now. Then check the Tank pods, they may be damaged." He saw they were staring at the door, and turned.

Linda had come into the room and behind her were the three aliens from Gathol. They stood upright and were four limbed, but there all human resemblance ended. At first glance they might have been of two different species. One was covered in fine, sleek black fur, through which muscles could be seen to move in unexpected places. The other two were taller and seemed to be more powerfully built, though it was difficult to visualize their true outlines, which were masked by loose hanging folds. At first Crane thought they might be clothing, but then he realized they were covered with the same fur as the other, but in colors which ranged from dark green to a very dark brown.  As he watched the colors changed gradually in patterns moving symmetrically around their bodies.

The heads were totally inhuman, indeed unearthly. There was no neck, the head was extended back in a hump above the shoulders, and a great fanged mouth split it. There were no apparent nostrils or ears, and huge eyes were set on each side of the head, bulging out and covered with a thick transparent membrane. Now that they were in the control room, Crane found that he did not know what to do with them, and looked for advice to Linda. "Can they hear us? Do they understand?"

Linda shook her head. "Maybe not directly, but as long as I hear you they can pick it up from my mind. They want to know if you will permit them to try to help the Captain."

Sik'r broke in quickly before Crane had a chance to refuse. "They may be able to help, Crane. They can find out where she is hurt, and some hurts they can coax her own mind to heal. I have seen it done."

Crane's reluctance was illogical but no easier to overcome for that. "How can they do that if they can only communicate with Linda?" He raised the objection to give himself time to think, but his original mistrust returned when the Sealed was slow to answer.

"Linda does not know, but in fact all of you on this ship are sensitive to some degree. All the Link ship crews are. Full communication needs a high degree of sensitivity and training, but even so the Gans should be able to help the Captain. She may be too badly hurt for her mind to heal even with their help, but you must let them try. At the very least, they can give her ease during her passing." His voice deepened. "I am Sealed to Her, I know what a trivial matter is death. But I know too what a great and solemn thing is the end of a life here. If She wills that the Captain passes unknowingly, we must accept in sorrow, but it is our duty, mine and yours, to do all we can to help her know how the Ritual of her life is ending, that she may complete it with dignity."

"Crane," O'Hara's voice was weak, "Crane, you must let them try, you must. If they could only keep her alive and conscious so that she could join the Link once more, just once more. You know that she would want that, never mind the Sealed, the Link is all we need."

As he hesitated, Julie said dully, "You may as well, Jo, it can't do any harm."

He did not realize he had made up his mind until he saw the Gans move to group themselves around the Captain, very close, but not touching her. The interplay of color through the folds of fur cloaking the two - males? - had steadied to a slow pulsation. As the female bent over the Captain, each lifted an arm above the great hump behind her head, and the folds erected and extended until, merging, they enshrouded her.

As if drawn, Linda moved to the foot of the Captain's chair and knelt down, her hands folded before and her head drooping on her breast. Her eyes were half closed and she remained unnaturally still.

"Now!" Crane turned to the Sealed. He was angry but it seemed necessary to keep his voice hushed. "I want to know what's happening, exactly what's happening. Why you are here, why you have a Link network, what you hope to achieve by all this, apart from getting us all killed. The Temple must know how little chance there is of our being able to make the drop on Gathol. We've no chance at all of getting away afterwards. You say it's important to get the Gans back. What good will it do to get them back dead?" He found his voice was trembling and stopped abruptly.

Sik'r shrugged with the conscious exaggeration which showed in many of his gestures and threw out his hands. "No reason why you should not know. First, we have an obligation to take the Gans home at whatever the cost. They will die if we do not. They knew when they came to Earth to help us that they could not survive long off Gathol, yet they came without exacting any promise that we should return them. So we have an obligation to try. I told you, we are not omniscient, we only learned definitely of the fleet's tracer very recently." He ran his fingers over his scalp, "As for this, we have found that it improves communication somewhat for those of us who are not as talented as young Linda. Yes, I am a sensitive too, it seems to be a part of our Tiosan heritage."

He smiled as Crane's eyes widened. "Your parents were born on Mars, is that not so? Yes, where we have been able to trace it, there has always been a link back to Mars and the Tiosans who were abandoned there after the revolt. We have never found a sensitive to any useful degree who did not have that blood. We have learned a great deal in the past year. If I could only have got to Tios - they know nothing of the power of the mind, yet they must have it, if Linda still has it after so many generations on Mars. If only she were older. But we had to act, we have run out of time, we had to act and hope." He smiled again. "There is always hope. How can we tell what the Goddess intends or has planned for us? It may be part of Her plan that the Fleet turn Earth and Mars into blackened cinders around a swollen sun, but I don't think so, nor do the Gans and they are very wise."

Crane shook his head. "I still don't understand. What could you hope to do on Tios? If the Empire decides to wipe out Earth, how could you stop it? But we can go to Tios as easily as to Gathol and with as much chance of making a drop. What difference does it make whether we die on Gathol or on Tios?"

Sik'r took his bitterness seriously. "We have an obligation. It is very important to the Gans to reach their home before they die. You know the Goddess has only one commandment - the end does not justify the means. She offers only one miracle - life itself. She makes only one promise, that life can be more than a green scum creeping over a few backwaters of the universal sea, to be swept away by the next storm. Not is - can be, if we ourselves make it so."

He nodded over at the Gans "Look at them. Those fangs are not for decoration. They are for killing and eating, in the mindless lust for blood of any predator. Yet they are more intelligent than we are, much more. They are trapped in their animal bodies and they know they can never escape; they no longer even wish to try. Yet these three sacrificed everything, all they had, all they could hope for, to help us along a road they cannot take themselves. I tell you, if I knew certainly that it meant the end of the human race, on Earth and in the Empire, I think I would still take them back."

He was breathing hard, but he ended in a completely matter of fact voice. "Anyway, I don't know, and neither does anyone else. We may do as much good or as little on Gathol as on Tios. In such matters we have learned to trust the Goddess and toss a coin - for one thing it saves argument."

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