Cache - `He says Why - Why do we do this? This is the very thing that's preying on his min

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Skeptic Tank!

Cache ----- `He says Why - Why do we do this? This is the very thing that's preying on his mind...' shriekback, `everything that rises must converge' An hour later, Ranfurlie was still sitting there, staring at the scope. As before, the display was blank except for the dot at the exact centre. He idly drummed his fingers along the edge of the console while Kaaren searched their Data for any information about neutronium. Camerol/Camerol - if she .was. Camerol at the moment - was not on the flight deck. No-one seemed willing to act, as if the problem might go away if they just sat there long enough. `Nothing.' Kaaren said finally, standing up and stretching the kinks out of her neck, inhaling sharply through her nose. `There's no record of anyone finding anything like this before; nothing else except a couple of useless theories.' She glared out the front viewport at the cause of their annoyance, a tiny gleaming dot alone in open space, about two hundred kilometres away. Camerol entered and crossed over to where the Cache Locator was mounted on a console. The holographic indicator still pointed directly forward, at the distant dot. Out of habit, Kaaren glanced at the rectangular badge on Camerol's lapel; it read `CAMEROL', but as she watched, it faded, to be replaced with another name: `ANTHER'. She sighed inwardly; it was one she knew. Camerol/Anther spoke in her usual distant tones; `Unless Numerija has something to suggest, we've come to the end of this device's usefulness. We should evaluate our profits and head back to Earth.' Ranfurlie waved his hand in annoyance, not taking his eyes off the scope. `No, give me some time... I'm sure I can think of something.' Camerol/Anther glanced at him with something close to a doubtful expression on her severe features. He continued; `I've tried adjusting the "Worth" scale on the Tracer, all the way up... no go. It's locked on, and apparently, whoever put that there,' gesturing at the sphere on the scope, `thought very highly of it.' He paused, and then muttered, `I'll think of something...' ... Kaaren had been working out of the Earth ExPort as a co-pilot for about six months since her graduation, spending most of her time waiting for assignments; one afternoon, she had been approached by a young woman with short black hair, bland, softened features and anunusually detached attitude. Her name was Camerol, and she claimed to be one of the few humans working in Earth's branch of the NoSanNoOs Bureaucracy, as an advisor and human-xenoform interface. `I have a proposition for you. My superiors in the NoSanNoOs have come into posession of a device - a variety of sensor/detector - which requires testing. They have asked me to find a pilot and an engineer. Firstly: are you available for work as a pilot?' Kaaren nodded quickly; her last job (shuttling antique canisters of waste plutonium down from solar orbit) had been over a month ago, and her finances were in dire straights. `Very well. The position of engineer requires a broad spectrum of generalised knowledge. Someone who knows something about practically anything would be appropriate...' `I think I know someone who might fill that specification, although, to be sure, I'd need to know a bit more about what we'll be doing.' Camerol paused for a moment, her eyes slightly unfocussed as if communing with a voice that only she could hear; then she continued, speaking slowly. `Three weeks ago, a NoSanNoOs Interdict team were approached by a xenoform claiming to be a representative of the Sthelane.' Kaaren raised her eyebrows at this; the Sthelane were presumed to be long extinct. `This xenoform was in posession of a device which makes use of a little-known principle of Sthelanic Informatics, Concealment String Linkage. It will indicate the location of objects which have been concealed by sentients for some reason.' Kaaren thought about this for a moment. `Not things that have been lost, but rather deliberately hidden?' Camerol nodded once. `It locates caches. It can be adjusted to find caches of a particular size or worth -' Kaaren waved her hand to interrupt; `Hang on, "worth"? That's a pretty subjective sort of value, isn't it? I mean, a cache of rotten bananas might be worth about ten CCi as garbage, on Earth, and about five thousand as fertiliser, on one of the Waystations...' Camerol stared at Kaaren for a few seconds - making her feel slightly apprehensive - and then continued. `The value, or worth of the cache is that which its owners gave it when it was concealed. Therefore, the device is not likely to indicate the location of buried waste.' Seeing Kaaren's doubtful expression on hearing this, she added; `the xenoform who was in posession of the device was, itself, unsure of the working principles involved. It has been activated, and is indicating the location of a cache at the moment, somewhere in the Bythian Resource Complex. Our mission is to locate this cache, mark it for retrieval or identification, and then to continue evaluation of the device's capabilities.' After the interview, Kaaren contacted Ranfurlie, a student at what was left of the Nexus University. He was studying Engineering half- heartedly, along with about a hundred other dispirited students whose future livelyhoods had been pre-empted by the arrival of the NoSanNoOs two hundred years ago. They agreed to meet with Camerol at the Suteriik that evening to discuss the matter further. When Kaaren arrived, she was shown to a table where Camerol was sitting, typing rapidly into a flatscreen propped up before her. She looked up and, unexpectedly, grinned. `Hi, glad you could make it. Here, pull up a chair, get a drink or something.' Kaaren felt uneasy; it was the same person she'd met earlier, and yet she was behaving in a completely different manner; more animated, less robotic. As she sat, she noticed the badge on Camerol's lapel. Earlier she'd dismissed it as a simple name-tag; but where it had previously read CAMEROL, it now displayed the name AVYX. As the xenoform arrived with their drinks, Kaaren cleared her throat and asked: `Were you the person I was speaking to this morning, in the Export offices?' Camerol smiled, and replied without looking up from the flatscreen, `In a way. It was me, physically, but mentally, it would have been...' she consulted an internal list, and continued, `Camerol. At the moment, I am Avyx.' It took a few moments for the meaning of this to filter through. `You're a .multiple..' Camerol/Avyx grinned. `A .NoSanNoOs. Multiple. My childhood, my development was shaped completely by the NoSanNoOs. I was raised under the direct supervision of their artificial intelligence, NAPAI.' Seeing the expression on Kaaren's face, she continued; `I know what you're thinking. Multiple Personality was once thought of as a psychological disorder. The same used to be thought of homosexuality, you know... but when properly developed, Multiples can be more perceptive, in that we can take different, even opposing viewpoints of the same situation. We discuss problems internally, so we have the advantage of group interaction within one person. Anyway, this is beside the point... ah, I take it that this is your engineer?' Ranfurlie had arrived, a stocky, good-natured young man with shoulder-length brown hair contained by a leather headband. He carried his ever-present grey knapsack over one shoulder; it contained, among other things, his tool-kit. He'd once told Kaaren that he felt naked without it. They discussed the device and its potential. In the course of the conversation, Kaaren tried a number of times to bring up the topic of Camerol's sponsor; each time, the multiple skillfully detoured to another subject. In the end, all Kaaren had discovered was that they would be taking a NoSanNoOs freighter from the ExPort the following week, that Ranfurlie would install the device in the ship and that they would spend the next two months testing it. Kaaren and Ranfurlie sat in the Suteriik after Camerol had left. Neither of them spoke for a few moments, until Ranfurlie admitted, `There's something awfully screwy about this.' Kaaren nodded, sipping her drink. `I'm half-tempted to call the NoSanNoOs Directorate and check this story out.' `So what's stopping you?' Kaaren paused, and then smiled. `If it is illicit, then they'll confiscate the device and we'll never get to see if it actually works. I'm curious. And besides, I haven't had a paying job in over a month.' Ranfurlie grinned, with the expression of a fellow `Turner', or Alternative; the group which lived on the fringes of the closed society presided over by the NoSanNoOs. Like Kaaren, he chose not to be part of the system, and it was only the fact that they both had talents which the NoSanNoOs needed that prevented them from ending up in a State Security Centre. `I'm betting that this .is. illicit; she's lifted the device from an Interdict Warehouse and she's going to look for hidden repair depots in the hope of finding Impeller Engine parts, or something.' he said. Kaaren finished her drink. `In any event, it promises to be more interesting than sitting around here on my arse.' The Earth ExPort was a collection of wide concrete circles, arranged around the administration building in no particular order. Most had one or two NoSanNoOs ships of some description sitting one them; the huge, flattened spheres would lift from the pads, silently drifting upwards like giant balloons, gradually disappearing into the sky to some not-immediately-obvious, pre-determined schedule. Some pads were vacant; moving through them, Kaaren could make no sense of the arrangement. It seemed entirely random. She went to the administration centre and asked after Camerol. The Parkry attending the data-post seemed to know who she was talking about, as it paged the multiple without having to refer to its database. A few minutes later, Camerol hurried in, dressed in grey coveralls stained with grease and nano extrusions. The badge on her lapel now read NOSHEVATHO. She extended her hand, realised that it was coated with grease, wiped it on her thigh and held it out again. Kaaren smiled and accepted the gesture, brushing her wrist against the multiple's. Camerol/Noshevatho spoke in a gruff, clipped, almost masculine voice. `Hi. Noshevatho. You're Kaaren, right? Come on, I've been out with Ranfurlie retrofitting the freighter, tossing the junk we won't be needing and adding some extras.' As she followed her out, Kaaren asked, `I wasn't aware that you were an engineer.' Camerol/Noshevatho laughed without smiling, a short bark of detached amusement. `.I. am,' tapping her hand against her lapel-badge, `if you get me.' Kaaren followed her across five landing pads, nervously looking up as they crossed the unoccupied ones in case a freighter should silently fall out of the sky on them. Camerol/Noshevatho hailed some of the ExPort workers as they passed, even the xenoform ones, in their own languages. They came to a freighter, resting on the pad with nothing to distinguish it from any of the others except for a hexagonal panel extruded about a metre from the underside. Ranfurlie poked his head out from behind the panel, apparently hanging upside-down, and waved. His hair drifted about him as if he were underwater; he was within a localised zero-G field. `Hey, we're just about ready to go... have you got your stuff with you?' Kaaren stood with her hands on her hips, neck craned back to face him. `I didn't think we were leaving until later this week.' Camerol/ Noshevatho pushed a flatbed floater loaded with what looked like sheets of concrete up to the main hatch. `We're leaving while we still have clearance.' `Is it likely that our clearance will be withdrawn?' `Up to mid-day tomorrow, no. After that, I can't guarantee anything.' Kaaren's suspicions as to the dubious nature of the enterprise firmed. She went to the flight deck of the ship, examined the control wall. It was standard NoSanNoOs equipment, banks of control-spaces which were activated by inserting a finger (or tentacle, or whatever the pilot possessed in the way of effectors). She fiddled with the data retrieval service for a few minutes, plotted a couple of courses for practice, went over the ship's damage report and status functions. No problem. NoSanNoOs controls were a standard, because no-one else was allowed to build starships. Ranfurlie had mounted an additional bank of control-spaces next to the navigation system. Not daring to touch them until she found out what they were for, she went down to the power compartment, which was maintained in a zero-G environment for ease of access to the bulky NoSanNoOs TCI generator. Ranfurlie was re-routing cables from the back of the generator, but he tied them off and floated over to her when he saw her enter. `Did you see the extra bank in the flight deck?' `Yes, I did...' Ranfurlie grimaced and raised one eyebrow. `Weaponry.' `.What.?' He pushed off from the wall, gently rebounded from the curved front of the generator and pointed to a single, wrist-thick cable that ran out of the back and down through the floor. `Was. It goes to a fixed-mount housing. Empty now, but it looks like it housed one of the largest X-ray lasers I've seen in my life. I think that this ship used to belong to the Bythians.' Kaaren frowned. `Well, that's it. This is no longer just illicit, it's against the NoSanNoOs interdict. She must be .stealing. this ship - there's no way in hell that they'd let Humans use it...' Ranfurlie agreed. `That must be what she meant about our clearance being good up to tomorrow.' Kaaren confronted Camerol/Noshevatho on the cargo deck, where she was stacking slabs of food concentrate against one wall. `I want to see some sort of official authorisation for this trip.' she said, without preliminaries. Abruptly, the multiple froze, her face blank. The word NOSHEVATHO on her lapel badge faded, to be replaced by the name ANTHER. Her face twitched, but otherwise retained its blank, expressionless guise. She held out her hand, spoke in a cold, flat voice: `Notepad.' Without thinking, Kaaren handed it over. Holding the notepad with one hand, Camerol/Anther typed with blinding speed for a few seconds with the other and then handed it back. The display showed an authorisation notice with the ID code of NAPAI; the highest authority in the NoSanNoOs Dominion. Kaaren examined it suspiciously for a moment, then hit the key for a hard-copy. She peeled it from the underside of the notepad and left. The Parkry at the administration centre looked at the notice, then turned it upside-down and read it that way. It took the hard-copy to a xenoform standing a few meters away, something like a sleek-furred, eyeless, six-legged Afghan hound with shiny, overlapping plates covering the upper part of its head. It took the notice in its mouth and chewed a corner, then it approached Kaaren, with the authorisation dangling from its jaws; a translator hanging around its neck spoke: `This order is status-valid, priority-superseding, but duration- limited. No explanation.' Kaaren had long ago given up trying to understand the way that the NoSanNoOs Dominion was governed, but she insisted on asking: `Will equipment requisitions be valid after expiry of authorisation?' The Afghan-xeno thought about this for a moment, then replied, `Requisitions status-valid, until mission, status-complete.' Which wasn't very reassuring, she thought, but it would be the best she would get. She left, but turned around in surprise when the Afghan-xeno started following her. She stood, with hands on hips, head cocked to one side. `Yes?' it trotted up to her, and waving its head, offered the document. She took it, turned to leave, and the xeno followed her again. She resolutely ignored it until she reached the ship, where the xeno followed her up the ramp. She walked slightly faster, swaying back to move parallel to the diagonal line of the ramp with its own gravity field, stepped over the lip, into the ship and down to the cargo deck. The xeno followed. Ranfurlie entered from the engine room, wiping graphite paste off his hands onto the front of his shirt. `Who's your friend?' he asked, grinning. Kaaren gave him a sour look. `Some associate of Camerol's, I gather.' As she spoke, the multiple emerged from the control room. Her badge read NOSHEVATHO again. She knelt down in front of the xeno and held her arms out. It bounded forward into her embrace, nuzzling her chin with its blank-looking, eyeless snout. When she looked up again, her badge had changed to read AVYX. `This is Okud-Dymy-Ucho-Wechet-Numerija, of Tsialo. He's, well, sort of my father. Foster-father.' Numerija spoke with the mechanical tones of his NoSanNoOs translator: `Decision to utilise accrued-leave, made after recognition, this project's members and my foundling-human-daughter.' Kaaren was quite interested in this, but couldn't think of a polite way of finding out more. She decided to bide her time, and look for an opportunity to speak to Numerija in private. ... After Kaaren had organised a courier to fetch her belongings from her apartment, they convened in the control room for the pre-flight system check. The room was quiet; Kaaren initiated the check, and as the on-board diagnostics ran, she glanced at Camerol/Avyx out of the corner of her eye. The multiple sat in a flatchair in one corner of the room, blankly staring off into space. Kaaren caught Ranfurlie's eye and he nodded to indicate that he'd noticed. The ship checked out perfectly. Kaaren transferred control of the ship to the forward deck. She sat in the pilot's couch, laid in a course for the Bythian Resource Complex, set it and inserted her finger in the Execute space. Silently and with no sense of acceleration, the ship lifted off the pad and floated skywards. Kaaren sat back in the couch and examined the Sthelanic device which Camerol had asked Ranfurlie to mount on the ship's dashboard. It was black, non-reflective, shaped like a dinner plate, the concave side facing down. The other side had a holographic display, in dark blue, purple, violet and shades of red that suggested a visual spectrum shifted towards the ultraviolet; two spherical grids, one within the other; a thick pink line extending from their common centre. It shifted about as the ship turned, maintaining its orientation on the cache. A regular series of shapes flickered around the rim of the device; presumably, Sthelanic characters or numbers. `I've got the tertiary backup navigation system working out the basis of the Sthelanic written language; once it's finished, I'll be able to reprogram the device to display its readings in English.' Ranfurlie said. `The first cache is about four hours' flight-time away, somewhere near Bythe Prime.' `I can't help feeling a bit apprehensive about this... I'm not convinced that the Bythians aren't going to start shooting at us as soon as they spot us.' Camerol/Avyx said, `This trip is authorised. All Bythian command units have been notified, and have been ordered to co-operate. We have complete carte-blanche, as long as we don't do anything overtly antisocial, like spraying toxins on cropland or dropping fusion devices onto cities.' Kaaren said nothing. After ensuring that the ship was on course, she went below to visit the Tsialo. Numerija was moving things around in his berth, pushing piles of clothing into a vaguely saucer-shaped nest. Around the outside were arrayed personal items; a nanocomputer, sets of manipulators in varying sizes, a basket filled with light blue spheres, their surfaces textured like oranges and smelling faintly of camphor. Propped up against one corner was a spear decorated with banners, ribbons and scraps of brightly-coloured hide. Seeing her interest in it, Numerija leapt out of the nest, trotted over and picked the spear up in his jaw, head held to one side, the jagged metallic point facing forward. `Symbol of my pack. In proudness.' his translator said. Kaaren sat down to one side of the nest and beckoned that he should come closer. He put the spear back, stalked over to her and crouched down, chin resting between his paws, regarding her with his disconcertingly eyeless face. `Tell me about Camerol.' Numerija's head wobbled from side to side, which was probably a significant gesture to another Tsialo, but it meant nothing to her. `Camerol. Found as a child. Age of, less than ten percent of yours.' Kaaren leaned a little closer, reached out and scratched him behind the slight swellings of muscles at the base of his head. He leaned forward, stretching his neck out, enjoying the attention. `Where did you find her?' she asked. `Tsifayos. Twin-planet-to-Tsialos-home. Was in ownership-relation to Bythians, with also other humans in ownership-relation.' `I'm sorry... I don't understand.' `Slavery. Slave to Bythians. Was part of cargo, also other small humans, many.' Behind her, Kaaren heard someone approaching from the passageway. Camerol/Avyx entered, seemingly unsurprised to see her there. Kaaren said, `Numerija has been telling me about your childhood.' Camerol/Avyx grimaced. `My human parents were part of a colony, farming the tropical zone of Tsifayos. They were captured and made into slaves by Bythians just after I was born.' She kicked a heap of what looked like long, narrow towels into a pile, sat down on it. `I was almost three years old when they decided to pack about thirty of us - children under the age of ten - into a cargo ship and take us off to Bythe Prime. We'd barely cleared the atmosphere when we were attacked by a Moridani Cancership.' Kaaren, in her days with the student underground, had heard of them. Automated, unmanned, small and fast. Designed specifically to attack ships containing Bythians. `It used some sort of radiant energy weapon, killed all the Bythians on board, and then left us to die. We drifted with no-one at the controls for about four days, before a ship from Tsialos intercepted us.' Numerija lifted his head. `NoSanNoOs laws-against-independant-spaceflight, broken, and Tsialo's first independent space-craft, and we found ship full of human children and took them home with us.' `So you're telling me that the Bythians keep human slaves, in defiance of the laws of the Dominion.' Camerol gave her a pitying look. `They enforce the laws. Who's going to intervene if they choose to break them?' ... `We're here.' Ranfurlie said. `Wherever that is.' Kaaren examined the navigation display. `The trailing Trojan point of Bythe and it's second moon, Fer. There aren't any artificial structures in range...' The cache Locator's display flashed, and the pointer swung around through about thirty degrees. Kaaren oriented the ship along that bearing and looked through the forward scanner. The display was empty; Bythe was behind them and Fer was well off to one side. Keeping an eye on the locator, Kaaren moved the ship forward slowly. As they progressed, the pointer shifted, until it was pointing about fifty degrees down from the ship's axis. Kaaren re-aligned the ship and crept forward again. Within a minute, a shape had appeared in the scanner's view-field. It looked like an old weather satellite; a pock-marked grey cylinder, with the stubs of antennae poking out from one end. Ranfurlie examined it in close-up for a few moments, then announced, `I'm going out to bring it inside.' The cylinder - two metres long, one metre in diameter - sat on the floor of the second cargo bay. Ranfurlie, wearing a powered pressure-suit, had shoved the helmet back on its hinge and was trying to prise off one end of the cylinder. There was a recessed handle set into the end, but it had vacuum-welded and wouldn't move. Kaaren handed him a small mallet; he smiled, hefted it and whacked the handle, once, twice. It gave way with a metallic pinging sound and the end of the cylinder dropped off. Inside, rows of translucent wafers were arranged along the inner side of the cylinder. Ranfurlie tugged one free, examined it. `NoSanNoOs data-storage. I mean, the technology is NoSanNoOs... no saying who they belong to, or what they have stored in them.' Kaaren shrugged, then said, `Hand me one, and stick the rest in cargo bay four.' She took the wafer up to the forward deck, and held it against the base of the cache locator. The wafer seemed to melt in her fingers, like a biscuit dissolving in hot coffee, as the locator absorbed it. When it was gone, the pointer dimmed, then re-appeared, pointing off in a new direction. By the time Ranfurlie had joined them, they were under way again. Six hours later, they landed near the south pole of the planet Syndaine. Buried some six meters under the frozen ground, they found a small Bythian scout-ship, packed to the gunwales with dusty hand-weapons, bombs, grenades and surface-to-air-missiles. Ranfurlie climbed down into the ship with a view to getting it started, but couldn't figure out the control system. Camerol told him to leave her there; his armoured suit climbed out of the hole and stood a few meters away. Shortly, the ice around the hole cracked, fragments flying up and bouncing off the side of their ship; the scout ship, piloted by Camerol, ground its way out of the hole and into the waiting cargo hold. When Ranfurlie met her inside, he noticed the name SHERA on her lapel-badge. Camerol/Shera stared at him contemptuously; as if he had just excreted on the deck. He said nothing, went over to the scout, climbed in and picked up a grenade belt. He removed one grenade from its clip, took it up to the forward deck and handed it to Kaaren, who touched it to the base of the locator. The grenade was absorbed; the pointer re-orientated again. During the next three days, they circumnavigated the Dominion. On Binkley, they found a well sunk twenty metres into the top of a dome-shaped volcanic outcropping; at the bottom was a softened, transparent plastic sphere, studded with small vials, each filled with a straw-coloured fluid. On Millimillenary, they found a hand-case full of bank-notes, stuck into the ventilation shaft of a building in a deserted sector. After a brief examination, Camerol/Anther declared them antiques, almost four thousand years old, from the time when physical currency was used in the Dominion. Several hundred light-years out from their edge of the galaxy, they found a cluster of dull lead-coloured spheres, drifting in open space. Detailed scans didn't penetrate the shells; when they tried to cut one open with a microwave laser, it exploded, throwing the remaining spheres off in different directions. A fragment bounced off the ship with a resounding clang. Scanning space around them, Ranfurlie concluded that the sphere had contained a large amount of hydrogen at high pressure. He took the tracer outside the ship and exposed it to the traces of gas; they continued their journey. They found an abandoned Export on Riortrina 229, with several dozen disassembled NoSanNoOs impeller engines buried under the main landing pad; what appeared to be a grave-yard for alien gastropods, dotted about with ten-metre-tall spiral shells decorated in swirling crimson patterns; an abandoned star-ship, of pre-NoSanNoOs design, empty except for hundreds of cases of flat ceramic bottles filled with ashes... Thee first step towards control is ownership. Thee foundation of ownership is understanding. Ownership of information is thee real system of control. To know a thing is to possess it. To possess a thing is to be able to manipulate it. genesis p orridge, `Information War' They had followed the pointer to its latest destination: Tsifayos. The human colonies had been abandoned, and as they passed over the tropical zone, Kaaren could see no sign of human habitation. The tracer led them to a rainforest on the continent that spanned most of the northern hemisphere. Buried deep in a glade, they came across a wrecked NoSanNoOs cargo pod. Camerol's badge had read NOSHEVATHO when they found it, but Kaaren observed that it had changed to SHERA once they'd managed to force the doors all the way open. Camerol/Shera led the way. It was dark inside; she held a torch in front of her, and Kaaren noticed that the multiple had taken a hand-gun from the Bythian scout; it sat in a low-slung holster anchored to her thigh. In the small area illuminated by the torch, Kaaren could see dirt, dead leaves and withered vines that had crept in through the broken doors. As Camerol/Shera pointed the torch further back, Kaaren saw bones. Small skulls. And skeletons of children. Kaaren knelt down, felt amongst the detritus and picked up a bone, the tip of a finger. At the far end of the cargo pod, she located the scanner links and ripped out a length of cable. She left, with Camerol/Shera standing near the doorway, staring expressionlessly at the ruins inside. On the forward deck, she pressed the cable against the locator. Nothing happened. She pressed the finger-bone against it. The tiny grey cylinder melted away silently. The children that had been on board the cargo pod were the cache. Ranfurlie and Numerija joined her on the forward deck. The engineer went forward and peered through the display at the greenery below, looking at the cargo pod. Kaaren joined him, just as a bright flash lit the edges of the pod door. There was a booming sound, easily discernible through the ship's walls, and the far end of the pod blew off, fragments spinning through the air. The walls of the pod split unevenly; three more explosions sounded, breaking more pieces off. The pod door began to glow dull red, then orange; sections of the door were heated to the point where they melted, dripping from the frame. When it was clear, Camerol stepped over the smoking hatchway, wielding the Bythian hand-gun, and walked towards the ship. Before she disappeared into the lower hatch, Kaaren could see her face from where they stood; it was, as usual, devoid of any expression. Kaaren went down to cargo bay four to meet the multiple. She was replacing the Bythian hand-gun in its rack inside the scout-ship. When she turned around, Kaaren was surprised to see that her name-tag was blank. They stared at each other in silence for a few moments; Kaaren imagined that she could see a faint cast to Camerol's expression... sadness? pleading? a cry for help? She was about to rush forward to grab her when the face of the name-tag blurred, random characters appearing, finally resolving into the name GARA. She blinked, swayed momentarily; Kaaren reached out and held her arms, supporting her. Camerol/Gara smiled, a dim echo of the assured smile that Kaaren had come to associate with Avyx, and spoke in a whisper, `Let's proceed to the next cache.' ... Their next stop was, surprisingly, Earth; to be precise, the dark side of Earth's moon. The only illumination was from the stars above, as Ranfurlie went out in his suit and retrieved an unmarked metal canister, about the size of a garbage can. When opened, it revealed several layers of foam-padding, an airtight plastic pack which contained one bottle of Sam Cougar Black Bourbon Whiskey, over three hundred years old. Kaaren wrenched it open, sniffed and shuddered. Ranfurlie smiled, took the bottle, tilted his head back and drank a good three fingers' worth. He handed the bottle back to her and said in a strangled voice, `Not bad.' Kaaren grinned and wiped a droplet off the neck of the bottle, to feed to the tracer. The next cache was a long way off, straight up, out of the galaxy's plane. There were no stars in the vicinity, and it looked as if they were leaving civilisation behind altogether before the locator pinged and adjusted its scale. Kaaren had been monitoring their course carefully, as she'd never been taught about extra-galactic navigation and she didn't want to lose her bearings; she was the first to notice the ship's slight deviation from its prescribed route. She corrected it, but found that she had to correct it again almost immediately. She scanned the volume of space in front of the ship; nothing there except for a tiny, metallic dot, slightly off to one side; evidently, their destination. She upped the magnification on the scope; the dot grew to a dull, featureless silver sphere. Something in the back of her mind sounded an alarm; she halted the ship. `What's wrong?' asked Ranfurlie. `I'm not sure,' she replied. `What do you make of that?' pointing to the scanner-screen. Ranfurlie examined it. `Well... it's about seven hundred metres in diameter, composition... hmm.' He manipulated a few more controls; while he was absorbed in his task, Kaaren noted that the ship had begun to drift forward. She applied a correction which would hold them steady. Numerija and Camerol/Noshevatho joined them on the forward deck. Ranfurlie looked up from his screens. `All I can tell you is that whatever it is, it's a lot more massive than it looks.' He moved over to another console. `I'll try a laser-spectrogram...' A few seconds later, he gave a grunt of surprise. Kaaren moved over to join him. `Nothing happened. It just absorbed the beam. I'll try the next step up...' Again, nothing. `It's a shame that x-ray laser isn't still on-board, or we could try that.' Camerol/Noshevatho got up and left, saying over her shoulder, `I'll try something.' Kaaren chased her down to cargo bay four, calling out `Hey!'; she didn't stop. She reached the hatch of the Bythian scout-ship before Kaaren caught up with her and saw that her lapel-badge read SHERA once more. Kaaren put her hand on Camerol/Shera's shoulder; the multiple spun around and glared at her. Kaaren recoiled slightly; Camerol/Shera grated, `Ty ny'dabo, ny'drodak. Faval. Yl chto-kosha ko'dit!' Kaaren realised with a shock that she was speaking Bythian and she took another step backwards. Camerol/Shera entered the scout-ship and emerged a few seconds later with an armful of wrist-sized tubes. She strode over to the cargo bay door, ordered it to open. An impeller field kept the air from escaping. Kaaren edged closer, trying to see what the multiple was doing. Camerol/Shera turned around and said in a clipped, hissing accent, `Order that the ship be turned, to orient this hatch on the object.' Ranfurlie, who was listening over the intercom, did so. Camerol/ Shera carefully placed the tubes on the floor at her feet, picked up one and thrust it through the field. She pressed a contact at the end of the tube; it chirped like a cricket and moved the rest of the way through the field of its own volition. Kaaren got as close as she dared, and watched as the tube drifted out into open space. When it was about ten metres away from the ship, one end lit up like a flare, and the tube shot off towards the object. A few seconds later, Ranfurlie reported over the intercom, `It hit, but nothing happened. It just vanished.' Camerol/Shera snarled and set off a second missile. This one departed as the first did, but instead of shooting directly at the sphere, aimed for a close orbit. `That one got closer,' Ranfurlie said, `but it got drawn into a tight spiral and hit on the far side. I didn't see what happened to it, but I'd guess that it didn't go off either.' Kaaren glanced at Camerol/Shera, who was standing perfectly still with her fists clenched. She appeared to reach a decision, and strode back to the scout-ship, reappearing with a cradle-like structure of bright red rods arranged in a dodecahedron. It was about thirty centimetres in diameter, and there was something within the cradle that Kaaren couldn't quite focus her eyes on. Camerol/Shera tossed it casually through the impeller field, in the general direction of the object, then briskly departed for the forward deck, with Kaaren trailing. Ranfurlie's attention was glued to the forward scanner as the dodecahedron slowly floated towards the object. Numerija jumped up, his forepaws on the edge of the console, his sightless attention directed at the screen. `What is that?' Ranfurlie asked without taking his eyes off the display. `Antimatter.' Camerol/Shera casually remarked. Kaaren felt faint, and sat down in her couch heavily. In her student days, she'd heard of civilisations that had dared to produce antimatter; they'd been exterminated wholesale by the NoSanNoOs. Still, she thought, after what we've done so far, we might as well go all the way... Together, they watched as the diminishing red shape fell towards the dull metal sphere, accelerating as it got closer. When it hit, there was a brilliant flare of white light, and the forward scanner went dead. Ranfurlie checked it; `The fixed-mount external receivers are dead. I could replace them, but it would be easier to turn the ship around and use a different set.' He did so, and to their disappointent, the sphere was undamaged. There was a dull red spot glowering balefully from the point of impact, but apart from that, it appeared unchanged. Ranfurlie sat back with an air of resignation. Kaaren looked at Camerol, who looked back. Her badge had changed to read AVYX. `I think that it's made of neutronium. I'll check the NoSanNoOs records for any information; you check the Data from the Nexus University.' she said. ... About half an hour later, Ranfurlie suddenly sat up. `If the forward scanners are dead, then they must have been hit by something - alpha particles, radiation, even excessive levels of visible-spectrum light. Something resulting from that explosion reached the ship, so...' Kaaren picked up his line of reasoning. `So, if we placed the tracer near it and set off another antimatter charge, something might touch the tracer and reset it.' Ranfurlie nodded vigorously. `Camerol - can you set one of those missiles to pass around the sphere and return to the ship?' She nodded slowly. `I'll remove the TCI charges. I wouldn't want a live missile coming back at us.' Numerija added, `Inform me, of mass of tracer, of missile and antimatter; estimate will be made of sphere's mass, and I will evaluate optimal courses.' He trotted off to fetch his nanocomputer. Ranfurlie and Camerol/Shera were down in the cargo bay, preparing the packages. The locator was fixed between two TCI missiles which had been slaved to the controls on the forward deck. Camerol/Shera pushed a second antimatter container through the impeller field, towards the neutronium sphere. They tracked its course carefully; when it was about one-third of the way to its destination, Camerol/Shera released the TCI missiles and the tracer, which assumed a wide orbit around the sphere. Ranfurlie remembered to close the hatch just before the explosion. On the forward deck, Kaaren was struggling with the controls. Numerija cocked his head to one side and made a polite sound of enquiry. She explained, `The blast damaged the missiles - one of them isn't responding at all, and the other is behaving erratically.' She cancelled its instructions and simply ordered it to break orbit. The missiles, their position marked by the exhaust-flare, receded rapidly. Kaaren moved the ship after it, giving the neutronium sphere a wide berth, flying sideways so as to be able to see their target through the starboard scanner. As Camerol/Shera and Ranfurlie rejoined her on the forward deck, she cursed, `Damn, it's accelerating. We won't lose it, but this could take a while...' Camerol/Shera centred the runaway missiles on the starboard scanner with the ease of a veteran gunner, and they drove after it, gaining slowly. Suddenly, a second ship appeared between them and the tracer. Smaller, and evidently much more powerful than their freighter, it twisted about, orienting on the wildly-swerving missiles and dove straight at them. As the TCI charges died, the flare at the tail of the one working missile blinked, then went out; the smaller ship closed on the unbalanced package with inhuman precision. Kaaren held the freighter back, unsure what to do next. The decision was not theirs, however; after capturing the tracer, the small ship executed a 180-degree turn and shot straight towards them. `Bythian Cruiser.' said Numerija flatly. The communication screen pinged; Kaaren pressed the space bar and it lit up, displaying the blank-insect-eyed, hatchet-shaped head of a Bythian. No-one said anything. ice that don't heat freeze howl hollow howl in vast space all light displaced skinny puppy, `First Aid' It appeared to be lacking a mouth; the closest thing to a mouth-like structure was the series of vents which broke the forward edge of its axe-shaped head, which was slightly turned to one side to permit the Bythian to view them through the fist-sized compound eye. It had a standard NoSanNoOs translator clipped to its belt, and the standard, flatly intoned voice spoke from it. `New information has come to light regarding the device which you are testing,' it said, turning slowly to encompass all of them in its view. `we have reason to believe that enemies of the Dominion wish to use it for disestablishmentarian purposes. Therefore - ' The xenoform suddenly turned and ran for the hatch through which it had entered. The ship lurched under their feet; Kaaren half-fell against the control console. She spun around and dropped into the seat before the main screen, activated it and located the Bythian ship, nestled against theirs. As they watched, it drifted away, turning end-over-end slowly. Kaaren leaned closer; an unfamiliar alarm sounded throughout the ship. Ranfurlie, sitting at a console to her right, commented, `Radiation flare warning - but...' he touched contacts on the terminal, `it's not harmful - I mean, it's...' Numerija joined him and filled in; `Radiation is common to variety of weapon used by the Moridani against the Bythians. Harmful in extended high exposure; fatal only to Bythians in short term.' Kaaren scanned space around the ship as the Bythian ship continued to tumble away from them. `Moridani... I thought they were extinct.' Ranfurlie snorted, gesturing at the slowly receding Bythian ship. `They wish. I was wondering when we'd come across a cache that was still being guarded...' Kaaren nudged the freighter towards the Bythians as Numerija pointed to one corner of the screen and said, `Cancership. There.' It moved too fast for them to see any detail; roughly cylindrical, dark grey with a line of brilliant green light along one side. It dodged around the Bythian ship a few times, executing sharp turns that would have crushed any living thing on board (in Kaaren's estimation), then docked with the dormant cruiser. Kaaren held back, waiting to see what would happen next. After about two minutes, the cylinder darted away, a bright flash stinging their eyes and ripping a large hole in the side of the cruiser. Air and fragments spilled out into space, propelling the ship away from them in a rough spiral. The Cancership hung before them, light pulsing along the side from one end to the other. The communications screen hissed, filled with static, and then resolved into a shape: a light grey face, triangular, huge, diagonally-slitted eyes, vertical mouth filled with needle teeth. It looked like a large preying mantis. A wiry hand held up the Cache Locator. The head tilted to one side. The mouth moved, without sound; the creature made an adjustment on a console before it, then spoke. `We're sorry if we've seriously inconvenienced you, but we desperately need this device.' When no-one spoke, it continued. `We hope to use it to locate NAPAI.' Ranfurlie cleared his throat, and said, `With a view to destroying it, I suppose.' The xeno bobbed its head, and laughed. `Nothing that drastic, human. We merely want to make a few... administrative suggestions, along the lines of "Halt the Genocide of New Races", "Release Controls On Scientific Progress", and the like. Of course, if NAPAI isn't willing to listen, then we'll have to resort to, ah, coercion.' The xeno tilted its head to one side and smiled, revealing dozens of teeth shaped like thin shards of glass. `We'd really like to be able to bring one of you with us... we've found that humans are a handy race to have around, but we expect that you all have your own lives to lead.' Camerol stepped forward. Kaaren saw the name GARA on her lapel-badge. `I don't,' she said. `After this, I don't expect the NoSanNoOs to welcome me back to the position I once held.' The xeno closed its eyes and bowed its head. `I'll be waiting for you in the cargo hold.' I never understood alienation. Alienation from WHAT? You have to want to be a part of something in order to feel alienated from it. boyd rice Kaaren sat back in the couch, one foot resting on the control console. Ranfurlie was leaning in the doorway, examining the dusty bottle of whiskey, turning it over in his hands, watching the light refracting through its amber depths. They were on their way back to Earth. Camerol/Gara and Numerija had gone with the Moridani, headed for god knew where. Kaaren had tracked them, watching the tiny Cancership as it accelerated and then vanished with a flare of emerald light - a signature, she supposed, of the Moridani equivalent of the NoSanNoOs FTL drive. No-one spoke as the freighter accelerated. The ship seemed vacant; the absence of their companions was not something they could pretend to ignore. Eventually, Kaaren spoke. `I feel a certain dissatisfaction with the way this has ended.' Ranfurlie came over and sat next to her. `Look at it this way: we're still alive, we have something to show for the trip -' he held up the half-empty bottle, liquid sloshing about inside, `and we've seen a few things that most people wouldn't even dream about.' Kaaren took the bottle from him and worked the top off. `I don't know what we're going to say when we reach Earth...' she upended the bottle and gulped noisily. `We won't tell them anything. We'll just get off the ship, unload the cargo and go. We won't have any trouble selling any of it - I know a factor who won't ask any questions.' Kaaren ran her tongue over her teeth and lay back in the control couch. `Ahhh... I still feel - it's... well, we're at the mercy of one race or another... if it wasn't the NoSanNoOs, it'd be the Moridani... or someone else.' Ranfurlie examined the screen which showed their course; made a slight adjustment. `The difference being that the NoSanNoOs are in complete control, and if the Moridani were running things... well, at least we'd get some autonomy.' There was a pause. `It'll never happen,' Kaaren opined quietly. `There's just too many of them.' `We can only hope.' He took the bottle from her and capped it; dropped it on the floor and put his arms around her. The ship rocked as it swerved to avoid some obstacle. Kaaren glanced worriedly at the forward scanners; then she shook her head in resignation and, smiling, hugged him. -------------------------------------------------------------------- This file is Copyright (c) Nikolai Kingsley, 1995. Unlimited electronic reproduction and one hard-copy per user is permitted, for non-profit use, providing that this notice is left intact. hail eris - Fnord - all hail discordia - 93 - oops, that's my banana --------------------------------------------------------------------


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