`He says Why -
Why do we do this?
This is the very thing that's preying on his mind...'
`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
`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,
`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
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
`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
`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
`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
`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
`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
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.
`.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
`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
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
`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
`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
`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
`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
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
`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
`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
`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
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
`They enforce the laws. Who's going to intervene if they choose to
`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
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
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,
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
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
`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
`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
`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
`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
As Camerol/Shera and Ranfurlie rejoined her on the forward deck, she
`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
No-one said anything.
ice that don't heat
freeze howl hollow howl
in vast space
all light displaced
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
`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
`With a view to destroying it, I suppose.' The xeno bobbed its head,
`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
I never understood alienation. Alienation from WHAT?
You have to want to be a part of something in order
to feel alienated from it.
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
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
`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