Voyager in night, p.11
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       Voyager in Night, p.11

           C. J. Cherryh
 
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  "Sure," she said. An icy worm crawled somewhere at her gut. "You got anything to do besides this? Let's see your face, why not?”

  "You don't like me using this shape. Your brother's-your husband's; that you can tolerate. This bothers you.”

  "I hate your guts. Surprising?”

  "And now you're scared. Something's got inside.”

  She was. She stared at the thing eye to eye and it had her own most determined look.

  "Go to hell," she said.

  "Your strategy is self-defense. Around that you arrange your priorities. I understand this.”

  It had made her angry. It had made her afraid. It had indeed gotten through. Stupid, she thought, stupid to debate this thing. That it had her, that it lived inside her head, made her afraid not to listen to it, and that was a trap. She shut that worry down, assumed its own crosslegged pose in mockery. "Suppose we see your face. The way you really are.”

  "Clever," it said.

  "I shut you off, didn't I?" It smiled, her own most wicked smile. "Shut me down cold," it said.

  "That brain reacts-mirror image to mine.”

  "When it's on the same track. Think of children.”

  Back in her lap. She went off her balance, confused.

  "You don't like the idea," it said. "Rafe's upset you didn't live to have the kids he wanted so, he's upset and ashamed he's upset, and won't mention it to you because he thinks in the first place you're grieved at losing that chance and secondly that you'd think it affects his care for you. I know. I felt it quite distinctly.”

  "Thank him for me," she said hoarsely. "Spare him my opinions.”

  "You did. Spare him that, I mean. Your sex bears the young, with some pain; more than that the time. You bear one at a time; there had to be several. It meant going to Ajax, being absent from everything you valued, for a long period of your lifespan; it meant inactivity; it meant kids' noise and helplessness, which you don't like; it meant pretending for years and years that you were happy when you weren't, because your misery would affect the men, and cause them pain, and affect the kids, and ruin all the rest of the years you had left to live. Everything Rafe's worked for-depends on you. And you hate it.”

  "Don't tell them that.”

  "This is the center where no one comes. Death can't affect it. This is the strategy: silence, and to strike from this place where nothing can come. This virtue. This anger that sustains you. You

  know your limits. You cherish no illusions. But I'm here.”

  "Welcome in," she said, staring through it. "Now there are two of us. You want a fight? I'll give you one.”

  "Yes," it said. "I know. But I would win. I have, before. I destroyed that version of you. It was no longer whole.”

  "Fine," she said. There was a knot in her throat that made talking painful. "That was kind of you.”

  "Humor," it said.

  "Absolutely.”

  "I want your help," it said.

  She looked at it, a sudden shortening of focus, a centering of hate. "Do you?”

  "You don't fully understand," it said, "what these versions are. They're alive.”

  "That one was?" She moved her eyes where Paul had lain, unconscious on the floor. "You killed it? You want my help?”

  "He. That version died in his sleep, without pain. He can die-infinitely often. No," the dop-pelganger said, lifting her hand. "That wasn't a threat. I'm explaining what you are. You have a certain integrity, right now. You're unique, much more flexible than the template I have in storage. You've learned. That version of Paul I twice destroyed-never waked after the wreck. The one I sent you to keep you content, that one was from the same template; and it came to consciousness with you all settled in your state. You brought it-gently up to date; it's more stable as a consequence. Paul, you know, doesn't like shocks. He relies on you in these circumstances. He needs your flexibility. Your expertise as spacers, greater than his own. Oh, I know-you're lost. That's why the first Paul ran off. He leaned on you and you didn't provide the prop. So he leaned on himself. And he ran.”

  "O my God.”

  "No, indeed you didn't get the same Paul back. And you did, in one important sense. The one you have now is healthier. He still belongs to you. The other one, the one that ran, has diverged considerably. You thanked me for destroying your damaged selves. But Paul's first copy was damaged too. It's not a Paul you'd understand. And a stray version of Rafe exists, that's gone way off. Rafe has his weaknesses. That's why I'm talking to you. The stable one. The one with the solid core. The only one it hasn't got. Yet.”

  "It. What-itr

  "This ship has a lot of passengers. One of them.”

  "And who are you?”

  "Kepta. Kepta's what to call me.”

  "You're in charge?”

  "Captain would be close. I'm going to copy you again. It's the best defense. That there'll be one version of you neither naive nor-if things go wrong-corrupt. It will hurt, Jillan. It's not my choice. It's just your nature.”

  It was gone.

  And the pain began.

  " knows," said =< + >== <-> = =. " knows O're disarranged.”

  <> was not surprised at the Cannibal's report. <> stayed quiet now, digesting what <> had learned, while in the lab, with another part of O's mind, <> was quite busy.

  "Move us," said o>, anxiously, from elsewhere in the ship. O> feared the Cannibal and stayed far away. "Move us from this place. Others of this species may come.”

  "No," <> said, "not yet.”

  <•> raged and wept, fearful for O>self. <-> was very old, and very fond of o>self, besides being slightly mad, and <"> skulked off, with |||000||| slinking after in growing despair.

  " knows what <> have done," O> said again, turning back.

  " knows," said another, unexpected voice. It was self. had ventured to the limits of 's security, that line across which <> did not go. This intrusion into O's affairs was purest insolence, demonstrating 's strength; but demonstrating impotence as well: had met a limit could not pass.

  But brought a companion who had no such disabilities. <> saw this. "Paul," <> addressed Paul One, which hung back, twined with crippled Rafe-mind, the one that had worn. Paul had acquired new pieces, shadow-limbs, extensions in the dark, at least three arms, maybe four; and legs as well.

  The Paul-mind said something, garbled like itself. ". . . . fear," came out. "jillan rafe bastard want come now . . .”

  "Not very articulate," <> said. The template <> was making was complete. With deliberation <> released the subject, dismissed her out of reach and fronted 's vexation with insouciance. * * *

  Gentle, human arms were about her, light shone above her, and for a moment Jillan believed in both implicitly, having no wish to move at all, only to be, and not to think.

  "Jillan," Paul's voice called. His fingers touched her face, brushed back a stubborn lock of hair-he often did that small thing, of mornings, to wake her up. Tears leaked between her lashes; but the pain was gone, just gone, as if it had never been, hard even to remember now. She opened her eyes and blinked at Paul's face, at two of Rafe's, one of the twins like Paul, dimmed by the lights; the other, Rafe's living self.

  Her men, she thought, exhausted. All three of them safe, here among Lindy's pathetic pieces. She sat up and held to Paul's shoulder, hung on it like a drifter to a hold in null, and gazed at both her brothers, the living and the one neither live nor dead.

  "You all right?" Rafe asked, a rusty, painful sound.

  "What happened to your voice?”

  "Had a bad while," he said. "Over now. I'm not hurt. You?”

  She nodded. Her mind felt adrift in fragments. There was too much, too much they did not know. She tightened her grip on Paul's bare shoulder and drew a deep and shaky breath. "I'm all right," she said. "You know somebody named Kepta?”

  "Yes," said her living brother in that strained, hoarse voice. "I know him.”

  "Him." The mental shift made h
er think again. "Her. It. Whatever. Whatever it really is." She slid her hand down to Paul's and clenched its solidity. "I'm all right. You?”

  "Fine," Paul said. "Fine," said Rafe, her Rafe, the one the light shone through. She felt a chill how be sure it's them, mine, not something else"?-as if the floor were falling away, the gossamer-carpet floor her body could not feel. She stared at them and froze a moment, then drew her limbs under her and sat apart, pulling her hand from Paul's, resting her forehead on her knee.

  "Destroy all of them," [] said, one of ten of []kind, one of a chorus of voices, hundreds of outraged protests which <> ignored, occupied as <> was. Paul-mind had retreated, with , to that place where was firmly in charge.

  It was too late to recover Paul One, <> knew. Paul One was quite, quite beyond any reason. More, he had gained a certain wariness, which indicated that his immunity against shutdown was increasing.

  <> could not keep from the controls long. There would be distractions. <> knew.

  "Aaaaiiiiiiii!" ((())) wailed, irreverent of boundaries, passed <> and hid, pathetic in ((()))'s disturbance. But ((())) had never been particularly self-restrained before ((())) slipped from sanity. "Am," ((())) mourned, in short, painful sobs, "aiii, aiii.”

  "Accurate," said <>.

  "Jillan," Rafe said, unable to touch her-he reached, that was all that he could do; and every movement hurt his sprains. "You're sure that you're all right?" "Sure," she said in a hoarse small voice. "Rafe how do you know it's me?”

  A chill went over him. "Your asking makes it likely," he said after a moment. "Doesn't it? It's you. Question is-how far down the line?”

  "You know, then.”

  "I know," he said.

  She ran a hand through her hair, disturbing its disorder, blinked at him, at the ones insubstantial like herself. "Paul? Rafe?”

  "What?" Rafe Two answered.

  "You know-both of you-about the copies that exist”

  "I saw my double," Paul said. "Didn't all of us?”

  "That question's always worth asking," she said to Paul. "Didn't all of us?" Her eyes came back to Rafe, haunted. "You know what dawns on me? That even I don't know which I am. It copied me. Which one left? Which stayed? It's all academic, isn't it? That copy's back there, and if it's awake, it's scared as I'd be. Doing everything I'd do, thinking every thought, because it is-me. I am there. And here. That's the way it works.”

  "For God's sake, Jillan”

  "Rafe, I talked-talked-I'm not even sure of that ... to something that calls itself Kepta; it's in charge. There's more than one.”

  "You're sure of that.”

  "It said there were a lot of passengers. A lot. And, Paul-Paul, that copy of you we saw-one of them's got it. Got one of you, Rafe. This Kepta says they've gotten-damaged somehow. That they're maybe-dangerous.”

  "Jillan," Rafe Two said, sharp and brittle. "Jillan,

  save it. Our brother's not involved in this. He's leaving.”

  "Leaving?”

  "Tell it to me," Rafe said to her, hearing things that made far too much sense. Jillan looked afraid, glancing from one to the other of them. Paul's face was stark with panic. "How-dangerous?”

  "What's this about leaving?" Jillan asked him; and when he said nothing, looked at Rafe Two.

  "It's given him a chance," Rafe Two said. "It'll take him to Paradise, a capsule of some kind, a signal-it'll drop him off.”

  "You believe that?" Jillan asked, looking round at him.

  "What did Kepta say to you?" Rafe persisted in his turn.

  "It's the best promise we've got," the doppel-ganger said in his, crouching there, hands loose between his knees. "It says it's moving on, going elsewhere. No more concern with the whole human race. Wants to drop off our living component, it does. Maybe before his food runs out. I don't know why. I don't care. I've told Rafe I'd just as soon he was out of here.”

  "Rafe," Rafe said, "mind your business. Jillan, what's going on?”

  "Nothing," she said, tight and quick.

  "Don't give me nothing. It's got-what, the first of Paul? The one that ran. And me. Which me?”

  "I don't know." She shook her head, with panic in her eyes. "I've no idea.”

  "Early or late copy?”

  "I don't know. It didn't tell me that." "It's not your business," Rafe Two said. "You're leaving. You're getting off this ship.”

  "It's got to get there first." Rafe felt his heart beating double time, looked from one to the other of them, Jillan, Rafe-Paul, whose panic was all but tangible.

  "You take any ticket out of here you've got," Jillan said. "Look-Rafe: you're only one of you. You understand? I'm not alone. Paul's not. You're still with us. You'll be with us-in duplicate.”

  "She's right," his doppelganger said, putting out his hand as if to touch his arm. "You're superfluous aren't you? You take any way you can off this ship. We've already settled that.”

  Rafe sat still, staring at all of them, wiped his hand across his lip.

  "He's right," Paul said from over by the wall, in a small and steady voice. "You're the one that's really at risk. Get out if you've got a choice. We want you to do that. We want to know you're safe.”

  The voice lingered. Paul's body was gone. All of them were, suddenly, as if they had never been. There was only the corridor, the remnants, the pieces of Lindy.

  "That's not enough!" Rafe shouted, in his ruined whisper of a voice. He looked up at the warted, serpentine ceiling, the trail of lights and raised his fists at it. "Kepta” His voice gave way, beyond audibility. "Kepta," he tried again. "Kepta, send them back!”

  There was a passing wail, loud, devastatingly loud. He clapped his hands over his ears until the worst of it had gone.

  Then was silence, long silence. He sat down, aching, in the vacant chair at Lindy's console. He passed his hands over controls, the few that worked, and looked at the starfield vid gave him.

  He knew where he was now. He had confirmed Altair, and Vega burning bright, the two great beacons of the dark near human space, virtually touching from this perspective. The myriad, myriad others, the few wan human stars. Sol ... was out of field.

  That way? he wondered. Is that the direction it means to go? Is that what it's telling me? He could see Paradise, a dim, common star, nothing much, the kind mankind preferred.

  He switched on the com. "Kepta," he said, patiently, watching lights flicker, reckoning it might be heard. "Kepta, you want to talk to me?”

  No answer.

  He bowed his head on the console, looked up finally at the vid. Nothing changed. Inertial at 1/10 C. Drifting, after jump, in some place off human routes.

  No one would find them. God help .whoever did. God help the whole species if someone did.

  He wiped at his eyes, his cheek resting against the metal console. To leave this place-to let it take Paul and Jillan on-

  To let it have himself, in infinite series, erasing what it liked, keeping what it wanted until he was whatever Kepta chose--

  "Kepta, talk to me.”

  And after a long while of silence: "Kepta, you want to discuss this?" "I don't think," someone said behind him, "you'd recognize my voice on that radio.”

  He spun the chair about, wincing with sore ribs and joints, blinked at the dimming of the lights, at Jillan standing there.

  "Don't do that." His hoarseness betrayed him, cracked in his disturbance.

  "Come up behind you?" Kepta asked in Jillan's fair clear tones.

  "Her.”

  "Use this shape, you mean? It was convenient. Most recent, even more than yours. I don't like to partition off more than I have to, or struggle with a mind too long out of date.”

  "You going-where? Vega, maybe? Somewhere near?”

  "Might," Kepta said. "Might not.”

  "You won't say.”

  "I don't know," Kepta said. "I haven't decided that. Is that why you called me?”

  "Jillan said-there was trouble on the ship.”

  "There m
ay be.”

  "Look, are we going to Paradise?”

  "I told you that we were.”

  "What trouble?”

  "I don't see it concerns you.”

  "Dammit-I want to know.”

  Jillan's eyes looked up at him, with Jillan's innocence, beneath a fringe of disordered hair. "What difference can it make?”

  "I'm not going. I'm not leaving this. I want to know.”

 
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