Voyager in night, p.15
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       Voyager in Night, p.15

           C. J. Cherryh
 
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' am taking over. Step aside. Neutrality is all ask-until matters are rectified.”

  "Home," said one of [], with the ferocity of desire. [] forgot that []'s war was very long ago, or that []'s species no longer existed, and whose fault that was. But they were all, in some ways, mad.

  Kepta joined them, a Rafe-shape with infinity in its eyes. It stood before them in the featureless dark, and Paul faced it in a kind of numbness which said the worst was still coming; and soon.

  He was, for himself, he thought, remarkably unafraid; not brave-just self-deprived of alternatives.

  "It will be there," Kepta said, turning and pointing to the dark that was like all other dark about them. "Distance here is a function of many things. It can arrive here very quickly when it wants.”

  "What's it waiting for?”

  "My extinction," Kepta said, "and that's become possible. You must meet it on its own terms. You must stand together, by whatever means you can. You will know what to do when you see it, or if you don't, you were bound to fail from the

  beginning; and I will destroy you then. It will be a kindness. Trust me for that.”

  And it was gone, leaving them alone; but a star shone in the dark, a murkish fitful thing. Rafe pointed to it; Paul had seen it already.

  "Is that it?" Rafe wondered.

  "I suppose," said Paul, "that there's nothing else for it to be.”

  "Make it come to us," Jillan said. "Get it away from whatever allies it has.”

  "And what if its allies come with it?" Paul asked. "No. Come on. Time-may not be on our side.”

  They advanced then. And it moved along their horizon, a baleful yellow light.

  Chapter Nine

  They waited; that was what they were left to do, prisoners of the corridor, of Lindy's scattered pieces, of Kepta's motives and the small remnant of former realities.

  "I can't," Rafe Two mourned, having tried to will himself away into the dark where Paul had gone; and Rafe himself looked with pity on his doppelganger.

  "That'll be Kepta's doing," Jillan said. She sat tucked up in a chair that phased with her imperfectly, near Paul, loyally near their relict Paul, whose face mirrored profoundest shame.

  "I tried too," Paul Three said, in a hushed, aching tone, as if he were embarrassed even to admit the attempt. "Nothing. It's shut down, whatever faculty we had.”

  "You were outmaneuvered," Rafe said. "He's a little older than you.”

  "Not much," Jillan said to Paul on her own.

  "Hours. But a few choices older. He knew, that's what. He'd had time to figure it out; and he was way ahead of us. He got us all.”

  There was a glimmering of something in Paul Three's eyes. Resolve, Rafe thought. Gratitude. And something he had suddenly seen in that other Paul Gaines, the look of a man who knew absolutely what he was doing.

  Rafe Two picked that up, perhaps. Perhaps envied it; their minds were very close. That Rafe got up and turned his back as if he could not bear that confidence.

  Why not me? The thought broadcast itself from Rafe Two's every move and shift of shoulders. He walked away, partly down the corridor. Why not choose me? I was best. Oldest. Strongest.

  Responsibility.

  "Don't," Rafe said. "Stay put.”

  "I am," Rafe Two said, facing him against the dark, with bitterness. "I can't blamed well get anywhere down the hall, can I?”

  And then there was a Jillan-shape at his back, glowing in the dark.

  "Rafe," Rafe said, and Rafe Two saw his face, their faces, if not what was at his back. Rafe Two acquired a frightened look and turned to see what had appeared behind him in the corridor.

  The light retreated before them, continually retreated.

  "I guess," Rafe said, not breathing hard, because they could not be out of breath, or tired, nor could what they pursued, "-I guess it's not willing to be caught." "If that's the case," said Jillan, "we don't have a prayer of taking it.”

  "Unless it's willing to catch us," Paul said. "Maybe it's counted the odds and doesn't like three of us at once. /'// go forward. Maybe that will interest it.”

  "You can bet it will," Jillan said, and caught his arm. She was strong; strong as he: that was the law of this place; and he was going nowhere, not against her, not by any means against the two of them. Rafe stepped in his way and faced that distant light in his stead.

  "You!" Rafe yelled at it. "Lost your nerve? Never had it in the first place?”

  "That's one way," Paul said. "Let me tell you about that thing. It knows it's a coward. It lives with that real well. It knows all kinds of things about itself. That's its strength.”

  "You're wrong," Jillan said. "If it's you it's not a coward.”

  "Let's say it's prudent," he said. "Let's say-it knows how to survive. If we split up-it'll go for one of us. Me, I'm betting.”

  "Me," said Jillan. "I'm the one it doesn't have.”

  "It's scared of you," Paul said with a dangerous twinge of shame. "I really think it is.”

  "What's that mean?" Jillan asked.

  "That. Just that. It is. Keep pressing at it." He walked farther with them. The light they pursued grew no brighter.

  "Ever occur to you," Jillan asked then, "that we're being lured-ourselves?”

  "Where's Kepta?" Rafe demanded of the uncoun-seling dark, the void about them. "Dammit, where

  is he? He could be more help. What's he expect of us?”

  "Kepta's saving his own precious behind," Jillan said. "We're the delaying action. Don't you figure that?”

  But they kept walking, kept trying, together, since he could not persuade them otherwise. "Think of something," Paul said. "That's me we're chasing. It knows every move I'd make. Think of something to surprise it.”

  "It knows us," Jillan said, a low enthusiastic voice. "Too bloody well. It's not taking the bait.”

  "Kepta?" Rafe Two asked, facing Jillan's shape that strode toward him; but even while he asked it he kept backing up until he was within Lindy's limits, until he had Rafe beside him, and true-Jillan and Paul Three. There was something very wrong with that Jillan-shape, something very much different from Kepta in its silence, the curious unsteadiness of its walking.

  "Kepta?" Rafe himself asked it, at his side, half-merged with him.

  "Maranduuuu," it said, this puppetlike Jillan-shape, "Marand-u, I”

  "Stay back from us." Rafe Two held out a forbidding hand, making himself the barrier, remembering in a cold sweat that it could touch him, if not the original, that he could grapple with it if he had to-but he had wrestled Jillan-shape before when it was Kepta and he knew his chances against that strength. "Keep your distance. Jillan, Paul, get Rafe back. Get him back!”

  "Safe," it said. Its hands were before it, a hu manlike gesture that turned into one chillingly not, that tuck of both hands against Jillan's naked breasts, like the paws of some animal. One hand gestured limply. "Safe. Kepta sent” Eyes blinked, as if it were sorting rapidly. "Me," it decided. "Me. Marandu. To defend you.”

  "Do your defending from there," Rafe Two said, hand still held out, as if that could stop it.

  invaded another center of the ship, dislodging a few of the simpler passengers, who wept; and one complex, ||||, who sent out a strong warning pulse.

  did not counter this, or attack. The entity was not capable of aggression, but of painful defense. offered |||| choices. In time |||| redefined the necessities of ||||'s situation and wandered away.

  That was the first layer of <>'s defense about the replication apparatus. It went altogether too quickly, tempting to imprudent advance on the chiefest prize: the inner circle, the computer's very heart.

  So guessed where <> had centered Oself: would have done so. <> was there, wound about the replication apparatus and possessing every template there was. It was necessary to advance against that center sooner than had intended, and knew raw terror, approaching this place.

  There were doomsday actions that <> could take.


  " advise <> against such measures," said from a safe distance to the core. "They are ultimately destructive. Surplus copies of-” (

  used a pronoun collective of the ship and passengers) "would complicate matters. Get out of there. Give up. promise will replicate <> when have won the ship, when things are secure.”

  And in <>'s infuriating silence:

  "<>," said, "have not always kept the promises make?”

  "Are not one that <> kept?" came the answer, faint and deceptively far away. "<> regenerated in our last such impasse. <> did as <> said. Give up," <> added, a hubris that astonished , "and <> will show this mercy one more time. The struggle is inconclusive again. There is," <> added further, "always another time.”

  laughed in outrage. " will amalgamate these newcomers with <> when copy <>, since <> are so defensive of them. will add <*> and lump all y enemies together.”

  "Do this," <> whispered, no louder than the whisper of the stars against the ship-sensors, loud as the universe, "do this and regret it infinitely. Reciprocation, . Remember that. don't have the keys <> have. always have to resurrect <>. o've changed the keys; O've been doing it all through <>y waking. <> learned from ur old trick.”

  This was likely truth. <> was fully capable of altering the ship. But disdained the warnings and pressed forward, urging 's other parts to advance as well.

  Paul/Rafe was one. He was afraid, in aggregate. He trembled, constantly keeping his enemy in sight, but constantly assailed with doubts. He was in space, the stars about him, nothing for reference.

  He looked about for Lindy, but there was nothing there.

  So Rafe-mind fought him still, deep within his structure, having saved back some shred of itself for this. It fed Paul self-doubts.

  Far gone station's deepest ways, and it was not Security after Rafe Murray this time; it was another kind of force.

  No one freelance-smuggled with the likes of Icarus, no one crossed the moneyed interests that ran what they liked past customs; and if they caught him, if they saw his face-

  So Paul fought back, and drove Rafe-mind into shuddering retreat.

  Rafe made a mistake, a wrong turn in docks he had known all his life; but a stack of canisters against the wall became a maze, became a dead end, and cut off his retreat.

  "Got you, you bastard," said the first of the four that filled the aisle between the towering cans.

  He did not defend himself. It was not wise to antagonize them further. He only flung up his hands and twisted to shield himself as best he could, let them beat him senseless in the hopes they would be content with that, private law privately enforced, the kind they might not want Fargone authority involved in.

  They did a thorough job. They knew, from his lack of defense or outcry, that he would not be going to authorities to make complaint; that he had something to lose that way more than they could do to him. And in that frustration they took their time about it.

  "Where's the other one?" they asked him over and over, knowing they had chased two, but he had diverted them his way. He never answered them about JUlan, not a syllable.

  That was not the kind of thing Paul had hoped for. The memory died, quickly; but Rafe-mind stayed intact, locked into that moment with deliberate focus, with a certain satisfaction, the same he had shown the smugglers from Icarus.

  7, Paul kept thinking, until it was himself who had been betrayed and Rafe had done it. So he warped all such memories.

  Rafe wept, believing it at last.

  No police, he had thought, dragging himself away with a broken arm that, finally, had cost him and Jillan four months' savings for the meds. He evaded the police, passers-by, all help. There were questions that way; there was Welfare always ready to take charge of them and assign them a station job or send them to the mines to pay for Welfare help, forever, no hope of ships, no way out of debt for all their hopeless lives. A broken arm, the other things they did-that was small coin for freedom; and he must not talk, never complain, no matter what they did.

  "I fell," he told the meds, three days after, when the arm got beyond their care, and Jillan made him go.

  There were inconsistencies. At times he thought that Paul had helped them; at others it seemed that Paul was destitute as they, which he had not remembered.

  Rich, always rich, Paul Gaines, superior to him, clean and crisp in his uniform, station militia, sometimes Security-

  Was it Security, then? Was it the police and not Icarus crew that had found him in the corridors, that day and left him bruised and bleeding among the canisters for outbound ships?

  Welfare agents?

  Paul?

  Things muddled in his mind, defense collapsing.

  "Paul," he murmured, and felt the invasion of his mind, the superfluity of limbs which worked against his will.

  "They're there," Paul whispered to him. It seemed that he could see the folk of Icarus far across the dark. "There they are.”

  "Crazy," Rafe whispered back; and in a paroxysm of effort: "Paul-you died.”

  "Good," Paul said, quite satisfied with his state. "They're Icarids, Rafe. Aren't they? Let's go do something about them, why don't we?”

  The legs moved.

  "No," Rafe cried, "no, no, no.”

  And Paul enjoyed it. It was a weapon, Rafe's fear, and he had mastered it.

  They were no nearer than they had ever been on that dark and starless plain, the horizonless void which felt like nothing to their feet. The glow moved steadily, changing angles as they did, as if some invisible line connected it and them.

  "It's leading us," Rafe said, glancing aside as he said it; and Paul agreed the same heartfrozen moment that something turned up in their midst, all black segmented coils and legs glowing yellow at their joints as if light escaped. It towered among them, in nodding blind movements of its head.

  "Aaaiiii!" it wailed.

  "Get back," Jillan cried, hauling at his arm. "Run, for God's sake, run! Paul! It can't catch us”

  It did. Shock numbed his nonexistent bones, ached in his joints as it roiled into him and out again. "Paul!" Jillan yelled; she and Rafe came back to distract it from him, darting this way and that.

  "Help," came a strange multiple voice, choruslike, as it pursued their darting nuisance to it. "Help, help, help”

  "Look out!" Paul cried, for Jillan misjudged: he flung himself at it as Rafe did, as she screamed.

  It hit like high voltage: the beast itself yelped and writhed aside. All of them screamed, and then was silence.

  Paul froze .... in the numbness after shock, the fear that Jillan and Rafe were likewise crippled all these things applied. Most, it was the voice, the dreadful voice that wailed at them and stole wits with its frightfulness. "Help," it kept saying, and its forward end nodded up and down serpentlike, like something blind. It made a whistling sound. "Rafe? Rafe? Fles-sh-sh.”

  "O God," Jillan breathed, moving then, tugging backward at their arms. "Get back, hear me-get back. It's nothing we can handle, not this thing”

  "Lonely," it said, snuffling; it had the sound of a ventilation system, a periodic sibilance. "F-f-•flesh-sh. Rafe-lonely.”

  "Don't!" Paul cried, for it had encircled them, leaving them nowhere left to run. And to nothing at all, to the betraying, lightless air: "Kepta! Help!”

  "Can't," it said, snuffled, in its myriad of voices. "Name-can't-Aaaaiiieee!" "It's that howler-thing!" Jillan cried.

  "Aaaaaaee," it said. The head swayed back again and aimed toward the dark. "Came to this ship. We. Long time-long-Crazy, some. Rafe-mind ran.”

  "What, r'an>" Rafe Three asked it.

  "Fight," it said, blind head questing. "Fight." The voices entered unison. "-go with. Fought once. Paul” The head nodded off toward the star, the glow along the horizon, that seemed nearer now.

  "What are you?" Paul asked.

  "Fought once," it said, which seemed the sum of its identity. It starte
d off, in pursuit of the ebbing light.

  Dead, Paul reminded himself. You're already dead. Quit worrying. Time's short. And he wished that death was all.

  "Come on," he said to Jillan and Rafe Three, because he saw nothing else to do. He started walking in the wake of the looping creature, which humped and zigged its way through the dark like some great sea creature aswim in the murk, with graceful fluidity.

  Rafe was by him; he never doubted his constancy; and Jillan at his other side, never faltering.

  The star grew in their sight.

  Worm came circling back to them when the will-o'-the-wisp they chased had begun to shine globular and planetlike in the dark.

 
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