Voyager in night, p.18
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       Voyager in Night, p.18

           C. J. Cherryh
 
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, implanting instructions <> could not override. •

  <> died and remembered it when <> woke, with Ship long underway.

  FIND. REPORT. <> obeyed, until <> had calculated that transmission scatter was too much, and the years too many, and nothing mattered any more but Oself.

  <> traveled. It was all <> had left.

  <> made Oself for company. <> sought other goals.

  <> took on passengers.

  He/they/she and Worm . . . participated in a body that had more limbs than they had collectively. They were old; and badly scared; and knew too much.

  They/<"> were victims of Oself, helpless in their voyage. Passengers multiplied. <> took them in. <> changed and grew complex and made other selves. <'> shuddered, gazing at in memory.

  But one of <*>'s new-gained segments was of different mind.

  Ship, he thought, with vast, vast desire. He was structure; Paul was complexity; and Jillan-Jillan was going at that thing, possessed for once of strength and size and a wrath stored up for years.

  swooped and struck.

  They/Marandu moved, lancing through the patterns of the ship, darting this way and that at transmission speed, being here and there with electron lunacy.

  "Aiiiiiieeee!" Worm wailed, and discovered <(((Athem)))>self alive, to ((()))'s total startlement. "Aiiii-ya!”

  was in pursuit, was on them, through them.

  "Hate you," one thing said, collectively; Cannibal was tangled with it and it lusted, that was all that filled its mind.

  Fargone docks-

  And They/Marandu/Worm; no-failure, not-now beyond clear thought, beyond reasoning, except that they were still alive, like Worm, who had been a pilot once, and hurled ((()))'s skill into their evasions in the patterns.

  "Aiiiieeeiiiiii!" Worm cried, going to the attack.

  A red world lay in Marandu's past, much loved betrayer-for that memory, Marandu fought. "Lindyl" Rafe yelled, and felt Jillan and Paul distinctly at his side. Their own focus was a little ship, a hope, pilot-skill and stubbornness ... no world to love at all, only Fargone's hell.

  "Aiiiiieeeeeeyaaa!”

  A wall loomed up at them, Rafe-face amid it, howling as they merged.

  * * *

  <> was amazed.

  Bravery, <-> had said. It was.

  <> moved, with that same electron-swiftness as took <-> in.

  <> dived after, rummaged through almost-congruencies, started ripping things into order in 's distorted substance.

  Merged-with <>'s own mad self; and <*>; and sucked up disordered bits of other things.

  Worm-retreated, whimpering.

  Cannibal fled, outclassed.

  Only Paul One stood, howling rage at <>.

  And two others of itself surrounded it, denying divisions.

  Two more joined with Rafe-mind, such of it as remained. It clung to them.

  One cast herself amid it all, discovering loyalties beyond herself. Her double chose another target.

  <-> rode this last particle, straight to 's heart.

  <"A/they + +>" became "Athey".

  Became "“.

  Then <>.

  A shock went through the ship, a long silence.

  Something very old had passed.

  The passengers began at last to move. Certain ones fled for different refuges, old alignments having become impolitic, unsafe.

  Worm danced, quite solemnly, for ((())) had gained a name. ((())) had become like Kepta in this, even if ((())) was Worm. ((())) had regained sanity; and pride; and glared from ((()))'s five eyes at Cannibal, who found it safer to retreat. [] fled, precipitate.

  <*> shivered, in deep mourning for <">; for <"> had remembered <">'s savagery at the last, and become quite sane.

  <> stretched throughout the ship-body, taking all territories, all systems.

  Trishanamarandu-kepta came to fullest awareness, and looked about <>'s surroundings as <> had when <>'s voyage began.

  And at what <> had retained within-the-shell. That too.

  Rafe put out his hands in the dark. His fingers met the extended arms, hard metal, rigid. He tried to feel his way backward amid this maze. Razor steel sliced his back in more places than one. His questing hands met the same no matter where he turned.

  "Kepta," he said aloud, quite calmly; "Kepta” Patiently. "I want the light back, Kepta; at least give me the light.”

  Kepta might have lost; might have won; the blades might start to move of a sudden and dice him down to something disposable.

  "I want the light!" he cried.

  Light blazed. He jerked, hit his back and arm against the knives and froze at the sting of wounds. The glittering arms were starkly poised about him, a web of razor steel and claws.

  Rafe-shape phased in. "I've won," it said.

  "Who-won?”

  "Kepta. Me.”

  "Which of you?”

  "Ah. Marandu told you." Rafe/Kepta moved through the metal arms, through the razors, com ing clear to view. "The original. Myself. The one who brought you here.”

  "Either of you could have done that.”

  "Either would be me. But both my copies are gone, dissipated.”

  "Keep away from me!" And-Either would be me-sank in. He stared at it, Finding the razor points at his back more comforting than its presence.

  "Anxious still? It's your doing, you know: all three of you. Yourself, for instance-It never could quite break you down, not while Paul was there. Not while there was any vestige of him. That's your secret, your one secret. Responsibility. My double worked so hard keeping you alive. Mistake. And Paul: Paul One always trusted reason: and he couldn't withstand it when he met it face to face in Jillan; he couldn't bear that-or her solitude.”

  "Where are they? Are they all right?”

  "Jillan, now," it said, inexorable. "Jillan was the crux. Marandu knew. She gave him-sanity. He was once very fierce-Marandu was, in certain causes. He'd forgotten all of them. And Worm they called him Worm-he has affinity for you: nibbled up a bit of you, in your other form, as if he'd found one of his own missing bits.”

  "Kepta-where are they?”

  Rafe/Kepta's face showed-it seemed-disappointment in him. A ghostly hand lifted, motioned to the center of the place, among the arms. "Come on, Rafe. Lie down. You'll sleep now. I'll keep my promise. We'll go to Paradise.”

  "Where are they?”

  "I had to erase them, Rafe. I had no choice." "You” He dodged past the arms, the blades, half-blind.

  Snick-snick-Arms moved in unison. Clamps seized his limbs and held, irresistible.

  "Damaged," Kepta said. "They were irrevocably changed. What would you have wanted me to do?”

  Rafe wept. He shut his eyes and turned his head; it was all the movement left him.

  "I'll bring them back," Kepta said.

  "Damn you” He rolled back his head, heaved uselessly against the unflexing arms. The strength went out of him. Resistence did, and gathered itself up again.

  "They'll be new again," Kepta said. "You understand. What happened to them-won't ever have happened-to them. The templates are clean of that. I do have charity." The arms clattered and retracted, snick! "You can harm them, far more than I ever could. Do you understand that?”

  "No," he protested-everything.

  "Not make them again?”

  He wiped his eyes, hung there, his arms about the metal limb. It was cold. There was, for him, sensation; heat and cold; touch, taste; all the range of senses. "For what?" he asked. "What do you make them for in the first place?”

  "Should 1 not?”

  "You talk” He caught his breath, caught his balance, straightened and walked over to sit on the smooth plastic bed amid the humps, the nodes, in the shining forest of the limbs, where it wanted him. "You talk about Paradise. Leaving me there.

  Forget that. I'm not leaving them to you, to make into what you want. Take me with them. Hear?”

  "They'd object," Kepta said. "I know them very well.”

  "D
amn you." He shuddered, lifted up his arm, flesh and bone. "You want to strip me down to what they are? Do that. At least I could touch them then.”

  "But you can. You already have. You're not thinking straight. Don't you know one Rafe-template's you? In every respect-he's you. You've already had your wish. He can touch them; be touched; touch me; do all the things you'd do. Dead, alive-that makes no difference. The only decisions are selfish ones.”

  He wiped his eyes a second time, bleak and blank and knowing insanest truth.

  "Think about it," Kepta said. "There are choices.”

  "What am I leaving them to? Where are you taking them?”

  "Vega, maybe; you mentioned that. Altair. They interest me. Places that have names-are so rare in the universe.”

  He looked at the doppelganger. His pulse picked up with hate. "Truth, Kepta. Once, the truth.”

  "Motives”

  "-won't make sense. Make them make sense. I want to know.”

  "Say that I travel," Kepta said. "And they will.”

  "For what?”

  "Don't we all," asked Kepta, "travel? Who asks why?”

  "I do." "That is worth asking, isn't it? We are kindred souls, Rafe Murray.”

  "Don't play games with me!”

  "I know. There's pain. I never promised you there wouldn't be. I never promised them. Do you want them back? Now?”

  He was paralyzed, yes and no and loneliness swollen tight within his throat. He shook his head, found nothing clear.

  "No choice is permanent. Except your first one. Will you go to Paradise?”

  "I don't know," he said hoarsely. It included all there was. "Can I talk to them?”

  "You said it to me, didn't you-they're not toys.”

  He dropped his head into his hands. "Don't do this to me.”

  "I only asked for choice."

  "What if I ask you to wipe them out here? Off this ship. Out of this. Would you do that?”

  "No," Kepta said. "Their templates would exist. I'd use them. Eventually.”

  "Honesty.”

  "Would it be-what they would choose?”

  He sat and shivered until it seemed Kepta must lose patience and go away; but Kepta stayed, waiting, waiting.

  "I want to be with them," Rafe said at last, so softly his voice broke. "Make me one of them.”

  "You don't understand," Kepta said. "Even yet.”

  "But I do," Rafe said. He swung his feet up and lay down on the machinery, blinked at the lights, the metal glare of knives. "I won't go. I won't leave them. Wake us up together, Kepta."

  For a long moment Kepta stood. The cold seeped in. "Yes," Kepta said. "I know.”

  Vega shone.

  "No human's ever been here," Rafe said, confronting that white, white glare, that dire A-class star that no human would find hospitable. He felt its wind, heard its voice spitting energy to the dark. Ship had invented sensors for them, human-range.

  "Look at that," said Jillan; and passengers hovered near, delighted in the four human-shapes, in new senses, in mindsets both blithe and fierce.

  "Let ((())) try!" said Worm, who looked through human eyes, and shrieked and fled.

  " " " crept out of hiding, as many had, who had been long reclusive. The timid of the ship had appeared out of its deepest recesses, now that was gone.

  "Look your fill," said <>. "There's time.”

  Paul just stared, arm in arm with Jillan-shape. Rafe and Rafe Two stood on either side. They kept their shapes, unlike some. They kept to their own senses exclusively, quite stubborn on that point.

  "We're human," Rafe insisted. "Thank you, no help, Kepta. We don't make part of any whole.”

  Perhaps, Rafe thought, for he could still see human space, perhaps Kepta had betrayed him after all. Perhaps he had waked back there too, in a capsule near a much smaller star.

  He hoped that he had not. He dreaded its loneliness.

  "It was crazy," Rafe Two had said when they had waked together in the dark. "Rafe, you didn't have to.”

  "Come on," he had said then, in that dark place where they waked. "Sure I had to. I'd miss you. Wouldn't I? Maybe I do, somewhere. At Paradise.”

  Shapes crept close to them, hovered near.

  Worm snuggled close, ineffably content.

  It was a small, very old ship that Hammon found adrift.

  "Something . . . 24," the vid tech deciphered the pitted lettering. "The rest is gone.”

  "God," someone said, from elsewhere on the bridge. "That small a ship-How'd she get out here?”

  "Drifted," Mammon's captain said. "Out of some system.”

  And later, with the actinic glare of suit-lights lighting up the wrecked insides, hanging panels, bare conduits, tumbled and crumpled steel:

  "It's a mess in here," the EVA-spec said. "They were hulled, half a hundred times. Dust chewed her all to bits.”

  "Crew?" asked Mammon's com.

  The spec worked carefully past jagged edges, turned spotlights and cameras on frozen bodies.

  "Three of them," the vid tech said. "Poor souls."

  "She's old," the spec reported. "Real old. Out this far-at the rate of drift”

  The spec shivered, adding up those years.

 


 

  C. J. Cherryh, Voyager in Night

 


 

 
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