Voyager in night, p.3
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       Voyager in Night, p.3

           C. J. Cherryh
 
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began to' acquire it, basing calculations on the diameter and rotation of the structure back at the star.

  <> extended other probes and surveyed the small ship's hull, locating the major access.

  The interior was, once <> had gotten a probe inside to see, messy. The occupants, stained with red fluids, stirred only feebly, and more and more extensors cooperated in freeing the occupants from their restraints, in moving them outside, while other extensors intruded into every portion of the diminutive ship, testing the instrumentation, sampling the consumables. <> flurried through incoming data in a general way, relating that and what it discovered in the tiny ship's computers, simple mathematical instruments adequate only for the most basic operations.

  The subjects offered resistance, though weakly, at being containered and moved a great and rapid distance through Trishanamarandu-kepta's twist

  ing interior. One was very active: it thrashed about at intervals, losing strength and smearing the transparent case with red fluids at every outburst, which indicated rapidly diminishing returns, whether this motion was voluntary or not. It screamed intermittently, and whether this was communication remained to be judged.

  It screamed a very long scream when it was positioned in the apparatus and the recorder came on and played through its nervous system. So did the other two. Most vocal organisms would.

  Each collapsed after the initial spasm. Vital signs continued in a series of wild fluctuations which seemed to indicate profound shock. <> maintained them within the recorder-field and realigned them with the hologrammatic impression <> had taken.

  <> took cell samples, fluid samples, analyzed the physical structures from the whole to the microscopic and chemical while the entities remained conscious. <> was careful, well aware that some of the procedures might cause pain. <> reduced what wild response <> could, elicited occasional murmurings from the subjects. <> recorded those sounds and played them back; played back all response it had ever gotten from this species, here and from the other ship and from the star system in general.

  The subjects responded. Sympathetically, on both recorded words and answers, the holo images <> had constructed . . . reacted.

  <> used lights and sounds and other stimuli, and mapped reflexes in the hologrammatic brains, obtaining sensory reactions from the imprints along the appropriate pathways. <> discovered what seemed to be a rest state and maintained the organisms close to sleep, yet able to react and speak, prolonging this interrogation in words and sensations.

  The two weakest sank deeper, refusing when prodded to come out of this state, eventually deteriorating so that it required more and more stimulus to keep them functioning. At last decomposition set in.

  The third subject remained in sleep-state. <> questioned it further and it reacted in dazed compliance.

  The simulacra still reacted ... all three of them.

  The surviving organism fell into deeper and deeper sleep and <> let it rest.

  <> further examined the remains of the other two, analyzed them in their failure, finally committed them to cryostorage.

  <> wasted nothing that <> took in.

  Rafe moved, and knew that he moved. He felt no pain. His limbs seemed adrift in void, and when he opened his eyes he thought that he was blind.

  "Jillan!" he cried, struggling to stand, reaching out with his hands. "Paul, Jillan!”

  "Rafe-!" Jillan's voice came back; and she was there, coming toward him in the starless void. Paul followed. They were naked, both; so was he; and their bodies glowed like lamps in the utter dark, as if they were their own light, and all the light there was. They began to run toward him, and he ran, caught Jillan in his arms, and Paul,

  ashamed for his nakedness and theirs and not caring, not caring anything but to hug their warmth against him. He felt the texture of their skin, their hands on him, their arms about him.

  He wept, shamelessly. There was a great deal of tears, that first, that most important and human thing. "You're here," Jillan kept saying; "you're all right, we've got you, oh Rafe, we've got you-hold on.”

  -Because the fainting-feeling was on him, and they all three seemed to drift, to whirl, to travel in this dark. There were sounds, far wails, like wind. Something brushed past them through the dark, vast and impersonal, like the whisper of a draft.

  "Where have we got to?" Paul wondered, and Rafe looked at Paul and looked at Jillan as they stood disengaged, in this dark nowhere.

  "I don't know," he said, ashamed for his helplessness to tell them. I'm scared. He kept that behind his teeth. He looked about him, into nothing at all, and kept remembering jump, and the sinuous wave of arms.

  "There was something” Jillan said, her teeth chattering. "Oh God, God” She stood there, shivering in her nakedness, and Paul hugged her against him. "Don't," he said, "don't. Don't think, don't”

  "We're through jump," Rafe said as firmly as he could, filling the void, the dark about them all with words to listen to, making them fix on him. "There was that bogey; it's got us. Remember? That's where we are. It's got us in the dark, and we can't come undone, you hear me, both of you. Let's think our way out of this. It's kept us alive and together. That's something, isn't it?”

  They said nothing. Their faces were dreadful, full of shadows within their glowing flesh.

  "Why no light?" Jillan asked.

  "Maybe they don't have eyes," Paul said.

  She looked at her glowing hands, at him, at Paul, with a whole dreadful range of surmises in that glance.

  "It's some kind of effect," Rafe said, searching for any plausible thing, "some light trick. That's all.”

  "Sure," said Paul, attempting cheerfulness, "sure. Who knows what kind of thing." But his voice was thin. He walked a little distance away and distances themselves played tricks, so that he became small rapidly, as if he strode meters at a time. "Come back," Rafe said, and Paul turned, looking small and frightened.

  "God, what is this place?”

  "I'm cold," Jillan said, hugging herself; but the air was not cold at all; it was nothing. It was the nakedness that diminished all of them, that made them vulnerable, the dark that made them blind.

  "Look," Rafe said, "let's not go off crazy. We can't ask questions. You have to know something to ask questions and we don't. We've got no referents. We're just alive, that's all” They hurt us, his memory insisted, and he fought that down. "Nothing matters but now and facts, and facts we're short of. Calm down.”

  "What do we do?" Jillan asked.

  "We stay close together," he said, "and we try not to lose each other. Let's try to find a wall, a

  door, somewhere in this place." He took her hand and walked to Paul, in those curious several-meter steps that were the law here, while Paul stared at them with nightmare in his eyes that showed dark as the dark about them. "We're having trouble with our senses," Rafe said to them both, and even his voice seemed lost in void. "Maybe it isn't even dark. Jump can do things to you. We weren't tranked.”

  "You mean we're crazy," Paul said. "All three of us at once. Or do I imagine you? Or you us? Or what?”

  "I'm saying our eyes aren't working right.”

  "What about the floor?" Paul said, sinking to one knee, touching what felt like air underfoot. "I don't feel anything. I don't feel anythingl I don't even feel my breathing. Like it isn't air.”

  "We'll come out of it," Jillan said, and drew Paul to his feet. "Paul, we'll make it. Rafe's right; it's the jump; it's done something to us. We're not getting sense out of it.”

  "Between?" Paul asked, blinking as if he had just thought of that. "You mean we're still in hyperspace? Could that be it?”

  "Maybe," Rafe said, clinging to that hope.

  "O God," Paul murmured, shaking his head, and looked up and about again-hopeless to ask how long, how far, where there was no reference. "That makes sense.”

  Then light began to grow about them, white and green. It took on shadows of shapes.

  It became a nightmare, bits and pieces of Lindy root
ed in a noded, serpentine hallway fuzzed in gossamer like spiderweb over carpet. There stood the seats, part of the control console, the EVApod standing at attention like some humanoid monster grown from the wall at an angle. A row of luminants snaked like a chain of warts down the center of the noded ceiling, giving what light there was.

  And Rafe saw himself lying there naked on the floor.

  "That's you," Jillan moaned. "Rafe, what's happening to us?”

  The lights went dim again. Rafe strode forward, desperate, recalling how the dying saw their bodies from some other vantage. He felt the cold, felt a vast love of that poor wounded flesh that was himself, wanting it back again.

  "Rafe!" Jillan called, and the horror dawned on him, that they were dead, that Jillan and Paul were bodiless, and he almost was. "Rafe!”

  The dark closed about him and he fought it, trying to get back to the light. He felt their hands like claws, clutching at him to drag him back to death with them.

  "Let me go," he cried, "let me go!" cursing their selfishness.

  Rafe moved, and knew that he moved. He felt other things, pain, and chill, and G holding him supine against a cloth surface. He opened his eyes and kept them open, on a graygreen arched ceiling of warts and white fuzz, like what his fingers and body felt under him, soft and rough like carpet. He felt a draft on all his skin so that he knew he was naked. His heart started speeding, his mind sorting. "Jillan-Jillan, Paul?" He rolled

  over, wincing from torn muscles, from a sudden lancing pain from eyes to the back of his skull.

  Dim distance, warts and cobwebby stuff snaked on and on as far as he could see, graygreen to white in an irregular corridor, lumpish and winding as if the place abhorred a straight line.

  He scrambled to his knees, trembling, and stopped cold. His blurred eyes fixed on nightmare. Bits and pieces of Lindy were rooted in the tunnel, the seats, part of the control console, the EVApod standing there like some humanoid monster rising out of the warted, gossamer wall at an angle. The sanitary compartment stood intact, enveloped in graygreen moss and cobweb above and below. The storage cabinets thrust up from the floor like angled teeth.

  He pressed his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes, felt days-old stubble on his jaw. He staggered erect, his muscles gone weak from those lost days. The corridor went on and on jn that direction too, beyond the point where Lindy's parts gave out, mossy and cobwebbed, all lit from luminous warts in the ceiling, irregularly placed, a line of lights winding with the serpentine turns.

  "Jillan," he called aloud. "Paul?" His voice was terrible in that stillness. He turned, looked all about him, down two ways of the corridor equally desolate and strange and vanishing into turns and dark.

  "Jillan," he shouted suddenly, desperate. "Jillan, Paul, do you hear me?”

  Silence.

  He searched for other sleepers, staggered among the nightmare remnants of Lindy until there were no more, and he faced only the warted corridor ahead. He went back and opened all the doors of the cabinets and the cases, even looked into the dark faceplate of the EVApod, fearing what he might find.

  All empty. There were Lindy's stores, food, supplies, clothing in the lockers . . . his, Paul's, Jillan's, all as it ought to be. He looked up in the panicked imagination of someone watching him. Nothing. No indication of any living soul.

  He took clothes from his locker, dressed painfully, pulling seams past sore joints. He found his watch, his soft-soled boots, his tags . . . the pin that was from the old, the first Lindy, that had been his uncle's. He sat down on the floor and put on the boots and the rest of it. His hands shook. His heart was doubling its beats. He went through mundane motions in this insane place and tried to go on functioning while flashes of memory came back, disjointed. He remembered the surface of the alien vessel and saw the same architecture everywhere about him. He had no doubt where he was. He remembered jumpspace . . . and no trank; remembered (he had thought) dying-

  And worse things. Far worse than the nightmare of Lindy's dissected portions at his side. Arms. Arms snaking into the ship. Machinery. Pain.

  Pain.

  "Jillan .. . Paul. . . ." He staggered up, hesitated between forward and back, the two ways from this place being alike. "Who are you?" he screamed at the ceiling.

  There was no answer.

  He walked the direction his mind sorted as ahead,

  treading around the hummocks of the floor. The wall evolved to white instead of graygreen; he touched it, but it felt like the other had felt . . . gossamer silk to a light touch, but rough to a harder one, like cobweb over stiff carpet, resisting compaction. The walls went on in alternate color changes, areas of graygreen, areas of white, all warted and noded and twisting and cob webbed, and he tried to think what manner of inhabitant might call this home.

  They were across jump: that memory was solid. Other recollections came, of confinement like a coffin; of pain running through all his nerves at once, of pain so intense it was sight and hearing and being burned alive and clawed apart from inside; of pain that still ached through joints and bone and made his muscles shake. All the voices of the other ships had rung in his skull at once, over and over; Jillan's voice and Paul's voice and the voice of John Liles all wound together, pleading for help and rescue.

  They had been in this place with him. He remembered them screaming, amid the pain. Remembered Paul's voice calling his name.

  There was no knowing where they had been brought, how far, how long. The intruder had simply dragged them off in its field, off into the dark, as if Endeavor star had been the firelight and this beast had just bounded into the light to snatch a victim ... to take it where it could do what it liked, at its leisure. There was no hope of help. They could be taken apart piece by piece and the whole procedure transmitted to Endeavor on vid, and there was nothing Endeavor could do about it. There was nothing here, not even human sympathy.

  "Jillan," he called from time to time. It grew harder and harder to challenge that silence, which was greater and deeper than any he had known in his stationbound, shipbound life. He felt a pulse somewhere too deep for proper hearing, the working of some constant machinery . . . but no sound of fans, no ping of heating and cooling or sound of hydraulics. No feeling of being on a ship under acceleration. Just more and more corridor, cob-webbed, warted silence.

  His knees grew weak in walking. He thought that it might be shock catching up to him. He realized he had no idea where he was going or why, and that his walking itself was reasonless. He sat down to rest and dropped his head into his arms.

  The lights went out.

  He sprang up in alarm, facing what light remained, far down the corridor. He went for the lighted section, stumbling over the nodes, hurrying until his ribs hurt-and those lights went out as he reached them as lights further on flared into life.

  He understood the game then, that he was watched, that it/they wanted him to come-to them, to something. He moved helplessly toward the light that beckoned, afraid of dark and blindness in this place. They threatened to shut him off from his primary sense and he reacted in animal instinct, knowing what they were doing to him and how simply; and hoping somewhere at gut level that doing what they wanted might bring

  him to where Jillan and Paul were. He ran, even hurting, slowed only as his strength gave out and he fell farther and farther behind the lights until they stayed on at the limit of his sight, in one fixed sector, beyond which was unremedied dark. He reached that place as the lights dimmed and moved on into vastness where the walls were walls and were farther and farther apart.

  Sweat chilled his face. What had been a limp became a stagger. He tended more and more toward the right-hand wall as the left-hand one strayed off into black, as the whole corridor opened into the likeness of a vast cavern, one with low knobbed points to the ceiling like a cavern of warts, whose farther reaches were wrapped in deepening shadow.

  A sudden bright light speared from the ceiling in front of him. He flung an arm across his eyes. "Who are you?" h
e asked the light and the darkness, irrational as cursing: there had been no answers and he expected none.

  "I don't know," a voice came back to him, and he was standing there, a naked man at one heartbeat strange and then-like recognizing a mirror where one had expected none-altogether familiar. He was staring at himself, at what might have been a mirror in its expression of shock and fear-he knew that look, was startled when it lifted a hand he had not lifted and opposed itself to him.

  "Damn you," he cried to the invisible, the manipulater. "Damn you, use your own shape!”

  "I am," the doppelganger said. Tears glistened in his/its eyes. "O God, don't-don't look like that. Help me. I don't know where I am." "Liar," he told himself.

  "Rafe." The voice drifted from the lips, his own, uncertain and lost and vague. "Please. Listen to me. You're awake. I'm you. I think I am. I don't know. Please” The doppelganger walked, sat down above a node, not quite phasing with it. It tucked its bare knees up, locked its arms about them, looked up at him with eyes full of shadow, as if the image were breaking down. "Please sit and talk with me.”

 
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