Voyager in night, p.6
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       Voyager in Night, p.6

           C. J. Cherryh
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did in the normal course of O's existence.

  Then <> moved in Jillan-mind abruptly and without gentleness. <> brushed aside defenses and began to take what <> wanted. Jillan screamed at <> in anger and in pain and finally, because <> filled all the pathways of her mind at once and ran out of storage, the scream changed character and reason.

  <> meddled with this state for a moment, adjusting this, tampering with that. <> had known already that the storage was not adequate and now <> formed strategies, knowing the dimensions of what <> had. The pain went on, while <> probed connections and relationships.

  Jillan stabilized again, regarded the dark and welcomed it with fierce enthusiasm and hunger.

  <> erased her then abruptly, for she had gotten far from the template, and ceased to be instructive. Or safe. In any sense.

  <> made a second, fresher copy. <> could do that endlessly, in possession of the templates <> had made.

  <> began again, with a surer, more knowing touch.

  "Is it worth it?" <*> asked, straying close. "Let this creature go.”

  <> turned the Jillan-face toward <*>'s undisguised self and felt a jolt of horror and of sound.

  "That was unkind," <> said, and destroyed her yet again.

  "You'll have to wait," Rafe said, in their trek through endless corridors of endless green-gossamer and lumpish contours. Nothing had changed. They discovered nothing but endless sameness. He sank down, resting his back against the wall, and shut his eyes-opened them again for fear of

  finding himself alone, but the images stayed with him. They had sat down as if they needed to, Rafe Two foremost, always closest to him. He heaved a breath, felt his bruised ribs creak, felt thirst and hunger. Tears leaked unwanted from his eyes, simple exhaustion, and horror at the sameness and the sight that kept staring back at him.

  Ghosts. Solemn Rafe; Jillan being nonchalant; Paul glowering-they frightened him. He could not touch them. He could not hug them to him, ever again. He knew those looks-Paul's when he had an idea and would not let it go, Jillan's when she was on the edge and tottering.

  "Come on," he said, "Jillan. Swear. Do something. Don't be cheerful at me.”

  Her face settled into something true and dour. She looked up at him, thinking-

  -thinking what? he wondered. Seeing aliens behind his eyes? Or feeling her own death again?

  "You all right?" he asked.

  "Sure, sure I'm all right," Jillan said, and looked about, redirecting what got uncomfortable. "Whatever designed this place was crazy, you know that?”

  "Whatever keeps us here sure is," Rafe Two said.

  "It's kept me alive," Rafe answered the doppel-ganger. He wiped at his mouth, looked up and down the windings of the corridor-they had gone down this time, if the large chamber had been up. "That it leaves me alone, you know, is something encouraging.”

  "There's another place," said Rafe Two. "It's dark, and nothing, and if that's its normal condition, that thing's nothing like us at all." "It's playing games," Paul said; and Rafe looked at him with some little hope-it, then; Paul had stopped throwing that it at him, had perhaps re-conceived his situation. "There's no guarantee it has a logic, you figure that?”

  "It's got math; math's logic," Jillan said.

  "A lunatic can add," Paul said, gnawing at his lip. "I don't get tired. You're sweating and I don't get tired.”

  "Dead has advantages, it seems," Rafe Two said.

  "Shut up!”

  "Try thinking," Rafe said, shifting to thrust a leg between his doppelganger and Paul's image. "Try thinking-how we go about talking to this thing. It tried to talk to us. Back there-at Endeavor, it made an approach. Maybe taking us was a mistake in the first place.”

  "Come on," said Jillan harshly. "It knew we were there, knew how small we were. We couldn't support jump engines. It damn well knew.”

  He blinked at his sister, felt the sweat running in his eyes, mortality that she was beyond feeling. "I'll find a way to ask it," he said. Of a sudden he wanted to cry, right there in front of them, as if the jolt had just gotten through to him, but all he managed was a little trickle from his eyes and a painful jerk of breath. "I'll tell you this. If it turns out the way you think and you can't get your hands on it, I'll get it. I'll go for it. You can believe I will.”

  "I've thought of something else," said Rafe Two.

  "What's that?”

  "That offending it might turn us off. That it can do that anyway when it wants."

  "What he's saying," Jillan said, "is that it has us for hostages. And maybe it's not being whimsical with us. Maybe it's looking to learn-oh, basic things. Like how we build; what our logic's like”

  "-from Lindy's wire and bolts," Rafe scoffed. "Lord, it'll wonder how we got to space at all.”

  "-our language; our little computer, simple as it is”

  "-how our minds work," said Paul. "They'll start prodding at us. They've kept us too-you figure that, Rafe? They've gone to a lot of trouble.”

  "It still could be," Rafe said, "what you might say . . . humanitarian concern. Maybe they panicked and bolted and we were an unwanted attachment.”

  "How long were you awake?" Paul asked. "I died." His voice went faint; the muscles of his insubstantial face shook and jerked with such semblance of life it jarred. "/ am dead. Isn't that what you've been insisting? I remember what it did. I remember the pain, Rafe. And it wasn't any damn humanitarian concern.”

  Rafe sat and stared at him, looked away finally, for Paul had begun to cry and to wipe his eyes, and finally faded out on them.

  Jillan went after that, just winked out.

  "How do you do that?" Rafe asked his double, hollow to the heart. "Where do you go when you go out? That dark place?”

  "Don't get superstitious about it. It's just a place, that's all. You think hard about it-I think we've got a simple off-on with a transmitter somewhere.”

  "It wouldn't be simple.”

  "Bad choice of words." "Dammit, I don't like arguing with you. It gives me the shakes.”

  "You ever wonder how I found you," Rafe Two asked, waving a hand toward the vastness of the hall, "in all this? Coincidence?”

  "Something's pushing the buttons.”

  "Don't put it that way," Rafe Two said and hunched his bare shoulders, hands tucked between his knees. "You make me nervous, twin.”

  "You scared of dying?”

  Rafe Two nodded, slowly, simply. "So are they, I think. Jillan and Paul. They've got experience.”

  "I'm hungry. My knees ache. Do yours?”

  "No body left-brother. Got nothing like that left to bother me." The eyes were his own, and worried. "I'm going to go after them.”

  "Don't leave me here!”

  Rafe Two looked at him. "It'll see we get back together. Won't it?”

  "I have to go back to the ship. I have to. We're gaining nothing out here wandering these passages. Get them back. Come back yourself. To the ship. When you can.”

  "The ship." The doppelganger gave a dry and bitter laugh. "It won't let you lose that either, will it?”

  "I'm afraid for them.”

  "So am I.”

  The doppelganger left, a winking-out more abrupt than Paul's.

  So there had been violent parting of the ways; one fled: two gave chase; the living one pursued a painful trek back, <> surmised, to origins.

  " is gathering malcontents," said =( + ) = , on leave from its cannibalistic whole.

  <> was amused, with that part of <>'s attention it had to spare. Trishanamarandu-kepta rode inertia at the moment. <> had figured (accurately thus far) that this carbon-life, having ships capable of FTL, having the tendency to cluster together as they seemed to do, would not disperse themselves in long solitary voyages in between the stars and points of mass, so this vacancy seemed a likely place to coast undisturbed. <> preferred a few problems at a time: there were the passengers, after all, who were disturbed enough at three outsiders in their midst. So <> did not court attack from this carbon-life at
large. The species might, <> judged, with the example of Jillan-mind, be very quick to attack if it had the chance.

  <> was learning things. Jillan-mind and Rafe-mind in particular were responsive to the logic <> discovered in the primitive machinery, while Paul-mind refused focus, being a flood of strong responses on every level. They were not structurally the same, but there were strong similarities. Conclusions suggested themselves, but <> did not rush headlong into judgment, having wide experience which made surmise both slow and elaborate.

  Throughout the ship other passengers were waking, more and more of them during this interlude, some of which had not waked in a very long time. Often they blundered into the barriers <> had made. But nothing got into the area where the visitors were at liberty.

  This defense <> managed with one part of O's mind, and used another small probe on the Jillan-consciousness.

  <> erased one temporary image, which began to disintegrate in subtle ways; but it was no effort now to enter the Jillan-mind on the level <> had already achieved, and <> integrated another.

  Trishanamarandu-kepta had found a large bit of debris, meanwhile, and stored it for conversion, as it dealt with dust and interstellar hydrogen. <> constantly attended such things.

  <> called up the Rafe-mind, and probed him with some sophistication, seeking out the differences, both physical and otherwise.

  Rafe was, <> decided, less resilient but more stubborn. His barriers lasted longer, and snapped with a suddenness and disintegration that made <> suspect for a moment <> had met some clever trap, so disorienting and painful the reaction.

  It was shock, <> decided. Rafe-mind had simply no experience with losing on that level, and he had met defeat without expectation, absolute and devastating, when he had planned to endure pain and outwait it.

  From this collapse, Rafe-mind did not reintegrate, though <> observed him patiently and gave him every chance. So he would perish, ultimately. <> destroyed him and recreated him afresh.

  It was paradoxical defense at best. It hinted irrationalities, capacities that would be augmented by physical systems in the living one, and Rafe himself had been, <> thought, stunned by his own failure.

  <> suspected then why this one had survived

  in physical form, and why <> had so quickly broken him.

  <> had robbed him of motives, that was what. That was why Rafe-mind had come apart, in solitude, without the other two.

  <> did not intend Rafe-mind to learn this about himself, not yet.

  Distress continued among the three newcomers. The simulacra which had gotten loose ran at hazard through their confinement, emitting terror as they went.

  Paul, <> thought; it would of course be Paul in the lead, and <> was right in <>'s assessment, <> discovered, reaching out to prevent him from a meeting with = = = =, which lurked in anticipation.

  = == = = was outraged. But <> pent Paul Gaines safely out of harm's way, diverted Jillan elsewhere, and established barriers in haste, having O's mind on a dozen other matters.

  "Robber!" = = = = hissed.

  "Out," said <>. And == = = = went, calling in = = = = 's segments that were still at large. Most howled in protest. But they came. And the idle curious scattered.

  Trishanamarandu-kepta found a second bit of rock, and sucked that down as well, while automata attended small repairs.

  <> considered Lindy with another part of O's large mind, its structures, its simplicity, for <> had not yet sent the mote to feed Trishanamarandu-kepta's needs. It might. But <> thus far refrained, finding interest in it.

  Then because Paul continued to batter himself unreasoningly at the barriers, <> gave Paul a Rafe-simulacrum to keep him calm and let him wonder why that Rafe should be difficult to wake. Paul shook at him and wept and cursed. That, <> judged, would keep him out of mischief.

  For more immediate purposes <> chose the Jillan-face.

  Chapter Five

  Rafe went striding through the dark, calling Jillan and Paul by name, tireless in his pace and wishing desperately that endurance made some difference for they would not grow tired here any more than he would, and he could not overtake them by all the laws he knew of this place. He could never overtake them until one of them came to his senses and stopped.

  Paul was running; that was what Rafe guessed, running in hurt and fear. Paul had always been the gentle one, the little boy who had played at explorer and shuddered at the dark-

  -Space frightens me, Paul had confessed to him once. I'm all right in ships; just keep walls around me. When I have to go EVA, I just keep looking at the ship, the rock, whatever. Give me boundaries.

  Paul was station-born. He had a stationer's way of looking at things, and large concepts got to him, like the idea of staring time in the face when he looked out at the stars. The inside-out of jump frightened him. There were dimensions of time and space Paul staunchly refused to believe in, or at least to think of, even while he used and traveled through them.

  I'm not dead, Paul had insisted; Paul Gaines could not die; no stationer could be so much alone as that. The universe would not permit so gross a violence to the devoutly nonviolent.

  "Paul," Rafe called, aching for him. His own ill-timed joking, his bloody sense of humor, the other Rafe's-Paul did not support the contradictions. "Paul! Jillan, come back!”

  Eventually a light came toward him, looking like a star at first, then a figure walking with that gliding, too-rapid stride that was the law within this place.

  It was Jillan, by herself.

  "Where's Paul?" he shouted at her, but Jillan kept coming without answering, and that silence chilled him, intimating that something dire had happened-Jillan, without Paul.

  Her face was dreadful when they met, her eyes vast and shadowed, and again the illogicity of themselves overwhelmed him, that whatever they were could suffer-Have we flesh of a kind, he wondered, bodies somewhere, beyond this dark? Metal bodies standing in a row or going through pointless motions? O Paul, Jillan-

  "Where's Paul?" he asked his sister.

  "R-r-r-aaa-ffe," the lips shaped, a hoarse, rasping effort with Jillan's voice. It reached for him.

  "O God. God, no!" He flung himself back and ran with all his might.

  He hit a barrier, not a hard one, but a slowing of his force until he could not move more than a few feet in any direction. He felt a touch on his shoulders. He turned and met Jillan's eyes, encountered its embrace.

  It was strong, stronger than he was by far. "Let me go," he cried, and struck at this thing, beyond any fear of harming Jillan. "Let her go, damn you!”

  It hugged him to its heart. "R-r-raaa-ffffe," it said, handling him with irresistible force, as if he had been a child in Jillan's arms.

  He screamed, yelled out names-his own was one”Rafe!" as if his other self could hear him, help him, at least know that he was lost.

  Jillan carried him some distance and stopped at last, just stopped, and let him go. Free, he thought, having wild hope of escape. He flung himself away as she winked out, but he came up against a barrier, solid as a wall.

  Pain hit, and he screamed and went on screaming, from shock at first, and then because he could not stop.

  "Rafe," he heard Jillan say out of a vast void darkness; and he waked again, blind and numb at first, lying on nothing, face up? face down?

  Then Jillan was by him, kneeling there bright with gold-green glow, with seeming tears glistening in her eyes and spilling down her face. He felt her hands as she shook at him. "Come on, Rafe, wake up, you've got to wake up, hear me?”

  He moved: he could, and writhed out of her reach, sat there shivering and staring back at her. "Paul's lost," she said in a hoarse and hollow voice.

  He shivered then, not for Paul, whose fate seemed a thousand years ago to him; but for himself, for the inexplicable that happened to him and went on happening in this blind dark.

  "We've got to get back," he said at last, for it was truly Jillan. He convinced himself it was. He forced sense past numb lips, go
ing on living, desperately ignoring memory as something unmanageable. "We've got to get back to the ship, tell him” as if his living half would know what to do, would have some holistic view he lacked. He no longer trusted himself or anything he saw. He had dreamed his kidnapping. He had dreamed the pain. He wanted to believe in none of it. "Jillan-how did you find me?”

  "I just kept walking back," she said. "Paul's lost. He's out there somewhere and he's not answering or something's happened to him”

  Something happened to me, he started to tell her, facing her hysteria; and some reticence held the truth dammed up. It was Jillan. He kept looking for flaws and cracks, but it was indeed his sister. He had to believe it was. "Let's get out of here," he said, not wanting to be touched by her, not wanting to look in her eyes. Have you met something too? he wanted to ask. Have you already met it?

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