Voyager in night, p.8
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       Voyager in Night, p.8

           C. J. Cherryh
 
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  Only ((())) ranged the passages, wailing in ((()))'s madness. Perhaps only ((()))'s lower mind was left; perhaps some memory remained, what side ((())) had taken once. "Aaaaiiiieeeee," ((())) cried. "Help us, help us all! O strangers, rescue us!”

  "Paul," Rafe said, who was not-Rafe, and something very strong.

  Paul lay still and stared, heaving for breath in the all-enveloping dark while Rafe changed into something huge and slightly blurred. Paul flinched at this transformation and started to twist away, but Rafe's touch was gentle, very easy, on his shoulder.

  "You're not him," Paul said, and his own voice seemed very distant in his ears, as if he had been drugged. Everything seemed far.

  "You're safe," it told him, which he wanted now desperately to hear. "You're safe with tne." The strangeness had gotten to the all-enveloping point and battered at his mind; and just when it was at

  its worst, it promised him safety and protection. He was ready to believe.

  "I have you," the blurred shape said. The voice was Rafe's, but strange and deep, like a motor running. "You're very safe in my company. You don't have to worry while I'm here.”

  He let it hold him like a child. The voice sank to

  be one vast burr, that filled everything, replaced

  everything. It touched him, mother-gentle, spoke

  to him in a language eloquent of protection; and

  he shut his eyes, trusting finally, because he could

  only sustain the fear so long in such closeness, in

  an existence in which he could not tire or sleep:

  the voice went on and on.

  "Let go," it hummed, "listen to me. You're safe.”

  "I'm dead," he said. "What's safe in that?”

  "Not dead. Not truly. Not at all. You exist. You

  can come and go at will. You have long life ahead

  of you; and a comfortable one, with me. Be still,

  be quiet, rest. Nothing can reach you in my heart.”

  "We don't get hungry," Jillan said. "I could wish we got hungry. I miss” She shook her head and stopped, wisely.

  Rafe stared at her bleakly, remembering many things he missed. At length he got up and tried the barrier again. It still held and he came and sat down again, letting his shoulders fall. There was no pretending with Jillan. Finally they had passed all embarrassment, all other pretenses; he was naked inside and out with Rafe and stopped minding: now he could be that way with Jillan, at least in most things. "Beats station life," he said, which was an old joke with them, that anything did. Even dying.

  "Got ourselves a ship," she said, rising to it valiantly, but the grief never left her eyes. Paul, Paul, Paul, they said, wrath and divided loyalties.

  "Got ourselves a big one," he said.

  "What we have to do," she said, "we find our way to controls-in our android shapes-and then we take this thing.”

  "Deal," he said.

  But they sat there, with a barrier about them. With Paul missing, and neither of them made guesses about Paul.

  He'll find a way to rescue us, Rafe thought, trying to convince himself. He's still loose, he's smart-So's Rafe-without modesty. But Paul can move through the ship. ...

  Maybe it's taking Paul apart now.

  "Idea," said Jillan.

  "What?”

  "Rafe. They're keeping Rafe locked up. That means he could do damage.”

  "They're keeping us locked up too," he said, and they turned that thought over separately for a moment.

  "Huh," she said, his Ma'am; his number One, his crew.

  "I'll make you a present of this ship," he said.

  "That's the Old Man talking," she said, seeming to take heart. "You do that, Rafe. Let's find something to break, when we get out of here.”

  "No way," he said. "It's our ship, remember. We want this thing intact.”

  The chittering came back, the wailing thing

  passed, as it had passed before. He refused to wince, refused even to acknowledge it.

  When we get out of here.

  Then, in a blink, Paul was lying a dozen feet beyond them.

  Jillan moved, scrambled to Paul's side with a soft, frightened oath.

  Rafe moved up and knelt again, cautious of such gifts. "Paul," he said.

  Paul opened his eyes to pale slits, shuddered and came suddenly wide-eyed, lurching up on his arm.

  "Where are we?" Paul asked. "O God, where are we? Jillan-?" He sat upright, looked down at his own body, at theirs-panicked, darting glances. "What is this place?”

  "The same as it's ever been," Rafe said.

  "What do you mean, the same?" Paul's voice rode close to breaking. "Where are we? Where's the ship?”

  "He doesn't remember," Rafe said, at Jillan's frightened glance his way. "He's lost it all.”

  "Lost what?" asked Paul. "What don't I remember?”

  Rafe put out a hand and held it on his shoulder. "This place-you've lost a little time, Paul. Just take it easy. We're all right. Take it easy. We'll fill you in.”

  Paul was scared again, mortally scared. So was Jillan; he could read it in that thin-lipped calm.

  "It's all right," JiHan said. "It's all right, we've got you back. We lost you for a while. You scared us, Paul." <> listened for a time. <> had debated with Oself, how much interference was wise, whether to restore Paul to the set at all. And then it occurred to <> that a different waking experience might change the Paul-mind to some advantage.

  So <> had restored him to the others, this copy fresh from its death experience.

  would know that, of course. There remained the very strong likelihood would attempt a substitution the moment had a chance.

  But <> took the risk. Perhaps Jillan or Rafe-mind had left its influence on <>. <> was not sure. Many entities had tried; but their desire to keep that set intact was strong.

  There was also, native to Oself and them-curiosity.

  <> took up the Rafe-image again and visited the corridor, finding Rafe asleep.

  <> squatted there, just watching, running through the feelings Rafe-mind had about himself and his living original. Then:

  "Wake up," Rafe heard. "Wake up, Rafe.”

  He opened his eyes, knowing the voice, braced himself back on his hands in a scramble for the wall, for it was close, until he had gotten his thoughts together.

  "Which one are you?”

  His own face smiled back at him, answering that question. Rafe Two would have been puzzled at the least.

  "Stay back," Rafe said.

  "You know I can't touch you.”

  He let go his breath, still pressed as close against

  the wall as he could get. "Like hell. You promised me the others back. Where are they?”

  "Plotting together. They want to take the ship.”

  "Good for them.”

  The alien grinned, squatted there with his elbows on naked knees, went sober once again. "It's not too likely a threat.”

  "I want to see them.”

  "Ship's important to you, isn't it? I think about this star where I found you; this mind doesn't care. I think of others. But when I think of ship, it reacts. Like love. Like need. It feels strong as sex-drive. Stronger, maybe. But Lindy's finished, I'm afraid. It was, you'll pardon me, not much of a ship to start with.”

  "Shut up.”

  "On the other hand," the doppelganger said, "-I love that idea, you know? The other hand. I understand a number of things: you'd want to be dropped as far away from Endeavor as you could get. They'd ask questions there at Endeavor, years of questions. There and at Cyteen. I could drop you, oh, say, Paradise. There'd be questions there, too; but maybe less anxiety. Less chance of your being-confined. Wouldn't you say?”

  He sat and listened to this prattle, roused out of sleep to listen, tucked up against the wall. He ignored most of it, let it drift through his mind and out again, refusing to let it stick. "Stop playing this game. I don't care where you drop me.”

  "I want to prep
are a canister for you. This takes a little time. I won't stay long at all at Paradise, not to make a stir.”

  "What's your name?" "My name?”

  "You've got a name of your own the way I presume you've got a shape. What is it?”

  It seemed to think a moment. "Kepta, if you like.”

  "Kepta. What are you really up to?”

  "Right now," the doppelganger said, "I'm merely clearing decks. I'll take another impression before I turn you out; this will put me up to date with all you've gotten here. I've put that off; it is stressful. But that's the only thing I want of you.”

  "The others. What will happen to them?”

  "I won't turn them off, if that's what you mean. That's the last thing I'd do.”

  "Meaning what?”

  "They're mine," Kepta said.

  "What do you mean, yours? You mean you're taking them somewhere?”

  "They can hardly leave the ship with you-can they? No, there's nothing really to worry about at all. I could put some of this business off; but on the other hand-I'd like to get you to the lab, just to make sure, well, of having that copy. It's my only condition." The image got to its feet, held out a hand. "Come on, get up. I'd like you to walk there.”

  "Meaning there are other choices?”

  "There are other ways.”

  Rafe thought that over, staring up into his own face, hating the mock-regretful look on it. He put his hands on the gossamer-carpeted floor and shoved himself up, straightened and glared at the image eye to eye, but it refused the confrontation, walked off a way and held out its hand, beckoning.

  "Come on.”

  "Why should 1 believe this, when you haven't come through with the other promise? I want to see the others, hear?”

  "Afterward. I promise. Come on, now, Rafe. Let's not be difficult.”

  "Let's," he echoed sourly. "What is my choice?”

  "I really don't want to do that.”

  "What?”

  "I could send something in here to bring you. I'd have it carry you and spare you the long walk; but walking makes it your choice, that's why I want you to do it. I really think that's valuable.”

  "You know, I never noticed it; I don't like the way I talk.”

  "Humor?”

  Rafe said nothing, but started walking; looked back again, at home, at Lindy's jumbled fragments, then fell in beside Kepta's light-dim shape. "I need anything?”

  "No. Not really.”

  He walked farther; the image walked, with smooth efficiency: sequencing projectors, he had decided once. Projected from what? Fibers in the rug? "This going to hurt much?" he asked finally.

  "Yes," Kepta said.

  They walked along, down the snaking corridor of gossamer-green humps and hillocks. The lights were all on, showing him the way.

  "Haven't felt any push on this ship," he said. "We're inertial, aren't we?”

  "Some ways off Endeavor, plus one plus thirty plus ten, one-tenth C. Make you feel better, knowing where you are?" He nodded, relationships and directions flashing into shape. He felt familiar stars about him again. Home space. He drew a shuddering, long breath, pretended nonchalance. "Big nothing out here.”

  "It's a vacant spot. Where we're not disturbed."

  Chapter Six

  They walked side by side, he and Kepta, into that vast empty node where many halls converged silent: his footfalls on the padded floor made no great sound. Rafe heard only the whisper of his clothing, his own deepened breaths. Kepta made no sound at all, except to talk to him from time to time down the winding hall:

  "Tired?" Kepta asked.

  "Does that matter? You pushed me along this way once, with the lights. What were you after, then?”

  "Reactions," Kepta said.

  He strode on a few more limping steps. "Like now?”

  A few steps more. "No," Kepta said. "Now I know exactly what you'll do.”

  He looked at Kepta, but Kepta did not, seemingly, look his way.

  "You're limited," Rafe asked him, the question flashing to his mind, "to one vantage point? To that shape? Those eyes?”

  "No," Kepta said again.

  "Physically-where are you?”

  Silence.

  "Makes you nervous? You scared, are you, to answer that?”

  Silence still.

  They came into the dark, warted heart of the huge meeting of corridors. Light came from home-corridor at their backs, a soft glow that lit the whole floor ahead in a dim gray succession of ripples and hummocks, stalagmites and lumpish stalactites afflicted with gossamer-shrouded warts and protuberances. There were no echoes. No sound. The carpet drank it up. "Can't afford lights here?" Rafe jibed at Kepta, trying to learn, by whatever questions Kepta would answer. "You don't like light, that it? Or don't you need it?”

  Lights flared, illuminating a vast chamber, a craziness of lumps and hummocks and tunnels on a mammoth scale; lights died and left him in dark again, as suddenly.

  Kepta was gone.

  "Kepta?" He faced wildly about, flash-blinded, helpless, stumbling on the uneven floor. "Kepta?”

  "First passage on your left," a voice said, close by him. The gold-glowing image resumed. "Just checking. I'm a little narrow-focused in this shape; a great deal of me is doing other things, and now and again I like to take a little look behind the eyes, so to say. That's right, this way. Not far now.”

  His heart pounded. He rubbed at his eyes trying

  to get his vision back, stumbling on the uneven floor, staying with Kepta in a winding course around the prominences. They skirted around a jutting protuberance of the wall and passed one black corridor opening. The next acquired dim light, showing gray and green no different than otherwhere.

  "This way," Kepta said.

  He matched Kepta's drifting pace. The way narrowed into a twisting gut, went from gossamer-green to bald glistening plastic in a green that deepened to livid unpleasantness.

  Narrower still, and brighter-lit. "O God," Rafe said, and balked. Metal gleamed. Clusters of projections like insect limbs lined the chamber which unfurled from beyond the turning-some arms folded, some thrust out in partial extension, things to grip and bite, extensors armed with knives.

  "Come on," Kepta said. "Come ahead. That's right. No sense running now.”

  "It's still there," Rafe Two said. They had tried the unseen barrier now and again, when one and the other of them grew restless in their dark confinement. He went back and sat down while Jillan and Paul had their own go at it, Paul with violence, which did no good, but it satisfied some need, and Rafe averted his face and rested his chin on his arm, knee tucked up, staring into the dark beyond the invisible wall.

  Now and again there were sounds. The thing that wailed had become familiar, still dreadful when it came, but it seemed by now that it would have done something, attacked if it could or if it had the desire.

  "Shut up," he told it when it came.

  Paul and Jillan sat down again, Paul last, who cast himself down and hung his hands between his knees, to look up again with a bleak, sullen stare.

  He was being patient, was Paul, amnesiac, wiped of everything recent, even the remembrance that he was dead. They had had to tell him that all over again, and Paul had sat and listened, and objected. Perhaps he thought they were crazy; perhaps he believed it. Whatever Paul believed, he was quiet about it all.

  Because Jillan was calm, Rafe thought; because he and Jillan accepted it and explained matters gently as they could. He detected the cracks in Paul's facade, the little signs of tension, the occasional sharp answer, the increasingly worried look on Paul's face when they failed to retaliate for his gibes. They were shielding him; Paul realized it. Jillan protected him-being merchanter-born, tough in spacer-ways, with a spacer's tolerance of distances, infinities, time and thinking inside-put. She was the stronger here. So was he.

  Jillan and me, Rafe thought, and Paul, on the other side, cut off from her. From me. He's trying-so hard to keep himself together in Jillan's sight
, up to her measure of a man-We joke; we seem to take it light; it's like salt in all his wounds.

  He got up, paced, for Paul's sake, to be human. Pushed at the wall.

  "Give it up," Paul said.

  He sat down again, slumped, elbows on knees.

  So maybe it helped, giving Paul a way to seem calm and in control.

  "Got any ideas?" he asked Paul then.

  Paul was silent a long time. "Just thinking," Paul said, "that we don't eat, don't sleep, don't get tired-wonder how long it takes a mind to unravel, sitting still. Wonder if it's listening. Or if it's just gone off and forgotten us, this alien you met. Wonder if we're all crazy. Or you are. And we sit here glowing in the dark.”

 
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