Cherna had a headache. His eyes hurt. His voice was weak; his throat raw. And he would have to pay for two funerals.
To Cherna these were minor problems. The greater lay in facing Sliver’s daughter. The last time, he’d seen her, she’d still been a child, though he never could seem to think of her as such. Now she was fully a woman, and a member of the Defender’s Guild; she’d taken the guild name Quicksilver.
Even though he had lived on Demain all of his life, sharing his world with creatures of all descriptions — from Thren to the Grindin herd-intelligences — it was difficult for Cherna to be at ease with Sliver’s daughter.
Cherna was distracted by the itching of his arm. The doctor had said that he shouldn’t feel the affect of a hypo-spray on his skin, but it itched anyway. Of course, there was a bit of difference between an isolated hypo and eight separate injections of memory stimulants — or nine? Cherna grimaced. At least the effects were wearing off. He hoped that the memory of the last hours would recede with the last of the drug.
Death on assignment always brought out the questioners, Cherna knew. But none of his acquaintances had ever reported such an honored list of interrogators, or such an endless barrage of questions.
First had come someone from the Defenders, Honest John. Cherna knew him by reputation, of course; if his rates hadn’t been ‘way out of Cherna’s league — He closed off that thought. Honest John had a price to pay in this, too; he’d sponsored Sliver’s entry into the guild. And his questioning of Cherna was thorough.
Previous contact with the subject Bannit? No, of course not. The tourists? No. Why that bar? Always a game going there. You requested information on this Bannit, why? A feeling… Ad, yes? What sort of feeling? This is your specialty is it not? Tell me, Cherna, what was your feeling about Bannit? Something — not right, danger around him, behind him — a feeling, is all. A hunch…
Then the UnNamed, his own guild, had questioned him. And, after that, the — Armorer’s Guild. Over and over, they asked the same questions; different words, different emphasis — but the same questions, nonetheless. Any obvious accents? Remarks perhaps concerning the superiority of humans?
Cherna had struggled to remember entire the conversations, the banter, and the killing. Yes, there had been a few remarks about nonhumans during the card games, but to think more of it was… Cherna was not to evaluate what had occurred, please, he was to report, factually, all that had transpired. The questioners shared a consuming need for facts.
Now, with the inquiry over, with the funeral coming, Cherna felt dread.
He had never been through the ritual before. Despite the coaching he had received, his hands shook as he draped himself in the traditional white of-mourning as supplied by the UnNamed. The guild also donated space for the ceremony. It was the custom.
It lacked ten minutes to midday when Cherna walked into the Room of Mourning and sat gingerly upon the appropriate chair. Ten minutes can be a very long time.
They arrived together, and on foot, as was the custom.
Honest John led the way into the room, swathed in an enormous cloak of grey. Next came one of the Inner Net, for Sliver had been of that company, as wall; also in grey.
Sliver’s daughter entered the room last, dressed in a long white cloak, the grief mask of tradition across her face.
The room smelled of many things. A cup of Sliver’s favorite wine had been sprinkled about; an unopened bottle of the same vintage stood on the table at the room’s center, next to two fragile goblets.
Plants of Earth and Demain filled five small baskets, one in each corner of the room; the fifth on the table, next to the wine bottle.
Also in the air was the scent of a favorite perfume, the aroma of a tobacco stick, the light, distant odor of fruit, all emanating from a pierced silver globe, which sat to the right and a fraction behind the wine bottle.
Cherna watched wordlessly as the ceremony paced on.
Honest John placed two blades, open and ready, on the table, in Sliver’s fashion. The woman from the Inner Net lay a star map and chart drawn in Sliver’s hand next to the blades.
Quicksilver placed upon the table a small ring of shimmering pale green, cut like a Terran flower; and five small objects wrapped in a silvery foil. With a start, Cherna realized that the foil-wrapped objects must be chocolate, imported from Earth. Despite the circumstance, Cherna could feel his mouth begin to water.
“We come to celebrate Sliver,” intoned Honest John, “Who has been our friend, our loyal guild member and our protector. We come also to celebrate Marie Mitand Suarz, who has been our friend, our mother and an initiate of the guilds.”
Cherna was still thinking about the chocolates Quicksliver had placed on the table. And of the sight of her hand. A soft red down covered the back of the hand, while the palm and slim fingers were of typical Terran flesh tone.
The woman from the Inner Net was speaking; and Cherna forced his thoughts to the ceremony. His turn next.
He bowed to Quicksliver. “I am Cherna, of the UnNamed, and I and my guild owe to you personally and to your guild the debt of final blood. The blood debt is paid and ten times paid, the debt is yet mine. My guild stands with me in the blood debt.”
She bowed to him, with unlearned grace. “Being the Survivor; being of the guild; being the last of the line — I accept the blood debt.”
There was silence as she moved to the table, opened and poured wine.
Cherna hoped that his face hid his feelings — confused and confusing as they were — as she turned back to him. She removed the Mask of Grief, to reveal a face more feline than human, a face partially covered in soft red down, which faded into a striking red-brown mane encircling the face. Feline eyes caught him, pulled him into their depths.
Quicksilver handed a goblet to Cherna; kept one for herself.
“The instruments are destroyed by Sliver, the debt there is equal. The cause and the commander remain untouched. As the Survivor, I will not allow this to continue. I, for myself and for my guild, bind you and your guild, by debt, to our purpose. We shall follow the debt to its source.”
“So be it,” replied Cherna, following the formula despairingly. He had no desire to go off-planet in search of someone who might not exist — or,worse, to find that person, and also find that more than military weapons were at his command. His guild would supply equipment, of course; maybe even someone to go with him. Better — if he could afford to pay someone to go instead — but he didn’t have that kind of money.
The otherwise silent woman from the Inner Net stirred, made a sign With her hands and spoke.
“The Net joins in the debt, both the giving and the taking. Sliver was of the Innermost Ring and might one day have been Netminder. Thus, she is both of our family and our guild. The Net seeks only the debt of truth -your will shall provide your end, the Net’s will shall provide the Net’s end. Let us now drink the drink, eat the food and, remembering Sliver, move to the future which we must share without her.”
Cherna shivered in the room, as warm as it was. The nightmare returned to Cherna that night.
The dream began, building from sleep into the memory of the brilliant spring day when Cherna — age seventeen — had decided to finish with his taxes for the rest of his life. He was too good to be digging ditches. He had real luck, as the tests showed. He was brighter than most people. He would join the Net for the required time and be done with the drudgery of clearing out dusty storerooms and getting dirty. Piece of cake.
The images moved quickly in his head, skipping portions of the trip to Seven Seven Station, leaving out some of the tastes and smells.
The dread began to creep into the dream, edging it toward the nightmare, when the image of Seven Seven Station itself came into his sleeping mind. His body began to curl, even as it slept; the muscles tensed to fight off unimaginable menace.
The registration and orientation session was skipped in this version of the day’s events; he didn’t relive the warnings to which he had paid no attention — that perhaps one in ten thousand exposed to the Net died or went insane of it.
Instead, the mind switched to the room, one of fifty or sixty on Demain that made up the Outer Net. Cherna and the other members of his group were ushered into the room. He felt something tug at him, like the undercurrent of a vast tide; or the beginning strains of a great piece of music.
Cherna disregarded the feeling, looked about the room, the terror, unexplained, growing.
The room was circular, level after level leading down to a small dais where stood ten silent people with closed eyes, hands upon the bright metal rail in front of them. Up, each row a meter higher, containing ten or twenty more people than the one before, swept the room’s minions.
Now the dream skipped again, and Cherna was moving with the line of new operators, along the topmost ring. Following the person in front of him, he moved around the circle, putting first his left and then his right hand on the bar gleaming in front of him.
As he touched the bar, he thought he could hear distant words, but he kept moving until the row was complete again. Now the dream dragged him helplessly past the first few rather calm minutes of the experience where he had stood, shoulder to shoulder with the other newcomers, looking down into the center of that vast well.
Cherna felt power in his arms, heard distant voices all in tune, callingor chanting something about life. Suddenly, as if someone behind him spoke low and secret in his ear — “There is life.” the voice said, “Intelligence exists.”
The voice was compelling, grew louder, repeating the same phrases.
Cherna was sure that other people around him were mumbling the same words; and, soon, he, too, was saying them.
“There is life. Intelligence exists.”
In his bed, Cherna-now pulled into a tighter curl, twisting the sheets beneath him.
And Cherna-then chanted with the growing chorus of voices, “There is life” Someone was dimming the lights.
The chanting was growing louder, more insistent.
Cherna shifted his weight, thought to move his hands. Sticky with sweat, they stayed where they were. It was getting hard to think with the chanting so loud — and there was fear in his stomach and clenching his chest.
“There is life!” Cherna told the people near him.
Now the room was almost entirely dark and the voices were loud — loud.
Cherna knew he was raising his voice, insisting with an excitement somehow his own and outside himself. “Intelligence exists!”
The rhythm of the words picked up, the force behind him grew more compelling, the lights were gone now and someone was projecting a vague image of — what? Flickering lights?
“Stars!” Cherna said in his mind, fitting the thought carefully between the chant. And knew that somewhere in the now-solid picture of stars, somewhere among the unfamiliar reaches of untouched space — there was intelligence.
He yelled the words and the stars seemed to hang in space in front of him.
No longer was this some impersonal, clever ploy to cancel his taxes — Cherna was insisting, almost angry with frustration.
“There is life! INTELLIGENCE EXISTS!”
Instead of an image of thousands of stars he now saw a small cluster. He shouted at them, demanding a reply to his assertion, “THERE IS LIFE!”
His field of view grew smaller. Instead of ten stars, there were five. Now four, as if Cherna were being swept past the galaxy at a thousand times light speed.
Now there were three stars. Now two. These two circled each other, he saw, before he looked beyond and found the planets — forty or fifty circling in awkward, convoluted orbits about two stars.
He raged now. Raged at them.
INTELLIGENCE EXISTS, INTELLIGENCE EXISTS, HERE, HERE, WE EXIST, THERE IS LIFE, THERE IS LIFE THERE IS LIFE
Cherna’s senses rushed down upon a group of planets swinging in a similar orbit, located THE planet.
Cherna felt a wisp, an edge, a something, in his mind suddenly, moving about, searching. Then, his head was filled with mocking laughter, not his, strange —
“GO. Cogito Ergo Sum indeed. GO AWAY!”
Cherna screamed in pain, now, and the room came back in a rush and he tried to pull his hands from the bar but lacked the strength for there was that which was fighting him, throwing him, driftwood against a seawall, against that painful laughter…
He screamed, did Cherna, and his mind withdrew.
The room conditioner hummed a bit as it attempted to bring the temperature and humidity near Cherna down to the appropriate levels. In his sleep still, he was drenched with sweat and his muscles were locked.
Then the dream let him go.
He snapped up, swung his feet over the edge of his bed; then his strength left him and he dropped his head to his hands, running shaking fingers through sweat-soaked hair. He forced himself to review the dream.
It seemed that this time the final voice had belonged to someone he knew slightly; and that, just before he woke, he had seen her face englobing his thoughts and destroying him.
Cherna doubted he would survive this blood debt; unless he had more than his usual share of luck. It was even more doubtful that he would find a stand-in willing to accept the fee he could offer. And going the way of the Neat, a desperate move, but one that sometimes worked, was denied him after he had failed so few moments after laying his hands upon the bar…
Cherna lurched to his feet; stumbled to the chest against the opposite wall and with barely steady hands poured himself a draught of the drug the Combined Missions supplied him, for times when the dreams were too bad…
It was, Cherna thought as he gulped the vile stuff, the least they could do, after making sure he wouldn’t be able to talk about it.
The drug was taking hold already and Cherna dropped back into bed. In the morning he was scheduled to pay his taxes. He hoped it wasn’t building roads again.
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