“Excuse me, sir, may I have a word with you?”
Bannit froze. In the last three busy days he had managed to bury the memory of that voice. He turned deliberately.
“Am I being followed again?” he inquired, with an edge of sarcasm to his voice.
“Yes, sir, you are indeed. By me. Mr. Bannit, I have been looking for you these last three days. Allow me to congratulate you on the very able way you have handled the establishment of yourself and your affairs. Your clothes mark you as a life-long resident. As a matter of fact, I spoke with a local tailor who assured me that you always deal with him; and even buy extra when you are planning an out system jaunt, so that you will not need to be inconvenienced by wearing the local styles. Excellent cover.” The Thren tipped his huge head to one side and beamed at Bannit like an avuncular racehorse.
“Listen, y — Honest John. Can’t you find somebody else to run the con on? It’s just a little unnerving to have you turning up at may elbow every two or three days. Why don’t you try the port again? There’s another passenger liner due in this afternoon. Some of them are bound to be naive enough to believe that they’re being followed…”
Bannit was stalling for breathing space and time to think. It had been a shock to hear that voice again. But it had been a worse shock when the creature had called him by name. The amount of effort it would have taken to track him down — the amount of cash! Bannit believed in oiling wheels well before they squeaked. So Honest John was no slouch, himself.
The thought was unsettling, at least. Bannit wondered what made him so important.
“I go,” the Thren was saying, “I haven’t interviewed a single new client since I spoke with you. Most of my time has been taken up with a guild matter — oh, a few hours spent making insurance arrangements for some CRC who have opened a shop in the port… But this guild matter is of some urgency; and since it also seems to concern you, I have been following — I had hoped to find you willing to discuss the matter with me.”
Bannit frowned. This was a new tack entirely. And something about the creature indicated that he was sincere.
“I’m sorry, but you must be mistaken. I’m not a member of any guild, clique, union or clan. I don’t even have a job as yet. I’ve spent the last few days getting settled on your fine planet. I don’t see how I can help you with a guild matter…”
The Thren broke in, waving two of its four arms, impatiently, Bannit thought.
“Of course you don’t see how you can help. That is why I am here. You could not come to me because you are kept in ignorance. But between us we have the beginning of the answer to my guild’s problem, Mr. Bannit. May I walk with you? A bit of open discussion and you will see how you can help.”
Neil, if you don’t mind going to the local Recreation Club. I’m going to try and scare up a partner for some Papong.”
“Excellent. It has been some time since I have been in this neighborhood; though I grew up very near here. My Parent-Three were among the first Thren to settle here.”
Bannit nodded, asked an absent question about the changes in the neighborhood; and disregarded the answer as he set off at a brisk stroll.
The Thren kept the pace easily, and returned the conversation to Bannit, himself.
“Mr. Bannit, you are quite good. I have the impression, sir, from watching you, that much of your life has been spent being careful. Careful people live long.”
“For example,” the creature went on as he adjusted his speed to Bannit’s suddenly quickened pace, “you bought items in at least three different stores, used three different first names, paid each bill with a check from one of three separate accounts with banks based on widely varied worlds. From this, I deduce that you are what is known, among humans, as “independently wealthy”.
The Thren looked at Bannit strangely. Bannit hoped that his face was calm and politely interested and betrayed none of the other emotions Honest John’s comments had evoked.
“Go on,” he murmured.
The Thren nodded. “I was not wrong when I stopped you at the spaceport to tell you that you were being followed. You were indeed being followed by two humans, both of whom had arrived on the ship Kraalqueg. From which you, also, disembarked.”
The Thren paused for a moment and did a fancy two-four step meaningless to Bannit. Maybe it was a common dramatic gesture among the Thren.
“So. I will tell you this, the rest of the little that I know. After I spoke with you at the spaceport, you entered the bar there — the one most frequented by humans. One of the people you encountered there’s a member of the guild of the Unnamed. This person used his guild name to you. Cherna.”
Bannit felt himself stiffen. What could Cherna have said about him to evoke this much interest? Very carefully, Bannit probed the local magnetic field with his mind. There were two very strange distortions of it, both pressed tight against Honest John’s sides. Undoubtedly energy weapons of some kind. Another bulge in the field was probably a projectile weapon.
Bannit withdrew his attention from the field. The Thren had done a very good background check, he decided. It made him a bit uneasy about the package in his room. He hadn’t unwrapped it since he had arrived on Demain. But he had thought it — and him — safe.
Honest John was going on. “So, you played games of chance with Cherna. But, you did it in such a way to show that you control some power or sleight of hand somewhat superior to those usually found here on Demain. Is any of this not true?”
The Thren was forced to pause for a moment as they turned a crowded corner. Thren and humans were hurrying in all directions and the bulk of Honest John forced him to wait for an opening in the crowd.
Bannit, slight for a human, slid into the crowd, hoping for time to think, but the Public Defender was at his shoulder again before he had done any useful sorting.
“What you have said so far is reasonably close to the event,” Bannit admitted.
“Good. I had thought so. The guild matter follows closely therefrom. Please listen careful to events you did not witness and may not have heard of as yet. This matter is being kept very quiet.”
Another piece of fancy footwork brought the Thren to the subject.
“The two humans I warned you of followed you into the bar, where they became involved in a game of chance with Cherna, who later spoke to you, and two other humans. When Cherna left the bar, they followed him — perhaps they had seen him pass money to you? — and attacked him.”
Bannit stopped and faced the Thren, surprised at the amount of concern he felt for the slight man.
“Cherna’s not hurt, I hope?”
“No. Very factually, Cherna himself was not harmed. However, a member of my guild was killed defending him. Thus, this has become a guild matter.
“Mr. Bannit, the Public Defender’s Guild and the Guild of the Unnamed need answers to urgent questions surrounding this event. So, as well, the Armorers Guild. They have filed an informal complaint, hoping to avoid the necessity of a formal one.”
Bannit knew the inevitable when he encountered it. He pointed to the low-slung building just ahead.
“Since the guilds seem to be the closet thing to a government on Demain, I guess I should talk with you. I intend to live here for the rest of my life, and I hope to be a good citizen…” he allowed himself a wry grin at that one. “Perhaps you would join me for a game, or at the bar?”
Honest John waved both left arms in what seemed to be a salute of some kind.
“Thank you, Mr. Bannit. I have been told that I play a competent game of Papong. And I do favor Chorncola.”
They spoke of mixed drinks and cola as they entered the building.
“You must understand that there is always a good bit of confusion concerning the ownership of found objects,” Bannit said into his drink.
The Thren waved three arms in assent. “Yes. Of course.”
Bannit was much more comfortable with the Thren after ten hard-fought games of Papong, which had ended in a tie; five-five. The Public Defender had proven to have a strange but very effective style of play which involved switching paddle hands in play — with four to choose from, it had taken Bannit some time to get used to it;. but, until he had, Honest John had been impossible to beat.
Bannit wondered if he would do as well playing a Thren-designed game against a Thren.
“This is a — family matter,” he continued, borrowing Honest John’s phrasing, “My father worked in the ‘belt as an engineer, but he did some prospecting on the side — I think everyone does out there. He made a strike of sorts, but not what he was expecting. He found a cache of — artifacts.
“The artifacts were non-human in design; and were not from any known culture… He sold almost the entire find to Jonitan Grandwater’s science people —” he glanced at the Thren, but it was impossible to tell if the name had meant anything to it or not.
“They wanted it bad, and they offered plenty of cash, so he sold them the stuff. Most of it.” He took a sip of his drink, finding the tale hard, “What he kept was a gem.”
“A gem?” asked the Thren, “energy weapons in a city for the sake of a gem?”
Bannit nodded. “Let me explain. This gem — a diamond — had three hundred and sixty facets. It was, or is, nearly exactly one-third of a Terran meter in diameter, or just over a meter in circumference.”
Bannit held his hands out to show the size of the diamond, the Stone, as his family had called it. He had held it in his hand so often that they sized it now, empty, perfectly. He could feel it in his mind, somehow, as if the thought had weight and substance, as well as the physical stone.
“Large for a naturally occurring diamond, I think?” The Thren waved a hand through the air — the delicate work one, which was holding a Chorncolain its frosted glass. “I’d doubt if it is the largest ever found — but, yes, it is quite large. The point is that it’s a perfect stone, cut in a strange manner -? it may even be an artificial gem. It doesn’t matter. The Stone is beautiful of itself, and my father kept it — for the beauty and as a kind of a trophy, I guess… The trouble started when Grandwater claimed that the Stone had been bought with the other artifacts, even though the sale was recorded and we could prove that my father hadn’t sold it to him.” Bannit paused, took a sip of brandy, and went on.
“Since my family wouldn’t surrender the stone, Grandwater — or his thugs, anyway — took it. And they’ve killed my entire family to do it.”
“So tell me this, Mr. Bannit,” the Thren broke in, “are you now in possession of this “stone”?”
“It is under my — control,” Bannit answered, and wondered a little at his choice of word. “And, yes — if I was followed, Cherna may have been attacked because he was seen talking with me — and your guild member killed because of that…” he swallowed an uncharacteristic impulse to say he was sorry and took another sip of brandy.
“How do you know that they were following me? Couldn’t they have simply been angry at Cherna’s con?”
“Mr. Bannit, we know better, you and I. And there is another thing. These men, they were armed with military weapons. One of them was using a mindlocked blaster. When our guild member — Sliver, her name was — defended herself and Cherna, she killed that man. In the explosion that followed, the other man died, as well as any hope of restoring Sliver. That is why the Armorer’s Guild has complained to us — these weapons are forbidden to any but those —” Honest John interrupted himself with a quick swallow of Chorncola.
“Forgive me, Mr. Bannit. Let us just say that weapons like this are generally forbidden throughout Demain. You have caused quite a stir.”
“I have caused a stir? I did? Are you crazy?” Bannit leaned across the table, voice low and violent, hand gripping his drink so that the glass groaned with the strain. “I’ve lost my family — my father, my sister, my brother — to these thugs. And you tell me that I’ve caused a problem?
“If I had belonged to a guild in the ‘belt, this would have been a guild matter already. But I didn’t — my family had no resort; nothing to do but sit and be picked off like — So now I’m here, and I can’t run any further, and it’s a guild matter, after all, isn’t it? And all because of one man.”
“Grandwater controls all but a few small ports in the belt; and the ones he doesn’t control, he can buy enough cooperation —”
“Mr. Bannit, I did not intend —” the Thren started to break in.
“Shut up. I will help your guild — if they want to do something about these assassins. Yes, Cherna may still be in danger. Yes, you may be in danger from talking with me now. I thought that if I removed myself from the center of things, Grandwater would let it be. But he hasn’t the sense. And he’s hurting people who have no place in the affair. So I’ll help you. Here or off planet.”
The Thren had raised two of its fingers to its mouth in the traditional human signal for quiet.
Bannit slumped back in his chair, suddenly very, very tired. The booth they were occupied was far from the bar. It was unlikely that any had overheard his outburst. A quick gulp finished his drink, permitted him to pause a bit more.
“Mr. Bannit,” the Thren began again, “I had not realized the depth of your — involvement. I appreciate your candidness. You have given us quite a lot to work with — now I will be able to have the guild check particular ships when they come in, search for weapons, be aware of unusual requests for information. off-planet. I had not really considered that.”
The Thren folded three hands together in a complicated fashion and tossed his drink down almost as rapidly as Bannit had finished his own.
“off-planet.” he repeated, setting his glass down, gently. “Mr. Bannit, our guild does not — has never operated, officially, off-planet. Demain itself has little to do, officially, with anything off-planet. What we do elsewhere is either at the personal or the informal level… and there is something you should know, I think, before I go.”
Bannit waited, feeling the table under his hands, slick with the sweat from his palms.
“Two things or three you should know, Mr. Bannit. First, I think that the guild might act off-planet if such invasions of main force continue. I, at least, would vote for such action.
“Next. One of the reasons I like humans as much as I do is that they are very Thrennish in some ways — for example, in their need for revenge. I sponsored Sliver into the guild, Mr. Bannit; loaned her the money to start her own business and helped her become part of, where her real interests lay — the Combined Missions. I bear the burden in some ways, for, without me, she might have become a shopkeeper.
“Also, something you will appreciate. Sliver had a daughter. The daughter is not content with the death of two thugs. She will be in touch with you, I’m sure, because she is very much a child of this neighborhood in spirit. She believes in many Thrennish things.
“Mr. Bannit, please be in touch with me, as well. You may well live here the rest of your life. You will want to meet people and do things, and I can introduce you to many people. If you have the least suspicion that you are being followed, or if danger approaches you more nearly, call me.”
That quickly the Thren was up and leaving, almost an orange blur as he threaded his way out of the lounge.
It was some time before Bannit realized that he’d been stuck with the bill again.
For good measure, he added a few more before he left.
Darkness had overtaken Bannit as he wandered through the Thren section of the port city. He’d been amused most of the day by the Thrennish enthusiasm for Earth-style architecture; then had slipped into the old pattern of thoughts —solutions, his family, Grandwater.
Inevitably, he’d returned through the gathering gloom of the slowly clouding evening — no stars to look at tonight — to his apartment, built to accommodate humans in a building otherwise occupied by Thren.
In his hand, a heavy package, sealed.
Bannit moved to the bed, sat down on it, moved certain catches this way, others that way, then reached out with his senses and slowly moved a totally concealed switch from on to off. Now the package would open, not explode.
The package opened suddenly and the globe-like diamond fell upon the bed, gathering light and highlights to itself instantly.
Bannit found himself breathing shallowly, then laughed at himself. This was the way it always was when he first took the stone out. Awe. A touch of fear. And, ultimately, a feeling that this was indeed his stone.
For this stone, nearly a meter in circumference, his father had died. No, there had never really been any — proof of that. His father had turned down a final offer by Grandwater. Grandwater himself had joined in the negotiations by then — and shortly thereafter his father’s wrecked spaceship had been discovered by a Grandwater cruiser, victim of an unexplained explosion.
The Inquiry determined that the elder Bannit must have been careless with his prospecting tools and that a search charge had detonated on board. Sith Bannit, at fifteen, had known better.
Everything had gone to Bannit’s older brother, Gordi. A year later,Gordi refused a final offer and was found asphyxiated in his hydroponics garden,dead of a mishap, a leaking CO collector, it was said.
Sith Bannit, at sixteen, had known better. His sister then took over the family fortunes. She banked things very carefully, created accounts outsystem, parlayed some of the money Grandwater had paid for the other material into a respectable sum.
Aven had been careful. She loaned the stone to the Callisto museum for a year and a half for public display along with the other “Bannit Finds”, and it was studied, along with the indecipherable writing and the objects of no known function. Alien artifacts, discovered attached to a piece of the destroyed planet, the asteroids.
On the day the museum show was to close, Aven received a final offer. Which she refused. Sith discovered her, dying, beaten badly. She had indeed signed a Contract, and the stone belonged to Grandwater.
Those responsible for the beating were found, imprisoned, set free on a technicality. Aven did die, nearly a week later. The doctor’s diagnosis was poison, as well as injuries already sustained from the attack.
Bannit shook his head freeing the memory for a moment; took the stone in his hands and slowly rotated it.
Feeling the magnetic fields around him, Bannit changed the lines of force a bit — here and there — slowly building up his own field and, at the same time, letting the local field do most of the work for him. Without the local field, he would have had a headache within minutes— as had happened on Callisto, where the field was so weak, he could barely use it.
Now, the stone rested — not on his hands, but on a thin field of magnetic and electronic force stretched like a spider’s web invisible to any but Bannit.
The stone spun slowly. Bannit picked a facet, built a charge on it.
The stone rotated faster.
Now, Bannit raised the stone with his mind, stretching the lines of force tighter, altering with a thought the speed of the spin.
Bannit laughed to himself. He liked manipulating objects. Especially when he was the only one who knew what was happening.
Grandwater had made Bannit rich by buying the stone — at least, by asteroid belt standards. Bannit had lived up to that image, became a big spender, a gambler in the casinos. Six times out of seven, Bannit had been just like all the other patrons, losing more than they won, but not outrageously
On the seventh turn, Bannit was unbeatable. People spoke of the Bannit luck, running good again after so much bad, and even joked about a curse on the ‘stone.
The night he stole the stone back, Bannit had killed fourteen of Grandwater’s men. Four guards in space suits died when switches stuck open or closed; when valves failed.
Several more were electrocuted when an impassible short-circuit occurred. The rest died when the poison gas in the display case holding the diamond was released prematurely.
Bannit, in a light space suit, had walked into the room, opened the case by moving computer-controlled locks with his mind, and walked out.
He’d been gone three weeks by the time suspicion fully focused on him.
Bannit spun the diamond overhead, made it tumble, made it be still, hanging in space.
Now Grandwater knew where he was. Bannit had been lucky once; but Grandwater would send more men, expecting to find a sitting duck.
At twenty-three, Bannit knew better.
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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