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Make the right moves.
Easy for an Ulru-Ujurrian to say, Flinx reﬂected as the Teacher maintained its approach to the world that lay at the end of the decelerating KK-drive craft’s present course. Easy for an Ulru-Ujurrian to do. But then, everything was easy for an Ulru-Ujurrian to say and do. Unimaginably powerful, preposterously playful, and possessed of talents as yet unmeasured–and quite possibly unmeasurable–they went about their daily activities without a care in the world–short of keeping busy by way of the unfathomable playtime that involved moving their planet closer to its sun.
Even that bit of outrageous astrophysics seemed simpler to Flinx than unraveling the mystery of his origins.
He had been given a clue. For the ﬁrst time in many seemingly interminable years, a tangible clue. And even more than that, he had been provided with a destination. It lay before him now, a world he had never considered before, lying the same distance from his present position as his homeworld of Moth or, in a different direction, New Riviera and Clarity Held.
Clarity, Clarity. Under the proﬁcient ministrations and attentive guardianship of his old friends Bran Tse-Mallory and Truzenzuzex, she would be recovering from the injuries she had sustained during the ﬁght that had allowed him to successfully ﬂee New Riviera, also known as Nur. While his love was healing physically, perhaps he could ﬁnally heal the open wound of his unknown origins. These chafed and burned within him as intensely as any cancer.
A word bursting with meaning. Perhaps also a world full of meaning, as it was the name of the globe his ship was rapidly approaching. An undistinguished colony world, H Class VIII, with a single large moon whose orbit the Teacher was presently cutting. Home to a native species called the Tlel, as well as to a modest complement of human colonists. Rather eccentric human colonists, if the details contained within the galographic he had perused were to be believed. Not that he expected to interact very much with the general population. He was here to ﬁnd something speciﬁc. Something for which he had been searching a long, long time, without any real hope of ever ﬁnding it. Now, for the ﬁrst time in years, he had hope.
That is, he did if what he had been told was not a cynical dying man’s ﬁnal provocation–a last lie intended to exact a ﬁnal measure of revenge on the youth responsible for his death.
I know who your father is, Theon al-bar Cocarol had wheezed on Visaria just prior to dying. Self-proclaimed sole unmindwiped survivor of the renegade, edicted eugenicist Meliorare Society, he had dubbed Flinx Experiment Twelve-A before gasping out Gestalt! and then inconveniently expiring. Experiments are not supposed to have knowledge of their biological progenitors, he had coldly insisted earlier.
To the Great Emptiness with that, Flinx had decided immediately. In his lifelong search for his origins he had pursued more than his share of dead ends. It would only be one more irony in a life ﬁlled to bursting with them if a lead supplied by a dying outlaw turned out to be the right one.
Equally important had been the expiring scientist’s choice of words. I know who your father is, Cocarol had declaimed before gasping his last. Penultimate breath or not, Flinx had not confused the tense. Cocarol had clearly and unmistakably said “is.” Not was, but is. So small a word, so full of promise. Was it possible, Flinx had been unable to keep himself from musing ever since that critical, piercing moment, that he might not only ﬁnally learn the identity of his father, but actually ﬁnd him alive? It was too much to hope for.
So he did not hope. He had been disappointed too often before. But he allowed himself, had to allow himself, space in which to wish.
Intent on the fate of the galaxy and every one of its inhabitants civilized or otherwise, his mentors Bran Tse-Mallory and the Eint Truzenzuzex would almost certainly not have sympathized with his present detour. Much as she loved him, Clarity might not have sympathized, either. But she would have understood. Even with the fate of so much and so many at stake, there were private demons that had to be put to rest before Flinx could fully focus on external threats, no matter how vast in extent they might be. Save the inner universe ﬁrst, he kept telling himself, and you’re likely to be in better condition to make a stab at saving everything else.
Sprawled like a length of pink-and-green rope below the Teacher’s foreport, Pip lifted her head to glance across at him. Epitomizing the empathetic bond that existed between them, the minidrag’s attitude reﬂected her friend and master’s anguish.
“Am I selﬁsh?” he asked the ship, after explicating his disquiet aloud.
“Of course you are.” The Teacher’s ship-mind had been programmed for many things. Subtlety was not to be counted among them. “The fate of a galaxy rests in your hands. Or rather, in lieu of a cheap analogy, in your mind.”
“Uh-huh. Assuming I exist in this hypothetical position to do anything at all about it, notwithstanding what Bran and Tru seem to think.”
“In the absence of an alternative speciﬁcally encouraging, they seek surcease in the exploration of remote possibilities. Of which you are, like it or not, ostensibly the most promising.”
Flinx nodded. Rising from the command chair, he strolled over to the manual console and absently ran his hand down the length of Pip’s back. The ﬂying snake quivered with pleasure.
“What do you think?” he asked softly. “Am I the last hope? Am I the key to something bigger, something more powerful, that visits me in dreams? Or whatever you want to call that perversely altered state of consciousness in which I sometimes unwillingly ﬁnd myself.”
“I do not know,” the Teacher told him honestly. “I serve, without pretending to understand. I can take you wherever you wish to go, except to comprehension. That destination is not programmed into me.”
Mechanical soul, Flinx thought. Not designed to pronounce judgment. In lieu of the advice of a superior intellect, he would have to judge himself. With a sigh, he raised one hand and gestured toward the port. Soon they would need to announce themselves to planetary control with an eye toward taking up orbit.
“What about this change of course? What do you think of my putting aside the hunt for the Tar-Aiym weapons platform in order to search for my father here, based on what the dying Meliorare told me?”
Understanding of certain matters might not have been programmed into the Teacher’s ship-mind, but contempt was. “An insupportable waste of time. I have run a number of calculations based on the facts and variables available to me. The results are less than promising. Consider: the human Cocarol may have simply been enjoying a ﬁnal, embittered joke at your expense. Or he may not have known what he was talking about. If he did, circumstances may have changed since he was last conversant with the issue at hand. Since then, any knowledge he may have possessed concerning the identity or location of your male parent may have changed radically.
“Meanwhile, whatever lies behind the Great Emptiness continues this way. It is my opinion that your time would be better spent searching for the absent, ancient Tar-Aiym weapons platform that represents the only hope, thus far, of a device even theoretically powerful enough to counter the oncoming danger. A device with whom only you have had, and can initiate, mental contact.” The silken yet tart mechanical voice paused brieﬂy. “Have I at least succeeded in instigating within you a modicum of guilt?”
“The attempt is redundant,” Flinx snapped. “No need to refresh that which never leaves me.”
“That realization, at least, is encouraging,” the ship replied. “Since logic and reason are having no effect, I search for that which will work.”
In some respects chatting with the Teacher was easier than engaging in conversation with a human. For example, the ship never raised its voice, and if Flinx so wished, he could terminate the discussion with a simple command. On the other hand, unlike with another person, he could not turn away from it. The ship-mind was everywhere around him.
“As soon as I’ve settled this question, I’ll resume the search. I promise.” Pip looked up at him quizzically.
The ship responded, “What makes you so certain that you will settle it here? This is a question the answer to which you have sought on many worlds. As I have commented repeatedly, the dying human could have perished with a falsehood on his lips. It would not be overmuch to expect of one who had so long lived a lie himself.”
“I know, I know.” A pensive Flinx raised his gaze once more to the cloud-swathed new world looming steadily larger in the foreport. As he stared, the port continuously adapted to the changing light outside the ship. Another new world in a long list of those that instead of answers had thus far provided him with only more questions. “But after all these years, it’s the most promising lie that I’ve been told.”
Though Gestalt’s human population numbered only in the millions, he was still surprised at the informality that infused the exchange of arrival formalities. According to the Teacher, the orbiting station-based automatic electronic protocol that challenged their approach did not even bother to inquire as to the nature of his business. This suggested that the planetary authority was either lazy, indifferent, or criminally negligent. As it developed, it was none of these. Orbital insertion protocol was a true reﬂection of the colonists’ attitude and philosophy. It was not quite like anything Flinx had encountered before.
The lack of bureaucratic ceremony meant that he had to conceal only his true identity, and not the conﬁguration of his vessel. The Teacher was able to avoid having to employ the complex external morphing he usually had to order it to undergo to disguise its appearance when visiting other worlds.
After equipping himself as best he could from ship stores according to the recommendations that were included in Gestalt’s unpretentious but thorough galographics ﬁle, he headed down the corridor that led to the shuttle bay. Riding his left shoulder beneath his dark brown nanoﬁber cold-weather jacket, Pip had gone to sleep. A quick predeparture check indicated that everything was in place for him to take his usual leave from the vessel. The communit that would not only allow him to communicate with the Teacher but also allow it to keep track of him was secure in its pouch on his duty belt, which was itself concealed beneath the lower hem of the jacket.
Though not an iceworld like Tran-ky-ky, by all indications the surface of Gestalt was as chilly as a Meliorare’s heart. It would, he reﬂected, be a change from all the temperate, tropical, and semidesert worlds on which he had recently spent so much of his time.
“I’ll be back soon,” he declared aloud as the shuttle lock door curled softly shut behind him. A slight hiss signiﬁed pressure equalization.
“Famous last words,” the Teacher murmured, addressing the observation as much to itself as to the lanky young human who was now slipping into harness inside the shuttle.
My father, Flinx thought to himself as he felt the subtle jolt that indicated the shuttle had dropped clear of the Teacher. My father is. So had insisted the dying Meliorare Cocarol. So many years spent searching. So much time lost wondering. Finding his father would not save civilization from the vast abyssal horror that was speeding toward the Milky Way from beyond the Great Emptiness–but it might help to fortify the hesitant, vacillating key that was himself.
In all his traveling he had never seen a planetary surface quite like that of Gestalt. Its waters were blue, its heavy cloud cover mottled white. Normal enough. But instead of ambiguous, perambulating scattering, the numerous continental landmasses ran north to south in roughly parallel, scimitar-shaped arcs, striping the entire globe with mountainous chevrons. Some of the larger bodies of land were loosely connected by wandering, thin strips of terrain, while others were completely isolated from one another by long stretches of open sea.
Each individual landmass consisted largely of rugged mountain ranges that had been squeezed up from the planetary crust by grumbling tectonic forces. There should be active volcanism, Flinx mused as he studied the surface that was rising swiftly toward him. Indeed, in the course of the descent he spotted several confessional plumes, their telltale trails stretching out straight and sharp as white feathers amid the rest of what was an otherwise typically anarchic atmosphere.
As the shuttle automatically leveled off on ﬁnal approach, he marveled at the landscape that spread out in every direction. Valleys cutting through the incessant mountain chains ﬂashed churning rivers. Bright ﬂashes of alpine lakes lay strung like shards of shattered mirror among the green. And, startlingly, the blue. There was an inordinate amount of undeniably blue vegetation, he saw, in every imaginable shade and variation. In addition, the snow that capped the higher peaks and lay like cotton in shadowed vales and chasms was tinted a distinctive pink that occasionally deepened to rose. There must be something unique in the composition of the local precipitates, he reﬂected.
Finding one’s way around such country would be next to impossible without modern technology. As the Teacher’s shuttle sped over valley after valley, dropping gradually lower and lower, he saw that one rocky, tree-fringed gorge looked much like another. Infrequently, a cluster of structures indicating organized habitation impinged brieﬂy on his vision. Even at the shuttle’s rapidly diminishing landing speed, these came and went too fast for him to tell if their origin was human or indigenous.
According to Gestalt’s galographics, population centers of any kind were few and far between. Both the native Tlel and the humans who had settled among them favored their privacy. It was a trait inborn among the natives and elective among the humans.
The shuttle’s voice, a modest echo of its starship parent, advised him to prepare for touchdown. It was a warning he always took seriously, even when preparing to land on a developed world. He had been prepared for touchdown ever since he had ﬁrst settled into the seat. Sensing his heightened anticipation, Pip tensed slightly beneath the cold-climate jacket.
Only a few valleys on Gestalt were wide and ﬂat enough to allow for the siting of a shuttleport. Tlearandra was located on the other side of the planet. Since it was also home to the ofﬁces of Gestalt’s Commonwealth representative and the preponderance of potentially inquisitive secondary ofﬁcials, Flinx had prudently chosen to land at Tlossene, the other principal metropolitan area.
Used to touching down at ports that were located well outside the boundaries of the major conurbations they served, he was startled when it appeared as if the shuttle was heading for the center of the city itself. Though eventually realizing this was an illusion born of descent velocity and angle of approach, he was still relieved when his craft made primary contact with an actual landing strip instead of the cluster of buildings whose rooftops it seemed to barely clear. The shuttleport was situated in a region of hard, dried river bottom that struck him as perilously close to inhabited areas. While it was true that Gestalt exported only small manufactures and conversely boasted only modest imports, thus negating any need for extensive port servicing facilities, the proximity of port to population struck him as irresponsible. He intended to inquire about the choice. Even though he could not think of one, doubtless there was a good reason why the port had been placed so close to the community.
It did not occur to him that maybe nobody cared.
Arrival formalities on the ground proved to be as thankfully unceremonious and perfunctory as they had been when the Teacher had ﬁrst settled into orbit and been contacted by landing control. He had only to state his name (falsiﬁed), ship identiﬁcation (falsiﬁed), and purpose of visit (conducting research on behalf of a company that for reasons related to commercial security preferred to remain unnamed–also falsiﬁed). It was thus under multiple ﬁctitious pretenses and with considerable conﬁdence that Flinx requested directions to the usual subterranean pedestrian accessway.
“This is Gestalt,” an inordinately relaxed male voice informed him via the shuttle’s internal communications system. “Nothing is paid for that receives insufﬁcient use. That includes costly underground conveniences. We don’t get many private craft here. There are no subterranean amenities for travelers such as yourself. Your landing craft’s present orientation is positioned clear on my readout. Step out of your vessel and turn west. You’ll see the main terminal. It’s a short walk across the tarmac.” A brief pause, then, “Weather’s good today. If you’re not properly equipped for the climate, you shouldn’t be here. The valley in which Tlossene is located is almost three thousand meters up, you know. Or you do now, if by some odd chance you didn’t prior to touchdown.”
The controller’s tone suggested someone chatting casually with a friend instead of that of a government ofﬁcial conducting formal business attendant on offworld arrival. The easy tenor, the absence of attitude, the lack of ceremony were truly refreshing compared with the ﬂood of restrictive regulations and formal procedures Flinx so often was forced to follow when landing on other worlds.
But–step out and turn west?
“We only have two subsurface accessways,” the controller explained in response to the new arrival’s uncertainty, “both of which are currently in use by the pair of cargo shuttles you can see working off to the east.”
Peering out the foreport in the indicated direction, Flinx could see the two much larger, bulkier craft parked on the indicated section of tarmac. Clunky robotic haulers and more agile automated loaders swarmed around several gaping service bays. No humans or Tlel were in view, and the industrious mechanicals paid no attention to the new arrival.
“Okay, I’ll walk,” he informed the controller. “What about Customs and Immigration?”
“Someone will meet you.” A tinge of humor colored the rest of the reply. “It’ll give SeBois something to do.”
Flinx did not have to secure the shuttle–the ship would see to such mundane safety measures on its own initiative. As soon as the landing ramp was deployed, he made sure the skin-sensitive soft-sealing collar of his jacket was snug around his neck and over Pip, and exited through the lock.
The cold hit him immediately. Prepared for it, he was not surprised. If anything, the ambient temperature was less bracing than the shuttle’s readout had led him to expect. No doubt the chill was mitigated by the intensity of Gestalt’s sun at this altitude. His wellbeing was further enhanced by the planet’s slightly denser-than-Terranorm atmosphere, which helped to compensate for the altitude. Inhaling deeply and deliberately, he could not tell any difference from sea-level breathing on any Earth-normal world. Beneath his jacket, Pip twitched slightly against him but was otherwise untroubled by the sharp drop in temperature. As long as she could ﬁnd enough food to power her dynamic metabolism, she would be ﬁne.
At the moment, food held no particular appeal for Flinx, since he had eaten prior to departing the Teacher. But he decided that if available, he wouldn’t turn down a hot drink. While the emergency reserve that did double duty as a component of his jacket insulation could supply that, he preferred not to access its limited volume unless he had to. Besides, it was always nice to try something local.
Across the pavement and beyond the line of port buildings, the city of Tlossene crawled up a pair of opposing mountainsides that funneled into a sloping canyon in the distance. At the city’s higher elevations, poured and fabricated structures gave way or ﬁltered into blue and green alien forest. None of the structures was taller than half a dozen stories. Though a real city with a population in the hundreds of thousands, Tlossene was no grand metropolis. Many of the central buildings he could see clearly looked weathered but tasteful. Their external appearance ﬁt what he knew of the history of Gestalt’s settlement by humans. Scattered among them were distinctively dimpled domes and bulging egg-shaped constructions that hinted at a nonhuman sense of design. If these eye-catching ediﬁces had not been built by the indigenous Tlel, they had at least been inspired by them.
In the far distance beyond the city soared peaks whose heights Flinx could only estimate. If he needed to know exact altitudes, he could always check with the communit on his belt that had been loaded with all the information on this world that was available to the Teacher. Reaching the bottom of the ramp, he headed away from the shuttle, strolling in the designated direction.
The pounding at the back of his head had nothing to do with the slight change in pressure from ship to surface. Such sometimes debilitating headaches were no stranger. As always, he would ignore the throbbing pain and attendant discomfort unless it became genuinely disabling. Only at such times did he reluctantly resort to medication or meditation. Sensing her master’s discomfort, Pip shifted uneasily against his shoulder. There was nothing she could do but empathize.
If he were back on Arrawd, where the locals were in much more than one way of similar mind, his mind would be at peace. Or even if he were somewhere within that strange rain-forest-swathed world Midway–no, Midworld, he corrected himself. In all the Arm, those were the only two planetfalls he had made where he knew he could be reasonably certain of ﬁnding mental peace. Lips pressed tightly together against the pain, he strode grimly on. Learning the truth of the Meliorare Cocarol’s last revelation would go a long way toward easing any discomfort he felt while on Gestalt.
He forgot about the all-too-recurrent pain in his head as he caught sight of something coming across the tarmac toward him. Someone will meet you, the amiable port controller had assured him. Flinx’s gaze narrowed. Whatever was coming toward him–and it was coming fast–was no genial representative of local ofﬁcialdom. It was neither human nor Tlel. As it, or rather they, sped in his direction, they were sending out silent feelings of fear, anxiety, and confusion.
They didn’t even have legs.
The lack of visible limbs in no way hampered their progress. In fact, as they loomed larger in Flinx’s vision, it was apparent that legs would only have hindered their chosen method of locomotion. There were at least a dozen of the bizarre creatures tumbling and rolling rapidly in his general direction. Tumbling and rolling frantically, if his perception of the primitive emotions they were generating was correct. About the size of a human head, each of the roughly spherical creatures was completely covered in mottled white and brown fur. Longer, denser bristles stood out to the sides like oversized whiskers. They propelled themselves across the tarmac with four arms that terminated in wide, ﬂat, ﬂeshy pads. Working in unison, these grabbed at the hard surface and pushed off powerfully. Somewhere beneath all that fur, he imagined, must be nostrils, a mouth or trunk, and possibly eyes and ears. For all that they appeared blind and dumb, they did not roll into one another.
Pursuing them was something much larger, far more ominous, and uncompromisingly threatening in appearance. As if to reinforce its menacing aspect, it was generating emotions that were as primitive as its obvious intentions. Hulking and bearish, it nonetheless traversed the pavement with a speed and grace that belied its bulk. Unlike its intended prey it did not roll, but instead lumbered forward on several dozen short, muscular legs that terminated in sharp-hoofed feet. White fur decorated with irregular splotches of pink combined to create an incongruously feminine façade. This initially disarming impression lasted only until one noticed the mouth. Almost as wide as the creature was broad, the protruding appendage skimmed along just above the ground, its horizontal maw gaping open. An enormous, trifurcated nostril set atop the blocky skull supplied the necessary air intake and outﬂow for the galloping carnivore, serving not only to ﬁll its predatory lungs but also to allow the spatulate mouth to suction up anything in its path.
That explained the visible absence of teeth or bony ridges inside the ﬂexible jaws, Flinx realized. The meat-eater didn’t bite its victims, or crunch them, or bring them down with fang and claw. It simply, efﬁciently, and bloodlessly vacuumed them up. This particular alien carnivore, Flinx reﬂected, sucked.
The distance separating the desperate dozen of the round, rolling creatures and the whistling predator shrank as he looked on. That this frenetic display of local predation was taking place right out on the tarmac of one of the planet’s main shuttleports would have been sufﬁciently surprising all by itself, even without the fact that the entire screeching, howling menagerie was bearing down on him at impressive speed. Perceiving the threat, Pip struggled to take to the air–only to ﬁnd herself constrained by the soft-seal of her master’s jacket.
Quadruple arms ﬂailing wildly, a pair of the rolling furballs bounded past Flinx on his right. A trio shot past on his left. All ﬁve stank profoundly, emitting a pungent musk that was an olfactory reﬂection of their terror. It occurred to him that their route, rather than being arbitrary, might have been chosen with the intent of possibly placing a diversion into the path of their ravenous pursuer.
That, he realized a bit late as he reached for the pistol holstered at his service belt, would be him.
He had plenty of time to adjust the weapon’s setting. The trouble was, the gun was properly secured in its holster. The holster was attached to his service belt. His service belt was fastened comfortably around his waist–beneath the jacket, whose front was snugly sealed against the local climate. Sharing some of the emotional tumult of the last roller as it swerved wildly past him, Flinx began to fumble a bit more hurriedly with the seal that kept the hem of his coat snug against his upper thighs. Oblivious to his concerns, the lumbering oncoming predator continued to head straight toward him. Flinx felt fairly sure that, unlike the rollers, it had no intention of going around. The broad, ﬂattened, energetically suctioning mouth was more than capacious enough to vacuum him up as easily as it would have any of the ﬂeeing, multiarmed furballs. Fumbling faster with the jacket’s lower seal, he tried projecting feelings of uncertainty onto the onrushing meat-eater. When that had no effect, he strove to project fear. Too primitive or too preoccupied with the hunt to respond, the creature took no notice of his increasingly harried mental efforts.
Finally forcing her way free of the jacket, Pip took to the air. In the denser atmosphere, she had to work even less than usual to get aloft. Her iridescent body was a sudden burst of color against the blue sky. A blur of pleated blue-and-pink wings, she needed but a moment to orient herself before diving directly at the charging carnivore–only to hesitate in midair. The poison she spat was lethal when it struck the eyes of a target, and she was deadly accurate from a surprising distance. Only one thing kept her from dropping the whistling predator in its tracks.
She couldn’t ﬁnd its eyes.
Either like the fast-ﬂeeing rollers it had none, an increasingly uneasy Flinx surmised, or else they were so deeply concealed beneath the coat of white-rose fur they could not be seen. As the beast drew entirely too near, suction from its mouth began to pluck at the legs of Flinx’s thermotropic pants. Normally steady as sunshine, his ﬁngers were uncharacteristically ﬁckle as they fumbled ever more anxiously for the handgrip of his gun. The deep-toned whistling, he now noted, came not from the gaping cavity of the creature’s distinctive, expansive mouth, but from the exceptionally large tripartite nostril set atop its skull. Mouth, nostril. Drawn by what must be an enormous lung, or set of lungs, air was sucked in through the vacuuming mouth and expelled through the bony structure atop the head. If he did not do something to halt or divert the monster, very shortly he would ﬁnd himself in a position to study this fascinating example of adaptive alien biology from the inside.
As Pip darted and hovered overhead in a frantic but futile attempt to distract the lumbering carnivore, Flinx ﬁnally succeeded in pulling his pistol free of its holster and taking aim. Knowing nothing of the creature’s anatomy and in any case not having any time to evaluate it, he pointed the beamer’s muzzle at the center of the fur-matted skull. Hopefully, the brain that powered the animal was located in the general region between mouth and nose.
It was only when he had the pistol leveled and ready to ﬁre that he noticed it was set on Heat, its lowest calibration, instead of Stun or Kill.