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I am in danger of becoming permanently, irrevocably, and unrescuably moody, Flinx found himself thinking. He knew unrescuably wasn’t a word, but the mangled syntax fit his melancholic state of mind. Forced to leave a badly injured Clarity Held behind on New Riviera in the care of Bran Tse-Mallory and Truzenzuzex, pursued now by a newly revealed clutch of fatalistic end-of-the-universe fanatics who called themselves the Order of Null (whose existence he might be responsible for), sought by Commonwealth authorities and others for reasons multifarious and diverse, he could be forgiven for sinking into a mood as black as the space that enveloped the Teacher.
Sensing his mood, Pip did what she could to cheer him. The flying snake whizzed effortlessly among the garden and fountains of the lounge, occasionally darting out from behind leaves or bushes in an attempt to startle her master—or at least rouse him from the lethargy that had settled on his soul ever since their forced flight from Nur. Recognizing the effort she was making on his behalf, he smiled and stroked her. But he could no more hide his frame of mind from the empathetic minidrag than he could from himself. Emotionally, she knew him better than anyone, Clarity Held included.
Clarity, Clarity, Clarity, he murmured softly to himself. When will I be able to see you again? After years of wandering, to have finally found someone he felt truly understood him and he might be able to spend the rest of his life with only to lose so soon was almost more than he could bear. Instead of having her to comfort him, he had agreed to spend who knew how long and how much precious time searching for an ancient weapons platform fabricated by an extinct race that might not even prove useful or usable in diverting an oncoming peril of incalculable dimensions and intent.
If that wasn’t enough to depress someone, he could not imagine what was. At least his recurring headaches had not bothered him for a while.
Even some of the live plants in the relaxation chamber seemed to sense his melancholy, brushing his seated form with branches and flowers. The exotic scents of several blossoms refreshed but did not inspire him. The striking foliage could touch, even caress, but could not converse. That ability remained the province of the Teacher’s ship-mind. To its credit, in its limited, formalized, electron-shunting fashion, it tried to help.
“My medical programming informs me that extended periods of depression can affect the health of a human as seriously as a bacterial infection.”
“Go infect yourself,” Flinx snapped irritably.
“It also,” the ship continued briskly, “is detrimental to the well-being of any unlucky sentients who are compelled to function in the vicinity of the one so depressed.”
Slumped in the lounge chair, Flinx glanced sideways in the direction of the nearest visual pickup. “Are you saying that my mood is contagious?”
“I am saying that anything that affects you also affects me. Your continuing mental condition is not conducive to the efficient functioning of this vessel.”
“Not to mention myself, eh?” He sat up a little straighter, brushing leaves and the tips of small branches away from his legs and sides. Several of them, very subtly, retracted without having to be touched. “You know, ship, I’ve been thinking about everything Bran and Tru told me, about all that we discussed, and the longer I ponder on it, the more my inclination is to say the hell with it, the hell with everything. Except for Clarity, of course.”
“I sense that this energetic verbal response is not an indication of a lightening of mood.”
“Damn right it isn’t. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t do exactly that?”
The ship did not hesitate. “Because if you do nothing, there is a strong likelihood that everything and everyone in this galaxy will perish, with the concomitant possibility that the ultimate responsibility will be yours.”
He rolled his eyes. “All right—give me another reason.”
Surprisingly, the ship did not respond. Advanced AI circuitry notwithstanding, there were still occasional matters that required a certain modicum of cybernetic reflection. This, apparently, was one of them. Or else, he told himself, it was simply pausing for dramatic effect, something it was quite capable of doing.
“You are not thinking with your usual clarity—if you will pardon my use of that word in this context. I have been meditating on this situation for some days now, and I believe I may have, in the course of researching and studying the matter, come to a possible solution.”
For the first time all day, Flinx showed some real interest. “You don’t say? What have you been studying? Human psychoanalysis?”
“Nothing so imprecise. Human behavior can be slotted, albeit with variations, into specific categories. Analysis of yours suggests that you have been laboring under immense mental pressure for some time now.”
The tone of his reply was sardonic. “That’s hardly a news bulletin, ship. Tell me: what prescribed remedy have you uncovered?”
The ship could not keep a note of—artificial?—accomplishment from creeping into its dulcet electronic tones. “Philip Lynx—you need a vacation. That one quick recent visit to Moth was not nearly what is required. You need a vacation from your concerns, your worries, your fears. From trying to see and learn and study. From the immense threat that looms over the galaxy. From yourself.”
It was not the response he had expected. Initially cynical, he found himself more than a little intrigued. “You mean I need to spend time on a beach somewhere, or go for extended hikes in some woods? I’ve done all that.”
“No. It’s true you have been to such places and done those things, but it was always with some specific purpose in mind. You need to go somewhere and do some things to no purpose. You need to just ‘be’ for a while. This is a necessity for the health of any human. The library of me says so.”
He considered thoughtfully before finally responding, “I don’t know if I can do that, ship. I never have.”
“Then,” declared the ship conclusively, “it is time you did so. Every one of my relevant stored medical texts attests to the therapeutic value of such an undertaking. You need to go somewhere interesting and expend some energy in doing nothing. It is necessary for your health.”
Could he? he found himself wondering. Could he set everything aside: thoughts of Clarity, of Bran Tse-Mallory, and Truzenzuzex and the steadily approaching evil that lurked behind the Great Emptiness, of the Tar-Aiym weapons platform and all those who sought him, and really do nothing for any appreciable period of time? Could he, dare he, attempt the seemingly impossible? A vacation? Of everything he had done in his short but full life, that struck him as being among the most alien. Even as a child he had not been able to engage in such non-activity. He had been too busy stealing, to keep himself and Mother Mastiff alive.
He had been on the verge of saying to hell with everything. Here was his ship advising him to do essentially that, only without the attendant rancor. For a little while, at least. But where to seek such mental and physical succor? He asked as much of the Teacher.
“I have devoted almost a full minute of thought to the matter,” the synthetic voice replied, clearly gratified by Flinx’s decision. “Given the inauspicious interest in your person by everyone from several independent inimical organizations to the Commonwealth authority itself, it is clear that you would not be able to relax and refresh yourself on any developed world within the Commonwealth.”
Now there’s an understatement, Flinx thought.
“Persisting with this line of reasoning,” ship continued, “it is also plain that if you are forced to spend time on an undeveloped, unexplored world, you will similarly be unable to unwind, as all your mental acuity will perforce be focused on staying alive. This would seem to leave you with few options.”
“Indeed it would.” Flinx watched as Pip coiled around a dark-sided shrub and slid sinuously down the oddly patterned bark. It did not appear to bother the bush.
“What is required is a comfortably habitable world that lies not only beyond the reach of Commonwealth authority but of those other groups that seek to incommode you. A world where you can move about without, as humans like to put it, having to constantly peer over your shoulder. I do not have any shoulders to peer over, but I am able to grasp the philosophical conceit.”
“I always said you were full of conceit,” Flinx riposted. His heart wasn’t really in the verbal sparring, though. He was, as ship had persisted in pointing out, very tired. “You’re going to tell me that you’ve found such a refuge?” Near the pond, Pip was bobbing and weaving like a serpentine boxer as a thorny flower struck reflexively in her direction.”