Halcyon Drift [Hooded Swan, Vol. 1]
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by Brian Stableford
Category: Science Fiction
Description: In a galactic culture that extends from quasi-Utopian worlds like New Alexandria to vermin-infested slums like Old Earth, starship pilots have become the great romantic heroes of the day. When Star-Pilot Grainger is rescued from a shipwreck, he finds himself pressed into reluctant service to fly the Hooded Swan, the prototype of a new kind of interstellar ship. He's also picked up an alien parasite that's determined to share his brain. Under these dire circumstances, can Grainger possibly stay out of trouble? Not a chance!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1972 USA
eBookwise Release Date: March 2011
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [265 KB]
Reading time: 165-232 min.
It is on a world whose name I do not know, on the slopes of a great mountain, that the Javelin came down. She is surrounded by black boulders which are too heavy for a man to move. I have sealed the cracks in her silver skin with mud and clay, but she no longer has a door. Inside, she is not badly damaged--the drive chamber and the tailfins are shattered beyond all hope, but the living quarters are still sound. If it were not for the fact that she was built to stand upright, but lies on her side, she would be comfortable. But who can sleep in a vertical bunk?
Some thirty or forty yards from the ship there is a cross planted in the ground. It marks Lapthorn's grave. It is a shallow grave, because there is not a great deal of dirt caught in the crack between the faces of implacable rock. The cross is often blown down, as though the wind is able to seek it out and pluck it away. Lapthorn is not welcome here; neither am I. The wind continually tells me so.
To right and left, as I look down the mountain, the view is excised by more gigantic slopes of languid black rock, but before my resting place is a channel which leads down to the plain and away across the ashen desert. Far off, beyond the expended sands, more mountains form a distant wall which shines all colours from red to violet as the sun walks the grey sky from dawn till dusk. Brown clouds move sullenly across the sulky face of the sky, washing the black mountain faces with hazy tears. The sparse bushes, the shifting sand, the grey ridges are obscured by a constant floating dust which likewise changes colour with the advancing hours of every day.
I wear a long beard. My hair is never cut save for the tufts which threaten to invade my eyes and rob me of sight. I take no pride in cleanliness. I live in misery and regret, and make no effort to assert my humanity. I am an invader, a beast. There is no need to remind myself that I belong elsewhere. I am not wanted here.
Another day is draining away, and the desert is cold tedious blue-turning-grey. I was not always so despairing. I used to go down every evening to the plain to bring water from the small pools which are constantly maintained by the rain which flows from the slopes. I would bring water for washing as well as for drinking. But I found that I could carry water enough for three days if I did not bother to wash, and I grew idle, long ago. I used to occupy my days in mending my ill-used home, in trying to improve the meagre quality of my life here. I mounted expeditions to all points of the compass, and planned the circumnavigation of the world which I had inherited by virtue of being stranded. But what I found on the peak, in the far plain, and on other slopes never repaid the effort I put into reaching them, and mental fatigue soon drowned my adventure with pointlessness.
The present never occupies my mind. Every day is identical, and there is no use in counting them, nor profit in trying to make each one individual in any way. When my mind wanders, it is never to tomorrow or yesterday, but always deep into the past--before the Javelin lifted from some inconsequential rim world on the journey which would result in her death, and Lapthorn's death, and my despair. I remember other worlds, other times, other ships.
I once lived a while on the darkside of a world which circled close to a blue giant sun. The ships had to creep in and out of ports hidden in deep caves, fully shielded against the fearsome torrent of radiation. There was no habitable place in the system save for the deep, labyrinthine ways of the inner world. The people lived in cities built in the planet's honeycomb heart, away from the lethal light and the cold of darkness, The air was always hot and loaded with odours--a background stench of faint decay and sweat, and heavy perfume intended to drown and disguise it, since it could not be concealed. The most valued thing on the planet was light--soft light, kind light, warming light, soothing light, painless light. All worlds want most what they cannot find around them. With a brightside that was an inferno, and a darkside that could see no stars, this planet bred people who knew the true beauty and presence of light, who could savour its texture and understand the inner qualities of its makeup. Lapthorn and I used to take our ship--it was the old Fire-Eater then--back and forth in search of all manner of lighting devices--exotic lamps and equally exotic substances to fuel them.
After three years of trading with the world and living there fifty days in every hundred, Lapthorn swore that he could tell the colour of light with the follicles of his skin and taste its texture with his tongue. He was beginning to babble about the search for the perfect light when I thought it was time to move on to fresh pastures. Lapthorn was like that--impressionable, sensitive. Every world left something in his character. I'm different. I'm a realist.
Another time we worked, for a while, for the great library at New Alexandria. Lapthorn didn't like that, because it was in the inner wheel--the great highway of star civilisation. Earth was too far out from the rich worlds to remain the hub of human existence. New Alexandria, New Rome, New Israel and Penaflor were our homes in the stars. They were our new heritage, the focus of our future. Lapthorn hated them and craved the distant shores. He loved the feel of alien soil, the heat of alien suns, the love of alien women. But there was better money, come by far more easily, in the core, and we needed to scrap the Fire-Eater before she fire-ate herself and us with her. Hence the New Alexandria job.
We spent the best part of two years tracking down alien knowledge and literature commissioned by the library. The books we found were in a thousand languages, many of which were completely unknown save to the people who wrote them down. But the problems of translation weren't any of our concern. We just located the books, procured them by fair means or foul, and carted them to the library. I liked that job, and even Lapthorn admitted that it was good in parts--the parts we spent on the alien worlds. Oddly enough, I think that was the most dangerous job I ever did. I found that aliens (pretty much like humans, I suppose) are perfectly logical where major matters like money are concerned, but absurdly touchy about certain objects no good to man or beast.
The sky is as black as the mountains now. The desert plain is invisible. I light the fire. The light hasn't much warmth. Lapthorn would have complained of its dull colour and its foul taste. But it's all I have. The ship retains a reservoir of power, but all of it is directed to one single purpose--maintaining the faint, surely futile, mayday bleep which is my solitary hope of eventual rescue. The bleep has a limited range, and no ship is likely to pass within it, because I am within the fringes of a dark nebula, where no sane captain would bring his ship. But the bleep is my one link with the universe beyond the mountain, and it surely deserves every last vestige of the Javelin's power.
Agitated by the wind, clouds of sand rustle against the lower slopes. The fire crackles. The wind seems to be deliberately shifting so that wherever I sit it can blow smoke into my eyes. It's a malicious wind, this one. Lapthorn's cross will be down again in the morning. Moths, attracted by the fire, flit back and forth above the flames, casting shadow-flickers in the light reflected from the smoke column.
The sparks that fly away from the fire remind me of stars. I wish that I were a moth, to fly away from this little world, among the stars again. The wind knows about this idle dream and uses it to taunt me. It whispers in my ears. It's the wind which brings back all these memories of other worlds, other times--indirectly, at least, by driving me to avoid its presence and insistence.
After New Alexandria, when we had our beautiful new ship, I let Lapthorn have his head for a while. We went out to the rim and wandered, searching new worlds for new ways to make money. There was little or no profit to be made, little or no comfort to be had, and we did no good for ourselves. Lapthorn fell in love at least twice, but it never lasted long with Lapthorn, whether it was a woman or a world. Events left their scars and their souvenirs, but nothing monopolised Lapthorn's soul for more than a short space of time.
We traded with the Lakshmi, whose adults look like gold-winged flies, and whose children grow in the ground like trees from eggs like knotty roots. Males exist only in the vegetative phase. One generation of adults pollinates the female flowers of the next, and the pistils of the flowers serve as pupae carrying already-gravid female flies. Even Lapthorn found little in this race to touch his heart, although for a while he showed a tendency to talk to trees, and once or twice I saw him looking at fireflies with a delighted air of mystery in his expression.
We lived with the dog-faced Magliana, in villages strung between the treetops in a webwork of branches and creepers, far above a vast equatorial swamp covering half a world.
Lapthorn was bitten by a snake on Varvarin, and would have died of it but for the nomads of the district, who saved his life in return for one of his hands. They took the hand and dissolved the flesh away. They reconnected the bones with copper wire and one of them wore it around his neck as a pendant. Few of the nomads had two hands, and almost all of them wore one or more displayed in some prominent fashion on his person. A hand worn around the neck or at the waist will never strangle you or steal from you. This is especially relevant if you have enemies. The nomads had. But they were healers and they healed Lapthorn. Help always has a price, and some are strange. I contrived to keep both of my hands on my arms. I had to. A one-handed engineer can still do his job, but a one-handed pilot is worthless.
On Bira, we both got hooked on the nectar of the scorpion lilies, which grew only in the dawn, and faded once the sun was clear of the horizon. But the local day was two standard years long, and the dawn lingered long. We followed sunrise around the planet for half a year, until we reached the shore of an uncrossable sea. There would be no more lilies until the dawn reached the far shore. Hundreds of the natives had taken the same ecstatic trek, and over half of them died in the throes of withdrawal. Those who did not began the return journey, to wait for the sun again. They were a slender, sickly people, but Lapthorn and I had stronger stomachs and stronger minds. We returned only so far as our ship, and left for a different shore.
Not even Lapthorn really got what he wanted out of those years on the fringe. His craving for new ideas and new experiences was never satiated. He seemed to have an infinite capacity for change. Everything added a new facet to his personality. He was never full up, never exhausted. I think Lapthorn might have found the secret of eternal youth. He was still healthy and strong when he died coaxing the drive of the Javelin, while I remained unhurt at the controls. When a ship goes down, it is usually the pilot's fault, but the engineer invariably suffers most.
In the meantime, nothing made any impression on me. Maybe I had the secret of eternal age. The star-worlds had nothing to teach me. They had not the capacity to change me. Lapthorn said that I had no soul. I suppose that we were completely mismatched. In fact, our partnership never really contained any harmony. We worked together simply because we had started out together, and neither of us could afford to break away. I suppose Lapthorn was enough of a dreamer not to care too much about who was up front, because all that mattered to him was where we were going and where we'd already been. And I didn't give a damn who was down below as long as his drive never let me down.
But all we collected in years of fringe-running was a reputation. The cargoes we carried never made a fortune, but they created rumours. The stories we could tell about ourselves were impressive, and contained enough truth for later voyagers to confirm that we might actually have done what we said. Lapthorn liked people to talk about us.
The fire is dying. It's time for sleep. I wish that for once I didn't have to go to bed hungry. But I wish the same things every night. There's not much that's edible growing on the mountain or living down in the desert. The ship's supplies of deep-space gruel ran out some time ago. Somehow, though, I don't starve. I chew leaves and I snare mice, and I contrive to live. But I'm always hungry. Perhaps I ought to be thankful that I haven't poisoned myself. But the world sustains my kind of life. I'm not wanted, but I'm tolerated, because I'm not too much of a nuisance. The world might not have liked Lapthorn though. And there's the wind, of course, which wants someone to talk to, a memory to stir, a mind to invade.
I don't think that I'm going mad. Loneliness is supposed to send men mad, and any other man would begin to get worried when the wind talked to him. But not me. Lapthorn said I have no soul. I can't go mad. I'm a realist. I'm stuck with myself, with my sanity. I hear the wind speak, therefore the wind speaks. No argument, no worry. I don't talk back. I listen, but I don't react. Nothing this world can do to me will elicit any response. I don't give in to alien worlds. I give way only to myself. Nothing reaches me from out there.
After the fringe, I tried to come back into the really big markets, in search of a killing. Guns, cosmetics, jewellery and drugs were all hot markets, with constant demand and irregular supply: anything in which fashion rules instead of utility is a good market for the trader--and that includes weaponry as well as decoration and edification. I reckoned that we had the initiative to dig out the best, and I was right, but times had moved on while we were out on the rim with the dropouts, and we failed at the other end--the outlets. We couldn't get a fair price, with the middlemen moving into the star-worlds in droves, quoting the Laws of New Rome, and the ordinances of wherever they happened to be, and never moving their hands from their gun butts. It was enough to sour anyone against life in the inner circle. I began to sympathise with Lapthorn's dislike of the human way of life.
We stuck with it for a while, because I thought Lapthorn's genius for digging out the best gems and the most exciting drugs might see us through. But it was useless. The little people seemed to take an excessive delight in cheating us and leaning on us because we were known. The other free traders talked about us. We were the best, by their lights. But we weren't system-beaters. We weren't equipped for dealing with that kind of problem. We had no alternative but to return to small trading, alien to alien. Lapthorn wasn't sorry, of course, and my sorrow was more for the evil ways of the world in general than for our own small part in the human condition.
We settled down, eventually, in the other rim, helping to push it even further out. Right back at the beginning, the rim had been a burden I'd borne for Lapthorn's sake, and civilisation a burden he'd borne for mine. We'd taken turns to call the tune, each of us chafing under the other's yoke, building up the resentment and the determination to flip the coin back over again. But in the end, we stopped fighting and drifted.
I suppose neither of us was ever happy. Lapthorn's dreams were impossible--there was never any conclusion to which he could follow them. He followed them further with me than he could have with anyone else, but I still couldn't find him a destination. And in the meantime, I wouldn't have been happy anywhere or anyhow. I'm just not a happy man. Lapthorn said that I have no soul.
A lot of spacemen are like me. Cold, emotionless men who don't inherit any part of the worlds and the people that they see. There are a few fake Lapthorns--with his vulnerability but without his inexhaustibility--but eventually they always go native somewhere. If they can be reached, they're taken. If not by one world, then by the next. Only Lapthorn lasted almost forever. Most of the men who live long enough among the stars to crash on some ridiculous, forlorn world like this one are my type of spaceman--the maverick kind, the lone wolves, the men with hearts of stone, the men without souls.
I sleep in the control room, because my bunk is wrong way up, and the control room is the only space big enough for the wall to make an adequate floor and vice versa. The old Fire-Eater wasn't quite so cramped, for all that the Javelin was a better ship. And was she, though? The Fire-Eater never went down.
Even in here, the voice of the wind can reach me. There isn't any door to keep it out, but even if there were, the voice would find a way. I have difficulty getting to sleep, but it isn't wholly the fault of the wind. It's the hunger and the timelessness. I'd sleep all the time if I could, but I'm saturated far too easily, and sleep is never easy to find if you're already brimful of it.
When I drift away from consciousness, in search of elusive sleep, I think about people.
There was Herault, back on Earth, before Lapthorn and I sealed our unlikely alliance and bought the Fire-Eater with our pooled funds. I was very young then, and Herault was old. He must be dead by now. It was seven years since I'd last been home to see him. Lapthorn had relented once or twice before that and let me make a landfall on home, but he hated Earth like poison, and I'd let him divorce me from the planet as well, eventually. But even Lapthorn had liked Herault. He'd been a good man to work for and he'd taught me a great deal about spaceships and spacemen. I learned to fly the Fire-Eater by feel--to use her sensor web as if it were my own eyes and my own body--but it was Herault who talked me into that feel, who knew how to acquire it and make sure that I did. They don't fly like that these days, because they don't think it's necessary. The flying schools teach them to trust their machines, not to become a part of them. It works--in clear space, on planned runs. But not in the outer rim, and out in the galactic centre. That's why civilisation is the inner rim, and not the heart itself.
Herault taught Lapthorn the drive as well. A dimension-skipper is supposed to be easy to handle, but Herault didn't let Lapthorn think he could get away without knowing everything there was to know. If it hadn't been for Herault, we'd never have got into space. If it hadn't been for Herault, we'd never have lasted as long as we had. We'd never even have made it to this forsaken rock on the rim of nowhere. I'm grateful to Herault for all he did and tried to do. I'm sorry it ended up like this, and so would Herault be, if he knew.
On Peniel there was a girl called Myane. On Rocholt there was Dorcas, on Alhagayel there was Joan, on Doreniken there was Ophinia. Not an impressive list. Not a meaningful list any more. There were no others worth remembering, and even these are not the most cherished of memories. I could forget them without difficulty. Lapthorn could have remembered half a hundred, the smell and the taste of every one. He could have gorged himself on the delicacies of his remembrance. But they just didn't matter enough to me.
Alachakh was my friend. He was a Khormon trader. I saved his life once, on Veneto. He saved Lapthorn's, on Beckhofen. Lapthorn saved mine, on San Calogero. I'm not sure that things happened in that order. We were around together a lot, Alachakh and I. Not because we flew together, or because we chased each other's cargoes, but because we thought the same way. Alachakh and his engineer--Cuvio--were a counterpart to Lapthorn and myself. His ship--the Hymnia--was a sleek Khormon craft. I bought the Javelin because she was the closest human ship to the Hymnia. Alachakh is one of the few men I've ever liked, and one of the few men Lapthorn held in high regard. Even the mavericks need to talk to each other, once now and again. Even the mavericks need to like somebody that they'd make an effort for, to have someone they could rely on for help.
I'm awake again now, and I shouldn't be. It's still dark and I have no right to be waking up in the middle of the night. Did something wake me? Perhaps it was Lapthorn's cross falling over again. The wind is here and it's plucking at my face, running chilly fingers across my eyes. I won't listen to it. I only want to go back to sleep.
You've got to listen, it's saying. I can reach you and you know it. I can touch you whenever I want. I'm all the way inside of you.
It's not true. Nothing ever reaches me. There's no alien world, no alien being, no alien feeling, can leave a mark in my mind.
Did I really hear something? Shall I get up and look around? Maybe it's an animal or an insect. Was, I mean. It's gone now.
I'm not gone, says the whispering wind. I'm with you now. I knew you'd have to let me in, and you have. I'm not wind any more, I'm a voice in your head. I'm all here. You can't get away from me now, not even if you do run back to the stars. I'm part of you now, all wrapped up in your mind. You can't ever be free of me.
I'm going back to sleep.
Benwyn, Quivira, Emerich, Rothgar. Rothgar, now--it's worth thinking about Rothgar for a while. An easy man to remember. Thought he was a great big man inside his thin frame. Hard drinker. Meant trouble for most of the ships which took him on because few of their captains could handle him and even fewer could stand to have him around. He knew all the engines and must have worked them on well over a hundred ships--big liners, p-shifters, ramrods, even Khormon dredgers and Gallacellan ships. He was a genius in his way. But what's the point of genius if you haven't the temperament to apply it? He was the best man to have underneath you that any pilot could find. He put the power where it was needed, gave you thrust when you asked for it, made the drive do the impossible to get you through a tough spot. But he was condemned nevertheless to spending half his life bumming around spaceports touting for work. He was his own man, though. Nobody owned Rothgar, except for a little bit at a time. Nobody could scare him. Nobody could make him do anything he didn't want to do. Rothgar was the most unyielding man I ever knew.
A million of them. Little bits of big worlds. Single moments of odd places. One day later in choosing a path through the galaxy, one day later in setting down on each world, and I'd see the whole lot differently. They'd be different moments, different little bits of the same worlds. Nobody ever gets to know the star-worlds, no matter how much you absorb. They touch you, but only with the tips of your fingers. You deal in tiny fragments, not in whole entities. They touched me lightest of all. I have memories, but they're faded, like old photographs. Unreal. Lapthorn's memories would be as bright as white stars--he'd be forever taking them out and polishing them up, in case he needed one in a hurry. Every one would be a jewel--a living light. What must it have been to be Lapthorn? To see so clearly, feel so deeply.
Was it, I wonder, a tragedy that I lived and Lapthorn died?
Should the ship have come down head first instead of belly-flopped? Would the broken drive have killed him anyway? Was it my fault that Lapthorn died? Could I have crashed in such a fashion that Lapthorn lived, even if it meant that I died? Should I have, if I could?
But Lapthorn must have died here anyway, in time. He would have drained away, into its drabness and its perpetual misery. He needed the stimulation of the worlds whose selves he tried to absorb into his own. He needed light of a special kind, did Lapthorn. To him, this world would have become a limitless darkness in a very short time. Maybe it will get me that way too--bore me to death, kill me with a dismal everpresence.
It's the wind again.
Please go away and let me sleep. It's so insistent tonight, as though it has a point to make. Perhaps it is getting through to me after all. Perhaps it has invaded my mind. No man can withstand pressure forever. Maybe even I will give in, in the end.
It's not a matter of giving in. I'm with you, but I'm real. It's the real world that we're in.
Maybe so, my friend, I reply. Perhaps, now that you're here, I should just accept the fact. But you've not treated me kindly.
I had to find a way in, the wind replies. It's never easy.
Sometimes I'll swear it understands every thought I think. A clever wind, this. An educated one. Needing my attention, like a little child. But why? Why do you want to be a part of me? Why do you want to live in my mind?
I need you. I need somewhere to be. I need someone to hold me. I need a host.
You're marooned here as well, I suppose;
Others died here.
Not humans. This world's unmarked on my charts. Undiscovered, unvisited. We're right on the edge of the Halcyon Drift. A bad place. It must have been the Drift that brought us down. It was either radiation or distortion, and there's plenty of both in the Drift. But no human ship has ever tried to map the Drift. If you came here in a ship, it was an alien.
It was an alien, the wind confesses.
I realise finally that I'm not alone, that the voice belongs to another sentient being. It's not the wind at all--not really. It's an alien mind parasite, and I'm its new host. I don't know whether to be glad or sad.
I thought you didn't want me here. I thought you kept blowing down the cross on Lapthorn's grave.
I had to get inside you, the wind explains. I had to make you take notice.
And what are you, now you're inside me? Are you the soul that Lapthorn said I hadn't got? Are you the voice of my conscience? What are you, alien wind? What are you made of?
I'm made of you. I am you. But I won't bother you. Talk to you, perhaps--help you, if I can. But I'm not going to cause you any trouble.
In case I throw you out?
You can't throw me out. In case you become an unsuitable host. I have to live with you now, and you with me.
It's going on for morning now. The sun is coming up. For all my lack of sleep, I don't feel tired. I think I'll get up and go outside.
I feel better than I've felt for sometime, and I'm not sure why. Oddly enough, it isn't because the wind throws up a wall between myself and loneliness. To tell the truth, I don't care much either way about the wind. Maybe it will bother me, maybe it won't. But it's here now and there's nothing I can do about it. But I don't need the wind. I'm not Lapthorn. I'm adequate enough, all by myself.
It's a bright red morning. The sun sparkles shyly. Silver sky instead of grey. But the black slopes are just as dismal. Nothing changes them. There are little wisps of cloud wandering from east to west. And something shining, like a little star, is coming towards me.
It's a ship.
I know now what woke me in the night. It was the ship going over, trying to get a fix on my bleep. And now they have it, and they're coming down in the plain. I'm free.
I'm going with you. For life.
I don't care. I'm going home.
I'll just go and stand up the cross that marks Lapthorn's grave.