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by Paula Downing King
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Rinn McCrea is a Starfarer, an indentured telepath whose contract belongs to the Chinese. They are highly displeased when hostile aliens attack her ship, massacring her entire crew. Her worst transgression is her desperate decision to seek refuge on a Soviet ship, whose government is the greatest enemy of the Chinese. The Soviets consider telepathy to be a crime, but are willing to use Rinn's talents for their own benefit. She helps them repair their trade relations with alien merchants. Rinn's job is complicated by the telepath Enclaves who brand Rinn as a renegade and demand that she returns to their rigid control. Rinn's life is at its most complicated, when Russian Captain Yuri Selenkov offers her the chance of a future free from isolation and persecution. However, to seize this opportunity means that Rinn must break the fundamental commandment of the Starfarer's code of honor.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1990
eBookwise Release Date: September 2001
21 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [387 KB]
Reading time: 230-323 min.
"This is a pleasing adventure"--Kliatt
Rinn Mccrea crouched in the ship's afterhold, listening to the jumbled thoughts of the aliens outside. They were strange creatures, darkly hostile now that they had revealed themselves in the sudden massacre of Sing Fa's crew.
She listened, cradling her unconscious crewmate in her arms, as the alien warriors searched the area near the ship, looking for the two humans who had escaped into the surrounding swamp: Ma Ching and Hseuh Jo, also her shipmates. She sensed the color of Ching's thoughts, panicked, now unable to comprehend her coming death. The two fled through the stagnant pools of Delta Bootis, away from the ship and the aliens beating the brash behind them.
Rinn cradled Mei-lan more tightly, without response: Mei-lan had found her own escape, however temporary, in oblivion. Rinn had guessed the weakness that lay beneath the other woman's hard speech and conduct. Mei-lan was the most fervent of the crew's revolutionaries, the first to accept criticism in Sing Fa's weekly political-correction meetings -- and the first to pronounce it, even daring to edge on Captain Hung's own authority. She had a strange nobility in her fanaticism, a singleness of purpose typical of Xin Tian's elite colonists chosen from Greater Asia's billions on Earth. But Rinn had also heard the fear-color deep in Mei-lan's secret mind, a terror of space that she could not fully conceal from an adept. In the strange way Normals had, Mei-lan had guessed Rinn's awareness -- and had hated Rinn the more for it.
Odd that Rinn and Mei-lan might be the only two to escape the death of Sing Fa. It was an irony Mei-lan would not enjoy.
She sensed Mei-lan slipping still deeper into unconsciousness, away from the disaster that had struck their ship. Of their crew of twelve, six had died in the initial attack, when Captain Hung had unwisely opened the ship to the natives come to trade. Two others had died quickly as they ran from the ship; two others were, at that very moment, fleeing through the swamp surrounding them -- and two, herself and Mei-lan, remained cowering in the small hold near the engine room, waiting for the horror to end.
Not wanting to quest farther, Rinn focused her thought on the natives nearest the ship. She did not want to hear the deaths of her remaining crewmates, did not want a repetition of the intense rage-pleasure of the aliens who made the kill. She gathered in her perception, building a barrier around herself, key-patterned only to the immediate threat of those who might yet discover her hiding place. A telepath learned early to guard the mind from unpleasant perceptions; Rinn had an uncommon skill in the guarding from hard experience. The crew of Sing Fa had not liked her presence aboard.
She gently shifted her grip on Mei-lan and lowered her to the metal deck. Mei-lan's narrow face was pale and drawn, her short black hair fanned into a fringe against the deck. Rinn studied her companion for several moments, then tiredly pushed back her own dark hair and rubbed her eyes. She felt within the breast of her blue, cotton-padded tunic to the inner pocket; her fingers touched her Star and she drew it out. It winked and shimmered in the half-light of the hold telltales, emblem of what she was -- badge of shame and horror to some, badge of great honor to herself. She was a Starfarer, one of the few telepaths who had left Ikanos for another destiny than Group-Mind.
Two centuries earlier, humanity had risen beyond its Earth cradle and found new homes on other worlds. The radiation of alien environments and the harsh particle-storms of space had caused mutations, some of feeble body and short life, others threatening new and superior breeds of human that might supplant the old. Some governments had hunted down and murdered the strange; others had passed ghetto laws to the same end, calling them merciful. For a time, all had overlooked the possibility of mutation of mind in an unchanged body -- until, eighty years ago, a new people had subverted a Chinese research station at 44 Bootis and claimed it as their own.
They called it Ikanos, an ancient word for mind.
The Treaty of 2298 had divided Near Space among the major nations of Earth into broad quadrants of exclusive exploitation: the Soviets had taken most of Bootes, the Chinese the nearby constellations of Corona Borealis and Hercules. Forty-four Bootis lay squarely astride the boundary radiant, on an uneasy border afflicted by poaching on both sides. Among a series of more important outrages, each vigorously protested by the colonial legates on Earth, 44 Bootis had remained a minor squabble over station rights on a single airless moon. Until Ikanos.
As the Normals debated, the telepaths hid children in secret enclaves on every colony in Hercules/Bootes, guarding themselves against a preemptive strike on Ikanos' fragile bubble-dome by fearful governments. Then, to complicate still further, Xin Tian abruptly claimed Ikanos as a protectorate and dared the Soviets to intervene. The Soviets hesitated, waiting for guidance from a divided Earth government, and lost the point through inaction. Instead, they retaliated ruthlessly against the enclaves on Novy Strana and Rodina, hunting down the telepaths in unswerving determination, executing all prisoners after much publicized trials. Few in their enclaves had escaped, and Soviet law still proscribed any contact with Ikanos on pain of execution.
Nor had the Soviets forgotten the humiliation. In colonial politics, ancient grievances had a long life.
After its political coup, Xin Tian preened in the councils of Earth, then exacted its price from Ikanos. From each generation of telepaths, Xin Tian demanded a corps of contract employees -- the Starfarers -- to undertake the risky exploration of new worlds, and earned valuable credits by lending Starfarers to other Chinese colonies for a heavy fee. Other telepaths assisted the guards in enforcing Xin Tian's policies of revolutionary and racial purity; still others worked in the hospitals and labs, using the Gift as their Chinese superiors directed.
For three years I have tried to serve them, she thought, watching Mei-lan's face. Never as a friend, not quite as a slave. And in the end I failed them all -- except one. She slipped the Star into her pocket: emblems could not help her now.
It was turning dark outside; she turned her mind outward and felt the coolness of the twilight air against an alien skin, felt the alert-sense take hold of its owner as night senses stirred in response to the setting sun. She waited, listening.
His name was Isen-glov-amar, son to the chief of the Lily People, destined to be chief in his own right. Long-bodied, multilegged, yellow-skinned, the young warrior prowled the perimeter of the clearing, his unease about the tall bulking Devil-house lessening with familiarity. He kept the house in his side vision, his second brain studying it carefully while his first gave commands to his warriors and listened for the death-cry from the swamp. It had been a clean attack, Isen-glov-amar's first leading, and his third brain felt the pleasure of anticipation. There would be a procession through the coraal of his village, a dance to celebrate his victory, and then the ancient ceremony of strength-for-strength. He glanced over at the bodies near the edge of the clearing: enough to give all his warriors their portion of the curious flesh that made up the Star-Devils' brains.
His snout lifted as a cry echoed in the distance, followed by the muffled hooting of a victorious kill. Isen-glov-amar's neck fur ruffled in response, his third brain responding automatically to the passion of the hunt. But he repressed his urge to follow the chase and continued pacing the clearing, his eyes watching both the Devil-house and the swamp surrounding it.
The door to the ship still gaped open, half-concealing the bulk of the warrior he had posted to guard it. Isen-glov-amar paused, considering. He counted eight bodies at the side of the clearing, and he knew that two more Devils had escaped into the swamp. He wondered if more Devils lurked within, despite the previous search. He would see for himself.
As he turned toward the shipdoor, his stride sank into a prey-stalk, signaling his intention to the nearby warriors. Maret and Belos, by rank his side-guards on any hunt, promptly followed him. He stepped up the short ladder to the shipdoor and dropped the strap of his fire-weapon off his broad shoulder, cradling the weapon in his powerful hands. Then he linked his first and third minds and crept silently past the door-guard into the darkened interior of the Devil-house.
Rinn rose to her feet and quickly examined their small sanctuary. The ceiling arced downward in a low curve, following the shape of the domed floor of the engine room above. The walls bent in at odd angles, constrained by the bulk of the engines on either side. It was a catchspace created solely by the engine design and adaptable to many uses. Sing Fa used it as a hold for little-used supplies.
Rinn bent down and grasped Mei-lan's body by the arms then dragged her into shelter behind a stack of cartons. Moving quietly, she built up a wall around her shipmate with other nearby cartons, then uncrated a small deckplate from a box standing against the far wall. The alloy plate lifted easily, and she built a roof over the cartons, then stacked others on top of it to conceal the plate. The sharp smell of the packing material drifted upward as the plate crushed their borders, perhaps enough to hide their human scent from the searchers.
Two levels above, the three aliens moved silently through the mined control room. Rinn paused, listening to the intense focus of their thoughts, careful not to touch their minds with her own. She was aware of the aliens' third brain and felt wary of its hunter-senses that might respond to her own conscious Gift. But she caught no awareness of herself in that searching and continued her preparations.
She had no weapons -- there had been no time during the speed of the attack, and weapons had not helped the rest of the crew. The aliens were hunters, laser-armed and key-sensed for the kill. Her chosen answer, right or wrong, was in concealment and stealth. She tugged the last of the cartons into place and crouched down next to Mei-lan in the confined space. It was a waiting game, one she knew well.
She listened to Isen-glov-amar and his guards as they worked their way down through the ship. As they approached her hold, Rinn slipped into other-mind, controlling her breathing and emotions by strength of will. Mei-lan lay insensible beside her; Rinn slipped her fingers to the pulse at Mei-lan's throat, ready to choke off blood to her brain if she stirred, sending her deep into her coma again for the sake of their lives. She sat cross-legged in their enclosed space and made a like enclosure of her mind.
The hold door opened, and the aliens padded into the room. They paused, sniffing, seeking the scent of their prey. Then, after a few minutes, they withdrew, swinging the door shut behind them. Rinn sat motionless, deep in the other-mind, as Isen-glov-amar searched other levels, finding nothing.
Two hours later, the aliens left the clearing, bearing their grisly burdens with them. Rinn waited another hour, then moved slightly. She blinked and stirred her muscles, wincing at the pain of a body held too long in one position and now forced to move. Then slowly, like a swimmer through water, Rinn thought of new plans.
She sent out her thought, a single strand looping toward the shipbase far up the peninsula. I am Rinn, Starfarer. Help us; help us. Distantly she heard a blur of uncomprehending thoughts from another trader ship, a Soviet ship.
I am Rinn, Starfarer. Help us. She heard no answer. The other ship, then, did not carry a telepath among its crew. She had expected as much. After eighty years, few telepaths, perhaps none still survived on the Soviet worlds. She was alone.
She looked down at her unconscious companion, a shadow half-drawn in a fetal cuff on the deck. The control room was in ruins, the radio smashed beyond repair. There could be no rescue by that means, either. They would have to walk.
And if they reached the Soviet ship.... The Near Space Treaty mandated rescue for shipwrecked crewmen, no matter what the circumstances. They would take Mei-lan aboard -- they had to -- and give her medical care and transport back home. But would they take a Starfarer? She did not know. There were no precedents.
And who, in the councils of Earth, would protest if they would not? Xin Tian? Perhaps. If it suited the politics of the moment -- and perhaps it might and save some future Starfarer wrecked on a Soviet world, however too late for Rinn.
Later, she told herself. I'll think about it later.
Rinn pushed at the carton nearest her, shoving it aside to clear a crawlspace out of her shelter. On hands and knees, she crawled into the dimly lit hold, then stood to stretch. Pain seized her calves as blood circulated into the oxygen-starved muscles. The Gift respected its owner's life but sometimes gave little heed to lesser bodily wants. She winced and repressed a groan as she walked in a circle, slowly exercising her legs.
The pain subsided. Rinn paused a moment, listening for alien thoughts, then dismantled the wall of the shelter to reach her companion.
"Mei-lan, wake up," she said, shaking her.
"Uhhhhh..." Mei-lan s eyelids fluttered.
Rinn shook her again, but Mei-lan only batted away her hand, muttering querulously. Rinn dipped lightly into Mei-lan's mind to judge her nearness to consciousness, and felt her reflexively slip away into deeper coma. Mei-lan could not yet face the loss of the ship.
Rinn left her in the shelter of the cartons and stepped into the corridor. On either side of the hold door, the massive metal-shod shapes of the engines bowed into the corridor; to the left, the ship corridor stretched several meters to a riser of steps that led to a wide receiving bay and the ship's exterior airlock. She looked to the right, seeking another access in case the airlock was being watched.
She remembered a service port to the lower engines, used for repair. Did it have an interior access? She tried to remember the vague schematic Sing Fa's engineer always carried in his inner mind: she thought it might. But first she moved swiftly to a nearby ladder and climbed upward. They would need clothing, food, weapons, and a light. Already the night had settled its darkness on the swamp surrounding the ship.
She packed two carryalls with supplies from storage, then stepped into Captain Hung's office. The furnishings of the office reflected the severe but competent character of its occupant. Poaching on another colony's trade route was a delicate task, well measured to the talents of Xin Tian's most subtle captains. A week before, Hung had chosen his new landing site with exquisite care, seeking advantage of the Soviets' established trade with the peninsula natives on Delta's sole inhabited continent, yet not so close to the Soviet base that Sing Fa's landing provoked a confrontation. He had chosen deftly: aside from a spluttering reproof, the other ship had not acted.
Later there would be angry protests and yet another fierce debate on Earth. Both ships were a long way from home, and damage inflicted risked damage received. The Soviet captain had made the prudent choice.
Perhaps Hung's satisfaction with his coup had caused his resistance to Rinn's warnings -- though the roots of their conflict were far older. He did not like her fair skin, her Caucasian blood. He did not like her telepathy, though Xin Tian's extended experience with telepaths had blurred some of that instinctive prejudice. And Mei-lan's bitter diatribes about Rinn's political errors -- though by contract Starfarers were exempt from the usual correction -- had only hardened his attitude. Rinn did not fit, risked distraction at a key moment, could not always be predicted, did not belong.
"Give me specific data, Starfarer," he had demanded, his expression sour with irritation and dislike. "Not this vague 'I sense trouble, Captain,' or 'Be careful, Captain.' What trouble? Why careful?" He waved his hand at the peaceful marsh surrounding the ship. "I see nothing to alarm. Nothing!"
"The Novy Strana ships have traded successfully here for two years. Give me a reason why we won't do the same."
"I can't," she said helplessly. "But something's wrong, something..."
"Faugh!" Hung spat disgustedly and stamped away. Only later, in the sudden shock of the attack, had Rinn found the reason for her unease. She had learned too late the significance of the Deltean third brain, its deep drives of violent intention, its compulsions that could not be resisted -- too late for Captain Hung, too late for Sing Fa.
My fault, my fault, she berated herself. But would he have listened even if I'd known?
She glanced around the spare office that was littered with trade reports and memorabilia, and drew in a sharp breath of pain. Sing Fa had paid the price of their mutual failure.
She keyed the site map on Hung's desk computer and printed a fresh copy, then bent forward under the yellow glare of the lamp to study the route to the Soviet base. The orbital resolution of the map was not good, nor did it extend much farther north than the interior mountains fronting the piedmont -- Captain Hung had interested himself only in poaching on an established trade. The map showed few details of the trackless salt marsh to the south, then a featureless wide sea beyond stretching half the planet to an ice-laden and barren continent on the pole. A small circle marked the Soviet base near the peninsula tip. Twenty kilometers. She considered the distance and felt a jab of worry and despair. Her muscles already ached with fatigue and stress -- later, the ache would not be so easy to ignore.
When she returned to the afterhold, she found Mei-lan sitting groggily in the tumble of cartons. As Rinn stepped into the darkened room, the Chinese woman started violently, shying from the Starfarer's looming shadow.
"Who's there?" she cried.
"It's Rinn. Be at peace, Mei-lan." Rinn dropped her burden on the floor and crossed quickly to the stricken woman, reaching out to comfort her with a touch -- but Mei-lan struck out wildly.
"Mei-lan, be sensible." Rinn tried to touch her again, but Mei-lan shrank away, her eyes staring in white-rimmed terror. Rinn sank back onto her heels, watching. The retreat seemed to calm the hysteria. After a moment, Mei-lan looked around the small hold, examining its contents and walls as if they were utterly strange.
"What place is this?" she asked. She pushed back her disheveled hair with a trembling hand. The shuddering spread to her whole body; her teeth chattered with it. Fear filled her mind, an amalgam of unnamed terrors and personal dissolution, the loss of self and belief, an endless pursuit by monstrous evils of unknown form. Rinn shuddered in response to Mei-lan's unconscious projection.
"Sing Fa, Mei-lan," she said soothingly. "Don't you remember?"
"Remember? Remember?" Mei-lan jabbered, then abruptly stood up. She blundered into the stack of cartons, crashing them to the metal floor, then turned in panic from the sound and ran full-stride into the rear wall. Rinn caught her as she fell, and Mei-lan clung to her, blood running thickly from a cut above her brow. Rinn staunched the wound with her pocket-cloth, then smoothed antiseptic from her med-kit across the cut and applied a bandage. Mei-lan shivered again, more from Rinn's touch than from the pain.
"Mei-lan," Rinn began once again, and then contented herself with holding the woman close, rocking her slowly back and forth.
"Ahhhh..." Mei-lan cried, her voice rising to a thin wail. "Ahhhh..."
Mei-lan's fear flowed in shuddering waves, beating at Rinn's mind. For a moment she felt tempted to assert the subversive mind-control she had learned as a child -- and had rejected as an adult -- to escape the roiling terror that struck at her mind and emotions. Rinn gritted her teeth, resisting both the fear and the temptation.
Mei-lan's hysteria rose still higher, threatening both herself and Rinn with a fear-driven dissolution into madness. Rinn quickly fumbled for a sedative in the kit; Mei-lan scarcely felt the prick of the injector. After a minute, her fear began to ebb, calmed by the false security of the drug.
"Come, Mei-lan. Come with me."
Rinn pulled Mei-lan to her feet and held her upright, then guided the woman's staggering feet toward the hold door. Mei-lan sagged against her, forcing Rinn to drag her limp body the last few meters to the access hatch. Rinn quickly retrieved their supplies, then bent over the hatch.
She cracked the seal and entered the man-height access through the hull. She dangled a moment, then released her grip and fell the short distance to the lower port, her boots ringing hollowly on the metal hatch. She shifted her feet to the rim of the hatch and fumbled for the release lever; the lower hatch opened with a clang. The warm, humid air of the swamp, redolent with strange scents, gushed into the ship.
Quietly, Rinn lowered herself to the ground beneath the ship and crouched, listening with her ears and mind.
An animal coursed through the dank water far to her right, seeking the small crustaceans that clung to submerged weeds or buried themselves in the mud. Alert, feral, quick moving, the predator relished the night and its own active appetite. It dove into the blood-warm water, hunting. Beyond it, a night flyer swept over the reed-beds, the warm air a silky flow over its naked skin. It beat its frilled wings lazily, patrolling its territory for interlopers of its own kind, vaguely aware of an urge to mate: the two instincts warred in its consciousness as it entered its cyclic estrus. Beneath its effortless flight, smaller creatures felt their half-aware impulses of hunger and need and responded to the touch of reed and water, the sounds of the night, and the scents that drifted on the water and air.
Rinn sent her perception farther and touched the watcher a hundred meters beyond the northern edge of the glade. She knew that watcher from Captain Hung's meetings with the aliens: Maret, bodyguard to the Lord Isen-glov-amar, and he had heard the clang of the opening hatch. Rinn sensed his sudden alertness, then the small shock of joining as Maret linked his first and third brains for the stalk. Silently, he crept through the tall reeds toward the looming shadow of the Devil-house.
Rinn immediately climbed back through the port-access and closed the upper hatch door behind her, then fumbled for the stunner in the side pocket of her carryall. She wrapped her slim fingers around the barrel, hefting its weight. Sing Fa's stunners had failed to halt the earlier attack, either inadequate against the bulk of the warriors' bodies, or ill suited to their nervous system -- but she had no other weapon. The key to the laser-rifle cabinet had left with Hung's body.
She crouched by the sedated Mei-lan and the supplies, the stunner cradled in one hand, as Maret stealthily approached the ship. The alien circled the clearing, his three-lobed mind focused on the hunt. When he sensed nothing in the clearing, he approached the ship, close enough to touch its sleek metal sides. Within a minute, he found the dangling port-access and peered upward into the dark tunnel. Rinn waited above, hardly breathing, her hand again on Mei-lan's throat to choke off any revealing sound.
Go away! she wished desperately at the alien below. She closed her eyes, trying to still any thought that Maret might detect, but again her wish whispered in her mind: Go away!
Maret considered as he touched the metal port and pushed it into a lazy swing. The hinged lid rocked back and forth in decreasing arcs, then became still again. He heard the plop of a fish in the nearby pond and felt the moving air on his body, awash with familiar scents that partly masked the Devil-smell of the ship.
He again touched the cold metal of the hatch, saw how it joined to the underbelly of the ship, and flicked the prong of the latch. It gave easily beneath his fingers -- too easily? Who knew the ways of a Star-Devil's possessions? Mater looked around, listening to the night. Then, satisfied, he unlinked his third mind and returned to his northward post.
Rinn bowed her head over her arms a moment, her heart thudding, then rose determinedly to her feet. The night was waning, past midnight; they would have to be far away before dawn. She lowered the supply bags down the access-chute, careful to make no sound, then lifted Mei-lan into a shoulder carry and climbed down the port, her feet reaching blindly for the narrow rungs set into the access walls. Outside she bent awkwardly for the carryalls, Mei-lan's deadweight dragging at her, then left the concealing bulk of the ship.
She reached the reeds at the edge of the clearing and slipped among them, then eased herself into the protecting pool beyond. An insect shirred by her face, singing its faint whine. The warm night air sighed against her face, carrying her scent away from the alien who kept guard in the darkness, but that benefit would last only as long as the night blew its breezes from land to sea.
Sheltered among the shadowy reeds, Rinn breathed deeply of the night air, then listened for any alarm given by their escape. Maret still patrolled to the north, his night-senses alert but unaware. That could not last; perhaps, in its deepest convolutions, Maret's third brain already sensed her. She hoped for an hour's grace, enough time to lose herself among the trackless pools.
Rinn shifted Mei-lan's awkward weight to a better grip, then turned south toward the distant murmur of human minds.
Copyright © 1990 by Paula Downing