by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Kithri lay on her back beneath Brushwacker=s mangled nose, amazed that something was at last going right. After endless delays and mistakes, checking and re-checking, the basic modifications had been completed. She was now ready to fine-adjust the physiological parameters. Eril sat in the pilot=s seat, monitoring the biohomeostasis functions. Behind him, Raerquel occupied all of the co-pilot=s seat as well as a goodly portion of the hold.
"Shipbrain says it=s monolinking partially with Raerquel, so we=re in the right orbital," Eril reported.
"So far, so good." Kithri used the optical stylus to guide a final connection before repositioning the protective panel. She clambered to her feet and stuck her upper body into the cabin, twisting to give Raerquel a clear view of her translator panel.
"How are you and shipbrain getting on?" she asked.
"I am not yet experiencing...linkage," the alien replied. "This ship=s brain is different from other tools that are an extension of the self. Tools resemble water--they can be many things until instructed. Ship=s brain also, only its limits are rigid. Like rock instead of water. It tastes dry."
Dry? Kithri wondered, withdrawing from the cabin. Not the way I=d have put it. But at least Raerquel=s getting something from shipbrain. We=ve done that much.
Eril slipped off the headset and replaced it in its holder. "Everything=s clear on this end. You ready for the next step, Kithri?"
"What, you mean right now?" she asked, startled.
He swung down from the pilot=s seat. "I don=t see any point in waiting. We=re ready now, and besides, we=ll have a whole day=s worth of recalibration from just a few moments of synch. What=s the matter," he asked, not entirely joking, "are you scared?"
"No." Her lips went stiff even as she said it.
He touched her shoulder but she wouldn=t meet his eyes. She had enough to deal with, just one task at a time, not letting herself think--really think--what she was doing, tearing out Wacker=s insides.
She pulled free and climbed into the tiny cabin, brushing against Raerquel as she slid into the pilot=s seat. The gastropoid=s hide felt surprisingly smooth. It lay behind and around her, unmoving except for the gentle susurration of air through its neck slits. The seat under her was still warm from Eril=s body heat.
"We don=t need a full-out linkage at this point," he said. "Nothing fancy, understand? Just go in, get a solid contact and then get the hell out of there. Don=t take any chances!"
You don=t have to tell me that. Kithri slipped the autoprobes into place on her temples, feeling the gel contacts cool and familiar. She turned around in the seat. "You ready, Raerquel? This is your last chance to back out.
"There is still much work to do, and little time. As friend-Eril has stated, what is the advantage of delay? Proceed now. Please."
She wet her lips. "I=ll make the first part of the meld..." She sank into synch with shipbrain=s inhumanly steady rhythms. Her vision doubled as her mind began to make the usual adjustments. She blinked, searching for the visual focus that would tell her the first part of the meld was accomplished. It seemed to take much longer than usual. As she waited, her thoughts, like disobedient children, wandered to the last time she flew duo and how much had happened since that morning in Port Ludlow.
How angry she=d been at Hank=s defection, which now seemed no more than a forgotten annoyance. How jealous of that raven-haired beauty he=d taken up with. How suspicious of Eril.
"All right, Raerquel, here we go." Her voice sounded abrasive to her ears, as if it could scour away the demanding, sensual memory of that first duoflight across the Cerrano Plain. Belatedly, she realized that Raerquel couldn=t see her translator panel. It didn=t matter.
Slowly she shifted modes to bring the gastropoid into the duomeld.
What if I have the same response to Raerquel as I did to Eril? She stifled the thought. It=s not possible, Raerquel=s too alien. I=ll be lucky if I can understand anything I get from its mind. And besides it would be automatic, a physiological reflex, nothing more. Just as...what happened with Father was.
For the first long moments she thought the contact had failed, that there was nothing coming through the mechano-neuronal pathways. Then she sensed something, faint and far away from the usual human frequency. Leaving shipbrain=s base pattern as an anchor, she began searching "upwards" and "downwards" along the frequency range.
"Upwards" felt open and empty. Nothing to be gained there.
It would help if I knew exactly what I was looking for. C=mon, Raerquel, where are you?
She shifted her attention "downwards". It was like slogging through molasses, thick and syrupy. The ambient mental energy resisted her with exactly the same amount of force she used against it. The harder she pushed, the harder it pushed back. In all her years of flying, both duo and singlo, she=d never experienced anything like it.
Frustrated, Kithri decided to follow Eril=s advice and "get the hell out of there." To her surprise, she couldn=t reverse her "downward" movement, couldn=t even change her speed. She could go neither backwards towards "normal", nor sideways, but only further "down". Not only that, something was actively drawing her deeper and deeper, sucking greedily at her.
What=s happening? What kind of comet-crazy thing is this?
Kithri struggled to think things through logically. There must be some rational explanation for what was happening. If she could only find it, she might be able to counteract it. People didn=t get trapped in duo! It was designed to be foolproof. Yet something had gone wrong, terribly wrong.
What? Had the equipment modification failed? Or was the linkage between human and gastropoid impossible in the first place? Was the fault in her, or in the technology, or in Raerquel...
Kithri reached out as far as she dared, but got no impression of the gastropoid=s mind within the heavy, sucking darkness. But if Raerquel, like herself, were trapped here, then it was her responsibility to get both of them out. She was the one who had suggested this crazy experiment in the first place. She was the one who=d altered the apparatus. She was the experienced duo pilot...
No, she was only a novice, and now a man=s bulky shoulders rose to blot out her view of the bleak terrain that stretched out beyond the scrubjet nose. She swayed in her seat, confused. She shouldn=t be here, she wasn=t here... Then the man turned around and leered at her with yellowed teeth.
One dust-streaked hand reached for her, fingers splayed wide to grab her breast...and passed right through her. Like the space ghost, only this time she was the ghost, drifting...
It isn=t real! came a thin wail at the back of her mind, weaving through the whine of a badly-tuned jaydium cutter. She looked down at her hands and they were covered with blood and she knew her nose was broken...
Not real! It=s not real... I have to...abort...linkage...
Yet how wonderful it was to lie back against the flowers, looking up at the powder blue sky. How peaceful to swim in the clear warm water, the water reflecting and amplifying the living light. She could almost touch the softness of the petals, smell the ever-changing fragrances, feel the breezes...
The voice at the back of her mind kept on its annoying chant, weaker now but even more desperate.
Abort command--give shipbrain the abort command! What is it, Kithri? Think!
"It is..." Words formed in her mouth. The sky had gone all brown and she was rushing up into its murky heights. Her stomach growling, but whether with fear or hunger she couldn=t tell. Her eyes ached from too little sleep.
"It is...escape...escape speed. No, that=s not right."
The brown went suddenly black and still she flew along, dazedly watching the glassy reflections of a jaydium tube flicker past. Choking darkness filled her mouth and gills, the shallow waters murky, the fluid changing light now blotted out. The shadow of a giant cacharon glided past, leaving the stench of terror in its wake.
Ship--there ought to be a ship around her, a ship she spoke to... But the words, what were the words? Why was it so important she remember?
Escape? Escape speed?
Still she rushed downwards, steeper and steeper, more and more slippery so that she had no way to brake her descent. Between her knees something grew hot, glowing as with atmospheric re-entry.
"Not speed, velocity... Escape something velocity... TERMINAL ESCAPE VELOCITY!"
The words were right. The abort command chosen by her father was unchanged since the day he programmed it into shipbrain. She=d never used it until now, never even whispered it, except in her dreams. But she knew it like the beating of her own heart.
She was still surrounded by dense, devouring blackness, and she had now lost all sense of movement and direction. Vaguely she remembered travelling "down", remembered fighting it with all her strength, but now the word no longer made sense. Up, down, what was the difference?
She felt herself slipping again along currents of mental energy, sliding, plummeting, no longer caring. Pressure squeezed her like a vice, the weight of hundreds of feet of water looming above her. Hunger seized her, hunger and blind terror. Her mind dissolved into primeval fragments, each scrabbling for survival...
And for one agonizing moment she no longer felt herself at all.
The tiny portion of Kithri=s mind that clung to consciousness continued to struggle weakly. Around her shone a myriad pinprick lights, swimming in hypnotic arcs of color. She curled in on herself like a drying cinder, like an embryo...
Like an embryo in a body! Thought flared again. Somewhere--somehow--she did have a body...
And that body was sprawled in an hauntingly familiar seat, legs thrust straight out and racked with spasm. Hands seized her shoulders, shaking her as her head lolled from a nerveless neck. Fingers peeled back her eyelids, probed for a pulse, stripped the autoprobes from her head.
"Damn it, Kithri," said Eril=s voice. "I thought we=d lost you."
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