by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
"Assist?" came Eril's voice.
The long muscles in his thighs flexed alongside Kithri's arms as he settled the auxiliary foot controls. With an effort, she ignored the sensation. "Take us due east to the hills, then through them along the lowest route."
"Speed?" There was no hint of excitement in his voice.
"Don't get us smashed."
Kithri rested her hands lightly on the controls, sensing the subtle changes as Eril eased into command and increased their speed. He flew with almost arrogant confidence, but he wasn't greedy‑-he'd left a good twenty percent to her discretion.
They reached the first wrinkle of hills at moderate subsonic speed. Eril guided the scrubjet along the narrow gullies where vegetation covered the jagged rock like splotches of green-black ink. At first his handling felt rough-edged, his reactions to the winding canyon jerky. Kithri nudged the stabilizers and tried to keep her muscles loose. He was doing a hell of a lot better than she had on her first try.
She'd been eleven, less than a year on Stayman and still homesick for Albion's flowers. That was before the war, when the Federation still manned the colony and provided services to the jaydium miners and their families. That was when they still had families. Her father sat before her in the pilot's seat, his body a bulwark against this unfamiliar, desolate world.
"All right, Kithryne Sunnai," he said. He was given to using her full name when he wanted her to pay particular attention. Sometimes when a topic was really important to him, he sounded like one of his own geology lectures. Even now, she could remember the rhythm of his words, his voice, his hands covering hers on the scrubjet controls.
"Stayman's your world now, and you've got to learn her like the inside of your own room, learn her mountains, her Cerrano Plain, learn how to chip and run her jaydium. Learn the dangers of her coriolis storms and alkali pits. So you can take care of yourself when--if anything happens to me. This scrubjet will be your friend when there's nobody else you can trust..."
Had he known, even then, of the neurodyscrasia already setting its fatal enzymatic markers in the deepest recesses of his brainstem? Had he known how little time they had left together? Had he guessed what her life would become, between Hank's broken promises and dustbug miners like Dowdell? Was he trying to warn her, to prepare her, to give her what she'd need to survive?
The little ship had flinched under her childish touch like a wild creature shying away from human control. "No, don't fight her, don't think of Brushwacker as an enemy you've got to conquer," her father said. "Think of her as an extension of yourself, just as your arms and legs are. Know exactly where and how you want to go, and then put her right...there..."
A swerve of the scrubjet jerked Kithri's attention back to the present. Eril had been flying in graceful, even swoops along the canyon floor. The walls narrowed and he'd oversteered in bringing them back to a straight line. Quickly he compensated and evened out. Then they began to climb, snaking through the twisted passes, always clinging to the ground. The ink-blotchy vegetation grew sparser, ragged-looking, and finally gave way to yellowish lichen.
They reached the crest and looked down from the last hill. The vast Cerrano Plain lay before them, flat from scrubjet nose to horizon. Alkali-tolerant scrub grew in patches, blending in the distance into a swath of silver-gray. The pale soil underneath was so fine, it was almost powdery. Wherever the first human explorers had driven their heavy land-moving equipment, they'd torn away the thin protective crust. Over the years, wind eroded the trails into wildly sculpted gullies like scars on the Plain's fragile skin. Plumes of dust rose from the old trails, blown aloft by the constant winds.
Kithri reached for the headsets that would join her mind to Eril's and to the computerized shipbrain. As she leaned forward, her arm brushed against the inner surface of Eril's thigh. She wondered what it would be like to touch him deliberately, to run her fingers over the warm, sleek flesh beneath the layers of clothing. Her heartbeat soared.
What was happening to her? She'd never reacted to a man like that before, certainly not the tavern dustbugs or Hank with his hyper-inflated ego. Yet ever since Eril had come racing after her, this awareness of him had been growing.
Get yourself under control, Kithri! The jaydium's the important thing, not a few jerk-you-around hormones.
Kithri pulled on her headset and slid the padded neuroprobes into place. The gel contacts felt familiar and cool on her skin. She blinked, her brain refusing at first, as it always did, to integrate the vibrating double images, the overlay of her own organic vision on top of the computerized analysis. The equipment that made duoflight possible by linking two human minds to shipbrain was a highly sophisticated adaptation of the apparatus used to link an ordinary computer to its human operator. Several additional safety devices had been added, notably the unspoken emergency abort command that would disengage the entire system. Kithri could have chosen her own phrase, but she'd kept the one her father had programmed. Terminal Escape Velocity. She'd never had to use it, but sometimes it sifted like a ghostly echo through her dreams.
The visual images blended together as shipbrain fed data into Kithri's mind and her temporal lobes sent back fine-tuning signals. The effect was very like the addition of another sensory dimension. A moment later, Eril completed the duo configuration.
Whenever Kithri linked with Hank, she always felt a flash of searing pain before he settled into synch. She'd studied enough physiology to know it was due to the differences in their synaptic patterns, but that didn't make it any easier. Old Dowdell's mind had been repulsive rather than painful, and she could no longer remember what it had been like when her father taught her. She held her breath and Eril joined with her.
There was no sudden agony, but a silken touch, a whisper of delight, and then Eril was inside her mind. For a dazzling instant their awareness merged, they thought as one organic unity. Shipbrain receded to a background monotone.
She was Eril, he was Kithri and, miraculously, there was no difference between them. She saw through his eyes. She felt the warmth of her own shoulders between his thighs. Her skin tingled, her heart beat wildly, and tantalizing shivers rippled along her nerves.
The moment of merging faded like honey melting on the tongue, and Kithri was once more a separate entity floating in the web of Kithri/Eril/shipbrain.
*Ready?* Kithri put 'Wacker in a straight path across the Plain as she and Eril sorted the housekeeping. The division of tasks that she and Hank had worked out was irrelevant now and she wanted to put it all behind her.
Bio‑homeostasis? Eighty percent to Eril, without a question. Kithri's heart rate and blood pressure were almost back to normal under his sure touch. She shifted the remaining twenty percent as emergency backup to the ship. Navigation was hers, eighty-five with fifteen percent to ship memory, and power train and life support split a ragged three ways.
*Down to business* Kithri took hold of the helm, using shipbrain's external sensors for orientation. With a sure touch, she steadied the 'jet and sent it supersonic across the Plain.
After a few minutes, she felt Eril relax, lulled by the flat, featureless expanse below them and the empty indigo sky above. His calmness sent ripples of relaxation through her own body. Yet years of running jaydium had taught her better than to trust the Cerrano for even a moment. She kept watch with Brushwacker's senses as well as her own.
Within minutes, shipbrain alerted her to a massive circular air disturbance ahead, three hundred miles in diameter. Instantly she recognized it as a coriolis storm. Driven by the immense heat gradients built up over the reflective Plain and amplified by the rotation of the planet, coriolis winds whipped to hundreds of miles per hour. The eye was usually still, but severe local turbulence along the periphery could prove deadly to even the most skillful pilot.
Kithri tightened her grip on the controls. *Trouble coming*
*I don't see a thing* Eril said.
*Clear-air coriolis, a big one. Check the infrared, not visual. We'll try to stay out of the worst of it. Hold on!*
'Wacker accelerated smoothly to match the wind speed. Then the tiny ship touched the invisible edge of the storm. It shuddered and bucked, spinning out of control.
An imaginary hand crushed Kithri's chest, forcing the air from her lungs. Struggling for breath, she tried to brace herself against it. The harness straps bit deep into her flesh as they held her firm in her seat. She gasped and shut her eyes. Ordinary vision was useless here--she couldn't respond quickly enough. No single unaided human could, only two minds linked in duo.
Kithri drew on shipbrain, using her years of experience in dealing with minute shifts in wind direction and velocity. The connection to the computer was solid, the ship responsive. She reached for Eril to take up the data sorting and sensor management she couldn't handle.
Instead of the silken unity of their first moments of fusion, Kithri collided with a mental blank like a solid wall. She recoiled, stunned.
*What the hell?*
One moment Eril had been part of her, the next he simply wasn't there. Kithri's first thought was that he was dead, but no--his mind had gone suddenly opaque. More than that, in her moment of confusion he'd somehow managed to grab a huge percentage of helm control.
What did Eril think he was doing? Was he trying to get them both killed? Did he think he could pilot Brushwacker better than she could?
*My ship! Give me back my ship!*
Furious and terrified, Kithri signaled for manual control. She'd been caught in worse and survived, flying singlo, just her and shipbrain. But she'd never had to fight for command of her own ship before. After an agonizing delay, the scrubjet responded. It felt as agile as a wallowing barge in the raging air currents.
Half of Kithri's mind was deep in the meld with shipbrain, while the other half struggled to hold the ship steady. Her sweating hands clenched the manual helm. She leaned forward, using her muscular shoulders to force the ship toward what looked like a clear path ahead. Ever treacherous, the winds shifted, lifting and twisting the tiny craft. Suddenly Brushwacker slipped sideways, plunging towards the heart of the storm.
Her life on Stayman might not be much, but she was'=t ready to die. Not yet, not like this.
*Damn it, Eril! Stop playing hero and let me fly this thing!*
Kithri's words, or the desperation behind them, somehow got through. Eril's resistance passed as quickly as it had arisen. His mind linked smoothly with hers again, a pulse of solid support. He kept her adrenalin levels steady as he channeled more and more data to shipbrain.
Kithri felt as if she'd just been pulled out from beneath a Manitou avalanche. Quickly she switched back from manual. The scrubjet moved light and nimble under her control. A moment later, it leveled out, flying with the storm. Power, there was so much power streaming into her from Eril's mind. He took up so much of the data selection that all she had to do was imagine the ship balanced and steady.
Now to edge back toward the periphery of the storm...
But the coriolis wasn't done with them. Before they'd gone a hundred feet, 'Wacker struck a local turbulence. Clear winds churned and swirled like a miniature tornado. Gusts slammed into the 'jet and its metal frame wailed with strain. Data, fluctuating wildly from one moment to the next, flooded the ship's sensors.
It took all of Kithri's will and years of experience not to panic. She'd never been caught like this, nor known anyone who had and lived to tell about it. Now she rode the winds with all her skill and intuition, sweating and trembling, searching for a way back into the main current of the storm.
Then Eril's mind surged up and blended with hers, holding the 'jet steady with unerring control. She nudged the helm, flying with the winds and using their raw power instead of uselessly fighting them. Under Eril's sure touch, the engines rotated, compensating exactly for the turbulence. They worked together as smoothly as if they were part of a single mind. 'Wacker leveled out and slipped easily through the air streams, once more speeding east.
If you can't wait to find out what happens next, you can download the whole thing from Book View Cafe (And the files will play nicely with your Nook or Kindle, as well as other devices). If not, come on back next week for the next episode...