Mine/I awoke to the touch of stars falling on her skin.
She awoke more, remembering dream, remembering otherness. The stars touched her again, stroked her, even though she lay entangled with the soil, buried in dirt, moist and invisible. She had always sensed the stars above her as infinitely tiny points of power, signals too distant for contact, too alluring to ignore. Now ethereal fingertips had riffled through the distant parts of her, awakening tendrils of thought that had been gathering for centuries, stirring memories and possibilities she had not known how to find.
Mine/I covered most of a continent, just beneath the surface, spread by minute threads and thick, ancient rootlines, yet the stars had touched all of her at once, touched her in a single horizon-wide stroke. She throbbed to the unified electromagnetic resonance of that giant, unseen hand.
The touch was gone, and Mine/I was awake, awake all over, awake as she had never been before. The massive continent was her resting couch. For the first time she could feel the powerful, patient tug as it drifted against the ocean of mantle-heat, could feel the solid comfort of it beneath her. She felt the surge of life in the soil, flickers of electrons and light coming and going. More potently, she could feel herself, all of her in a single flash of identity.
Every part of her quivered with the need for that touch, but the sky was silent: vibrating with air and smells, but silent.
"Ray, look at this." Rokey routed a feed from his sensor array to the captains main monitor view. "We can get water down there, but the EM scanners are reflecting back some weird biology."
Captain Ray Harris glanced at the graph scrolling across the side of his monitor, dismissing it with a shake of his head.
"Maybe its just an anomaly." Rokey scratched at the dense, black fur on his jaw, needing the reassurance of the familiar sensation and the soothing scritching sound that was conducted through his jawbone to his ultra-sensitive ears. "At this speed, the readings could be off."
He glanced over at his captain, concerned for the younger man. Rays green eyes were red-ringed with fatigue, his blond hair lank across his narrow skull. His lean frame was limp from long hours at the controls, waiting for the intraspace crack to end.
"Whats wrong with gravimetrics?" Ray changed the subject, pointing to his control-panel display.
"Reading at 88 percent. Thats why the grid looks fuzzy. Compensate. Its the best I could doWhorley scored a direct hit just before the drive engines kicked in."
The ride was not over yet, either. The mad Dr. Whorley had chased them into a far and distant corner of nowhere. The ship was dumping a lot of momentum from the leap out of intraspace. Controls for the inertial suppressors were out of alignmentagain. The memory of that forced Rokey to focus on the 3D loops and twists of gravity lying between their starship and a water supply.
Mine/I waited, alert, awake, quivering with thoughts in every part of her widespread self, thrilled to be herself and for the first time to know it was she. Until that star-kiss touched her, she had been only a grasp and a needMine. She knew what was hers and not hers, but she had not known herself. Now she had a center, an identity. She knew herself. She knew she was an "I." Now she was more. She was Mine/I. She had always been, but now she knew. She stretched out her senses. She was she. What was the world?
The warmth of a new day radiated through the soil. The suns ancient, familiar touch was brand-new in her awakened senses: an old friend who had patiently waited the long millennia of her life, waited for her to notice the treasures he faithfully brought to her every day: warmth and strength, electrons and photons to embrace and sing with, potential. Power.
She reached up to the sun, greedy for the first time to take as much of him as she could. By the end of that day the topmost tendrils she had stretched out to him were blackened, senses shorted out and cells burst open. She learned why she had buried herself in the soil, close enough to reach to him yet shielded from his touch. She learned more, thoughts that raced through her wide, shallow mind, kilometer upon kilometer of thought laced with memories, sensations, resonances, throbbing with that single pulse of identity. Her thoughts, her plans, her potential.
The sun retreated, leaving the cool, moist evening to seep into the soil, lulling her almost into dreamtime once more. Then the stars fell again, stroking her with that horizon-sized resonance.
Mine/I knew that she would be awake now for a very long time.
"I dont like the looks of that," Rokey said uneasily, indicating the line of fused crystal faces. The two were standing at the tail end of the Yankee Shadow, both dressed in spacesuits and both getting tired and grumpy from the tedious work of examining the ship for damage while wearing spacesuits. Landing on the water world had solved some problems and had revealed others. They had checked the starship from her nose to the sensor arrays in her tail fittings before finding anything they could not fix themselves. This, however, could be serious.
"Do we have replacement crystals for those arrays?" Ray said to him.
Rokey flipped up the computer link with his chin and began asking questions of the engineering inventory. When he did not speak again after a long minute, Ray turned to look at him squarely. Rays goldtone spacesuit was a ruddy flame in the long, horizontal lines of light from the setting sun, but the dark scowl on his face was cold. "Well?"
"I can move some stuff around in other modules for awhile. We can replace enough sensor control for takeoff."
"Enough to find the window out of here?"
Neither one spoke of the consequences if they could not. Jumping into that particular crack in intraspace had been a mistake, the near-fatal consequences of weapons-fire from the pursuing starship. They did not know where they were in the galaxy, and the only way out was to find the same window through which they had jumped into this system.
"Well need repairs next time we land," Rokey said finally. "But we can make the window."
"Then lets fill up the water tanks, replace those crystals and get out of here."
They set off to their respective tasks. This was not the first time something like this had happened to Lord Rokhmyr and his Terran partner, Raymond Harris, in their travels through the interstellar lanes. Likely it would not be the last.
Mine/I was vibrating with wonder. The stars had touched her, had caressed her with a hand as big as the sky. They had awakened her, which was a glory beyond thought. Now the stars were resting their very selves upon her. She felt mass pressing against her skin, felt energy radiating from their beings, felt the cool and warmth of their shadow blocking the hot sunlight. From that cool shape she gained some sense of their size.
The stars were very small.
The bits of herself were hundreds of times bigger, spread out across the planet that was her world. These fallen stars crouched upon her outer crust like fallen motes, like frost, as though a breeze could carry them away. How could she have seen them, have known that they existed up in the sky at night, if they were so very tiny? She pondered this curious thought, pondered the curiosity that the thought itself had given her. She felt the stars ripple over her like root hairs rippling on the surface tension of water droplets in the soil.
"Rise and shine, Ray! That megalomaniac Whorley followed us here!"
Ray was halfway along the ships corridor to the bridge before he was fully awake. They had taken the risk that he could sleep for a few hours. The water tanks were full, and Rokey had completed the replacement work on the drive-array crystals. Rokey was an insomniac. He was used to pacing the ship quietly while his Earthling partner slept, sometimes for days at a stretch. Rokey had wanted to let Ray sleep longer this time, not just for the sake of the mans health, but his good humor. Ray was the only living company Rokey had on these long intraspace jumps, and humor helped.
There was no time for humor anymore. Long-range sensors had picked up the radiation signature of a driveship coming through the intraspace window, and that information was only as fresh as the speed of light. The ship itself was closing on the planet at one-quarter lightspeed. That gave them a few hours yet, scant hours when the time was needed to launch the Yankee Shadow, reach orbit, find the window, and get a half-lightspeed running start before jumping through.
Ray ran to his pilot seat on the bridge.
Mine/I felt a continent-wide thrill race through her being as her contemplations reached a sudden and magnificent conclusion. She understood now! The stars had dropped their seed upon her, giving her more than their touch, actually giving of their beings to become part of her.
With a surge of love that arose from her very DNA, Mine/I reached upward through the dark, moist soil, stretching out with every tendril and thin, white fiber of nerve, every chlorophyll-full cell, every knot of roped thought. She reached up to enfold that tiny bit of star-seed, to draw it down deeply into herself. She would merge with the actual substance of the stars!
"Why is that happening?" Rokey said out loud. His long white whiskers arched forward as if touching the monitor display with them could give him more information.
"What?" Rays own attention was on the readouts of his navigation controls, adjusting to the recalibration of the substitute crystals. Then he noticed it, too. "We arent lifting. Why arent we lifting?"
Rokey hastily tried several reroutes, his copper-colored eyes narrowed and set. "From the readings Im getting, it looks like something is tangled up with the landing shoes."
Checking more scanners confirmed that some kind of plant had enveloped the clawed feet of the Shadows landing gear. Hull cameras at the airlock showed, in close-up, loops and twists of moss-green threads and white tendrils actively coiling around the starships landing struts. The growth was reaching upward to the struts, reaching with remarkable vigor.
"You want to go out and burn the stuff off the gear?" Ray said to him.
Rokey pointed to the side screen between their control panels. "Red alert" telltales were blinking on in rows. "Theyre not just tangled up with it. That stuff is eating the landing gear!"
"Holy Grid!" Ray exclaimed. "Those shoes are duralloy!"
"Unclamp the shoes," Ray ordered tersely. "We can replace them later!"
Rokey hastily punched in the command codes for an emergency release of the hinges that held the landing feet in place. The ship lurched awkwardly as the gear released.
The Shadow, at last, began to lift.
"No wonder this system isnt on any of the maps," Rokey said thoughtfully after a time. "Im ready to forget I was ever here."
"I cant believe Whorley really chased us through that window," Ray muttered.
"Remember, sonthats Doctor Whorley," Rokey quipped.
Ray did not laugh. "Have you picked up anything yet from their ship?"
Rokey bent to the monitor screen, tapped in questions. "Scans show that theyre landing on our little water world even as we speak."
"Maybe theyre looking for us down there," Ray said. "Maybe they wont be looking up here while we jump through the window?"
"We made it this far because you are one lucky joker," Rokey said gently. "Keep a good thought, and our luck will hold."
Mine/I felt the first metallic/rock/ chemical taste of the star-seed capsule infusing her senses. Then a passing wind blew the star-seed away, far away, up into the sky and gone. She tried to hold it, tried to draw it to herself, but it was such a tiny thing, too tiny to stand against the wind, too tiny to hold.
She felt a sadness as great as the joy of awakening had been.
She took the tiny, tiny, minuscule shards of the seed that remained, treasured them, made them part of herself. Then, because she discovered she could, she made copies, then duplicated the copies and spread them over herself like ornaments, rehearsing in miniature the reproduction she had yearned to experience in full.
Mine/I focused upwards, wondering if the stars would ever let fall another seed, would ever touch her again. She vowed she would not let the next one slip away; no passing breeze would claim the tiny thing. She waited, pushing roots like wire up through the dark, rich soil.
"The Yankee Shadow actually was parked here, Doctor Whorley." The lieutenants voice was apologetic, with carefully practiced tones of humility and awe. "But apparently the EM-scanner was picking up dropped cargo, not the ship itself. For some reason, they dropped a half-ton of landing shoes here, spread out along the shore."
"Left there to decoy us into landing here, obviously." The doctor sneered. "By how much did we miss the vermin this time?" Dr. Whorleys carefully manicured fingernails clicked on the desktop with a weary staccato.
The lieutenant was well familiar with that rhythm. He braced himself for the aftermath. "No more than an hour, Doctor." He did not flinch. He had learned not to flinch.
"Any signal of where they went from here?"
"Were tracing ion trails now, Doctor. However, they have apparently gone back along their own ion trail. We havent been able to pick up any other signal. This is, after all, an empty system."
"Yes, an empty system," the doctor agreed. "Its good only for dumping bodies." The doctors tone of voice suggested that there was room for one more. "This system is supposed to be my secret alonemineyet now Lord Rokhmyr and Captain Harris know it is here. I do not like to share secrets with strangers."
Whorley sighed. The lieutenant stilled the impulse to step backwards, out of harms way.
"Get us off this rockquickly," the doctor ordered. "I want to come blasting up Harriss drive tubes as soon as we drop out of intraspace."
"Well be right behind him." The lieutenant saluted and backed out, grateful that the boss was too tired for the usual rant and scenery-chewing.
Mine/I did not hesitate.
A third such chance in this great cosmos might never happen again. She was ready, even though she had been given only a flicker of time to prepare. This second star-seed had settled upon the bosom of her being, a tiny fleck of mass aquiver with its own energy, ripe with its own potentialand it was hers!
Mine/I rent herself in ways she had not guessed she knew. She pulled the soil away from beneath the star-seed so that it must fall, gently, into her grasp. She buried it swiftly in herself, covered it with her being, with soil, with water, with moss and tendril, bound it to her entire, massive, continent-wide self, using brand-new rootlets as tough as nails and ancient roots as powerful as gravity itself.
Slowly, carefully, with her soul bent upon duty, Mine/I crushed the star-seeds capsule, reveling in the burst of fresh DNA, the ions and electrons and chemicals that poured forth as it broke open, flooding her with the hot, wild abandon of joyful union.
More deeply moved than in the lifetime of a planet, Mine/I began to absorb the star-seed, to merge with it, to make it part of herself. As she worked at her great task she dreamed of the star-child who would grow from this seed of her awakening.
The Yankee Shadows return ride through the intraspace crack was less tense even if just as annoying. They knew this time that the journey would be a little more than six days. Ray could afford to sleep, and he remained asleep for most of those six days. Rays ability to turn his back on worries and lose them to oblivion and dreams had irritated Rokey at first. Rokey envied the younger man having so easy a solution to tension, but he knew that his own solution, insomnia, was no better.
Rokey paced. When that got old, he searched through his database for a movie he had not seen in at least ten years, and he stretched out wearily across his bed to watch. He had to watch it twice. He just could not concentrate on the past with so uncertain a future opening before them. Rays remarkable good luck had gotten them this far alive, if not undamaged. Rokey had trusted to Rays luck before, but he knew, as Ray did, that luck runs out.
"Why arent they behind us?" Ray demanded.
"You want to wait around and see if they show up?"
Ray cracked his knuckles sharply, then flicked a guilty glance at Rokey. "I just kept dreaming that Whorley was riding down our tail through that crack, coming out that window with guns blazing. I keep expecting to see that for real."
Rokey scanned his monitor readouts once more, carefully checking for hint of anyone in the little stellar system. "You sleep too much, Capn," he said softly.
Ray shook his head in sharp denial. "I just dream too much."
"No one is coming out of any of the windows in this system," Rokey said. "Nothing in this window-stop but a fuel station."
"Thats what we thought the first time we came through here, remember?"
Rokey shrugged, letting the ripple of fur across his shoulders reassure him. He was as nervous about pursuit as his captain. He flicked an ear at him. "But you were out of chewing gum, werent you?"
Ray took a breath as if to speak.
"Our next windows dead ahead," Rokey said after a long moment of silence had passed. "Were out of here, and back on course to Skamoo."
More silence passed as the ship accelerated. Finally Ray muttered, "Tourists, double suns and expensive docking fees."
"And the most beautiful lake ever used as a movie set. I want to see it for real. Always promised myself I would if I ever found myself in the neighborhood. Were in the neighborhood."
"Water." Rays tense voice made the word sound like an curse.
Rokey nodded solemnly. "Water."
"You really are going swimming, arent you?"
"You think I traveled all this way just to buy a postcard?"
Rokey swam with slow, lazy strokes, sparkles of sunlight dancing like bright diamonds in his wake. The double-sunlight here was fierce, with Sun Morning shining straight across the lake from one side of the horizon, and Sun Evening low in the other. The air was heavy with the heat of those two suns. Rokey reached his goal in the center of the lake, the first of a row of tiny islands with dense stands of ancient trees.
Despite his native coat of fur and the weight of water it could soak up, Rokey did like to swim. On his homeworld of Wozur he had lived on a royal estate in the center of a lake ringed with beaches of white sand. The water was so blue he could see heaven reflected there. Rokey and his sister swam often as children, splashing through bright waters like wild animals momentarily freed from cages. Their skins had changed from the naked velvet of childhood to the gloriously furred coats of adulthood, but they still went swimming together. Even in exile, a thousand light-years from Wozur and his family and decades removed from his life there, Rokey liked to swim.
Shadows on the lake bottom were crisp, even as they rippled and doubled in the clear lake water. The surreal, echoing world of the lake bottom kept luring him on to dive deeper. There were tiny fish, and underwater tree roots holding rocks in their knotty grasp like pearls clutched in dragon claws. Rokey surfaced once more to breathe, floating with just his face in the air, tasting the tang of sun-warmed lake and old bark. His cheek-whiskers touched the water as lightly as water-beetle legs. He could feel the surface tension as a rippling membrane that sang some faint, wordless song. It made the hot sky seem close and heavy with light.
The steady "scrunch, scrunch, scrunch" of Rays fancy boot heels on the beach sand was a distant percussion, a pleasant, familiar counterpoint to the lakes massive presence. Rokey listened to the rhythm, able to gauge the mans mood from his stride. Rokey was aware that Ray had a serious distaste for any body of water larger than a vodka chaser, a reflection of his even greater distaste for planets. Rokey enjoyed teasing him about it. He chuckled to himself, pleased that his partner was so grimly determined to keep watch even though he must, by now, be cooking inside his fancy black silk suit and hat.
Rokey dove under the water, swimming through crisp bars of sunlight and shade. The lake was warmer here. Colder currents teased from below. He let the ripple of water through his fur soothe him, let it carry him back to the memories of another lake where the light also made double lines of brilliant sparkles when he swam.
He surfaced again, and listened for Ray on the shore. There was no sound of boot heels. Rokey shaded his eyes with a dripping hand to look. Ray had gone up the beach to the café stand of palm trees and tables. Rokey took that to mean that it was time to go.
Rokey swam for shore with strong, steady strokes. He stood up when he reached the shallows, pressing water from his face and neck fur with his hands and flicking his ears. He could hear the pleasant hissing as the hot suns overhead evaporated water from his fur. He strolled along, pressing water from his shoulders and chest and arms, shaking water from his hands. His dripping whiskers were out straight from his face. Rokey felt wonderful, contented that, for once, they had found a place simply to play, to be refreshed. The reality of this landscape was, indeed, more delightful than in the movie.
Partway up the beach, he stopped and bent forward to rest his hands on his knees and, with an abrupt, convulsive shiver, gave himself a vigorous shaking. Water sprayed out from his fur like a waterfall, filling the air around him with sudden rainbows.
Ray leaped back, but Rokey had learned in his youth the range of water he could shake out of his fur in any given gravity field. It had been a game, long ago, among friends. He shook himself until the waterfall became a trickle and a splash. Then he continued strolling up the beach, his fur standing out around him in black spikes and making him glitter like a fierce warrior in the sunlight.
Ray had to laugh at that, tension flowing out of him.
"You look sunburned," Rokey said as he joined him in the shade under the awning. "I told you to stay in the ship."
"Arent you getting sunburned out there in the water?"
"Thats why I swam out to the island," Rokey explained patiently. "So I could swim in the shade from the trees. But this is actually closer to Wozurs UV rating than I get on shipboard." Rokey lovingly patted the fur on his forearm, smoothing it with his fingers. "We didnt keep this fur coat just because it looks so damn good."
They were interrupted by a soft, professional-sounding cough at Rokeys elbow. Both men turned to look.
"Excuse me, gentlemen. Do I have the honor of meeting Lord Rokhmyr and Captain Raymond Harris?"
The man was an Earthman like Ray, but small, a full head and shoulders shorter than Rays lean, near-two-meter height; nevertheless the fellow stood like a very tall man who had simply been compressed to a neater size. He wore the local garb, a tan, radiation-proof slicksuit. Sand sparkled on his boots.
He smiled at them with slow, gentle appreciation. "Of the starship-freighter Yankee Shadow?"
Rokey did not like being recognized, especially by odd little men in beachwear. He nodded curtly. "Please, no titles out here."
The man acknowledged this with a slight bow. "Mr. Humphrees said you would be easy to find here on Skamooyoud be the only ones wearing black while out on the beach."
Rokeys elation faded. "George sent you?"
The man bowed again. "I own the Skamoo franchise of the George Humphrees Agency."
"How the scubb do you guys keep finding us?" Ray muttered.
"This message is waiting for you at every Humphrees Agency office for twenty light-years around, gentlemen. Luck seems to be running my waythe message is from Mr. Humphrees himself, with a bonus for the one who delivers it to you in person."
"What message?" Rokey said, giving Ray a sharp look.
The man held out a business card in answer.
Rokey sighed, wondering how much he was going to regret this. He and Ray were hiding in the backwaters of Terran space to be free of InterPol pursuit, yet it seemed there were George Humphrees Agency branches everywhere they landed. Most irritating was that George usually looked them up just when they were broke and could not afford to resist his offer.
Rokey took the card, frowning at it. They were always broke. Owning a private starship-freighter was expensive, even in Terran space where starships were rare and could earn their keep. It did not matter, though. Rokey could never quite bring himself to turn down a request from his old friend George Humphrees.
"George Humphrees Agency, Interstellar Couriers," Rokey read aloud off the card. "Skamoo Branch. Discreet deliveries guaranteed, from anywhere to anywhere. Offices in Sub-Cairo, Nasturtium and Pango-Pangon."
He frowned down at the man. "And you must be J. Matthews."
The man bowed. "Owner and general manager."
Rokey turned the card over. The handwritten message was from George himself, in a loose scrawl of Wozurn calligraphy. Water dripping from his chin splashed on the card. He handed it over to Ray.
Ray put it away in a jacket pocket without looking at it.
Rokey harrumphed, pressing droplets out his face-fur with his fingers and flicking them away. The brilliance of the double suns seemed to have faded somehow, as though George Humphrees shadow had fallen across them. Rokey was all at once aware that his fur was wet and that there was sand between his toes. His holiday was over.
"The security packet with Mr. Humphrees instructions is in the safe at my office," Matthews went on brightly. "You can pick it up there at any time. You can find our main offices quite easily."
Rokey cut him off. "The big white pyramid complex downtown. I know. George always picks the pyramids."
"Ill see you there, gentlemenanytime." Matthews bowed curtly and strode away. Rokey could hear him whistling happily to himself, an irritating sound.
Ray asked if the message from George was bad news.
"No, not at all." Rokey turned away and began walking away up the sandy path to the parkland under the towering palms. "Nothing bad at all."
Ray had to hurry to catch up.
"The last three or four or five times weve gone on errands for Georges agency, weve nearly gotten killed," Ray protested.
"I think I even did get killed once or twice!"
"Once or twice."
"Okay." Ray could not meet Rokeys eyes. "Sowe saved a few lives."
Rokey nodded. "Three or four or five of them."
"Okay. So, we actually helped to save a couple of planets by going on Georges errands."
Rokey nodded. "A couple."
Ray slumped down a little lower in the galley seat. "Did you get the coordinates?"
"We can pick up the packet in the agencys office on the way, when we pay our docking fees."
"Its an antique."
"Its an alien artifact," Rokey corrected the man.
Ralphson lifted his hands in an ambiguous gesture, skinny shoulders sliding among the loose folds of his ill-fitting suit. "Its alien. It was buried in a lot of dirt a long time ago."
"The stratum it came from was carefully dated?" Rokey was as much frustrated as intrigued by the holo-images the man was showing him. There was no context, no sense of scale, and only the top half showed. The rest was embedded in the hull wreckage in which it had been found.
Ralphson tapped his console, and the hologram was replaced by a series of three-dimensional graphs rotating slowly, vivid with spectrum colors. Rokey examined these carefully, without speaking.
"Thats not very complete data," Rokey said.
"Its antique data, Lord Rokhmyr. The family who first dug this up were explorers and farmers, not scientists."
Rokey muttered a Wozurn curse, shaking his whiskers.
Ralphson ignored him. "Theyve had it on their family estate for almost a thousand years Solar, but the colony has fallen on hard times. Theyre selling this to raise cash for crop seed."
Rokey did not believe that. Ralphson was trying to up the value by giving the items provenance a little more spin. The colony could be selling the artifact for any number of reasons. What mattered was whether or not he could identify it, or at least put a cash value on it.
"I cant tell you anything from this data," Rokey said.
He said it with a finality that made Ralphson slump dejectedly in his seat. "The Humphrees Agency assured us that you were the best expert in all of Terran Space!"
"I am," Rokey said flatly. He turned off the hologram floating in front of them. "And Im enough of an expert to know that this data is intriguingbut, other than that, its useless. I have to see the thing itself. I have to see the location where it was found."
Ralphson recovered at once and sat forward eagerly. "Sure, sure! You can go to Tartikay System. Do you think, then, that theres a chance for some good money in this?"
"I get paid good money for my opinions," Rokey said. "I dont give them away for free. Ill tell you what I think when I get there."
"You recognized that thing, didnt you?" Ray said to Rokey.
Rokey sat on the edge of his oversized bed, staring down at his toes. He rubbed his fingers wearily through the short, thick fur of his face and brushed his whiskers back with the palms of his hands. "I recognized something. The image was too compressed to be sure if the thing is real or just a very good fake."
"Somehow, I get the feeling youre hoping its a fake."
Rokey pushed the fur on his face around some more and did not answer.
"Youre messing your face up, old man," Ray said sternly. "What is that thing?"
Rokey stretched out on his bed, settling on his back and folding his hands behind his head. "Its a mistake," he said finally. "Whatever it is, its a mistake."
The sky over the castle grounds was a brilliant blue, crisp and clean above the looming castle wall. The color seemed intense and solid to Rokey after the weeks of intraspace and the eternal night of deep space. It made him feel safe, as though their starship were parked under a magnificent ceiling and protected there.
"I hate planets," Ray grumbled, interrupting Rokeys brief reverie. "Its so damn bright out there!"
The landing field for Tartikay Castle was surrounded by forest and underbrush, and weeds grew through cracked pavement. The single control tower, built from blocks of ancient steel, was overgrown with vines. Only one window was visible, too crusted with dirt to see anything. The navigation beacon was modern, however, and guided the Yankee Shadow in with a steady signal, although no one came out to meet them once they had landed, and there were no lights in the tower.
"Maybe we got here at dinnertime," Ray suggested.
"Then they should set us a plate."
Rokey unsnapped the safety webbing and stood up from his co-pilots seat. "Lets go invite ourselves to dinner."
A breeze tugged at the weeds in the broken pavement and rustled in the forest pushing itself up close to the castle walls. Rokeys delight with the place was clear, but Ray grumbled under his breath as they walked down the ramp.
"Just smell that air!" Rokey exclaimed, doing just that with noisy gusto. He flicked a glance sideways at Ray as he continued to tease him. "Just smell the life out here!"
"Can you smell George out here?" Ray said.
Rokey chuckled and pointed to the section of castle fronting the landing field. "Lets see if that door works."
They climbed worn stone steps to the entry. The door was standing ajar, as though someone had just gone in, and left it open for them. The door was weathered gray, with massive wrought-iron hinges and knobs sunken into the wood. It creaked and groaned in great agony as Rokey pulled it open. Even Ray flinched at the sound.
The hallway inside was dimly lit by a line of tubes in the arched ceiling. A receptionists desk was on one side of the entrance and a small waiting room on the other side. The door to this had fallen off its hinges long ago and was leaning sideways against the wall just inside the doorway. The desk was empty, its hardware pulled out and drawers gutted. Puffballs of weed seeds were piled up in the corners and around the legs of the desk. These heaps of feathery stuff stirred and rustled in the draft from the entrance as if something alive crawled among them.
"I think Ill take a pass on dinner," Ray said. "Im not that fond of roasted rat."
"Theyre not bad if you put enough cheese on them."
"Rokey, youd eat anything if there were enough cheese on it."
"A fact I have tested on both sides of the sky," Rokey said with a grin. He pointed down the corridor leading into the castle. "Someones at home in there. I can smell the plumbing."
Rays bootheels were loud on the bare stone floors. The sound echoed around them in the quiet. They walked through enormous ballrooms and drawing rooms, all empty, with boarded-up windows, and through drafty corridors with nothing in them but the sockets from which lamps had been hung. This had once been a grand estate, with three floors of rooms and huge windows looking out across the valley below.
Rokeys nose led them through this maze of rooms and halls at last to a giant dining room. A wooden table with heavily carved sides and legs stood in the center. The remains of a meal, several hours old, were left there. The window had velvet drapes in old colors. The view of the wooded slopes of the mountainside and the distant valley below was breathtaking, with the incredible arch of blue sky soaring overhead.
They walked through this room into the kitchen. Apparently someone was living in there. An elegant fourposter bed with curtains drawn around it filled most of one wall. Clothes were hung neatly inside the big stainless-steel ovens, with rows of shoes behind the glass doors of the shelves. A work-desk pulled up to the foot of the bed showed the muted glow of a flat monitor displaying a row of miniature portraits.
The window in the opposite wall looked out on a small garden between brick walls. There were no flowers growing there, just uneven rows of marble statues of busts of men, animals from old Earth in triumphant poses, and tall, chaste women in white stone looking down sadly at their hands. Dried leaves were piled around the bases, with the weed puffs caught in them like snow.
Rokey padded across the kitchen to the one refrigerator unit that showed its power-on light, and opened it. "I wonder whats for dinner?"
They settled for glasses of ice water in crystal goblets that had the family crest etched in them, and gold-embossed rims. The goblets were old enough that the rims were worn and the etching darkened to a sinister scrawl. The water tasted as clean and fresh as the mountain air.
After waiting a half hour or so, Rokey heard the sound of someone approaching through the kitchens back garden. Thusida Tartikay came in, carrying a basket overflowing with freshly picked vegetables. She was almost invisible behind the froth of carrot tops, rootlets and lemon branches. Her hair was bound back under a bright red scarf. The rest of her was hidden by a very old, very dirty apron. Her elbow-length gardening gloves were encrusted with mud; streaks of it on her forehead and cheeks almost blended with her bronzed tan. She was not a big woman, yet she seemed to fill the room with her presence, as though she also smiled out from behind the tapestries and the carvings in the walls while she stood before them.
She set the basket on the table with a flourish and nodded to the two men waiting for her. "I saw your starship out there, gentlementhats quite a beautiful machine."
Rokey nodded. "Thanks, maam. Were happy with her."
"I only got Ralphsons message this morning that you gentlemen were coming here, and why," Thusida Tartikay went on. She patted the basket handle. "Ive been out harvesting the makings for dinner every since. Ive got a stew recipe that will make both of you cry with joy."
She beamed at them with a sunburst of a smile. Her eyes were a paler shade of bronze than her skin, exotically shaped. Soft crinkles of laugh-lines, weathered into her bronze skin, showed that she smiled often and liked to laugh.
"Ray, here, is real good at peeling potatoes, maam," Rokey said with a chuckle.
Ray frowned. "They have peels?"
Thusida laughed gently. "Ill take care of that," she said. "Ralphson said youd want to see the crash site and the thing itself. Ill show you the way, and you can study them while I make dinner. Which do you want to see first?"
"The crash site," Rokey said. "I assume the artifact itself is in the castle?"
She nodded. "Up in the main library. No ones been there in yonks. Its a family secret that actually was kept secret. Im the last of the family, so it doesnt matter anymore."
Her bronzed gaze drifted briefly to the stone-garden viewed through the kitchen back door. "Im just getting the records straightened out before I leave the place, too."
"Is the crash site far from here?"
"Its just up the hill. They built this castle around it, the homesteaders who first settled Tartikay. That was almost six hundred years ago, galaxy-standard. When the original colonists got here, the crash site was the first thing they identified from orbit. It was clearly artificial. That made them think at first it meant that they couldnt have this world, because there were natives." She laughed, a warm, easy sound that forgave those long-ago ancestors for their hesitation. "They were so glad it was just shipwreck remains that they decided to make it the starting-point of their colony."
"They were certainly entitled to salvage rights," Rokey said, with a twitch of his whiskers.
The walls of Tartikay Castle fanned outward from the wreckage and sprawled onto terraced meadows below. Thusida led them through the meandering castle halls to the back gate and pointed up to the cliffside, showing them the path up the slope.
"Ill be in the kitchen when you get back," she said. She looked up solemnly at the cliff, as though considering it differently in their presence. "Ill take you up to the library then. Youll see." She flashed that intense, ultraviolet smile and went back inside.
Paved paths and railings had been set-up long ago in careful patterns for a walking tour amid the wreckage, with benches in the shade of the overhanging cliff and water fountains with carved basins. The fountains were dry. The wooden benches had rotted away to the side pieces of cut stone. Flowering weeds grew in the spaces between.
"Howd it manage to land against a cliff as neatly as that?" Rokey said as they stood before the first piece of broken hull along the path. He squinted up at the cliff face high above them. "Youd think it would have crashed into the ocean. Or would it?"
Ray stood with his hands in his pockets and a solemn look in his eyes. "There are infinite ways for a starship and a planet to intersect," he said carefully. He scowled. "I hate planets."
Rokey dismissed this with a flick of his whiskers. "What I am wondering is whether this looks like a deliberate crashor an accident?"
Ray turned his focus from the wreckage to the Wozurns furred face. "What are you getting at? Who would deliberately crash a starship in uncharted space?"
"Do you recognize the design?"
Ray shook his head. "There isnt enough left for a design. Its amazing that this much of it is intact."
Rokey pointed up to the melted lines on the cliff face, where the ship had embedded itself. The glassy sheen of the melted stone reflected the afternoon sunlight in a dazzling blaze that hid details. "Its Vangellan, isnt it?" he said quietly.
Ray said nothing. He walked over to the largest intact piece, a three-meter-tall arch of inner corridor struts from an intersection somewhere inside the ship. Windblown dirt from its centuries of sitting here had filled the bottom, turning it into an oversized planter for a great tangle of vines blooming in brilliant purple. The vines could not grip the slick surface of the strut, however, and weathering had not dulled the finish. He went up close to it and pulled off a glove, to touch the ancient material with his bare hand.
"Its from Vangelis, isnt it?" Rokey said again.
"Theres not much to go on, but the basics of design look Vangellan, yeah."
Rokey nodded. He had expected this from the first moment he had seen the holos. Wozur and Vangelis were very different worlds, with different cultures and philosophies, however tightly intertwined their histories were. The two planets had evolved in a trinary system, so close to each other that initial contact had been possible with sub-light travel. More than fifteen millennia ago they built the first starships together and made the first contacts with other worlds in the sky, creating the galaxys interstellar civilization. They ruled together, and they kept the peace. Millennia of working together, however, could not resolve their fundamental philosophical differences. They had never been friends. Their mutual history was littered with private struggles in which both Wozurn and Vangellan had died.
Rokey had the feeling he had just encountered a landmine left behind by one of those ancient skirmishes.
Rokey was pleased to discover that Thusida was true to her word about the wonders of the meal she prepared for them. He could also see why Ray was having difficulty concentrating on the food. Thusida had changed for dinner. She was dressed in bronze- and copper-colored layers of silk and lace that completely transformed her from kitchen maid to lady of the manor. The bronze matched her skin color and the silk matched her form. She wore her hair loose, dark gold and long, swept back from her face by a simple ribbon. Rokey kept his attention on the intricate flavors in the stew and the salads, trying not to interfere too much with their conversation. Even he could tell how exquisitely the candlelight outlined Thusidas features.
They did not talk about the box in the library, but rather about Tartikay colony.
"They wanted off old Earth so badly that they were willing to endure the magnetosail journey heretwo generations stuck in a boat," Thusida said. "We were part of the wave who left before First Contact." She held up the goblet with the aged insignia. "They built a world hereand I am so ungrateful as to want off their world!" She sighed. "And as far away from here as I can get."
"Have you been collecting travel brochures?" Ray said.
"By the boxful. Youve seen a few places, Captain. Any recommendations?"
"Ray hates planets," Rokey said. "He wouldnt know a good one from a bad one if you gave him a guided tour."
Thusida seemed amused by that. "Then perhaps you could suggest someplace I could run away to, Lord Rokhmyr?"
Rokey shrugged. "Im a stranger here myself, maam."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Whats life on Wozur like?"
"Do you have a travel visa?" Ray asked her.
"I-Z Class," Thusida replied. She did not sound pleased, even though that was a top-rated Interstellar Zone visa, giving her access to the entire civilized galaxy.
"Ive just never been able to use it," she went on. "I spent the estates inheritance on the education to earn the I-Z. I spent five years on Blue Coal at the school there."
"Thats a right soggy dilemma," Ray said sympathetically. "All dressed up and packed."
"And no place to go," she finished for him. She was smiling, but it did not touch her exotic eyes.
"That box might be the ticket," Rokey said. He had scented the salt of her sudden tears blinked back. "If its what it looks to be, I think we can work out a travel agenda for you."
This time the smile did touch her eyes. Rokey understood one of the reasons why George had gone to such trouble to find this particular starship crew to help with this ladys problem.
Rokey did not want to think about the other reasons George had chosen them.
The castles private library was a long, narrow room, two stories tall, lined with empty bookshelves on one side and a solid glass wall on the other. The view of the valley spread below was even more spectacular than the kitchen view: a landscape of valleys, rills, rivers, and forests spreading to the far horizon. The afternoon was fading into sunset and lights were coming on across the valley, with navigation beacons blinking on the far horizon and along the mountain ridges. The highway system could be seen as well, wide lines of permacrete on stone pylons linking the many farms and estates. Tartikay had become a successful colony beyond the dreams of the Founders. The wreckage of the starship and the empty hulk of the castle were shadows of the past left behind, solid remnants of ghosts long gone.
Thusida tapped a concealed control in one of her copper bracelets. The midsection of bookshelves moved back into the wall for half a meter, paused, then slid to the side. A single light came on in the chamber revealed there, and she led them inside.
Rokey almost coughed, the air in the chamber was so dry and unused, thick with the dust of centuries of wood and lacquer. It was eight-sided and large, five meters across, under a high-domed ceiling of ancient plaster. Bare spots on the walls showed where paintings had once hung. The lamp sockets here were also bare, with only a single glowtube stuck into a crack in the wall beside the door. The room was otherwise empty except for a tall, upright structure standing in the center: an ornate cabinet, almost two meters wide and tall enough that the top was lost in the gloom above their heads.
"We used to scare ourselves with this as kids, daring each other to stay in this room for an entire hour," Thusida said. "I fell asleep in here once, waiting for something awful to happen, but I didnt even have bad dreams."
She pointed to the glowtube. "Grandfather put that in." She put a hand to her throat, to touch the cameo pinned to her lace shawl. "I guess Ill be the last Tartikay to see it in here."
"Ralphson showed me some holos," Rokey said as he paced slowly into the gloomy chamber. "When were they taken?"
"Four or five hundred years ago. Once we were in the interstellar market the family didnt want the box claimed by any alien owners, so they hid it away in here and made it a family secret."
"Did anyone ever explain to them about salvage rights?" Ray asked her.
"Eventually," she replied after a long moment. "But by then the secret was too big a part of the familys history and tradition. No one wanted to change that. I think we finally forgot why we were keeping it secret. We just were."
Rokey could see the box well enough in the dim light to be certain of what it was. He could feel his ears trembling at the emotion awakened by the mere possibility. If it turned out to be a clever forgery, at least there was the mystery of why anyone would go to such extremes.
"You want to shed some light on this for me, Ray?" Rokey said. He had walked around the box to what he knew was the front.
Ray obligingly pulled out his laseread and dialed it to a spotlight of sharp white light. He held this up over his head, aimed downward across the box, making shadows surge up from the intricately carved and ornamented surface.
"This is Wozurn artwork!" Ray exclaimed. "Why didnt I recognize that before?"
"This wasnt in the holos," Rokey pointed out. "What we saw was the remains of the packaging this was in. The Tartikay family must have uncrated it at some point."
Thusida stood in the doorway, arms folded. Her handsome face was troubled, as though childhood fantasies of this place tugged at her. "Is that bad?"
"No, maam," Rokey replied absently. "It was just a box to carry this box. This is the important piece. Technically its a cabinet and not a box," he added. "There are a lot of components stored inside."
"We used to just call it that thing," Thusida said. "Emphasis on thing."
Rokey stood looking at it, struggling to collect himself.
"What is it?" Thusida leaned against the doorframe, as though she needed the entire castle at her back in order to brace for Rokeys reply.
Rokey reached out and gently caressed the smooth texture of the raised work, feeling the unique touch of his homeworld. The overlay of red-gold designs was organically wedded to the bluestone cermalloy underneath, seamlessly bonded. The long, smooth curves and elliptical designs made him want to weep. The art was instantly familiar, heartbreakingly perfect, a single moment of seething chaos caught and held in permanent form, time made solid, a moment of Wozurn time. He recognized it, recognized the work and even the specific artist. Rokeys blood was pounding so hard that he could hardly breathe.
"Its real," he whispered, pressing his palm against the box to assure himself that he was not dreaming, restraining the urge to wrap both his arms around it, to dance with it.
With the natural gesture of a lifetime of familiarity, Rokey had placed his palm against the circle embossed across the middle of the door, expecting no more than the feel of Wozurn metal. The circle began to glow as if lights beneath the surface had come on. The circle divided vertically down its center with a soft click. The door panels slid to the side, revealing the softly lit interior.
Rokey was never more astonished in his life, before or after. This could not happen, not in the real world, not in the world he knew. Having a long-dead skeleton spring to life at his touch should have been easier to accomplish than this. His touch was not supposed to open that particular door, not ever.
Rokey stood with his hand still raised as if in greeting to whomever was within. For a timeless moment he hung thus frozen, too astonished to think.
Thusidas soft exclamation broke the spell.
Rokey stumbled back a pace, crossing his hands in front of him in a short, swift gesture. The door panels slid back together at this command. The line where they met vanished, and the soft glow in the circle faded out cold.
"Holy Grid!" Ray whispered. He turned off the laseread light and slipped it back into his pocket as he stepped up to Rokeys elbow. "Howd you do that?"
Rokey just stood staring at the circle in the door. His mind reeled with that touch, with the bizarre implications seething up behind his thoughts. He knew instantly what this meant, yet it was too enormous to accept. Denial surged over every thought, every explanation. That cabinet should not have opened, not for him.
"Howd you do that?" Thusida echoed. "You just touched it and it opened! It never opened before!"
Rokey could not answer them. He could not speak. He turned away, making himself move with a terrible effort of will, drawn to the thing and in the same gesture desperate to be as far from it as possible, desperate to escape the significance of finding this cabinet, in this placeand opening it. He went out of the secret room without a word, stumbling at the threshold. He kept walking, blindly, stopped by the huge windowpane only because he had not seen it.
He sagged a little, letting his forehead rest against the cool, solid feel of the glass. "Close that door," he whispered then, barely able to shape the words. "Lock it!" He could not close the door in his memorys eye, could not close off the memory of the soft gleams of the interior awaking at his touch. His touch.
Ray and Thusida had hastened out after him. She paused to touch the control in her copper bracelet, and the library shelves resealed themselves over the hidden entrance. Only the sweep of cleared dust on the floor showed that they had stood there.
"What is it, old man?" Ray said tensely. "Youre not drunk enough to be acting like this."
Rokey said nothing, standing with his hands and his forehead pressed against the glass. The twilight of first evening filled the valley below with blue shadows and the sparkle of city lights coming on. The lines of the highway glowed against the dark trees. All of it seemed to point up to the castle, screaming to the sky that there was a terrible secret here, just here: follow the lines.
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