Superluminal: Sample

Superluminal by Vonda N. McIntyreby Vonda N. McIntyre

Chapter One

She gave up her heart quite willingly.

After the operation, Laenea Trevelyan lived through what seemed an immense time of semiconsciousness, drugged so she would not feel the pain, kept almost insensible while drugs sped her healing. Those who watched her did not know she would have preferred consciousness and an end to her uncertainty. So she slept, shallowly, drifting toward awareness, driven back, existing in a world of nightmare. Her dulled mind suspected danger but could do nothing to protect her. She had been forced too often to sleep through danger. She would have preferred the pain.

Once Laenea almost woke: She glimpsed the sterile white walls and ceiling, blurrily, slowly recognizing what she saw. The green glow of monitoring screens flowed across her shoulder, over the scratchy sheets. Taped down, needles scraped nerves in her arm. She became aware of sounds, and heard the rhythmic thud of a beating heart.

She tried to cry out in anger and despair. Her left hand was heavy, lethargic, insensitive to her commands, but she moved it. It crawled like a spider to her right wrist and fumbled at the needles and tubes.

Air shushed from the room as the door opened. A gentle voice and a gentle touch reproved her, increased the flow of sedative, and cruelly returned her to sleep.

A tear slid back from the corner of her eye and trickled into her hair as she reentered her nightmares, accompanied by the counterpoint of a basic human rhythm, the beating of a heart, that she had hoped never to hear again.

o0o

Pastel light was Laenea’s first assurance that she would live. It gave her no comfort. Intensive care had been stark white. Yellows and greens brightened this room. The sedative wore off and she knew she would finally be allowed to wake. She did not fight the continuing drowsiness, but depression prevented anticipation of the return of her senses. She wanted only to hide within her own mind, ignoring her body, ignoring failure. She did not even know what she would do in the future; perhaps she had none anymore.

Yet the world impinged on her as she grew bored with lying still and sweaty and self-pitying. She had never been able to do simply nothing. Stubbornly she kept her eyes closed, but the sounds vibrated through her body, like shudders of cold and fear.

This was my chance, she thought, but I knew I might fail. It could have been worse, or better: I might have died.

She slid her hand up her body, from her stomach to her ribs, across the bandages and the tip of the new scar between her breasts, to her throat. Her fingers rested at the corner of her jaw, just above the carotid artery.

She could not feel her pulse.

Pushing herself up abruptly, Laenea ignored sharp twinges of pain. The vibration of a heartbeat continued beneath her palms, but now she could tell that it did not come from her own body.

The amplifier sat on the bedside table, sending out a steady low-frequency pattern. Laenea felt laughter bubbling up. She knew it would hurt and she did not care. She dragged the speaker off the table. Its cord ripped from the wall as she flung it sidearm across the room. It smashed in the corner with a satisfying clatter.

She pushed aside the sheets. She was stiff and sore. She rolled out of bed because it hurt too much to sit up. She staggered and caught herself. Fluid in her lungs coarsened her breathing. She coughed, caught her breath, coughed again. Time was a mystery, measured only by weakness. She thought the administrators fools, to force sleep into her, risk her to pneumonia, and play recorded hearts, instead of letting her wake and move and adjust to her new condition.

Barefoot, Laenea walked slowly across the cool tile to a warm patch of sunshine. She gazed out the window. The day was variegated, gray and golden. Clouds moved from the west across the mountains and the Sound while sunlight still spilled over the city. The shadows moved along the water, turning it from shattered silver to slate.

White from the heavy winter snowfall, the Olympic mountains rose between Laenea and the port. The approaching rain hid even the trails of spacecraft escaping the earth, and the glint of shuttles returning to their target in the sea. She would see them again soon. She laughed aloud, stretching against the soreness in her chest and the ache of her ribs, throwing back her tangled wavy hair. It tickled the nape of her neck.

The door opened and air moved past her as if the room were breathing. Laenea turned and faced Dr. van de Graaf. The surgeon was tiny and frail looking, and her hands possessed strength like steel wires. She glanced at the shattered amplifier and shook her head.

“Was that necessary?”

“Yes,” Laenea said. “For my peace of mind.”

“It was here for your peace of mind.”

“It has the opposite effect.”

“The administrators feel there’s no reason to change the procedure,” she said. “We’ve been doing it since the first pilots.”

“The administrators are known for continuing bad advice.”

“Well, pilot, soon you can design your own environment.”

“When?”

“Soon. I don’t mean to be obscure — I decide when you can leave the hospital, but when you may leave takes more than my word. The scar tissue needs time to strengthen. Do you want to go already? I cracked your ribs rather thoroughly.”

Laenea grinned. “I know.” She was strapped up tight and straight, but she could feel each juncture of rib end and cartilage.

“It will be a few days at least.”

“How long has it been?”

“Since surgery? About forty-eight hours.”

“It seemed like weeks.”

“Well… adjusting to all the changes at once has proved to be quite a shock for most people. Sleeping seems to help.”

“I’m an experiment,” Laenea said. “All of us are. With experiments, you should experiment.”

“We’ve made enough pilots so your group isn’t an experiment anymore. We’ve found this works best.”

“But when I heard the heartbeat,” Laenea said, “I thought you’d had to put me back to normal.”

“It’s meant to be a comforting sound.”

“No one else ever complained?”

“Not quite so strongly,” van de Graaf said, then dismissed the subject. “It’s done now, pilot.”

It was finished, for Laenea. She shrugged. “When can I leave?” she asked again. The hospital was one more place of stasis that Laenea was anxious to escape.

“For now, go back to bed. Morning’s soon enough to talk about the future.”

Laenea turned away. The windows, the walls, the filtered air cut her off from the gray clouds and the city.

“Pilot —”

Rain slipped down the glass. Laenea stayed where she was. She did not feel like sleeping.

The doctor sighed. “Do something for me, pilot.”

Laenea shrugged again.

“I want you to test your control.”

Laenea acquiesced with sullen silence.

“Speed your heart up slowly, and pay attention to the results.”

Laenea intensified the firing of the nerve.

“What do you feel?”

“Nothing,” Laenea said, though her blood, impelled by the smooth rotary pump, rushed through what had been her pulse points: temples, throat, wrists.

Beside her the surgeon frowned. “Increase a little more, but very slowly.”

Laenea obeyed. Bright lights flashed just behind her vision. Her head hurt in a streak above her right eye to the back of her skull. She felt high and excited. She turned away from the window. “I want to get out of here.”

Van de Graaf touched her arm at the wrist; Laenea laughed aloud at the idea of feeling for her pulse. The doctor led her to a chair by the window. “Sit down.” But Laenea felt she could climb the helix of her dizziness: She felt no need for rest.

“Sit down.” The voice was whispery, soft sand slipping across stone. Laenea obeyed.

“Remember the rest of your training. It’s important to vary your blood pressure. Sit back. Slow the pump. Expand the capillaries. Relax.”

Laenea called back her biocontrol. For the first time she was conscious of a presence rather than an absence. Her pulse was gone, but in its place she felt the constant quiet hum of a perfectly balanced rotary machine. It pushed her blood through her body so efficiently that the pressure would destroy her, if she let it. She relaxed and slowed the pump, expanded and contracted arterial muscles, once, twice, again. The headache, the light flashes, the ringing in her ears faded and ceased.

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“That’s better,” the surgeon said. “Don’t forget how that feels. You can’t go at high speed very long, you’ll turn your brain to cheese. You can feel fine for quite a while, you can feel intoxicated. But the hangover is more than I care to reckon with.” She folded her arms. “I want to keep you here till we’re sure you can regulate the machine. I don’t like doing kidney transplants.”

“I can control it.” Laenea began to induce a slow, arrhythmic change in the speed of the new pump, in her blood pressure. She found she could do it without thinking, as was necessary to balance the flow. “Can I have the ashes of my heart?”

“Not yet.”

“But —”

“I want to be sure.”

Somewhere in the winding concrete labyrinth of the hospital, Laenea’s heart still beat, bathed in warm saline and nutrient solution. As long as it existed, as long as it lived, Laenea would feel threatened in her ambitions. She could not be a starship pilot and remain a normal human being, with normal human rhythms. Her body still could reject the artificial heart; then she would be made ordinary again. If she could work at all she would have to remain a crew member, anesthetized throughout every journey in transit at superluminal speeds. She did not think she could stand that any longer.

“I’m sure,” she said. “I won’t be back.”

o0o

On the exposed side of a tiny, rocky island with a single twisted tree growing at its summit, Orca, the diver, lay in a tide pool, letting waves splash against her and over her. She needed a few minutes of concentration, calm, and the sea to wash away her anger. She did not want the long and pleasant swim to the spaceport spoiled, as it would be if she replayed the fight with her father again and again, trying to think of how she could have kept discussion from turning into disagreement, or how she could have made him understand her position.

The sun spread an evening dazzle across the water, reddening the clouds that concealed Vancouver Island.

In the midst of the bright waves, Orca’s brother surfaced. Treading water, he gestured to her. She shook her head and beckoned to him to come to her. His patience was ten times hers, but he was too inexperienced, too naive, to suspect she wanted him to join her because it was easier to argue about air things in surface language, or, rather, because it was easier for her to win the argument. Finally he dove again, and a moment later snaked up beside her on the rocks. Like Orca, he was small and fine boned, dark skinned and fair haired.

“Dad’s upset,” he said.

“I figured.”

She loved her younger brother, and she felt sorry for him at times like these. He had spent most of his life trying to be the intermediary between Orca and their father. Orca had long ago resigned herself to never having anything more than superficial contact with the elder diver, but her brother never gave up trying to reconcile them. Their father had been a youth during the revolution; he had fought in it. He had to accept her choosing an outside profession, one that put her in close contact with landers, but he could never be graceful about it. He was indifferent to her coworkers’ being, as she was, members of the starship crew. They were all landers to him.

Like many of his generation, though more vehemently than most, he disapproved when younger divers took salvage or exploration jobs with lander companies. He knew they needed the money for lab equipment and research materials, yet he loathed every contact divers had with ordinary people. He despised Orca’s profession, and sometimes she felt he despised her as well.

“Can’t you give in just a little?”

“Give in! He as much as called me a coward!”

“He knows you aren’t that.”

“I think it’s his turn to apologize for a change.”

“He doesn’t understand your objections.”

“He won’t understand,” Orca said. “There’s a difference.”

“Maybe there is,” her brother said. “Would you be mad at me if I told you I don’t understand, either? I’m trying, please believe me. But if you disagree with the change, why have you worked outside for so long? You make more money than anybody else in the family, you’re the one who’s paid for most of the research.”

“I just didn’t expect it to be done so soon,” she said, knowing the excuse to be a lame one. She had tried before to explain to members of her family that she had joined the starship crew for itself, not for the pay. Her mother understood, but her father thought she said so just to make him angry, and her brother thought she only said so to keep everyone from feeling guilty because she had to spend so much time away from home.

“If I get back in time, I’ll come home for the transition meeting,” Orca said.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to stay till afterwards? If you go, and you’re late getting home, you won’t be able to say what you think about the change.”

Orca sighed and said nothing. She was sick of the argument. She had answered all the questions twenty times. It was six weeks until the meeting. If she took more leave from the crew, she would fall even further behind on the seniority list. The longer she took to work her way up, the longer before she could get on a mission more interesting than a milk run.

“I can’t talk to you up here,” her brother said plaintively. “Come back into the water.”

“When I get back in the water,” Orca said, “I’m going to start swimming and I’m not going to stop till I get to the port. If you want to come along, petit frère, that’s fine.” She wished he would join her; she thought it would do him good.

He let himself slide into the tide pool until only his head and shoulders rose above the water. He acted as if he might turn around and swim angrily away. But he never got angry. He found anger incomprehensible, as far as Orca could tell. Of all the divers, her younger brother was the most distant from being human. He had never been to a lander city, never worked for one of their companies, never attended a mainland school. He had met perhaps three ordinary humans in his whole life. Her brother had never even adopted a surface nickname. He and her father acted the same way, when it came to land dwellers. But their reasons were as completely different as it was possible to be. Father avoided landers because he hated and despised them. Her brother was simply uninterested.

“You spend too much time with the cousins,” Orca said.

“You spend too little time with them,” he replied. “They miss you. They ask about you when you’re gone.”

And, too, whenever she returned, they asked about where she had been. They listened to her descriptions of working on the crew, of being in space, of visiting alien worlds. At first they asked how it felt to travel faster than light. She regretted being unable to tell them: She, too, would have liked to know. But she was not a pilot, so she had to sleep when her ship entered transit. She could not experience superluminal travel, and survive. Though the cousins never criticized her for leaving, she often doubted that she explained her reasons as comprehensibly as she described her actions.

Her brother said sadly, “I don’t understand why you go.”

“I have to,” Orca said. She pushed herself down into the warm salty pool. “This isn’t enough for me.”

“How can’t it be? Not enough? We haven’t learned ten percent of what the cousins are trying to teach us.”

Orca sometimes wondered if that was exactly the reason she fled to space. Her family lived among aliens, and it was clear to her, if to no one else, that the cousins were so far beyond the family that understanding them was impossible. In their presence she had always felt like a child, and she knew she always would. On the starship crew she was an adult.

She pushed off toward her brother and glided past him underwater, turning over and blowing a stream of bubbles up against his chest, his stomach, his genitals. He was terribly ticklish: He doubled over laughing and turned the motion into a dive. He streaked around to chase her. Orca dove out of the tide pool, into the sea. The cold water hit her like a shock. Her brother was right behind her. She surfaced; he came straight up from the bottom and propelled himself out of the water, half his height, before falling back.

Orca scooped water up in her webbed hand and flung it playfully at him. He sputtered and shook his head, flinging his pale hair back from his face.

Orca kissed him. He embraced her, then let her go.

“Do you want company?”

“Only if you’ll come all the way.”

He hesitated. “No. Maybe sometime, but not now.”

She nodded; he sank down under the surface. As he passed beneath her he spun around, letting his hand flick up and slide along the length of her body and legs.

Then he was gone.

Orca turned in the other direction, dove, and struck out down the strait, heading for the spaceport.

o0o

Though Laenea felt strong enough to walk, a wheelchair carried her through the halls as tests and questions and examinations devoured several days in chunks and nibbles. The boredom grew more and more wearing. The pains had faded, the accelerated healing was nearly complete, and still Laenea saw only doctors and attendants and machines. Her friends stayed away. This was a rite of passage she must survive alone.

A day went by in which she saw neither the rain that passed, nor the sunset that was obscured by fog. She asked again when she could leave the hospital. The answers were evasions. She allowed herself to become angry, and still no one would respond.

Evening, back in her room: Laenea was wide awake. She lay in bed and slid her fingers across her collarbone, down to the sternum, along the shiny red line of the long scar. It was still tender, covered with translucent synthetic skin, crossed once just below her breasts with a wide bandage to ease her cracked ribs.

The efficient new heart intrigued her. She consciously slowed its pace, then went through the exercise of constricting and dilating arteries and capillaries. Her biocontrol was excellent. It had to be, or she would not have been approved for surgery.

Slowing the pump should have produced a pleasant lethargy and eventual sleep, but adrenaline from her anger lingered and she did not want to rest. Nor did she want a sleeping pill. She was done with taking drugs. Dreamless drug sleep was the worst kind of all. Fear built up, undischarged by fantasy, producing a great and formless tension.

The twilight was the texture of gray watered silk, opaque and irregular. The hospital’s pastels turned cold and mysterious. Laenea threw off the sheet. She was strong again; she was healed. She had undergone a year of training, major surgery, and these final days of boredom to free herself from biological rhythms. There was no reason in the world why she should sleep, like others, when darkness fell.

The hospital retained a few advantages of civilization. Her clothes were in the closet, not squirreled away in some locked room. She put on black pants, soft leather boots, and a shiny leather vest that laced up the front, leaving her arms and neck bare. The gap between the laces revealed the livid pilot’s scar from one sharp tip at her throat to the other below her breastbone.

To avoid arguments, she waited until the corridor was deserted. Green paint, meant to be soothing, had gone flat and ugly with age. Her boots were silent on the resilient tile, but in the hollow shaft of the fire stairs the heels clattered against concrete, echoing past her and back. Her legs were tired when she reached bottom. She speeded the flow of blood.

Outside, mist obscured the stars. The moon had risen, full and haloed. Streetlights spread Laenea’s shadow out around her like the spokes of a wheel.

A rank of electric cars waited at the corner, tethered like horses in an old movie. She slid her credit key into a lock to release one painted like a turtle, an apt analogy. She got in and drove it toward the waterfront. The little beast rolled along, its motor humming quietly on the flat, straining in low gear on the steep downgrades. Laenea relaxed and wished she were back in space, but her imagination could not stretch that far. The turtle could not become a starship; and the city, while pleasant, was of unrelieved ordinariness compared to the alien places she had seen. She could not, of course, imagine transit, for it was beyond imagination. Language or mind was insufficient. Transit had never been described.

The waterfront was shabby, dirty, magnetic. Laenea knew she could find acquaintances nearby, but she did not want to stay in the city. She returned the turtle to a stanchion and retrieved her credit key to halt the tally against her account.

The night had grown cold; she noticed the change peripherally as fog, and cobblestones slick with condensation. The public market, ramshackle and shored up, littered here and there with wilted vegetables, was deserted. People passed as shadows.

A man moved up behind her while she was in the dim region between two streetlamps. “Hey,” he said, “how about —” His tone was belligerent with inexperience or insecurity or fear. Looking down at him, surprised, Laenea laughed. “Poor fool —” He scuttled away like a crab. After a moment of vague pity and amusement, Laenea forgot him. She shivered. Her ears were ringing and her chest ached from the cold.

Small shops nestled between bars and cheap restaurants. Laenea entered one for the warmth. It was very dim, darker than the street, high ceilinged and deep, so narrow she could have touched both side walls by stretching out her arms. She did not. She hunched her shoulders and the ache receded slightly.

“May I help you?”

Like one of the shop’s indistinct masses brought to life, a small ancient man appeared. He was dressed in ill-matched clothes, part of his own wares. Hung up like trophies, feathers and wide hats and beads covered the walls of the secondhand clothing store. Laenea moved farther inside.

“Ah, pilot,” the old man said, “you honor me.”

Laenea’s delight was childish in its intensity. He was the first person outside the hospital, in the real world, to call her by her new title.

“It’s cold by the water,” she said. Some graciousness or apology was due, for she had no intention of buying anything.

“A coat? No, a cloak!” he exclaimed. “A cloak would be set off well by a person of your stature.” He turned; his dark form disappeared among the piles and racks of clothes. Laenea saw bright beads and spangles, a quick flash of gold lamé, and wondered uncharitably what dreadful theater costume he would choose. But he held up a long swath of black, lined with scarlet. Laenea had planned to thank him and demur; despite herself she reached out. Velvet silk outside and smooth satin silk within caressed her fingers. The cloak had a single shoulder cape and a clasp of carved jet. Though heavy, it draped easily and gracefully. She slung it over her shoulders, and it flowed around her almost to her ankles.

“Exquisite,” the shopkeeper said. He beckoned and she approached. A dim and pitted full-length mirror stood against the wall beyond him. Bronze patches marred its face where the silver had peeled away. Laenea liked the way the cape looked. She folded its edges so the scarlet lining showed, so her throat and the upper curve of her breasts and the tip of the scar were exposed. She shook back her hair.

“Not quite that,” she said, smiling. She was too tall and big-boned for delicacy. She had a widow’s peak and high cheekbones, but her jaw was strong and square.

“It does not please you.” He sounded downcast. Laenea could not quite place his faint accent.

“It does,” she said. “I’ll take it.”

He bowed her toward the front of the shop, and she took out her credit key.

“No, no, pilot,” he said. “Not that.”

Laenea raised one eyebrow. A few shops on the waterfront accepted only cash, retaining an illicit flavor in a time when almost any activity was legal. But few even of those select establishments would refuse the credit of a crew member or a pilot.

“I have no cash,” Laenea said. She had stopped carrying it years ago, since the time she found in various pockets three coins of metal, one of plastic, one of wood, a pleasingly atavistic animal claw (or excellent duplicate), and a boxed bit of organic matter that would have been forbidden on earth fifty years before. Laenea never expected to revisit at least three of the worlds the currency represented.

“No cash,” he said. “It is yours, pilot. Only —” He glanced up. His eyes were very dark and deep, hopeful, expectant. “Only tell me, what is it like? What do you see?”

He was the first person to ask her that question. People asked it often, of pilots. She had asked it herself, wordlessly after the first few times of silence and patient head-shakings. The pilots never answered. Machines could not answer, pilots could not answer. Or would not. The question was answerable only individually. Laenea felt sorry for the shopkeeper. She started to say she had not yet been in transit awake, that she was new, that she had only traveled in the crew, drugged near death to stay alive. But, finally, she could not say even that. It was too easy; it was an untrue truth. It implied she would tell him if she knew, while she did not know if she could or would. She shook her head; she smiled gently. “I’m sorry.”

He nodded sadly. “I should not have asked…”

“That’s all right.”

“I’m too old, you see. Too old for adventure. I came here so long ago… but the time, the time disappeared. I never knew what happened. I’ve dreamed about it. Bad dreams…”

“I understand. I was crew for ten years. We never knew what happened either.”

“That would be worse, yes. Over and over again, no time between. But now you know.”

“Pilots know,” Laenea agreed. She handed him the credit key. Though he still tried to refuse it, she insisted on paying.

Hugging the cloak around her, Laenea stepped out into the fog. She fantasied that the shop would now disappear, like all legendary shops dispensing magic and cloaks of invisibility. But she did not look back, for everything a few paces away dissolved into grayness. In a small space around each low antique streetlamp, heat swirled the fog in wisps toward the sky.

o0o

The midnight ferry sped silently across the water, propelled through the waves by great silver sails. Wrapped in her cloak, Laenea was anonymous. She put her feet on the opposite bench, stretched, and gazed out the window into the darkness. Laenea could see her own reflection, and, beyond, the water. Light from the ferry wavered across the long low swells.

o0o

The spaceport was a huge, floating, artificial island. It gleamed in its own lights. The solar mirrors looked like the multiple compound eyes of a gigantic water insect, an illusion continued by the spidery reach of launching towers. The port’s other sea-level buildings curved like hills, like sand dunes, offering surfaces that might have been smoothed by the wind. Tall, angular buildings suitable to the mainland would have presented sail-like faces to the northwest storms.

Overhead, a small, silver-blue blimp passed by, driven by quiet engines. Laenea remembered arriving once a few hours before a storm hit, when all the airships on the port launched simultaneously in a brilliant multicolored cloud and vanished toward the horizon to escape the weather.

Beneath the platform, under a vibration-deadening lower layer, under the sea, lay the tripartite city. The roar of shuttles taking off and the scream of their return would drive mad anyone who long remained on the surface. Thus the northwest spaceport was far out to sea, away from cities, carrying a city within its underwater stabilizing shafts.

The ferry furled its sails, slowed, and nestled against the ramp that met it at the waterline. Electric trucks hummed into motion, breaching the silence. Laenea moved stiffly down the stairs. Pausing by the gangway, watching the trucks roll past, she concentrated for a moment and felt the increase in her blood pressure. She could well understand how dangerous it might be, and how easily addictive the higher speed, driving her high until like a machine her body was burned out. But for now her energy began returning and the stiffness in her legs and back slowly seeped away.

o0o

Except for the trucks, which purred off quickly around the island’s perimeter and disappeared, the port was silent, so late at night. The passenger shuttle waited empty on its central rail. When Laenea entered, it sensed her, slid its doors shut, and accelerated. A pushbutton command halted it above stabilizer #3, which held quarantine, administration, and crew quarters. Laenea felt good, warm, and her vision sparkled bright and clear. She let the velvet cloak flow back across her shoulders, no longer needing its protection. She was alight with the expectation of seeing her friends, in her new avatar.

The elevator led through the center of the stabilizer into the underwater city. Laenea rode it all the way to the bottom of the shaft, one of three that projected into the ocean far below the surface turbulence to hold the platform steady even through the most violent storms. The shafts maintained the island’s flotation level as well, pumping sea water into or out of the ballast tanks when a shuttle took off or landed or a ferry crept on board.

The elevator doors opened into the foyer where a spiral staircase reached the lowest level, a bubble at the tip of the main shaft. The lounge was a comfortable cylindrical room, its walls all transparent, gazing out like a continuous eye into the deep sea. Floodlights cast a glow through the cold clear water, picking out the bright speedy forms of fish, large dark predators, scythe-mouthed sharks, the occasional graceful bow of a porpoise, the elegant black-and-white presence of a killer whale. As the radius of visibility increased, the light filtered through bluer and bluer, until finally, in violet, vague shapes eased back and forth with shy curiosity between dim illumination and complete darkness.

The lounge, sculpted with structural foam, then carpeted, gave the illusion of being underwater, on the ocean floor itself, a part of the sea. It had been built originally as a public lounge, but was taken over by unconscious agreement among the starship people. Outsiders, gently ignored, felt unwelcome and soon departed. Journalists came infrequently, reacting to sensation or disaster. Human transit pilots had been a sensation, but the novelty had worn away. Laenea did not mind a bit.

She took off her boots and left them by the stairwell. She recognized one of the other pairs: She would have been hard put not to recognize those boots after seeing them once. The scarlet leather was stupendously shined, embroidered with jewels, and inlaid with tiny liquid crystal disks that changed color with the temperature. Laenea smiled. Crew members made up for the dead time of transit in many different ways; one was to overdo all other aspects of their lives, and the most flamboyant of that group was Minoru.

Walking barefoot in the deep carpet, between the hillocks and hollows of conversation pits, was like walking on the floor of a fantasy sea. Laenea wondered if the attraction of the lounge was its relation to the ocean, which still held mysteries as deep as any she would encounter in space or in transit. Laenea had often sat gazing through the shadowed water, dreaming. Pilots and divers could guess at the truth of her assumption.

Near the transparent sea wall she saw Minoru, his black hair braided with scarlet and silver to his waist; tall Alannai hunched down to be closer to the others, the light on her skin like dark opal, glinting in her close-cropped hair like diamond dust; and pale, quiet Ruth, whose sparkling was rare but nova bright. Holding goblets or mugs, they sat sleepily conversing, and Laenea felt the comfort of a familiar scene.

Minoru, facing her, looked up. She smiled, expecting him to call her name and fling out his arms, as he always did, with his ebullient greeting, showing to advantage the fringe and beadwork on his jacket. But he looked at her, straight on, silent, with an expression so blank that only the unlined long-lived youthfulness of his face could have held it. He whispered her name. Ruth glanced over her shoulder, saw Laenea, and smiled tentatively, as though she were afraid. Alannai unbent, and, head and shoulders above the others, raised her glass solemnly to Laenea. “Pilot,” she said, and drank, and hunched back down with her elbows on her sharp knees. Laenea stood above them, outside their circle, gazing down on three people whom she had kissed good-bye. Crew always said good-bye, for they slept through their voyages without any certainty that they would ever awaken. They lived in the cruel childhood prayer, “If I should die before I wake…”

Laenea climbed down to them. The circle opened, but she remained outside it. She was as overwhelmed by uncertainty as her friends.

“Sit with us,” Ruth said finally. Alannai and Minoru looked uneasy. Laenea sat down. The triangle between Ruth and Alannai and Minoru did not alter. Each of them was next to the other; Laenea was beside none of them.

Ruth reached out, but her hand trembled. They all waited, and Laenea tried to think of words to reassure them, to affirm that she had not changed.

“I came… ” But nothing she felt seemed right to tell them. She would not taunt them with her freedom. She took Ruth’s outstretched hand. “I came to say good-bye.” She embraced them and kissed them and climbed back to the main level. They had all been friends, but her friends accepted her no longer.

The first pilots did not mingle with the crew, for the responsibility was great, the tensions greater. But Laenea had thought it would be different for her. She cared for Ruth and Minoru and Alannai. Her concern would remain when she watched them sleeping and ferried them from one island of light to the next. She tried to understand her friends’ reserve, and hoped perhaps they only needed time to get used to her.

Conversations ebbed and flowed around her like the tides as she moved through the lounge. Seeing people she knew, she avoided them. Her pride exceeded her loneliness.

She put aside the pain of her rejection. She felt self-contained and self-assured. When she recognized two pilots, sitting together, isolated, she approached them straightforwardly. She had flown with both of them, but never talked at length with either. They would accept her, or they would not: For the moment, she did not care. She flung back the cloak so they would know her. Without even thinking about it, she had dressed the way all pilots dressed. Laced vests or deeply cut gowns, transparent shirts, halters, all in one way or another revealed the long scar that marked their changes.

Miikala and Ramona-Teresa sat facing each other, elbows on knees, talking together quietly, privately. Ramona-Teresa touched Miikala’s hand, and they both laughed softly. Even the rhythms of their conversation seemed alien to Laenea, though she could not hear their words. Like other people they communicated as much with their bodies and hands as with speech, but the nods and gestures clashed.

Laenea wondered what pilots talked about. Certainly it could not be the ordinary concerns of ordinary people, the laundry, the shopping, a place to stay, a person, perhaps, to stay with. They would talk about… the experiences they alone had; they would talk about what they saw when all others must sleep near death or die.

Human pilots withstood transit better than machine intelligence, but human pilots too were sometimes lost. Miikala and Ramona-Teresa were ten percent of all the pilots who survived from the first generation, ten percent of their own unique, evolving, almost self-contained society. They had proven time-independence successful by example; it was up to the pilots who came after, to Laenea, to prove it practical.

As Laenea stopped on the edge of the pit above them, they fell silent and gazed solemnly up at her.

Ramona-Teresa, a small, heavyset woman with black hair graying to roan, smiled and lifted her glass. “Pilot!” Miikala, whose eyes were shadowed by heavy brow ridges and an unruly shock of dark brown hair, matched the salute and drank with her.

This toast was a tribute and a welcome, not a farewell. Laenea smiled and lowered herself into the pit. Miikala touched her left wrist, Ramona-Teresa her right. Laenea felt, welling up inside her, a bubbling, childish giggle. She could not stop it; it broke free as if filled with helium like a balloon. She might have been in an environment on the sea floor, breathing oxyhelium and speaking donaldduck. She felt the blood rushing through the veins in her temples and her throat. Miikala was smiling, saying something in a language with as many liquid vowels as his name; she did not understand a word, yet she knew everything he was saying. Ramona-Teresa hugged her. “Welcome, child.”

Laenea could not believe that these lofty, eerie people could accept her with such joy. She realized she had hoped, at best, for a cool and condescending greeting not too destructive of her pride. The embarrassing giggle slipped up and out again, but this time she did not try to restrain it. All three pilots laughed together. Laenea felt high, light, dizzy: Excitement pumped adrenaline through her body. She was hot. Tiny beads of perspiration gathered on her forehead, just at the hairline.

Quite suddenly the constant dull ache in her chest became a wrenching pain, as though her new heart were being ripped from her, like the old. She could not breathe. She hunched forward, struggling for air. Each time she tried to draw in a breath, the pain drove it out again.

Slowly Miikala’s voice slipped beyond her panic, and Ramona-Teresa’s hands steadied her.

“Relax, relax, remember your training…”

Yes: decrease the blood flow, open the arteries, dilate the capillaries, discipline the involuntary muscles to voluntary control. Slow the pump. Someone bathed her forehead with a cocktail napkin dipped in gin. Laenea welcomed the coolness and even the odor’s bitter tang. The pain dissolved gradually until Ramona-Teresa could ease her back on the sitting shelf. The jet fastening of the cloak fell away from her throat and the older pilot loosened the laces of her vest.

“It’s all right,” Ramona-Teresa said. “The adrenaline works as well as ever. We all have to learn more control of that than they think they need to teach us.”

Sitting on his heels beside Laenea, Miikala glanced at the exposed scar. “You’re out early,” he said. “Have they changed the procedure?”

Laenea paled: She had forgotten that her leavetaking of the hospital was something less than official and approved.

“Don’t tease her, Miikala,” Ramona-Teresa said gruffly. “Or don’t you remember how it was when you woke up?”

His heavy eyebrows drew together in a scowl. “I remember.”

“Will they make me go back? Will you?” Laenea said. “I’m all right, I just need to get used to it.”

“We won’t, but they might try to,” Ramona-Teresa said. “They worry so about the money they spend on us. Perhaps they aren’t quite as worried anymore. We do as well on our own as shut up in a hospital listening to recorded hearts — they still do that, I suppose.”

Laenea shuddered. “It worked for you, they told me — but I broke the speaker.”

Miikala laughed with delight. “Causing all other machines to make frantic noises like frightened little mice.”

“I thought they hadn’t done the operation. I’ve wanted to be one of you for so long —” Feeling stronger, Laenea pushed herself up. She left her vest open, glad of the cool air against her skin.

“We watched,” Miikala said. “We watch you all, but a few are special. We knew you’d come to us. Do you remember this one, Ramona?”

“Yes.” She picked up one of the extra glasses, filled it from a shaker, and handed it to Laenea. “You always fought the sleep, my dear. Sometimes I thought you might wake.”

“Ahh, Ramona, don’t frighten the child.”

“Frighten her, this tigress?”

Strangely enough, Laenea was not disturbed by the knowledge that she had been close to waking in transit. She had not, or she would be dead; she would have died quickly of old age, her body bound to normal time and normal space, to the relation between time dilation and velocity and distance by a billion years of evolution, by rhythms planetary, lunar, solar, biological: subatomic, for all Laenea or anyone else knew. She was freed of all that now.

She downed half her drink in a single swallow. The air felt cold against her bare arms and her breasts, so she wrapped her cloak around her shoulders and waited for the satin to warm against her body.

“When’s your training flight?”

“Not for a whole month.” The time seemed a vast expanse of emptiness. She had finished the study and the training; now only her mortal body kept her earthbound.

“They want you completely healed.”

“It’s too long — how can they expect me to wait until then?”

“For the need.”

“I want to know what happens, I have to find out. When’s your next flight?”

“Soon,” Ramona-Teresa said.

“Take me with you!”

“No, my dear. It would not be proper.”

“Proper! We have to make our own rules, not follow theirs. They don’t know what’s right for us.”

Miikala and Ramona-Teresa looked at each other for a long time. Perhaps pilots could speak together with their eyes and their expressions, or perhaps Ramona and Miikala simply understood each other in the way of any ordinary long-time lovers. But they excluded Laenea.

“No.” Ramona’s tone invited no argument.

“At least you can tell me —” She saw at once that she had said the wrong thing. The pilots’ expressions closed down in silence. But Laenea felt neither guilt nor contrition, only anger.

“It isn’t because you can’t! You talk about it to each other, I know that now at least. You can’t tell me you don’t.”

“No,” Miikala said. “We will not say we never speak of it.”

“You’re selfish and you’re cruel.” She stood up, for a moment afraid she might stagger again and have to accept their help. Ramona and Miikala nodded at each other, with faint, infuriating smiles. A surge of brittle energy raised Laenea far beyond needing them.

“She has the need,” one of them said, Laenea did not even know which one. The ringing in her ears cut her off from them. She turned her back, climbed out of the conversation pit, and stalked away to find a more congenial spot.

She chose a sitting place nestled into a steep slope very close to the sea wall. She could feel the ocean’s coolness, as though the cold radiated, rather than heat. Grotesque creatures floated past in the spotlights. Laenea curled up and relaxed, making her smooth pulse wax and wane. If she sat here long enough, would she be able to detect the real tides? Would the same drifting plant-creatures pass before the window again, swept back and forth by the forces of sun and moon?

Her privacy was marred only slightly, by one man sleeping or lying unconscious nearby. She did not recognize him, but he must be crew. His dark, close-fitting clothes were unremarkably different enough, in design and fabric, that he might be from another world. He must be new. Earth was the hub of commerce; no ship flew long without orbiting it. New crew members always visited earth at least once. New crew usually visited every world their ships reached at first, even the ones that required quarantine and vaccinations, if they had enough time. Laenea had done the same herself. The quarantine to introduce null-strain bacteria, which could not contaminate exotic environments because it could only reproduce inside the human body, was the most severe and the most necessary, but no quarantine was pleasant. Laenea, like most other veterans, eventually remained acclimated to one world, stayed on the ship during other planetfalls, and arranged her pattern to intersect her home as frequently as possible.

The sleeping man was several years younger than Laenea. She thought he must be as tall as she, but that estimation was difficult. He was one of those uncommon people so beautifully proportioned that from any distance at all their height can only be determined by comparison. Nothing about him was exaggerated or attenuated; he gave the impression of strength, but it was the strength of agility, not violence. Laenea decided he was neither drunk nor drugged but asleep. His face, though relaxed, showed no dissipation. His hair was dark blond and shaggy, a shade lighter than his heavy mustache. He was far from handsome: His features were regular, distinctive, but without beauty. Below the cheekbones his tanned skin was scarred and pitted, as though from some virulent childhood disease. Some of the outer worlds had not yet conquered their epidemics.

Laenea looked away from the new young man. She stared at the dark water at light’s end, letting her vision double and unfocus. She touched her collarbone and slid her fingers to the tip of the smooth scar. Sensation seemed refined across the tissue, as though a wound there would hurt more sharply. Though Laenea was tired and getting hungry, she did not force herself to outrun the distractions. For a while her energy should return slowly and naturally. She had pushed herself far enough for one night.

A month would be an eternity; the wait would seem equivalent to all the years she had spent crewing. She was still angry at the other pilots. She felt she had acted like a little puppy, bounding up to them to be welcomed and patted, then, when they grew bored, they had kicked her away as though she had piddled on the floor. And she was angry at herself: She felt a fool, and she felt the need to prove herself.

For the first time she appreciated the destruction of time during transit. To sleep for a month: convenient, impossible. She first must deal with her new existence, her new body; then she would deal with a new environment.

Perhaps she dozed. The deep sea admitted no time: The lights pierced the same indigo darkness day or night. Time was the least real of all dimensions to Laenea’s people, and she was free of its dictates, isolated from its stabilities.

When she opened her eyes again she had no idea how long they had been closed, a second or an hour.

The time must have been a few minutes, at least, for the young man who had been sleeping was now sitting up, watching her. His eyes were dark blue, flecked with black, a color like the sea. For a moment he did not notice she was awake, then their gazes met and he glanced quickly away, blushing, embarrassed to be caught staring.

“I stared, too,” Laenea said.

Startled, he turned slowly back, not quite sure Laenea was speaking to him. “What?”

“When I was a grounder, I stared at crew, and when I was crew I stared at pilots.”

“I am crew,” he said defensively.

“From —?”

“Twilight.”

Laenea had been there, a long while before; images of Twilight drifted to her. It was a new world, a dark and mysterious place of high mountains and black, brooding forests, a young world, its peaks just formed. It was heavily wreathed in clouds that filtered out much of the visible light but admitted the ultraviolet. Twilight: dusk, on that world. Never dawn. No one who had ever visited Twilight would think its dimness heralded anything but night. The people who lived there were strong and solemn, even confronting disaster. On Twilight she had seen grief, death, loss, but never panic or despair.

Laenea introduced herself and offered the young man a place nearer her own. He moved closer, reticent. “I am Radu Dracul,” he said.

The name touched a faint note in her memory. She followed it until it grew loud enough to identify. She glanced over Radu Dracul’s shoulder, as though looking for someone. “Then — where’s Vlad?”

Radu laughed, changing his somber expression for the first time. He had good teeth, and deep smile lines that paralleled the drooping sides of his mustache. “Wherever he is, I hope he stays there.”

They smiled together.

“This is your first tour?”

“Is it so obvious that I’m a novice?”

“You’re alone,” she said. “And you were sleeping.”

“I don’t know anyone here. I was tired,” he said, quite reasonably.

“After a while…” Laenea nodded toward a nearby group of people, hyper and shrill on sleep repressors and energizers. “You don’t sleep when you’re on the ground if there are people to talk to, if there are other things to do. You get sick of sleep, you’re scared of it.”

Radu stared toward the ribald group that stumbled its way toward the elevator. “Do all of us become like that?”

“Most.”

“The sleeping drugs are bad enough. They’re necessary — everyone says. But that…” He shook his head slowly. His forehead was smooth except for two vertical lines that appeared between his eyebrows when he frowned; it was below his cheekbones, to the square corner of his jaw, that his skin was scarred.

“No one will force you,” Laenea said. She was tempted to touch him; she would have liked to stroke his face from temple to chin, and smooth a lock of hair rumpled by sleep. But he was unlike other people she had met, whom she could touch and hug and go to bed with on short acquaintance and mutual whim. Radu had about him something withdrawn and protected, almost mysterious, an invisible wall that would only be strengthened by an attempt, however gentle, to broach it. He carried himself, he spoke, defensively.

“But you think I’ll choose it myself.”

“It doesn’t always happen,” Laenea said, for she felt he needed reassurance; yet she also felt the need to defend herself and her former colleagues. “We sleep so much in transit, and it’s such a dark time, it’s so empty…”

“Empty? Don’t you dream?”

“No, never.”

“I always do,” he said. “Always.”

“I wouldn’t have minded transit time so much if I’d ever dreamed.”

Understanding drew Radu from his reserve. “I can see how it might be.”

Laenea thought of all the conversations she had had with all the other crew she had known. The silent emptiness of their sleep was the single constant of all their experiences. “I don’t know anyone else like you. You’re very lucky.”

A tiny luminous fish nosed up against the sea wall. Laenea reached out and tapped the glass, leading the fish in a simple pattern drawn with her fingertip.

“I’m hungry,” she said abruptly. “There’s a good restaurant in the point stabilizer. Will you join me?”

“A restaurant — where people… buy food?”

“Yes.”

“I am not hungry.”

He was a poor liar; he hesitated before the denial, and he did not meet Laenea’s gaze.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” He looked at her again, smiling slightly. That at least was true; he was not worried.

“Are you going to stay here all night?”

“It isn’t night, it’s nearly morning.”

“A room’s more comfortable — you were asleep.”

He shrugged; she could see she was making him uneasy. She realized he must not have any money.

“Didn’t your credit come through?” she asked. “That happens all the time. I think chimpanzees write the bookkeeping programs.” She had gone through the red tape and annoyance of emergency credit several times when her transfers were misplaced or miscoded. “All you have to do —”

“The administrators made no error in my case.”

Laenea waited for him to explain or not, as he wished. Suddenly he grinned, amused at himself but not self-deprecating. He looked even younger than he must be, when he smiled like that. “I’m not used to using money for anything but… unnecessaries.”

“Luxuries?”

“Yes. Things we don’t often use on Twilight, things I don’t need. But food, a place to sleep —” He shrugged again. “They are always freely given, on colonial worlds. When I got to earth, I forgot to arrange a credit transfer. I know better.” He was blushing faintly. “I won’t forget again. I miss a meal and one night’s sleep — I’ve missed more on Twilight, when I was doing real work. In a few hours I correct my error.”

“There’s no need to go hungry now,” Laenea said. “You can —”

“I respect your customs,” Radu said. “But my people prefer not to borrow and we never take what is unwillingly given.”

Laenea stood up and held out her hand. “I never offer unwillingly. Come along.”

His hand was warm and hard, like polished wood.

_______________

Copyright © 1983 Vonda N. McIntyre


Book cover for Superluminal by Vonda N. Mcintyreby Vonda N. McIntyre
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-083-5

(Return to prior page)

Share