IT’S ONLY IN the brief stages of pre-entry that the human passengers are allowed to see what lies beyond the clear blister of the observation dome.
Of course, the passage of the shift would present a picture meaningless to our eyes—“inducing acute perceptual and cognitive schism” is, I think, the official cybernese—so the alloy shield clamps down tight. Even the hardened traveler tends to spend the pauses between jumps harvesting a quick crop of stars.
And the stars that turn into suns.
It had been a while since I’d seen this particular sun as more than a distant flicker. Now it burned sullen orange beyond the edge of the stressplex dome. Its innermost world sat like a pale-green and turquoise cat’s-eye on a black matte gaming table, a last glittering target for the crystal shooter marble cupped in the palm.
What odds for a backboard ricochet into the tripling ring? The click of credit-counters around the table as you cradle the clear shooter and cock your thumb for the last chance to send it spinning down that long black table, connect cracking with that winking target, go for the big one, Go Home . . .
I WAS FLYING. Dark space stretched endlessly, sparked with stars and the distant shapes of galaxies. A glittering explosion of light showered past as I plunged through a veil of asteroids.
I reached out and flew faster. I could feel the immense openness, feel the windless speed as my body sliced darkness and my arms embraced it.
A streak of pale silver shot past, then another. I grasped the next, tucked, and swung. The clear lumiflex bar absorbed the impact, flung me around it, and added its spring as I opened out again and flew backward and up for the bar above it. I caught it behind my head, swung back, changed my grip, swung forward, and kipped around and onto it. Another swing and I was poised, legs taut toward the ceiling. A spiral galaxy swirled across my vision on one of the surrounding vid screens. It shrank, then exploded into racing stars that transformed up to down and then to no direction at all as I swung again, gathering momentum and dropping fast to fling myself through the bars.
I was past the slow warmup. Past the stage where hands stung with the slap of the bars, muscles in arms strained for the pull, legs tensed and struck momentum from the limber lumiflex, lungs strained for air, mind scrambled in calculations of angles and grips.
Now I was only a feverish, exalted rhythm, another particle flung through space by random forces, but caught in the fierce joy of it. My body gripping and flexing the bars, springing off one to spin around another, was only the engine driving the surge of space around me. It twirled and spun and the stars swept through me with their silent music. I was the music, I was the center, and I was flying, another bright sun flaring among the brilliant bits of light in their fathomless depths. I was—
A shrill alarm ripped the silence. A harsh red light flashed on and off.
Off rhythm, I caught the next bar a bit late and wrenched my shoulder swinging around it. “Damn!” I lowered myself in careful swings over the last two to drop onto the resilient floor.
I worked my shoulder to loosen it up and threw a robe over my sweat-soaked microslick. I tore off my palm-grips, hit the kill switch on the doorbell, and tapped the button beneath it. “Be right with you.”
Slinging a towel around my neck. I passed through the opening hiss of the membrane into my office and secured the door with a code. I reached across my desk console to hastily blank out the landscape I’d programmed on the window vid.
“Come in.” The front door locks deactivated just as I noticed the letter—actually written by hand, and on paper—still lying open on my desktop.
I quickly swept it into a drawer, despite myself glancing again at the graceful, looping script: “. . . such a terribly long time. I’ve arranged for an enclave visit and a host, if you would only please come . . .”
Damn. I slammed the drawer and looked up at my visitor. He was unremarkable enough, pausing in the doorway to eyeball the office, though his dark blue unisuit was definitely on the conservative side for the casino managers who generally sought my services in designing new games or modifications.
I punched up my calendar and the console screen scrolled as his eyes tracked across the plain desk, the subdued resinlay floor, and the three loungers around the alterant dispenser. Standard stuff, except for the skin of the big, freckled cat stretched on one wall, which usually got some sort of revealing reaction. The man’s square face didn’t alter beneath his topknot of graying hair. He turned back to me, his eyes running coolly over my grubby robe.
I laughed. “You caught me out. I didn’t check my console this morning and I guess I forgot your appointment, Fra—?” He didn’t help me out, so I glanced at the screen display. There was no appointment listed.
I looked back at him. He was still giving me the stone face. A little irritated, I gestured toward the loungers. “I take it you’d like to discuss some consulting work? How about a drink, or maybe a smoke?”
A thin smile appeared. “I’d prefer to sit here.” He walked over to the desk and reached a hand palm up across it, extending the formal two fingers. “I rejoice in our meeting, Kurtis:P385XL47:Ruth.”
I automatically crossed his fingers with two of mine. “I rejoice in our meeting, Fra—”
He still didn’t supply his name. He sat across from my desk and managed to maintain an erect posture in a chair that was supposed to make you lean back and relax. “Shall we talk?”
I wiped my forehead with the towel and threw it down. I sat across from him. “Am I supposed to know you, or what?” Maybe this was a new con game.
The thin smile passed over his face again as brown eyes studied me. “We could have contacted you through the console, of course, but we concluded—”
Something clicked. I jerked angrily to my feet. “Why aren’t you wearing a breast badge?”
He gave me an approving nod. “We expected you to be quick. Not many people notice.”