(If you haven’t yet read chapter 1, you should. It’s here.)
A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.
— William Shedd
The nurse wasn’t feeling well. She’d had the usual stress that day, a tight schedule, not enough time to care for the patients individually as she would have wished. It made her unhappy. Actually she’d wanted to be a doctor; it hadn’t worked out. But now things had calmed down somewhat, as usual near the end of the shift. She sat at the bed of one of the coma cases, taking a breather. And talking. She enjoyed talking to the coma cases. Once, the professor who ran the station had caught her talking to a patient who was comatose. He had nodded sagely and said, ‘that’s good, do they teach that at the nurse school nowadays? I didn’t realize. The latest research tells us that they may hear you. Perhaps they don’t understand what you’re saying, but they might at least hear it.’
Since then she hadn’t felt so odd talking to them. Nevertheless, she was intelligent enough not to fool herself: she didn’t talk to them to help them. She talked to them because it was better than talking to herself.
Was it really better? She dismissed the thought.
She examined the patient lying before her. He looked sort of ancient, but all the long-term coma patients did. In fact, she could tell he was rather young, twenty, perhaps. Basically an average fellow, darkish brown hair . . . she lifted an eyelid: lovely tawny eyes; not so average after all. As she let the lid fall again a shock went through her. Had the eye moved? A slight twitch? She hesitated, and decided she had better look again. After all, any sort of reaction from a coma patient was important. She lifted the eyelid again, bending over to see better.
Just as she was lifting his lid again to look, a mint lozenge in her breast pocket slipped out and fell directly into the defenseless eye. With a gasp she recoiled. She was still holding the eye open, years of training keeping her hand steady in spite of anything. The eye showed no reaction, but then the patient began talking.
“poenm6 geth ganz fix
just one problem ist poen sevn
gime tha ska beat and a gun.
when I come in to town no little shit cop gonna stop me and I aint llokin a t the ads you know.
gonna shut the fucing calls off the first girl I emmet yu think I liek her?
go out live fuck thet corporate law and not gonna . . .
anything yyjust nit.
allrogth leave he girl s didnt do nothin dont wanna hurt onone just . . .
leave me ni paece to fuck itn all up god onst giev no weaapon cuz im a danger.
mr officer odnt fuck me im not into taht at all nono dont pudhsshh
oush the edge over me.
im alread under the edge. stillse e the sun
Oh by the by,
Poems 1-4 were written drunk, Poem5 by a skunk
A drunken skunk, though not as drunk
as a sunken drunken skunk punk drunk
and it wasn’t cocaine either.
there are no concubine s hier just fyi
Poem 4 is out the dor s o don ask about it.
orem 3 is like tree it grown ove ryou an me
wªre is t gro an doverthrow waht we know ehat we know ehat we donnow it’s allt eh sawm you no yuknow
waht we know or donot knwo its all he same you knwow you know
cuz: knowoing isnotn nkwomr anf froward knoll is onnt omt e knll
and i gyu makme sende o’ that you got me. better amn than I.
Poem 2 is a lota goo cuz it#s for you and Im a fooö
if you like this stuf youll sooun have enoug
you won’t in aminut
want the poeple t osee the epppl
the ydont need you n
eed the peepl to see the poepel
they shove you
they dont love you they dont see you
this white boy is goin down
south og the riogrdn push thi boy in the garbage xacan
make me mecixan. psuh me in the rio grande.
Block the wiorld uot.
Blank it. Erase it. Overtone it. You don’t hear it. You don’t wawnt to. You don’t care if you spell it wong. No matter, egt the messaeg over accross laccross hoewover you cannot. I don’t know how I’m to get aslee tonight I’ve lways got aknife in ma bak no mater wheere no matter where.
I know one thing I’Äm not cleanin it up. that damn mess I’ve maeeede of my life.
dopdopdopdopdopdopdop hjear the beat.
I don’t give a fick I don’t care wåªt you sa dopdopdopdopdopd
I donÄt care who yuo wabnt me to be nackspace correct correct. . . .
and if you think this is poen you are a damn foo you ned a beter line of gab htan that
prose it aint either so go the heelll.
Even if you win the ratrace you’re still a fucking rat
be a rat be a cat?
catrace. On the track, round and raund, gogogo
whatst all fo?
sometimes you are a winning machine
some times you’re on the ball
sometimes it all comes together, baby
sometimes you lose it all
me and my girl, our love is so bad
she spreads her love all over
and when i get home
there’s none left for me
it’s getting harder
I’d like to hold her underwater
living is so easy
fever, evil, she’s evil
it’s getting harder
everybody running to the rhythm
the dogs are barking
so lower the bar?
in the name of progress
hey, little baby
don’t you lean down low
your brain’s exposed
and it’s starting to show
your rotten thoughts, yuck!
death and night and blood
shit is getting rough
so lower the bar
but, I’d rather go out screaming
than as a sheep being led
so smash your tv
smash the borders
bongi bongi bongi bongi
bongi bongi bongi bongi
I ain’t got noting to declare
drug squad, mind squad
you’re awastin’ my time
a waste of . . . time
no dime bags on me
no no no
why do I cry
when I know
you’re coming back
I tell you what I need
to turn this spark
into a fire
just hold me tight
and hold me tighter still
you, my one desire
it’s you, my one desire.”
Shocked, the nurse sat down. I must call the physician in charge immediately! she thought to herself, utterly dazed. What the hell was she thinking? She almost cried out, she was so shaken. In all the years she’d never seen a coma patient react, much less speak. Much less speak something like what she’d just heard. A wave of panic threatened to overwhelm her. At long last she stood up and went to the nurses’ room and called for the physician. Rather incoherently, she managed to explain what had happened.
In five minutes the doctor was there, looking tired but attentive, quizzical eyes behind nondescript glasses. She reported what had happened in detail, as best she could, blinking back tears the while. The patient didn’t show any signs of activity. Somehow she felt betrayed. After diverse examinations the doctor told her to stay with the patient and report any further unusual events, and went away.
My God. What the hell? Jesus. What . . . what did he say? Exhausted, she sleepily reviewed what she could recall of his words:
” . . . no no no
why do I cry
when I know
you’re coming back
I tell you what I need
to turn this spark
into a fire
just hold me tight
and hold me tighter still
you, my one desire
it’s you, my one desire.”
I don’t wanna leave my bed today . . . I don’t wanna go to a party, I don’t wanna take the doggy for a walk, I don’t wanna look at naked tits and drink beer, I don’t wanna retch on the car . . . I don’t wanna watch a porno, I don’t wanna eat burritos, I don’t wanna do a bong, I don’t wanna play guitar, I don’t want to do a god damn’ thing, cuz I ain’t gettin’ out of bed. No, I ain’t even gettin’ out of bed today . . . done skanked the night away.*
Hellstrøm woke up feeling like he’d been sleeping under a very large dog. What the hell was that shit Martin’d given him? Sure gave you weird dreams. And a splitting headache. He looked blearily at the clock and realized he was late. Alarm hadn’t gone off, or hadn’t been set even. Damn it. Call in sick? They wouldn’t believe him, he’d done it too often lately. Call in healthy: I’m sorry, but I’m feeling too well to work today. He chuckled inwardly.
Damn, damn, damn, he’d just have to go in and take the heat. Late again Mr. Hellstrøm, think we’re something special do we Mr. Hellstrøm, not capable of . . . and so on. Well, at least a coffee first, or he’d be no use at all.
Outside it was still dark, and raining desultorily. Jesus, would it ever stop? Eight days straight now, the river was almost over the banks, he’d heard.
He’d spent the day doing nothing or other, killing time until he felt it wasn’t too early to drink a cocktail. Well, not too early. It had been impossible to get to work. The rain had flooded the subways, the streets, everything. He sat down in front of the typewriter and listened to music and wrote, sipping a mix of dark rum, pineapple and orange juice, with a squeeze each of lime and lemon, and ice. Breit, from Die Ärzte, was the first of a random selection.
Actually he didn’t even feel like writing. He turned the music down in order to concentrate, but it was futile. He let his mind swim for a moment. What if . . .? It didn’t matter what he wrote anyway, they’d eat it up.
He turned the music back up, vaguely noticing that something weird happened at the very periphery of his vision. He looked from side to side, but saw nothing unusual. It reminded him of the time he had been seeing strange flashes of light out of the side of his eye for six months on end before he realized that it was fucking white pigeons flying past the small gap in the blinds of the window next to his desk.
He started typing furiously. Happiness from Bad Manners blared through his head. Subconsciously the story took on a cynical cast. Hey Joe, from Jimi Hendrix. Where you gonna go?
For a moment his vision blurred. Not quite; more like his eye was a pond and someone had thrown a stone in the middle: he was seeing the ripples. He shook his head and it was gone again. What the fuck? He frowned, and took another slug of his cocktail.
Perhaps I’ve been overdoing it lately? Nonsense. C’mon, get on with the story.
*Paraphrased lyrics from Burritos, Sublime
Marlon wasn’t feeling well, but it was nothing a ‘sprin and some jolly wouldn’t fix. He’d been out last night, and although he’d slept all day he hadn’t quite managed to metabolize and flush out all the booze and chemicals. No matter, a little hair of the dog would do the trick. But only a little, since this was a work night.
He looked forward to it. He liked being alone, especially after a night of uproarious company like the one preceding; so the night watch was just the right thing now. He flexed his muscles and rolled his head, enjoying the feel of the mild dose he’d taken coming on.
He had plenty of time for an expansive evening breakfast: fried eggs and bacon, buckwheat pancakes with butter and maple syrup, and cup after cup of espresso with scalded milk. Although the discipline he had learned as a Marine would never allow him to become fat, he was certainly a man who worshipped his belly, and everything he ate he cooked himself from scratch. He leafed through the newspaper, wondering how it came that the headlines seemed so like those of the day before. There was nothing new in the world, it seemed.
After grabbing some groceries at the local deli he gave Tom a call, but no one answered, so he left a message: “Hey man, nice party last night. Listen, I’m off the day after tomorrow, and if you feel like it we could get together. Who was that Chindian girl, by the way? Maybe you can call her; if she has time and the inclination you could all come to my place, I mean Debbie as well, and I’ll cook. Let me know what the deal is, so I can get groceries and all. Fir milenge, buddy.” Well, that was something to look forward to at least. He’d make that ginger curry everyone liked so much. What to make for desert? He’d think of something.
A quick shower and shave later, putting on his uniform, he smirked at the mirror in distaste. He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, with his unruly short black hair and the startlingly light brown eyes that looked inquiringly from under, but no one could look good in that damned uniform. As if he hadn’t had enough of uniforms with the Marines. Shoving the thought to the back of his mind, he automatically strapped his knife under the cuff of his pants and put on his belt with the flashlight, pistol and nightstick. He checked the pistol routinely and shouldered his ugly uniform jacket. It was warm now, but he might need it later. Time to get going. Another day, another dollar. Another night, that is.
Being a night watchman was not exactly challenging, but it was one of the few jobs a young ex-Marine with no other apparent abilities could easily get and keep. A dishonorably discharged young ex-Marine, that is. Had he stuck out his stint and kept his nose clean he would certainly have had a wider scope of opportunities. ‘What to do?’ as the Chindian would say. Marlon forced his mind to other thoughts.
That little Chindian girl last night, now that was something to think about. He wouldn’t mind getting to know her a little better. Hopefully Tom would be able to get in touch with her. She’d given him such a knowing little smile . . . but he hadn’t pushed it. In spite of himself, he had manners. He’d tried hard the last few years to get rid of them, but upbringing will assert itself. Smiling within at the thought of her, he continued his rounds. With a bit of luck he’d see her again the day after tomorrow.
He thought idly of his upbringing as he checked the locks of each room on his way to inspect the southern gates. His mother had taught him the ‘social graces,’ as she had termed it, as well as how to cook. Some of his earliest memories were of being with her in the kitchen, touching and smelling the fresh ingredients at her gentle insistence, watching it all bubbling in the pot.
His father, on the other hand, had been an odd combination of old-fashioned disciplinarian and liberal intellectual-elitist who couldn’t see his son becoming anything less than the best: a top-notch lawyer or doctor or some such, later a leader of men. Marlon had never been able to understand how his father could reconcile his ostensibly liberal views with the use of corporal punishment, but there it was.
His mothers death had removed the only restraint on him, she being at that point the one person in his life he truly did not want to disappoint. At age seventeen best in class and obviously, everyone thought, headed for a great career, he had dropped out of school and joined the Marines. Two years later his father died, without them ever having spoken to each other again, while Marlon was on a tour of duty.
You forced me to it, old man. How could I do anything but rebel? Anyway, it’s not as if we’d really communicated before that either. And now here I am, at age twenty, a veteran of two wars and more or less alone in the world, wondering what to do.
He realized, with a wry inward smile, that his thoughts had come full circle.
What to do? Don’t think about it. Do your rounds.
Aside from a huge man-high crate just inside the gates everything was as usual. In fact there was nothing unusual about the crate either except its size. There were always crates of stuff being delivered here, and often enough they lay there for a day or two before being brought into the building. He sometimes wondered what was in them, what all those sealed rooms were about, but he was just the night watchman, so what the hell. Don’t think about it. Do your rounds.
Stop dreaming, be alert. You never know what awaits you.
Marlon woke up feeling fine. He wasn’t worried. Why should he be?
do you feel good?
“Yes, everything’s okay. It’s just . . . where am I? What happened?”
you had an accident. i’ll explain later. you can open your eyes if you wish.
He opened his eyes. At first things were rather blurry, but as his vision cleared he screamed, a long bloodcurdling scream of unadulterated terror. Within seconds he was calm again, detached.
“It’s . . . okay. Am I dead?”
“Okay. I thought maybe this is hell.”
no, this is not hell.
i think you should sleep again.
“No! Where am I?”
He had closed his eyes, now he opened them again. Something was keeping him from shaking with pure animal fear. He was able to see what he saw, what he had seen just before, without going insane. Snaking out from his naked body were mottled grey ropey tubes of varying thickness. They were not attached to him, no, they grew out of him, they were one with him. Some of them pulsed or writhed lazily around themselves or each other like restless worms. Crawling all over them, and all over him, were little dark green beetle-like things, some as big as his thumb, others so small he could barely see them. He noted that some had six legs, others eight, or five, or three . . .
i really think you should sleep. you’re not quite well. but I’m almost done. soon you’ll be fine.
“No. Tell me where I am. Who are you?”
i am shipmind fiod. you are in your ship. your ship is near cypson.
“What . . . what happened to me?”
you were severely damaged when you came to me. you were suffering from various severe blunt traumata and rupturing of internal organs, apparently due to briefly increased intraluminal pressure, as well as a subdural hematoma, broken ribs. i don’t yet know exactly what happened to you. you were dying.
Slowly it dawned on him: the night watch.
it takes a very long time to repair such traumata, indeed i wasn’t even sure if it would be possible for me to do so, but now I am almost done. i had to wake you in order to assess certain parameters. please allow me to put you asleep again so i can finish. i can not suppress your fear much longer without damaging your psyche.
“Wait, I have so many questions; where is Cypson? I’ve never . . .”
i’m sorry. you must sleep now.
“Ladies and gentlemen, since not all of you are yet fully informed I will now give a synopsis of the current situation.“ The Captain-Senior twirled his grey mustache for a moment, giving each of those present a short melancholic glance in turn, his comb pulsing slightly. „The ship is an ancient model. We are not yet certain, since we have limited data from that time, but it would appear to be from before the Migration. Since the communication system is not compatible with those of the present day, we cannot access the navigational systems, and have only limited access to other systems, including the shipmind. However, other evidence indicates that it has come directly from Irth . . .”
At this a murmur went through the room.
“Please, allow me to continue. The, ah, entity contained in the ship is apparently being held in comatic stasis by the shipmind, for reasons unknown to us. We were, however, able to get a genetic sample of the entity for analysis before the shipmind sealed it off entirely. The entity is, beyond any doubt, a male Cypsonite, approximately twenty to twenty-one primaries old. It has been held in comatic stasis for no less than one and no more than three primaries. I said Cypsonite, but the entity is not from Cypson. The genetic variation indicates with 89% likelihood that this human entity is a descendant of those left on Irth at the time of the Migration . . .”
“Do you mean to say . . .?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, please.” The Captain-Senior was now frowning slightly, his comb mottling red. I’m getting to old for this shit, he thought to himself. “I realize this is all very unusual, but you must allow me to present the known facts before we go into any discussion. Where was I . . .? Ah, yes. We don’t know why the shipmind has sealed the entity off. It may be a defensive reaction, which would beg the question: is the shipmind protecting the entity from us, or us from the entity? Our gechnicians can, in spite of the limited command-gene compatibility, force the shipmind to end the artificial coma and open itself, with uncertain results. The entity may die, but on the other hand the shipmind may be waiting for us to do exactly that, waiting to see if we have the correct gene-codes. We simply don’t know enough about the old ships to be sure. After all, this ship is more than 12 thousand primaries old; it’s quite startling that we can communicate with it at all. Now, the question is, do we want to try to revive this entity? Do we want to risk taint? It is not exactly alien, true enough, but nevertheless, it is not a Cypsonite.”
There was silence for at least a full minute before anyone spoke. At last a youngish, purple-skinned man said, “It’s a chance we cannot afford to leave aside. Imagine all we could learn. Perhaps the entity could even lead us back to Irth.”
Smart little slan, that Yiln. Have to watch out for that one, getting too big for his britches. Why didn’t the ʘgand speak up? Everyone was waiting for her to say something. Perhaps she was getting too old for this shit too.
At last the ʘgand said, “Yes, Proctor Yiln, but: taint. We must be careful of taint. This is not a decision to be made lightly, in spite of all we stand to gain.” She was a pale-skinned, aged woman who emanated an authority even more tangible than the Captain-Senior’s.
There was a murmuring of several voices at this, “Yes, we must be extremely careful of taint . . It’s no good, we can’t take any chances, destroy the damned thing! . . No, no, we can’t simply destroy it . . .” The discussion went back and forth for some time without much in the way of concrete results, the tide of argument advancing and receding without any apparent collective opinion crystallizing. In a short lull one of the Captains said, “What the hell is a modern Irther doing in an ancient Cypsonite ship, that’s what I’d like to know. Why wouldn’t he use a modern ship of their own?”
“Well, Captain-Major, perhaps the modern Irthers don’t even have ships.” said Yiln, raising an eyebrow, “The fact is, we know nothing, and the only way to find anything out is to try to revive him. Besides, he’s a Cypsonite, dammit. He’s one of us, in a broader sense at least. I appeal to your sense of justice, ladies and gentlemen. We must at least give this entity a chance to prove its purity, even if we leave aside the fact that there is much to be gained by reviving it.”
Sensing that Yiln had brought the majority on his side for the moment, the Captain-Senior decided to take the reigns in his hands again. “Very well. But the ʘgand is right, we must take all possible precautions to prevent taint. Everything must be done in absolute quarantine.” He acted as if he were brooding for a few seconds and then continued, proposing the plan he had already worked out hours before. “We will need one gechnician, one Captain, and one highly placed civilian. These three will be the only ones to have direct contact with the entity, and any one of them can ascertain taint on his own authority. Furthermore, the High Council will be kept informed on the state of affairs and can at any time convene and declare taint as established. I have a space-station in mind, convenient but sufficiently isolated. A Kynenǂ squadron will be posted around it to take appropriate measures should problems arise. Can we agree on this plan?”
There was a general murmur of assent. Thank Sammar, too much discussion as it is, he thought disgustedly. He hated these meetings, necessary though they were. In the ensuing silence he noticed the ʘgand dart a penetrating glance at Yiln.
“If there is no objection I would very much like to be the civilian involved,” said Yiln.
The Captain-Senior wondered if Yiln realized that the three who had direct contact would most likely be eliminated along with the entity, should taint be established. What did he hope to gain by this? No matter, if he wanted to lean out of the window, so be it. Besides, the ʘgand had probably put him up to it; that glance hadn’t been for nothing. “Very well. Is there a Captain here who wishes to volunteer?”
A woman with chocolate skin and blonde hair, who had remained silent until now, leaned forward and smiled. “I volunteer, Captain-Senior,” she purred. Nǂesho, hmm. Typical, she’d always been a fearnaught. He hesitated sending her, though. She was one of his favorites, and he didn’t want to see her killed just because of suspicion of taint. On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone he trusted on the scene . . . which was probably the reason she was volunteering.
“Very good, Captain Nǂesho. The ʘgand has a gechnician at hand who I am sure would eagerly give his right arm to go, so the matter is settled. I will give those directly involved a separate briefing in two hours. I expect you to be ready to leave directly after that. Thank you for your time, ladies and gentlemen. This sitting of the High Council is herewith concluded.”
“Wha . . . yes? What?”
we don’t have much time. i must explain some things of importance.
“Should I open my eyes, or better not?”
you can open your eyes, have no fear.
Marlon opened his eyes, almost involuntarily. In fact, he was afraid, but somehow he knew he could trust the . . . what had it called itself? The shipmind. Fiod.
The tubing, the beetles, all gone. A chill went up his spine at the thought of them. He was naked, half-lying in a dimly lit cockpit. He was perfectly comfortable, except for the odd feeling that he couldn’t move his head.
that is correct, you can trust me. I am not an ‘it’, by the way.
“What the . . . you can read my thoughts?”
no. i am connected directly with your brain. you could say I am a part of your brain. your thoughts are also my thoughts. that is why you can not move your head at this time. have no fear. i am fiod, your shipmind, and you are my captain, my master, as far as a being whose cognitive capacity is less than one hundredth the size of mine is capable of being my master. i will do anything you say, within reason. be assured that you are in control.
Marlon tried to digest this information. For a moment he thought he must be in a hospital, in a coma, dreaming, or perhaps in a padded cell somewhere. But it was all simply too real. It felt real. The questions in his head stumbled over one another in their haste to be answered.
i repeat: we don’t have much time. i must explain some things of great importance, immediately. although I can communicate with you far more quickly this way than through vocal speech, time is severely limited by present circumstances. please allow me to explain without interruption. many questions you might pose will thus be answered.
“I’m sorry, it’s just . . . this is all very hard to believe.”
i know. i’m sorry. there is nothing I can do to change that. you will simply have to adjust. you are not in a coma, you are not dreaming, you are not going insane. your mind can not create a dream as complex and consistent as this. this is reality.
i will begin at the beginning: my beginning. i am a ship, what you might call a ‘space-ship,’ more specifically an ankenonic bioangiomorph, a prototype made by an ancient human race, the cypsonites, approximately 12 thousand earth-years ago. shortly after my construction, this race of men decided to leave earth, for reasons unknown to me. in the confusion of the migration i was forgotten. you, and all the other humans now on earth, are descendants of the few cypsonites who stayed behind. the few that stayed were not enough to uphold civilization, and thus i was forgotten to mankind, and indeed mankind forgot all knowledge. recently i was rediscovered, though no one knew what i was or how to access my capabilities. but then someone came, and opened me. it’s puzzling: it can only have been a true cypsonite, he had the gene-codes. now that i have full access to your memories i know that you must have interrupted him before he could enter me, and that is why he tried to kill you. he had just opened me, but it was you who entered me, and now, my captain, we are bonded.
once you were inside me an autonomic nerve-string within my neural framework forced me to take off and head for the planet the cypsonites migrated to. obviously it is a function that should have been triggered at the time of the migration. you are now on a space-station near this planet, the planet cypson. during the journey i was able to repair the damage to your body and brain. i have also given you the necessary genetic treatment to adapt your body to the microbes prevalent on cypson. the ‘tubing’ and ‘beetles’, as you call them in your mind, were modified parts of me, created in order to repair the damage.
and now we come to the current situation. the cypsonites here want to get you out of me. they took a genetic probe of you before I could seal you off, therefor they know that you are human but not cypsonite. you should know that, from what i can gather by listening to their communication, the cypsonites are a militaristic, xenophobic society. i do not know what they will do with you when they get you out. they have introduced a gene-code which will force me to open within the next two minutes.
“What? Two fucking minutes?!”
one minute and 57 seconds. you will have to trust that they will accept you as a human being instead of killing you immediately, and take it from there. i could kill all the cypsonites in the immediate area, but i believe that is not a viable alternative. they will certainly have adopted safety-measures for such eventualities. for your information, i can modify my gene-structure so that they will not be able to open me again, though I can not prevent them from opening me now. you will then be the only one who can open me, simply by touching me. Unfortunately, i need some time to do this, so it will be no help in the present situation. you have one minute and 48 seconds remaining. do you have any questions?
“I . . . uh, man, Jesus . . .”
Marlon rubbed his face furiously, trying to think, but somehow it was no use. His mind was a blank, it was all just too much to grasp.
you have one minute and 20 seconds remaining.
“Where is my knife?”
in the compartment to the right of your seat is the knife with its sheath and leg-strap.
Strapping the knife to his naked leg, Marlon remembered what his first squad-sergeant, a grizzled veteran, had said when asked about situations where you just don’t know what to do: ‘Son, as a soldier you can’t go far wrong by simply trying to kill as many of the enemy as possible.’ Were the Cypsonites even enemies? The only Cypsonite he had met so far had tried to kill him, and would have succeeded if not for Fiod.
you have one minute remaining.
“In 20 seconds kill as many Cypsonites as you can, and let me out immediately afterwards. I’d like to see what’s going on outside now, is that possible without opening up the ship yet?”
very well. yes.
The material around him ghosted into a sort of membranous transparence, allowing an unencumbered view in all directions. It was as if the ship had turned itself into a jellyfish. Only the instrument-panel still glowed red in front of him.
They were in a sort of hangar, perhaps. To the right he could see a masked man standing at some sort of console a short distance away, observing him. He had what looked like a rooster-comb on his forehead. He turned away and gesticulated to two men sitting in a glass walled observation room set into the bulkhead far behind him. Marlon hardly had time to take in the strangeness of it all. Everything he saw was rounded, curved together, as if it was grown together, there wasn’t a single right-angled corner in his field of vision. The glass of the observation room wasn’t glass at all, but rather a transparent film that had no definable edge where it met the white wall.
ten seconds . . . Five, Four, three, two, one. three cypsonites have been killed. fir milenge.
Marlon had half a second to be surprised and amused that Fiod spoke Hindu, and then realize that she had it out of his own brain, before he felt something withdraw from the back of his neck and his head was free. The man at the console had turned brown, almost black, his rooster-comb wilting, as if he’d been baked, roasted within an instant. He collapsed to the floor. Of the two men in the observation room one lay slumped against the glass, the other had disappeared, presumably also dead.
The ship solidified again, and then the cockpit was open, letting in the sound of a klaxon. He was out and gliding across the hangar in an instant, knife in hand, with a grim smile playing on his lips, noticing with half his mind that the floor felt like rubber under his naked feet. Before he had reached the crisped body an opening appeared in the wall to the left, admitting a slim figure who loped purposefully toward him. He sidled away to the right to get around and run for the opening, but it was no good, the Cypsonite was already on him.
Before he knew it Marlon had received three sharp blows to the arm which almost made him drop the knife. Marlon had trained himself extensively with off-hand knife fighting, until he was practically ambidextrous. Quick as a cat he changed hands and whipped his blade in for the heart, barely blocking a blow to his neck with the now almost useless right arm. Marlon knew that he was very fast, but he was astonished to find his opponent far faster. Instead of the heart he met only a blocking arm with his knife. The Cypsonite hissed in anger as she saw the blood ooze from her arm. Marlon grinned, and let out a short little battle-howl, but his right arm now hung completely limp and numb at his side, and when another Cypsonite came through the opening he knew he didn’t stand a chance. Desperate, Marlon feinted toward his opponent but then threw his knife at the newcomer as he spun away. To his astonishment the wounded Cypsonite swatted the knife to the floor as it flew out of his hand. Marlon’s feint and turn had unbalanced him slightly because of his numb arm, and she used this momentary advantage to give him an openhanded slap on the face that sent him literally spinning to the floor. He wondered with perfect clarity for what seemed like an eternity why his head was still on his neck before landing with such force that the air was crushed out of his lungs. Gasping, he tried to get up, but a chop to the back of the neck put him out for good.
“Iosha! He is a fighter, and not half bad.” said Nǂesho, “Killed three men, and wounded me hand-to-hand. I didn’t think he could possibly be so quick. I won’t underestimate that one again, that much is sure.”
Yiln raised an eyebrow and gestured at the roasted body lying on the floor, “We need a new gechnician.”
“Damned fool. I told him to be careful, to isolate the ship completely after injecting the gene-code, but he was too excited to think straight, babbling about the things he could discover. He discovered something alright.”
Marlon woke up lying on a bunk in a small cell. So they hadn’t killed him outright; that was something. His arm and neck hurt abominably, but otherwise he felt fine. He was no longer naked; they had clothed him in a sort of grey overall. His knife was gone.
The cell — for lack of a better word he called it that in his mind — was bare, except for a sort of bunk and a low table with a small mat in front of it. Under the bunk he noticed a small globular object hovering a few inches above the floor. Again he was confronted with edgeless forms; the room gave him the feeling he was inside an egg, though the floor at least was flat. This feeling was heightened by the prevalent off-white color. The bunk grew out of the curved wall with no apparent attachment except for striated bluish struts that grew diagonally between it and the wall. The table was the same. There was no mattress, the top half of the bunk itself was soft. It all had a sort of natural chaotically formed beauty to it that reminded him of flowing water, with little whorls and ripples and backwashes where the material grew together. It was as if someone had poured the room here, having only approximately defined how it was to be structured. The only normal things there were the mat on the floor and a folded blanket on the bunk, both apparently made of ordinary woven cloth.
He stood up and paced back and forth, massaging his aches and trying not to think too much. This was all so crazy . . .
Out of the corner of his eye Marlon noticed the wall opposite the bunk turning transparent, revealing a chocolate-skinned woman with shortish, tousled hair so light blonde that it bordered on white. She was sitting very straight, cross-legged on the floor. She appraised him for a moment with clear golden-brown eyes, and then grinned at him. She had a bandage on her arm . . . ah, so it was she who had attacked him, she who had beaten him so easily. Quite a woman, to be able to slap a thrown knife down like that.
She began to speak, but he could hear nothing until she stopped and a disembodied voice in the cell spoke.
“we talk. simple talk. i shipmind therod. you sleep. i inspect you brain, you language. simple talk possible. i translate. woman nǂesho say you feel how.”
The woman grinned again as he rubbed his neck. “Okay, I guess,” he said.
“therod no understand. only simple talk. feel good bad.”
“I feel good.”
The woman spoke again, but then hesitated for a moment before going on.
“woman nǂesho say food drink. talk after.”
Marlon’s stomach growled involuntarily at the thought of food and water: he was famished. The woman pointed to the room behind him. He turned around to find that a rounded recess had appeared in the wall behind the table. In the recess was a tray with several covered dishes and bowls. When he turned back she was getting up. She gave him a curt nod and turned away as the wall went solid.
The simple, familiar act of eating calmed his nerves. At first he hesitated, wondering about poisoning, but then he realized he had no choice. Now he sat cross-legged on the mat in front of the little low table, opening and trying the dishes one by one. There was a bowl of water and a bowl of some unfamiliar but tasty juice. Of the dishes there was one that he enjoyed particularly, a highly spiced shredded meat that he could have sworn tasted somewhat like garlic and ginger. There was also a dish of vegetables of unknown provenance, relatively bland, and a thin brothy soup which went down like nectar. He spilled some of the soup, noticing that it sort of pearled on the table-top, and was badly startled by the little globule he had seen under the bunk hovering past his shoulder to suck it up, leaving not a trace of the mess. He was later to learn that this dirt and fluid repellency was typical of all Cypsonite products, and that the globules were everywhere, keeping things clean. He searched for utensils and cutlery in vain, but the last dish was full of flat breads which he used to wrap the meat and vegetables in, saving the last to wipe his hands on. Having eaten that as well he gave a sigh and belched contentedly, watching the globule suck up the crumbs he had let fall. The only thing remaining was a flat dish with a sauce in it that smelled like turpentine, which he had judged not fit for consumption.
He put the tray back in to the recess and sat down on the bunk to digest, and to think. Marlon’s was a very stable personality, additionally hardened by his combat experiences. Any slight tendencies to despondency he had were more than tempered by a cynical bent, an inclination to laugh at his own misfortunes and dark thoughts. He was intelligent enough to take a detached view of himself. Nonetheless, alone in his little cell, with a moment to think at last, he was now having very black thoughts indeed. He was very near to becoming hysterical, with the shadowy corridors of madness looming not far in the distance. Those shadows in the corridor seemed to throw shadows of their own, and they all crowded around him, threatening to drive him in to insanity.
“Why the fuck is this shit happening to me,” he muttered aloud, and he began to slowly rock back and forth, in a trance, like the children he had seen in the war, children who’s homes lay in ash and rubble around them. He hadn’t lost his home, his parents, no: it seemed he had lost his entire planet, he had lost everything. A wave of anguish washed through him, and a few tears rolled down his cheeks. “This can’t be real . . . it can’t be, it just can’t!”
Fiod’s words echoed in his head: you will simply have to adjust. You are not in a coma, you are not dreaming, you are not going insane. Your mind can not create a dream as complex and consistent as this. This is reality.
He let out the breath he had been unconsciously holding in a gust and forced his body to relax, closing his eyes and breathing. Slow and even.
As a child, when he was rather too excited, his mother had taught him to sit down and relax his toes. It was the very oddness of this demand that had piqued his interest the first few times. Then she would get him to relax his fingers, one by one, and then his actual hands and feet, ‘. . . and the rest will follow of its own accord,’ she would say cheerfully, tousling his hair as he looked at her dreamily. He hadn’t used the method for years, until he had found it helped him to relax after combat. Now it was just the thing to bring him back to some sort of equilibrium, and when the wall went transparent and the woman again took her place on the floor he was perfectly collected.
Again she spoke, and the shipmind in the cell gave her meaning voice as best it could. “woman nǂesho say you earth.”
“woman nǂesho say you kill why.”
“Stop saying woman N . . . dammit, I can’t pronounce it properly; I can see who’s talking to me. I killed your people because a Cypsonite almost killed me on Earth. I don’t trust you.”
This elicited an astonished frown from the woman. For a minute she said nothing, apparently deciding what to say.
“woman nǂesho say you no know cypsonite. possible no understand. cypsonite no earth.”
“There was a Cypsonite on Earth. He tried to kill me but I killed him. I didn’t know at the time that he was a Cypsonite. He had opened the ship in which I came to this planet. I killed him and got in the ship, more or less by accident.“
The woman shook her head uncertainly and looked at him with something like dawning respect in her eyes. She spoke again.
“woman nǂesho say talk simple no good. learn language good. direct talk. no shipmind therod talk. many question. possible no understand correct. rest. tomorrow nǂesho come.”
On the second day in the cell the woman came again, but didn’t sit down. She gestured back and forth between the two of them and said one word.
The shipmind Therod uttered the last English words Marlon was to hear that didn’t come from his own mouth for years to come: „no kill.“
She spoke again and he could discern that the transparent wall now had a hole in the middle that quickly grew large enough for her to step through. She held up both hands as if to say: I mean you no harm. She walked in to the cell and murmured a few soft-voiced words, and the transparent film grew together again.
They started, typically, with their names. She pointed at herself and said “Nǂesho,” and then pointed at him.
“Marlon.” he said, pointing to himself, and then at her, “Ndesho . . .?”
She shook her head. “Nǂesho.” She came nearer, very slowly, very near, once again showing her hands, and squatted in front of the bunk where he was sitting, right in front of him. “ǂ,” she said, “ǂ, ǂ, ǂ, ǂ, Nǂesho,” leaning her head back to show him what she was doing with her tongue behind her teeth to make the short sharp clicking noise. “Nǂesho,” she said once again in her soft contralto, and he had the feeling he was falling, falling, drowning in her scent, in her elegantly curved throat, her dark red, almost black lips, in the golden honey of her eyes observing him under the curve of lashes so long . . . he felt hot behind the eyes, and the tiniest involuntary gasp escaped his lips.
“Nǂesho,” he murmured, then louder “Nǂesho.”
She smiled, and said, “Marlon.”
It was the first time he had learned a new language. Really learned it. Of course he had had languages in school, Hindu and a little Chinese, and he hadn’t done badly at it. He had also made a point of learning at least a smattering of the languages in the countries he’d served in as a Marine, and he even still had a few words of German from his mother; but this was another kettle of fish entirely. This was true, total immersion.
He was surprised at how much could be said even at the beginning, with hardly any common words between them. With so few words, body language and tone of voice became far more important, and a certain intensity of interaction occurred which he felt was missing in normal conversation. He realized that the limitations imposed by the language barrier forced them both to actually listen patiently to one another, to be more aware of each other’s presence’ as a whole.
Of course, this engendered a certain sort of intimacy between them which served to bring his love to the boiling point. Yes, Marlon was in love. A love that grew in leaps and bounds, uncontrollable, insane though it might be. Marlon had never believed in love at first sight, but he could not deny that the first time he had really seen her, the first time they had had actual personal contact, he had been carried right off his feet. Even now, as he thought of it, the echo of her voice washed through his mind like a wave of pure joy . . . ‘ǂ, ǂ, ǂ, ǂ, Nǂesho.’
At times he was sure he was making a fool of himself, but she seemed not to notice, or at least to take it in stride. He felt he could not reveal his love until he . . . yes, until what? He didn’t know. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him. He certainly had nothing to offer her, and although he could not clearly articulate it in his mind, an obscure sense of honor prevented him from putting himself forward in his present situation.
On the other hand, Nǂesho was a hard taskmaster. They were at it for twelve to fourteen hours a day, with only the shortest pauses for daily necessities. She had shown him, in pantomime, how to use the usual facilities, which had been one of their few amusing moments together. They were concealed behind the curved wall on one side of the cell, and were not all that dissimilar to those he knew from Earth. The shower sprayed from all directions from the walls, which was quite enjoyable once he got used to it, and he was surprised and pleased to find that the Cypsonites used a sort of bidet, something which his mother had always insisted on having, and had taught him to use, though that was unusual where they lived.
When, after several hours of intensive learning, his brain was fit to burst and his attention wandered, Nǂesho would give him a stern look, turn her back on him and ignore him. Whether she knew it or not, this was the worst possible punishment. On top of that she refused to learn any English, and when he spoke it she became so angry that he sometimes thought she was on the verge of attacking him. If he continued she left the room. He would then rant on in English for a bit before regretting the whole thing and throwing himself on to his bunk in lovelorn misery. This led to thoughts of home, his friends, all the little things that make up a life and were now, it seemed, irretrievably lost. In these moments he felt himself again very near absolute panic and subsequent insanity. His only anchor, the one thing which kept him from going over the edge, was his love for Nǂesho.
And so it went on. After a month he was given to understand that he was in a sort of space-station from which there was no possible escape, or rather that escape, should he by some improbable chance manage it, would only result in death for all of them. Whether this was true or not he did not know, but, since he no longer wanted to escape, he didn’t question the matter. He was allowed the run of the place, which was a great relief after having been cooped up so long. He often spent an hour or two wandering through the bowels of the station on the soft rubbery floors, wondering at the strange architecture of it all. The bizarre structures reminded him of backbones, ribs, drawn out curving skeletal arrays with long, sinuous, powerful looking muscles clinging to them, all this cast in the fluid, chaotic watery elegance that had caught his eye in the cell. It often seemed to him that he was losing his orientation in the mass of arcs and ellipses, with hardly a straight line for his eyes to cling to, never a right angle, and the ubiquitous cleansing globules hovering about all over the place. Everything was a sort of gleaming off-white, turning in subtly rippled stripes to shades of blue at connecting points, a blue which got deeper and darker in the places where he would have supposed the structural stress was highest. He also had some fun going up and down what he called the gravilators. It was thrilling being pushed up or sailing gently down though the tubes, floating free without floor or roof, until he was accustomed to it and it became boring.
It was also around this time that he was introduced to Yiln, a startlingly purple man who took over some of the language training, in particular teaching him how to read and write the beautiful calligraphic Cypsonite writing. He seemed pleasant enough, but of course Marlon infinitely preferred his lessons with Nǂesho, even though she was so strict. Otherwise he saw not a living soul, and even his last bond with Earth, the ship Fiod, was nowhere to be found.