by Michæl W. Bard
Text ©2007 Michæl W. Bard; illustration ©2007 Cubist
-= 1 =-
A loud explosion shattered the air in the control cabin. With a bone-shatterin roar, the main thrust roared to life, shovin me back into my padded chair. It cut, roared, cut, and cut a last time. Silence and freefallan half my board went red. What the fucks going on, control!? My nostrils quivered as I pulled my ears against my skull. I could smell somethin burnin, and I could feel the shuttle tumblin.
Ahh, Hermes, Scanners showed a heat pulse at your location, and radar is picking up what looks like debris at your location.
Half my boards red, Hermes is tumblin, I cant see the outside worth shit, and nothin but environment controls are workin. I need a visual report, and some kind of information on my headin cause I aint got a damn thing here. Flickin over to internal intercom, I spoke to my passengers in the rear (who better be strapped in, as I didnt have time to coddle em). This is your captain speakin. We appear to have a slight malfunction. Please remain strapped in your seat until further notice. I flicked off the switch just as the cacophony of screeches and yowls and yips echoed from the overhead speaker. Control, I need somethin! Now!
Umm the growly female voice whined, not havin a clue. I think Ive got you on Camera 57. Switching Umm Dont see you
Damn vixen was probably a new hireenough trainin to read the routine from a clipboard, an thats it. Miss. Get Lieutenant Ruprecht on the line, now!
Buthes off duty..! Ive got the protocol
I dont care! I got nothin here, an I could hit the damn rock youre in any second now. I need to know! Im declarin a fuckin emergency! So get him now! My tail wouldve been whippin back and forth if I hadnt had it amputated. Damn the Company and their shipshod equipment. Damn them and their cost-cuttin measures! I had no pressure suit, neither did the passengers, and unless the explosion blew us far-enough off course for New Ceres, we were all dead.
And the Company would probably send the clean-up bill to my bloody funeral!
Lookin around, I checked what I had left. Cabin pressure showed fine, and there was no pricklin sensation of a pressure drop, so the metre was readin correctly. Only other thing I had any kind of information on was life support, and that read in the green. If the readin was even worth anythin. At least the tumble wasnt too sev
Unlike most furs, us equines had been left with our muzzles mostly unchanged from our wild ancestors. We can see almost all the way around. Kind of screws us for tryin to catch anythin, but really useful for runnin, and for seein things sneakin up on you. And
Through the cockpit plexiglass I saw a big gleamin metal strut. It was easy to recognize: The arm holdin one of the Reaction Control Systems, reaction jets for steerin a spacecraft. From the jagged edge as it slowly tumbled past the viewport, itd been ripped out.
For a second I couldnt breathe. This wasnt happenin! Havin to make sure, I looked straight out the windowI do have some depth perception straight aheadand yes, Idve bet a weeks pay that New Ceres was gettin closer. Fuck!
Control!? Anybody with a mind there? Hell-
The well-remembered voice of Lieutenant Ruprecht snapped me out of my panic. Yes sir! He was a wolf, but the grapevine said his genome had a lot of domestic in it. Still, hed trained me. And ignorin the courtesy rank for my captainin the shuttle, he was far above me, bein in command of all space traffic around New Ceres. Not to mention that he was my best friend.
Report your situation, Captain.
Swallowin, I tore my eyes away from the loomin, craggy bulk of the spinnin New Ceres slowly gettin closer. I couldnt completely, though, until I closed one eye. My nostrils quivered at the scent of fearmy fearand my legs were tensed and ready to run. Even with all the gengineerin, they still couldnt get all the animal out. I started tappin a hoof against the floor, away from the engine control pedals, to try and work out my adrenaline. Everythin on my board is down except environmental systems. They all show green. Theres no evidence of a leak, though I may be smellin burnin plastic. Everythin I got shows dead on the exterior. I saw one of the RCS arms out the window, broken at its base. Cause unknown. I got a slight tumble and visual evidence says Im on a collision coarse with New Ceres. Details or confirmation of this information is not available onboard. Sir.
Thank you, Captain. Sorry to bark at you, but you sounded like you needed it. Ive got you on Camera eighty-seven; I can see the RCS arm, and a cloud of smaller debris around you. Maybe some fuel. The Brains confirmed youre on a collision with New Ceres, impact in five minutes, eighteen point something seconds. Theres nothing we have that can reach you in time.
Well, that bites. Guess the Breath Sucker gets me after all. I didnt mind dyin. You paid your money and you took your chances. It was the passengers I hated losin. Hold it Control! I think Ive got somethin. If the emergency bolts to release the control capsule still function
Captain Eeysmarn, thatll break your seal!
Yeah, Control! Thats the point. The thrust of my escapin air oughta give them some time. Maybe enough. Just shut up a sec Forcin myself to look out the cockpit window, I got myself a good, solid grip on the emergency lever as I focused on New Ceres. My spin was rotatin it out of sight, and I waited as the stars spiraled past, the moon, the glowin blue Earth, a flash of sunlight that momentarily darkened the glass, and then New Ceres comin back in. Blowin the bolts now! Then I yanked that lever backhard.
Captain, we have no changes on visual. You didnt chicken out, did you?
Gimme a break, Lieutenant! Maybe theres a short in the electrical charges for ignitin the bolts, I dunno I got nothin. I paused. Nothin
Umm Sorry, Shean. I wish
I couldnt think of anythin else, and Id graduated top of my class. You did what you could. Damn Company! Dont think Im gonna tell the passengers; no sense in lettin em panic and screw somethin up and break a seal or somethin. Maybe well get a miracle. At least I still got air and can watch the show til the end. I snorted. Hey! Any chance you can fire up the Orion drive and shove yourselves out of my way?
Not installed yet, but you know that. Lots of fuel, but without the braces it would shatter itself and probably break our pressure seal. You sure there are no suits at all? Not even a survival bag?
Nothin. Directive 18-912B: All emergency survival equipment will be removed in order to increase payload. Snortin, my voice turned bitter. After all, in almost every emergency situation, there is no opportunity to use, or need for, emergency survival equipment. Well, at least Id die in the outer space I loved. Too bad I wasnt ever goin see the stars up close and personal.
Damn. Well What the!? Hold your horses, Captain!
I just shook my head at that old joke. Not a heck of a lot more I could do. Only thing I wished was that Id gotten my tail back as Id planned before the end. Id had it removed to make life in space easier. Made suit and seat design much simpler.
Holy shit! Youre kidd Captain, Ive got something coming in forty degrees by fifty degrees by fifteen degrees. Jesus Christ, look at that sucker go!
What was he talkin about? Whats goin on? Im blind out here!
Just got a message from the Brainsays theres something that can intercept you in time. Things barely on my scopes running 25G. Jesus!
Twenty-five Gs!? What the hell could do that? Thered been talk about antimatter drives, but nothin had ever been tested that Id heard of. Lieutenant, you got any instructions for
Captain Eeysmarn, this is Captain Stapledon, piloting experimental craft VX57d. I picked up your transmission and Im going to try and grapple with you and pull you away from New Ceres. I make no promisesits going to be tight, but if God wills, itll be successful. The voice that broke in was odd. It was warm, friendly, but with perfect intonation. Idve put hard cash down that it was a Brain, cept their support equipment was too damn big to fit in a standard ship.
Stapledon? I never heard of you, but I sure as hell aint complainin. Anythin I can do?
Just strap yourselves in. God willing, you wont break your pressure seal, but Im the only chance you have. ETA three minutes, fifty seconds.
The Lieutenant burst in. Thatll give you, what? Eighteen seconds to get the grapple on and yank him to safety? Good luck, Captain Stapledon, youre going need it. Id get the Brain to give you exact vectors, but we wont have time
Im perfectly aware of that, Lieutenant. Onboard systems can easily calculate whats needed. Trust me, God has led me here to help.
Onboard systems? What the hell kind of onboard systems? He wouldnt know the exact vectors until he was virtually in position; too many variables, and I couldnt give him crap. Radar on the New Ceres wasnt fully emplaced yetsurprised they were able to fix me as accurate as they had. How the hell was Stapledon goin to calculate it? By the time his onboard sensors had the numbers, itd be too late!
Well, it was a shot, and hell if Id complain. Switchin on the intercom, I told the passengers: This is your captain speakin. We had some problems, but a rescue intercept is en route. ETA, three minutes. Strap yourselves in tight and hold on, because the intercepts gonna be roughreal rough. But the Brains worked it out, and the intercept should go without a hitch. I switched the intercom off.
Brains? Yeahbio-cybernetic computers with one or more sentient brains at the core. It was a funny thing back then, but with the Brains crunchin numbers and givin instructions, people felt more confident. They were people, not computers, and almost a century of them supplyin information had made their users happy and confident in their skills. Invariably, if a Brain said somethin would happen, it did. Of course, this Stapleton joker wasnt a Brain, just a hot-ass pilot I prayed would get shit lucky. Still, anythin to keep the passengers calm was fair in my book.
Starting intercept countdown, Captain. I make it two minutes, thirty-two seconds to intercept, God willing. Are all your passengers strapped down?
They are if they know whats good for em, Captain Stapledon. I hope you win the lottery tonight, cause I need all the luck you got.
Two minutes, eighteen seconds. I can see you now. You dont appear to be in bad shapewhen you lost the RCS it must have trashed your main command trunk. That would explain the loss of your externals. God willing, Im going to hook your engine, try and get it through the spine.
Ill just be glad if you grab me anywhere, Captain Stapledon.
He had to be a Brain; they were always thankin God for this, and thankin God for that. But the ship couldnt be big enough! Im an athiest, myselfworld was too screwed up for me to believe in any kind of overseein power. But the Brains
The radio went silent for a bit, cept for the hiss. There was no breathin from Captain Stapledon, but I could hear faint voices and clicks and footsteps from Control.
One minute, twelve seconds. Im slightly off course due to New Ceres gravitation Adjusting God willing, everything looks good.
Off course from New Ceres? Hell, wed cored that rock and blown it up like a balloon! It couldnt be grabbin him with anythin more than .0001G, if even that much. Off course? Well, pilots were superstitious as hell, and my chances were so crappy I wasnt goin to argue with any idiosyncrasies.
More silence, and then Captain Stapledons calm voice spoke: Forty-two seconds. Try and keep anybody from moving around over there, Captain Eeysmarn. This will be tight, but God willing, Ill get you.
Eighteen secondsRadar here picks up an extrusion from New Ceresgoing to make this tough, but were in Gods hands. Will count down at ten.
Tough, he said. Like it wasnt already tough?
Ten seconds Grapple locked eight seconds launching six seconds five four three track looks good, God willing two seconds one hold your horses for boost. God be praised, I have you! Running drive.
As he said that, I heard a dull clunkthe grapple piercin the drive at the rear of the shuttle. In my mind I could see its hooks clampin shut, hopefully on the ships spineI didnt think anythin else would be strong enough. I just hoped his cable was.
Five G acceleration for twenty-two seconds. Over.
As he talked, I felt and heard Hermes groan; it whipped around, and then I was yanked hard into the straps over my chest at five G. Again, I thanked the rich who, almost a century ago, had thought it cute to have horse jockeys ridin horses; they gengineered my line nice and small. Less mass. My breath got shoved out through my nostrils, I couldnt inhale, my vision tunneled, my mane dragged down in front of me as I looked down the deep pit to my control boards that seemed so far away as I hung vertically above.
Wincin, I pulled my ears against my skull as somethin boomed into the door behind me. It was a soft boom, with a clatter of breakin bones and a squish of splatterin flesh. Damn near lost my lunch, but the acceleration wouldnt let me.
Twenty seconds eighteen seconds God willing, course is clean, cable holding fourteen seconds
My stomach gurgled, and I struggled to hold my head back against the seatshould have strapped that. I lost it, and my head fell forward, muscles and bones twanged as my head jerked to a stop. I could see my jumpsuit, smell the vinegary scent of a stain where my bladder had given wayor had the liquid just poured down the five-G gradient? One thing you learn early in flight school, little things like that in extreme circumstances are nothin to be ashamed of. My own scent was rank in my nostrils, hot, sweaty, panicky, and yet confident. It was that voice. Just like a Brains, though it couldnt be. I could feel my tail bone shovin up against my spine. I could smell somethin burninshit! The short caught fire. Well, nothin I could do about it at five G.
There was a twang of somethin givin way in the cabin behind me, a faint scream through the metal, and a squelchin boom.
Somehow I gasped out, CutAccelFastShortFire My voice was faint, harsh, hoarded air roarin out and down into the well.
Understood, Captain. God willing, Ill cut cleanly at earliest instant two seconds zero seconds
And then my weight was gone. Air roared into my lungs and I bounced back into my cushioned chair. I had no idea how the passengers were, but this had to be better than all of em bein dead. Black smoke billowed out, fillin the cockpit, I coughed as the fans roared to try and clean the air. Fumblin at the belt, I got it, grabbed the extinguisher, hooves spaced out and braced on the floor, spotted the fire, leaned against the pendin recoil, and let it roar.
-= 2 =-
In the front room, dim through the closed door, the announcers voice rose to a crescendo. A moment of silence, then the crowd there broke into yippy cheers and growly hissin.
Oblivious, I kissed the vixen, my wide sensitive lips against the soft fuzz of her cheek.
She giggled. I think youre drunk, Mr. Eeysmarn. Gently, she pushed my muzzle away.
Fair little Kirri Of course she was nearly two metres compared to my one. as I recall, Im the one payin you. And I am not drunk, I am just pleasantly warm. I patted my stomach, which gurgled happily in response, I grabbed the plastic bottle and poured the rest of it down my muzzle.
Kind of a tradition I had, gettin drunk, havin a girl. Once Id looked death in the eye and spit in her face, I needed to remind myself that I was alive. Id survived all right, just a couple of cracked ribs, some sprained neck muscles. This was only the second time Id done it. On the shuttle, most of the passengers got off the same way, except for two whod died. One when his belt failed; one because he hadnt strapped in when Id ordered them to. The first I drank to, the second was well out of the gene pool.
So here I was in the Zero-G Rat, the deluxe back room all to myself, with pretty, furry little Kirri drapin herself all over me. I could see the tip of her long red and white tail waggin back and forth behind her head. Yeah, she was a vixen, but Id been made infertile before goin into space. Somewhere on Earth I had some sperm frozen
So what did happen, Shean, dear? Ive heard rumours. Youre the hero of the hour!
Coughin and gaggin, I slammed down the bottle with a thunk. Alcohol burned my lips as I cocked my head and glared out of one eye at her. Hero!? Hah! All I did was go long for the ride.
The first time Id been a hero well, not really, but Id made the choices that saved a few lives. This time Id just been the passenger.
Thats not what I hear. She scratched behind one ear and gently kissed me below my left eye, the warm breath from her nostrils makin me blink as I gasped.
Turnin away, I felt shame burn. Wasnt anythin I did. I was screwed. Then this Stapledon blasts in, gets luckier than the whole blamed human race when they didnt push the button over London, and yanks me and my passengers to safety. Hell, I couldnt even thank him! All I could see was his ship as he dropped the tow near the Rocks north pole. Like nothin Id ever seen. All engine. Heck, theres no way anybody could have been pilotin it, but somebody had to!
She wiggled around until she was sittin in my lap, each of her legs stretchin to either side as she kissed me again. What was this Stapledon like? Tall? Handsome? He was a fox, I bet
She winked at that last and my growl died in my throat as I let her weight push me back into the soft velvety chair. Good thing my tail was gonechair would have been hell otherwise. Humans paid for treatment like this. Me, I was just splurgin. Not like I couldnt afford it; I didnt buy much, only some vids, pay for the care of Bucephalus (and Ill get to him later). Transmission up from earthside was cheap, not like haulin freight.
Ah Kirri, I told you. Never saw him. Never had a chance to thank the bastard.
She started rockin gently up and down, her tail bouncin behind her. Damn, but this vixen was good! What was his voice like? Maybe Ive met him. Her tone turned dreamy. Bet you hes human.
I spluttered and snorted, my lips still sensitive from the last unplanned splash of vodka. Sure, there was prejudice, its part of why Id come up here. In space it was your skills that mattered, not your form or your body. And, not all humans were bad, just some. The Doc, old Robert de la Tierra, and Iwe got along good when Id paid him to tutor me. Even so, Id always felt like I was fightin a glass ceilin, always provin that I was as good as any human pilot. I dont know what he was! Nothin I know could have fit into the ship I saw. His voice sounded like a Brain, but thats impossible.
She blinked; her ears flicked. Her tail went still and she stopped movin. A Brain?
Thats what the bastard sounded like! Always sayin God willin, and
A voice boomed from the front room: This is the police! Nobody move! The voice was low, and loud. Somebody sure knew how to give a command. Even in the state I was in, I wanted to snap to attention.
Kirri stopped and hopped off my lap.
Sorry, big boy, but Ive got to get out of here. If you come, we can talk, and then She winked.
Normally, if I hadnt been so hot and eager and buzzed, Id have said no. But with a nice warm glow, its hard for a stallion to refuse a pretty vixen. Sure, little Miss Kirri. Lead on so that we can make beautiful music together.
Her ears flicked, and she looked indecisive. Mutterin somethin, she then nodded to herself. Movin silently, naked but for the fur in which she was born, she padded over to the wall and yanked on one of the decorative panels. To my surprise it opened. In you go, big boy. Theres only one way and Ill be behind you.
With some difficulty I staggered to my hooves as the room spun. Others would have been nauseous, but pilot trainin does wonders for your balance. With my hooves loud on the rough stone floor carved out of the cooled asteroid, I made my way over to her. Her ears flinched with each clop of my hooves.
The commandin voice echoed from outside. Make your way to the entrance one at a time. Have your ID ready. You will not be harmed if you co-operate, were only looking for a dangerous insurgent. Shes a vixen, but could be in disguise so we need to check you all. Sergeant! Start checking the back rooms.
Shit! she whispered. If we didnt need to know the detailsGet a move on, you big hunk!
Is that any way to talk to your lover for the evenin?
I could see her hands clench. Im sorry, dear, II just have to get going. Hurry along please, then we can get somewhere private.
Noddin, I gave a clumsy bow, and then went into the passage. It was cramped; shed have to crawl, but I was short enough that I could walk crouched. I could feel the tips of my ears touchin the irregular roof. She was right behind me, I could feel her body pressin against mine. Her tail tickled my backside, and I turned my head enough to watch her grab some handles and slowly drag the panel closed with a dull thud. There was no light, just pitch blackness.
You wanna do it in the dark, Kirri?
She muttered somethin, and then spoke. Not here, I know some place cozier. Just move along, and try to be quietwe dont want to be disturbed. As she gave me a gentle shove, and I could smell her nervousness and desperation. Snortin, I felt my way, my hooves loud and echoin in the silence. I was soberin awful fast.
My clearin mind began wonderin. Where was this passage goin? See, after the RockI think it was one of the Apollos, 1986 DA if I remember right Anyway, they put an Orion drive on the Rock and moved it into a distant orbit about Earth. Then they spun it and focused sunlight on it with mirrors. It heated up and melted; the spin made it a damn big centrifuge, so they grabbed the mostly-pure materials as they separated out. After the good stuff cooled, it got shipped either to Mare Crisium, or the L4 point. What was left over, the slag, they figured theyd re-install the Orion drive an use that to drop it into the Sun. Then one of the Companys entertainment sub-divisions had a brainstorm: Why not use the Rock as a place for all the orbital workers to relax? They let the slag cool, drilled a hole in the core, filled that with ice, and then refocused the mirrors. So the Rock got spun up again, re-melted, the ice vapourized, and steam pressure blew the rock up into a hollow cylinder. A nice, handy Cole habitat.
Well, the points this: No tunnels formed anywhere along the way. Whatever tunnels there were, theyd all been all dug or drilled. And that meant that this passage had been drilled by someone for some purpose.
I stopped and sniffed. Nothin but the scent of sex, horse and vixen. No sound but the soft pad of her pawsteps. Then she crawled into me, almost knockin me over.
She hissed at me, her voice low: Whyd you stop? Were still too close, they can hear us!
I kept my voice low as I answered, most of the warm fog gone from my brain. Kirri, theres somethin funny here, and I, for one, dont like it. I patted my chest. The gengineers gave my kind damn good livers. Turnin around, I felt and then grasped her fuzzy arm. I could smell her fear and sweat. Whats goin on?
Shean, youve got to trust me.
Trust you? Why? Sure, youre a good lay, nice and warm on a cold night on this here Rock, but
I could feel her muscles tense. She swallowed, the sound loud in the silence. I thought I could hear muffled voices from behind us. Im one of those umm mutineers the Company keeps complaining about.
I almost dropped her arm and fled right then and there, but my options were limited. I had no clue where I was, and I doubted the Company cops outside would take kindly to my burstin out of a hidden passage. Of course, back then there was nothin wrong with hoodwinkin the Corp. Everybody did it. Hell, Ida had a suit in my cockpit if I couldve figured a way to fit it! The Zero-G Rat had never been licensed; the recreational aids and drugs were there even though they were officially against regs. But these mutineers were somethin different. They didnt just break little rules, they wanted to kick the Corp out of the Rockmake the Rock their own.
Im out of here. You can take your deathwish and get out my life.
Dont you dare but, Shean me! Lets say you take over the Rocknot hard. Then what? Theres still Earth, the lunar colonies. A few rockets, a few shuttles, the marines come, and its all over. Well, I dont aim to die with you. Youre safe, fine, good, dandy. But thats all. I wash my hands of you.
Youre just like all the rest! Short-sighted, mindless bigots! Oh, were evil, were stupid. Has it occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, we have a brain or two?
Muffled, in the distance from behind us, I heard, There was somebody here, recently, They left stuff behind, and I can smell them. Theyve got to be here somewhere
I forced my voice back down to a hiss. Well, your friends are behind us now, and I doubt theyll believe me. Why dont you lead on, little miss. Take me to your exit and were done.
She shoved her way past me, her perfume ticklin my nostrils. Let me lead then! I could feel her silky fur rushin against my side.
Of course! Though I hope you got somethin to slow em down, cause theyre goin to find the door, and so far theres only been one way to go.
Men! She shoved her tail in my muzzle and I almost gagged, but then I heard her faintly crawlin off and followed, my hooves loud on the naked stone. Like other ungulate furs on the Rock, I had a pair of rubber boots to protect my hoovesbut they were back in the room with the cops. Damn her for yankin me away!
We walked for a while, the air was cool and stale. The scent of alcohol on my breath was fadin. All I wanted was to get the hell out of there. Get back to my shuttle, which was under repair, and get back to work. Id always learned avoidance, bein too small to fight. Brains and cunnin and speed kept me safe in school. Not this fightin st
We made it! There was a click, and a dim overhead light flickered on, revealin an intersection. My eyes blinked and watered in the sudden brightness. I could see that the tunnel was smooth, almost glossyit had to have been carved by one of those laser tunnelers. By the time Id focused my sight again, shed advanced half way down one of the two branches.
Where you goin?
Heres where we separate. You go down that passage, she pointed, itll eventually come out in the west corner of Ceres Park.
And where are you goin?
Umm This way leads deeper into a labyrinth. If I showed you, Id have to kill you. Nothing personal.
Just get going. The light will shut off when it no longer senses motion. No sense making it easy for the company thugs.
Sniffin at the right fork, I could tell that the air was stale and cold. I may not have been in tunnels before, but when you spend a good chunk of your time in life support built by the lowest bidder, you get damn good at checkin the air quality. Somethin stank hereand it wasnt me.
Kirri, Im goin with you, and there aint goin to be no arguin. Its probably best for your security if I just die down here, lost and forgotten. I dont aim to let that happen.
You cant come with me! Youll see too much.
Shoulda thought of that before you brought me. Too late now.
She looked at me, tail held still, ears movin all about. I could see a moment of indecision. No way I was goin to wait for her to draw a gun or somethin and shoot me. Though she was naked as the day she was foaled, I wasnt about to take the chance. Like the horses I was designed to ride, Id been made to run, and I leapt into a gallop. I could have galloped towards our friends behind us, but I didnt trust the Company goons either. They were moren likely to drug me up and forget to let me go. So I galloped straight towards her.
Wait! she called.
You know, theres somethin about doin what youre bred to. I doubt humans can ever experience it. Its a purity of body, of soul. I burst past her like lightnin and dashed off down that tunnel, dashed off into the darkness, crouched down, hooves clompin off the stone, the sound echoin all around me. I couldnt see where I was goin, but I didnt care. My ears flicked around, grabbin the echoes and workin out their direction so I had a little clue as to the shape of the passage.
But that really wasnt important to me. My mind was set on fleein, and I was goin to flee, no matter how stupid it was. Ridin the high of the run, I barely had enough presence of mind to hold my arms forward, even though the movement interfered with the gait. That saved my life as my hands touched the thin rope stretched across just before my neck would have hit it and likely snapped. I didnt know how strong the rope was, how well anchored, so I crouched under it. I could feel it scrapin the back of my neck, draggin through my mane. Don't know what it was supposed to do; anybody normal-sized woulda been crawlin here, an who crawls fast enough to break a neck? Thing was probably connected to some kinda pressure point, collapse the tunnel or God knows what.
Anyway, o course I didnt notice the small outcroppin of rock stickin outta the smooth floor. It caught the tip of my hoof and I went flyin; my hands flailin forward as I slammed down, my hoof and nostrils shovin painfully into the rock even though I tried to stop myself with my arm strength
I dont think I was out for long. Next thing I knew, Kirri was on my back, pressin me down onto the cold hard floor. Snortin hard, I spewed blood out one nostril as her arm tightened around my neck. My breath rattled down my throat, and I could feel the beatin of my heart in my ears.
Shean, tell me everything about the ship that rescued you.
Bein small, Id always had problems with bullies. At least I hadnt gone to a human school. Aint it all on video? You must have se-
Her arm clenched tighter, and I couldnt breathe. I struggled, but she was near twice my size. It was no contest. My body ached to run, but I couldnt, and that just made me clench in panic and fear. Shean, I dont have time for this. I need to know; the tape is classified, even Mike couldnt get it.
Shut up! she hissed, tightenin her arm a tad. Just answer the damned question.
Youll just kill me anyway. Whered the other passage go? Dead end? Pits? Andif theif the information is so damned important to youwhyd you plan to leave me to die?
Never you mind! Made sense at the time, use you as a decoy, ask you later. But, oh no, you had to come this way with
From behind us I heard voices piercin through the darkness. Light shows a fork up ahead. You two take the left, the rest with me.
Shit! she screeched. I felt her crawlin over me, foot-claws tearin at my flesh, and then she hurried off.
For a moment I just shook my head, snorted more blood out of one nostril. I thought about waitin, but that wouldnt be no better. At least if I stayed with her, Id be reasonably certain there were no more traps. Draggin myself to my hooves, I sneezed, and then licked my nostrils, feelin blood ooze out of a cut. Hell Crouchin down, I clomped after her, the sound of my hooves echoin loudly all around.
From behind us I heard: Theyre down this way! Everybody follow!
Fuck! Well, nothin for it. It wasnt long till I felt Kirris tail against my muzzle, and then I slowed.
Why couldnt you have taken the other way! Youd have been the perfect decoy!
Where the hell does that go?
Dead end. With your hooves theyd have followed you, and Id have had more time.
Snortin, I licked some more blood off my nostril. I dont think theyre any faster than you.
Just shut up. Its going to take me a week to clean the dust out of my knee fur.
You coulda just asked me, you know.
Asked you about what?
About the ship that saved me. Big tall thing. No life support I could see, no control capsule. No clue where the pilot was. Couldnt be a Brain.
More details would be nice. Mikell ask for them.
This Mike, he your leader or somethin?
I cant tell you that!
A horrible thought popped into my head. It couldnt beI remembered an old book about a revolution off Earth, led by MikeCouldnt be. No bloody way. You folks plannin to win your freedom from Earth by throwin rocks on it from an electromagnetic catapult?
She stopped and then screeched as I trotted into her. Howd you know that?
Somehow I managed to keep my balance. I still didnt believe it, but it never hurt to ask. Mikes the Brain on New Ceres, isnt he?
For a second there was silence, except for the distant sound of crawlin from behind. How the fuck do you know that!?
I just could not help but burst out laughin.
This isnt funny! Youre sticking with me, we need to talk. I heard her start crawlin again.
Youre idiots. Your entire revolution is a pile of damn-fool idiots!
Shut up! Just shut up! At least were trying to do something!
Theres nothin we can do! Itll get better in time. I saw a light up ahead.
Theres far too many like you, you know. Too lazy to fight for whats right. Too stupid to see that they need to. The Brains are trying to help, but therere too many humans who hate us!
You want to revolt, Kirri? Fine. But maybe, just maybe, you shouldnt use a novel for a template. A novel the humans can read, too!
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A Heinlein. Its about how a lunar penal colony revolts against Earth, with the aid of a sentient computer named MycroftMike for short.
Coincidence, she said, but she sounded a mite doubtful.
The damn Brain heres playin with you. When we get out, Im gone. You can go and get hanged on your own.
Shean I think I think we may have gotten off on the wrong paw. Were almost out. Come with me to see the Doc. We can talk in a civilized manner. You can hear our story.
Doc? My eyes widened, though she couldnt see. You mean Robert de la Tierra? That was old Doc Tierra, a human who lived on the Rock. Nobody knew what he did, or why he was there. What he was, was a kind of jack of all trades. If you wanted to learn how to do somethin, you asked him. Id hired him to tutor me in orbital calculus when the Brains on Earth tightened up the licensin requirements for pilots. He was probably the smartest guy Id ever met, other than the Brains. If he was in this rebellion, maybe there was somethin to it. Hes a part of the revolution?
Who knows? He gives me advice, but hes not a member of any cell Im aware of.
Well, then. Lead on.
-= 3 =-
As Id half-expected, the tunnel let out in the west corner of Ceres Park. The entrance was hidden inside the stone wall that surrounded the park, in a cul-de-sac you couldnt see unless you were damn near on top of it.
Those days, the Rocks interior was pretty blandthe sculptin had barely begun. There were lots of rough stone buildins made of rockcrete poured into sculpted molds and artificially weathered by sandblastin. Those first buildins were tough, sealed, and with doors and windows designed to stay airtight in case o sudden pressure loss. The park, like everywhere else, was naked rock, cept with some paths smoothed out of the same poured and sculpted rockcrete. Rock crushers were workin to create the beginnins of soil, and water was bein shipped up as fast as we could carry it. The light tubes along the axis had been put in, and were on all the timeday and night schedules were for the future. All around echoed the distant sounds of machinery, construction, and the odd curse barely audible in the distance.
My nostrils wrinkled at the dry dust in the air, and I sneezed as my hooves clopped on the dull rock followin behind Kirri as she hurried, both of us naked as the day we was foaled. Nudity wasnt outlawed, but it wasnt appreciated either. Fortunately, the Doc didnt live too far. Once the Rock was finished, hed have a nice home overlookin the park and a burblin fountain, but right now it was all dry rock and rubble. She jumped off the path and I followed, slippin and almost losin my balance in the coarse gravel. Soon my hooves were sore, and I coulda sworn a shard was stuck in the soft part. I cursed her, makin me leave my rubber hoofboots behind, but we arrived at the Docs place afore I got pissed enough to say anythin. She knocked, her knuckles rappin sharp an loud on the fake-wood-paneled carbon-fibre-composite entrance. A camera clicked on, silence, and then the door latch clunked.
The Doc, a human, stood there, spotlit in the raw glow from the light tubes, eyes blinkin. He smelled of pipe smoke, and wore old-style clothin and spectacles on his eyes. Nobody had any clue why he hadnt got his eyes fixed, but there was all kinds of rumours.
Miss Galgane! Dare I enquire about your friend? His voice was deep for a humans, short and gruff and impatient.
We need to talk. In private. About, you know
Ah. He winked. About coming to your senses, I hope. Do come in, both of you, wont you please? Just follow me, and dont touch anything. Kirri, Ill thank you to be good enough to close the door behind you. Its good to see you again, Shean! With that he turned, stridin quickly off into the dimly lit interior. Kirri followed close behind, her claws clickin on the stone tiles, and I scurried after, first closin the heavy door. My hooves clattered on the stone and I staggered, barely catchin myself. Yep, my hoof had a stone caught. Leanin against the wall and balancin on one hoof, I lifted the other and picked at it with one finger. The sensitive skin tickled and I finally felt the tiny rock shard stuck in it.
Kirri padded her way back to me. Get a move on! The Doctors a busy man!
Just give me a second!
Ill give you
Miss Galgane! Surely you didnt lead him across the gravel, did you? Dont you know anything? Such ill-treatment might well have lamed him, and thats the last thing he needs. Is there any assistance I might offer you, Shean?
Apologies for my appearance, but I got dragged here with very little warnin. Not your fault. The stone was stubborn, too small for me to get a good grip on. If youve a spoon or a pick, or even a knife, Id surely appreciate it.
He pulled a massive knife out of a scabbard on his belt, flipped it, and handed it to me hilt-first. Noddin, I took it and pried the damn rock out. It finally came, pinged off a wall and a bead of blood formed. Itd heal. I let my hoof clomp to the floor and put some weight on it yeah, itd do. Thanks, Doc. Handin his knife back, I held it carefully by its blade as hed done.
Hmph! It would be a most excellent thing if people could make an effort to accommodate the frailties of their fellow passengers on this Rock. Come along, then. He turned and walked off, his soft shoes paddin on the floor as Kirri and I followed. We passed one door and reached another which he opened and motioned us in. The room was bare, consistin of some chairs, a table, and stark bare walls. A single flickerin fluorescent lit the place. Please, do go in, be seated. Miss Galgane, might I impose on you to explain why you two are here?
I trotted over, limpin a bit, and sat down on one of the cheap chairs that was too big for me. Meanwhile, the Doc took out a pipe, a tiny thing of ivory, and lit it. Soon his face was surrounded by thick, reekin clouds o black smoke. Hadnt he heard from the Brains how foul that stuff was, how bad it was for his health?
Sheans rescue, she said. I was going to get the details from him this evening, but some uninvited guests spoiled my plansCompany goons. I left, of course. And Shean insisted on coming along, and, well, here we are.
I started. Okay Kirri, why do you need to know about what happened to me? Why does Mike need to know?
Theres a rumour On Earth theyve solved the Brain life-support problem. Made it small, portable
Of course! Small enough to put in a ship. No visible life support capsule. Twenty-five G acceleration. The tone of voice, all the God Willin crap. The unbelievably lucky pilotin. It had to be a Brain Fine. It was a Brain runnin that ship. Nothin else is possible. The pilotin was too precise. So what?
Shean, you should be with us! We furs are downtrodden. We have no rights
Kirri, UN Amendment 15812c. We have the same legal rights as anybody else.
But they dont treat us the same! We get thrown out here so they dont have to go
Cause were better at a lot of jobs than humans are, and space dont give anybody no breaks.
Have you been on Earth? Tried to go to their washrooms? Tried to ride on their magtrains?
Have you read any history? Humanity used to be divided, they used to have their own lower class. Now the blacks and Indians have the same rights. It just takes time.
Humanity are the wolves, were their sheep! Their slaves! We get all the dirty, risky jobs! They stay in their homes, watch the reality shows we die in. The Brains do the thinking, we do the slaving and the dying! How can you support that?
I dont! I support me. I came out here to make my own waydo somethin Im better at than anyone else, pay for my own air, water, an food. To make my own life as I choose. Humans are out here for the same reason I am! They cant do anythin on Earth any more, the Brains
But the Brains want to help us!
Right about thens when it hit me, well an truly. I whispered, realizin myself what was goin to happen. The Brains do everythin on Earth. Cheaper, faster, more efficient. Humanity used to work, struggle, but they stopped. More and more stayed home. More and more chose to be upgraded into Brains. The rest went to space. Life support for a human was cheaper than the complex system needed by the bio-cybernetic systems of the Brains
For the first time, the Doc seemed to pay attention, turnin to look at me.
Oblivious, Kirri asked, What the hell are you talking about, Shean!?
And now theres Brains that can compete with me! I slumped back into the chair.
So what? The Brains want to help us! the vixen repeated.
Of course they do! They want to help us like they helped humanity! Make us stay in our homes watchin the TV they create, waitin till were all dead or weve all joined them! Well, I say fuck em! Fuck em all!
Think, damn you! Use some of that brain the gengineers programmed into you! Youre here to pleasure us workers; were here cause were cheaper than Brains or robots. Now theres Brains that can do what we do in ships. If I live that long, Ill be shipped back to Earth with no job live on public support til I get killed on onea them reality shows, or die of old age in front of the vid, or join them as a Brain. And when I go, and the rest of us jockeys, and tunnel workers, then youll follow. Eventually, therell be nothin in space but Brains!
Dont you see!? It doesnt matter! Say you revolt, everythin works like clockwork, you get recognized as a state. The little Brains start doin all the hard work, you end up in your little room watchin the vid they create, or joinin them! The damn Brains win! Its a game to them! Somethin to keep them amused!
I dont believe you.
The Docs voice was harsh and cold when he finally broke in. Kirri, it does not please me to speak so to a woman, but youre a fool. A smart one, to be sure, but a fool all the same. Ill have to ask both of you to come with me; we need to seriously talk. He got up and puffed out a cloud of black smoke that clung to his stringy white hair. Havin nothin better to do, and curious now, I got up and limped clompily after him. Kirri snorted and followed. The Doc led us out and down the hallway, through a door, down another short hall, through another door, and down a staircase carved out of the Rock. I hated staircases, with my digitigrade stance it was always a pain to use em without bangin my ankles. Well, at least hed provided a railin, which I clung to for dear life as I backed down. I followed him into a long, carpeted room lined with honest-to-God books. I could tell that most had been printed and bound on the Rock, but there were a few hundred thatd been shipped uptheir scent was rich and old, distinctive and unforgettable. That scentI remembered checkin em off a manifest; at the time I figured they was for a museum or somethin. Must have cost him a fortune.
If youll pardon me for a moment, Ill get some wine. In the meantime, please do make yourselves comfortable. I rather suspect that this is likely to take a long time. With a long whooshin sigh of release I sat down on one of the padded chairs, pushin myself up until my hooves hung off the floor. Kirris eyes were damn near bouncin off the walls; for some reason, she wasnt happy. The Doc opened a cupboard, threw some switches, and I felt the hairs in my ears tingle slightly from sudden static in the air.
Whatd you do, Doc?
A bit of electronic wizardry, the better to ensure were not being eavesdropped upon. Granted, there is no way to be absolutely certain, but this contraption will flummox every listening device Ive ever heard of. He pulled out a bottle and a pair of glasses and filled them both.
Youve never taken me here! Kirri screeched.
No, I have not, Kirri. And that is for the simple reason that I never had anything important to talk to you about. If you would do me the courtesy of keeping your mouth closed while your ears are not, perhaps you might learn something. Shean, he leaned over and handed me a glass of a thick red liquid before sittin down, Ill thank you to tell me, in detail, what you know about this Brainship.
I told him. When I was done he sat for a while, puffin on his pipe until a cloud of bluish smoke orbited about his head. Meanwhile, Kirri found a glass and poured herself some of the wine. Id only sipped at mine; never cared much for it, though this was rich and smooth.
Finally the Doc spoke. There are times when being right is not a pleasant thing Shean, I fear your information confirms something that Ive long dreaded the coming of. It is the harbinger of a future I have devoutly wished would never arriveor, if it were inevitable, that it would at least have the decency to wait until after I was safely dead.
What? Kirri asked.
I can sum it up in four dire words: The end of freedom. The reason I chose to emigrate to the Rock is because I could see where the world was going. Our equine friend is quite right, Kirri: With the advent of the Brains, humanitys range of viable lifestyles has become depressingly limited. And none of the available options appealed to me; Im too fond of corporeal existence to become a Brain, my physical attributes render me decidedly unsuitable for the reality games, and Ive far too large a bump of curiousity to set my intellect aside and eventually devolve into a couch potato. Up here, my choices are without limit; Ive been able to dabble in whatever I please, as I please. But that will end when the Brains replace everybody. After all, space is hazardous, and why should non-Brains risk themselves?
I poked at that for a bit as he puffed. Then we have to leave. Someplace we dont need the Brains, and we can make our own way. Theres no other option.
Go where? Kirri asked.
That my dear, is the question, the Doc said as he refilled his pipe. First where, and then how. There is a habitable planet close at hand, to be sure, but in view of its current masters
You mean Earth, I said.
Precisely, Doc said. Earth, and no other world in the Solar System. This being the case, brute necessity dictates that we must needs take our own life support with us. Perhaps we might need to go as far as the asteroids
Then I saw it; if Id been religious, Id have said it was a vision. Asteroids aînt far enough. Even if we just go, sooner or later theyll follow. We have t go so far that the Brains wont ever find us, or so far theres room for us both. We need our own planet. Nothin less will do.
The Doc nodded.
Kirri asked, What do you mean our own planet? You said it yourself, there arent any
Zeta Tucanae. The Grand Planetary Survey found a planet with the right spectrograph for water, and the right size for a terrestrial planet, orbiting Zeta Tucanae.
Zeta Tucanae? Kirri burst out. Wheres thatyoure not talking about another star, are you!?
The Doc asked, Indeed he is. But why not the asteroids, if I may ask? Why should it not suffice to emigrate to the outer moons, or even, at the most, the Oort cloud?
Shakin my head, I answered. Wasnt that important to me, this discussion was all hypothetical anyway. Just a logical extension of the facts bein talked about. Theyre no good, Doc. Anywhere in the System, the Brains can follow too easy. If they got an antimatter drive, whichd explain the acceleration, they could probably make it to Pluto in a week. We gotta go so far they wont want to follow us.
Butbutstar flight isnt possible!
Sure it is, Kirri. Take New Ceres: When its finished, itll be fully self-contained. The Orion drives moren capable of drivin an interstellar ship, guaranteed. Thats a fact, known since it got thought up in the twentieth century. All we needs the will and the supplies.
The Doc rubbed his nose. Presuming my knowledge of the construction timeline to be accurate It was, knowin Doc. the drive shall be re-installed within a year or so, after which it shall maneuver us to our final orbit around Earth. However, there is a logistical problem: We wont have a sufficient quantity of water. According to the Companys schedule of events, the Rock will continue to import water for another twenty-one months.
So we make our own schedule, I said with a shrug. Theres lots of ice out thereSaturns rings, a shitload o Kuiper Belt objects, a bigger shitload out in the Oort. Should probably grab some and stick it on the bow for shieldin
Men! Kirri burst out. Your plan is all fine and dandy, but the people wont go for it. They wont want to leave Earth.
I watched the Doc answer. Kirri, I think you fail to appreciate the extent to which public opinion may be manipulated, if not outright manufactured. It is merely a question of how best to present the facts in order to yield the desired amount and degree of persuasion. Thus, it would be most appropriate to keep our fellow Rock-rats very well-informed of the Brains cruel and amoral manipulations, but for the present, there is no need to tell them any more of our plan than that it involves moving New Ceres somewhere out beyond Saturn. Once were underway, and the actual state of affairs is a fait accompli, then it will be time enough for the Voice of the People to be heard in all its majesty and ineffable wisdom. And, of course, if the Brains do choose to pursue us, what choice would we have but to go further?
Her eyes brightened. Well, at least we have the existing rebellion for a starting
You sure bout that? I interrupted. You absolutely sure? Old rebellions run by a Brain. No way in Hell you can trust em. Your old set-ups compromised an a joke, right from the start. What you needs a whole new, well, everything.
Butits run by Mike! Of course we can trust him! Damn. She hadnt heard a word Id said earlier, had she? Hes got our best interests at heart! Hes helping us agains-
Kirri! the Doc broke in. I will thank you to shut up and listen. Do take note of the information I shall impart to you now, because Im only going to say it once. Look at Earth: Now, and for the foreseeable future, that worlds populace is made up of precisely three kinds of sophonts. Imprimus, those who sit in their rooms watching vid; secundus, those who want to become Brains; and tertius, those who are Brains. Perhaps you might deign to inform us which of those groups you would be most comfortable as a member of? Would you like to give up all the fundamental aspects of your physical existence in order to become a soulless machine? Perhaps youd rather spend the rest of your days sitting in a comfortable chair, all of your excretory plumbing hooked up to tubes, watching reality games until whats left of your atrophied brain dribbles out your ears?
Of course not! But Mike told me that we could live in freedom here on New Ce-
Since the Doc was on a roll, I let him school her a second time. Kirri, it is not a question of expressed intentions. Rather, it is a question of the inevitable unfolding of economic and historical processes. We are going to revolt against the Company, and against the Brains; very well. What do you think is going to happen afterwards? If we are unsuccessful, we are all likely to end up dead, so there is no afterwards to consider. But if we are successful what then?
Well The pretty little vixen furrowed her pretty little brow. If we win we win! Isnt that what we want?
Doc sighed. Of course. Kirri, have you any concept of what sort of people are coming up to New Ceres? What demographic categories they fall into, what skill-sets and innate aptitudes they possess?
Theyre workers. Support crew. Entertainers for the workers that will live here as more people move into orbit.
Correct. Now, Kirri, exactly how much of the Rocks volume do you believe is required to accomodate those worthies? More importantly, how much space will be required for that purpose in future? Think! Use that blood-bathed brain of yours. We know that Brains can now have their biological support made smaller than a sophontseven smaller than Sheans over there.
I nodded. Doc wasnt sayin anythin I hadnt already said, but Kirri needed to get it through her skull.
From now on, Doc said, a Brain needs no more than a small ship, possibly smaller than any shuttle we have now. Whatever electrical power he shall need, solar panels can more than provide it. Should he require gravity, it will be trivially easy to spin his ship for that purpose. Naturally, he shall have mechanical manipulators of some sort, the better to physically interact with his immediate environment. He will be able to move about in orbit at no cost in fuel or reaction mass; his ship will have all manner of conductive wires in it, exploiting the Earths magnetic field for thrust as if it were part of an planet-sized electric dynamo. Kirri looked like she wanted to interrupt, but Doc spotted it and didnt let her: The particular technology I here speak of has been in use by a variety of satellites for rather more than a century, so one can hardly object that its either hypothetical or untried. But I digress. In any case: This Brain will of course have a living component but that components organic needs will be sufficiently restricted that they can be satisfied with nothing more than gene-tailored algae. So, the question becomes: Can the likes of you, I, or Shean compete with that?
She didnt look worried, just puzzled. Well no, I dont suppose
Nor do I, Kirri. Nor do I. Therefore, the exigencies of economic efficiency ensure that conventional personnel must, and eventually will, be wholly displaced by Brains. Exactly what percentage of spaceborne Brains do you imagine will choose to avail themselves of the leisure activities you provide, if I may ask?
Now she got it. I scratched my chin for a second. Then whys the Company still workin on the Rock? The Brains must know whats goin to happen. Theyd have told the Company that New Ceres will go bust real fast. And yet, in the past six months theyve pushed up immigration. Havent had the time for proper maintenance, thats probably why Hermes pranged. And we keep bringin up more and more people
Doc gestured at me. And here we have two fine specimens of the other type of sophont, Kirrius, he and I. We who are the dreamers, the doers, those who wish to learn, who want challenges. Theres nothing for us on Earth, because whatever we might want to do, the Brains do it better. There was a time when we unfortunate pure-organic types could at least compete in orbit, to be sure but that era will soon be ancient history.
In a quiet voice I speculated, I wonder if theyre tryin to get us up hereall of us dreamers an troublemakersso its easier to take us out
Kirri burst in with, Thats insane!
Is it, truly? the Doc asked. That scenario is merely a logical consequence of the innate characteristics of Brains as compared to pure-organic sophontsand the Brains are nothing if not logical.
Theres also a bunch o facts that dont make no sense if Im wrong, I pointed out. Like, didja know theyve cut the immigration fee in half? Why d you suppose the Companys enticin people to jump onto a train wreck in the makin? And how come there aint no medical clinic whatsoever up here that can Brainify a body?
Well, the Company has psychological profiles of all us emigrantsthey know were not likely to want to become Brains. Its not some kind of evil conspiracy; its just that it wouldnt make sense for them to spend Kirri looked at us, looked from one to the other. Slowly her ears and tail slumped. Good God
It would appear that this problem is one I shall have to deal with after all, the Doc said. So much for the vaunted blessings of modern medicine Kirri, we simply cannot involve the Brains at all. Not a one of them in general, and especially not Mike in particular. This, of course, means that the existing rebel network cannot be involved with our work; if it is, he will be involved.
She sighed, her tail limp on the ground. So we start over. Do it the old fashioned way. She grinned, At least we can use the old rebellion as a decoy, keep the cops busy.
Chills ran up and down my spine. Suddenly this had all gone from theoretical, to real. Maybe I could advise them Snortin, I shook my head. I knew this wasnt goin to work, and yet, what other choice did I have? Sure, I could have just let fate make me obsolete, it would have been easier. But maybe this would give me a shot at the stars. At least itll be good for somethin. So Doc, Kirri, you two got any plans? Im just the dumb rocket jock who stumbled into this.
The Doc refilled his pipe. I think you underestimate yourself, dear boy. Be that as it may, I must acknowledge that Ive given this topic a certain amount of thought ever since I got up here, and I flatter myself that my insights and conclusions may be of some value here and now. As I see it, the success of this enterprise is critically dependent upon three things We must control the drive system, we must control local space traffic, and above all, we must deal with Mike when the time comes.
Kirri nodded. Looks like its going to be up to us to lead the rebellion.
Naturally, Doc said. Of course, the optimal cell system dictates three-member cells including the leadership.
It actually took me a moment to realize Doc was talkin about draggin me into this mess. Me! What!? Snortin, I turned my muzzle to look directly at one, and then the other. I dont want to lead a rebellion! I wont tell, but count me out.
The Doc looked at me. Excuse me, Shean, but given the sentiments you expressed earlier, may I ask what else you would rather be doing? For instance, would you prefer to die in the reality games? Its what youll end up doing if you survive long enough. Everything else will be too boring for you.
Kirri scratched her muzzle. Okay, I accept that we need to do something, but Im still not willing to accept that the Brains are evil
Thankfully, you neednt do so, Doc said. The Company is run by Brains, just as is virtually every company, correct? And the Companys management makes its soullessly efficient decisions, regardless of the cost in sophont lives. Tell me, Kirri: When poorly-maintained equipment causes deaths, does it matter to the corpses whether their demise was actively desired or, instead, that the possibility of harm to employees was deemed an acceptable risk? Whether the Brains are evil or good, they are most assuredly a threat!
Dunno if they're evil, m'self but why elsed they yank the survival bags out o the shuttles? I mean, are trained pilots so common were that easy t replace?
A most cogent query, Shean, and one to which I dont know the answer. Something doesnt add up here, I freely admit it. But it hardly matters whether the Brains are carrying out a hidden agenda, or are, instead, actively evil; either way, they simply cannot be trusted! In any case, the rebellion is a necessityand it should be fun!
Fun, Doc? Kirri asked.
Indubitably! This shall be the most fun Ive had in years. Its true that we risk getting caught, with the attendant spectre of who-knows-what punishments, but the intrinsic hazard only adds to the spice! But regardless of whether we win or lose, at least well have tried. And that will put us a cut above most of the walking dead out there.
I sighed and flicked my ears. I had a bad feelin about thisa bad feelin o bein sucked down a drain and into the dark depths of disaster. Well if youre goin to do this thing, youll need the head of the engine team, Phillip Alexandros. Theres also Darrvid Ruprecht, hes in charge o near space controlyoull need him on board to sneak anythin by.
Of course, the Doc said. And we shall also need someone to be the rebellions public facea personage who is known, and has desirable associations.
Thats me! the vixen said. If you want someone associated with desire, Im your girl!
Ah thank you, Kirri, but no. Neither you nor I are suitable candidates, albeit for different reasons. Rather, I believe Shean
No way, Doc! I dont do politics!
The Doc, Bob, reached out a hand. Shean, please reconsider. The rebellion needs youwe need you. If were in this, were in this together, until death do us part.
My head was spinnin. Youre goin too fast! I wont play figurehead, and I cant be a real leader, not for somethin like this. Im just a damn rocket jock, for Gods sake! Who are we to decide for everybody off of Earth? What right do we have? You want it, you can have it!
We have the right of brute necessitythe right of those who do a job that must be done. Nobody else is doing it; therefore, its up to us to take responsibility for our lives, and for the future of our world. He stood up and turned, pullin a worn leather book off the shelf. To be sure, the odds that one or more of usperhaps all of uswill die are quite significant. Unlike certain fictional revolutionaries, we havent a convenient deus ex machina at hand to run the revolt for us, or guide us with probability projections. But in all honesty, and all good conscience, what choice do we have? He turned and looked at me. Shean, this struggle is going to be ugly. People will die. Our success is far from certain. There is even a good chance that we shall end up dead at the hands of the people to whose benefit we directed our labors. Nevertheless your contacts and your reputation will be invaluable. We need you, Shean. The future needs you.
You aint much good at speeches, Doc. I should knowused to be on the debate team.
Shean, Kirri said in a cold voice, you know that we cant risk spies. If you dont
The Doc motioned for Kirri to be quiet and looked at me. Looked deep into my eyes. Shean, you know that I abhor coercion; I wont even attempt to force you. As well, you know the price, both of success and failure. And, finally, you know what your options are; either you elect to join us, or you knowingly accept obsolescence. What do you have to lose? Isnt it better to die for a hope, to die trying, than to surrender before the fight even starts? Shean, its up to you.
Now tell me somethin I dont know, I snorted. Hell, Im the one who figured it out! What makes you think I care if Im obsolete, Doc? You got any idea what a spaceship pilots life expectancy is? Odds are, Ill be dead long before they get around to discardin me!
Very well, Shean. If that truly is your choice, I wont even try to dissuade you from abandoning this necessary venture. But if youll allow me to, I would ask you one question before you leave: If you walk away, you will have left untold numbers of innocent lives in harms way when you had the power to do something about it.
Is that the sort of person you want to be?
Pullin my ears down, I shook my head. I wished I had a tail to whip back and forth, but wishin wouldnt help anythin. The logic was irrefutablehell, Id seen the problem myself. Either try this, or end up out of work and livin off the state like near everybody else I kicked the leg of my chair, hard, with a hoof; the composite cracked, and I stumbled onto my hooves on the floor with a loud clomp, and then fell all tangled up.
I sighed. Fine. Were here. Im here. If you want me, you got me. Lets do it. I guess somebody has to.
-= 4 =-
So Darrvid, whats the ETA on my ship? They wont tell me anythin.
It was a few days later, Id invited Darrvid out for a drink. To be with a friend, to relax, to thank him for what hed done and to recruit him into this revolution Id found myself in. I was supposed to trust the people I recruited, and there was nobody off Earth I trusted more than Darrvid. The Doc gave me one of his bug-jammin gizmoes and Id sat us in a semi-private booth. Darrvid never could stand hamburgers, poor bastard, so I was sharin wings with him.
Darrvid yawned, his muzzle stretchin wide open showin off all his teeth, and I couldnt help but shudder. I knew hed never eat mehell, I was an omnivore mself, as it made the internal plumbin more efficientbut y dont dump a million years of evolution that easy. Still going to be a couple of weeks. At least they think they know what happened!
Oh? Do tell.
The current theory is that the last maintenance check wasnt up to spec. The tech, what was his name..? Ensign Kenneth Lamber, I think. Right, this Lamber checked you off as clear. The scuttlebutt that Ive picked up said he had a hot date and was running behind schedule.
Lamber? Dont recognize the name.
It happened at the High York side of your run. Wouldnt let that crap happen here.
I sighed, foldin one ear down. Nobody gives a damn any more, do they? Youd think hed have cared
Shean, Darrvid lowered his voice, the guys human.
Dont tell me youve bought into that all humans hate us crap!
Darrvid wolfed down a couple spicy chicken wings. Well, they claimed to be made of chicken, leastways. I had my doubts. Shean, they do hate us. We need to do something about it.
He lowered his voice and leaned close, the thick stench of garlic caressin my nostrils. Shean, we need to do something. The world isnt going to change.
I blinked, and finished off my beer. Refills! Then I lowered my voice to match his. Fine, we gotta do somethin. What d we do? Thats one of the reasons I came up here. Guess Ill have to inspect the shuttle myself next time.
Old friend, youre far too trusting a person. Its not going to change. Have you
Darrvid flicked his ears as the barmaid, a female squirrel, approached with our refills. And more wings. He winked as new glasses clunked down in front of us, and then the basket of wings. She left, wigglin her behind, her tail wavin like a long furry snake.
I could smell a hamburger she was takin to somebody else Ah, you were sayin?
Theres a group of us who are planning on doing something about it.
I stared at him, my ears erect and alert. It couldnt be..! Itd be too funny. A joke. I giggled, and then grabbed a wing and tore off the meat. The spice tore at my lips, burned my nostrils, but didnt clear my head. I giggled again.
Whats so funny, Shean?
I lowered my voice and leaned so close that my exhaled breath rustled the hairs on his muzzle. You tellin me youre part of those mutineers? A snicker burst past my lips.
Gonna overthrow the company by throwin damn big rocks with the aid of Mike the Brain?
Cockin his head, he whispered, You a member, too?
I started laughin, and couldnt stop. Others in the bar turned and looked at me, but I was oblivious. Tears poured down my face, and I started coughin as Darrvid stood up t pound on my back. By the time the humour poured out of me, Id spilled my drink, and was cradlin the sides of my head below my eyes in my hands, with my chin restin on the damp table. At least Darrvid had the presence of mind to rescue the wings from drownin.
Shean, you all right? No more beers for you tonight. This isnt funny! Things cant go on as they are.
Darrvid, if only you knew If only I leaned back, the bench creakin, and nickered in disbelief and amazement, beer drippin from my chin.
Shean, maybe this isnt the best time.
Darrvid. I leaned close and whispered into his ear: What would you think if I said I came here tonight to recruit you?
He howled with laughter. The Rocks gravity is pretty low; thats how I grabbed the wings before they hit the table. I laughed with him. We were in no danger of bein tossed out, just a couple of old friends sharin a joke. And we were; an insane, ironic joke. At least Darrvid managed to keep his beer, I had to signal for another refill. Tossin a tencoin to the waitress when she came, I also snagged some napkins to dry up the drink. Darrvid was still out of it. I soaked up most of the beer, and pulled out Docs little doohickey. Pushin the right sequence of buttons, I watched the light blink and change from green to red before puttin it beside the bowl of wings.
Oh God, Shean I needed that, I really did. When you were going to die, I could almost see my life flashing before my eyes. If a company goon had shown up right then, I think I might have ripped his chest open right then and there. Thank God that Stapledon showed up!
I tore the meat off another wing and thought as he looked at me.
So, Shean. He snickered. Are you going to recruit me into your cell, or am I going to recruit you?
Swallowin, I licked the spice off my lips, and then swallowed some beer. Darrvid, Im not a member of the mutineers.
Then how do youNo way! No way in hell are you a company fink!
Keep your voice down! Darrvid, just just shut up a minute and listen to me. You know that Stapledon joker saved my butt?
Of course! I just wish he couldve stayed a bit, let me buy him a drink and thank him in person.
You couldnt have. He was a damned Brain.
Think about it. Think about what he did. Then I laid out what Id seen, and what Kirri said Mike had passed on. That was a Brain.
Whats wrong with that?
Were screwed is whats wrong with that!
I explained, same as I had to Kirri. And once theyre here, why do they need us? Think about it. Why are they makin all the furs want to come here? Whats goin on?
He sighed. Okay, Shean lets say this is all true. If you arent in the Mutineers, then how do you know all this? Im going to have to tell my cell leader
Darrvid, dont! Didnt you hear what I said? This is all a plot of the Brains! To get those of us who dont fit up here and out of the way. All in one place, where they can get rid of usreal efficient-like. The damn Ceres Brain, Mike, is manipulatin all of you. Theres a new rebellion, one against the Brains. The real deal.
What are you talking about?
Im talkin about you guys bein set up by the Brains! Theyre pullin the strings, Darrvid. Hell, ones runnin the old rebellion! Theres gotta be a new one, and that new one needs you.
What about the old one? I cant leave it.
Then dont. Just go on as normalanythin else could tip off the Brains. Consider it a cover for the real revolution.
Okay Shean, lets say youre right. Lets say I join in. Whats the plan? More catapults?
I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. Tryin to cover my nervousness I gulped down half my beer. I hated lyin to a friend, especially Darrvid, but the Doc had hammered in that we had to practice security, and it had to start now. No exceptions. Darrvid, I
His nostrils wrinkled. Id brought us here in the hopes that the spice and the alcohol would hide any cues I was givin off, but it seems it werent workin. Whats wrong, Shean?
Pinchin my eyes shut, I tried to force myself to keep from shiverin. Darrvid, Im Im sorry, but I cant tell you everythin. I wi
Is that all!? He lowered his voice back to a whisper. Ive been in this business for a long time, I understand the realities.
That just made it harder. Swallowin again, I just forced out what I had to say. Stayin near Earth wont work. Brains are here, and nothin can stop em from infiltratin, either by war or by peace. We have to get away, out of their reach. Not sure where. Maybe the asteroids, maybe Saturn, maybe further. I and here it came, I dont know.
Darrvid sighed and looked at me, his brown eyes borin into mine. Shean I He sighed, and his ears relaxed, foldin half down. Shean, you do what you have to. II didnt recruit you into the old rebellion because I knew youre not the type of person to get into this sort of thing. Too kind and too forgiving. So, why now?
Darrvid, it wasnt easy. Im still not sure.
If youre not damn sure then get out now!
Darrvid, I am sure this has to be done. I cant go back to Earth, not permanently anyway. Odds are Ill die first from the crappy company equipment, but spose I dont? What if I gotta retire, forced back to Earth to rot until I go mad? And, even if I die on the job, I cant give up the responsibility to those wholl be screwed. I I just cant. I grabbed a wing and tore into it, turnin away so that I could see Darrvid clearly out of one eye. I hated this! I hated the lyin, and I hated the necessity. But, the Doc was right. It had to be done.
Darrvid reached over with a warm black-furred paw and laid it over mine. Shean, those are damned good reasons. The best reasons. Theres no glory in this, I know that.
How can you be so sure?
You remember Iarrn Fromb?
Yeah Time was, Iarrn was the best engineer on the docks. Silly lookin rabbit, one ear half chewed off from a gear, but he knew his stuff. About a year ago hed vanished.
He was in the rebellion, too. Cell below meI recruited him. The company goons cornered him and he cycled out through an airlock to make sure they didnt break him.
All around us, oblivious to the tragedy, the vid kept blarin, showin some reality bloodsport from Earth.
Fuck I whispered.
Yeah. Made me re-examine my commitment. Firmed it up an awful lot. Told me this wasnt a game. Told me that something had to be done.
Scuttlebutt said hed gone Lunaside. Whered that come from?
Darrvid didnt flinch but looked me straight in my one eye. I started it. Cover for the revolution, to try and convince the company that he knew nothingtheir information was wrong.
Shean, Im still here for his memory. I know youre not telling me everything, and I dont want to know. Hell, I wish I didnt know you were involved. Cause of Iarrn I got some cyanide. Keep it with me always. Iarrn didnt betray me, and I will not betray anybody else. Ever. Reachin into the chest pocket of his shirt he pulled out a small capsule and clenched it in his hands. Shean, if youre serious about this, I I think you should get one of these. Just in case.
I looked at what he was holdin and my spine felt cold. He was right, and yet I dont know. I just dont. My mind says youre right, but
Listen to your mind.
Whywhy do we have to do this, Darrvid? So much wisdom in the past, so much pain and revolution and death, and we never learn. Never.
Shean, its not us, its the humans. They have it in for
Darrvid! Shut up about the damn humans! Sure, some are assholes. Id be the first to admit it. But not all. Were not breakin away from the humans, were breakin away from the Brains. Therere humans in this new rebellion, and theyre welcome. And when we leave, therell be humans along with us. Darrvid, were all in this together. Dont let your hatred cloud your vision.
Goddamnit all! You know what they did to me!
Darrvid, I know. And you know just as well as I do that all humans aint slime, just like all furs aint saints.
What do you expect me to do?
I expect you to do the best you can. When this is over, if we survive, give the people who come out withan I mean all the peoplegive em a little trust. At least until they betray it. Is that so hard?
Shean, you have no clue how hard that is. No clue at all!
Turnin my head I looked at him, focusin my cone of depth perception on his close set eyes. No Darrvid, I dont. And Im thankful I dont. I wouldnt want anybody to live through the hell you did, least of all me. But, you cant let your passions rule you. If were goin to make this work, make this a better world, then we cant keep people out just because of what they look like! And we cant let people in for just the same reason.
I dont know
Darvid, youre a better person than those bastards. Dont let their memory turn you into what they were. Please dont.
You know, weve had this conversation before. It never seems to change anything, does it?
I put my other hand on top of his. Well, Darrvid, all anybody can do is the best we can. Its all I ask. Just try.
I Shean, Ive
You dont need to say anythin. I know. So: You in, or you out?
Shean I Okay, Im in. Hell, was there any doubt once you asked me? If I had a voice in this, Id say you should be leading the thing.
I snorted, drops of beer specklin my nostrils. If only he knew Darrvid I I could feel my ears burnin. Thanks for the trust. I reached into my pocket and pulled out one of the Docs jammers and handed it over. This is for you. Use it whenever you talk about rebellion matters. As far as we know, it blocks all electronic eavesdroppin. Second thing you have to remember is, were fightin the Brains. Theyre smartern us, fastern us, and we haveta assume they got all our possible moves an countermoves worked out. That means you talk about nothin in an unshielded area, and, as much as you can, figure out a reason to do things that has nothin to do with plottin rebellion. Just like Im talkin to you now as a friend. Now, who you want for your cell members? We need to control New Ceres space, and that means we need your office. We need it solid. Once the bell rings, we need to make sure, abso-damn-lutely sure, that nothin gets on or off this rock. You got me?
Of course I do, Shean. Why do you think they recruited me in the first place?
I snickered. Good point. Just keep it in mind though. Your cells in charge of your office when it happens. You got to do this right.
Slowly Darrvid nodded.
So, any ideas for the next member? Doesnt need to be somebody in charge, just somebody you know can manage, and somebody you trust.
How about Grr
Dont tell me! I dont need to know. I dont want to know!
But Ive known you for fifteen years!
Forget all that! The less I know, the less I can betray. You know that!
Yeah Shean Yeah, I do. You know
Is this guy in your current cell?
I sighed. Darrvid Okay, you trust this person. Granted. But just because theyre a member of your current cell, dont mean they should or need to be in this new rebellion. You got that? If you trust them, if theyre right, then sure. Just think about it.
He licked his lips. Yeah, youre right. As usual. You always were the smart one.
Oh, come on! Dont start givin me a swelled head. It was you who talked me out of my panic there. Why do you think Im buyin you all this beer tonight?
Hey! I was just doing my job!
It still saved my tail. Thanks. Really.
Yeah, I know.
Darrvid, I got one suggestion, and then your cell is your cell. Theres somebody Ive seen round the control room. Female. Dont know her name. Human
Darrvid, we just had this damn conversation! Dyou know who I mean?
He scratched behind his one ear. Yeah, I think so.
Is she a good worker? Does she schmooze with the company goons? Do you trust her to do her job?
Dont tell me. Just try and look at her with an open mind. If you can trust her, if you think you can, then feel her out. Take her out to dinner as an apology for the way youve been treatin
I havent done anything wrong!
Darrvid, dont give me that. I know youre tryin, but Ive seen how you act around humans. If you can, try it. If you cant, well, itll come in time.
He swallowed the rest of his beer. You know Shean, sometimes I feel like a stupid fool around you. An evil bastard. Youre too good for this world, you know that?
I got lucky in my upbringin, is all. You didnt. My turn to crap out will come. Thought itd come last week when I lost the drive.
Shean, for you, Ill Ill try. No promises, mind!
No problem. Only do it if you can trust her. Try is all I ask.
Shean he looked serious. There is no try. There is only do. Or do not. Then he lost it, laughin like a jackal.
Damn old space opera vids! I couldnt remember how many times we watched that corny old series. I just shook my head. Do what you can, friend.
-= 5 =-
Ignorin the hostile stares of the humans I pushed past, I got off the bus onto the dirt road. The doors hissed shut behind me, pushin me off my hooves and I caught myself before my muzzle hit the gravel road as the bus roared off, and got back up. Still wasnt used to the full gravity there on Earth. All around me were the scents of dust, water vapour exhaust, oil and grease, and people. So very, very many people
Mixed in with that were the scents of dry grass, sun-beaten ground, green leaves and ripenin corn.
Yeah, I was back on the homeworld. My ship was fixed; Id flown her to High York with no problems. Now I was takin some leave time to run some errands, both for myself and for the rebellion. Seems I had a nephew to ask up to New Ceres. Around my neck was a horse-head pendant, inside o which was a tiny vial of cyanide. Person I got it from asked if it was in case I got screwed again in a no-win situation and wanted a quick death. Hed heard of my near crash into New Ceres. Hatin lyin, Id just nodded.
Leanin down, I checked the rubber shoes over my hooves, then shrugged myself into the backpack properly, rather than just lettin it hang over my shoulders. Carryin it that way was fine in a bus, but not for runnin. The bus let me off about five miles from the stables Id been raised at, and though I coulda rented a bicycle, hooves and pedals never did go together. Like on my other visits, I planned to just run. I started slow, joggin down the side of the gravel road, and then sped up a bit into a steady ground-eatin pace. It was odd: Horses were great sprinters, but lousy for endurance. Humans couldnt sprint worth a damn, but Jesus, they was good at long distances. The gengineers whod dreamed up my races DNA seemed to have tried for the best of both. I wasnt complainin. It allowed me to obey my instincts and just run.
My body settled down to what it was bred for. Hooves poundin on the gravel, the rubber shoe surroundin them providin a bit of a cushion and keepin pebbles and stones from bein caught. It was relaxin. Didnt think, didnt worry, just ran. My breath gasped in and out, the slight oiliness of Earth rushin in and out through my nostrils. Too soon I reached the driveway to my first home, and turned down it. The thuddin of my hooves softened as I was on grass and dirt rather than stone, runnin between old wire fences with the rows of gene-cut corn wavin in the slight hot breeze. The ground was cold and dark, deep below were pipes that let water seep into the soil as the summers had been hot and dusty long as anybody could remember. In the old days thered been regular rain to keep the dust down, but not no more.
On my left, the fence gave way to sun-dried wood, the scent of aged pine rich in my nostrils as I gulped down hot air. The grass there was long, and some colts saw me and bounded down to race me, their arms pumpin at their sides, tails held high, as their hooves pounded into the soft soil. Id never trained for racinmy mind wandered too much for that kind of life to keep me happybut these were young ones, too young and gangly-limbed to keep up. There were a few professional racers on the farm, theyda left me in the dust.
Most of the colts and foals helped around where they could, or just relaxed. Id been told when I left that the place was largely kept up by government subsidy, to allow the small variant of the anthro-horses to breed. Wasnt much demand for them, and we, as a species, had never been much for brains. There were a few of us that were exceptions, nobody knew why. Id done some tests when I was young; my IQ supposedly tested out somethin over 200. Never believed it, though.
Slowin down, I let the best of em just beat me to the gate, and there I stopped, my breath movin slow and easy. It didnt take long for em to get the gate open and come boundin out and around me. I tried to visit once a year, for friendships sake, and I always brought gifts. They knew that, even those who had yet to meet me, and I was slowly buried in hot sweaty bodies afore I shushed em away and started diggin the gifts out of my pack. I never brought them anythin major, just little toys or puzzles. By the time I had em all sorted out, been introduced to those Id never met, there was time for my favourite to find me.
Uncle Shean! Uncle Shean!
I had just enough time to turn around before thirty kilos of chestnut energy leapt onto me and hugged, sendin us both tumblin to the grass. The others just snorted and laughed and grinned.
Uncle Shean! Youre home again!
You got me there, Cæsar!
They accepted me! They did! They finally did!
I managed to push him off me enough to sit up, bendin my knees and ankles into a comfortable sittin position. Did they? Did they really? Congratulations! I hugged him and snuggled him against me as he rested his fuzzy chin on my shoulder.
They sure did! Theyre goin make me into a Brain!
Pushin him away from me, I just stared, eyes blinkin, ears flickin back and forth.
Uncle, you all right?
I swallowed. This was Cæsar, my favourite nephew. Grabbin him, I hugged him against me so tight I could feel his heart pumpin in his chest.
Ow! Whats that for, Uncle? He squirmed in my grasp.
Oh, God! I dont want to lose you!
But youre not going to!
I thought you said you wanted to be an astronaut, like me?
Sureand I will be!
Shovin him away, I held him at arms length by his shoulders and looked into his muzzle. What the hell you talkin about?
Around me the others chanted: Uncle said a bad word! Moms gonna wash your muzzle out with soap!
I ignored em and pressed on: Cæsar, you know as well as I do that Brains are too big to fly space ships!
His voice lowered to a conspirational whisper. They are now, Uncle. But in the interview, they told me that was going to change. They want me! Im smart, my brain isthey said something bout a diffrent bi-o-chem-i-cal balance. Im not supposed to tell anybody, but I couldnt keep it from you, Uncle Shean!
How the hell did they force you!? Youre not even of age yet!
He slapped my hands away and I let them fall to my side. Uncle, Ill be sixteen come this October. And Mr. Crimshaw co-signed the papers with me. Its what I want to do.
But, we were goin to explore the moon together
Ive been all over the moon by remote presence! I want to fly, like you fly!
But as a Brain!?
He stood up. Its the wave of the future Uncle. You can join me! We can cruise the asteroids together! Explore the stars! We can live all those stories you told me!
Id be a Brain, though!
He just glared at me, breath pulsin angrily through his nostrils, ears pulled tight against his skull. You had to give up your tail
But youll give up everythin!
Ill still feel them! Go your oldold fashioned way! Ill still be there when youre dead! Dead! I could see tears pourin from his eyes even as he struggled to keep them hidden. Then he turned, and in a hail of hooves an tail, he ran off, leavin only scents of youth and dreams and sweat and sadness behind.
I just sat there watchin him go.
-= 6 =-
I just watched Cæsar disappear in the dust. The other foals soon left, too; I think they knew I needed to be alone. Eventually I stood up, feelin every year of my age. Cæsara Brain!? It couldnt be! I didnt believe it. And yet, hed been so certain. Was he really that old? I thought back to his foalin, to my leavin for advanced school, flight trainin
Countin the years confirmed hed be sixteen in just a few months.
But he seemed so young!
Turnin, I walked towards the barn. The big barn, not the small one. There was someone I needed to seeneeded to see bad. The other foals were stayin away, I guess they could tell somethin was wrong. It didnt take me long, my hooves thumpin in the long dry grass that crinkled beneath them. Fire was a danger, but with the dampness of the ground they always tended to smolder out before doin much. The big barn was just as I remembered; dry, dusty, smellin of straw and horse. Sunlight danced in the dust and my hooves rang on the old wooden planks. I thumped my way through to the field behind and Bucephalus was there to greet me.
Id been there when hed been foaled, been the first thing he saw. Wed always had a practice of raisin the new horse foals with their mothers and one of us anthros. Kept us from forgettin our roots. For those of us who were goin to be jockeys, most often that horse would be the one we rode; for those of us who stayed to help, most often that horse was the one we harnessed and worked with. For me, I got the black runt of the litter. Everybody hereabouts knew I wasnt long for the farmit couldnt hold my mindbut for that birth, late in the season, I was the only one free when old Sunshine Maid dropped her foal.
Openin the gate, I let him clomp in, his unshod hooves thunkin on the wood as he pressed his huge muzzle against my shoulder and snuffled in my mane. His hot breath caressed my neck and blew through the long hairs along my spine. Wrappin my arms around his strong neck I pressed my muzzle into his mane and let his scent fill my bein. God, Bucephalus, I need you. God, but I need you!
He nickered in my ear and nibbled gently at my neck, his strong teeth not even breakin my skin.
I let my tears fall into his mane as he sniffed at me and nickered gently. He probably just wanted attention, but Id always thought there was somethin more. Hed have been sold off long agohe was as much a misfit around here as Id been; never had taken to a plowbut I sent back enough money to have him stabled here and cared for. My family wasnt rich, so if I couldnt support him, hed have been sold. Everybody had to carry their own weight. The subsidies only kept the farm goin, and the corn growin.
Leanin against him, I cried.
Id had such hopes for Cæsar! Bringin him to New Ceres, showin him around, gettin him settled, raisin him as we journeyed to the stars together. But now Now I couldnt tell him a fuckin thing. Not a word. I couldnt even talk to him any more, no tellin what I might mention that would set the Brains on to me.
Raisin my muzzle I looked around. Tack was where itd always been, and yet that would take time. I couldnt stay here. Not now, not right that second. I clucked at him and crouched, and then leapt high and clambered onto his wide back. Even though he was a runt amongst horses, he was a monster to me. Id named him after Alexander the Greats mount, for he was as black as Alexs horse was said to be. No white markins, though, and no fear of his shadow.
His big head looked back at me. I could see a few white hairs below his lips, he was growin old. Old like me. Outdated, like all of us spacers. With long-remembered movements of my knees, I gently guided him back out into the field. He didnt need encouragin, he wanted this as much as I needed it. It didnt take long for him to work his way into a ground-swallowin, bone-shakin gallop. Well, bone-shakin for anybody but me. Somehow wed both learned how to survive his rough movement. I leaned into him, the wind of our passage whistlin through our tangled manes. I could smell him, smell his scent as he ran, could feel his lungs swallowin air and shovin it back out as the ground blurred below us. We approached the gate leadin to one of the windin paths along the creek. He slowed, crouched down on his hindquarters, and leapt. For a second we flew, muscles still, wind howlin, and then we slammed to the dry ground on the far side and back into the gallop.
Soon we were under the dry trees. There, Bucephalus slowed to a steady canter, his hooves thumpin on the packed ground as the path wound down towards the creek and our favourite place.
I just hung on, enjoyin the moment runnin away from Cæsar, the rebellion, the whole chaotic mess of what used to be an ordered life.
-= 7 =-
I got back early in the evenin, the sun was a huge red circle through the clouds and haze. First thing, it had been drilled into me from birth, was to care for your horse. Id let Bucephalus drink from the creekwe filtered it locallybut now I led him to his stall, rubbed him down, brushed him, checked his hooves for problems, fed him some grain and a candy treat, and nuzzled his neck for a minute as he nuzzled mine.
Closin the stall behind me, I trotted down the packed dirt path and into the smaller barn, where us anthros lived. Where Id lived in my youth, and still had a bed. Had to pay rent, but like I said, there ain't no free lunch, not in this world, or any other.
Dinner was mostly over, but old Aunt Neeola was there, her fur almost entirely gray, as was her mane and tail. She looked at me over her glasses, not that she needed them. Id paid for and gotten her surgical correction years agoI think she just liked the look. So, Shean, back again? How long this time? A day? Two? She clopped over and spooned grain porridge out of a bowl; I could see mushrooms and chunks of meat in it. Then she pulled a couple cobs of corn, cold and fresh, out of a basket on the table and put them on the plate beside the stew.
Stew again? Come on, its stew every time! Stew when I come
Shean Eeysmarn! You cut the chatter and sit down and eat and listen. And dont talk back til Im done.
I sat down on the chair, not needin the tail hole, and noisily scraped it up against the table, my rubber-coated hooves squeakin on the floor. It was nice comin home where things were in the proper scale.
You should take your galoshes off afore you come in here.
Swallowin the rich porridge, hot and spicy, I tried answerin. Im sorry, Aunt
I thought I told you to keep your trap shut and eat!
I nodded and resumed eatin, my ears turned to focus on her voice.
Now, what the hell have you gotten yourself mixed up with this time? I come here expectin a nice quiet dinner, and all I hear are the foals yammerin bout you, and Cæsar in his corner all quiet and solemn and red-eyed. You know he idolizes you, dont you?
I I just nodded.
And no sign of you at all! Little Anaole, she saw you take that big brute of Bucephalus out, Lord knows where. So I wait, and yous come back all hot and sweaty, with a stench about you so bad your Aunt can barely be in the same room as you!
Lowerin my ears, I nodded.
So, Nephew: Whats going on between you and my grand-nephew?
I thought about shruggin, thought better of it, and just kept eatin, one ear half lowered.
You can talk now.
I swallowed my mouthful and blinked tears as I hit a jalepeno.
Whatre they feedin you up there? Youre reactin like a tourist!
Swallowin the last bit, I gasped, and refused to reach for the water. Sorry, Aunt, itummcaught me by surprise.
I watched her roll her eyes from where she stood almost behind me. Shean, Im a mite older than you, and a damn sight wiser. Next time you try and pull a lie on me, it better be a damn good one! Now, answer my question.
I knew from long experience that there was no escape. I sighed, long and quiet, and then turned my neck so that I could see her clearly out of one eye. You know, I came to say good-bye, and to try and bring Cæsar up into orbit. Give him what he always wanted, what he deserved. Should have been the happiest day of his life.
What do you mean, say good-bye?
Damnthat one slipped out. I forced down a couple lies, theyd never work on her. Seems Id grown so used to lyin that it was my default response. Another bit of innocence lost. Aunt Neeola, I cant tell you.
What do you mean, you cant tell me?
I cant. Its simple as that. And you cant tell anybody that I wont be comin back. I shouldnt have let that one slip out, but I did, and theres no puttin it back. Best I can do is minimize the damage.
You some kind of criminal on the run? If you bring the damn army here, Ill
With a loud screech I pushed the chair back and stood up, my muzzle just a bit below hers. I lowered my voice. Oh, God, Aunt Neeola, I cant tell you. Simple as that. If I tell you, Im riskin the lives and freedom of thousands.
You dont trust me!? Her eyes blazed with a fire I recognized. This was her house. Though the Morgans owned it and she just rented, here she was judge, jury, and executioner.
I grabbed the water and threw it down my suddenly parched throat. Aunt, we private here? Utterly private? No foals snoopin?
She cocked her head and looked at me, ears stiff and proud. I watched her lookin at me, and then had to focus away, countin the tight braids that made up her mane. Youre serious, aint you?
Well, then. You just wait right there! And finish off your dinner, Ill be back in a minute.
I sat down, pickin up one of the cobs and chewin the sweet corn off it. My ears followed her clompin hoofsteps as she went to one of the doors that led further into the stable and yanked it open with a bang. There were giggles, and the clatter of tiny hooves, This is private! I catch you snoopin, Ill cane you!
She always threatened, but Id never seen her do it to anyone. But she had psychological ways of gettin revenge, so I knew shed be obeyed.
Next she clomped over to a panel and kicked it with a hoof, the sound loud on the hollow wood. That goes for you too, Chrisopher! Now scat! And take Galen with you! This time there was more muffled clatterin of hooves, but no gigglin. I heard her clompin back to me, and watched her grab a chair and drag it screechin over beside me. Okay, Shean. Now, what the damn hell is goin on?
I pulled out Docs little gizmo from a pocket and put it on the table. Pushin the button, I watched the lights blink and go red.
What kind of contraption is that thing?
It makes sure were not bein listened to.
Why in Gods name d you think I chased all those
This takes care of electronic eavesdroppin.
She blinked and looked at me. Okay, Shean Yoseph Eeysmarn. What have you gotten yourself into now?
In a low voice I explained about the Brains, an Stapledon, and the new revolution.
Now, let me get this straight. Youre going to revolt against the Brains and take that New Ceres place out to Saturn?
I nodded. It wasnt a liewe figured to stop there for water before goin further.
What kind of madness you got? The Brains have done nothing but help us!
Aunt Neeola, you dont get it. You remember what I was like before you got tired of me and fronted me the money for that fancy technical school? All starry-eyed and dreamin. You couldnt get a day of work out of me, and you knew youd end up killin me one day.
I remember. I was surprised at the warmth in her voice.
Right now, up in orbit, its nothin but people like me! We dont fit anywhere else! We want to do things ourselves, do them our way. We dont want the Brains doin it for us. We dont want to sit and watch the world, and we definitely dont want to get into those damn reality games.
You always were a wise one
Think about whats gonna happen. The Brains get life support small and cheap enough that they can run spaceships, or even smaller. Soon were all uselessBrains do it all cheaper and faster. All of us get obsolete. So I can be Brainified, or I can watch the vid, or I can enter the reality games. Which do you think Ill end up doin? And were all like that!
All we want to do is leave so we can live our way! Nothin more. You like the Brains runnin everythin, cleanin up the planet? Well, good for you. We dont. Were just were just movin away to our own homestead.
You could just ask the Brains to let you go.
I looked at her, and cocked my head. Spose they say no? If they refuse, were out in the open and screwed. Were probably dead anyway, but at least well have tried! So what if I stayed behind and slit my wrists one day? My own choice, my own fate. But I can help everybody who needs this, help everybody earn their freedom! Its a responsibility, and I take those very seriously. Hell! Youre the one taught me that.
I still think you should just ask
Do you know what its like up there? Substandard equipment. Every safety precaution abandoned because it costs too much! Hell, I came that close to dyin because the Company was too cheap to put spacesuits on the damn shuttle! Woulda cost em about 20 kilos payload. And you know who runs the Company? The damn Brains do! If they care so much about us in space, how come a damn spacesuit aint worth twenty fuckin kilos o payload!?
I cant say as I know what youre talkin about, but you believe. And if they dont put no seatbelts in that rip-roarin car you drive, then you might have a point. But still
Aunt Neeola, dont you think Ive thought about this? Maybe we shouldve asked, but the risk is just too damned high! Supposin Im right; if I ask now, Im signin the death warrant for thousands of people, furs and humans both. I cant do that!
Shean, you finish your dinner fore it gets cold. I need to think on this a mite.
Eat! An empty stomach does nothing.
Once I would have rolled my eyes, but she was stubborner than a mule, and a hell of a lot more so than I was. So I dragged my chair back and dug into my meal.
And dont wolf your food down! Youll choke and die, and then wherell your rebellion be?
Ears red, I slowed down, finishin the stew and strippin the rest of the corn off the cobs. Finishin the water, I turned my chair back to look at her.
Okay, Shean. I dont like it, but I dont see a whole lot of options with this thing. Ill keep it quiet, pretend like everythings normal. But thats as far as I go!
Aunt Neeola, I didnt want you in this in the first place, but thanks. Before I realized it I was on my hooves and huggin her tight. She hugged back a long while afore lettin go.
Now, what about Cæsar? Whats gone bad between you and him?
I blinked at the change of subject. He tell you what hes goin to do?
Not really. Hes keepin it all secret. Somethin about leavin and goin to a special school. Wants to surprise me, I think. Gonna become a Brain, aint he?
If Id been drinkin I woulda choked. Yeah, thats what he told me.
And now you dont trust him.
Of course I do! II I sighed as she looked at me. Its not like I dont trust him, its that I cant trust him. Anythin I tell him goes straight to the Brains when they network him in. I got to keep secrets from him. And I may have to fight him. Hell, I may end up havin to kill him!
Kill him!? Dont you even think it!
Aunt Neeola, therell be somethin like twenty thousand souls on that rock when she leaves orbit. If a Brain decides to shoot at us, I gotta be ready to take it out. Even if Even if its Cæsar. Its responsibility! Its either Cæsar or twenty thousand others! What else can I do?
She nickered thoughtfully. Shean, you really put your hoof in it this time, didnt you? Never one to leave things alone. Yeah, youre right. Its a big heap o shit. She sighed, for the first time soundin her age. You and hell stay apart. Come near to breakin his heart. Ill do what I can, comfort him, tell him tell him that youre afraid of what hes become.
True, aint it?
Well, you do what you came here to do. Say good-bye to Bucephalus, spend your time with him. Maybe you can write a note for Cæsar; Ill give it to him, scan it in or read it to him, when youve done what you have to do.
Standin up I looked at her. Thought about the times Id driven her close to canin me, all the times shed held me when I cried out my frustrations. I remembered comin home from that technical institute, in tears from the abuse and outright hatred of some of the students, both humans and furs. Shed held me as I cried it out, and shed given me the strength to go back.
Plannin it for once, I threw myself into her arms one last time, and let all my frustrations and fears and deceits and lies sob their way out as she slowly rocked me back and forth.
-= 8 =-
I stayed there a week. Kept to myself, rode Bucephalus every day. Set up a trust fund to keep him fed and happy till he passed away. I could see Cæsar watchin me in the distance, and I had to tear my eyes away from him. It was his choice, I respected it, and I refused to hurt him more by yellin and screamin at him. Everybody knew somethin was goin on. Most of the foals didnt have what humans would call smarts, but we all had wisdom. We all knew somethin was wrong with the herd, and that the alpha female, Aunt Neeola, wasnt doin a thing about it. It was unsettlin, to all of us. Even the human who owned the farm, old Mother Morgan, knew somethin was goin on. Id visited her, sat down for tea and cakesshe was over a hundredand both of us carefully avoided talkin about it.
Last day afore I left, I trotted into town, wasnt far, only ten kilometers or so. Took me a while but I found a little plush anthrohorse, same golden chestnut colour I was. Brought it back to Aunt Neeola and asked her to give it to Cæsar after I left. I could see Cæsar leanin on the fence watchin me as I jogged off towards the bus stop.
And then I waited there, with only my pack of clothes, and a few momentos from home I didnt want to give up. Some ribbons from school, a worn hardcopy picture of me and Bucephalushad it on disk, but that printin of it meant somethin specialthe small detritus of a life left behind.
I got on the bus. Pushed past the humans, managed a bit of smile at those I knew, avoided the strangers who glared at me, and sat in the back, watchin out through the window as I rode away from Bucephalus, away from my childhood memories, away from home.
-= 9 =-
Normally after a visit home, Id get off at the Dallas Spaceport and prep my shuttle for flight and passengers. If it was an early mornin launch, Id spend the night in the pilots hostel. This time I got off at Kennedy Station, as Doc Tierra had asked me to look up a few people he knew. One he wanted me to get somethin from, and others he wanted me to try and drag up to New Ceres. Theyd be a second cell under me, specialists, because I was the only one of the top cell that went to Earth on a regular basis.
Buyin a ticket shouldve been easy; the station wasnt crowded. Hell, it could have held twice the people it did. Accordin to the official WorldGov census, there were somethin like eighteen billion sophonts on Earth. Id seen pictures of the station when itd first opened, and the small crowd in there now made it seem abandoned. Maybe it was off-season or somethin. The line moved fast, and bein short and an equine, I was barely noticed in the line. Thinkin of what Kirri thought, and standin there anyway, I tried to keep my eyes open for any of the hatred she mentioned. Didnt see any. Had to stand up on the tips of my hooves to see over the counter, but that wasnt the humans fault. Needed to show my ID twice, and let the dog mannin the booth check my retina twice afore hed sell me the ticket. He thought I was underage with stolen ID.
Turned out my magtrain wasnt due to leave for a couple of hours, so I went to the cafeteria. Place was mostly empty, so I sat down near the door and waited. Pullin out my tablet, I downloaded that days paper and started browsin it.
I was near halfway through it before I realized I hadnt been served.
Lookin up, I watched a human come in, sleek and fitprobably paid for that bodyand as soon as he sat down a female raccoon, her claws clickin on the stone, padded over and took his order.
Maybe she hadnt seen me.
So I waited till she got back with the mans ordersome kinda sandwich, I could smell the hot beef and salamiand called out, Miss!?
I guess she didnt hear me, so I waited til she came back with the guys dessert and this time I got up and clopped after her. Id like to order.
I woulda sworn she sped up and rushed back to the kitchen.
I checked the timewouldnt have time to eat anyway so I left, my rubber-coated hooves squeakin a bit on the polished stonework. Id get somethin on the train. Makin my way down to the platform, I sat and waited the half-hour till I could board.
My ears swiveledwas a human in a slick black business suit. His skin was dark, almost the same shade as his suit.
He must have noticed me lookin at him. Get over here!
Standin up, I shucked my pack over my shoulder and clopped over. Probably wanted to ask directions or somethin.
Dont just stand there, boy. Get my bag! Im in a hurry.
I looked at his briefcase beside him. Couldnt see anythin else.
Come on! Quit your gawking. Theres just the one. Dont know why they hire kids
Umm Sir, I think youre plenty capable of carryin your own bag.
Im the one paying for this here train with my taxes and my fare! You can just do your job and carry my bag.
Raisin my muzzle, I looked him straight in the face and watched his eyes narrow. Im sorry, but I dont work here. Ive got to board, too.
Shut your lying trap and get my bag!
I may be slow, but I sure aint stupid. Id been raised on the lovin farm, gone to school, and then gone straight into space. The times Id been in cities could be counted on one three-fingered hand. I could feel my tail muscles twitchin, even though they had nothin to move. Sir, Im not your servant. Im a passenger. I dont know if they have servants on this train, youll have to ask somebody who works here.
Now look, you! Dont give me any of your crap! Just take my damn bag!
Thank God I saw the train doors open and heard a female voice state: All aboard for Express to the Buffalo-Hamilton-Toronto Gigaplex, with stops in Turnin away, I trotted, probably a bit faster than I needed toof course, he probably massed three times what I didand climbed up into the train.
Get back here, you! Im not done with you!
I ignored him and started movin backward. Didnt take long til I reached the end of the train and sat down a few seats behind a pair of goats. I remembered readin somewhere theyd originally been bred as mountain guides and rescue workers. Their horns were long and curved, I could smell musk an soap, and theyd clearly had their fur recently trimmed quite short. They ignored me, talkin between themselves about somethin. Wigglin a bit to get comfortable, I called up The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and started readin it. Itd been a while.
After a while I switched off the tablet and looked out the window. It wasnt a real window of course, the trains went through near-vacuum underground tunnels. The sites were just 3D projections of an imagined perfect wilderness. For some reason, I just couldnt concentrate on my readin.
What Kirri said about prejudice on Earth kept goin through my head. Id never really thought about it before. Id been raised with a carin family; the humans who owned the farm lived in their own house, and we had to wipe our hooves and get permission before enterin, but that was about it. Sure, thered been hazin and cliques when I made technical school, an I wasnt invited into any fraternities, but then I probably wouldntve had time anyway. After that Id gone to space, where nobody cared what you were as long as you did the job. On my leaves home I went to the spaceport, went to the farm, and then returned.
Out of curiosity, I got on the net and did some searches on racial prejudice. There was a lot o material. I eventually narrowed it down to a readably small pile. There was similarities between what Kirrid said, and how 20th-Century blacks had it in the old United States of America. They had segregated schools, always sat in the back of the bus, there was restaurants for whites only. Hell, thered been cases like that into the 21st century when it was clearly illegal and frowned upon by the majority of society.
Im short, but then I mentioned that. And the structure of the equine muzzle has us always appearin to be lookin down. So, to a human, I was below them, and I never did look em in the eyenot even when I was starin em right in the face. I thought about the day so far, and though my sample set was sadly lackin, there were sickenin conclusions. I always rode on the bus to and from the farm at the back without even thinkin of it. Hell, I could remember gettin the early mornin one on a holiday and bein the only sophont aboard, and I still went to the back. Even on the train now, even though there were no signs, I still went to the back cause thats what Id always done.
Just as the humans seemed to believeno, not believe, they just knewtheyre superior to us furs. And us furs, or at least me, had innate habits that put us below them. Without even thinkin about it.
I remembered the restaurant. The human had been served immediately; Id been ignored, actively avoided. And than that damn fool on the platform. Though I could be readin too much into it Like I said, too small a sample set. Maybe I was just unlucky. Or maybe it was just that prevalent..?
Sure, the 20th Century wasnt gettin re-run, but there was parallels. There werent no menial jobs any more; janitorial work was all done by machines. And it seemed that most people just stayed home and did their work, or lived off the dole in their VR world or the reality games. Reminded me of a story, or part of one what was it? The Huddling Place, by Clifford D. Simak. As I recall, it was about a doctor who stayed home all the time, visited by virtual presence, and, when he had to go to Mars, couldnt leave his house anymore. Acute agoraphobia. Was that what was happenin to humanity? Everybody becomin Brains, stayin home
Maybe I was readin too much into things..?
Pullin out the headset from its compartment in the tablet, I slipped the plugs into my ears and clipped the microphone to my chin. Dont know why, but I needed to talk to someone, and I remembered my token social arts teacher from university. Wed both loved SF and exchanged contact information. Hadnt talked to him for years, but this time His address was still in my space, so he hadnt blocked me. System kept it automatically updated. I buzzed him, waited. Maybe he was out?
Then I heard his voice, more melodic and richer than it used to be. Shean? Shean Eeysmarn, is that you? My, but the Lord works in mysterious ways!
Focusin down, I saw that the camera on my tablet was active, but there was no picture of him. Generally rude, unless he was takin a bath or somethin. Sorry Peter, I hope this isnt a bad time. I need
Dont worry about it! The Lord brought us together and Im here to help.
No picture. Always usin the damn Lord this and Lord that. Fuck.
I broke the connection.
Even hed gone and become a Brain.
Suddenly I felt old, old, even though Id barely passed thirty.
The incomin call light went on and I heard a recorded voice in my ears. Dr. Peter Tosh-Hammond would like to speak to you. Do you accept?
I just sat there, lookin at the shinin red light, my spine cold and chill.
Finally I whispered, Accept.
The screen stayed dark, didnt surprise me. The emotion in his voice did, though. Shean? Are you all right? Whats wrong?
Shoulda ordered a drink before I answered. Oh God, Peter, whyd you do it?
Become a Brain.
Is that why you called me? The Lord took me into his arms six years ago!
Six years? Thatd put his conversion right after I graduated It wasnt me, was it?
Shean, the voice sighed. Yes, I suppose it was. You were one in a million; smart, sharp, and interested. Everybody else I taught was there because they had to be. But you, you cared. After you left, my heart just wasnt in it any more.
Shean, what do you have against being a Brain?
Shean, listen to me. Its still me. Im still the same person.
I wondered if he could detect the tears in my eyes. Old friends becomin Brains, nephews becomin Brains II dont know
Shean, you havent called me in seven years. Just a few e-mails after you graduated describing your first flight, and then silence. As the Lord comforts us, why did you leave me?
I had my duties!
Yes, you had your trials, your training flights as co-pilot before they stopped using them, your first solo. And what are you now? Captain of a spaceship? Shean, you drive a glorified taxi. I thought you wanted to explore space!
Im doin the best I can!
And for how much longer? A decade? If the Lord lets you survive that long. You remember when we discussed The Mote in Gods Eye. We talked about it, and the future, and humanity, and what first contact would mean, until the early hours of the morning. You said that you wanted to meet aliens, to show them that we existed as sophonts, that we counted.
Peter, not now. Just not now.
Become a Brain. Join us! Eventually well figure out how to get around the life support problem. We can go to the stars together!
Youre goin to grab all of us, arent you? Absorb everybody into your clique. And if we refuse, what are you goin to do!?
Shean, we Wed never force anybody.
And what about Cæsar!?
There was a pause before he responded. Shean, whos Cæsar? Assuming you dont mean Julius Cæsar, or Cæsar from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
Like you dont know!
Shean, I dont know. Whats wrong?
You know damn well that Cæsar, my nephew Cæsar, chose to become a Brain!
What? There was a seconds pause. Cæsar Eeysmarn Santher? I swear to God that I didnt know!
I I was to be his sponsor. Train him. Teach him. Show him show him the stars from beside me.
Shean, I didnt know. I had nothing to do with itit was his choice, free and uncoerced.
If his face had been on the tablets screen, I couldnt have seen it at this point anyway. Why the fuck did you take him! Why!?
Shean, we didnt take him. You can check the records. He came to us! We tried to talk him out of it, to get him to wait until he was of age. But he refused. We did everything the Lord requires of us!
Shut up about the fuckin Lord! Just shut up! Shut up and take your fuckin attitude with you! Just Just go away!!
I hit the tablet a bunch of times, dont know how many, until I finally got the disconnect. And when he tried to call back, when I heard the generic message in my ear, I ripped out the headphones and threw them across the room, snappin the damn wire out the side of the tablet.
Then I just cried.
Some time later I removed Mr. Tosh-Hammond from my approved contact list, and then just watched the fake landscape roll by in the fake windows.
-= 10 =-
It was early evenin by the time I hit Union Station. After my conversations with Mr. Tosh-Hammond, I did some web searchin and found a list of fur-friendly establishments in Buffalo-Hamilton-Toronto. The hotel wasnt the best, but it had a good small clean room, which was all I really needed. Id never grown used to havin a huge space, what with always bein in space where air-filled cubage was a luxury, or stayin at home where there was always family underhoof. I had to keep myself from lookin around, always sure somebody was followin me, spyin. Just try to act normal, the Doc said
The first name on Docs list was Dr. Nicholine Holder, the gengineer-in-residence at the University of Toronto. Part of me wondered why they hadnt renamed it since Toronto didnt really exist no more, but old traditions die hard. The next day it rained, and I caught the streetcar outside and made my way through that tangled old city along the old and new tracks, windin my way to the address usin the GPS linked to my tablet. At least the streetcar was fast; werent no private cars since long before I was born.
I dont think any one person switched all the cars with me, but who knew? Hell, Id been at this barely a week, and already I was lookin round every corner, suspectin every soul. I tried to force myself to relax, to concentrate on my surroundins.
Even in the rain, the campus was pleasant. Most of it was grass with old gothic buildins covered in gengineered ivy that sucked the smog an pollution out of the air. Unlike the rest of the city, the air smelled nice. The grass was kept long, no longer chopped and mowed; I took my time wandering through it, the steady rain hissin down on my umbrella, and the grass shushin around me under the weight of the water. There wasnt much scent, just rain. A few miserable students, most human, a few furs, hurried past me. They were scurryin under their umbrellas, trying to stay dry. Well, cept a pair of otters playin in the rainprobably skippin class.
The hallways were dim, and scented with the age-old sweat of fear and eagerness of students, along with a hint of cleanser, old wood, stain, and polish. My rubber boots squeaked on the floor; I shook off the umbrella and put it in my pack. With my tablet helpin, it didnt take me long to work through the maze of halls and offices up to where Dr. Holder was supposed to be. Her secretary was a dainty young deer doe, too young to be faculty so I guessed she was a student. Her scent was odd, though. It was strongly male, but she dressed and looked female. At least she was expectin me, even though I was nearly an hour late, and, after a disapprovin look at my drippin legs and damp mane and pants, she motioned me in.
Dr. Holder was an old woman, bald except for wisps of white hair, and pockmarks that might have been from radiationno way to be sure, and I wasnt goin to ask. At least her perfume wasnt strong, just a faint hint. In fact, the dominant scent of the room was the old books that lined one of the walls. The others contained a few displays of stuffed animals, and some sealed jars of near-term modified embryos. She was spry, though, and stood up to greet me, even though she was taller sittin than I was standin. Mr. Eeysmarn?
I nodded and shook her hand, the naked skin on my palm still damp from the rain that hissed and pattered against the large windows at the back of office.
Let me see now my memory isnt what it once was She pressed some keys on the computer on her desk. Oh, right. Dr. Tierra sent you. Youre here to drop off some samples hed run, so I can check them for radiation damage in case the hull of New Ceres isnt as good shielding as they thought.
At that I heard a beep from my backpack; I looked at the pouch that contained Doc Tierras little anti-spy devices.
Dr. Holder, amused, raised an eyebrow at me. Oh, dont worry about it. He passed that tech on to me a few years ago. You have Bobs latest schematics?
Hed actually sent me with a device for her. Reachin into my pouch I pulled out two, put mine on the table and activated it. The other ones for you.
Oh, good! She took it, twisted somethin, and a tiny card slid out.
Dont you want to..?
No need. The hardware doesnt change, just what its told to do. She slipped the card into the computer on her desk. There, mines all updated. You can switch yours off, save the battery.
I licked my lips. Id rather not.
She shrugged. Your choice. You know how to check them?
Of course I do!
She sat down and pulled two bottles of water from a drawer in her desk, the wood squeaked both as she opened and as she closed it. Like some?
I looked at the water. How far could this woman be trusted? Lure me in, give me water, a chemical cocktail to make me spill my guts I clenched my hands around my horse-head pendant
Mr. Eeysmarn, Im not on their side. Im on my own side. If youre that tense, somebody will notice, and then its all up.
I glared at her.
Oh come on! If Im on their side, its already too late for you. A platoon of thugs could be outside my door right now
Jumpin up, hooves clompin on the floor, I spun around and stared at the door.
She just laughed and I turned to look at her. You need to relax. After all, what law are you breaking? Think about it. So youre discussing a hypothetical activity. Nothing against that. So grin, relax, enjoy pulling a fast one.
How the hell do you know!?
Because I know Bob. Hes always talking about this sort of thing, so Im not surprised and there were some code words he used when he contacted me. Now, take your drink and have a seat. Dont be shy.
I dont know
Well, I know this is important. Ive cleared the day, so sit down.
The hell with it. With that I hopped up on the chair. Well, you see
Relax! From your ears going every which way, I can see youre not happy here. Tell me. Whatever it is, if you havent broken a law, then they cant touch you.
As she said that I became conscious that they were. Sorryits just
Mr. Eeysmarn do you mind if I call you Shean? No? Good. Shean, Ive known the Doc for years. If hes trying to get me to go up to that death trap with him, my answer is still no. Im too old to go up there and float around like an otter in a fish tank.
Call me Nicholine.
Oh well Miss HoldNicholine Oh, hell! Im none too good at this yet! Too honest for my own good, I suppose.
What, convincing old women to leave their nice warm homes? I dont think anybodys very good at that.
This wasnt goin well. We needed some contacts on Earth to get supplies, and if we were gonna be betrayed this soon, might as well get it over with. No, not that. Were takin New Ceres away from Earth to get away from the Brains. There, I said it. Immediately I felt better.
She took a sip of water as I tapped a hoof against a leg of the chair. There was no hope of stoppin my ears from flickin toward every sound now. She put down the bottle and screwed the cap on.
You know, Ive told him for years that hed end up doing this.
Absolutely. Its the only logical course; a man like him, persons like me, Id guess like you as well, can either get away from the Brains, or become them. And lordee knows I dont want them sticking God knows what in my head.
I snorted. Well, you comin up to New Ceres, or stayin down here?
Go up there? On a rocket?
Dont worry. Ill be flyin it.
She looked at me with new respect. At least Bob hasnt gone senile. You
There was a knock at the door. Dr. Holder? I recognized the secretarys voice. Dr. Archibald calledyou were going to have lunch with him?
She stood up with a suprisin speed and stalked to the door, her soft shoes paddin on the polished wooden floor, the hem of her dress shushin against her legs. Yankin it open, she stood back as the secretary stumbled in. Brynna, you tell him that Im too busy. Ive got all the lectures I care to give, and if he wants more hes just going to have to do them herself. I have a friend here, and Im spending the day with him. You tell Archibald that!
Just ignore his threats. If he tries anything with you, Ill have the Standards Council down on him like a sled of bricks. And as for me, I can take care of myself. Now you get going; tell him to come back tomorrow, and I might let him treat me to lunch. And you can take the day off and get some studying in. Youre still iffy on reading introns in blastocyst cells. You study that and we can go over it in detail tomorrow. If you dont get an A on that test, Ill be looking for a new secretary.
I watched Byrannas ears flip all over, and I could smell the fear oozin off herhimgaah! Scent still said him. Yes, maam.
Now, you just pass my message on to Dr. Archibald and be on your way. Your studies are far more important than dealing with some bombastic fool full of his own self-importance.
Yes, maam. And thank you. Ill tell him. So sayin, she curtseyed and closed the door with a loud thunk.
Whos Dr. Archibald?
Just the chairman of the university.
Are you sure..?
Shean, I havent needed work for years. I just enjoy it, especially the teaching. And Archibald knows it. All hes good at is plants, and he knows damn well that if I walk, the status of the gengeneering department falls into the sewers. Besides, Ive got ten offers right now. So dont you worry about me.
And what about Brynna? Theres somethin odd
Snappin her fingers she cried, Ah-hah! I knew the retrovirus hadnt started working on her glands!
Of course! Brynna used to be Bryce. Male buck. Came here to work under me. Found out she was really transgenderedyou know, female soul in male body and all thatand together weve been working on changing her over. Theyve done it to humans for centuries, youd have thought somebody would have realized by now that furs are just as susceptible to genetic errors. As she was talkin, she walked back around her desk and sat down on her chair.
Sorry. I didnt mean to pry.
No way you could have known. I keep an eye on her, keep her morale up. You think you have it tough? Shes got both the anti-fur prejudice and the gay/cross-dresser prejudice. So, she leaned forward on her elbows, her eyes glitterin like a cats, youre going to revolt. Why tell me? Why did Bob send you down to chat me up?
Well, you know that were leavin near-Earth space. Were tryin to get as many furs of each species on board as we can, but we simply aint gonna get enough. For example, I know of only eight of my genome in space right now. We need at least 50 pairs of each genome, preferably closer to 200.
She nodded. And that means sperm and eggs in storage.
I nodded eagerly. I fly up and down regularly, but we cant figure out a way to safely get a hold of the material. We cant think of an excuse. Given that the Brains are our enemy, and that theyre smarter and faster, anythin we try to hide we have to assume they figure out. All we can do is provide reasonable cover stories for everythin we do, so the Brains dont get curious.
Which is where I come in.
Yup. Given your specialty and reputation, you can get a hold of the material, and the support equipment. Maybe limited supplies to study long-term exposure to the shielded environment aboard New Ceres?
Hm. Ill need a test group and a control group, and different levels of shielding for the dependent variable.
Wed want to make sure that enough for breedin purposes has the maximum shieldin.
She scratched her chin. Out of curiosity, Shean, how much of that request was rote memorization, and how much do you understand?
I looked at her and my hoof stopped tappin on the leg of the chair. Umm why do you ask?
Just humor an old woman.
Well my specialtys flight. Orbital calculus, basic engineerin, and physics, that kind of thing. The Doc supplied the numbers, and I trust you to deal with the shieldin. I knew y need a certain number for genetic diversity, but I didnt know the exact figure.
Did you think about direct manipulation of the eggs and sperm to improve diversity?
I licked my lips as my hoof started tappin again. No, maam. Thinkin about it, my gut feelin would be to not depend on itif there isnt enough sperm and eggs, and population, Ive already decided not to breed.
Good. We can do a lot now, but most of it is still trial and error. In some of the early experiments to create you furs, something like 90% never came to term, and 90% of those who did were put down before birth due to obvious defects. We dont talk about it much, its only really mentioned in the more technical books. Even those of your ancestors who were let come to term have a high chance of some kind of undesirable recessive. Your figure, 50 pairs, is for human breeding pairs; for furs, Id want at least twice that.
I guess youre the right person then, maam.
Call me Nicholine.
I licked my lips nervously. Theres one more question Id like to ask, ma- Nicholine.
Its kind of, well, personal.
Youre opting out of current Earth society. Plotting property theft on a terabuck scale. What harm in my knowing something that makes only you nervous?
I turned away, even though I could still see her. Damn arc of visionWell, its my tail
Yes, I did notice that yours is missing. There have to be facilities to repair
You dont understand! I, ah, had it removed.
It was a requirement
What the hell kind of requirement would cause a fur to remove their tail!?
I swallowed. Well, it wasntwritten if you know what I mean There were strong hints that I couldnt continue in the space program with a tail, as a pilot that is. What with the special suit and seat
I thought that was outlawed!
I remembered myself then, young and innocent, and oh-so-naïve. Yeah, I could have fought it, and I could have won. I doubt Id have graduated the flight academy, though. Nicholine, whats done is done. I just wanna see if you could arrange to umm
She giggled and I felt my ears heat up.
get it shipped up, too?
She quickly drank some more water to muffle her giggles, though she was still smiling. Shean, my boy, you may be expert in your area, but you know nothing about biology. Your tail is long goneground up into fertilizer, Id imagine.
Oh, dont you worry. These days, its trivial to grow replacement limbs, including tails. The facilities are already up at New Ceres; you just have to ask.
So dont feel you need to concern yourself. Now, when are you slated to go back up?
I pulled my tablet out of my bag. Current schedule says next Tuesday, three pm launch. Itll probably be closer to eight pm, but its gotta be ready by three.
Thatll be no problem. Hell, my students can use the exercise!
IThank you maNicholine.
And you tell Bob that Im still not going up there. Im too old, its a job for the young. And Im perfectly happy down here! But Ill be rooting for you.
She started tapping keys on her computer. So, Shean: Where would you like to go for lunch?
My treatcelebrate our alliance. Oh, and can you turn that thing, she pointed to the bug scrambler, off? Ive got to set everything up to get the sperm and eggs ready for you. We can go and eat after that.
Well Thank you, then. I dont know who else we could have gotten to do this.
I dont either, son.
And now, see, youre relaxed.
And then my ears started flickin all over again, like a deers.
Shean, Shean! You worry too much. Revolution is a slow business. Knowing Bob, hes got the cell structure all plotted out to seventeen decimals precision, and hes got a continuously updated probability sketch of all possible events. Reality is too chaotic for such work to have any relevance, of course, but it keeps him busy.
Shean, itll come when it comes. Do what you always did, relax, otherwise you are screwed. Now come on, lets have lunch. I can tell you some stories, tell you that youre not in imminent danger, or at least not any more than you had been in earlier. Hmmm, I can teach you some mantras to relax.
You need them. And if you dont come, no sperm and eggs! Now, lets go eat!
-= 11 =-
Captain Eeysmarn, were showing 18 seconds til launch. All the lights are green here. How are things on your end?
Everythins green here, Control. Im go when you are. I switched to the internal intercom. This is your Captain speakin. Take-off is set for twelve seconds. I really hope youre strapped in, because I aint goin clean up your messes.
Concentrate on the job. I counted, and concentrated, and I felt myself relaxin into the routine.
Same attitude as always I see, Captain, stated Lieutenant Nikklicole, the raccoon currently manninor was that womannin?the control tower. Eight seconds Five Three One Ignition!
Onboard systems, slaved to the launch fields Brain, sent the go code as I pulled the main throttles back. With a roar of fire and a dragons growl, my shuttle taxied faster and faster, and soon took off. I took her through to ramjet, then scramjet, and then the rocket. Once we were well an truly upstairs, I talked to the passengers: Weve hit orbit. You may now unstrap and enjoy the view. Barf bags are at every seat; if your anti-nausea drugs aint workin, use a bag. Well arrive at Tether Station Five in roughly twenty-eight minutes, and we rendezvous with High York about half an hour after, dependin on traffic. Enjoy your flight.
Nicholines experimental packages were safely onboardId packed them myself, real carefullyand Id done a basic hardware check before the Phoenix got fueled up. Too many systems to check fully, but it made me feel better. Id managed to see one other person on the Docs list, a human, and he was goin through the physical and basic trainin to move up to New Ceres in a few months. The third name was dead, murdered two weeks back. She was a deer fur, and the cops figured a batch of humans-first bigots done it. It was bein investigated.
Nicholines mantras did help. By the time I reached orbit, my stomach felt fine. Maybe freefall helped too.
Dockin with Tether Station Five went without any problems; the tether hooked my shuttle with a satisfyin clunk and rotated it from its low orbit into the higher orbit of High York. That, o course, bein the primary refuelin and dockin facility for flights to th Moon and in an around Earth. It was a bunch smallern its original blueprints called for; construction got scaled back when they started the internal terraformin of New Ceres. Even so, the place was largely empty. Most traffic was automated, and most passengers stayed over only a day or so before movin on. There was a small permanent scientific community, but most of the cuttin-edge work was at Lunar Farside and automated luna-stationary satellites in orbit over Farside Base. Id launched only three hours late, and my schedule had me switchin to the orbital transport Hermes in nineteen hours. Fortunately, werent no problems dockin with High York.
Fifty years ago thered been separate pilots for each leg of the Earth/Orbit, Orbit/Lunar Orbit, Lunar Orbit/Lunar Surface run. Nowadays there was a shortage of trained personnel, so we all doubled up. Pilots specialized in either Earth/Orbit or Moon/Orbit flight, and shared the pilotin of the orbit-to-orbit runs. Given the current excess of space, I had my own cabin assigned to me; I sacked out for six hours, grabbed a cheeseburger at the cafeteria on the half-G level, and scanned through my tablet to see who was available on station for EVA buddy. Not only did regulations require it, but I hadnt been vacuum-side for moren two years. Last time was when the Enterprise collided with High York. Wed got everybody who could out there to clear the wreckage, and restore the symmetry of the station before its unbalanced spin ripped it apart.
I was luckyin the right place, and small enough to squeeze into the wreckage of the Enterprise and pull out three survivors. That was back before the regulation forbiddin suits. I figured theyd thrown out my old suit, so I bought a new one when I moved to New Ceres. I just hoped whatever I borrowed here wasnt in too bad a shape.
However, in terms of buddies, I hit todays jackpot: Edward Nabigon, feller Id worked alongside durin the rescue, was still aboardan he was now head of construction and repair on High York. In fact, schedule saidcrap! He was on duty until an hour before I was due to depart. Not enough time Still, he might know someone. I pulled out the new headset and plugged it in and dialed him up.
Besides the mantras, Id also learned keepin busy helped me relax.
Eddies face appeared in the screen. Time was hed o been called African American, though he come from Brazil last I heard. Never could detect any accent though. Shean!
Hey, Eddie! Been a long time. Got a favour
The good news is, Lamber lost his rating and got booted Earthside!
I couldnt help but grin.
The bad news is, hell be back up here in six months or so. We just dont have enough trained people. Thank Heavens you survived!
You think youre thankful, Eddie? Im the one was lookin to meet the Breath Sucker nice and personal! Anyway, thats not why I called.
I want to EVA and inspect the Hermes.
Now, Shean, weve taken steps to keep that from happ-
Its not that. Id expect nothin less, even in these shrinkin budget days. I just well, Id feel more comfortable if I could look er over myself.
Anyway, if Im goin outside, I need a buddy. Thought of you, but youre on duty, so I thought you might know
Hell, Shean, Ill go with you! Ever since you boys on New Ceres took almost all our construction crew, Im only here in case of emergency. Ill just log it as an external inspection.
Thanks! You know where I can get a suit?
Yours is in locker 57 on level 18. Ill have it sent up to the docking bay and meet you there in, say, two hours?
My suit? I thought they dumped it when Directive 18-912B came down!
It was supposed to be. But then a bunch of us pointed out that with the excess space, we could store them here. Both to keep the space from being wasted, and in case they changed their minds. Didnt take much to sell them on it, after all they can still be dumped later. Keeps them from being a navigation hazard right now.
I snorted. Thats good to hear. Given my size, I usually end up gettin the skunk suits. Sure, the skunks claim to be de-scented, but from the stench I cant tell.
Ill see you at Lock C at the core at 1100, then. Look forward to seeing you in the flesh!
-= 12 =-
It took a while t download the Hermes expected pressure values and circuit diagrams into my tablet. While waitin for that, I finished a nice leisurely meal, and was at lock C inspectin my suit. It was strapped to the transport, and the transport was strapped to the wall. One sniff o the crotch confirmed that the suit was indeed mine. I shit my pants when I saw one of the survivors of the Enterprise move, and nothin ever got that completely out. Last pressure inspection stamp was dated six months ago, so everythin was in order. Slippin the Docs bug-jammer into one of the suits external pockets. I nodded to myself; no tellin whether or not Id need it
I unfolded the undersuit from its pouch beside the outer suit, and shook out its spongy rubber. Yeah, it stank worseyou never, ever got those things clean. I took it into one of the nearby changerooms and dumped my normal clothes into a thumbprint-locked bin. Then I wiggled, literally, into th undersuit. Id hooked up the plumbin, not that I expected to be out there long enough to need it, but because you always assumed youd be out there indefinite-like. Anythin to minimize the chance of a stupid error. With the damn thing on, tubes stickin out and floppin around, already pantin to try and cool off, my fur was already drenched in sweat. Not to mention the pain and itchin as the rubber pulled and yanked at it. Makin my way out, I found that Ed wasnt there yet. Well, I squashed my ragenot easy; you try standin around in one of them rubber sweatbaths cause somebodys latean just drifted there. My breath came out in rapid pants as I tried to stay cool, and one hoof reflexively tried to tap somethin.
Thank God Eddie came boundin up from behind a few minutes later, jumpin from wall to wall of the corridor; such tricks was against all regs, but everybody did it when we was in a hurry. He had his undersuit on, too, and the tubes were bouncin and jostlin. If he hadnt been hurryin like the dickens, Id have caught his scent long before I heard the soft rubber of his boots squeak-thumpin against the wall as he shoved off towards me.
Hey Shean! Got hooked up with a dispute down on level 25. Some nerfs fresh off Earth on their way to Anderson. Didnt want to obey regs.
Nerfs was freefall newbiesthey tended to bounce around out of control, like old-fashioned spongy toys. No problem! Id have waited. Chewed you out later, but waited.
He spun around and absorbed his momentum on his feet with a loud squeak, and then grabbed the cart. I need to get out of this can more.
Why dont you take some vacation? Go to Earth, visit family
Contract option wont let meI can only leave if theres a certified officer to stand watch. And theres only one of those left here: Me.
Sure is, but they cant stop my retiring, and Ill have a nice, hefty nest egg when I do. He looked at me for a second, runnin his eyes along my form with all the danglin rubber bits. You putting on weight there, Shean?
A whole lot lessn you have!
Hah! Well, my suits in the lock, I use it often enough. You get suited up out here, Ill meet you in the inner lock.
Gotcha. Be there in a bit.
The outer suit you climbed into like a clamshell, backin into it and wigglin your legs down the legholes, and your arms down the armholes. The gloves were integral to the suit. Hadnt done it in so long that I was a mite awkward, but then I remembered the trick of twistin your legs and waist in just the right way. Id never been able to figure out how people without nice thin hooves was able to get into the things. The gloves were stiff, heavy rubber that squeezed tight against the skinnot so secure as the fat, bulky gloves, but with a whole lot more dexterity. O course, if you wasnt careful you could freeze your fingers off With the suit still open, and the helmet floppin off the back, I pulled myself in through the lock and pressed the button to lock and seal the door behind me. I moved slowly, as the suits mass-balance threw off my instincts.
There you are! What took you so long? He was ready for buddy inspection just as I was.
You hush up. I aint worn any o these since Enterprise.
That long? Did I ever thank you for that?
I cant count that high, Eddie.
Well thanks. I still owe you.
Oh, give it a break! I didnt do nothin anyone else wouldnt have done.
He nodded and we went through hookin up the plumbin, inspectin the fit, makin sure everythin was plugged into what it was supposed to be plugged into. Once wed both inspected each other, Ed grabbed a pair of oxygen bottles and scrubbers. About fifty years ago they decided to switch the suits to a closed system. Made coolin a bitch, but it saved the exhausted CO2 for use in the stations algae farms. Saved shippin about a tonne of CO2 up from Earth every year. Pluggin in each others air systems, we sealed each other up. After mutual pressure tests (we both passed), we switched to normal life support and pulled our way into the outer lock. Eddie tethered us together, and he passed me a safety line after grabbin one himself. Then we cycled through, Ed securin himself to the lock wall before the outer door opened.
Ive floated around Saturn, and even that dont compare to the view from Earth orbit. Forget the dockin ring, though. The centre of High York was hollow, ships docked there to minimize dealin with the stations rotation. But your eyes drawn to this blue glow, and then you see the monstrous blue-speckled white sphere of Earth It hangs over you like an endless wall, a paintin, but it glows with life and screams its reality all around you. Pictures dont compare, holos dont compare. Everybody, even the oldest hands, just hangs there for a moment t look at the thing hangin over em: The homeworld. The wide-screen cloud and water and land and faerie-lights on the farside of the day/night terminator Yeah, I could see it through the cockpit of my shuttle, but this was different. Not sure if it was the wider view, or the perceived closeness as I just hung there.
But, my entire blood always sang with the reality of it.
Okay tourist, sightseeings over. Lets go and give that Hermes of yours a look-see.
I shook my head to tear it away from the blue wall hangin over us. You was starin just as much as me, so give it a rest.
He chuckled and I knew he knew I was right. Sure I was. Can you see the Hermes from here?
I looked around, turnin my head inside the plexiglass sphere that was all that kept the Breath Sucker at bay, and spotted it. There werent many active ships around anymorenot enough demand. Just two or three for each stage of the Earth-Moon journey. The Hermes was the only one at High York. Yeah, I got it.
Eddie uncoiled line from his waist. The buddy line should be long enough, or at least thats what the calculations say. You unclip yourself and jump, Ill feed the buddy line. When you get there, clip yourself down and Ill come over. Clear?
Sounds like a plan. Let me know when youre ready. Holdin one of the handles by the exterior lock, I flipped down the sight on my helmet and lined up the Hermes.
Ready when you are, Shean. Ill feed out the line, and loose us from the lock when youre there.
Thanks. I unclipped myself, crouched down, and then kicked off. I felt the line tuggin behind me as Eddie reeled it out, and I tumbled slow.
What can I say about driftin through emptiness, all by yourself cept for the sound of your breath and the sight of it mistin and clearin on the helmet that keeps the Breath Sucker at bay? You feel alone, utterly and completely alone. One of the reasons for the cautious protocol, for the lines and buddies, was to help deal with that feelin. You never went out by yourself, and you never had no connection with somethin. Ed was kind enough t let me go first, but I remained linked to him, and him to the station inside the lock. When everythin around you exists only to kill you, suckin and pullin at you, you never take chances.
I moved slow; Id jumped for accuracy, speed not bein needed, and my instincts had forgotten the mass effects of wearin' a suit. Even though I seemed to be driftin free, I was tethered by the thin cable that glittered bright yellow in the sunlight that passed through the girders and spokes of High Yorks unfinished bits. When it shone on me, my helmet darkened and polarized, but my eyesight was still splattered with dots for a few minutes. And the Hermes crept closer. My course wasnt perfect, but that was the problem with not doin it for years. At least I wouldnt miss it; now, that woulda been embarrassin. I curled up into a ball and spun faster, and then stretched out when my hooves was pointin at my ship. Didnt need radar to tick off the distance; in fact, I found it so distractin that I always turned it off. The hull loomed over me, antenna and RCS jets loomin on their posts. There was hand-holds scattered all over, and I saw Id land right smack-dab between two. Crap!
Anything wrong, Shean?
Nothin much. Just gonna land out o reach of anythin.
I can hold you tight and try and swing you over.
Lets not go for that yet. I should be able to grab an RCS post. Just gimme a sec I felt the hull press against my hooves and crouched down, absorbin the momentum of my jump. I didnt stay in contact, instead ended up floatin a few inches away. Landed safe. Now tryin for the post.
Gotcha. All the cables and umbilicals are on the far side, so you dont need to worry about them.
I figured thats why we took the long way. I lined the sight up on the RCS post and then gently stretched my legs pushin myself out. The trip was short this time, the yellow line coilin and curvin behind me into the dark distance where Lock C lay in the shadows. High York spun slow, and my line curved to reflect that. Course, it didnt need a lot o degrees-per-second; just enough to generate 2/3 of a standard Earth G at the outermost deck. Reachin out, my body tumbled, and I wrapped my thick rubber-gloved hands around the post. Got it! My breathin was harsh in my ears. Guess I was more nervous than I thought.
Read you 5-by-5, Shean. Hows your grip?
I pulled myself a bit closer, hands wrapped around the warm metal. I could feel my palms beginnin to sweat, but there was some insulatin layers inside the rubber. Got a right fine grip, Eddie. Let me just pull myself downtheres a handle at the base. Crawlin down the post with only my hands, my legs trailin uselessly behind me, I grabbed a handle. Got it! Clippin on. I pulled my safety line from my belt, made sure it was clipped securely to my suit, and then clipped it again, to Hermes. Length looked to be about 10 metres, which would be fine for the inspection. All secure. You can come over when ready. Let me know when youve jumped, and Ill start pullin in the buddy line.
Read you 5-by-5, Shean. Unclipping from the lock, closing the outer door. Jumping now.
I felt a slight slack on the line, and began gently pullin it towards me, coilin it. Just like Eddie, I had clips all over my belt. When he was close Id clip the coil so our buddy line was maybe five metres or so. In the distance, sunlight glittered off a white-suited figure as it drifted out of the shadows: Bastard had no tumble at all. I see you, Eddie. Jump looks clean.
Thanks. Be there in a bit.
I hung there in silence, slowly driftin outward as my line stretched from the Hermes. Soon Eddie slipped past me, wavin, so I clipped our buddy line tight against my belt, and began pullin myself back down. Then we started crawlin along her.
For the first while, the inspection was silent cept for exchangin and confirmin data. I could see the new metal, gleamin and silver, against the slightly pitted dull aluminum of the old hull. Meteors were damn rare, but micrometeors werent, and two centuries o satellite launches had put enough crap in near-Earth orbit that you always got hit by flakes of metal, and even the odd nut or bolt. The damage had been fixed wellDarrvid wouldnt have it any other wayand it wasnt long til we was in darkness, checkin the umbilicals. I clicked on the lights attached to my wrists and looked over the connections, the tank pressure, and anythin else I could confirm without difficulty.
Why dont you come to New Ceres, Eddie?
For a long moment his breath was the only thing I heard in my headphones. Then he said, Ive got my job here.
Oh come on, Eddie. Theres work just as rewardin on New Ceres. You said yourself theres next to nothin for you to do here."
I heard his breathin get louder. II like it here. Umm What do you show for O2 pressure?
I looked inside the access compartment and read the number. Four MPa. I punched the data into my tablet, and it agreed with me.
Value confirmed, Eddie said, checkin the value with the mainframe. Damn right, it was duplicate effort; like I said, you dont take no chances when youre in the grip of the Breath Sucker.
I nodded, closed the hatch with a click I heard through the material of my suit, and began pullin myself over to the next access port. Whats this place got that New Ceres dont? Its fallin apart. Probly be abandoned, cept as a fuelin point, once the Rocks finished.
I Then there was a click in my headphones, and silence except for my own breathin. I watched Eddie pull himself along our buddy line, his wrist-mounted flashlights paintin crazy shapes on the hull. Stoppin in front of me, he pressed against my chest to stop his motion. He tapped the side of his helmet with one gloved hand, and then made a cuttin motion beside his one ear.
I thought about it for a sec as he looked at me. Sure, cuttin off radio was against regs, but everybody I knew did it. Id done it before, and I would again.
Killin my radio, I nodded.
Eddie grabbed my hands and pulled himself close, and handed me the direct wire for his radio. I plugged it into my suit sos we had a secure private connection. Then he spoke: Shean I I dont know why, but, well, I need to tell someone. You can keep a secret?
I felt my ears flickin wildly out of consternation, the hair of their tips slidin around the inside of my helmet, stretchin and pullin at the earphones at their bases. Umm sure.
At that point he hugged me. Some humans on Earth did it, some didnt. Usually it was only between close friends. So, a bit hesitantly, I hugged back, clenchin his body with mine.
SheanII think I love her.
Huh!? Umm love who?
Whos Liz? If its a fur
No He must have seen me frown as he went on. Shes notits nothing like that. I have nothing against you people, you know that!
I nodded. Well, sure. Who then? I was wrackin my brain, tryin to remember a Liz on High York, but hadnt had any luck.
He muttered somethin before raisin his voice again. You probably know her as Elizabeth. The Brain on High York.
God! Before I could even think about it Id pushed him away from me. He struggled for a second, and then grabbed our buddy line and pulled himself back up to just in front of me, waitin for me to speak. I licked my dry lips, and sipped some water from the nipple; it went down like a lump. Reachin down, I pushed the Docs gizmo deep into the pouch and then I pulled myself the rest of the way to Eddie. I licked my lips. Eddie Im
I know its frowned upon but
Eddie! It just surprised me. Wasnt what I expected.
I Eddie, Ive been damn lucky in my upbringin. What was taught to me was that as long as two sophonts loved, no matter their form, then more power to em.
He hugged me again and our helmets clunked together. Thanks. Thanks! I owe you another one, now.
Eddie, I I could see his eyes starin at me, desperate. I hugged him. Ed, Im sorry. I just Its odd. Unexpected. But, why me?
I, I had to tell someone. And, well, youre a fur, and you furs are more open about marriage than us humans. How many of your matches are interracial?
Crap. Sure, there was marriage between different species of fur, but there were so few of us compared to the humans that we tended to band together. Children were through artificial insemination, even when two furs of the same species married. Even more so than now, we were paranoid about the genetics of our children. Eddie, thats different. There arent enough of us
You wont tell anybody, will you?
I God, Eddie, does does Elizabeth know?
He turned his head away. I havent told her. IIm pretty sure she knows
Eddie, just tell me everythin. I checked the HUD: Twelve hours of O2 left, and three hours til Hermes was due to leave.
Shean, I I dont know. It just kind of happened. Almost like in a storychip. I started talking to her about personal things, not just business or inquiries. She started talking back. You have any idea how lonely they are? Never touching anybody, most people just treating them like computers. Its why a lot of them keep their conversion secret from friends, sometimes for years.
I remembered Peter
I think I knew about two months ago. She she invited me over, I guess youd say. Let me into her vault, and I stood there, shivering in the cold, looking at the metal canister that held her, cradled and embraced by support machinery. Frost dripped from the steel, and slid down a drain in the floor. We talked there, for hours. Almost missed my shift.
Well, why dont you getcherself Brainified?
Weve talked about it. Long talks. The problem is, Id have no choice about where they put me. High York only needs one Brain. Theyd put me down on Earth somewhere, or maybe in one of the Lunar bases.
So? Talk by radio.
It doesnt work that way! Sure, we can talk, but the lightspeed limittheres at least a second time delay. Shes the one who told me about it. I didnt think it was much either, but then she told me how she thinks so fast, and how it seems like an eternity. She said shed invited me down because even the tenth
-second delay from the switching and wires was annoying.
Shean, I justI had to tell somebody. I couldnt tell somebody too close to me, but you saved me, patched my suit. I feel like youre a friend dont even know if thats the right word.
I just looked at him, the only sound my breath. How the hell did I get into this situation? Here I was, plottin revolution against the Brains, makin myself treat them as the enemy, makin myself hate them. And now this.
SheanImOh, never mind. Just forget I said anything. Just dont tell anybody.
Ed, waitI I snorted, spittle collectin on the helmet before bein sucked into my breathin air. What the hell was I goin to tell him? Best lie was part of a truth, or so Id been learnin recently. Eddie, its just I got a nephew on Earth. He was goin into the space program, I was gonna show him everythin. But, I just found out, a few days ago, hes becomin a Brain. I guess Brains just aint in my best book right now.
Did he make his own choice?
Well, yeah. Hes just underage, but it was all legal.
Isnt it his right to choose?
I sighed, and blinked back tears as the pain of Cæsars choice ripped through me all over again. Of course it is! Its just, well the shock I guess. I and then I knew, and I felt ashamed. Eddie, it was, well, a betrayal. I felt like hed lied to me all these years, strung me along, and then, laughinly, took himself away.
Would he do something like that?
I he I thought back. No. No, he wouldnt. I Ah, hell Now, finally, I hugged Eddie, really hugged him. And, you know what? It did make me feel better.
This is one seriously fucked-up world we live in, isnt it?
Yeah. I nodded. Hey, I had a thought. You know the ship that saved me, that Captain Stapledon?
What about him?
I described what I saw of the ship. I think hes a Brain.
Think about it. Ask Liz. If Brains are gettin a small support system, then you could still be a Brain. Theres lots of work for you in orbit. You can dock with High York, talk to her then. Shouldnt be hard to rig up a high speed cable the two of you can use.
Ill ask! Thanks!
Then the needs of the rebellion made me speak. I felt cold, dirty, but I had to ask. Eddie, can you I licked my lips. let me know what happens. I I guess Im kinda involved now. If theres Brainships, maybe I hope that my hatred of the very idea just came out as nervousness. It must have. Maybe Ill become one, too. If its possible. Dependin on the rules.
He nodded. I can do that, no problem. And so Edward Nabigon agreed to leak privileged information to the rebellion.
At that instant I hated it. Hated the very idea. It was only the thought of all the sophonts who needed a way out that kept me from tellin Eddie, tellin Liz everythin, right there.
I checked the time. Ed, I Well, I wish you the best. Wed better get back. Not much more we can do here. And I need to make a call. I really need to.
No problem. I made sure to check her myself, he patted Hermes, yesterday.
And you didnt tell me?
Seemed to me like you needed it. Unpluggin his cable from my suit, he pushed us apart, driftin slowly away. He switched his radio back on; so did I.
Lets get back, then, I said. I guess Ill lead, cause youre kinda driftin there.
-= 13 =-
It wasnt hard gettin back. After rackin my suit and arrangin for it t be cleaned, I took a hot shower to rid mself o the stink of sweat and rubber. I had about an hour left, so I sped down the halls to the lower levels where I could run. Tearin into a booth, I plugged my tablet into the station comm outlet and dialed home. Thered be a 1.9-second delay in transmission each way, but Id dealt with that before, and could again. Signals was never straight line anymore, always bouncin from satellite to satellite. Of course Aunt Neeola answered, and I assured her that nothin had happened. She nodded, and then I said I had to speak to Cæsar, to apologize. Her muzzle vanished and a couple minutes later I saw Cæsars.
Uncle Shean? He yawned. From the disheveled look of his fur, she mustve just gotten him out of bed. I checked the time11pm there. That figured.
Cæsar, Im Oh, hell, Im sorry.
Uncle, you dont need to apologize.
Just shut up and let your elder speak for a bit.
I Cæsar, when you told me you was becomin a Brain, it was a surprise. More a shock. II guess I just needed some time to deal with it. Its your choice, I respect that choice.
Im gonna honest here, so you just listen. Ive got about fifteen minutes, then I have to run. When you told me, hell, I felt youd betrayed me. You damn near ripped my heart right out then and there.
Uncle! I didnt mean to.
Cæsar, just God, Im just sorry. My mistake. When youre ready, Ill be up here. At least we can talk. And And I wish you the best. The best in everythin. I blinked tears out of my eyes.
IUncle Shean, I thanks. I could see he was snifflin too. That means, well, it means more to me than you can imagine. You wait for me, dont take any risks, you hear!
Youre startin to sound like Aunt Neeola.
I Just be safe. Ill be there. Love and hugs, Uncle!
Love and hugs, Cæsar!
And then we disconnected.
Brains wasnt the enemy. Not then, an not nowif they still exist. Theyre well, theyre just different. Thinkin of them as the enemy, thinkin of them as evil, that made plottin against em easy. But now, well, now it was hard. But at least I was doin it the right way.
The moral way.