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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Nightflyers & Other Stories

George R. R. Martin

Tor Science Fiction

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Nightflyers


When Jesus of Nazareth hung dying on his cross, the volcryn passed within a year of his agony, headed outward.

When the Fire Wars raged on Earth, the volcryn sailed near Old Poseidon, where the seas were still unnamed and unfished. By the time the stardrive had transformed the Federated Nations of Earth into the Federal Empire, the volcryn had moved into the fringes of Hrangan space. The Hrangans never knew it. Like us they were children of the small bright worlds that circled their scattered suns, with little interest and less knowledge of the things that moved in the gulfs between.

War flamed for a thousand years and the volcryn passed through it, unknowing and untouched, safe in a place where no fires could ever burn. Afterwards, the Federal Empire was shattered and gone, and the Hrangans vanished in the dark of the Collapse, but it was no darker for the volcryn.

When Kleronomas took his survey ship out from Avalon, the volcryn came within ten light years of him. Kleronomas found many things, but he did not find the volcryn. Not then and not on his return to Avalon, a lifetime later.

When I was a child of three Kleronomas was dust, as distant and dead as Jesus of Nazareth, and the volcryn passed close to Daronne. That season all the Crey sensitives grew strange and sat staring at the stars with luminous, flickering eyes.

When I was grown, the volcryn had sailed beyond Tara, past the range of even the Crey, still heading outward.

And now I am old and growing older and the volcryn will soon pierce the Tempter’s Veil where it hangs like a black mist between the stars. And we follow, we follow. Through the dark gulfs where no one goes, through the emptiness, through the silence that goes on and on, my Nightflyer and I give chase.

* * *

They made their way slowly down the length of the transparent tube that linked the orbital docks to the waiting starship ahead, pulling themselves hand over through weightlessness.

Melantha Jhirl, the only one among them who did not seem clumsy and ill-at-ease in free fall, paused briefly to look at the dappled globe of Avalon below, a stately vastness in jade and amber. She smiled and moved swiftly down the tube, passing her companions with an easy grace. They had boarded starships before, all of them, but never like this. Most ships docked flush against the station, but the craft that Karoly d’Branin had chartered for his mission was too large, and of too singular in design. It loomed ahead; three small eggs side-by-side, two larger spheres beneath and at right angles, the cylinder of the driveroom between, lengths of tube connecting it all. The ship was white and austere.

Melantha Jhirl was the first one through the airlock. The others straggled up one by one until they had all boarded; five women and four men, each an Academy scholar, their backgrounds as diverse as their fields of study. The frail young telepath, Thale Lasamer, was the last to enter. He glanced about nervously as the others chatted and waited for the entry procedure to be completed. “We’re being watched,” he said.

The outer door was closed behind them, the tube had fallen away; now the inner door slid open. “Welcome to my Nightflyer,” said a mellow voice from within.

But there was no one there.

Melantha Jhirl stepped into the corridor. “Hello,” she said, looking about quizzically. Karoly d’Branin followed her.

“Hello,” the mellow voice replied. It was coming from a communicator grill beneath a darkened viewscreen. “This is Royd Eris, master of the Nightflyer. I’m pleased to see you again, Karoly, and pleased to welcome the rest of you.”

“Where are you?” someone demanded.

“In my quarters, which occupy half of this life-support sphere,” the voice of Royd Eris replied amiably. “The other half is comprised of a lounge-library-kitchen, two sanitary stations, one double cabin, and a rather small single. The rest of you will have to rig sleepwebs in the cargo spheres, I’m afraid. The Nightflyer was designed as a trader, not a passenger vessel. However, I’ve opened all the appropriate passageways and locks, so the holds have air and heat and water. I thought you’d find it more comfortable that way. Your equipment and computer system have been stowed in the holds, but there is still plenty of space, I assure you. I suggest you settle in, and then meet in the lounge for a meal.”

“Will you join us?” asked the psipsych, a querulous hatchet-faced woman named Agatha Marij-Black.

“In a fashion,” Royd Eris said, “in a fashion.”

* * *

The ghost appeared at the banquet.

They found the lounge easily enough, after they had rigged their sleepwebs and arranged their personal belongings around their sleeping quarters. It was the largest room in this section of the ship. One end of it was a fully equipped kitchen, well stocked with provisions. The opposite end offered several comfortable chairs, two readers, a holotank, and a wall of books and tapes and crystal chips. In the center was a long table with places set for ten.

A light meal was hot and waiting. The academicians helped themselves and took seats at the table, laughing and talking to each other, more at ease now than when they had boarded. The ship’s gravity grid was on, which went a long way towards making them more comfortable; the queasy awkwardness of their weightless transit was soon forgotten.

Finally all the seats were occupied except for one at the head of the table.

The ghost materialized there.

All conservation stopped.

“Hello,” said the spectre, the bright shade of a lithe, pale-eyed young man with white hair. He was dressed in clothing twenty years out of date; a loose blue pastel shirt that ballooned at his wrists, clinging white trousers with built-in boots. They could see through him, and his own eyes did not see them at all.

“A hologram,” said Alys Northwind, the short, stout xenotech.

“Royd, Royd, I do not understand,” said Karoly d’Branin, staring at the ghost. “What is this? Why do you send us a projection? Will you not join us in person?”

The ghost smiled faintly and lifted an arm. “My quarters are on the other side of that wall,” he said. “I’m afraid there is no door or lock between the two halves of the sphere. I spend most of my time by myself, and I value my privacy. I hope you will all understand, and respect my wishes. I will be a gracious host nonetheless. Here in the lounge my projection can join you. Elsewhere, if you have anything you need, if you want to talk to me, just use a communicator. Now, please resume your meal, and your conversations. I’ll gladly listen. It’s been a long time since I had passengers.”

They tried. But the ghost at the head of the table cast a long shadow, and the meal was strained and hurried.

* * *

From the hour the Nightflyer slipped into stardrive, Royd Eris watched his passengers.

Within a few days most of the academicians had grown accustomed to the disembodied voice from the communicators and the holographic spectre in the lounge, but only Melantha Jhirl and Karoly d’Branin ever seemed really comfortable in his presence. The others would have been even more uncomfortable if they had known that Royd was always with them. Always and everywhere, he watched. Even in the sanitary stations, Royd had eyes and ears.

He watched them work, eat, sleep, copulate; he listened untiringly to their talk. Within a week he knew them, all nine, and had begun to ferret out their tawdry little secrets.

The cyberneticist, Lommie Thorne, talked to her computers and seemed to prefer their company to that of humans. She was bright and quick, with a mobile, expressive face and a small hard boyish body; most of the others found her attractive, but she did not like to be touched. She sexed only once, with Melantha Jhirl. Lommie Thorne wore shirts of softly woven metal, and had an implant in her left wrist that let her interface directly with her computers.

The xenobiologist, Rojan Christopheris, was a surly, argumentative man, a cynic whose contempt for his colleagues was barely kept in check, a solitary drinker. He was tall and stooped and ugly.

The two linguists, Dannel and Lindran, were lovers in public, constantly holding hands and supporting each other. In private they quarreled bitterly. Lindran had a mordant wit and liked to wound Dannel where it hurt the most, with jokes about his professional competence. They sexed often, both of them, but not with each other.

Agatha Marij-Black, the psipsych, was a hypochondriac given to black depressions, which worsened in the close confines of the Nightflyer.

Xenotech Alys Northwind ate constantly and never washed. Her stubby fingernails were always caked with black dirt, and she wore the same jumpsuit for the first two weeks of the voyage, taking it off only for sex, and then only briefly.

Telepath Thale Lasamer was nervous and temperamental, afraid of everyone around him, yet given to bouts of arrogance in which he taunted his companions with thoughts he had snatched from their minds.

Royd Eris watched them all, studied them, lived with them and through them. He neglected none, not even the ones he found the most distasteful. But by the time the Nightflyer had been lost in the roiling flux of stardrive for two weeks, two of his riders had come to engage the bulk of his attention.

* * *

“Most of all, I want to know the why of them,” Karoly d’Branin told him one false night the second week out from Avalon.

Royd’s luminescent ghost sat close to d’Branin in the darkened lounge, watching him drink bittersweet chocolate. The others were all asleep. Night and day are meaningless on a starship, but the Nightflyer kept the usual cycles and most of the passengers followed them. Old d’Branin, administrator, generalist, and mission leader, was the exception; he kept his own hours, preferred work to sleep, and liked nothing better than to talk about his pet obsession, the volcryn he hunted.

“The if of them is important as well, Karoly,” Royd answered. “Can you truly be certain these aliens of yours exist?”

I can be certain,” Karoly d’Branin said, with a broad wink. He was a compact man, short and slender, iron grey hair carefully styled and his tunic almost fussily neat, but the expansiveness of his gestures and the giddy enthusiasms to which he was prone belied his sober appearance. “That is enough. If everyone else were certain as well, we would have a fleet of research ships instead of your little Nightflyer.” He sipped at his chocolate and sighed with satisfaction. “Do you know the Nor T’alush, Royd?”

The name was strange, but it took Royd only a moment to consult his library computer. “An alien race on the other side of human space, past the Fyndii worlds and the Damoosh. Possibly legendary.”

D’Branin chuckled. “No, no, no! Your library is out of date, my friend, you must supplement it the next time you visit Avalon. Not legends, no, real enough, though far away. We have little information about the Nor T’alush, but we are sure they exist, though you and I may never meet one. They were the start of it all.”

“Tell me,” Royd said. “I am interested in your work, Karoly.”

“I was coding some information into the Academy computers, a packet newly arrived from Dam Tullian after twenty standard years in transit. Part of it was Nor T’alush folklore. I had no idea how long that had taken to get to Dam Tullian, or by what route it had come, but it did not matter—folklore is timeless anyway, and this was fascinating material. Did you know that my first degree was in xenomythology?”

“I did not. Please continue.”

“The volcryn story was among the Nor T’alush myths. It awed me; a race of sentients moving out from some mysterious origin in the core of the galaxy, sailing towards the galactic edge and, it was alleged, eventually bound for intergalactic space itself, meanwhile always keeping to the interstellar depths, no planetfalls, seldom coming within a light year of a star.” D’Branin’s grey eyes sparkled, and as he spoke his hands swept enthusiastically to either side, as if they could encompass the galaxy. “And doing it all without a stardrive, Royd, that is the real wonder! Doing it in ships moving only a fraction of the speed of light! That was the detail that obsessed me! How different they must be, my volcryn—wise and patient, long-lived and long-viewed, with none of the terrible haste and passion that consume the lesser races. Think how old they must be, those volcryn ships!”

“Old,” Royd agreed. “Karoly, you said ships. More than one?”

“Oh, yes,” d’Branin said. “According to the Nor T’alush, one or two appeared first, on the innermost edges of their trading sphere, but others followed. Hundreds of them, each solitary, moving by itself, bound outward, always outward. The direction was always the same. For fifteen thousand standard years they moved among the Nor T’alush stars, and then they began to pass out from among them. The myth said that the last volcryn ship was gone three thousand years ago.”

“Eighteen thousand years,” Royd said, adding. “Are the Nor T’alush that old?”

“Not as star-travellers, no,” d’Branin said, smiling. “According to their own histories, the Nor T’alush have only been civilized for about half that long. That bothered me for a while. It seemed to make the volcryn story clearly a legend. A wonderful legend, true, but nothing more.

“Ultimately, however, I could not let it alone. In my spare time I investigated, crosschecking with other alien cosmologies to see whether this particular myth was shared by any races other than the Nor T’alush. I thought perhaps I could get a thesis out of it. It seemed a fruitful line of inquiry.

“I was startled by what I found. Nothing from the Hrangans, or the Hrangan slave races, but that made sense, you see. Since they were out from human space, the volcryn would not reach them until after they had passed through our own sphere. When I looked in, however, the volcryn story was everywhere.” D’Branin leaned forward eagerly. “Ah, Royd, the stories, the stories!”

“Tell me,” Royd said.

“The Fyndii call them iy-wivii, which translates to something like void-horde or dark-horde. Each Fyndii horde tells the same story, only the mindmutes disbelieve. The ships are said to be vast, much larger than any known in their history or ours. Warships, they say. There is a story of a lost Fyndii horde, three hundred ships under rala-fyn, all destroyed utterly when they encountered an iy-wivii. This was many thousands of years ago, of course, so the details are unclear.

“The Damoosh have a different story, but they accept it as literal truth—and the Damoosh, you know, are the oldest race we’ve yet encountered. The people of the gulf, they call my volcryn. Lovely stories, Royd, lovely! Ships like great dark cities, still and silent, moving at a slower pace than the universe around them. Damoosh legends say the volcryn are refugees from some unimaginable war deep in the core of the galaxy, at the very beginning of time. They abandoned the worlds and stars on which they had evolved, sought true peace in the emptiness between.

“The gethsoids of Aath have a similar story, but in their tale that war destroyed all life in our galaxy, and the volcryn are gods of a sort, reseeding the worlds as they pass. Other races see them as god’s messengers, or shadows out of hell warning us all to flee some terror soon to emerge from the core.”

“Your stories contradict each other, Karoly.”

“Yes, yes, of course, but they all agree on the essentials—the volcryn, sailing out, passing through our short-lived empires and transient glories in their ancient eternal sublight ships. That is what matters! The rest is frippery, ornamentation; we will soon know the truth of it. I checked what little was known about the races said to flourish further in still, beyond even the Nor T’alush—civilizations and peoples half legendary themselves, like the Dan’lai and the ullish and the Rohenna’kh—and where I could find anything at all, I found the volcryn story once again.”

“The legend of the legends,” Royd suggested. The spectre’s wide mouth turned up in a smile.

“Exactly, exactly,” d’Branin agreed. “At that point, I called in the experts, specialists from the Institute for the Study of Non-Human Intelligence. We researched for two years. It was all there, in the libraries and memories and matrices of the Academy. No one had ever looked before, or bothered to put it together.

“The volcryn have been moving through the manrealm for most of human history, since before the dawn of spaceflight. While we twist the fabric of space itself to cheat relativity, they have been sailing their great ships right through the heart of our alleged civilization, past our most populous worlds, at stately slow sublight speeds, bound for the Fringe and the dark between the galaxies. Marvelous, Royd, marvelous!”

“Marvelous!” Royd agreed.

Karoly d’Branin drained his chocolate cup with a swig, and reached out to catch Royd’s arm, but his hand passed through empty light. He seemed disconcerted for a moment, before he began to laugh at himself. “Ah, my volcryn. I grow overenthused, Royd. I am so close now. They have preyed on my mind for a dozen years, and within the month I will have them, will behold their splendor with my own weary eyes. Then, then, if only I can open communication, if only my people can reach ones so great and strange as they, so different from us—I have hopes, Royd, hopes that at last I will know the why of it!”

The ghost of Royd Eris smiled for him, and looked on through calm transparent eyes.

* * *

Passengers soon grow restless on a starship under drive, sooner on one as small and spare as the Nightflyer. Late in the second week, the speculation began in deadly earnest.

“Who is this Royd Eris, really?” the xenobiologist, Rojan Christopheris, complained one night when four of them were playing cards. “Why doesn’t he come out? What’s the purpose of keeping himself sealed off from the rest of us?”

“Ask him,” suggested Dannel, the male linguist.

“What if he’s a criminal of some sort?” Christopheris said. “Do we know anything about him? No, of course not. D’Branin engaged him, and d’Branin is a senile old fool, we all know that.”

“It’s your play,” Lommie Thorne said.

Christopheris snapped down a card. “Setback,” he declared, “you’ll have to draw again.” He grinned. “As for this Eris, who knows that he isn’t planning to kill us all.”

“For our vast wealth, no doubt,” said Lindran, the female linguist. She played a card on top of the one Christopheris had laid down. “Ricochet,” she called softly. She smiled.

So did Royd Eris, watching.

* * *

Melantha Jhirl was good to watch.

Young, healthy, active, Melantha Jhirl had a vibrancy about her the others could not match. She was big in every way; a head taller than anyone else on board, large-framed, large-breasted, long-legged, strong, muscles moving fluidly beneath shiny coal-black skin. Her appetites were big as well. She ate twice as much as any of her colleagues, drank heavily without ever seeming drunk, exercised for hours every day on equipment she had brought with her and set up in one of the cargo holds. By the third week out she had sexed with all four of the men on board and two of the other women. Even in bed she was always active, exhausting most of her partners. Royd watched her with consuming interest.

“I am an improved model,” she told him once as she worked out on her parallel bars, sweat glistening on her bare skin, her long black hair confined in a net.

“Improved?” Royd said. He could not send his projection down to the holds, but Melantha had summoned him with the communicator to talk while she exercised, not knowing he would have been there anyway.

She paused in her routine, holding her body straight and aloft with the strength of her arms and her back. “Altered, captain,” she said. She had taken to calling him captain. “Born on Prometheus among the elite, child of two genetic wizards. Improved, captain. I require twice the energy you do, but I use it all. A more efficient metabolism, a stronger and more durable body, an expected lifespan half again the normal human’s. My people have made some terrible mistakes when they try to radically redesign humanity, but the small improvements they do well.”

She resumed her exercises, moving quickly and easily, silent until she had finished. When she was done, she vaulted away from the bars and stood breathing heavily for a moment, then crossed her arms and cocked her head and grinned. “Now you know my life story, captain,” she said. She pulled off the net to shake free her hair.

“Surely there is more,” said the voice from the communicator.

Melantha Jhirl laughed. “Surely,” she said. “Do you want to hear about my defection to Avalon, the whys and wherefores of it, the trouble it caused my family on Prometheus? Or are you more interested in my extraordinary work in cultural xenology? Do you want to hear about that?”

“Perhaps some other time,” Royd said politely. “What is that crystal you wear?”

It hung between her breasts ordinarily; she had removed it when she stripped for her exercises. She picked it up again and slipped it over her head; a small green gem laced with traceries of black, on a silver chain. When it touched her Melantha closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again, grinning. “It’s alive,” she said. “Haven’t you ever seen one? A whisperjewel, captain. Resonant crystal, etched psionically to hold a memory, a sensation. The touch brings it back, for a time.”

“I am familiar with the principle,” Royd said, “but not this use. Yours contains some treasured memory, then? Of your family, perhaps?”

Melantha Jhirl snatched up a towel and began to dry the sweat from her body. “Mine contains the sensations of a particularly satisfying session in bed, captain. It arouses me. Or it did. Whisperjewels fade in time, and this isn’t as potent as it once was. But sometimes—often when I’ve come from lovemaking or strenuous exercise—it comes alive on me again, like it did just then.”

“Oh,” said Royd’s voice. “It has made you aroused, then? Are you going off to copulate now?”

Melantha grinned. “I know what part of my life you want to hear about, captain—my tumultuous and passionate lovelife. Well, you won’t have it. Not until I hear your life story, anyway. Among my modest attributes is an insatiable curiosity. Who are you, captain? Really?”

“One as improved as you,” Royd replied, “should certainly be able to guess.”

Melantha laughed, and tossed her towel at the communicator grill.

* * *

Lommie Thorne spent most of her days in the cargo hold they had designated as the computer room, setting up the system they would use to analyze the volcryn. As often as not, the xenotech Alys Northwind came with her to lend a hand. The cyberneticist whistled as she worked; Northwind obeyed her orders in a sullen silence. Occasionally they talked.

“Eris isn’t human,” Lommie Thorne said one day, as she supervised the installation of a display viewscreen.

Alys Northwind grunted. “What?” A frown broke across her square, flat features. Christopheris and his talk had made her nervous about Eris. She clicked another component into position, and turned.

“He talks to us, but he can’t be seen,” the cyberneticist said. “This ship is uncrewed, seemingly all automated except for him. Why not entirely automated, then? I’d wager this Royd Eris is a fairly sophisticated computer system, perhaps a genuine Artificial Intelligence. Even a modest program can carry on a blind conversation indistinguishable from a human’s. This one could fool you, I’d bet, once it’s up and running.”

The xenotech grunted and turned back to her work. “Why fake being human, then?”

“Because,” said Lommie Thorne, “most legal systems give AIs no rights. A ship can’t own itself, even on Avalon. The Nightflyer is probably afraid of being seized and disconnected.” She whistled. “Death, Alys; the end of self-awareness and conscious thought.”

“I work with machines every day,” Alys Northwind said stubbornly. “Turn them off, turn them on, makes no difference. They don’t mind. Why should this machine care?”

Lommie Thorne smiled. “A computer is different, Alys,” she said. “Mind, thought, life, the big systems have all of that.” Her right hand curled around her left wrist, and her thumb began idly rubbing the nubs of her implant. “Sensation, too. I know. No one wants the end of sensation. They are not so different from you and I, really.”

The xenotech glanced back and shook her head. “Really,” she repeated, in a flat, disbelieving voice.

Royd Eris listened and watched, unsmiling.

* * *

Thale Lasamer was a frail young thing; nervous, sensitive, with limp flaxen hair that fell to his shoulders, and watery blue eyes. Normally he dressed like a peacock, favoring the lacy vee-necked shirts and codpieces that were still the fashion among the lower classes of his homeworld. But on the day he sought out Karoly d’Branin in his cramped, private cabin, Lasamer was dressed almost somberly, in an austere grey jumpsuit.

“I feel it,” he said, clutching d’Branin by the arm, his long fingernails digging in painfully. “Something is wrong, Karoly, something is very wrong. I’m beginning to get frightened.”

The telepath’s nails bit, and d’Branin pulled away hard. “You are hurting me,” he protested. “My friend, what is it? Frightened? Of what, of whom? I do not understand. What could there be to fear?”

Lasamer raised pale hands to his face. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he waited. “Yet it’s there, I feel it. Karoly, I’m picking up something. You know I’m good, I am, that’s why you picked me. Just a moment ago, when my nails dug into you, I felt it. I can read you now, in flashes. You’re thinking I’m too excitable, that it’s the confinement, that I’ve got to be calmed down.” The young man laughed a thin hysterical laugh that died as quickly as it had begun. “No, you see, I am good. Class one, tested, and I tell you I’m afraid. I sense it. Feel it. Dream of it. I felt it even as we were boarding, and it’s gotten worse. Something dangerous. Something volatile. And alien, Karoly, alien!”

“The volcryn?” d’Branin said.

“No, impossible. We’re in drive, they’re light years away.” The edgy laughter sounded again. “I’m not that good, Karoly. I’ve heard your Crey story, but I’m only a human. No, this is close. On the ship.”

“One of us?”

“Maybe,” Lassamer said. He rubbed his cheek absently. “I can’t sort it out.”

D’Branin put a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “Thale, this feeling of yours—could it be that you are just tired? We have all of us been under strain. Inactivity can be taxing.”

“Get your hand off me,” Lasamer snapped.

D’Branin drew back his hand quickly.

“This is real,” the telepath insisted, “and I don’t need you thinking that maybe you shouldn’t have taken me, all that crap. I’m as stable as anyone on this … this … how dare you think I’m unstable, you ought to look inside some of these others, Christopheris with his bottle and his dirty little fantasies, Dannel half sick with fear, Lommie and her machines, with her it’s all metal and lights and cool circuits, sick, I tell you, and Jhirl’s arrogant and Agatha whines even in her head to herself all the time, and Alys is empty, like a cow. You, you don’t touch them, see into them, what do you know of stable? Losers, d’Branin, they’ve given you a bunch of losers, and I’m one of your best, so don’t you go thinking that I’m not stable, not sane, you hear.” His blue eyes were fevered. “Do you hear?”

“Easy,” d’Branin said. “Easy, Thale, you’re getting excited.”

The telepath blinked, and suddenly the wildness was gone. “Excited?” he said. “Yes.” He looked around guiltily. “It’s hard, Karoly, but listen to me, you must, I’m warning you. We’re in danger.”

“I will listen,” d’Branin said, “but I cannot act without more definite information. You must use your talent and get it for me, yes? You can do that.”

Lasamer nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes.” They talked quietly for more than an hour, and finally the telepath left peacefully.

Afterwards d’Branin went straight to the psipsych, who was lying in her sleepweb surrounded by medicines, complaining bitterly of aches. “Interesting,” she said when d’Branin told her. “I’ve felt something too, a sense of threat, very vague, diffuse. I thought it was me, the confinement, the boredom, the way I feel. My moods betray me at times. Did he say anything more specific?”

“No.”

“I’ll make an effort to move around, read him, read the others, see what I can pick up. Although, if this is real, he should know it first. He’s a one, I’m only a three.”

D’Branin nodded. “He seems very receptive,” he said. “He told me all kinds of things about the others.”

“Means nothing. Sometimes, when a telepath insists he is picking up everything, what it means is that he’s picking up nothing at all. He imagines feelings, readings, to make up for those that will not come. I’ll keep careful watch on him, d’Branin. Sometimes a talent can crack, slip into a kind of hysteria, and begin to broadcast instead of receive. In a closed environment, that’s very dangerous.”

Karoly d’Branin nodded. “Of course, of course.”

In another part of the ship, Royd Eris frowned.

* * *

“Have you noticed the clothing on that holograph he sends us?” Rojan Christopheris asked Alys Northwind. They were alone in one of the holds, reclining on a mat, trying to avoid the wet spot. The xenobiologist had lit a joystick. He offered it to his companion, but Northwind waved it away.

“A decade out of style, maybe more. My father wore shirts like that when he was a boy on Old Poseidon.”

“Eris has old-fashioned taste,” Alys Northwind said. “So? I don’t care what he wears. Me, I like my jumpsuits. They’re comfortable. Don’t care what people think.”

“You don’t, do you?” Christopheris said, wrinkling his huge nose. She did not see the gesture. “Well, you miss the point. What if that isn’t really Eris? A projection can be anything, can be made up out of whole cloth. I don’t think he really looks like that.”

“No?” Now her voice was curious. She rolled over and curled up beneath his arm, her heavy white breasts against his chest.

“What if he’s sick, deformed, ashamed to be seen the way he really looks?” Christopheris said. “Perhaps he has some disease. The Slow Plague can waste a person terribly, but it takes decades to kill, and there are other contagions—manthrax, new leprosy, the melt, Langamen’s Disease, lots of them. Could be that Royd’s self-imposed quarantine is just that. A quarantine. Think about it.”

Alys Northwind frowned. “All this talk of Eris,” she said, “is making me edgy.”

The xenobiologist sucked on his joy-stick and laughed. “Welcome to the Nightflyer, then. The rest of us are already there.”

* * *

In the fifth week out, Melantha Jhirl pushed her pawn to the sixth rank and Royd saw that it was unstoppable and resigned. It was his eighth straight defeat at her hands in as many days. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the lounge, the chessmen spread out before her in front of a darkened viewscreen. Laughing, she swept them all away. “Don’t feel bad, Royd,” she told him. “I’m an improved model. Always three moves ahead.”

“I should tie in my computer,” he replied. “You’d never know.” His ghost materialized suddenly, standing in front of the viewscreen, and smiled at her.

“I’d know within three moves,” Melantha Jhirl said. “Try it.”

They were the last victims of a chess fever that had swept the Nightflyer for more than a week. Initially it had been Christopheris who produced the set and urged people to play, but the others had lost interest quickly when Thale Lasamer sat down and beat them all, one by one. Everyone was certain that he’d done it by reading their minds, but the telepath was in a volatile, nasty mood, and no one dared voice the accusation. Melantha, however, had been able to defeat Lasamer without very much trouble. “He isn’t that good a player,” she told Royd afterwards, “and if he’s trying to lift ideas from me, he’s getting gibberish. The improved model knows certain mental disciplines. I can shield myself well enough, thank you.” Christopheris and a few of the others then tried a game or two against Melantha, and were routed for their troubles. Finally Royd asked if he might play. Only Melantha and Karoly were willing to sit down with him over the board, and since Karoly could barely recall how the pieces moved from one moment to the next, that left Melantha and Royd as regular opponents. They both seemed to thrive on the games, though Melantha always won.

Melantha stood up and walked to the kitchen, stepping right through Royd’s ghostly form, which she steadfastly refused to pretend was real. “The rest of them walk around me,” Royd complained.

She shrugged, and found a bulb of beer in a storage compartment. “When are you going to break down and let me behind your wall for a visit, captain?” she asked. “Don’t you get lonely back there? Sexually frustrated? Claustrophobic?”

“I have flown the Nightflyer all my life, Melantha,” Royd said. His projection, ignored, winked out. “If I were subject to claustrophobia, sexual frustration, or loneliness, such a life would have been impossible. Surely that should be obvious to you, being as improved a model as you are?”

She took a squeeze of her beer and laughed her mellow, musical laugh at him. “I’ll solve you yet, captain,” she warned.

“Meanwhile,” he said, “tell me some more lies about your life.”

* * *

“Have you ever heard of Jupiter?” the xenotech demanded of the others. She was drunk, lolling in her sleepweb in the cargo hold.

“Something to do with Earth,” said Lindran. “The same myth system originated both names, I believe.”

“Jupiter,” the xenotech announced loudly, “is a gas giant in the same solar system as Old Earth. Didn’t know that, did you?”

“I’ve got more important things to occupy my mind than such trivia, Alys,” Lindran said.

Alys Northwind smiled down smugly. “Listen, I’m talking to you. They were on the verge of exploring this Jupiter when the stardrive was discovered, oh, way back. After that, course, no one bothered with gas giants. Just slip into drive and find the habitable worlds, settle them, ignore the comets and the rocks and the gas giants—there’s another star just a few light years away, and it has more habitable planets. But there were people who thought those Jupiters might have life, you know. Do you see?”

“I see that you’re blind drunk,” Lindran said.

Christopheris looked annoyed. “If there is intelligent life on the gas giants, it shows no interest in leaving them,” he snapped. “All of the sentient species we have met up to now have originated on worlds similar to Earth, and most of them are oxygen breathers. Unless you’re suggesting that the volcryn are from a gas giant?”

The xenotech pushed herself up to a sitting position and smiled conspiratorially. “Not the volcryn,” she said. “Royd Eris. Crack that forward bulkhead in the lounge, and watch the methane and ammonia come smoking out.” Her hand made a sensuous waving motion through the air, and she convulsed with giddy laughter.

* * *

The system was up and running. Cyberneticist Lommie Thorne sat at the master console, a featureless black plastic plate upon which the phantom images of a hundred keyboard configurations came and went in holographic display, vanishing and shifting even as she used them. Around her rose crystalline data grids, ranks of viewscreens and readout panels upon which columns of figures marched and geometric shapes did stately whirling dances, dark columns of seamless metal that contained the mind and soul of her system. She sat in the semi-darkness happily, whistling as she ran the computer through several simple routines, her fingers moving across the flickering keys with blind speed and quickening tempo. “Ah,” she said once, smiling. Later, only, “Good.”

Then it was time for the final run-through. Lommie Thorne slid back the metallic fabric of her left sleeve, pushed her wrist beneath the console, found the prongs, jacked herself in. Interface.

Ecstacy.

Inkblot shapes in a dozen glowing colors twisted and melded and broke apart on the readout screens.

In an instant it was over.

Lommie Thorne pulled free her wrist. The smile on her face was shy and satisfied, but across it lay another expression, the merest hint of puzzlement. She touched her thumb to the holes of her wrist jack, and found them warm to the touch, tingling. Lommie shivered.

The system was running perfectly, hardware in good condition, all software systems functioning according to plan, interface meshing well. It had been a delight, as it always was. When she joined with the system, she was wise beyond her years, and powerful, and full of light and electricity and the stuff of life, cool and clean and exciting to touch, and never alone, never small or weak. That was what it was always like when she interfaced, and let herself expand.

But this time something had been different. Something cold had touched her, only for a moment. Something very cold and very frightening, and together she and the system had seen it cleanly for a brief moment, and then it had been gone again.

The cyberneticist shook her head, and drove the nonsense out. She went back to work. After a time, she began to whistle.

* * *

During the sixth week, Alys Northwind cut herself badly while preparing a snack. She was standing in the kitchen, slicing a spiced meatstick with a long knife, when suddenly she screamed.

Dannel and Lindran rushed to her, and found her staring down in horror at the chopping block in front of her. The knife had taken off the first joint of the index finger on her left hand, and the blood was spreading in ragged spurts. “The ship lurched,” Alys said numbly, staring up at Dannel. “Didn’t you feel it jerk? It pushed the knife to the side.”

“Get something to stop the bleeding,” Lindran said. Dannel looked around in panic. “Oh, I’ll do it myself,” Lindran finally said, and she did.

The psipsych, Agatha Marij-Black, gave Northwind a tranquilizer, then looked at the two linguists. “Did you see it happen?”

“She did it herself, with the knife,” Dannel said.

From somewhere down the corridor, there came the sound of wild, hysterical laughter.

* * *

“I dampened him,” Marij-Black reported to Karoly d’Branin later the same day. “Psionine-4. It will blunt his receptivity for several days, and I have more if he needs it.”

D’Branin wore a stricken look. “We talked several times, and I could see that Thale was becoming ever more fearful, but he could never tell me the why of it. Did you have to shut him off?”

The psipsych shrugged. “He was edging into the irrational. Given his level of talent, if he’d gone over the edge he might have taken us all with him. You should never have taken a class one telepath, d’Branin. Too unstable.”

“We must communicate with an alien race. I remind you that is no easy task. The volcryn will be more alien than any sentients we have yet encountered. We needed class one skills if we were to have any hope of reaching them. And they have so much to teach us, my friend!”

“Glib,” she said, “but you might have no working skills at all, given the condition of your class one. Half the time he’s curled up into the foetal position in his sleepweb, half the time he’s strutting and crowing and half mad with fear. He insists we’re all in real physical danger, but he doesn’t know why or from what. The worst of it is that I can’t tell if he’s really sensing something or simply having an acute attack of paranoia. He certainly displays some classic paranoid symptoms. Among other things, he insists that he’s being watched. Perhaps his condition is completely unrelated to us, the volcryn, and his talent. I can’t be sure.”

“What of your own talent?” d’Branin said. “You are an empath, are you not?”

“Don’t tell me my job,” she said sharply. “I sexed with him last week. You don’t get more proximity or better rapport for esping than that. Even under those conditions, I couldn’t be sure of anything. His mind is a chaos, and his fear is so rank it stank up the sheets. I don’t read anything from the others either, besides the ordinary tensions and frustrations. But I’m only a three, so that doesn’t mean much. My abilities are limited. You know I haven’t been feeling well, d’Branin. I can barely breathe on this ship. The air seems thick and heavy to me, my head throbs. I ought to stay in bed.”

“Yes, of course,” d’Branin said hastily. “I did not mean to criticize. You have been doing all you can under difficult circumstances. How long will it be until Thale is with us again?”

The psipsych rubbed her temple wearily. “I’m recommending we keep him dampened until the mission is over, d’Branin. I warn you, an insane or hysterical telepath is dangerous. That business with Northwind and the knife might have been his doing, you know. He started screaming not long after, remember. Maybe he’d touched her, for just an instant—oh, it’s a wild idea, but it’s possible. The point is, we don’t take chances. I have enough psionine-4 to keep him numb and functional until we’re back on Avalon.”

But—Royd will take us out of drive soon, and we will make contact with the volcryn. We will need Thale, his mind, his talent. Is it vital to keep him dampened? Is there no other way?”

Marij-Black grimaced. “My other option was an injection of esperon. It would have opened him up completely, increased his psionic receptivity tenfold for a few hours. Then, I’d hope, he could focus in on this danger he’s feeling. Exorcise it if it’s false, deal with it if it’s real. But psionine-4 is a lot safer. Esperon is a hell of a drug, with devastating side effects. It raises the blood pressure dramatically, sometimes brings on hyperventilation or seizures, has even been known to stop the heart. Lasamer is young enough so that I’m not worried about that, but I don’t think he has the emotional stability to deal with that kind of power. The psionine should tell us something. If his paranoia persists, I’ll know it has nothing to do with his telepathy.”

“And if it does not persist?” Karoly d’Branin said.

Agatha Marij-Black smiled wickedly at him. “If Lasamer becomes quiescent, and stops babbling about danger? Why, that would mean he was no longer picking up anything, wouldn’t it? And that would mean there had been something to pick up, that he’d been right all along.”

* * *

At dinner that night, Thale Lasamer was quiet and distracted, eating in a rhythmic, mechanical sort of way, with a cloudy look in his blue eyes. Afterwards he excused himself and went straight to bed, falling into exhausted slumber almost immediately.

“What did you do to him?” Lommie Thorne asked Marij-Black.

“I shut off that prying mind of his,” she replied.

“You should have done it two weeks ago,” Lindran said. “Docile, he’s a lot easier to take.”

Karoly d’Branin hardly touched his food.

* * *

False night came, and Royd’s wraith materialized while Karoly d’Branin sat brooding over his chocolate. “Karoly,” the apparition said, “would it be possible to tie in the computer your team brought on board with my shipboard system? Your volcryn stories fascinate me, and I would like to be able to study them further at my leisure. I assume the details of your investigation are in storage.”

“Certainly,” d’Branin replied in an offhand, distracted manner. “Our system is up now. Patching it into the Nightflyer should present no problem. I will tell Lommie to attend to it tomorrow.”

Silence hung in the room heavily. Karoly d’Branin sipped at his chocolate and stared off into the darkness, almost unaware of Royd.

“You are troubled,” Royd said after a time.

“Eh? Oh, yes.” D’Branin looked up. “Forgive me, my friend. I have much on my mind.”

“It concerns Thale Lasamer, does it not?”

Karoly d’Branin looked at the pale, luminescent figure across from him for a long time before he finally managed a stiff nod. “Yes. Might I ask how you knew that?”

“I know everything that occurs on the Nightflyer,” Royd said.

“You have been watching us,” d’Branin said gravely, accusation in his tone. “Then it is so, what Thale says, about us being watched. Royd, how could you? Spying is beneath you.”

The ghost’s transparent eyes had no life in them, did not see. “Do not tell the others,” Royd warned. “Karoly, my friend—if I may call you my friend—I have my own reasons for watching, reasons it would not profit you to know. I mean you no harm. Believe that. You have hired me to take you safely to the volcryn and safely back, and I mean to do just that.”

“You are being evasive, Royd,” d’Branin said. “Why do you spy on us? Do you watch everything? Are you a voyeur, some enemy, is that why you do not mix with us? Is watching all you intend to do?”

“Your suspicions hurt me, Karoly.”

“Your deception hurts me. Will you not answer me?”

“I have eyes and ears everywhere,” Royd said. “There is no place to hide from me on the Nightflyer. Do I see everything? No, not always. I am only human, no matter what your colleagues might think. I sleep. The monitors remain on, but there is no one to observe them. I can only pay attention to one or two scenes or inputs at once. Sometimes I grow distracted, unobservant. I watch everything, Karoly, but I do not see everything.”

Why?” D’Branin poured himself a fresh cup of chocolate, steadying his hand with an effort.

“I do not have to answer that question. The Nightflyer is my ship.”

D’Branin sipped chocolate, blinked, nodded to himself. “You grieve me, my friend. You give me no choice. Thale said we were being watched, I now learn and he was right. He says also that we are in danger. Something alien, he says. You?”

The projection was still and silent.

D’Branin clucked. “You do not answer. Ah, Royd, what am I to do? I must believe him, then. We are in danger, perhaps from you. I must abort our mission, then. Return us to Avalon, Royd. That is my decision.”

The ghost smiled wanly. “So close, Karoly? Soon now we will be dropping out of drive.”

Karoly d’Branin made a small sad noise deep in his throat. “My volcryn,” he said, sighing. “So close—ah, it pains me to desert them. But I cannot do otherwise, I cannot.”

“You can,” said the voice of Royd Eris. “Trust me. That is all I ask, Karoly. Believe me when I tell you that I have no sinister intentions. Thale Lasamer may speak of danger, but no one has been harmed so far, have they?”

“No,” admitted d’Branin. “No, unless you count Alys, cutting herself this afternoon.”

“What?” Royd hesitated briefly. “Cutting herself? I did not see, Karoly. When did this happen?”

“Oh, early—just before Lasamer began to scream and rant, I believe.”

“I see.” Royd’s voice was thoughtful. “I was watching Melantha go through her exercises,” he said finally, “and talking to her. I did not notice. Tell me how it happened.”

D’Branin told him.

“Listen to me,” Royd said. “Trust me, Karoly, and I will give you your volcryn. Calm your people. Assure them that I am no threat. And keep Lasamer drugged and quiescent, do you understand? That is very important. He is the problem.”

“Agatha advises much the same thing.”

“I know,” said Royd. “I agree with her. Will you do as I ask?”

“I do not know,” d’Branin said. “You make it hard for me. I do not understand what is going wrong, my friend. Will you not tell me more?”

Royd Eris did not answer. His ghost waited.

“Well,” d’Branin said at last, “you do not talk. How difficult you make it. How soon, Royd? How soon will we see my volcryn?”

“Quite soon,” Royd replied. “We will drop out of drive in approximately seventy hours.”

“Seventy hours,” d’Branin said. “Such a short time. Going back would gain us nothing.” He moistened his lips, lifted his cup, found it empty. “Go on, then. I will do as you bid. I will trust you, keep Lasamer drugged, I will not tell the others of your spying. Is that enough, then? Give me my volcryn. I have waited so long!”

“I know,” said Royd Eris. “I know.”

Then the ghost was gone, and Karoly d’Branin sat alone in the darkened lounge. He tried to refill his cup, but his hand began to tremble unaccountably, and he poured the chocolate over his fingers and dropped the cup, swearing, wondering, hurting.

* * *

The next day was a day of rising tensions and a hundred small irritations. Lindran and Dannel had a “private” argument that could be overheard through half the ship. A three-handed war game in the lounge ended in disaster when Christopheris accused Melantha Jhirl of cheating. Lommie Thorne complained of unusual difficulties in tying her system into the shipboard computers. Alys Northwind sat in the lounge for hours, staring at her bandaged finger with a look of sullen hatred on her face. Agatha Marij-Black prowled through the corridors, complaining that the ship was too hot, that her joints throbbed, that the air was thick and full of smoke, that the ship was too cold. Even Karoly d’Branin was despondent and on-edge.

Only the telepath seemed content. Shot full of psionine-4, Thale Lasamer was often sluggish and lethargic, but at least he no longer flinched at shadows.

Royd Eris made no appearance, either by voice or holographic projection.

He was still absent at dinner. The academicians ate uneasily, expecting him to materialize at any moment, take his accustomed place, and join in the mealtime conversation. Their expectations were still unfulfilled when the afterdinner pots of chocolate and spiced tea and coffee were set on the table.

“Our captain seems to be occupied,” Melantha Jhirl observed, leaning back in her chair and swirling a snifter of brandy.

“We will be shifting out of drive soon,” Karoly d’Branin said. “Undoubtedly there are preparations to make.” Secretly, he fretted over Royd’s absence, and wondered if they were being watched even now.

Rojan Christopheris cleared his throat. “Since we’re all here and he’s not, perhaps this is a good time to discuss certain things. I’m not concerned about him missing dinner. He doesn’t eat. He’s a damned hologram. What does it matter? Maybe it’s just as well, we need to talk about this. Karoly, a lot of us have been getting uneasy about Royd Eris. What do you know about this mystery man anyway?”

“Know, my friend?” D’Branin refilled his cup with the thick bittersweet chocolate and sipped at it slowly, trying to give himself a moment to think. “What is there to know?”

“Surely you’ve noticed that he never comes out to play with us,” Lindran said drily. “Before you engaged his ship, did anyone remark on this quirk of his?”

“I’d like to know the answer to that one too,” said Dannel, the other linguist. “A lot of traffic comes and goes through Avalon. How did you come to choose Eris? What were you told about him?”

“Told about him? Very little, I must admit. I spoke to a few port officials and charter companies, but none of them were acquainted with Royd. He had not traded out of Avalon originally, you see.”

“How convenient,” said Lindran.

“How suspicious,” added Dannel.

“Where is he from, then?” Lindran demanded. “Dannel and I have listened to him pretty carefully. He speaks standard very flatly, with no discernible accent, no idiosyncrasies to betray his origins.”

“Sometimes he sounds a bit archaic,” Dannel put in, “and from time to time one of his constructions will give me an association. Only it’s a different one each time. He’s travelled a lot.”

“Such a deduction,” Lindran said, patting his hand. “Traders frequently do, love. Comes of owning a starship.”

Dannel glared at her, but Lindran just went on. “Seriously, though, do you know anything about him? Where did this nightflyer of ours come from?”

“I do not know,” d’Branin admitted. “I—I never thought to ask.”

The members of his research team glanced at each other incredulously. “You never thought to ask?” Christopheris said. “How did you come to select this ship?”

“It was available. The administrative council approved my project and assigned me personnel, but they could not spare an Academy ship. There were budgetary constraints as well.”

Agatha Marij-Black laughed sourly. “What d’Branin is telling those of you who haven’t figured it out is that the Academy was pleased with his studies in xenomyth, with the discovery of the volcryn legend, but less than enthusiastic about his plan to seek them out. So they gave him a small budget to keep him happy and productive, assuming this little mission would be fruitless, and they assigned him people who wouldn’t be missed back on Avalon.” She looked around. “Look at the lot of you. None of us had worked with d’Branin in the early stages, but we were all available for this jaunt. And not a one of us is a first-rate scholar.”

“Speak for yourself,” Melantha Jhirl said. “I volunteered for this mission.”

“I won’t argue the point,” the psipsych said. “The crux is that the choice of the Nightflyer is no large enigma. You just engaged the cheapest charter you could find, didn’t you, d’Branin?”

“Some of the available ships would not consider my proposition,” d’Branin said. “The sound of it is odd, we must admit. And many ship masters have an almost superstitious fear of dropping out of drive in interstellar space, without a planet near. Of those who would agree to the conditions, Royd Eris offered the best terms, and he was able to leave at once.”

“And we had to leave at once,” said Lindran. “Otherwise the volcryn might get away. They’ve only been passing through this region for ten thousand years, give or take a few thousand.”

Someone laughed. D’Branin was nonplussed. “Friends, no doubt I could have postponed departure. I admit I was eager to meet my volcryn, to see their great ships and ask them all the questions that have haunted me, to discover the why of them. But I admit also that a delay would have been no great hardship. But why? Royd has been a gracious host, a good pilot. We have been treated well.”

“Did you meet him?” Alys Northwind asked. “When you were making your arrangements, did you ever see him?”

“We spoke many times, but I was on Avalon, and Royd in orbit. I saw his face on my viewscreen.”

“A projection, a computer simulation, could be anything,” Lommie Thorne said. “I can have my system conjure up all sorts of faces for your viewscreen, Karoly.”

“No one has ever seen this Royd Eris,” Christopheris said. “He has made himself a cipher from the start.”

“Our host wishes his privacy to remain inviolate,” d’Branin said.

“Evasions,” Lindran said. “What is he hiding?”

Melantha Jhirl laughed. When all eyes had moved to her, she grinned and shook her head. “Captain Royd is perfect, a strange man for a strange mission. Don’t any of you love a mystery? Here we are flying light years to intercept a hypothetical alien starship from the core of the galaxy that has been outward bound for longer than humanity has been having wars, and all of you are upset because you can’t count the warts on Royd’s nose.” She leaned across the table to refill her brandy snifter. “My mother was right,” she said lightly. “Normals are subnormal.”

“Maybe we should listen to Melantha,” Lommie Thorne said thoughtfully. “Royd’s foibles and neuroses are his business, if he does not impose them on us.”

“It makes me uncomfortable,” Dannel complained weakly.

“For all we know,” said Alys Northwind, “we might be travelling with a criminal or an alien.”

Jupiter,” someone muttered. The xenotech flushed red and there was sniggering around the long table.

But Thale Lasamer looked up furtively from his plate, and giggled. “An alien,” he said. His blue eyes flicked back and forth in his skull, as if seeking escape. They were bright and wild.

Marij-Black swore. “The drug is wearing off,” she said quickly to d’Branin. “I’ll have to go back to my cabin to get some more.”

“What drug?” Lommie Thorne demanded. D’Branin had been careful not to tell the others too much about Lasamer’s ravings, for fear of inflaming the shipboard tensions. “What’s going on?”

“Danger,” Lasamer said. He turned to Lommie, sitting next to him, and grasped her forearm hard, his long painted fingernails clawing at the silvery metal of her shirt. “We’re in danger, I tell you, I’m reading it. Something alien. It means us ill. Blood, I see blood.” He laughed. “Can you taste it, Agatha? I can almost taste the blood. It can, too.”

Marij-Black rose. “He’s not well,” she announced to the others. “I’ve been dampening him with psionine, trying to hold his delusions in check. I’ll get some more.” She started towards the door.

“Dampening him?” Christopheris said, horrified. “He’s warning us of something. Don’t you hear him? I want to know what it is.”

“Not psionine,” said Melantha Jhirl. “Try esperon.”

“Don’t tell me my job, woman!”

“Sorry,” Melantha said. She gave a modest shrug. “I’m one step ahead of you, though. Esperon might exorcise his delusions, no?”

“Yes, but—”

“And it might help him focus on this threat he claims to detect, correct?”

“I know the characteristics of esperon quite well,” the psipsych said testily.

Melantha smiled over the rim of her brandy glass. “I’m sure you do. Now listen to me. All of you are anxious about Royd, it seems. You can’t stand not knowing whatever it is he’s concealing. Rojan has been making up stories for weeks, and he’s ready to believe any of them. Alys is so nervous she cut her finger off. We’re squabbling constantly. Fears like that won’t help us work together as a team. Let’s end them. Easy enough.” She pointed to Thale. “Here sits a class one telepath. Boost his power with esperon and he’ll be able to recite our captain’s life history to us, until we’re all suitably bored with it. Meanwhile he’ll also be vanquishing his personal demons.”

He’s watching us,” the telepath said in a low, urgent voice.

“No,” said Karoly d’Branin, “we must keep Thale dampened.”

“Karoly,” Christopheris said, “this has gone too far. Several of us are nervous and this boy is terrified. I believe we all need an end to the mystery of Royd Eris. For once, Melantha is right.”

“We have no right,” d’Branin said.

“We have the need,” said Lommie Thorne. “I agree with Melantha.”

“Yes,” echoed Alys Northwind. The two linguists were nodding.

D’Branin thought regretfully of his promise to Royd. They were not giving him any choice. His eyes met those of the psipsych, and he sighed. “Do it, then,” he said. “Get him the esperon.”

He’s going to kill me.” Thale Lasamer screamed. He leapt to his feet, and when Lommie Thorne tried to calm him with a hand on his arm, he seized a cup of coffee and threw it square in her face. It took three of them to hold him down. “Hurry,” Christopheris barked, as the telepath struggled.

Marij-Black shuddered and left the lounge.


Copyright © 1985 by George R. R. Martin