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“The hopes and fears of all the years
“Are met in Thee tonight.”
The last strains of the old Christmas carol were still drifting through Nicole Hammond’s mind when she started awake.
For a pair of heartbeats she blinked furiously, driving the stickiness from her eyes, trying to pull her brain out of the wild dream she’d just had and sort out where she was. Through the gloom and the flickering of her eyelids she could see a set of bars angling across her view. Had one of Trake’s schemes or one of Bungie’s stupid fights gotten her tossed in jail? She could hear footsteps coming toward her …
Then the fog cleared, and her vision snapped back, and she remembered.
She wasn’t in a jail cell in Philadelphia. In fact, Philadelphia and human jails were far, far behind her. She was out in space, a million billion miles from nowhere, in a huge alien ship called the Fyrantha. What her sleep-fogged mind had taken to be bars were in fact the slender, chest-high cylinders of memorial pillars, the Fyrantha’s version of a cemetery, where the hundreds or thousands of human workers who’d slaved away aboard the ship through the long years were honored and their lives recorded.
Nicole wasn’t sure how many years they’d been working and dying. She had no way of knowing how many of them had held on to hopes, or given in to fears, or had given up and let themselves sink into blank weariness.
But whatever they’d felt, and for however long, it was all focused in Nicole now.
Are met in Thee tonight …
She’d been brought aboard as just another slave, a Sibyl who could listen to the Fyrantha’s telepathic damage-repair instructions and relay them to the work crews. But then she’d seen things she shouldn’t, and done things she shouldn’t, and somewhere in its alien heart or mind the Fyrantha had decided that Nicole Hammond should be elevated to the role of Protector.
Protector. Nicole winced at even the mental sound of the word as it echoed across her brain. Protector of the ship? Not doing a very good job. Protector of the men and women in the work crews? Doing even worse. Protector of her whole world?
Disaster. Complete, utter, horrifying disaster.
“Nicole?” a soft voice came.
She winced, blinking the last fogginess from her eyes. “Sorry,” she said, pushing herself up into a sitting position. “I guess I fell asleep.”
“No apology needed,” Jeff assured her. “You needed the rest. Kahkitah? Anything from that end?”
Nicole turned her head to see the hulking, shark-faced Ghorf coming from the other direction through the gloom. He gave off a series of birdcall whistles—“I saw no signs of anyone,” the translation came in Nicole’s mind. “I don’t know, though. Something feels odd.”
“I know,” Jeff said, stopping by Nicole. He sat down in front of her, his eyes still sweeping across the huge darkened space around them. “Open spaces with no cover except a bunch of pillars make me nervous.”
“I understand,” Kahkitah said, sitting down beside Jeff. “But that’s not what I meant.”
“You think the Shipmasters know where we are?” Nicole asked.
“Hard to tell,” Jeff said. “You said you can’t talk to the Caretaker this deep in the ship, and if the Caretaker can’t see or hear you the Shipmasters might not be able to, either. Probably means no personnel sensors or boosters down here.”
“What are boosters?” Nicole asked.
“Relays and echo transmitters,” Jeff explained. “All the metal in the Fyrantha—not to mention all the electronics and electrical systems—will interfere like crazy with radio communications. They’ll need boosters to get the signals where they’re going.”
“Do they even have radios?” Nicole asked. “I’ve never seen anyone use something like that.”
“They have to have something,” Jeff said. “A ship this size? You’re sure not going to want to rely on a messenger service.” He made a face. “On the other hand, if they know you’ve disappeared, and if they know this is a spot where you’d be invisible to the Caretaker—” He shrugged.
“Still, there’s a great deal of space down here for them to search,” Kahkitah reminded him. “And the open space also prevents them from easily sneaking up on us unless they come pillar by pillar.”
“Or drop through one of the heat-transfer ducts,” Jeff pointed out. “Never mind—it’s still the best place for a quiet meeting. So. Nicole, you have the floor.”
“What?” Nicole asked, frowning.
“Means we’re ready to listen whenever you’re ready to talk.”
“Oh.” Nicole took a deep breath. The hopes and fears of all the years … “All right. What we know is that Fievj and the rest of the Shipmasters now know humans are—how would you put it? Organizers? Persuaders?”
“Leaders, basically,” Jeff said. “They still don’t know if anyone besides the two of us can fight—”
“The two of you plus Bungie,” Kahkitah corrected.
“Yeah. Plus Bungie,” Jeff agreed, making a face. “But whether or not we can actually pull triggers and throw grenades isn’t important anymore. The fact is that they see us as leaders; and unless the universe is full of George Pattons and Erwin Rommels, they’re definitely going to want a good, hard look at Earth.”
“Right,” Nicole said, wondering who Patton and Rommel were. “But remember they’re trying to sell us to other aliens. Unless you’re stupid, you don’t start working a deal until you know exactly what your product is worth.”
“I agree,” Kahkitah said. “That implies they’ll still wish to settle the question of combat spirit before they approach anyone about selling your world.”
“As Nicole said, that assumes they’re not stupid,” Jeff said. “But okay, let’s go with that.”
“Okay,” Nicole said. “Now, Ushkai told me—”
“Ushkai’s the Caretaker?” Jeff asked.
Nicole nodded. “He told me that the Fyrantha’s mind or computer or whatever was fragmented into four pieces: the piece that controlled him, the piece that controlled the Wisps, the part the Shipmasters control—I guess that’s also the part that steers the ship and everything—and the part that talks to the Sibyls.”
“And unfortunately, the part the Shipmasters control seems to be bleeding over into the part that controls the Caretaker,” Jeff said. “Which could be a problem. All the Wisps they control are in Q1. But the Caretaker seems to have eyes and ears all over the ship.” He looked at Nicole. “Crucial question: If the Caretaker can see everything, and the Shipmasters are controlling him, how are we ever going to make an effective move against them?”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Nicole said. “I don’t think they’re controlling him, exactly. If they were, they could have made him give us the wrong formula for the Sunset drug. I think they can just listen in on what we’re saying to him, and talk through him. But that’s all.”
“Not sure how that helps,” Jeff said. “If they can listen through him, they can presumably see through him, too.”
“Maybe,” Nicole said. “Maybe not. I mean, even if they can see, it doesn’t mean he has to be looking.”
“Ah,” Kahkitah said. “You’re saying that they can ask to see you”—he turned his head to the side—“but the Caretaker can deliberately choose to look away?”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Nicole said, nodding. “Or, well, maybe just hoping. But it makes sense. There are things the Shipmasters could have done to stop us or capture us if they’d known everything we were doing. And remember, the Fyrantha picked me as Protector. Why do that unless it thought it needed protecting from something?”
“Not sure the logic completely tracks,” Jeff said doubtfully. “But if the Shipmasters know everything we’re screwed anyway, so we might as well keep this as our working theory.”
“So we can speak in assured confidence down here,” Kahkitah said, “and trust the Caretaker to limit the Shipmasters’ access to our actions and words elsewhere.”
“Right,” Nicole said. “And we don’t specifically ask him anything, because he probably can’t ignore that or pretend we’re not there.” She looked at Jeff. “You’re right, it’s not a great position to be in. But I think we’re stuck with it, unless we can figure out a way to cut the Caretaker completely out of the Fyrantha’s systems.”
“Yeah,” Jeff said. “And we might want to look into that, too.”
Nicole winced. “Don’t know if that would be a good idea until we know more about how everything works together.”
“Desperate times,” Jeff said. “Anyway, if we break something the ship can always tell us how to fix it.”
“Assuming we don’t damage the Oracle,” Kahkitah warned. “That’s the part that communicates with the Sibyls, correct?”
“Right,” Nicole said. “And the Shipmasters also use it to talk to the people they put into the arenas.”
“I’ve been thinking about it as a sort of a multipurpose intercom system,” Jeff said.
“Sounds about right,” Nicole said. “Hmm.”
“Hmm what?” Jeff asked.
“I was just wondering,” Nicole said. “If the Caretaker isn’t giving the Shipmasters everything we’re doing, maybe one reason is that the Oracle is fighting against it.”
“So the ship’s now not just fragmented, but is actively fighting itself?” Jeff shook his head. “Doesn’t exactly brim me over with confidence.”
“Would you rather it was united against us?” Kahkitah asked. “It is what it is.”
“Always hated that phrase,” Jeff said. “But yeah, you’re right. Just remember that whatever’s going on with the Fyrantha, it could change in a snap. We need to be prepared for the Shipmasters to be able to tap into the whole surveillance system at any time and without warning.”
“In addition, the Caretaker may be making permanent records of everything,” Kahkitah said.
“Good point,” Jeff said, making a face. “Even if the Shipmasters aren’t listening in now, if they do get in they might be able to rewind the tapes and hear what we were saying earlier.”
“There seems little we can do about that except be careful,” Kahkitah said. “Let us move on to the Wisps. You said you were able to give some orders to those in Quadrants 2 and 3?”
“It was mostly in Q3,” Nicole said. “Some in Q2. But I’m not sure it’s me in control so much as it is the Shipmasters are not in control. Which may be good enough. Right now, I’ll settle for being able to go into those quadrants without getting attacked and grabbed.”
She looked at Jeff. “But you’re right about Ushkai giving them eyes and ears. Worse than that, losing Ushkai also means losing our own best information source.”
“You say best,” Kahkitah said, his birdsongs going thoughtful. “Don’t you mean only?”
“Maybe not,” Nicole said. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you both about.” She braced herself. They were not going to like this. “There’s still the part of the Fyrantha that talks to the Sibyls.”
“No,” Jeff said flatly. “Absolutely not.”
“Agreed,” Kahkitah seconded with equal determination. “Using the inhaler leads to premature death.”
“And going up blind against the Shipmasters doesn’t?” Nicole countered. “I don’t like it any better than you do. But pretty much every time I’ve been able to bluff Fievj it’s been when I said the Fyrantha told me to do something and him not knowing whether or not I was lying. That tells me that so far they haven’t been able to get into the Sibyl part of the ship. I’m not even sure they can.”
“Because that section is most closely associated with the humans aboard?” Kahkitah suggested. He still didn’t sound happy, but there was a reluctant thoughtfulness now in his tone.
Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Zahn