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Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 54


  Flynch smiled. “They’re flamboyant.”

  Olmy glanced at the master opener. “Ry Ornis was as flamboyant as they come.”

  “The guild has changed,” Ry Ornis said. “It demands more now.”

  Flynch agreed. “In the time since I’ve been a teacher in the guild, that’s certainly true. They tolerate very little…creativity. The defection of Enoch’s pupils scared them. The lesion terrified all of us. Rasp and Karn are young, innovative. Nobody denies they’re brilliant, but they’ve refused to settle in and play their roles. So…the guild denied them final certification.”

  “Why choose them for this job?” Olmy asked.

  “Ry Ornis did the choosing,” Flynch said.

  “We’ve discussed this,” Ry Ornis said.

  “Not to my satisfaction. When do I meet them?”

  “No meeting has been authorized with Rasp and Karn until you’re on the flawship. They’re still in emergency conditioning.” Flynch glanced at Ry Ornis. “The training has been a little rough on them.”

  Olmy felt less and less sure that he wanted anything to do with the guild, or with Ry Ornis’s chosen openers. “The files only tell half a story,” he said. “Deirdre Enoch never became an opener—she never even tried to qualify. She was just a teacher. How could she become so important to the guild?”

  Flynch shook his head. “Like me, she was never qualified to be an opener, but also like me, as a teacher, she was considered one of the best. She became a leader to some apprentice openers. Philosopher.”

  “Prophet,” Ry Ornis said softly.

  “Training for the guild is grueling,” Flynch continued. “Some say it’s become torture. The mathematical conditioning alone is enough to produce a dropout rate of over ninety percent. Deirdre Enoch worked as a counselor in mental balance, compensation, and she was good…In the last twenty years, she worked with many who went on to become very powerful in Way Maintenance. She kept up her contacts. She convinced a lot of her students—”

  “That human nature is corrupt,” Olmy ventured sourly.

  Flynch shook his head. “That the laws of our universe are inadequate. Incomplete. That there is a way to become better human beings, and of course, better openers. Disorder, competition, and death corrupt us, she thought.”

  “She knew high-level theory, speculations circulated privately among master openers,” Ry Ornis said. “She heard about domains where the rules were very different.”

  “She heard about a gate into complete order?”

  “It had been discussed, on a theoretical basis. None had ever been attempted. No limits have been found to the variety of domains—of universes. She speculated that a well-tuned gate could conceive of.”

  Olmy scowled. “She expected order to balance out competition and death? Order versus disorder, a fight to the finish?”

  Ry Ornis made a small noise, and Flynch nodded. “There’s a reason none of this is in the files,” Flynch said. “No opener will talk about it, or admit they knew anybody involved in making the decision. It’s been very embarrassing to the guild. I’m impressed that you know what questions to ask. But it’s better that you ask Ry Ornis—”

  Olmy focused on Flynch. “You say you and Enoch occupied similar positions. I’d rather ask you.”

  Flynch gestured for them to turn to the left. The lights came on before them, and at the end of a much shorter hall, a door stood open. “Deirdre Enoch read extensively in the old religious texts. As did her followers. I believe they lost themselves in a dream,” he said. “They thought that anyone who bathed in a stream of pure order, as it were—in a domain of unbridled creation without destruction—would be enhanced. Armored. Annealed. That’s my opinion…what they might have been thinking. She might have told them such things.”

  “A fountain of youth?” Olmy ventured, still scowling.

  “Openers don’t much care about temporal immortality,” Ry Ornis said. “When we open a gate—we glimpse eternity. A hundred gates, a hundred different eternities. Coming back is just an interlude between forevers. Those who listened to Enoch thought they would end up more skilled, more brilliant. Less corrupted by competitive evolution.” He smiled, a remarkably unpleasant expression on his skeletal face. “Free of original sin.”

  Olmy’s scowl faded. He glanced at Flynch, who had turned away from Ry Ornis. Something between them, a coolness. “All right. I can see that.”

  “Really?” Flynch shook his head dubiously.

  Perhaps the master opener could tell even more. But it did not seem wise at this point to push the matter.

  A bell chimed and they entered the conference room.

  Already seated within was the only surviving and whole escapee from the Redoubt: Lissa Plass. As a radical Geshel, she had designed her own body and appearance decades ago, opting for a solid frame, close to her natural physique. Her face she had tuned to show strength as well as classic beauty, but she had allowed it to age, and the experience of her time with the expedition, the trauma at the lesion, had not been erased. Olmy noted that she carried a small book with her, an antique printed on paper—a Bible.

  Flynch made introductions. Plass looked proud and more than a little confused. They sat around the table.

  “Let’s start with what we know,” Flynch said. He ordered up visual records made by the retreating flawship that had carried Plass.

  Olmy looked at the images hovering over the table: the great pipeline of the Way, sheets of field fluorescing brilliantly as they were breached, debris caught in whirling clouds along the circumference, the flaw itself, running along the center of the Way like a wire heated to blinding blue-white.

  Plass did not look. Olmy watched her reaction closely. For a moment, something seemed to swirl around her, a wisp of shadow, smoothly transparent, like a small slice of twilight. The others did not see or ignored what they saw, but Plass’s eyes locked on Olmy’s, and her lips tightened.

  “I’m pleased you’ve both agreed to come,” Ry Ornis said, as the images came to an end.

  Plass looked at the opener, and then back at Olmy. She studied Olmy’s face closely. “I can’t stay here. That’s why I’m going back. I don’t belong in Thistledown.”

  “Ser Plass is haunted,” Flynch said. “Ser Olmy has been told about some of these visitors.”

  “My husband,” she said, swallowing. “Just my husband, so far. Nobody else.”

  “Is he still there?” Olmy asked. “In the Redoubt?”

  Bitterly, she said, “They haven’t told you much that’s useful, have they? As if they want us to fail.”

  “He’s dead?”

  “He’s not in the Redoubt and I don’t know if you could call it death,” Plass said. “May I tell you what this really means? What we’ve actually done?” She stared around the table, eyes wide.

  Ry Ornis lifted his hand tolerantly.

  “I have diaries from before the launch of Thistledown, from my family,” she said. “As far back as my ancestors can remember, my family was special…They had access to the world of the spiritual. They all saw ghosts. The old-fashioned kind, not the ones we use now for servants. Some described the ghosts in their journals.” She reached up and pinched her lower lip, released it, pinched it again. “I think some of the ghosts were my husband. I recognize that now. Everyone on my world-line, back to before I was born, haunted by the same figure. My husband. Now I see him, too.”

  “I have a hard time visualizing this sort of ghost,” Olmy said.

  Plass looked up at the ceiling and clutched her Bible. “Whatever it is that we tapped into—a domain of pure order, something else clever—it’s suffused into the Way, into Thistledown. It’s like a caterpillar crawling up our lives, grabbing hold of events and…crawling, spreading backward, maybe even forward in time. They try to keep us quiet. I cooperate…but my husband tells me things when he returns. Do the others hear…reports? Messages from the Redoubt?”

  Ry Ornis shook his head, but Olmy doubted this meant simp
le denial.

  “What happened when the gate became a lesion?” Olmy asked.

  Plass grew pale. “My husband was at the gate with Enoch’s master opener, Tom Issa Danna.”

  “One of our finest,” Ry Ornis said.

  “Enoch’s gate into order was the second they had opened. The first was a well to an established supply world where we could bring up raw materials.”

  “Standard practice for all far-flung stations,” Flynch said.

  “I wasn’t there when they opened the second gate,” Plass continued, her eyes darting between Flynch and Olmy. She seemed to have little sympathy for either. “I was at a support facility about a kilometer from the gate, and two kilometers from the Redoubt. There was already an atmospheric envelope and a cushion of sand and soil around the site. My husband and I had started a quick-growth garden. An orchard. We heard they had opened the second gate. My husband was with Issa Danna. Ser Enoch came by on a tractor and said it was a complete success. We were celebrating, a small group of researchers, opening bottles of champagne. We got reports of something going wrong two hours later. We came out of our bungalows—a scout from the main flawship was just landing. Enoch had returned to the new gate to join Issa Danna. My husband must have been right there with them.”

  “What did you see?”

  “Nothing at first. We watched them on the monitors inside the bungalows. Issa Danna and his assistants were working, talking, laughing. Issa Danna was so confident. He radiated his genius. The second gate looked normal—a well, a cupola. But in a little while, a few hours, we saw that the people around the new gate sounded drunk. All of them. Something had come out of the gate, something intoxicating. They spoke about a shadow.”

  She looked up at Olmy, and Olmy realized that before this experience, she must have been a very lovely woman. Some of that beauty still shone through.

  “We saw that some kind of veil covered the gate. Then the assistant openers in the bungalows, students of Issa Danna, said that the gate was out of control. They were feeling it in their clavicles, slaved to the master’s clavicle.”

  Clavicles were devices used by gate openers to create the portals that gave access to other times, other universes, “outside” the Way. Typically, they were shaped like handlebars attached to a small sphere.

  “How many openers were there?” Olmy asked.

  “Two masters and seven apprentices,” Plass said.

  Olmy turned to Ry Ornis. He held up his hand, urging patience.

  “A small truck came out of the gate site. Its tires wobbled, and all the people clinging to it were shouting and laughing. Then everyone around the truck—the bungalows were almost empty now—began to shout, and an assistant grabbed me—I was the closest to her—and said we had to get onto the scout and return to the flawship. She—her name was Jara—said she had never felt anything like this. She said they must have made a mistake and opened a gate into chaos. I had never heard about such a thing—but she seemed to think if we didn’t leave now, we’d all die. Four people. Two men and me and Jara. We were the only ones who made it into the scout ship. Shadows covered everything around us. Everybody was drunk, laughing, screaming.”

  Plass stopped and took several breaths to calm herself. “We flew up to the flawship. The rest is on the record. The Redoubt was the last thing I saw, surrounded by something like ink in water, swirling. A storm.”

  Flynch started to speak, but Plass cut him off. “Two of the others on the flawship, the men, were afflicted. They came out of the veil around the truck and Jara helped them get into the scout. As for Jara…Nobody remembers her but me.”

  Flynch waited a moment, then said, “There were only two people aboard the scout when it reached the flawship. You, and the figure we haven’t identified. There was no other man, and there has never been an assistant opener named Jara.”

  “They were real.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Ry Ornis said impatiently. “Issa Danna knew better than to open a gate into chaos. He knew the signs and never would have completed the opening. But—in the linkage, the slaving, qualities can be reversed if the opener loses control.”

  “A gate into order—but the slaved clavicles behaving as if they were associated with chaos?” Olmy asked, trying to grasp the complexities.

  Ry Ornis seemed reluctant to go into more detail. “They no longer exist in our world-line,” he said. “Ser Plass remembers that one hundred and twenty people accompanied Enoch and Issa Danna. She remembers two master openers and seven assistants. Here on Thistledown, we have records, life-histories, of only eighty, with one master and two assistants.”

  “I survived. You remember me,” Plass said, her expression desperate.

  “You’re in our records. You survived,” Ry Ornis confirmed. “We don’t know why or how.”

  “What about the other survivor?” Olmy said.

  “We don’t know who he or she was,” Ry Ornis said.

  “Show him the other,” Plass said. “Show him Number 2, show him what happens when you survive, but you don’t return.”

  “That’s next,” Ry Ornis said. “If you’re ready, Ser Olmy.”

  “I may never be ready, Ser Ry Ornis,” Olmy said.

  4

  The flawship cradled in the borehole dock was sleek and new and very fast. Olmy tracted along the flank of the ship, resisting the urge to run his fingers along the featureless reflecting surface.

  He was still pondering the meeting with the figure called Number 2.

  Around the ship’s dock, the borehole between the sixth and seventh chamber glowed with a violet haze, a cup-shaped field erected to receive the southernmost extensors of Axis City, gripping the remaining precincts during their evacuation and repair. Olmy swiveled to face the axis and the flaw’s blunt conclusion and watch the workers and robots guiding power grids and huge steel beams to act as buffers.

  The dock manager, a small man with boyish features and no hair, his scalp decorated with an intricate green and brown Celtic braid, pulled himself toward Olmy and extended a paper certificate.

  “We’re going to vacuum in an hour,” he said. “I hope everybody’s here before then. I’d like to seal the ship and check its integrity.”

  Olmy applied his sigil to the document, transferring its command from borehole management and the construction guild to Way Defense.

  “Two others were here earlier,” the dock manager said. “Twins, young women. They carried the smallest clavicles I’ve ever seen.”

  Olmy looked back along the dock and saw three figures tracting toward them. “Looks like we’re all here,” he said.

  “No send-off?” the manager asked.

  Olmy smiled. “Everyone’s much too busy,” he said.

  “Don’t I know it,” the manager said.

  As a rule, gate openers had a certain look and feel that defined them, sometimes subtle, usually not. Rasp and Karn were little more than children, born (perhaps made was a better word) fifteen years ago in Thistledown City. They were of radical Geshel ancestry, and their four parent-sponsors were also gate openers.

  They tracted to the flawship and introduced themselves to Olmy. Androgynous, ivory white, slender, with long fingers and small heads covered with a fine silvery fur, they spoke with identical resonant tenor voices. Karn had black eyes, Rasp green. Otherwise, they were identical. To Olmy, neither had the air of authority he had seen in experienced gate openers.

  The dock manager picked a coded symbol and dilated the flawship entrance, a glowing green circle in the hull. The twins solemnly entered the ship.

  Plass arrived several minutes later. She wore a formal blue suit and seemed to have been crying. As she greeted Olmy, her voice sounded harsh. She addressed him as if they had not met before. “You’re the soldier?”

  “I’ve worked in Way Defense,” he said.

  Gray eyes small and wary, surrounded by puffy pale flesh, face broad and sympathetic, hair dark and cut short, Plass today reminded Olmy of any of a do
zen matrons he had known as a child: polite but hardly hesitant.

  “Ser Flynch tells me you’re the one who died on Lamarckia. I heard about that. By birth, a Naderite.”

  “By birth,” Olmy said.

  “Such adventures we have,” she said with a sniff. “Because of Ser Korzenowski’s cleverness.” She glanced away, then fastened her eyes on him and leaned her head to one side. “I’m not looking forward to this. Have they told you I’m a little broken, that my thoughts take odd paths?”

  “They said your studies and experiences have influenced you,” Olmy said, a little uncomfortable at having to reestablish an acquaintance already made.

  Rasp and Karn watched from the flawship hatch.

  “She’s broken, we’re young and inexperienced,” Rasp said. Karn laughed, a surprising watery tinkle, very sweet. “And you’ve died once already, Ser Olmy. What a crew!”

  “I presume everyone knows what they’re doing,” Plass said.

  “Presume nothing,” Olmy said.

  Olmy guided Plass into the ship. The dock manager watched this with dubious interest. Olmy swung around fields to face him.

  “I take charge of this vessel now. Thanks for your attention and care.”

  “Our duty,” the dock manager said. “She was delivered just yesterday. No one has taken her out yet—she’s a virgin, Ser Olmy. She doesn’t even have a name.”

  “Call her the Lark!” Rasp trilled from inside.

  Olmy shook hands firmly with the manager and climbed into the ship. The entrance sealed with a small beep behind him.

  The flawship’s interior was cool and quiet. With intertial control, there were no special couches or nets or fields; they would experience only simulated motion, for psychological effect, on their journey: at most a mild sense of acceleration and deceleration.

  Plass introduced herself to Karn and Rasp. Since she wore no pictor, only words were exchanged. This suited Olmy.

  “Ser Olmy,” Plass said, “I assume we are in privacy now. No one outside can hear?”