By Ian Stewart Jack Cohen
Warner Aspect Copyright © 2004 Joat Enterprises & Jack Cohen
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-446-52983-4
Chapter One NO-MOON
Identifying with other creatures' feelings is only one part of the problem. The more important question is, how can you make effective use of our knowledge of what they are feeling? Emotions are straightforward. Motives-those are quite another matter. And without an understanding if motives, there is no true empathy, no predictability, and no power.
Archives of Moish
The lion-headed Neanderthal woman sat at the end of the pier, dangling her feet in the sea to cool them ... but her mind was elsewhere. Usually, he was composed and carefree, but today she was troubled by an apprehension to which she could not put a name.
She shook her thick mane, trying to clear her head. It was a beautiful day on a beautiful planet, and everything was right with the world.
For a few moments, she almost believed it.
Small worm like animals circled around her toes, occasionally probing her skin with thin tubes, only to withdraw as soon as they sensed alien biochemistry. There was no nourishment here, and the ancient evolutionary bargains were null and void. Newcomers arrived, made the same mistake, and retreated in their turn, baffled. The woman laughed, a gravel-throated chuckle: The worms tickled, and she liked that.
Her trading name was Smiling Teeth May Bite. Her friends called her May. Her enemies could call her what they wished. To both, throughout the galaxy, she and her kind were "lion-headed"-not literally, but because their ocher skins, their flamboyant sunbursts of marmalade hair, and their wide noses gave them a decidedly leonine appearance. In May's case, the effect was enhanced by tawny eyes and tendency to snarl.
She wore a short olive green tunic, cut diagonally to leave her left shoulder bare. Several small packages were arrayed around her waist, as if hung on a belt, but with no visible means of attachment. Precursor technology, like most inexplicable things in the Galaxy.
A pair of hand-woven sandals, which she had picked up the previous yearn Nothing Ventured, lay next to her at the pier's edge.
She was waiting for a sail. Not any sail, but a particular one: lateen-rigged in a motley patchwork of colors, torn and repaired many times. She redirected her gaze from the swarming worms to the haze where sea met sky. The motion was graceful and haughty. There was an economy to her movements that made her powerful frame seem always perfectly balanced. She sniffed the air laden with the characteristic smells of rotting algae and salt dust; her eyes flicked to left and right, instinctively noting every movement.
She could see a few sails on the horizon, and more of them closer to the port, but none were the sail she was waiting for. Despite her uneasiness, she laughed again, this time in amusement. Second-Best Sailor was late. As he had been last year, and the year before, and would be next year. The season was always the same. His route would take him along at least three foreign coasts and through several of the innumerable archipelagos that infested No-Moon's world-girdling ocean. At some point of his voyage he would be distracted by the dubious attractions of one of the more exotic ports, find himself behind schedule, and try to invent a shortcut to catch up. Then, entirely predictably, he would be thrown off course by the Change Winds.
May knew this, and she also knew why he was called Second-Best Sailor, and that meant that there was no point in trying to make him see sense. So, as she did every season, she had left extra time in her schedule for him to find his way into port from wherever his latest episode of irresponsibility had led him. He would turn up soon ... unless his boat had sunk. But he was Second-Best Sailor, not Thousandth-Best. He would never allow his boat to sink.
She didn't mind waiting. She liked the port and the natural sea breezes, just as she liked being immune to the depredations of the carnivorous worms. It made sense to hang around for a few more days until Second-Best Sailor turned up. The trading would surely be up to expectations.
Would it not?
A foot scuffed the timbers of the pier, and without turning her head May knew that her companion had returned from her foray into the maze of narrow floating walkways that constituted the above-water part of Isthmus Port.
"I have reregistered our credentials with the Trade Authority like you told me," the newcomer said. Her voice was in a slightly higher register than May's, but her orange mane was just as luxuriant and her nose was, if anything, even more like a lion's. Her eyes were an improbable royal blue, exactly the same color as a species of electric eel in one of the hub worlds where Neanderthals often traded. The coincidence had given rise to her trading name of Eyes That Stun the unwary-usually abbreviated to "Stun."
Her tunic was a deep, dusty purple. She was accompanied by a fat, boatlike creature on a braided lead. A yullé-clever but not sentient. The animals were bred in a variety of shapes and colors, and this one had a dramatic pattern of large and small spots, black on gray.
There were many Neanderthals in the ports of No-Moon, and following habits laid down thousands of generations ago, most of them kept pets. Over the centuries, their unique empathic sense had allowed them to tame several dozen species, from as many worlds. May, a rare exception, didn't keep any pets on No-Moon-land animals occasionally upset the customers. But back on board Ship, she had quite a menagerie.
"It went as I expected," said May. It wasn't a question: The Neanderthals had an innate ability to sense one another's emotional flow-patterns, and those of most other creatures. It was why they had been prized as Beastmasters, back before the Rescue, 16 generations ago.
"The permission fee was adequate, as you foresaw," said Stun. May snorted. Even a flatface would have been able to appreciate that a small increase on last year's fee would be acceptable. And Stun had been given latitude to offer quite a bit more than that if previous custom to longer applied.
Stun bobbed her head in affirmation, and her mane rippled. She joined May in the edge of the pier. The worms quickly discovered this new target for their affections, and were equally disappointed by it.
"The Change Winds must've started early," Second-Best Sailor protested. "Not my fault. Nothin' anyone could've done to see that comin', ain't I right, boys?"
He had been publicly congratulating himself on weathering the storm without inflicting too much damage on the boat, when Short Apprentice had noticed that the stern thole-boards had come loose and were trailing behind, with a danger that their staylines might get tangled in the steering gear. Then, when Short Apprentice had been dispatched through a sallyport to secure the thole-boards temporarily to the planking-rail, Fat Apprentice had cast doubt upon the wisdom of their three-day stopover in coldcoast Docks, and Second-Best Sailor had felt obliged to defend his judgment. Even the reefwives, he pointed out, found the vagaries of the weather difficult to fathom, so he could scarcely be blamed for the freak storm that had come from nowhere and driven them many miles from their intended course.
Fat Apprentice didn't argue. He didn't point out that although the precise timing of the Change Winds was unpredictable, their occurrence around that time of year was entirely to be expected. He did not point out the obvious, because he had no wish to be sent out to join his fellow crew member in the heaving turbulence of the ocean roof. It could fake you airsick. Fat Apprentice had cultivated a deceptive air of somnolence and absentmindedness, but behind that facade he was surprisingly intelligent. He just hadn't had much of an education. He was smart enough to hide just how smart he really was. Sailors didn't go much for smarts.
As he looked around the underwater cabins where he and his crew lived and worked, Second-Best Sailor consoled himself that below the ocean roofline his vessel was pretty much intact-save for those annoying stern whole-boards, which must have been inadequately tensioned when their staylines were being storm-lashed.
'Bovedecks, well, that was another matter entirely. No marine creature was ever completely at home out of the water, and Second-Best Sailor was no exception. But he had to find out how much damage the boat had sustained above the roofline, and that meant putting on his sailor suit and going 'bovedecks to inspect the garden, which had been at the mercy of surges for the better part of a week. Right now he was in no hurry to do that. He knew that there would be squids in the lemon trees again, and most likely crabs in the sagegrass as well. Those things always happened when the boat was exposed to a gale-strength airstorm.
It had been the worst storm he could remember. For several days he had been at the helm, relieved only for a few short rest breaks, trying to control the heavy boat as it pitched and yawed its way through outrageous waves. The constant rush of aerated water past the hull hurt his siphons and made him feel sick. The boat had tossed in the crushing surges, breaking and shuddering as if it was about to fall apart entirely.
It had been bedlam. His apprentices had no sooner tied down an errant hunting net than half a ton of cargo had torn loose from its mountings. Ands soon as they had improvised secure fastenings for the cargo, the steering gear had seized up and had to be freed with pry bars and massive applications of boiled blubber lubricant. And all the while, the waves and the wind jerked the boat in so many directions that he was sure some of them didn't exist. Second-Best Sailor had very nearly been sucked out of the helm cabin into the surrounding ocean at least a dozen times by surging pressure-waves, and his tentacles were bruised and sore from trying to hold on to safety handles, furniture-anything that was solidly bolted down. Short Apprentice had very nearly been washed out through a broken sallyport. If he had not grabbed hold of Fat Apprentice at the last moment, they would have been down to one crew member, and Short Apprentice could have been faced with a long swim to rendezvous at their next destination.
What made it all the worse was that the jib halyard had jammed when the first gales hit, making it impossible to bring down the jib sail, and their currents hitting the coarse cloth triangle had made steering next to impossible until the sail had ripped away altogether. By then they were already well off course, and the winds and currents were becoming less favorable by the minute. It had been a race against disaster, and disaster had romped home.
Right now Second-Best Sailor had little idea where they were, except that it had to be a long way to the west of where they ought to be. As soon as she waves reduced to a rough swell, he would have to make an excursion-bovedecks and carry out some navigational observations. Until then ... He instructed Fat Apprentice to keep the boat on its present heading, except to avoid rocks. He took another look through the maze of periscopes that No-Moon's sea captains used to check the set of their sails and the state of their ropes, and it didn't look good. The sheets were tangled, and the mainsail, hastily lowered, was a crumpled heap. The jib, he already knew, had ripped into shreds and blown away. Short Apprentice had watched it go, and a few tattered strips of sailcloth straggled across the deck in mute confirmation.
This kind of thing always seemed to happen to him-something that Second-Best Sailor found unfair and irksome.
The mast, at least, was still attached to the airside face of the boat's deck.
The gale had subsided to a strong breeze, just right for sailing if he could get the mainsail up and replace the missing jib. He opened one of the sallyports that flanked the sides of the hull below the roofline, and swam but into the tumbling ocean to find out how Short Apprentice was getting on.
Second-Best Sailor's squat body pulsed as water squirted through his siphons, propelling him away from the shell-encrusted planking of the hull. The keel, a large triangular lignoid slab, hung down from the hull to watch the ocean currents. Through the air-bubbled water of the ocean roof he could see enough to be satisfied that the keel's integrity was unbreached.
He swam closer to the keel and brushed away some tangled weed with an expert tug of one tentacle. Then he headed for the stern, to assess the results of Short Apprentice's efforts.
Second-Best Sailor was a polypoid, a free-floating male belonging to a coral-like species. The females formed vast reefs, and only their husbands were mobile. He was shaped rather like a shortened squid, and slightly smaller than a 'Thal trader. His body was a cylinder of highly viscous jelly, tapered at one end and dividing into nine strong, flexible tentacles at the other. Every third tentacle trifurcated at its tip, for more delicate manipulations. Three large hemispherical eyes were arranged at equal angles around the cylinder, just forward of the base-ring, where tentacles met body. Between them, at the front center of his body, was aphincter that could open to ingest food or expel digested waste. Three longitudinal fins, each aligned with an eye, ran from just aft of the tentacles all the way to the tip of the tapering tail, where they narrowed and merged into a complicated fanlike structure. Clusters of siphons were arrayed between the fins, where they ran into the tentacles. Most of them were devoted to the extraction of oxygen from the sea and the ejection of seawater to control movement. A few were more specialized. At the moment Second-Best Sailor's skin was mottled in patches of brown and gray, and it was as smooth as silk ... but those features could change in an instant to reflect his mood.
He arranged his approach to keep him in Short Apprentice's blind spot, which would be quite big in one of such youth. To his surprise and relief, he quickly saw that the youngster was making an excellent job of lying down the thole-boards. Five of them were already secure, and the young polypoid was swarming all over the sixth and last, using three tentacles to braid a strong net of ropeweed while the other six held the board in place against the planking-rail. A few of the nodes were tighter than they ought to be, but Second-Best Sailor was content to let the Apprentice find that out later, when he had to replace the temporary repair with permanent bindings. After he'd struggled with the tight nodes for a few hours, his captain would impress him with one of the lesser-known uses of an awlfish spike and fix the problem in seconds.
Excerpted from Heaven by Ian Stewart Jack Cohen Copyright © 2004 by Joat Enterprises & Jack Cohen. Excerpted by permission.
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