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At first thought, you'd think it would be easy to find a missing planet. Even a methane dwarf. Except that the missing tenth world of the outlying Imperial AAnn system of Pyrassis was not a world, but an immense automated weapons platform of the long-extinct race who called themselves the Tar-Aiym.
Actually, Flinx mused as he held out his arms and let the magnetically charged droplets of water swirl around him and scrub his lanky naked form, one would think it would be even simpler to find a planet-sized weapons platform than a small planet itself. The only problem was that in the absence of standing orders to guide its revived behavior, the monstrous ancient device had gone looking for some. Since to the best of current knowledge the last of those beings who might be capable of issuing such directives had died half a million years earlier, more or less, the prospects of said intelligent weapons platform stumbling across relevant instructions on how it ought to proceed were slight indeed. Flinx suspected that it would do no good, should he somehow actually succeed in tracking down his galactically perambulating quarry, to point out that the species it was built to fight, the Hur'rikku, were as dead and gone as the massive machine's original Tar-Aiym builders.
Find it first, he told himself as he did a slow turn beneath the recycled spray from the shower. Semantics follow function.
He did not need to pivot for purposes of cleanliness since the water beads automatically enveloped him in their attentive aqueous embrace. They avoided only the special shower mask that shielded his mouth and nose. Without such a mask, someone making use of such a shower conceivably could drown--though it was an easy enough matter simply to step sideways and clear of the open-sided, freestanding facility.
"Are you finished yet?" The voice of the Teacher's ship-mind reached him through the stimulating vertical bath.
"Almost. Why? Are you going to suggest that after I finish bathing I take another 'vacation'?"
"It is interesting how sardonicism tends to shed efficacy over time," the ship-mind replied tartly. Having suggested that Flinx spend a while resting and recuperating on the out-of-the-way world of Jast, only to see him nearly murdered by one of the expatriate AAnn officials residing on that world, the AI was understandably disinclined to discuss the subject. Knowing this, Flinx lost few opportunities to bring it up.
"I take your point, by which I assume that you're not going to make such a suggestion. Good."
As he stepped out of the shower, the ready and waiting dryer scanned his dripping body. Preprogrammed to his specified level of individual comfort, it set about evaporating from his skin the water and the dirt it had englobed. Standing there, alone in his personal hygienic facilities within the ship, Flinx contemplated his immediate future and regarded it as fraught with uncertainty, danger, and confusion.
Not that it had ever been otherwise.
Some days he chose to dress while at other times he moved about the Teacher's interior quite naked. As the only human on board, there was no need to concern himself with violating nudity taboos. Pip certainly did not mind. Rising from the resting place where she had dozed in utter indifference to her master's peculiar habit of immersing himself in gravity-defying liquid, she landed on his bare right shoulder and settled down. Her slender serpentine shape was warm against his freshly scoured skin.
Pulling on lightweight pants and a feathery comfort shirt, he made his way to the Teacher's bridge. Around him, the product of the Ulru-Ujurrian's creative engineering genius functioned smoothly. It would have been dead silent inside the ship, except that dead silence smacked too much of death itself. So at present, and in response to his latest request, the hush was broken by the soft sounds of a Sek-takenabdel cantata. Like many of his kind, Flinx was quite fond of the often atonal yet oddly soothing traditional thranx music, which in this particular composition sounded like nothing less than lullabies sung by angry, but muted, electrified cimbaloms.
As the ship sped at unnatural velocity through the nebulosity of higher mathematics colloquially known as space-plus, Flinx settled into the single command chair to gaze moodily through the sweeping, curved forward port. Though shifted over into the ultraviolet by the ship's KK-drive posigravity field, the view of the distorted universe surrounding him was, as always, still spectacularly beautiful. Pulsars and novae illuminated nebulae while distant galaxies vied for prominence with nearby suns.
Meanwhile, out beyond it all, in the direction of the constellation Bootes, something unimaginably vast and malevolent was coming out of a region known as the Great Emptiness, threatening not merely the Commonwealth and civilization, but everything within his field of view. His mental field of view, he reminded himself. Hence the need, however hopeless the notion of fighting something so immense and alien, to find allies. Such as, just possibly, the primeval weapons platform that had for millennia masqueraded as the tenth planet of the system known as Pyrassis.
Thinking of it made him want to go stand and soak beneath another shower.
A reaction as ineffectual as it was childish, he knew. He could no more wash away the distinct memory of the evil he knew was out there than he could that of his troubled childhood, his subsequent erratic maturation, and the pressure to succeed that had been placed on him by his good friends and mentors Bran Tse-Mallory and the Eint Truzenzuzex. Just as with his unstable, if escalating and potentially fatal Talent, he could not wish such things away.
He stared out at the universe and the universe stared right back, indifferent. Exactly how was he supposed to go about finding the wandering planet-sized Tar-Aiym device? The brilliant Truzenzuzex and the insightful Tse-Mallory had been unable to give him much advice. Since he was the only one who had experienced (or suffered, he corrected himself) mental contact with the machine, it was hoped that if he deliberately went looking for it he might make such contact with it again. Strike up a casual conversation with an all-powerful alien artifact, it was supposed.
And, he mused, in the unlikely event that he did? How to convince such a relic to participate in the defense of the galaxy. Nothing of overweening importance--just your average galaxy, in which he, and everyone he knew, happened to live. Reposing in the chair, he shook his head dolefully though there were none present to note the gesture save Pip and ship.
"I don't see how I can do what Bran and Tru asked," he muttered aloud. He did not need to explain himself. Ship-mind knew.
"If you cannot, then no one can," it replied unhelpfully. As befitted its programming, it was doing its best to be supportive.
"A distinct and even likely possibility," he murmured to no one and nothing in particular. He glanced in the direction of the main readout. "We're still on course--if you can call heading in a general direction hundreds of parsecs in extent a 'course.'"
As usual, the Teacher sounded more relaxed when responding to specifics of ship operation than it did when trying to understand the often unfathomable complexities of human thought and behavior.
"We have re-entered the Commonwealth on intent to cross vector three-five-four, accelerating in space-plus on course to leave Commonwealth boundaries beyond Almaggee space, subsequent to entering the Sagittarius Arm and the region collectively known as the Blight."
The Blight, Flinx thought. Home to long-vanished species among whom were the ancient Tar-Aiym and Hur'rikku. The Blight: an immense swath of space once flourishing with inhabited worlds much of which had been rendered dead and sterile by the photonic plague unleashed by the Tar-Aiym on their ancient Hur'rikku enemies half a million years ago. Like those who had hastily and unwisely propounded it, the all-destroying plague had long since consumed itself, leaving in its wake only empty skies gazing forlornly down on dead worlds. Here and there, in a few spatial corners miraculously passed over by the plague, life had survived. Life, and memories of the all-consuming horror that had inexplicably skipped over them. No wonder the inhabitants of such isolated yet fortunate systems gazed up at the night sky with fear instead of expectation, and clung tightly to their isolated home systems.
Somewhere within that immense and largely vacant chunk of cosmos, the re-energized Tar-Aiym weapons platform had gone searching for instructions. Hunting for those who had made it. That there were none such to be found anywhere any longer was not sufficient to discourage it from looking. Such was the way of the machine mind. A mind he somehow had to make contact with once again. A mind he had somehow to persuade.
A hard task it was going to be, if he continued to have trouble convincing himself that the enterprise he was engaged in had not even the remotest chance of success.
When applied to most people, the expression have an open mind was merely rhetorical. Not so with Flinx. In fact, for much of his life he had prayed for the ability to have one that was closed. Intermittently and uncontrollably exposed to the emotions of any and every sentient around him, he threatened to drown in a sea of sentiment and sensation whenever he visited a developed world. Feelings flooded in on him in endless waves of exhilaration, despair, hope, remorse, anger, love, and everything in between. With each passing year he seemed to become more sensitive, more alert to those inner expressions of thinking beings. Not long ago, he had unexpectedly acquired the ability to project as well as receive emotions. This capability had proven useful in his search for the truth of his origins as well as in escaping those who intended him harm.
Yet for all his escalating skills, he had yet to learn how to master them. Defined by their erraticism, he had long ago decided that they might forever be beyond his control. That did not keep him from trying. Not only because a Talent that was wild was of far less usefulness than one that could be managed, but because the severe headaches he had suffered from since adolescence continued to grow more frequent, and more intense. His ability might be his savior--as well as that of billions of other sentient beings. It might also kill him. He had no choice but to continue wrestling with it, and with what he was, because he was special.
He would have given up everything just to be normal.
Sensing her master's melancholy, Pip rose from her resting place on his shoulder, the deep-throated humming of her wings louder than the ambient music that was being played by the Teacher. Circling him twice, she settled down on his other shoulder, wings furled tightly against her slim, brightly colored body. Wrapping herself around the back of his neck, she squeezed gently and affectionately, trying to reassure him. Reaching up with his left hand, he absently stroked the back of her head. Small slitted eyes closed in contentment. Alaspinian minidrags did not purr, but the strength of the empathetic bond between him and his scaly companion managed to convey something like the emotional equivalent.
Leaning back in the command chair, Flinx closed his own eyes and tried to open his unique mind further, to reach outward in all directions. Though he could readily identify the target he sought, he could not have defined with precision the exact nature of what it was that he was searching for. But, like the caressing hand of a beautiful woman, he would know it when he felt it. Out, out, away from the ship, away from himself, he searched. His field of perception was an expanding balloon. But no matter how much he relaxed, even with Pip's aid he sensed nothing. Only emptiness.
Occasionally, as the Teacher drove onward through the outer reaches of the Commonwealth, his Talent was tickled by sparks of sentience. A flash of feeling from distant Tipendemos and, later, stronger bursts of emotion out of Almaggee. Then, more nothingness as he left the region of developed systems and sped through space-plus toward the Blight.
There were worlds in that vast section of the Sagittarius Arm that had once been inhabited, and worlds that were habitable still. No doubt someday, as the human and thranx population continued to expand in every direction, those worlds would once again resound to the voices of sentience. But not for a while yet. The Commonwealth itself encompassed an enormous section of space replete with hundreds of worlds yet to be settled or even explored by robotic probes. However enticing, the ancient worlds of the Blight would have to wait.
In its search for those who had built it, the wandering Tar-Aiym weapons platform would have hundreds of square parsecs in which to roam without encountering intelligent life of any kind. Making contact with anything in so vast a place seemed impossible. What swayed Flinx to try was the imploring of those wiser than himself. That, and the fact that on more than one occasion in his short life he had already achieved the impossible.
Having more or less resolved in his own mind to at least attempt the search, the last thing he expected as he entered the Blight was to have his resolution temporarily countermanded by his own ship.
He was taking his ease, as he so often did, in the central lounge. With its malleable waterfalls and pond, its fountain that sent heavy water trickling down and light water floating upward as decorative bubbles, it was far and away the most relaxing part of the unique vessel. Hailing from many worlds, the lush greenery that now packed every corner of the carefully maintained chamber filled it with wondrous scents and extra oxygen. Of course, he could have achieved a similar effect by simply directing the ship-mind to alter the composition of the internal atmosphere. But artificially regenerated oxygen lacked the subtle smells that accompanied air exhaled by growing things. Merely reclining among the running water and miniature forest helped him to unwind, and allowed his mind to roam free of anxiety and headaches. Green, he reflected, was good for the soul.
Nearby, Pip was pursuing something through the underbrush. It was harmless, or it would not be on board the ship. It was also confined to the lounge area. Chasing such harmless bits of decorative ambulatory life gave her something to do.
Unlike me, he thought.
"There is a problem."
Reluctantly, he bestirred himself from daydreaming of warm beaches on a recently visited world, and the passionate company he had kept there. "If you're trying to astonish me with revelation, you need to choose a less recurrent subject."
Ignoring the cynicism, the Teacher continued. "You are not the only one who suffers from stress, Philip Lynx."
Frowning, he rolled over on the supportive lounge. "Don't tell me that you're having mental problems. That's supposed to be my area of expertise."
From the Hardcover edition.