Read an Excerpt
Gev Carlyle struggled to put the frustration out of his mind. It was essential to maintain control of himself; he knew that. But the alien just kept staring at him from across the ship's gloomy bridge like some frightful catlike apparition.
Who could stay calm looking at something like that?
"Cephean," he said, his voice trembling. (A rush of impatience interrupted him--the alien's.) "Cephean!" he demanded furiously. His eyes went out of focus as he tensed, struggling to frame his words. He refocused and gazed at the creature again. The cynthian was as large as a tiger and black as coal dust, and he was plump and furry like an enormous Persian cat. Cephean's eyes blinked slowly, indignantly. They were gold-flecked obsidian, with irises of molten copper.
"You told me that your ship operated the same way as mine. And you know how to fly your own ship. Correct?"
"Hyiss-yiss," insisted Cephean. "Hoff khorss."
"Of course," Carlyle muttered. He reminded himself: there must be confidence before it can work. The cynthian said that he was capable; but who could be sure? The telepathic link with the alien was incomplete and largely one-way. The cynthian perceived the thoughts behind the human's words, but somewhere in the communication, the cynthian was misunderstanding Carlyle's instructions. There was only so much he could explain about flying the starship, anyway. How could he explain intuition?
Cephean stared at him with coppery eyes. Waiting behind his front paws were his two small companions, the riffmar, which followed him everywhere. The riffmar were thin-trunked, walking ferns withroot-toed feet; from their midsections they waved muscular, slim-fingered branches. They pranced about and squeaked and twitched their fingers disconcertingly.
"All right," Carlyle said. "You have to feel what I am doing when I fly. And you have to help me. When I guide the ship, when I turn it, you back me up as steadily as you can. Don't struggle, and don't work against me. Do you understand? Just follow."
Cephean looped his tail behind his triangular ears. His eyes flickered. "Hi khann ff-hollow, Caharleel," he hissed.
Carlyle nodded, thinking that they should be able to work together--they had to, if they didn't want to die together, adrift between the stars. Whatever their differences, they were both riggers in their own fashions. "Let's go, then." He pointed the way. (He felt a twinge of preoccupation--Cephean's.)
"Are you paying attention?" he asked quietly, angrily.
Cephean sputtered--then dipped his head and padded over to the stern-rigger's alcove, with the riffmar dancing behind. He stopped and sat in front of the rigger-seat which Carlyle had dismantled and adapted for his use.
Carlyle shook his head. He swung the seat pad forward to rest against the cynthian's furry spine. The cynthian tensed, fur rippling and eyes flashing--then slowly relaxed. Beside him, the riffmar settled down to wait out the session. Carlyle crossed the bridge to his own pilot-rigger station. He averted his eyes from the sight of the empty alcoves which his crewmates had once manned; and, resisting a compulsion to relive that horror, he lowered himself into the seat and rested his neck against the neural-foam pad. Engage, he thought.
Numbness spread through his body, stealing his hearing and touch. His eyesight darkened and collapsed. Then his senses sprang from his body like electrical fire and blossomed out of the starship and into space, into the rigger-net. Into the Flux. He stretched and looked around.
The view was an atmospheric panorama: the starship floated in a vast, luminous space. Sculpted lemon clouds drifted in the distance, and russet layers of smoke twisted outward to form a sea as broad and as deep as the entire arm of the galaxy. This was the "subjective sea," interstellar space rendered as an airy red and orange-yellow watercolor, with sloping and intersecting layers, and rivers which ran and twisted at all angles. Some stars were visible, mostly as flecks of carbon dust adrift in the luminous space; however, a few stars and their associated nebulae stood out more clearly, as whorls or discontinuities in the flow of the sea.
The image--which was partly real and partly a creation of Carlyle's imagination--was a good one. It was vivid and bright, and a good analogue of normal-space. He hoped that Cephean could interpret the landscape, and more importantly, that the cynthian could follow his lead.
Sedora's rigger-net sparkled around him and pulsed with energy as he flexed his limbs. Below the net he sighted his immediate objective--a dark, channeled intersection of two planes. That was the Reld Current, a smooth-running river deeply submerged in the multilayered sea of the Flux. It was a major current in the Flux moving toward Sedora's destination, and as safe a place as any for practicing teamwork with Cephean.
The Reld Current would be easy.
But after the Reld, they had to sail into the Hurricane Flume, and that was a different sort of current altogether. The Flume was a "channel" where dozens of streams came thundering together, meeting and tangling with terrible energy. They would reach it in six or seven shipdays. The Flume was a perilous place to take a ship, but they had to go through; from within its chaos streamed the upwelling currents to Cunnilus Banks, and that was where Sedora was bound. In Cunnilus Banks lay the star-havens and safety. If they could fly on through to Cunnilus Banks, they would be virtually home free.
But to reach the Banks, they had to go through the Flume; there was no other way. Carlyle was almost too frightened to think about it. Sedora was not a one-man or even a two-man ship. She was a four-rigger freighter, a massive hulk riding on a lone rigger's back. Sedora had carried a crew of five; and Carlyle had been the fifth, the extra. But that was before the accident. Of the original crew, now only he remained--with this alien, Cephean. Singlehandedly, he could manage the ship in the easy current of the Reld. But the Flume would hit them like a cyclone--and if he and the shipwrecked cynthian did not function as a team, the Flume was going to be the end of Sedora, and of them.
He glanced around to the stern. You there? he asked.
He released the stabilizers and reached his steely, spidery, sensory arms outward and down into the Flux. Slowly he coaxed the ship downward toward the Reld; and he hoped that Cephean would assist him.