A most peculiar thing happened to the battleship as it departed the Repler system: initially daunting in size and form, it proceeded to undergo a kind of reverse metamorphosis, as if a butterfly were turning backward into an ungainly caterpillar. Intimidating weapons blisters collapsed in upon themselves like so many glistening, harmless bubbles. Lethal wave-form projectors shrank and slivered. Vast projecting appurtenances shimmied and vanished like the ominous illusions they were, until the menacing martial shape had imploded completely. In its place gleamed the far smaller fast-moving footprint of an ordinary cargo carrier approaching changeover. Clearly not a craft that was part of the impressive fleet component still orbiting the planet that was rapidly receding behind it, nor one that was likely to attract undue notice.
Visually revamped, externally overhauled, and mechanically face-lifted determinedly downscale, the Teacher slipped unchallenged into the physically unreasonable but mathematically coherent state known colloquially as space-plus, whereupon it swiftly left the Commonwealth border system known as Repler not only far behind, but far beyond it.
“Changeover complete. Exterior appearance modified as per necessity. Proceeding on general Almaggee vector. Awaiting instructions.” A pause, then, “Resume search?”
Resume search. Flinx stared out the command port at the splay of distorted stars forward. Resume search for what? His ship was doubtless referring to the search his friends and mentors Bran Tse-Mallory and the Eint Truzenzuzex had sent him on. The one he had agreed to undertake provided only that they see to and look after his injured love Clarity Held back on New Riviera. A simple enough quest request.
All he was being asked to do was search and scour the vast reaches of the largely uninhabited section of the Sagittarius Arm of the galaxy opposite the Commonwealth, locate and establish contact with an unbelievably ancient planet-sized weapons platform of the long-extinct—except for one recently demised individual—war-like species called the Tar-Aiym, and persuade it to aid in defending all civilization against an immense, undefined menace steadily accelerating in this direction from a region of space near Boötes known as the Great Emptiness. And do this while avoiding the attentions of the increasingly persistent and curious Commonwealth authorities, the crazed suicidal adherents of the Order of Null who badly wanted him dead, certain elements of the AAnn Empire, and perhaps the isolated Qwarm assassin. All in hopes of saving the galaxy and, with luck, of in a few years making it to his thirtieth birthday. And maybe, just maybe, finding out who his father was.
He took a deep breath. From her position sprawled across the center of the command console, the minidrag Pip looked up at him, yawned, and stretched her brilliant pink-and-blue wings without unfurling them. He nodded, though not particularly at her.
Time for tea.
The Teacher brewed perfect tea. Many was the time, and more frequently lately than not, he found himself considering perfection tedious. But not when it came to the making of tea. Darjeeling tea from Terra, anar tea from Rhyinpine, unique forest teas from Alaspin; the ship was steeped in those and more. Various chemicals both natural and synthetic for calming the mind and easing the body were available to the Teacher. Except on rare occasions he disdained them all in favor of flavor in the form of natural tea.
When it was delivered to him in a pot and cup whose functions, if not the material from which they had been made, would have been recognizable to a tea drinker from a thousand years ago, he stirred in additives, leaned back, and wondered at how many ancient ship captains had similarly sat and sipped their own favored libation while studying the stars. They had done so from a considerably different perspective, of course. They had been sailing along beneath the stars, not among them.
The hot, sweetened, dark gold liquid calmed his body but did little to settle his thoughts. Behind him lay the threat of the alien Vom, extinguished. Ahead lay a search for something to help deal with an infinitely greater threat. A search that might well take years. To what end? Not for the first time he wondered why he ought to bother. What about his own personal priorities? What about the future for himself and Clarity he dared to dream of in quiet moments? If the evil he had perceived within the Great Emptiness was not due to arrive for hundreds or even thousands of years, why should he care about it? Why should he have to be the one to sacrifice his life and happiness in a probably futile attempt to forestall the inevitable?
Everything went in cycles. Perhaps the eventual arrival of the Great Evil represented nothing more than the ending of one such cycle and the beginning of another. Neither of which, as he lived out his normal life span, he need be expected to deal with.
Still running away, he told himself as he sipped. The realization burned him more than the hot liquid.
After what he’d seen on Repler, the wild thought occurred to him that maybe he should take drugs to make himself feel better. Perhaps try something stronger than tea. Given his singular abilities, however, there was no telling, no way of predicting, what the cost of such an action might be. While he felt he could deal with any consequences that the sampling of artificial stimulants might pose to himself, there was no telling what kind of harm such an indulgence involving his increasingly unmanageable abilities might visit on those around him. He decided that such experimentation was, at least for now, not a viable option.
All right then, the voice inside himself demanded. If you’re going to devote yourself to saving something, maybe what you need to stiffen your resolve is to prove to yourself that that something is worth saving. That it’s worth the sacrifice. What he had recently experienced and observed while on Repler was not encouraging. Selfishness, greed, violence. Conscious misuse of intelligence. Willful consumption of sentience-altering drugs. Bloodhype. The noblest creature he had encountered during his sojourn on Repler—the one with whom he had personally empathized the most—had belonged not to one of the existing races whose future he was being asked to help save but to a Tar-Aiym named Peot: the last surviving representative of that long-dead, war-like species.
On the other hand, despite his recent, self-challenging, near-defiant, and very brief dalliance with the United Church officer Kitten Kai-sung, there was Clarity. Not to mention Bran Tse-Mallory, Truzenzuzex, Mother Mastiff, and other exemplary examples of contemporary cognizance and compassion. Even those who hungered first and foremost for wealth, like the old prospector Knigta Yakus, were at heart good folk whose heritable lines were deserving of preservation.
Maybe that was it, he told himself as he sat up straighter in the command chair. In the course of his short but very full life, so many of those he had been in close contact with had been in one way or another exceptional or atypical. Easy enough to rationalize risking all to save such. But what about the great, restless, surging mass of others? Did they deserve salvation? Was the future of those vast, unknown, swarming genetic masses worth the sacrifice of his personal happiness? That was really what was at stake. That was truly what he needed to decide.
He had told the now deceased Peot that he needed to acquire wisdom. Where to go and what to do to find it? In his short life he had seen much. Love, hate, all manner of planetary environments. But not, his recent encounter on Repler with the disreputable drugger and emoman Dominic Rose notwithstanding, the full wickedness and inventive iniquity of which humankind and others were capable. In order to pass judgment on his fellow sentients, and to acquire the fullness of wisdom that he sought, it was only reasonable to believe that he needed to experience that as well. Needed to proceed counter to his natural impulses and immerse himself in the worst that full-blown civilization had to offer.
He mentally and methodically worked his way through the most relevant steller schematics. The source for the kind of learning he desired lay a good way distant but not all that far off his present vector. Determination overrode a hesitancy that as recently as several years ago would have held him back from proceeding. Determination, and a seriously advanced case of what-the-hell.
Sensing his change of mood, Pip spread her wings, rose, and glided over to land on his right shoulder. As her tail end curled affectionately around his neck, he reached up with his free hand to absently stroke the smooth, scaly back of her head.
“Course change,” he announced aloud, lowering his cup. “We will remain within the borders of the Commonwealth, but off the Almaggee vector. Set a course for Visaria.”
The Teacher’s ship-mind was programmed to emulate an extensive and varied assortment of human reactions, but pausing for emphasis was not one of them. Therefore, its skepticism was immediate.
“Permit me to point out that Visaria represents a considerable detour from the most direct route into the Blight, the region you wish to search for signs of the absented Tar-Aiym artifact.”
He glanced toward one of the numerous visual pickups that were scattered about the command chamber. “Yep.”
Nonexistent applicable programming notwithstanding, the ship-mind momentarily did seem to hesitate. “Visaria is an N Class One, highly industrialized human-dominated colony world. It has no links that I can discover to the alien weapons platform you are engaged in seeking out, and its heavily concentrated and urbanized population is the kind you prefer to avoid whenever possible.”
“Yep,” muttered Flinx a second time. He took a swallow of tea. Forward of the curving port, stars and nebulae whirled about one another in an eternal crazed tarantella—fused hydrogen partnering with torn particles to produce all the colors of God.
“You are being deliberately unresponsive. Cold statistics and classification aside, my records indicate that Visaria is considered one of the most disreputable, debased, dangerous, and generally unpleasant settled worlds in the entire Commonwealth. It has a reputation for corrupting representatives of even such generally well-thought-of species as the Quillp and the thranx themselves. It is a place whose occupants are primarily preoccupied with building wealth as opposed to character. Since you already have both, I am perplexed as to why you should wish to go there. Particularly now.”
“Well,” Flinx replied evenly, “it’s not for a ‘vacation.’”
The ship-mind’s response was calculatedly cool. “The acerbic reference to the recent awkward sojourn on Jast is duly noted. My query and concern remain unaddressed.”
“I indeed intend to spend an undetermined length of time there,” he continued deliberately, “to further my education.”
“At the risk of your life?”
“Ah yes,” the tall young man in the command chair murmured, “that would be a first, wouldn’t it?”
“If sarcasm were gravity and could be channeled, I would be the fastest vessel in the Commonwealth.”
“By which comment you indicate that you’re not averse to occasionally employing it yourself,” he shot back.
The ship-mind collected itself. “My sole concern is for your well-being. Visaria is a patently dangerous place. You are already under threat from various sources. My logic processor fails to see why you would willingly pile one danger upon another, when that other is easily avoided.”
“You don’t accept a desire to gain knowledge as a valid reason?” He stared in the direction of the nearest visual pickup.
“One must consider the question of demonstrable risk versus theoretical benefit,” the Teacher insisted.
“I’ve done all the analysis I need to,” Flinx replied irritably, “and it is my intention to proceed.”
Another suggestion of circuitous, or perhaps merely circuitry, hesitation. “You are not feeling suicidal again, are you?”
A dull pounding started at the back of Flinx’s skull. He willed it away. “If that was the reason for my wanting to visit Visaria, there are quicker and easier means of fulfillment.”
“Granted.” The ship sounded relieved. “Visaria, then. Do you wish upon arrival to enter into an announced orbit?”
Rising from the chair, he placed his cup in the appropriate receptacle and started back toward the ship’s lounge. “If the folks who run the place are as cagey as you suggest, I don’t see how we could sneak in unobserved. If it’s as crowded as you say, I don’t imagine we’ll need to. And if it’s as shady even on the sunward side, I’m sure we can convince the appropriate authorities to take a pass on any detailed arrival and entry formalities.”
As its master left the command chamber, the Teacher set about negotiating the necessary alterations to the appropriate dimensional mathematics, with an appropriate kick in the right direction. It worked flawlessly, efficiently, rapidly.
But insofar as it was capable of contemplating the consequences of the impulsive course change, it was not pleased.
Habitable worlds were like tolerable people, Flinx mused as the Teacher decelerated through normal space toward Visaria. Viewed from a distance, they all looked similar. Draw closer, and individual features made themselves visible. The lines of a continent on a planet; the lines of character in a person’s face. Canyons and crevices, rills and revelations, some carved by wind and water, others by life and experiences. He had encountered both weathered worlds and weathered people. It was no different with sentient nonhumans. One simply had to study the different physical features to learn what they signified.
Move in closer still and fine detail became apparent. With worlds, individual streams. With people, streams of consciousness only he could perceive. Mountains and forests, cities and roads and seaports. Shifty or straightforward eyes, digits or tentacles reaching for handshakes or weapons. To isolate such features, one just had to know how and where to look. Surviving both worlds and individuals was a matter of leavening alertness with knowledge. He had been born with plenty of the former, and through circumstance had been force-fed an abundance of the latter. In this he was not really all that different from his fellow sentients. In one other highly significant way he was.
Worlds whispered to him.
Inhabited worlds, mostly, though his Talent had grown sensitive and sharp enough to allow him to perceive the emotions of less intelligent orders of beings. It did not matter whether the worlds he visited were dominated by his own kind, or by the insectoid thranx, or the aggressive AAnn, or even more outré sentients such as the Vssey. If they possessed an inner emotional life, their feelings encroached on him. Through practice and time, he had gained the ability to shut out some of the emotive shouting of others. But not all of it, and not always. Just as he could not predictably control his ability to perceive the feelings of others, so he could not always completely banish them from his Meliorare-altered mind. That was why he often chose to avoid worlds that were crowded with intelligent life. That was why he was deliberately choosing to immerse himself in one now.
From the Hardcover edition.