|"Ship's Eye" is the third tale from The Further Adventures Of Tom Rynosseros to appear in Eidolon, following "Larrikin Wind" (Autumn 1990) and "Roadsong" (Spring 1991). It is the final story in the recently completed Twilight Beach, a third volume of Tom Tyson stories due to be published in 1993. Rynosseros (1990) and Blue Tyson (1992) are available from Aphelion Publications.|
The death of Rynosseros was a barely noticed thing, a silence
within a silence, a steady falling away of one small life in the
midst of so much life.
No-one might have learned of it but for the fact that Rynosseros was at the Sand Quay being serviced, and Tom and Scarbo were checking functions at the helm while the barneys worked on the travel platform below and Rim called up verifications through his headset.
The morning was brilliantly fine, the Quay crowded with hulls and crews, the whitewashed buildings of Twilight Beach gleaming in the hot sunlight, a splendid eternal morning.
Suddenly the main dish lost its display, pulsed, flowed with script - binary! showed function again as if nothing had happened.
"What was that?" Scarbo said, and Tom immediately tried for a repeat.
"It was ship-talk! Binary! It was!" The need for discretion barely won out over the old kitemaster's excitement. Scarbo's voice broke on the words.
"From us?" Tom could scarcely believe it either, realising what it meant.
"Has to be."
"Ben!" Tom tried again but got nothing, sent a command to Rimmon's headset. "We're shutting down, Rim. Glitch up here."
Rim knew better than to question it. Rynosseros had sealed systems. If there were function anomalies, it meant system trauma, internally generated, or worse systems were being raided. He sent the barneys to an early lunch, brought his cradle to deck level, and joined the others.
"Binary on the main dish," Tom said when he came over. "Two, three seconds worth."
Rim frowned, understanding what it meant too; his lips barely ghosted the words. "Ship-talk?"
The eyelines of the three men took in the docks, the nearby ships and bustling avenues, the dazzling rooftops under the cloudless sky, the empty dish, the standby lights that showed helm was engaged.
"We may need security," Tom told Rim. "Find the others."
Rimmon read the urgency in the words readily enough, made sure he seemed calm and easy as he went down onto the stone causeways of the Quay, headed off among the great charvolant hulls towards the morning town, to wherever Shannon and the others were enjoying their off-duty hours.
"What do we do?" Scarbo said, which was Tom's own question asked. "Get us a techmaken?"
"Someone who knows ship provenance, yes."
"If he'll come. Try to get us Miras."
"Go yourself, Ben."
"Aye." And Scarbo was gone too, down onto the docks, leaving Tom with it, the hardest job really, staying, waiting, fearing what it meant.
He had often felt that he and Rynosseros were one, parts of the same living whole, all charvi veterans did. And while he didn't have the years Scarbo or Rim had, he did have a ship of his own and the passion to use her well.
Now, for the first time, he felt a sense of separateness, that Rynosseros was a thing apart, there in spite of him. It was not a feeling he cared for.
Now he gazed at the helm display, the read-out of stand-by functions engaged, felt the familiar, worn, sun-warmed metal under his hands and thought of the ghost-flicker of script he had seen. They had seen. Alone he would've doubted it. The ship itself had spoken.
They needed Miras. Short of trying the tribal yards at Cyrimiri or Bel Solus, he was all they had. Shipmakens rarely left the tribal yards, rarely discussed their ancient craft anyway. Perhaps he'd refuse, then what did they have?
But Tom doubted it. Miras was Ab'O, had been an apprentice maken at Bel Solus. Now he was here, lord of the Quay in a way, high-priest of the National charvis with his own team of hand-picked, self-trained Ab'O specialists. He treated Rynosseros with a special affection, as he did the charvis of all the Coloured Captains, ships won by lottery, accompanied by Hero Colours. Not the cashiered, well-used, ex-tribal vessels most National charvis were, but prime charvolants from the lotteries, ships with pedigrees.
Binary on Rynosseros. Tom gripped the helm binnacle, sure Miras would come, desperately hoping he was on hand.
But Rim arrived first with Shannon, Strengi and young Hammon, not all of them coming aboard, Shannon and Strengi stopping to exchange idle words with the crew-members of neighbouring ships, keeping an eye out for anyone watching Rynosseros, Rim and Hammon going down onto the travel platform, looking over the Pabar engines, swinging back the inspection covers, clipping them in place. Business as usual, it seemed. Rim had done well.
Scarbo and Miras arrived ten minutes later, the tall Ab'O striding along beside the bald, tanned kitemaster as if the ships and the docks were truly his.
Miras wore fatigues of a Guatamalan weave, deep oranges and browns, lustrous purple highlights that made a distinctive sight on the Quay. With his wide, almost Melanesian face, he barely looked tribal at all.
"Ben insists binary," he said, moving to the helm with his usual proprietary air. "Let me try."
For the next twenty minutes, he ran function tests, silently initiated and resolved crisis patterns, standard, special, extremis, accessed the running sets only makens safely could.
Tom and Scarbo watched in silent envy; they could service mechanical, electrical and most comp functions; Tom even had log and comp codes no-one else on Rynosseros possessed; but this was systems lore, true ship-knowledge. It would mean Miras's life to share it. Which made everyone watching even those on adjacent ships wonder yet again how Miras and those like him were allowed to remain. Tribal authorities asked the question gave dilatory and curious answers. "Why, he is our resident spy. Keeping an eye on Nation," said one, and from another: "You too have ships. You need the expertise or your own ships fail. We can't have you running to us."
Which made sense. There were disqualified tribal makens at the Inlansay Sea Yards, at Port Allure, Port Sire, Port Tarsis and No Man's Easy Rest. They trained their own techs after a fashion, other tribal outcasts, sometimes approved Islanders and Niuginians, but never Nationals.
"Nothing," Miras said. "A glitch. It may never happen again."
"Ship-talk, Mi," Scarbo said, not believing him.
"I doubt it."
"It was, Mi."
"So you're makens now, are you? Legends. Nonsense."
"It has comp," Tom said, putting the old argument, feeling cargo cult foolish saying it because Miras had knowledge that made Tom more truly that than he cared for.
"It does. But I've worked on Rynosseros a hundred times . . ."
"The platform. Never the hull."
"Not the hull, no. But it's integrated . . ."
"Is this ship sentient, Mi?" Tom had to ask it.
Miras remained silent, his jaw set; he actually gazed out over the lines of ships, at the stacked layers of kites, the glorious canopies moving in the warm air, marking arrivals and departures, the exuberance of captains and kitemasters playing to the crowds of tourists, perhaps satisfying their own whim or vanity.
"The rumours say so and they will never go away. No, the hulls are not cognitive in any fashion."
Scarbo made a sceptical sound. "Not what the stories say."
Miras ignored his remark and faced Tom. "Where do you go next?"
"Towards Port Sire. Today or tomorrow."
"Arunta until 241. Why?"
"Keep an eye on the dish. Run her all out. Any other glitches, log them, build me a profile. Intensity and duration. Oh, yes, and Cristo has the parts you wanted."
Such an obvious ploy but endless maintenance routines covered it.
Tom understood at once. An alert observer on one of the nearby ships might have seen him tense, become still, make himself relax again.
"Right. I'll get them. Thanks, Mi. We'll let you know."
It was hard for him to wait the fifteen minutes he set himself, but he spent those minutes cuing Scarbo and the others with crew codes, signing alert and ship-ready.
When the quarter-hour was done, he walked down onto the docks himself, headed for the First Gate, the quaymaster's office and the chandleries.
All the way he played the same game Rim and Ben had no doubt done, stopping to exchange pleasantries with other sandsmen, discussing Roads and missions, chatting with Ramos about his twin Hakkakkus and new Sodes, admiring the latest paintwork on Crioyr, the new bow mouldings on Shallamon.
Finally, he was at Cristo's and, waiting to be served, browsing, went to the end of one of the aisles, disappeared through a slip-away, made his way down the passage behind the keg-room of Tipperay's.
Miras was waiting in the dead-room there, sitting at a small table under the dim lamp, drinking four-weight tautine. He had been staring at the flat empty boards of the table-top; he looked up as Tom entered, sighed visibly.
Tom took the other chair, the other glass.
"Tom, my life is at hazard because of what I now say."
"Don't say it."
"Have to. Listen. It's bigger it's important. The thing I've sworn never to reveal." He hesitated, drained his glass, eyed Tom's, which was pushed across to him but left untouched.
"Not sentient," he said, "but Atropaic AI. Black Box, you understand? Not very bright."
"Don't see it as life. She's keel inert. Rynosseros is a Barrinka-Samma, what's called a BS330. She'll have an Eidect sensorium behind the bow eyes."
"We never knew."
"It's one of the first secrets. I'll die for this."
"Mi . . ."
"There's no time. Black Box is standard. Not life."
"But AI! It can talk!"
"What's called Basic. Binary. Narrow function. It is not aware."
"Can you access it? Open it?"
"I said Black Box, you understand?"
"The National ships. The continent-crossers . . ."
"All have them. But not cognate, Tom. Rudimentary. Each Eidect sits behind the atropaic eyes, near searchlight function. The makens in the tribal yards tap into the Eidect for function."
"We can't do that here."
"We certainly can't. This is sacred business. Basic gaea-lore. Make life where you can. The old philosophies. We speak of the hull now, the true ship. The standard charvi spine is a sensor axis, intricate, so the techs can let a ship scan itself during construction and repair. Comps and AIs have done it for centuries. A new ship" he hesitated, drank from the glass before him "is built from the nervous system up. The makens add to the net, extend it, use the ship to help them build the ship. When it's finished, they seal the system, shut down the spine until it's needed for maintenance, relegate the AI to the Black Box status it was designed for. They are not allowed to be life, you understand?"
"Mission talk then!" Tom said. "They can access it for surveillance!"
"In theory. But Rynosseros is yours. You won her!"
"Ah, but this Black Box AI is tribal."
"No, yours. You own the ship. Outright. For as long as you live. That's its loyalty. Then it's back into the lotteries. No-one will ever get that data-store. The lottery ships keep their own counsel. The tree that gave you Blue and this ship routed those access commands to you."
"I didn't know."
"You were never meant to."
"Mi, what did the ship-talk mean?"
"It may be a genuine anomaly . . ."
"Tom, I have known of emergency sequences; a ship under duress, aware of sabotage, with no makens around, trying to get information through."
"Then Rynosseros . . ."
"May be in extremis, yes. This is what leads me to this now. It may have been deliberately plundered, maimed . . ."
"Not life, Tom."
"You can't be sure. They could have built more than you know!"
He shook his head. "Not in ships!"
Especially in ships, Tom wanted to say, who had felt ships come alive under his hands, who knew how true the life was there, right there, in every part, every mile.
"What can I do? I have to be sure."
"Tom, I love them too. I am out of the yards but I do what I can for the ships here, locked out of them, watching them. There is someone I know, a place I go to sometimes. Shielded."
"Exactly like Quaelitz. Like the pirates have. He has protected himself. His life is forever at risk too . . ."
"Because of ships."
"Because of ships. It's your only chance. But listen. If knowledge of this gets out, if they track you, if Nationals ever learn the ship-lore I've just now told . . ."
"There's nothing much in it, Mi." Tom did not add that in a world of belltrees and mankin AI, tangentals and menage strains, it was hardly the critical knowledge Mi claimed. Though that wasn't the point.
"The ships are sacred things," Mi said. "Most National ships . . ." And he hesitated.
And Tom understood the dreadful truth Miras found so hard to reveal.
"Have been killed!"
"Are stem-dead, yes. Inert. The ships of the Coloured Captains are not! Tom . . ."
"This friend? Where? Who?"
"Tom, Rynosseros may already be dead that binary cry was in extremis; it may just be dying. But it will be irreversible, accept that, yes? His name is Cota. Here, read. Destroy it."
Not even committing this to spoken words, passing a written message over the bare boards.
On the strip of flag-foil, Tom read:
Then rubbed the foil against itself, let it burn away, ground the twist of ash under his foot. Miras seemed easier when it was done.
"Aye," Miras said. "Could be recent, some tribal makens here. Could be long ago."
"Dying all this time?"
Miras nodded. "Or a glitch. Remember that. You can try the tribal yards."
"No!" Tom said, standing.
"Go to Cota then. Save your ship."
"Shielded, you say?
"Aye. And Maklin's Gaheris has taken the route you've just now seen. He's one of us; he'll say you are coming. Now go. And for all our sakes, hide this news!"
Tom left Cristo's then, enduring the nightmare of heading back, forcing himself to go as slowly as he'd come, carrying his unneeded spares from Cristo's.
But on deck at last, he announced to Scarbo playing it out, not risking gain-monitors that they'd do a test-run now.
No plan had been filed with the quaymaster, but Rynosseros was a privileged vessel twice over, State of Nation and Coloured, given to sudden departures and special business. Hammon hurried to the quaymaster's office with the courtesy of notice, requesting clear field, hurried back with approval.
Within fifteen minutes, the hundred-foot charvi had drawn back from the docks, lofted primary parafoils into the freshening boomori, and headed off along the Great Arunta Road.
No ships followed that Tom could tell, but perhaps a lens shifted on one of the comsats synched high above Twilight Beach, perhaps an alert flashed sat to sat, telling them, re-directing tribal ships, Kurdaitcha. Perhaps a plan was resolving.
There was no way to know, just speed and as much of the story Miras had given as Tom felt kept the secret of the terrible truth. Ben would be told, the others in time, but it was all too new, too momentous. They sensed import but had no details, needed none. They read their captain accurately enough.
Well into the afternoon, Rynosseros swung onto the Long Line Road in a great boiling arc that had the roadposts keening and hooting with their dreams of ships, their subtle delirium of existence, headed into the south at 90 k's, 100, 110, as if pursued by the very boiling red devil-cloud the vessel made.
The winds, as Scarbo used them, were kind, though it meant as many as twelve canopy changes in an hour to keep the schedule Tom had set. No-one could relax; even those off-duty sat on deck watching this hard, desperate run, wondering what it meant. On all sides, empty desert stretched to the horizon, red and ochre-gold under the piercing blue sky, with the pulse, pulse, pulse of roadposts to mark their passing, and now and then a far-off swell of nameless hills, a twist of stone, a fist of spinifex, forlorn stands of land-coral worn and sculpted into inscrutable stelae by the winds.
At 1420 they met a tribal ship running at them from the opposite direction, heading north and hard to port against the Road's edge, having seen through scan the boiling train of grit and flying stones Rynosseros made in its approach. Tom had signature kites aloft, the Bladed Sun and his own blue rhino-head; the vessel's captain would assume urgent mission, he hoped.
The tribal charvi drew its canopy low and tight, and like an anemone
readying itself to meet an ocean swell soon vanished astern, just
a glimpse of close-hauled kites, Chonsye signature, staring faces,
there and gone.
Scan was constant. Strengi called up routine verifications - "All points clear" and "No pursuit". Which in its own way was disturbing and fed the paranoia. Too quiet. Too, too quiet.
At 1450 Rynosseros reached Lateral 42 at last and swung down its western leg. Again the turning cloud trailed across the land in a long red veil, again the belltrees screamed their delicious frenzies of recognition: "Ship! We know you, ship!"
On and on it ran, the crew like statues in the golden afternoon, all of them watching for any sign, anything that would give Miras's words meaning.
It was unmistakable when it came a black-robed figure standing beside a roadpost stepped out of its shadow, lifted both arms hieratically, raised high a staff ending in a dog's skull.
Rynosseros was 400 metres past him before it rolled to a stop, dressing him in bloody stormlight. He came running out of that red night like a dervish, clambered onto the platform, climbed the hull, came onto the commons, ran to the quarterdeck like a man possessed.
"Go! Go!" he cried. "Back to speed! Go!"
Rynosseros surged forward, canopy first trailing then driven ahead by helium rectification, built its raging blood-cloud again, moved again like a dagger making its eternal wound upon the land.
"Who are you?" Tom cried above the roar.
Under the dark hood was a lined dark face as black and scorified as an old fire. Eyes were wet, glittering black in that ruined face; the hands reaching up were made of the same old-fire ruin.
"Cota. Keep to 100 k's. Do exactly as I say."
The voice, though its owner was breathing hard from his run, was wonderful to hear, rich, powerful, moreso out of that fused, scoriated mouth.
"My ship!" Tom cried. "Save my ship!"
The robed figure reached out to Tom, placed a fire-blackened, pain-blackened hand on his shoulder but spoke for all who could hear, Scarbo and Rim, possibly Shannon.
"Do as I say. A 100 k's steady on this Road. You, Captain, please. Come with me!"
The figure set down his staff and led Tom across the commons to the bow, into the triangle formed there before the prow thrust out over the Road, out at the land, drawing it all to them, thundering upon it.
"Here. Under our hands," he said, his ruined, fire-burned hands on the smooth curve of the rail, "is your ship's self. You were never meant to know."
"I didn't. But what is it? Miras said . . ."
"There was a time when you would've hated the thought."
Tom also gripped the worn rail, desperate with concern, frantic but needing this man, what he had to say, what he could do. "But Cota . . ."
"What changed you?"
Tom went to interrupt, but Cota raised his voice, repeated the question. "What changed you?"
"I don't know! A spinner. A rogue at Bullen Meddi. A robot. The oracle tree that gave me Blue. Others."
"Ah. So you find that in spite of AI, you are more and more its champion?"
"Not just AI! Not just . . ."
"But definitely AI, yes?"
"Can you save it?" Tom cried the words, shouted them at his hands, directing his new distress, his old rage there.
"Why does it matter now?" The voice was too wonderful, too infuriatingly rich and calm, nothing at all like Tom's voice.
"Can you?" It was what was left of a scream when all its force is gone.
"We can't know for almost a day," Cota said, calmly, caringly. "There is nothing I can do till then. Can you control it?"
"What?" But Tom understood what he meant. "Yes. Yes, I can."
"Good. We're at risk and I need you. Doing this doing this with Rynosseros exposes a system we've kept hidden for years. Perhaps Rynosseros was maimed, perhaps you were intentionally alerted to send you here to expose this system and defeat it."
"A system? Then why, Cota? Then don't!"
"You miss the point. It's exactly why the system is in place - Rynosseros being maimed, having its life taken. What did Miras say?"
Tom kept his hands on the rail next to Cota's, kept them there suntanned and strong beside the blackened wrecks. He watched their hands as he spoke at the fabric of the ship as he'd once seen an outcast Clever Man do, spoke of Black Box AI, of log recorders, the impossibility of accessing them.
Cota grunted acknowledgment but did not speak again until Tom had finished. Tom was calmer having done it.
"Tonight we stop at a place I'll show you," Cota said. "Routine shut-down. Just a night stop."
"Captain, together we will access the Ship's Eye."
"Its traditional name. Ship's Eye. We will learn if it's intact or lost."
"You can do that?"
"I'm full maken. Yes, I can do it."
"You . . ."
"And once a captain like you. A punished one, as you see. I know what you're feeling."
"Cota . . ."
"Can you trust me?"
"Good. So stand down your crew. Make them rest if you can. We can do no more till evening, but if a trap has been sprung, then we are in it and soon we may be fighting for our lives."
They lifted their hands from the rail then, moved back onto the commons, returned to the quarterdeck.
Twilight was almost full night, just a line of rich blue light at the horizon, when Rynosseros pulled to the left shoulder of Lateral 42, at the forsaken, featureless spot Cota indicated.
"This is it," he said in his wonderful voice.
"How can you tell?" Scarbo asked in his usual sardonic way; it was that ordinary a place, flat and empty by what could be seen in the bow sweeps.
Cota gave a laugh. "I've been counting."
"Trees?" Tom said, who had seen few belltrees in their passing.
"Aye. Not on any map. We're on a different map now, a secret map laid upon the land."
"But there's nothing," Scarbo said.
"There's a tree. Back from the Road. There." He pointed into darkness, then turned to the crew assembled on the quarterdeck. "Gentlemen, this ship has an even harder run tomorrow. Prepare her for war. Rest yourselves well. There is an important, secret thing your Captain and I must do, and it would help us to know you are easy."
And just like that, they went about their duties, Hammon setting up the portable cooker, Strengi going to com to set the routine scans of the surrounding desolation. Scarbo man of ships too - did not set the example this time. He stood watching them, silently asking to be included.
Cota understood. "Please be patient, kitemaster. Just a bit longer."
"Aye," Ben said, acknowledged for his need, and stayed at the helm while Tom and Cota climbed down to the cooling sand and walked out into the dark.
"A tree?" Tom said.
"Broken," the voice came. "Re-made, like me."
"But . . ."
In starlight, by what light there was from the thinnest curve of the moon, in the last ghostly wash of blue from the horizon, Tom saw a cold iron trunk rising barely three feet above the sand, devoid even of vestigial life. Cota bent down to it, touched hidden places on the slain AI, brought something out of the modified puzzle-box of its stem.
"Powered tech, aye. Traceable earlier. Not now. We'll need a ladder, a stage at the bow."
It took very little time. Scarbo had guessed what might be needed,
already had a ladder in place and a stage slung over the bow so
Cota and Tom could climb to the atropaic eyeline. Cota's hands
had looked blasted, locked into claws on the forward rail; now
they worked in quick precise movements while Tom strained to listen.
All he could hear was the contact sounds the instruments made,
and themselves Cota's breathing, his own, the small constant
sound of wind sliding across the land.
"This will be it," Cota said. "Listen close."
Which meant Tom putting his face near Cota's hooded one, almost touching the great plate of the Eye, his fingers on the tough, virtually unbreakable glass.
There was another wind there, it seemed, coming up out of the ship itself, an ocean-in-a-seashell sound that lifted to them as a sudden urgent whisper.
"Sen cojonti," Cota said into that wind, dialect or code, quick soft words.
And Ship rose up on that hidden breath and answered.
". . . somar tisi as cojur . . . antas . . ."
"Voice!" Tom cried. "Alive! It is! Miras said . . ."
But Cota answered only the voice, up against the lens, whisper to whisper.
"Avi Cota," he said. "Your own Tom."
Your own! Tom heard the words and ached at them. This was his own ship. He had sailed her into danger, fought on her, for her, learned his land, the measure of his life. Only now were they meeting. Only now.
"Tom," Ship said, his name, the voice in the glass climbing on that inner wind, a small and far-away voice. Precious word.
"Ship, Captain," Cota said. "Or Eye. Ship would be best."
There was no holding back. Tom's hands, his cheek, his ear, were hard against the curving still-warm lens.
"What's happened, Ship? What have they done?"
But it was Cota's voice, and Cota's face, his eyes right there, his terrible hands, the hot spicy breath.
"Desperately injured, Captain. We can do nothing here."
If Cota's face had Tom's wild, desperate eyes, it would have been a nightmare face indeed, but those eyes were calming, full of compassion. The men had equal portions of despair; both ached with sorrow and the need to act, to do something.
"We run all night. We light the eyes to warm the failing core. We run into our great danger."
"There really is no time. Retract the stage. Nothing can be done until we warm the core. Tomorrow, Captain. Trust me for a tomorrow."
"Night-run!" Tom cried. "The satellites will read us!"
"And may not. Your choice."
Ships rarely ran in night, so much could go amiss. But Rynosseros
- Eye the only self a ship could truly be, had only hours now,
was dying, locked into death. All other risk was nothing.
Night-run meant Ab'O aboard, which Cota was, former ship-maken. But what if warships came, set up road-chains and intercept? Below the vast sky-wired box of night, Rynosseros averaged 60 k's, 70, dangerous 80 on the known flats where scan gave clear signal.
Watches were set, but Tom and Cota stood every one just the same - unable to rest, unwilling to leave the deck.
Rynosseros ran like a blazing arrow, a fiery stone, a meteor down Lateral 42, ran through midnight and the small hours, marked off the night, watch by watch, till dawn lightened the eastern sky and they shut down the lights to hide in whatever normality that gave.
Strengi brought breakfast cakes, fruit, spicy Laish coffee - served them all where they stood: Tom and Cota at the helm, Scarbo too now, Shannon at weapons, Rim down by the boss, spelled Hammon at com. Rotations started showers and clothing changes, Tom persuaded away because Cota and Scarbo stayed, and soon the thin grey-rose-pearl dawn had warmed to blue-red-golden day, the morning had them and Cota was at the poop's forward rail watching the belltrees they passed, one by one, marking out their kilometre lengths, stayed there through noon and early afternoon, finally spoke.
"Captain, be ready. Later, on my call, we will turn hard to starboard. When I say."
"You know Caerdria at all, Captain?"
"The salt lake?"
"Within the hour we will reach the hills before it. High ferrous content. My Caerdria. There will be an echo, a long one. The roadposts for the next 100 k's have been adapted, you hear me? They will keep the echo going, pass it on into oblivion."
"We will vanish."
"Like the pirates do?" Tom thought of cloaking tech such as the great highwaymen used, that fooled surveillance and sent the comsats crazy with back-ups.
"Better. When you've made ships, making the ghosts of ships is easy. But speed is needed now. Speed will do it for us." He laughed. "We will achieve escape velocity. Give us speed! All you can!"
Rynosseros ran for its tiny failing life, its crew like
tight fists, the robed maken keeping a count rhythm with his dark
Counting trees, Tom realised. Counting belltrees along the Road. But did not say it, dared say nothing that would distract this man.
Rynosseros had not made a storm like this in a hundred days, a thousand, had rarely brought such harsh weather to the hard red land. Now the roadsong was a bloody thunder, now at 120 k's, the kites keening on their dazzling lines, the hull boiling in its own red sea, the battered belltrees pulsing, pulsing, tossed aside in this fire-night along Lateral 42, found already chiming and rapturous in anticipation of what the thunder brought, then left screaming and jubilant in the tearing aftermath when Rynosseros had passed them by.
Behind her, all along Lateral 42, the trees, battered, beaten by stones and dust, would have settled down to a chiming of their dim-recall rods, excited and fulfilled, murmuring down the line: "Know you, Rynosseros. Know you. Pass it on. The Blue Captain. Pass it on."
But at the driving point of the thunder, at the drumming dagger ache of it, where Tom stood and the dead-fire Cota and the rest, there was anger and desperation and faces like fiery stones.
"The hills!" Cota cried, pointing ahead to where they stood, his Caerdria. "Down to 90!"
Several minutes more. His hands striking, counting, counting the trees, telling them as intimates and familiars, as pieces of his sharp deception.
"Down to 60!" Another hundred count. "We are in the corridor. Mark my call. Down to 40! Ready for the turn!" And then when the low red hills were real pieces of the land: "Ready for starboard, Captain!"
"Ready for starboard!" Tom cried, calling confirmation above the roar, sounding the bell to alert the crew, hold on. They were in the low tired hills and Rynosseros brought its mantle even there, threw angry red at the undulating skyline against the blue of the sky.
And Rynosseros swung its final leg, sent its storm plunging on ahead, making another, its form and echo picked up, replicated roadpost to roadpost down along the line, twenty k's, fifty, a hundred and more, echoing down laterals and backroads, branching out, the carefully modified trees passing it on, until finally some lonely tree somewhere far far away found the attenuated dream 'Ship' stirring in its dreams, ending there in its sensor array as a small vagrant piece of barely considered desire.
Rynosseros kept to the bad trail. No stonemen came here, Tom realised, none of those quiet eternal wanderers friends to ships whose job it was to keep the Roads clear of larger stones. Carefully not. This was deliberate torment, intentional strain on axles and suspension.
"This is my Caerdria," Cota said. "Go there!"
Tom steered where he pointed. Around them, the hills rose up in their gentle swells, with knobs of land-coral and old watercourses and then, suddenly, incredibly amid the broken terrain in the lee of these blighted hills, long brachiated lengths of metal and synthetic lying in the dry creek beds, along the slopes, sculpted beams like construction formwork waiting to be assembled.
No! Tom knew. Unmistakably, seeing the detail of those crenated, crenellated, curving lengths, the ceramic and polymer nodules, the tessellated, gently-articulated vertebrations. These were the spines of ancient ships, long, curving, each ending in the knob of a dead sensorium. Presumably dead. But what if not? A graveyard of ships. No. Worse. A graveyard of what ships secretly were, the secret life of ships, torn out, laid bare, the lengths totemic and strange under the burning sun in the bowl of Caerdria's hills.
There was an open area and to one side, where the trail went down, a building, a makeshift hangar formed by roofing over a defile. Cota pointed to it, said, "In there."
The kites were brought in; Tom took Rynosseros into the close warm shelter in the living stone. When the systems were shut down, Cota was joined on the quarterdeck by three Ab'O assistants - two men Tom's own age, introduced as Bikkan and Danal, and a woman, Tens.
"Captain, gentlemen, I have these three makens to staff this post but I need them here. You will have to tend scan and weaponry yourselves."
"Cota . . ."
"If ships come, if the corridor failed and they track us here, your Colour may not save you."
Scarbo took Tom's nod. "Show us where."
"Go to the hut. Bikkan will direct you. Captain . . ."
"Cota, what about Miras?"
"Ah." Cota's blasted face may have shown approval as he muttered words in dialect, sent Danal and Tens off about duties, sent Bikkan with Shannon, Rim, Hammon and Strengi to the com-station and the Caerdria weapons points. Then he faced Tom and Scarbo.
"Rynosseros is a watched ship in the towns, often on the Roads; then again, the Sand Quay is a bedlam of sounds, with endless comings and goings. Perhaps they were not watching."
"You're an underground here."
Cota laughed, watching Danal and Tens position elaborate tech-mounts at the bow, large screen-shaped constructions, saw them routing in power cells.
"Friends of ships," he said. "Nothing more. We can say what tribal makens can't. Do what they dare not. But all temporary."
"They have known about us for a long time. Possibly not names or locations as we've always feared, but that we exist. Only the corridor saves us here. More than what the pirates have. We scramble a ship's signal, send it hundreds of k's in one direction or another.
"Fool the trees!" Tom said.
"Use them, Captain. The higher strains choose willingly, help us out of their love of ships; others the lower cognition indexes have been given tech assists. There are stonemen now who 'service' the trees on our behalf, part of a great plan since it was discovered some tribal factions would secretly have the trees destroyed. But it cannot last. We dare not think it can."
Tom shook his head, perhaps thinking of stonemen tending the trees, of secret strategies, the schemes that always existed.
"I've killed ships," he said. "The ones I've brought to ruin."
"Probably not, Captain. Black Box is resilient, designed to withstand hull-death. Fire, explosion, laser, the very things which do kill hull and platform will rarely harm the Ship's Eye. They can be re-instated on new stems, in new hulls. A glorious thing to have a lineage of deaths. That is why we get Archymo-out-of-Jindivik-out-of-Thaian. First-ship, second-ship, third. There is a secret heraldry. Composite pedigrees."
"Rynosseros . . ."
"Is or was first-ship," Cota said deliberately, preparing Tom for a terrible truth. "A long-lived sensorium." He hesitated, seeing Tom's expression. "It's so rarely like this. There can be another life for her. A new identity installed."
"How have they done it? When lasers couldn't?"
"They have makens, these killers. Tech to reach the Eye."
"They are makens?"
"Possibly. Who are your enemies?"
"I have to think. I have to decide if it's just Rynosseros or part of a plan to get at the Seven, all the Coloured Captains."
No doubt he thought of what had recently befallen Michael Glaive in the Pentateuch.
"So go now, both of you. Let us work here. You will be called the moment something is known."
"Cota, I need to be here . . ."
"Captain, you especially should not remain. It's partly our ship-mysteries, partly that I need a clear mind, no distractions. No tension, you understand? You will be called. Go with Ben now."
Tom had lost enough and suffered enough in his short remembered life since leaving the Madhouse, but perhaps nothing had ever been harder than this, walking out of the hangar into the blazing desolation of Caerdria.
"You go on, Ben," he said. "I'll stay out here. Go and help the others."
And instead of using the shower, the camp-beds, the food and shade, Tom wandered the shallow swales, walked among the wasted spines, regarding the sensorium nodules in the heat of early afternoon, but always within sight of the hangar in case he was needed, in case Cota called or he realised the Eye asked for him.
It was so still, so quiet with the dreaming ship-cores nearby, lost and locked in their half, quarter, fractional lives. The spines shimmered in the heat, the metal ticked; occasionally a breeze came off the iron hills and whispered around the struts.
The sun slid down the sky, painted the ship-cores in variegated light. Still nothing from the hangar. Tom walked the avenues of totem forms, counting them, looked up into the empty sky, imagined, sensed, felt the stations holding there, riding with the world, considering, filled with their incontrovertible lightnings.
Nationals sailed dead ships. All part of the tribal efforts to undo their ancient AI strategies. Dead ships. It had all been about life, all of it. All his turmoil, all his most powerful motivations. It was the only measure he had. Put love with that, put honour and choosing, re-choosing yes, all of it. Knowing he was a ship-killer who did not kill ships made a difference. It did.
Tom gazed into the hot blue sky. There were fierce chill daggers there, delicate yet relentless. Riding with the world. He walked among the bones of ships and felt them. Considered them. Hated with a difference. Conscious hate, calm and considered.
He had forgotten to watch the hangar, did not see who it was left the concealed building, came to get him. Cota found him staring at the sky.
"We were too late, Tom."
"Your ship is dead."
"You didn't call me." But the words were said quietly.
"It spoke in dialect. It had devolved into template answers. Little cognition. The higher functions went first, long ago."
"There were words! I heard words!"
"Template answers, Tom. It was dying a long time. Miras suspected but couldn't be certain. The binary was the last of it. The final stages. Rudimentary."
"You didn't call." The words were so desolate that Cota made himself become hard.
"You listen! All is at risk. You listen! You make choices, then give in to your rage. We have two things the image at its murder, we have that. What it saw. We also have a message it made."
"A message! Then. . . "
"Not real-time. Made weeks ago when it was still able."
"Play it! Let me have it."
"When we're running again. That's how it must be done apparently, how it's accessed. But dead now, you understand? You do understand?"
Tom could not speak. He nodded, stood with breath short, throat tight, fists at his sides.
"Choices, you said." Tight, razor-thin words.
"Aye. Further down 42, the Road goes into the lake for 10 k. You know it?"
Tom nodded. "Yes."
"There is a fleet forming there. It'll be to search. We are adding things to Rynosseros. We're putting in what tech we can. Is that all right?"
Another choice. Again Tom nodded. "These cores too?"
"These ships? Put them into Rynosseros. Can you? Take them too."
"We can. I would have asked I'd hoped. We may have time. But stay here now. Bikkan, Danal, Tens all of us have much to do. Please keep your grief away for now. It's hard for us too. Every time a ship dies it's hard for us."
And he hurried back to the hangar. But twenty minutes later, Bikkan and Tens came with Strengi and Hammon to the spines, carrying tools and ladders, began extracting the Eidect sensoria, killing the spines at last but saving the ships.
Tom managed to wait forty minutes, watching and helping, then returned to the hangar, found Cota and Danal on the tech-staging at the bow, adding tech to the hull itself.
"Trust me, can you?"
Cota resumed working, spotting in the last of the autotropic seals. "When they come, they must find this place abandoned. When they destroy Caerdria, they must feel they have it all. They must not learn the trees were involved, you understand?"
"I understand, yes."
"The Road will be watched. If they know the trees were used, it will be the greatest tragedy. Worse than ship murder."
"Yes. Choices, you said."
"We should go to the lake."
"Convince me, Cota."
"You sometimes wear an antique pistol."
"Barratin's gun, yes."
"You do not often use it."
"I've only used it once. I sometimes practise with it."
"But you can use it. This too." Cota gestured at the dull black modules being bonded into the hull. "Something you may never use. Part of something."
"Only if you decide to use it. No-one will know otherwise."
"Cota, I'm outside most of this . . . "
"I know. And I'm breaking oaths to man and ship." He continued working, calmly, intently, as if no fleet were gathering out on the lake, as if no comsats moved their weapon points into alignment.
Tom considered these things, thought of Rynosseros gone, dead, as he gazed out the hangar doorway at a long jointed length of spine baking in the afternoon sun.
"Choices, you said."
"Your Colour may not save you this time. It's Djuringa business. Ship-treason."
"I don't care."
Cota never stopped working, spotting in the dead black tech, Danal silently assisting. "That fleet. Whose, I wonder. Kurdaitcha would kill ships."
"I fear they would, yes. So would the Order."
There. Named. Tom had said it.
Cota kept working, sealed another unit in place, as dead-black as himself. "The Haldanian Order? Who can say? Factions such as worked Krombi."
"You know about Krombi?"
"Some of us found out. It shaped our policy."
Tom considered that, using Cota's present crisis, their shared crisis, to snatch perspective. Either way, the Caerdria base was lost and Rynosseros had probably been the key, the reason. Tom rested a hand on the maken's shoulder.
"It is hard, isn't it? To lose this?"
Cota grunted. "I can build another. I resisted the day so many times. I'm glad to act. It is you who must make the hardest decision."
"I've already chosen."
"Yes," Cota said. "I know. Is it against the Colour?"
"It will be the Colour. I define the Colour."
"You do. Good. But you still have your hardest choice."
Cota may have smiled. "Ask me on the other side of the lake. Beyond that fleet. Now, you want those cores, help us get them on board."
They barely had time. The trees before the Caerdria hills, before
the salt lake, all down Lateral 42, relayed word that ships were
coming along that Road, hostiles, sent the news ahead, making
Rim run the last fifty metres from the com station to bring it.
"Six bogies! Inside the hour. Wide signal."
"They want us to read them," Cota said. "Want us to flee ahead. They do not know the trees have given us the fleet. So, Tom?"
"To the lake. The recording first."
"I told you. It is accessed. . . "
"Not the message for me. What Eye saw. The recording. . . "
"On the way. Please. Get your crew."
"Cota, there will be satellites the moment we're out of here. You can't risk the corridor! We may never get there. Let me have it now!"
Cota went to argue, changed his mind. "Very well. Rim, get the crew. Tom, come to the helm."
It was playback in the dish, a dim indistinct image that at first
seemed monochrome, then as something moved a large door sliding
back stood revealed in colour as a hangar interior.
"Cyrimiri," Cota said. "The lottery stores. You're getting Rynosseros POV before allocation."
"Who are they?"
Four figures, distorted black shapes, stood talking together on the vast hangar floor before Rynosseros' bow, before the Eye.
"I'd say the Order. From the Madhouse. Listen to this part."
". . . consider it further. You're sure about this?" a male voice said. "Giving this one?"
"It's smart," said another, also male. "We'll get what May's people don't. Localities and some conversations. Let the events play out. However it's called."
A third man spoke. "A conflict of interests, surely?"
"Only when perceived as that." The second voice again. "The loyalties aren't defined that well. This subject?"
"Tyson." One of the others.
"Tyson can order the ship not to reveal data, but he will not know to do such a thing, that this is a cognate. So few do. Records have been adjusted. We'll have him yet."
We'll have him yet. The words were chilling to hear.
The figures said other, unrelated things, finally moved out of shot. Cota switched off the recording.
"A matter of time, you see. After this with Glaive, after Krombi and Balin and your visits to Totem Rule and Mercy Simotee, they realised you'd allow for hidden truths more and more, start focusing on what you remembered rather than avoiding such things. They knew outlaw makens existed, knew I was out here somewhere. What had been a way for the Order to keep track of you independent of Kurdaitcha and State interests could expose that interest and your value to them. They would not kill ships lightly, Captain. This was a desperate, cruel measure."
"So, your question. This fleet? From the Order? Kurdaitcha?"
"Why not the Order's operatives within the Kurdaitcha creating a police action? There have to be ongoing strategies against the Coloured Captains. This suited perfectly. And it can go further. Kill your Ship's Eye and they might invalidate your ship, your claim on Rynosseros. Or at least drive you to the tribal yards. Strand you. Make you forfeit. Take you back inside."
"You believe that?"
"All possible. They are losing you, having alerted you. A dangerous time."
"I still need you to convince me."
"Captain, of what?"
"Cota, I've trusted Miras. I've trusted you. I've been out there among the cores. I've been told there's a fleet forming, ships coming in, without seeing any of it myself. You have the tech and the skill to make ghosts; you can fool scan. I believe what you have said but simply can't afford to. You know what happened at Krombi. You know what happened to Glaive. As a captain with a crew and a crisis, I have to be convinced that you are what I've been told. That you aren't one of the four men in that recording, that you didn't kill my ship, that you aren't part of the Order's latest trap. Can you do that?"
Incredibly, it was Scarbo who answered.
"Tom, we don't have time and we don't have a monitor to do verifications. You trust me?"
"You believe I'm me? Found you among the specia by Lone Star Stone? Stood with you at Chano, searching for Namarkon? Can give details of what we did at Fosti?"
"Ben!" Tom hesitated, not out of doubt, more from amazement that it was Scarbo speaking.
"Of course. Of course I do."
"Believe me then. It's as Cota says."
"How. . ?"
"Captain," Cota said. "Take your friend aside, ask whatever questions you need. I accept whatever he tells you, but do it quickly."
"Cota!" Scarbo said.
"Whatever he tells you, Captain. But hurry!"
"It can wait," Tom said. "Let's get away from here."
Twenty minutes later, Rynosseros left the protection of
Caerdria under a canopy of battle kites and death-lamps, moved
back along the broken trail towards Lateral 42.
Cota stood with Tom at the helm, while Scarbo tended the boss and the others, Bikkan, Danal and Tens included, hurried about the commons preparing weapons and maken-tech.
"Your kitemaster persuaded you," the maken said.
"It ceased to matter. I have to place my trust somewhere."
"Hm. You were right. We may not survive it."
"Perhaps. If they can't have us."
"What are you saying?"
"Barratin's gun, Captain. You've used it once, practised with it. How do you know it will still work when you need it?"
"I don't. I assume it. I -"
"Exactly. You trust. Now I ask. Will you trust a weapon that works but has never been used."
"I've guessed who you are."
Cota hesitated only a moment. "Is that a yes?"
"It's a yes."
"We all may die."
"I know. But they know Rynosseros is here, so we're committed. Some of these may have even killed Rynosseros."
"Tom, I suspect you would take on this fleet. I fear you have an even greater, hotter vendetta in your heart. For me it is different."
Lateral 42 lay ahead, a ribbon upon the land, picked out with its narrow border of roadposts.
"Before the Eidects we carry, before even our lives, what you and I want, anything for us, there are the trees. Their part in this."
"I know. We must keep them hidden."
"Can you bend to it? Even if it means your ship, your friends? Can you let me have this?"
"You've asked them?"
"Each one earlier, yes. They choose to stay."
"We're moving now. You want me to play the message?" In case we do not make it, he did not need to add.
"I think I already know what it will say. It's already installed, isn't it? The new self?"
Cota's eyes flashed, blazed, new fire in old.
"You do know. It is. Yes."
"Rynosseros lives again."
"Not yet, Captain. That's by your hand, not mine."
Tom pointed to the short-term link glowing on the helm. "This?"
Cota reached over, keyed an enabling sequence, indicated the now-flashing contact.
"When you're ready."
Tom gripped the back of Cota's ruined hand with his own, brought it down on the worn plate.
"Something for us at least," he said.
The fires in Cota's eyes blazed into tears he did not try to wipe away.
It was the Road then and Rynosseros running at 100 k's
towards the lake ahead. Behind, scan showed, the pursuit ships
increased speed, thundering at 120 k's, driving on through the
golden afternoon to close the gap. Above, far above, the comsats
held and waited, tracking ships, watching the resolve. On and
on Rynosseros ran, the smaller fleet behind and closing,
the larger ahead. The roadposts flashed by now in their quarter-k
lengths, the large white deck of the lake became visible, loomed
larger, stretched out to infinity, catching heat, bending light.
Scarbo came to the quarterdeck, saying nothing, nodded and smiled when Tom surrendered the helm to him.
"Take us in."
Ben hesitated only a moment. "Aye."
And Cota smiled and went to the port deck-scan, beckoned Tom after him to its starboard counterpart.
Through scan it was all laid out. Lateral 42 ran down long red shores out upon the expanse of Caerdria, at first like a causeway, then finally between flanking roadposts still at the quarter-k mark, trees that stood twenty feet high and had their first ten feet unadorned because the lake did flood from time to time. Only the poles defined the Road, and three kilometres from shore - an exuberance on the part of the ancient Roadmakens stood a forest of eighty-seven trees arranged in the concentric composites of a bora-ring. Sometimes the salt lakes had them, ritual prayer machines and sites of ancient initiation. It was Caerdria's principal feature. Rynosseros ran towards that forest of poles, steady at a 100 k's, and scan showed beyond it the fleet, as many as seventeen tribal charvolants, kites deployed, death-lamps flashing along the line, deck-lenses glinting in the harsh actinic light, originally awaiting the signal to move in and locate the Caerdria haven, now told to wait because Rynosseros was being driven their way.
"Trust me now?" the old maken said.
Cota returned to the helm, fitted maken tech across his eyes, scan-option opticals, began counting trees. Seeing that, Bikkan came with a large canvas ordnance kit, skilfully unpacked and assembled a Bok laser which he set in the lens brace at the poop's forward rail.
Tom tensed seeing it, knowing it meant violation of Code and a sky-strike for certain.
"When we use that we are done," he said, not able to help himself, but Cota did not break count to answer.
The land flashed by, with the pulse of belltrees at the quarter-mark, the vast lake stretching out to the horizon, folding mirages at its heart, a mighty dreamscape beyond the fiercely shimmering tribal ships.
Tom studied the bora configuration, the four large concentric rings of poles split by the axial Road, read the waiting ships as best he could. No red wheel, no Kurdaitcha sign, no signature kites at all, just battle canopies and the angry glittering fists of death-lamps.
Rynosseros barely differed, but had its emblem kites aloft, the Bladed Sun of Nation, the blue rhino-head on ochre bellying out to the fore as it ran down the red shore onto the lake, kept to the phantom Road between the poles, plunged on toward the fleet beyond the sacred rings.
Danal joined Bikkan at the laser mount; Tens was at the side-console routed in to helm, touching contacts.
"Counting now!" Cota called to them, then to Tom: "Tell me we're committed, Captain."
Tom left scan only for a moment. "Do it!"
Rynosseros ran the axis towards the rings, the fleet, to where the Road across Caerdria resumed as a mirage dance of roadposts beyond hulls and cables and the angry flash of lamps.
It was Shannon's voice next, calling up from com. "Bogies astern!"
Tom glanced back, saw the pursuit ships on the lip of the lake, running after them, canopies like brilliant stars.
"Yes! Good! Adjust for that!" Cota called, and Tens did so, working quickly. "You once faced a god-gun, Captain Tom. This is another. Ready to fire!"
"You'll hit the bora-trees!" Tom cried.
Cota's dead-fire face split in a grin. "No AI's there, Tom Rynosseros!"
It happened in seconds, the merest fractions of time.
The Bok laser fired into the fleet.
The sky rained fire. A dozen needles of incandescent light struck at Rynosseros - where Rynosseros had been! metres behind, struck again where the pursuit ships were, dropped them - one, three, six into screaming, flaming hulks, tumbled them down the blood-red shores. Struck again, misdirected ahead this time, the energies bent by the bora-ring into a vortex of deflected ruin, struck, struck, pole-axed the fleet, ship by bludgeoned ship.
Rynosseros plunged through the mindless, navitropic rings, the poles singing, screaming, delirious, lying to the comsats, adding to the deception here, no, here! plunged through the burning fleet, endured the lens-flash and hot-pots the few survivors threw at them, out onto Caerdria the lake, ran between the cognate conspirator posts again here! here! so that lightnings fell, but always behind or ahead.
The rings had done it. Sacred rings. Dreamtime business. The sats did not know what it was their data-systems showed. All they had was that the Caerdria-composite had destroyed twenty-three charvolants, that Rynosseros ran upon Caerdria, now here, now here, but never where their lightnings fell. The bora-rings acting for Blue was all they got. Dreamtime to Dreamtime. Penalty for ship-murder. Sanction and judgement. Djuringa.
The message? The words of Eye? Of course Tom played them, heard them once, twice, alone, with not even Cota by him. I could give you the few hundred words, make Rynosseros real by them, but that can wait. For now it is enough that Cota was taken into hiding, to another place in the bittersweet redemption of his own past, another attempt. For now enough that you see how it came to be that there was a ship that ran the corridors of AI, that ran before lightnings and was known as Disinherited and Deceiver and to some Ishmael, to others Leopard, but that had its own true name, though maimed and murdered and resurrected to its own true destiny, the ship of the Blue Captain, after all, the Madman Aspirant, the great corsair, yes, the pirate, Tom Rynosseros.
Originally appeared pp. 55-75, Eidolon 8, April 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Rynosseros Enterprises.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.