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Authors: Alan Dean Foster

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The drawback was that it became harder to remain inconspicuous. It made him feel less of a boy and more of a man, though when a boy became a man, wasn’t he supposed to be certain about things? Flinx found he was more confused now than he had been at sixteen, and not only about women.

If anyone had a right to feel confused, it was Philip Lynx, né Flinx. His was not a normal mind in a normal body. Better to be confused all the time than frightened. He managed to keep the fear in the background, out of the way, locked in the dark cul-de-sacs of his mind. It did not occur to him that it was his fear and confusion that prevented him from making further contact with members of the opposite sex. He knew only that he was wary.

If only Bran Tse-Mallory or Truzenzuzex were around to advise him. He missed them deeply, wondered where they were and what they might be up to, what mysteries they might be probing with their singularly penetrating minds. For all he knew, he realized with a cold chill, they might be dead.

No, impossible. Those two were immortal. Monuments both of them, spirit and intelligence molded in material everlasting, both parts combining to form a much greater whole. They had their own lives to live, he told himself for the thousandth time, their own destinies to fulfill. They could not be expected to spare the time to tutor one odd young man, no matter how interesting he might be.

Having always managed on his own as a boy, he could certainly do so as an adult. He would damn well have to find out things for himself instead of expecting another to do it for him. Why shouldn’t he manage? He could do certain things that so far as he knew no one else could do.

They designed me well, he thought bitterly. My prenatal physicians. The rogue men and women who had employed his DNA for their plaything. What had they really hoped to achieve with him and his fellow fetal experimentees? Would they be proud of him today or disappointed, as they had apparently been in all the others? Or would they simply be curious, utterly distant and uninvolved? It could be no more than a matter for speculation, since all of them were dead or mindwiped.

Well, their subject was preparing to build a life of his own, independent and unobserved. Already he had crisscrossed a fair portion of the Commonwealth trying to locate his natural parents, only to discover that his mother was dead and his father’s identity a mystery lost in the mists and rumors that were his heritage.

That desire to know had driven him for several years. Now he was beyond that. If he was ever to learn the truth of his genealogy, he would have to pry it out of some computer storage chip hidden somewhere beneath human ken. Time to put history behind him and look to his future, which would probably prove as complicated as his past.

Still, he considered himself fortunate. While his unpredictable talents had often placed him in trouble, they had also helped to extricate him from it. He’d had the chance to meet some unique individuals: Bran Tse-Mallory and Truzenzuzex, Lauren Walder, and others not nearly so pleasant. And then there were the Ujurrians. He found himself wondering how their tunnel digging was progressing. The AAnn, too, of course, scheming and plotting against humanxkind, always searching for a weakness, probing for an opening, watching and waiting to expand whenever the Commonwealth seemed weak or indecisive.

His thoughts were rambling, but he could not help himself. The crawler largely drove itself, and now that he had done what he had come to do, he was relaxed and at ease. He could easily see himself becoming a reclusive mystic, the old hermit of the trade vectors, cruising back and forth through the Commonwealth and even skirting its outermost boundaries in the wonderful ship the Ujurrians had fashioned for him. The
Teacher.
That was what they called him. A paradox, since the more he learned, the more ignorant he felt.

Truzenzuzex would have called that a sign of increasing maturity. He was a student, not a teacher, intensely interested in everything around him: people and places, civilizations and individuals. He had been exposed to bits and pieces of great mysteries. Abalamahalamatandra, who had been not a survivor of some ancient race but instead a biomechanical key for triggering a terrible device. The Krang, the ultimate weapon of the long-vanished Tar-Aiym, whose strange mechomental perturbations still echoed through his brain after all these years. So many things seen, so many places yet to go. So much to try to comprehend.

Intelligence was a terrible burden.

He halted abruptly, the crawler coming to a stop as he released the accelerator. Pip’s head rose sharply from the seat where she lay curled about herself, and Scrap’s miniature wings fluttered nervously as Flinx clasped both hands to his head. The headaches were growing worse. He had always had them, but this past year they had become a constant companion, averaging several or more a month.

One more reason for abjuring permanent relationships. It was entirely possible, he had considered in the darker moments, that he was one more eventual dead-end experiment, and he had no desire to drag anyone else down with him. He had simply managed to last a little longer than the rest of their spectacular failures. What was truly frightening was that in the medical texts the difference between headache and stroke was little more than a matter of degree.

The painful lights began to fade from the inside of his retinas. He took a long, shuddering breath, then sat up straight. Something was happening to him. Something was changing inside his head, and he had no more control over it than a spaceport control tower had over a runaway shuttle. More changes. Piss on his progenitors, the sons of bitches who had arrogated unto themselves the right to toy with the unborn.

There was nothing to be done about it. He could hardly walk into a major medical facility and calmly request a full-scale examination on the strength of being the bastard product of an illegal and universally abhorred society of renegade eugenicists. On the other hand, he told himself, feeling better as the pain in his head went away, it might simply, be that he was prone to headaches. He managed a grin. It would be amusing if all his fears and worries were groundless, and the only thing he was suffering from was the normal trauma of moving from adolescence into adulthood. It would also be wonderful.

It would also be unlikely.

The headaches were usually accompanied by a severe emotional twitch from another person, but there was no one else in the vicinity. Maybe a real headache, then. He would not mind the pain if that was the case. Sometimes even pain could be reassuring.

The fact that he could still suffer wrenching emotional dislocation here in the middle of the jungle was further proof of the erratic nature of his abilities, not that he needed additional confirmation. The fact that he had come to grips with his peculiarities intellectually did nothing to assuage their effects on him. They were a constant reminder of his abnormality, of the fact that whatever else he did, he would never be able to lead anything resembling a normal life.

If only he could learn to channel, to control his talents, to turn them on and off like water from a faucet. “If only,” he mumbled angrily to himself, “I were normal. But I’m neither normal nor in control of what I am.”

A light weight landed on his right shoulder. A glance revealed the scaly yet somehow understanding face of Scrap. He smiled.

“What am I going to do with you? You aren’t going to find any bonders out there, anyone to share with. You’ll be living in an emotional void, existing on overflow from Pip and me, all receive and no amplify.”

What did minidrags do in the wild? he wondered. Could they feed empathically off each other? Certainly they could not act as a telepathic lens the way Pip did for him. He wondered sometimes what the flying snakes derived from their select relationships with certain humans besides physical companionship.

Just what I need, he thought, though not unkindly. Another oddball in the fold. Yet what better company for a self-declared outcast than another self-anointed outcast like himself? He was feeling much better.

What he would do was take his marvelous ship and explore the Commonwealth for as long as time and health allowed. Legends would grow up around him, the wanderer with the flying snake who touched briefly at this world and then that, only to move on quietly, leaving behind neither name nor place of origin nor knowledge of purpose. The Hermit of the Commonwealth. That had a solid ring to it. Stoic and aesthetic. There was only one problem with the noble life he had set out for himself.

It was a terrible way to meet girls.

Whoever messed with my brain, he thought glumly, and stirred up my genetic code the way a bartender would stir ice with a swizzle stick, left my hormones untouched. Determination of purpose and a burgeoning sex drive, he decided, did not go well together. It was a problem that had been, at the core of many of man’s troubles since the beginning of time.

With time and patience and study maybe he could one day locate a sympathetic surgeon skilled enough to rid him of his headaches, if not his inheritance. Maybe he could find a way to exert some control over his life. He had seen and done enough of the extraordinary. All he wanted for himself from now on was peace and quiet and a chance to learn.

Even as he was concluding the thought, he felt the familiar, damnable prickling in his mind. No headache this time, merely a mental tickle. But in its own way, because he could not shut it out, it was equally unsettling. It was a sensation easy to identify because he had encountered it too many times previously. Somewhere, someone was in trouble.

Pip and Scrap felt it also, Scrap darting in front of his face to batter at the plexalloy like a berserk bumblebee. The minidrag blocked his view.

“Beat it, get out of the way!” He swept the flying snake aside with the back of a hand, not pausing to think that were it so inclined, the yearling minidrag could have killed him in an instant.

Leaning forward, he tried to see between the trees. Cooled air circulating between the double layer of plexalloy kept condensation from forming on the inside. Nothing ahead but green jungle, and moments later, not even that.

There was the beach fronting the river. A hundred meters of clean, packed gray sand. In the rainy season it disappeared. Now it lay as exposed as the finest bathing beach on New Riviera.

No one on Alaspin would think of relaxing on such a beach, however. There were thousands of similar retreats lining the banks of dozens of major rivers, and a hundred could be bought for a pittance—the bloodsuckers and the insects would drain a body like a sponge set out for their amusement if anyone tried to sunbathe on any jungle beach without complete body protection.

The beach was spotless; empty. There was no cover except what a man could bring with him. The crawler chewed up sand as Flinx retraced the tracks he had laid down earlier. His thoughts had eased considerably, and he was already planning the hop from Mimmisompo back to Alaspinport, where his shuttle waited to carry him back to the
Teacher,
high in synchronous orbit.

Pip’s wings ruffled his hair from behind. The flying snake was up and anxious.

“Now what?”

Then he was wrenching viciously on the crawler’s control bar, the front treads spitting sand to the left as he turned it sharply.

 

Chapter Three

 

 

 

The figure lying in front of the crawler was as motionless as the huge pieces of driftwood the river cast up during the rainy season. Scrap continued to bump anxiously against the front window as Flinx set the engine to idle. Pip rose from her seat to settle on his shoulder.

He cracked the dome, letting the hot, humid air swirl around him for a moment before climbing down to the beach. A narrow track such as a turtle might make returning to the sea had been gouged in the sand. It led from the river’s edge to the prone figure’s feet, showing the route the refugee had taken from water to dry land. His eyes flicked over the slow-moving stream. There was no sign of a boat, nor did he expect to see one.

Reaching the body, he rolled it over on to its back and unexpectedly found himself recalling the line
“Diese ist kein Mann”
from the ancient Wagnerian tridee. She was no Brunhilde, however, and he was certainly no Siegfried. Beneath the dirt, scratches, bruises, and millimite bug bites lay the battered shell of a very attractive woman.

She was still alive. If she had not been, his mind would not have reacted as it had. Her demise might have saved him a headache, but for the moment at least he did not mind having endured the brief pain. Her pulse was weak but not dangerously so—clearly she was in the last stages of exhaustion. The trail leading back to the river indicated she had made it this far on hands and belly. She only looked dead.

What he could not fathom were the shorts and short-sleeved shirt. Nice attire for a sealed hotel, but potentially fatal anywhere else on Alaspin. Her arms and legs were striped with millimite bug trails, and deep red splotches showed where drill beetles had been mining. They were bad enough, but he could understand them. The bruises were more cryptic. They did not look like the kind a drifting log would make, and there were no rapids anywhere along this stretch of river.

Her blond hair was cut short on top, sides, and front save for a single tail that trailed six centimeters from behind her right ear and ended in a soggy knot. A star had been shaved above each ear. He did not recognize the style, but then, style was not something he usually concerned himself with.

He felt her clothing. Thin, lightweight. Cool and utterly useless against Alaspin’s rapacious insect life. You wore either jungle drill or two sets of something else. How the hell had she ended up here like this?

A dumb tourist determined to see the backcountry on her own, most likely. Tried to walk or float out when her vehicle broke down instead of staying with it and waiting for help. An infrequent bit of stupidity, but not unheard of. Birding or snake watching or taking tridee chips.

Then he reminded himself she might have come upriver in an enclosed boat. If it had sunk she would have had no choice but to swim or walk. That scenario made some sense. The water would also mute any emergency beacon signal. Maybe she was more unlucky than dumb.

He had no trouble picking her up and carrying her back to the crawler. Getting her inside was another matter. She was not that heavy, but he had to rig a lift with some rope and haul her up hand over hand. If not for the added muscle he had put on this past year, he could not have done it. Pip kept clear, watching, while Scrap darted anxiously around the limp body, no doubt curious as to why a living human being should be devoid of emotion.

The four passenger seats could be folded flat, making beds for two riders. He put her in the back of the crawler, then punched up the location of the first-aid kit.

As would be expected for a rental vehicle, the instructions on the self-injecting ampoules in the kit were simple and self-explanatory. Some looked pretty old, but none had reached their official expiration dates. The bites were easy enough to treat. Salve for the millimite scars, iofluorodene to kill the eggs the drill bugs had laid in her muscles. He also pumped her full of general antiseptic and fungicide. None of the ampoules lit up during injection, so she was not allergic to the stuff he was dumping into her system. He applied intravenous antibiotic and a spray over the bruises and cuts, then sat back and surveyed his handiwork. The crawler’s air-conditioning had replaced the hot air with a fresh soothing coolness.

The bruises on her face and body troubled him, but there was nothing he could do for her appearance. The crawler’s medkit was designed to keep people alive, not repair them cosmetically. Well, it would not bother her as long as she was unconscious. The best thing would be to get her to the hospital at Alaspinport.

She had a slight fever and was badly dehydrated despite the fact that she had obviously spent some time in the river. Either she had been afraid to drink the perfectly potable water or she had been unable to. He had no idea when she had last eaten, but her stomach and intestines felt anything but full.

After waiting an hour for the medication to settle in and take hold, he gave her two ampoules of multipurpose nutrients and vitamins in a sodium solution. The injected broth would give her strength and allow her system to begin some serious repair work.

An hour later his efforts were rewarded. She turned her head to her right and moved one arm several centimeters. Her neuromuscular system was functioning, then. The portable emergency scanner had not revealed any internal injuries, the light staying in the healthy pink range as he had run the pickup over her body. It had beeped a couple of times when he had passed it over the severest bruises. If it had gone over into the red or purple, that would have been an indication of broken bones or worse.

Giving her a last glance, he returned to the driver’s seat. Back in Mimmisompo someone would be worrying about her, be it relative, traveling companion, or research society. He would find out and turn her over to them.

She really was quite pretty, he thought as he put the crawler in drive. The longer he studied her injuries, the more convinced he became that they were not the result of an accident. Her attire was proof enough that she was no backcountry veteran. He could see her offering a ride to some traveler in distress, only to end up mugged, beaten, and left for dead in the middle of the river. An unpleasant picture with the smell of truth about it. If she had met with foul play of some kind, it would explain everything.

Except why even a thief would want to beat her half to death. A pro would have simply knocked her out, tossed her overboard, and taken her goods, leaving it to the river and the jungle to clean up after him. Not that he was any judge of criminal ethics. His own criminal ethics, when he had been engaged in petty thievery as a youngster, had been radically different from most. He studied her in the rearview. Her bruises were not distributed at random. They suggested professional work of an unsavory nature.

He grunted. What did he know about it? It could have been anything from a simple slip on a railing to a lovers’ quarrel. He was hypothesizing on air.

The crawler slid into the river, the buoyancy compensators humming to life as the treads expanded to function as paddles. He had opted for the durability and longevity of the crawler, but as he studied his damaged passenger, he found himself wishing he had rented a skimmer despite the delay it would have entailed.

It took three days of traveling with the current before the river bent to reveal the floating docks of Mimmisompo. Not once had his passenger opened her eyes, though she had moaned in her sleep. It did not make him uncomfortable to listen to her disjointed mumbling, because he was concentrating on her emotional subconscious. As expected, it was an incoherent jumble, alternating between pleasure and pain depending largely on how recently he had dosed her. The ampoules were keeping her alive, though, and her body was slowing repairing itself.

When he docked in Mimmisompo, he turned in the crawler and called for a robocab. It delivered them to the modest hotel where he had stayed on arrival two weeks ago. The manager coded his room without questions. He was glued to the tridee and did not even look up when Flinx returned with the limp woman in his arms. In Mimmisompo plenty of people came and went from their rooms in that state.

The lift carried them to the third and top floor of the hotel. Flinx passed the charged bar across the center of the door, then waited while it read the code and clicked open. Pip and Scrap entered first, Flinx following. He kicked the door shut behind him.

Marveling at her litheness, he placed her gently on one of the two beds. After checking her vital signs, he treated himself to his first shower in days. When he reentered the bedroom, it was to find her sleeping as soundly as she had in the crawler.

This morning he had used the last of the crawler’s emergency supplies. Tomorrow he would find her friends or, failing that, a physician. She lay still on the bed, barely illuminated by the moonlight pouring through the single large window on her left. Above her headboard the electronic bug repeller glowed emerald, ready to dissuade any intruder that managed to make it past the hotel’s exterior defenses.

Flinx checked his own before tossing his towel aside and sliding gratefully beneath clean, cool sheets. The room was Spartan but spacious, dry, and insect-free. Outside the capital city of Alaspinport you could not expect more than that.

She was breathing easily, and he rolled over to stare at her. Pip assumed her familiar position at his feet while Scrap settled close by.

If others were searching frantically for her, they would have to wait until he had had a decent night’s sleep, he reflected. He had earned it. Another day would make no difference to her or her colleagues, assuming she had any in Mimmisompo. He did not worry about other unlikely possibilities. Not with Pip resting alertly at his feet.

At least, he thought lazily as he drifted off to sleep, this was one time he had managed to do a good deed without involving himself deeply in someone else’s problems.

Morning proved it was not going to be that easy. Somehow it never was. She was still resting peacefully when he awoke, rose soundlessly, and prepared to go out.

As he dressed, he could not help glancing in her direction. She was lying on her side, and the sheets had draped themselves provocatively over her body. In the light she was not merely attractive, she was beautiful.

He kept telling himself as he studied the rise and fall of her chest that he was only checking the regularity of her breathing. It was impossible for him to lie to himself, however. Pip’s reactions always truthfully mirrored what he was feeling.

He left hurriedly, sealing his jumpsuit on the way out. She was not hurting, he was sure of that. Not with all the antibios, specifics, and endorphine analogs he had pumped into her. If anything, she ought to be floating half a meter above the bed. A last pass with the scanner was accomplished without a beep. She was healing rapidly, as much a credit to her own constitution as to his amateur treatment of her injuries.

Tough little lady, he mused. All the more reason to try to find out how she had come to be beaten up and dumped in the middle of the Ingre.

This was only his second visit to Mimmisompo, and he did not know the town that well, but he had learned long ago that information was often available in such places in inverse proportion to the actual population. Furthermore, it was not necessary to scour the entire community to find the answers he needed. There were always logical places to make inquiries. The official information booths were at the bottom of any such list.

Because of her wholly inadequate attire, Flinx went on the assumption that she was a recent arrival to the Ingre region. No half-experienced prospector or scientist would have been caught dead in the kind of clothing she had been wearing when he had found her, not even if traveling in a vehicle as secure as the crawler. You never knew when you might have to go outside. At the minimum she should have been wearing boots, a long-sleeved shirt, long-legged pants, repellers, and cooling threads.

Her assailants had known their business. You could not walk out of the Ingre. By the time a body could be located, the local fauna would have made identification difficult, determination of cause of death impossible.

What kept nagging at him was the apparent professionalism with which the beating had been administered. Her bruises had been evenly dispersed across her body, suggesting that whoever had handed them out had taken care to prolong her consciousness for as long as possible. It smacked of sadism, questioning, or both. He worried about it all the way to Quayside.

The entertainment center was not crowded. It was too early. There were drivers and cargo lifters, alluvial miners, and one independent rarewood logger whom Flinx recognized by the specialized trimming equipment dangling from his belt. Half a dozen men, nearly as many women.

There were also two thranx, looking a lot more at ease than their human compatriots. Each was chatting with a human instead of with each other. It was rumored that the thranx preferred the company of human beings to their own kind. Flinx knew that was talked up by thranx psychologists. Even now, hundreds of years after the Amalgamation, there were still humans whose insectophobia required attention and treatment.

He did not look at them twice. Man and thranx had been so close for so long that they were no longer thought of as aliens. More like short people in shiny suits.

The people in the entertainment center showed little interest in the games and other diversions Quayside offered. Two men were idly toying with a quick-draw shooting game near the back. No one else paid any attention to the horrific and extraordinarily lifelike monsters that leapt from behind rocks or jumped from vines or erupted from the ground to attack the two competitors. The illusions had to be shot in the right spot the correct number of times for a score to register. Their simulated death throes were exuberantly noisy and dramatic. It was the nature of the game.

The fact that each holoed creature actually existed, either on Alaspin or on another world, added to the game’s attraction, though Flinx was not sure a teacher would have thought of it as educational. He never indulged in the electronic entertainments. Once he had played one out of deference to a companion. It had left him cold. Though he was astonishingly proficient, there was no challenge to it. He credited his skill to good reflexes and never thought there was any more to it than that.

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