Authors: Alan Dean Foster
“We who pave the way thank you,” the man added as he strode past. In so doing, he bumped into the nervous doctor. “Sorry.”
And then they were gone. Speaking into her command bracelet, Marinsky immediately sealed every entrance to the house. A quick check revealed that the privacy sphere had evaporated along with those who had put it in place. By staying composed, she had disposed of the intruders without harm to her home, to herself, or to them. Feeling relieved and not a little pleased with herself, she was preparing to use her communicator to call urb security when a demanding itch caused her to look down at her left forearm. Where the man had bumped into her, a small red blotch had appeared on the bare skin. It was spreading rapidly. Alarmed, she activated the com unit. When she tried to speak into it she discovered that her vocal cords would not work. The paralysis proliferated with astonishing speed.
When urb security finally arrived she was lying on the floor of her undisturbed living room, the com unit clutched tightly in frozen fingers, eyes open, her mouth parted in preparation of speaking words that had not, and now never would, emerge.
As they sped away from the exclusive development in their rented vehicle, the nondescript visitors discussed the implications of their visit.
“One more killing.” As she spoke, the woman’s thoughts turned from the physician they had just left to their quarry.
“It does not matter.” Her companion was programming the small skimmer to take them to the modest downtown hotel that they had made their center of operations since arriving on Goldin IV. “The Death comes to us all sooner or later.”
“May it be sooner.” The woman responded automatically in the litany of the Order. “Do you think he is still somewhere in the city?”
“We can only hope.” Switching to automatic, the skimmer joined a line of vehicles heading for the city. “If so, we must find him before the local authorities do. We have few associates here.”
“The physician knew nothing of his true nature.” Sitting back in her seat, the woman pondered the scenery whizzing past outside, scenery that, like everything else, would be obliterated by the same clean slate that would come to dominate all of existence. Though she knew she was personally unlikely to witness that coming, she could anticipate and envision it in her imagination. That was the wonderful thing about nothingness, she knew. It was clean. Pure. So unlike the teeming, festering cosmos of today. It was coming. It was inevitable.
Only one individual might possibly, by means and methods not understood, somehow slow that process. He might do so only because he possessed knowledge of what was coming. Infinitesimal as the possibility of the Forthcoming being diverted or halted might be, it still existed. By dealing with him the Order would ensure that even that minuscule possibility was erased.
It was little enough to do. If others died in the course of seeking him, it meant nothing. If she and her companion died, it meant nothing.
They would find the only one who, besides the members of the Order, knew the full truth of what was coming, and they would kill him. If possible, she wanted to speak to him first, to find out everything that he knew and if he had passed the knowledge along to many others. Because in that event, they would also have to die.
How ironic that if not for him and his knowing, the Order whose members now vigorously sought his demise would not even exist.
When Flinx stepped out of the hoverer and into open air he was between two and three thousand meters above the ground. At a command, the feather-light aerocomposite wings of the repeller attached to his chest and legs unfolded. He dropped a few hundred meters before the repeller’s breatherip intake snagged sufficient air and arrested his plunge. Wraparound goggles snug against his face, hands inserted into the repeller’s control mittens, he leveled off and headed for the leading edge of the nearest cloud. It was a big, puffy white cumulus. Ingesting its moisture would top off the repeller’s supply of hydrogen. Repeatedly doing so would allow a competent flier to remain aloft for as long as he wished, provided the weather cooperated and he did not get too tired.
He soon left his fellow recreational soarers behind. They had gone east to swoop along the flanks of the mountains where rising air currents would allow them to conserve energy. Flinx preferred solitude. Effortlessly, the repeller carried him westward, high above the gently undulating forest far below. He was looking for company but not of the human kind.
He found it ten minutes later in the form of a flock of kyl-le-kee. Their almost-transparent twenty-meter wings were tinted greenish gold, the better to allow them to blend in with the surface below and make them difficult targets for downward-plunging predators. Their torsos and abdomens were long and slim, flattened and leathery underneath to permit the occasional rare landing since they had no legs. The kyl-le-kee spent their whole lives riding the air currents of Goldin IV—eating, mating, living, and dying in the clear blue sky, only rarely making contact with the ground. They even procreated aloft, giving birth to live young. Born with inflated airsacs attached to their backs, the juvenile kyl-le-kee floated free until their newly uncurled wings strengthened enough for them to fly on their own. Only then would a cautious parent bite into the supportive airsac, whose deflated membrane soon withered away.
Large, protuberant yellow eyes regarded the solo soarer speculatively. The kyl-le-kee were harmless vegetarians, feeding on the plethora of Goldin IV’s fascinating bladder-supported plant forms that constituted a kind of oversized airborne phytoplankton. Moderately curious, exceedingly graceful, they rolled and rose, dipped and hovered, while the peculiar entity with the prone human on its back banked and looped among them. When they grew bored, they gathered into a line and resumed their course westward. Their thin but powerful wings accelerated them to a speed Flinx’s repeller could not hope to match.
It had been a wonderful encounter. Banking left, he headed for another cloud mass in search of new companions. When he grew tired, or when the sun began to set, he would circle back along his route and make for the landing strip carved from the woods just outside Memeluc town.
Five thousand k’s from Reides City, he felt safe from the curious eyes of hospital staff and questing authorities. Having read and heard much about Goldin IV’s specialized and beautiful aerial life-forms, he had determined to see at least some of them up close before leaving the prosperous colony world. By the time any search for him reached distant Memeluc, he should long since be leaving the sun of this agreeable system behind.
The cloud cluster he was approaching was smaller than the one where he had topped off the repeller’s fuel. A few small, dark, winged shapes flitted below him in its shadows. Erenweth’s besketh, perhaps, or maybe the notoriously elusive hakuh-heth. Having seen a vit of a hakuh-heth, he looked forward to the rare opportunity to observe one in person. He put the repeller into a sharp dive, hoping to confront the famously shy flier before it could spot him and flee.
Abruptly, two of the circling shapes whirled upward to meet him. They were not hakuh-heth, he saw quickly, but rather humans lying atop and driving repellers like his own. Fliers from another hoverer, he decided, since none of those he had dropped with had traveled in this direction.
Fortunately, and probably thanks to the steepness of his dive, the first shot missed him. Banking sharply to his left, he headed for the cover of the nearest cloud.
Both pursuers followed. A second shot grazed the left wing of his repeller as he entered the concealing whiteness. Secured around his right forearm, an alarmed Pip stuck her head out and began searching anxiously for the source of her master’s sudden distress.
In response to her movement, he drew his arm closer against his body. One of many signals he had developed in working with her over the years, the increased pressure indicated that he wanted the minidrag to stay where she was. Although infinitely more agile than any repeller, she would quickly tire of trying to chase them down. He could not hope to use her against his unknown assailants unless they came very close. And he intended to keep as much distance between him and them as possible.
In the more turbulent depths of the cloud, the lightweight repeller bucked and weaved. Unless they had come equipped with more sophisticated instrumentation than his brief glimpse of them had shown, his pursuers should be flying blind. He was not.
Reaching out with his increasingly maturing ability, he sensed them still following. The excitement of the hunt and the eagerness with which they sought to eradicate their quarry appeared to him as an emotional beacon. In the last few years he had learned how to use his ability to detect and interpret such beacons and also to manipulate them. Knowing, feeling that they planned to kill him the instant the opportunity presented itself allowed him to respond to the threat without hesitation.
Extending himself, he reached out toward them, projecting the fear of death into their minds, striving to overwhelm all other emotions. Having been forced to do it before, he knew the effect such a projection could have. Against his arm, Pip abruptly went motionless, acting like a lens for her master’s singular talent.
When he burst out of the opposite side of the cloud, both pursuers were still behind him.
Pushing forward on the controls, he sent the repeller plummeting surfaceward. Landing would not save him. Before he could free himself from the repeller’s harness, his pursuers would be on top of him. It wasn’t so much that something had gone wrong with his effort as that something was not right about those he sought to influence. He knew now when his talent was working and when it wasn’t. He’d pushed confidently against those chasing him, striving hard to upset their emotional balance. It had not worked.
While fighting to take evasive action with the repeller, he struggled once more to read the feelings of his pursuers. What he found both surprised and unsettled him. He knew now why his effort had failed: The people chasing him had absolutely no fear of death. None. Insofar as he could read them, they were totally indifferent to the prospect as a true artist was to boorish criticism.
How could he emotionally affect people who were not afraid of dying?
As another disrupter bolt passed much too close to his head, this became more than an academic question. He couldn’t keep this up forever. Sooner or later, a good shot or a lucky one would damage either the repeller or him. Either way, he was too high to risk an uncontrolled fall. And he
have strong feelings about dying.
Mightn’t he try infusing them with strong feelings about something else? Concentrating harder than ever, he pushed outward with the first thing that seemed to offer some hope.
He didn’t know if either of them gasped. Probably they did not scream. But a glance backward showed both pursuing repellers rocketing groundward as fast as their pilots could stand. By the time they finally touched down, safely and to all appearances intact, he was well on his way to the landing site at Memeluc town. They did not try to resume the pursuit. Getting a repeller off the ground was difficult even for professional pilots, which was why casual fliers and tourists were dropped from hoverers. He didn’t think they would try—at least, not until the emotions he had planted in their minds had worn off.
Unafraid of death a person might be, but they could still be made to feel an overpowering fear of heights.
As her master relaxed, so did Pip, tucking her head back beneath his rented flying suit. Gradually descending toward Memeluc, Flinx strove to analyze the lingering sensations he had gleaned from his would-be assassins. If only he could read thoughts instead of just emotions. They hadn’t been Qwarm. Having caught several glimpses of their attire, he was certain of that. The members of the assassin’s guild were quietly proud of their affiliation and lost no opportunity to display it at every opportunity. They would especially want to do so to a prospective target, so that the intended victim would know exactly who was about to do him in.
Constables, whether uniformed or plainclothes, would have announced themselves before shooting. Staff from the hospital would have been told to bring him in alive. While certain elements of the Commonwealth government were more than casually interested in him, subsequent to his most recent hasty departure from Earth, they, too, would want to question him, not bury him. Legally, he was guilty of nothing worse than avoidance. And the one individual who might want him dead and was also strong enough to seriously threaten him was, to the best of his knowledge and perceptive talents, not on this world and knew nothing of his present whereabouts.
Who then? As the rolling forested hills began to give way to the modest conurbation of Memeluc he found he was very tired, and not just from the effort he had expended aloft to avoid being killed. Local authorities, occasionally the Qwarm, and the Commonwealth government all had their reasons for wanting to exert one kind of control or another over him. And now this new element, these new people, whose origins and motives were a complete mystery to him. He sighed heavily. His was not a peaceful life. With every world he stopped at, with every passing year, the tranquillity he sought seemed to fade further into the future. Throw in the occasional encounter with the AAnn, and the only time he ever enjoyed any real peace was when he was traveling alone through space-plus aboard his ship.
Why did these new would-be assassins want him dead? No effort had been made to communicate with him. They had taken shots without first trying to talk. It was not a case of mistaken identity. That much he had been able to divine from their emotions without having to know their exact thoughts. They had not been mentally unsettled, homicidal thrill seekers out to shoot down the first unsuspecting flier who happened to come their way. They had been waiting for
Even the Qwarm feared death. What philosophical or ethical underpinnings had his pursuers possessed that enabled them to be so indifferent to the possibility of death? Flinx had never encountered anyone sane who had so lacked the basic instinct to survive. And his would-be killers had been sane. That, too, he had perceived.