Authors: Mike Resnick
Copyright ©1991 Mike Resnick
by Mike Resnick
Volume 1 of the Oracle Trilogy
To Carol, as always,
And to Susan Allison and Ginjer Buchanan,
fine editors and fine ladies
It was a time of giants.
There was no room for them to breathe and flex their muscles in mankind's sprawling Democracy, so they gravitated to the distant, barren worlds of the Inner Frontier, drawn ever closer to the bright galactic Core like moths to a flame.
Oh, they fit into human frames, most of them, but they were giants nonetheless. No one knew what had brought them forth in such quantity at this particular moment in human history. Perhaps there was a need for them in a galaxy filled to overflowing with little people possessed of even smaller dreams. Possibly it was the savage splendor of Inner Frontier itself, for it was certainly not a place for ordinary men and women. Or maybe it was simply time for a race that had been notably short of giants in recent eons to begin producing them once again.
But whatever the reason, they swarmed out beyond the furthest reaches of the explored galaxy, spreading the seed of Man to hundreds of new worlds, and in the process creating a cycle of legends that would never die as long as men could tell tales of heroic deeds.
There was Faraway Jones, who set foot on more than 500 new worlds, never quite certain what he was looking for, always sure that he hadn't yet found it.
There was the Whistler, who bore no other name than that, and who had killed more than one hundred men and aliens.
There was Friday Nellie, who turned her whorehouse into a hospital during the war against the Setts, and finally saw it declared a shrine by the very men who once tried to close it down.
There was Jamal, who left no fingerprints or footprints, but had plundered palaces that to this day do not know they were plundered.
There was Bet-a-World Murphy, who at various times owned nine different gold-mining worlds, and lost every one of them at the gaming tables.
There was Backbreaker Ben Ami, who wrestled aliens for money and killed men for pleasure. There was the Marquis of Queensbury, who fought by no rules at all, and the White Knight, albino killer of fifty men, and Sally the Blade, and the Forever Kid, who reached the age of nineteen and just stopped growing for the next two centuries, and Catastrophe Baker, who made whole planets shake beneath his feet, and the exotic Pearl of Maracaibo, and the Jade Queen, whose sins were condemned by every race in the galaxy, and Father Christmas, and the One-Armed Bandit with his deadly prosthetic arm, and the Earth Mother, and Lizard Malloy, and the deceptively mild-mannered Cemetery Smith.
Yet there was one giant who was destined to tower over all of the others, to juggle the lives of men and worlds as if they were so many toys, to rewrite the history of the Inner Frontier, and the Outer Frontier, and the Spiral Arm, and even the all-powerful Democracy itself. At various times in her short, turbulent life she was known as the Soothsayer, and the Oracle, and the Prophet. By the time she had passed from the galactic scene, only a handful of survivors knew her true name, or her planet of origin, or even her early history, for such is the way with giants and legends.
But she had an origin, and a history, and a name, and even a childhood of sorts.
This is her story.
Blantyre III was a world of tall towers and stately minarets, of twisting streets and pitch-dark alleyways, of large chimneys and narrow stairways.
In other words, it was a world made to order for the Mouse.
She stood on the makeshift stage at the back of Merlin's wagon now, not quite five feet tall, barely eighty pounds, wearing a sequined tie and tails over her tights, smiling confidently at the assembled crowd as Merlin produced bouquets and rabbits out of thin air. Each of these he handed to her, and each she placed in a special container, since flowers and rabbits were difficult to come by out on the Inner Frontier, and they planned to make use of them a number of times before moving on to the next world.
Then came the cigarette trick. Merlin lit a cigarette, snuffed it out, magically produced four more lit cigarettes, threw them away, pulled yet another out of his ear, and so on, simple sleight of hand, but immensely pleasing to the spectators who had never seen any kind of magic show before.
Then there was the patter, which Merlin kept up incessantly. He told jokes, insulted braggarts, called forth the dark gods to aid him, even read an occasional mind.
And finally, forty minutes into the act, came the
piece de resistance
Merlin had the Mouse climb into a large box, which he then bound with chains and secured with oversized padlocks. The box, he explained carefully, had a twenty-minute supply of oxygen in it, not a second more.
The Mouse was already out of the box and hiding in the back of Merlin's wagon when he had two bystanders help him attach it to a pulley, raise it over a large tank of water, and submerge it, promising his audience that the Mouse had only nineteen minutes left in which to escape or die.
He then pulled out some of his more dazzling tricks, those with fires and explosions, which held the crowd captivated while the Mouse slipped into a black bodysuit, wriggled out the hole in the bottom of the wagon, and slunk off into the shadows.
A moment later she was clambering lithely up the side of an ancient building, hiding in the shadow of a turret until Merlin performed his next trick, and then she was inside a window and scampering lightly down a corridor. There was artwork to be had in this house, lots of it, but she decided it would be too hard to smuggle off the planet. Instead she kept racing from room to room until she finally found a woman's dressing room, quickly scavenged through the drawers until she came to a jewelry chest, and plundered it, placing the contents in a leather pouch tied around her waist.
She checked her watch again. Eleven minutes. Time for at least one more house, possibly two.
She raced back to the window through which she had entered, clambered out and up to the top of a minaret, dove through space to the adjacent building, landed catlike on a ledge, and forced open the window of a darkened room.
She realized immediately that she was not alone, that someone or something was sleeping in a corner. She froze, half-expecting an attack, but then she heard a snore and she was across the room and into a corridor within five seconds.
She could tell by the numerals on the doors that she was in a rooming house rather than a private residence. It could be better; it could be worse. She could plunder four or five different rooms without having to leave the building, but residents of boarding houses rarely had anything worth stealing.
She checked the nearest room. It was empty, not only of people but of anything remotely valuable.
The second room was a little better. A man and a woman were asleep in a large bed, and the air smelled of alcohol and drugs. The Mouse found their clothing in a crumpled pile on the floor and extracted three one-hundred credit notes from the man's wallet. A further search failed to turn up the woman's purse or money, and the Mouse decided that she didn't have enough time to keep looking for them.
She re-entered the corridor with eight minutes remaining on her watch, but just as she did so an elderly woman turned on the light and wandered out to use the only bathroom on the floor. She shot into the stairwell, heard voices coming up from the floor below and realized that at least one of the rooms had a door open, and crouched in the shadows, waiting for the stiff-limbed old woman to make her way down the corridor to the bathroom. It took the old woman almost two minutes, and the Mouse decided that it was time to start heading back. She found an unlit fire exit in the rear of the building, climbed down to the ground, kept to the shadows until she was opposite Merlin's wagon, waited for him to captivate the crowd with one final trick that shot fireworks in every direction, then slithered under the wagon and entered it from beneath.
She placed her pouch carefully inside a production box, so that even if a policeman opened the top of the box he'd have a difficult time finding anything that was hidden in it. Then, with two minutes to go, she donned a black hood and insinuated herself onto the stage.
Merlin was toying with the spectators, half-convincing them that the Mouse was mere seconds from drowning or suffocating if she couldn't escape, and finally he led them in a countdown. When they reached the instant when her oxygen was theoretically used up, Merlin and his black-hooded assistant pulled the box out of the water and hacked away its chains—and revealed not a dead Mouse, but an Antarrean bird of many colors, which spread its wings, hopped out of the box, walked over to the Mouse, and pulled her hood off—its one and only trick.
The crowd applauded wildly, Merlin passed his hat for donations, and finally the audience dispersed, leaving them there in the middle of the now-empty street.
"Well?” asked the magician. “How did you do?"
"Some credits, some jewelry,” replied the Mouse. “Nothing special."
"That's the problem with this world,” said Merlin. “There is nothing special to it.” He stared contemptuously at the houses. “All these stately facades, and each
with its own facade of costume jewelry. Six nights without a major score. I'm for calling it quits."
The Mouse shrugged. “Suits me. Where to next?"
"Westerly is the next human world."
"Westerly is an alien world,” she corrected him.
"It's got about 20,000 humans living in a kind of Free Zone right in the heart of their biggest city,” said Merlin. “We can refuel there."
"We can refuel right here."
"We're going to,” explained Merlin patiently. “But Westerly should make a nice one-day stop along the route. Who knows? Maybe we can pick up some fresh fruit.
something we can't get on this particular dirtball."
She shrugged again. “All right. Westerly it is.” Merlin began driving the show wagon back to the spaceport. “What do the natives call it?” continued the Mouse.
"Call what?” he asked distractedly.
"Well, the human natives call it Westerly."
"Thanks a heap."
"You couldn't pronounce what the aliens call it. It's listed on the star maps as Romanus Omega II.” He paused. “It's an oxygen world, of course."
"Any idea what the natives are like?"
"I imagine they breathe oxygen,” he said. “What difference does it make? We're only going to perform for a human audience."
don't crawl down chimneys or through sewers,” she replied. “If I'm going to run into an alien in tight quarters, I want to know what my options are."
"Same as always: run like hell."
They rode in silence until they reached the spaceport, then loaded the wagon into Merlin's brightly-decorated ship. Once they had taken off and laid in a course to Westerly, the Mouse relaxed with a beer while Merlin began running the gemstones she had stolen through the computer's spectrographic sensors. When he finished he cross-checked them against his current jeweler's reference guides, and finally placed tentative values upon them.
"Could have been worse,” he said at last. “I do wish you'd get over your compulsive urge to always grab the biggest stones, though. So many of them really aren't worth the trouble."
"What about the diamond bracelet and the sapphire necklace?” she asked without looking up.