Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 26
Stories
Arkmind
by Niall Francis McMahon
Story with Pictures and Conversation
by Brontops Baruq   FREE
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
Excerpt from Ruins
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

An excerpt from
Ruins
the second volume of the Pathfinder series
    by Orson Scott Card

to be published by Simon Pulse October 30, 2012

Shadows in Flight

1

Water

Rigg saw the stream before any of the others.

Loaf was an experienced soldier; Olivenko not so experienced, but not untrained, either; and Umbo had grown up in the village of Fall Ford, which was almost like living in the woods.

But only Rigg had tramped the high forests above the Upsheer Cliffs, trapping animals for their fur while the man he called Father taught him more than Rigg ever thought he would need to know. Rigg practically smelled water like an animal. Even before they crested the low grassy rise he knew that there would be a stream in the next crease between hills. He even knew it would be only a rill, with no trees; the ground here was too stony.

Rigg broke into a jog.

"Stop," said the Expendable they were calling Vadesh.

Rigg slowed. "Why? That's water, and I'm thirsty."

"We're thirsty," said Umbo.

"You cannot drink there," said the Expendable.

"Cannot? There's some kind of danger?" asked Rigg.

"Or a law," suggested Olivenko.

"You said you were leading us to water," said Loaf, "and there it is."

"That's not the water I'm taking you to," said Vadesh.

Only now did Rigg realize what he wasn't seeing. It was his inborn gift that all the paths of the past were visible to him. Humans and animals all left traces behind them, paths in time. If they ever traveled through a particular place, Rigg could tell where they had gone. It was not something he saw with his eyes -- his eyes could be closed or covered, or there could be walls or solid rock between him and a path, and he would still know where it was, and could figure out what kind of creature made it, and how long ago.

There had been no human traffic at this stream in ten thousand years. More tellingly, few animals had come there, and no large ones.

"It's poisonous," said Rigg.

"Is that a guess?" asked his sister, Param, "or do you know somehow?"

"Even animals don't come here to drink," said Rigg. "And no human for a long time."

"How long?" asked Vadesh.

"Don't you know?" asked Rigg.

"I'm curious about what you know," said Vadesh. "I have not known a human who can do what you can do."

"Nearly as long as since the beginning of human settlement on this world." Rigg had a very clear idea of what paths that old were like, since he had just crossed through the Wall between his home wallfold and this one, by clinging to an animal that, in the original stream of time, had died in the holocaust of humans' first coming to the planet Garden.

"That is off by only a little less than a thousand years," said Vadesh.

"I said 'nearly,'" answered Rigg.

"A thousand years this way or that," said Param. "Close enough."

Rigg still didn't know Param well enough to tell if her sarcasm was friendly teasing or open scorn. "What kind of poison?" he asked Vadesh.

"A parasite," said Vadesh. "It can live out its entire lifecycle in the stream feeding off the bodies of its siblings, ancestors, and descendants, until one of them eats it. But if a larger animal comes to drink, it attaches to the face and immediately sends tendrils into the brain."

"It eats brains?" asked Umbo, intrigued.

"No," said Vadesh. "It infiltrates them. It echoes the neural network. It takes over and controls the host's behavior."

"Why in the world would our ancestors bring along such a creature when they came from Earth?" asked Umbo.

"They didn't," said Olivenko.

"How do you know that?" asked Loaf. His tone showed he was still skeptical of Olivenko, who was only a member of the City Guard in Aressa Sessamo, rather than a real soldier.

"Because if they had, it would exist in every wallfold," said Olivenko, "and it doesn't exist in ours."

Olivenko thinks the way Father taught me, thought Rigg. Don't assume: Think it through.

Vadesh was nodding. "A very tough little creature, the facemask."

"Facemask?"

"What the humans of this wallfold named it. For reasons that would have become tragically obvious if you had bent over to drink from the stream."

Something didn't ring true about this. "How can a creature that evolved on Garden successfully take over the brains of creatures from Earth?" asked Rigg.

"I didn't say it was successful," said Vadesh. "And you are now as close as is safe. To avoid picking up facemasks from the wet ground beside the stream -- they can attach to any skin and migrate up your body -- you should follow in my footsteps exactly."

They followed him in single file through the grass, with Rigg bringing up the rear. The path Vadesh took them on was the highest ground. Each time they reached a damp patch they jumped over it. The rill was narrow here. No one had trouble overleaping it.

Only when they got to higher ground several rods beyond the rill was Rigg able to continue the conversation. "If the parasite wasn't successful, why is it still alive here?"

"The parasite is successful in attaching to humans and earthborn beasts of all kinds," said Vadesh. "But that's not really how we measure success in a parasite. If the parasite kills its host too quickly, for instance, before the parasite can spread to new hosts, then it has failed. The goal of a parasite is like that of any other life form -- to survive and reproduce."

"So these facemasks kill too quickly?" asked Umbo, shuddering.

"Not at all," said Vadesh. "I said 'for instance.'" He smiled at Rigg, because they both knew he was echoing Rigg's earlier testy reply when Vadesh told him his time estimate was off by a millennium.

"So in what way did this parasite fail?" asked Rigg -- the way he would have pushed Father, an attitude that came easily to him, since not just in face and voice but in evasiveness, smugness, and assumption of authority this Expendable was identical to the one that had taken Rigg as an infant from the royal house and raised him.

"I think that with native species," said Vadesh, "the parasite rode them lightly. Cooperating with them. Perhaps even helping them survive."

"But not with humans?"

"The only part of the earthborn brain it could control was the wild, competitive beast, bent on reproduction at any cost."

"That sounds like soldiers on leave," said Loaf.

"Or academics," said Olivenko.

Vadesh said nothing.

"It sounds like chaos," said Rigg. "You were there from the beginning, weren't you, Vadesh? How long did it take people to learn of the danger?"

"It took some time for the facemasks to emerge from their chrysalises after the disaster of the human landing," said Vadesh. "And still longer for the people of Vadeshfold to discover that facemasks could infest humans as well as cattle and sheep."

"The herders never got infected?" asked Loaf.

"It took time for a strain of facemasks to develop that could thrive on the human body. So at first it was like a pesky fungal infection."

"And then it wasn't," said Rigg. "Facemasks are that adaptable?"

"It's not blind adaptation," said Vadesh. "They're a clever, fascinating little creature, not exactly intelligent, but not completely stupid, either."

For the first time, it occurred to Rigg that Vadesh was not just fascinated by the facemasks, but enamored of them.

"They can only attach to their host in the water," said Vadesh, answering a question no one had asked. "And once they attach to an air-breather, they lose the ability to breathe in water. They only get their oxygen from the blood. You know what oxygen is?"

"The breathable part of air," said Umbo impatiently. Olivenko chuckled. Of course, thought Rigg -- Olivenko was a scholar, and Umbo had studied for a time with Rigg's father.

But Rigg noticed that Loaf and Param seemed to have no idea what Vadesh meant. How could air be divided in parts? Rigg remembered asking Father exactly that question. But there was no point in explaining the point now or soon or, probably, ever. Why would a soldier-turned-innkeeper and a royal heiress who had fled her throne ever require a knowledge of the elements, of the behavior of gases and fluids?

Then again, Rigg had thought, all through his years of education, tramping with Father through the woods, that he would never need anything Father taught him except how to trap, dress, and skin their prey. Only when Father's death sent Rigg out in the world did he learn why Father had trained him in languages, economics, finance, law, and so many other subjects, all of which had proven vital to his survival.

So Rigg started to explain that invisible air was really made of tiny particles of several different types. Loaf looked skeptical and Param bored, and Rigg decided that their education wasn't his job.

He fell silent and thought about parasites that could only attach to humans in water, and then they lost the ability to breathe on their own. Rigg filed the information away in his mind, the way Father had taught him to do with all seemingly useless information, so he could recall it whenever Father decided to test him.

I've been on my own for a year, thought Rigg, and still in my thoughts he's always there, my pretended father, my kidnapper for all I know. He's the puppeteer who, even dead, is pulling all the strings inside my mind.

Lost in such thoughts, Rigg did not notice the first building that came in sight. It was Loaf, ever alert as a soldier should be, who saw the glint of metal. "It's like the Tower of O," he said.

It was indeed, in that it was tall and of a similar substance. But it did not rise to a point and was not rounded like a cylinder. And there were several of them nearby, and none of them was half so tall as the Tower of O.

But they were impressive nonetheless, and tall enough that it took two more hours of walking after they first saw them for their little group to come close enough to see that these towers were made from the same substance, and formed the skyline of a city.

"How could they build with this . . . substance?" asked Loaf. "People have tried to cut into the Tower of O many times over the years, and neither tool nor fire can affect it."

"Who would try to damage it?" asked Umbo.

"Conquerors who want to show their power," said Olivenko. "Rigg's and Param's people arose only lately. The Tower has been there ten thousand years."

The talk of duration made Rigg realize something he should have noticed at once, as soon as they knew it was a city they were coming to. There were human paths again, as there had not been near the stream, but all of them were old. None more recent than ten thousand years.

"How long has this city been abandoned?" asked Rigg.

"It isn't abandoned," said Vadesh.

"There hasn't been a human being here for a long time," said Rigg.

"But I've been here," said Vadesh.

You're not a human being, Rigg wanted to say. You're a machine; you leave no path. A place that contains only you is uninhabited. But it seemed too rude to say aloud. Rigg saw the absurdity of his attitude: If he truly thought of Vadesh as only a machine, rudeness would not be an issue.

"Where did the people go?" asked Param.

"People come and go in the world, and where there once were cities there are only ruins, and where once there was nothing, cities rise," said Vadesh.

Rigg noticed how nonresponsive Vadesh's answer was, but did not challenge him. Rigg trusted Vadesh too little to want him to know he wasn't trusted.

"And there's water here?" asked Loaf. "Because my need for it is getting pretty urgent."

"I thought you field soldiers drank your own piss," said Olivenko.

"We do pee into canteens," said Loaf. "But only so we can bring it back for the officers of the City Guard to drink."

It could have been a quarrel, but to Rigg's relief, Olivenko just smiled and Umbo laughed and it went nowhere. Why did they still irritate each other so much, after all they had been through together? When would rivals become comrades?

So all the people of this city were gone. Rigg began to scan for the paths that would show a great migration out of the city, but before he could make much progress, Vadesh led them into a low building of ordinary stone, which showed its many centuries of weathering.

"Did someone live here?" asked Umbo.

"It's a factory," said Vadesh.

"Where did all the people sit to work?" asked Olivenko.

"A mechanical factory," said Vadesh. "And most of it is underground. I still use it, when I need any of the things the factory makes. But they needed safe water for the supervisors and mechanics, and for the people who hauled things in and hauled things out." He led them through a doorway into a dark chamber. As they passed through the door after him, a bright light came from above. The whole ceiling was aglow, very much like the lights inside the Tower of O.

The others gasped in awe, but Rigg was noticing that the paths of humans into this chamber were few and ancient. This building had only been used for a few decades at the most. It had been abandoned by the same generation of people who had built it.

Vadesh touched the front of a thick stone pillar and at once they heard the sound of running water inside the pillar. Then he touched another place, and a portion of the pillar came away in his hand. It was a stone vessel halfway between a drinking mug and a waterbucket in size. He handed it to Loaf. "Because your need was so urgent," said Vadesh.

"Is it safe?" asked Rigg.

"It's filtered through stone. No parasites of any kind can possibly get into this water."

Again, Rigg noticed that while Vadesh answered, he only answered about the likelihood of parasite infestation, not the actual question Rigg had asked.

Loaf handed the water to Param without tasting it. "You need this most," he said.

"Because I'm a frail princess?" Param asked with a hint of resentment.

Well, she was physically frail and she was a princess. Until their mother tried to kill her and Rigg, she was assumed to be heir to the Tent of Light. Years of living in the narrow bounds of captivity had made her physically weak, and the journey to the Wall had only improved her stamina by a little. But no one was rude enough to point this out to her.

"You need it most because you and Umbo lived on your water for an extra week that we didn't live through," said Loaf.

Param took the water and drank. "It's perfect," she said. "It tastes fresh, and nothing else. Except a tinge of something . . ."

"Trace metals," said Vadesh. "From the rock it filtered through."

Umbo drank next. He tried to pass it to Rigg, but Rigg would not take any until Loaf and Olivenko had also drunk.

"There's plenty," said Vadesh.

"Then finish it, Loaf," said Rigg. "I'll drink from the second serving."

"He thinks I spit in it," said Umbo.

"Didn't you?" said Loaf. "You usually do." Then Loaf drank it off. "Delicious," he said, as he handed the empty vessel to Vadesh for refilling.

Rigg did not know why he did not trust Vadesh. This Expendable had no mannerisms that were not identical to those of Rigg's Father. Perhaps that was the cause of his suspicions. But he was sure that Vadesh was deceptive and dangerous, not because he deflected questions and clearly had his own agenda -- those were Father's constant attributes as well -- but because of which questions he wouldn't answer.

Father would have told me why the people were gone from this place. It would have been the first thing he explained, because telling me why people do the things they do was always his favorite topic.

Vadesh isn't educating me, that's why he doesn't explain it.

But Rigg did not believe his own excuse. As Father had taught him, he did not believe the first explanation his mind leapt to. "It will often be right, and as you get more experience of life it will usually be right. But it will never be reliably right, and you must always think of other possible explanations or, if you can't, then at least keep your mind open so you will recognize a better explanation if one emerges."

So Rigg did not trust Vadesh. Moreover, he was sure that Vadesh knew that Rigg did not trust him -- because Father would have known.

When Rigg got his water from the second cupful, it was as delicious as the others said.

He poured the last water from his canteen onto the floor and then moved to put it into the space the stone vessel came from.

"No," said Vadesh. "One reason this water can be trusted is that it is never used to fill any container but this one. It won't work anyway. It only pours out water when this is in place." Vadesh reinserted the stone cup, and again the water could be heard gushing into the stone.

They all emptied their canteens of the stale traveling water they obtained when they last filled at a stream two days before, then refilled them from the stone vessel. With enemies pursuing them, they had not dared to stop even for water on that last day before they crossed the Wall.

"It's getting near dark outside," said Loaf. "Is there a safe place to sleep in this city?"

"Everywhere here is safe," said Vadesh.

Rigg nodded. "No large animals ever come here," he said.

"Then is there a comfortable place here?" asked Umbo. "I've slept on hard floors and on grass and pine needles, and unless there's a bed . . ."

"I don't need beds," said Vadesh, "and I didn't expect company."

"You mean they didn't make their beds out of stuff that never decays?" asked Olivenko.

"There is nothing that doesn't decay," said Vadesh. "Some things decay more slowly than others, that's all."

"And how slowly do you decay?" asked Rigg.

"Slower than beds," said Vadesh, "but faster than fieldsteel."

"And yet you seem as good as new," said Rigg. "That's a question."

Vadesh stood by the water pillar gazing at him for a long moment. Deciding, Rigg supposed, how to respond without telling him anything useful.

"My parts are all replaceable," he said. "And my knowledge is fully copied in the library in the Unchanging Star."

"Who makes your new parts?" asked Rigg.

"I do," said Vadesh.

"Here?" asked Rigg. "In this factory?"

"Some of the parts, yes," said Vadesh.

"And the other parts?"

"Somewhere else, obviously," said Vadesh. "Why do you ask? Do you think any of my parts are defective?"

Now, that was interesting, thought Rigg. I was going to ask him if he ever had enough parts to make a complete new copy of himself, but he assumed I was doubting that he was functioning perfectly.

This made Rigg assume that Vadesh himself had doubts about his functionality.

"How could I know if a machine so perfect that I could live with one for thirteen years without realizing it wasn't human is not up to par?" he asked.

"Exactly," said Vadesh, as if they had been arguing and Vadesh had just proved his point.

And maybe we were arguing, thought Rigg. And whatever Vadesh might have done since I met him, he certainly did not prove anything. All he did was make me wonder if he's broken somehow. Did he do that for a purpose? Is it an illusion, so I will underestimate his ability? Or is it a symptom of his imperfection, that he could raise doubts in my mind when his goal was to reassure me?

"Thanks for the water," said Rigg. "I think we'll go out of the city to sleep on softer ground. Unless there's a couple of you who want to sleep on stone."

There were no volunteers. Rigg led the way out of the building, following their own paths back out of the empty city. At first Vadesh seemed to assume he was welcome to come with them, but Rigg disabused him of that notion. "I don't believe you sleep," Rigg said to him. "And we won't need you to find us a resting place."

Vadesh took the hint and returned into the factory -- leaving no trace of himself for Rigg to follow. Just like Father, Vadesh was pathless; only living beings made paths through time. Machines might move about, but they left no track visible to Rigg's timesense.

It would have been so useful to trace Vadesh's movements through these buildings over the past ten thousand years, since all the people left. And perhaps even more interesting to trace his movements for the thousand years before that, when the people were still here. What was he doing when they left? Why did he still come here, if all the people were somewhere else?


2

Barbfeather

Rigg found that most of the paths of the ancient inhabitants of the city did not follow the road, and he stopped to see where they had led.

"We're supposed to sleep here?" asked Loaf.

Rigg looked around. The ground was stony and they were at the crest of a hill.

"This doesn't look comfortable at all," said Param. "Is this the kind of place you slept when you were living as a trapper?"

"I would never sleep on ground like this," said Rigg.

"Weren't you leading us to where we're going to spend the night?" asked Olivenko.

"I was getting us out of the city," said Rigg. "I didn't have any particular sleeping place in mind."

"Well, you seemed to know where you were going," said Umbo. "So we followed you."

"This isn't a good place to sleep," said Rigg. "Very stony, and no protection from wind."

"Well, we can see that," said Loaf.

"What were you doing, if you weren't finding us a hostelry?" asked Param.

"Sorry," said Rigg. "I got caught up in following paths," said Rigg.

"I thought you said there weren't any."

"None recent," said Rigg. "I was trying to make sense of the old ones."

"From ten thousand years ago," said Umbo.

Since Rigg didn't understand what it was that he hadn't understood about the paths, there was no way to explain. So he returned to the immediate subject. "There's a stand of trees over there," said Rigg. "That'll probably have soft ground. And we'll all sleep in the lee of Loaf, so we'll have shelter from the wind."

"Very funny," said Loaf.

Then Rigg came to a conclusion about what had puzzled him. "I think they may have died," said Rigg.

"The trees?" asked Param.

"The people here. If they moved away, peacefully I mean, then the most recent paths should have them leaving the city on the road. But the most recent people on the road only come in."

"Maybe they left another way," said Olivenko.

Death is another way, thought Rigg. But he kept it to himself. "I don't know if we can believe anything Vadesh says," said Rigg. "Umbo, I want to follow a path and go back and see."

"See what?" asked Loaf.

"If I knew," said Rigg, "I wouldn't have to go back."

"Let's see," said Umbo. "Going into the past has brought us exactly what, so far?"

"Saved our lives," said Loaf, and almost at the same time Param said, "You set me free and saved . . ."

Olivenko added, "It was ten thousand years ago that all the people left this city."

"Or died in it," said Rigg. "It could have been a plague."

"Cities rise and fall," said Olivenko. "That's what history is."

"Let's find a way to be comfortable here tonight," said Loaf. "I wish we were still mounted. We could just leave this place."

"Leave our only known source of safe water?" asked Param.

Then they were among the trees, and the conversation turned to other things. Rigg only happened to stop and look back at the moment that Umbo bent down, picked something up, and tucked it into his pocket. Rigg was too far away to casually say, "Find something?" or "Drop something?" It's not as if he even had a right to ask. Umbo didn't owe him explanations.

At the same time, there had been something furtive in the way Umbo pocketed it and then glanced around. Yet Umbo hadn't looked at Rigg or any of the others to see if they were observing him. On the contrary, he specifically glanced around as if looking for someone else. The person who might have dropped whatever Umbo picked up? Without even thinking about it, Rigg scanned for paths. No one had been here since the city was abandoned, and that long ago it was doubtful that there was a grove of trees here, anyway.

But animals came and went all the time here, Rigg could see. One in particular had been in and out of this grove several times in the past few hours. He recognized its path.

"We have a friend here," said Rigg.

The others looked around, startled.

"Our feathered friend," said Rigg. "The beast that led us into the past and through the wall."

"I thought he went crazy when we popped back into the present and the Wall came back," said Loaf.

"He's not in the wall anymore. He came here. He's been going up to the trees. Tree to tree."

"He didn't look like a climber to me," said Loaf.

"Or a bark-eater," said Umbo.

"We wouldn't know what he looked like," said Olivenko. "There aren't any like him in the modern world."

"He can't have gotten far," said Rigg. "He was here not half an hour ago."

"You know we only have that Vadesh's word that the water's not safe," said Olivenko.

"He can't lie," said Umbo.

"And who told us that he can't?" asked Olivenko. "'Hi, I can't possibly lie to you.' Isn't that the first thing a liar would say?"

"He's just like Father," said Rigg, "and Father never lied to me."

"He didn't exactly open up and bare his soul to you, either," said Loaf.

"He didn't tell you about me," said Param.

Rigg started to answer. "He did when he was . . ." But then he realized that Father hadn't been dying, he had just been hiding behind a fallen tree, pretending to be trapped under it. Lying to Rigg.

Rigg covered his eyes with one hand. "I still live in the world he built around me. All his teachings and talk, and I don't know what's true and what isn't."

"Welcome to adult life," said Loaf.

"I'm not an adult," said Rigg.

"Really?" said Umbo. "Well, I think when you're in charge of yourself, you're an adult."

"Oh, right," scoffed Loaf.

"Plenty of full-size grownups don't do half as well as me and Rigg, thanks," said Umbo.

Again Rigg wanted to know what Umbo had found. What he had in his pocket.

They heard a snorting noise from three rods away. Quietly they spread out to surround it. Rigg looked at Umbo and rolled his eyes. None of the others knew how to walk stealthily. Not that they had to. The beast was making so much noise it couldn't have heard them.

It was indeed the beast with the barbed feathers, and it was hitting the side of its head against a tree, then scraping the same area on the bark. As Rigg got closer, he could see that he had mud on that side of his head.

Not mud. The thing that looked like mud was actually another creature in its own right. Now that he knew what to look for, he could see its tiny faint path moving through the air right along with barbfeather's path the whole time it had been in the woods.

Loaf and Umbo, who had both dealt with animals, were much closer to it now; Olivenko and Param were hanging back. They were city people.

"Don't get too close," said Rigg.

"What's it got on its face?" asked Loaf.

"My guess is it drank from the stream," said Umbo.

"I think so too," said Rigg.

"You mean it picked up that parasite? That facemask thing?" asked Olivenko.

"Whatever it's got on its head, it's alive. A separate creature. With its own path."

"Every time the beast smacks it or scrapes at it," said Umbo, "it gets bigger. Spreads more, I mean. There's a strand of it going into the poor beast's ear."

"So all the barbfeather's efforts to get rid of it are actually helping it attach more firmly," said Rigg.

"What a clever evolutionary ploy," said Olivenko. "Facemasks that could make use of the beating and scraping would have a better chance of survival."

"Maybe all the fear and aversion allow the facemask to find the right parts of the brain to attach to in order to get control," suggested Rigg.

"You sound so excited," said Param. "Has anybody noticed what this means?"

"That Vadesh wasn't lying about the parasite, you mean?" asked Loaf. "That's obvious."

"I mean that we're totally dependent on Vadesh for our drinking water," said Param.

"You know," said Umbo, "I'm thinking we ought to be able to find a place to slink back through the Wall and just figure out how to stay alive in our own wallfold."

"Let's see," said Loaf. "A land with one dangerous parasite, or a place where thousands of soldiers will be looking for us and everybody else will be happy to turn us over to them in exchange for a reward." He made weighing motions with his hands.

"They're only looking for me and Param," said Rigg. "Why don't the rest of you go back?"

"And leave us here alone?" Param didn't even try to conceal the panic in her voice.

"They'd still catch us," said Loaf. "And then torture us till we told them where you were. And since they wouldn't believe the truth . . ."

"I was just saying that you don't have to stay here," said Rigg. "I didn't claim it would be perfectly safe."

"What do we do about this poor animal?" asked Param.

Rigg looked at her in surprise. "Do?"

"It's in so much distress," said Param.

"Of course it is," said Rigg. "It's got a parasite sticking to its head that's trying to invade its brain."

"Well, we brought it here," said Param.

"I suppose we did," said Rigg. "But it's from this world and, if Vadesh is telling the truth -- and about these facemask things he seems to be -- then the parasites are natives here, just like old barbfeather. So if we hadn't pulled him to now to run into this parasite, he might just as easily have had exactly the same thing happen to him back then."

"Except that the world was just about to end for him anyway," said Loaf. "Our ancestors were about to wipe him out along with all his cousins, right? We saved him."

"I can see now that he ought to be grateful," said Param.

"Look, if you gave him a choice between parasite on his face and dead, what do you think he'd choose?" asked Rigg.

"Look what he actually is choosing," said Umbo.

Param nodded but she didn't like it. "Life," she said.

"Animals that don't cling to it no matter what don't survive long enough to make babies," said Olivenko. "We don't want to die."

"Then how do you explain suicides?" asked Loaf.

"I don't," said Olivenko.

"Wasn't Father's death a kind of suicide?" asked Param.

It took Rigg a moment to realize that even though Param was his full sister, she wasn't talking about the man he had called Father -- the Golden Man, the Wandering Man, the machine called Ram, who had trained her and Umbo and Rigg in how to use their time-altering talents. She was talking about their real father, whom Rigg had never met: Father Knosso, who had passed unconscious through the Wall on a boat, and then was dragged from the boat and drowned by some kind of manlike sea creatures in another wallfold.

"It wasn't suicide," said Olivenko angrily. As a young scholar in the Great Library he had been Knosso's friend and assistant. "He didn't intend to die."

"No," said Param. "But he knew he might, and he threw his life at it as if nothing else mattered. Not me, certainly."

"He loved you," said Olivenko.

"But he loved his experiment more," said Param.

The barbfeather, Rigg noticed, had stopped beating and scraping its face against the tree. It was turning its gaze toward each one of them who spoke. And it didn't just turn the eye that wasn't covered by the facemask. It turned as if it had two good eyes. As if it could still see through the thing.

In the silence after Param's last few bitter words, the barbfeather trotted straight toward Rigg.

"Rigg!" shouted Umbo.

"It's coming at you!" warned Loaf.

Rigg reached out his hand and the barbfeather stopped and sniffed it. "He wasn't charging at me," said Rigg.

"Keep your hand away!" said Umbo. "Do you want the facemask to jump over to you?"

"Vadesh says they can only attach in water. And not after they've already attached to . . . something." Rigg had almost said "somebody."

"So we're believing everything he says now?" asked Umbo.

"He didn't lie about the facemasks," said Rigg. "He might be lying about some things, but he's not lying about that. And he didn't follow us here, either, or try to prevent us from leaving. Maybe all he really did was lead us to safe water."

"Staying suspicious is what keeps me alive," said Loaf. "That survival instinct, you know?"

"I'm for suspicion, too," said Rigg. "But at some point you have to place your bet and let it ride."

The barbfeather was still sniffing his hand.

"I think he smells himself on my hand," said Rigg. "That's the hand I held against his back as we went through the Wall."

"And there's no reason he should fear the smell of humans," said Olivenko.

The barbfeather abruptly turned its head, pressing the facemask against Rigg's fingers. Rigg recoiled at once.

"Look at your hand!" shouted Umbo. "Is anything sticking to it?"

"What do you think, that the facemask just made my hand pregnant?" asked Rigg.

"They might have more than one way of reproducing," said Umbo. "Vadesh said they were adaptable."

"Maybe it makes babies on the surface of its skin," said Param, "and rubs them off on you."

"Or on tree bark," said Olivenko.

Rigg considered this. "It felt dryish and a little rough. Like unglazed clay pots. And there is truly, absolutely nothing on my hand. Now let's get back to the spot we picked and prepare some food."

"What do we do about this . . . this . . . what did you call it, Rigg?" asked Param.

"Barbfeather. Just a descriptive name. And we're not going to do anything about it."

"What if it follows us to our camp?" she asked.

"If it lies down, don't snuggle up to it," said Rigg. "Those feathers really are barbed."

"That's it?"

"What do you want me to do, Param, kill it?"

"Isn't that what you and your father -- I mean Ram -- isn't that what you did with animals?"

"We killed the ones whose fur we could sell," said Rigg. "Do you want a coat made out of that?"

"Gloves," said Loaf. "I think Leaky could use gloves like that -- for punching some of our customers who drink too much and won't leave the roadhouse quietly."

They left the barbfeather and set about making camp. But soon it joined them again. Their provisions were meager, but they had been on the road for a while and they were used to them. Rigg offered some of his food to the beast. It sniffed and then wandered away. "Must not smell like anything edible to him," Rigg said.

"Doesn't taste like anything edible to me," said Olivenko.

"Wonder how that barbfeather would taste," said Loaf, "if we could talk him into climbing into a stewpot for us."

"I don't think our bodies could make much use of his meat," said Rigg, "even if we could keep it inside long enough to digest it."

"Pretty image while I'm eating," said Param.

"I had no idea you were so fussy," said Rigg, with a grin. Param rolled her eyes.

"Why couldn't we eat it?" asked Umbo.

"When they were testing me to see if I should get access to the library," said Rigg, "I met a scientist in Aressa Sessamo was separating out the plants and animals that came to this world with our ancestors -- which is most of them -- and the ones that evolved here, which is only a few. Every single one of them, Father and I had already identified as plants and animals that we can't eat. Even dead, only certain carrion eaters will go after them. It's as if we had two separate ecologies twined together. Father called them 'mildly toxic' and my guess is he knew."

"So maybe that parasite can't use our bodies either," said Olivenko.

"But Vadesh says it can," said Rigg.

"And yet you touched it," said Param.

"Tomorrow let's go back in time," said Rigg. "When we're rested and fresh. Come on, we passed through the Wall today. People tried to kill you and Umbo not that many hours ago, Param! Can't we get some sleep?"

But when they finally cleaned up supper, laid out their dosses, and took up their sleeping positions, with Loaf on first watch, Rigg couldn't sleep. Because as soon as he knew what the facemask's path looked like, he began to find the same kind of path riding along with humans ten thousand years ago. Vadesh was telling the truth -- humans had been infested with facemasks.

And the more of them Rigg followed, the more certain he became of a pattern. At first the facemasks had been rare and were never inside the city. Then they came along with humans when they approached the city in large groups. It looked to Rigg like war, or raiding parties.

But abruptly, about five hundred years before the city emptied out, all the facemasks were inside the city, and the only human paths without facemask paths traveling with them were outside the city -- again in raiding parties.

The conclusion was obvious to Rigg. Halfway through the history of humans in this city, the ones infested with the facemask parasite became the possessors of the city, and the uninfected people were the ones who lived outside.

And the tallest buildings were not built until the city belonged to the infested ones. Rigg knew this because none of the human paths rose up into the sky inside those towers until the relatively newer ones, the ones with facemask companions.

This is a city whose greatest buildings were erected by people with parasites embedded in their brains.

Now that was something Vadesh might have told them, if he were actually obeying the command to tell them everything. Which meant that he was deceiving them. He must have found some logical loophole in the orders Rigg had given him. Or maybe there was no deep law that required him to obey the first humans to pass through a Wall.

Eventually, exhaustion won and Rigg slept.


Rigg and his companions, not trusting Vadesh, go back in time and see a battle between the people of the city and a large band of humans who have been taken over by the facemasks. They realize that Vadesh regards the melding of human and facemask as a good thing, and allied with the facemask people.

They also learn that the jewels give their owner the power to control the starships that lie buried at the center of every wallfold. After some argument, Loaf decides to take the jewels and go with Vadesh into the ship. Rigg and Umbo decide to go with him, but Umbo is warned by his future self not to go and not to warn the others.


3

Into the Starship

Rigg noticed when Umbo fell behind, but he assumed that he would catch up. Rigg felt the same sense of awe at the huge machines, but he knew that if both boys stopped to look at them, Vadesh would be alone with Loaf and that's what Vadesh wanted. Which meant that was the thing Rigg couldn't allow to happen.

As usual, thought Rigg. Umbo feels free to be a child, easily distracted from the task at hand, while I keep my mind on what has to be done. But later, Umbo will resent me for taking responsibility.

I don't take responsibility, I'm just left with responsibility in my hands and no one to help me carry it.

Which wasn't fair. Loaf was there, wasn't he? But Loaf was playing the risky game of taking Vadesh at his word, testing him.

At the bottom of the stairs was a tunnel, and in the tunnel there was a kind of wagon, though it had nothing to pull it and no cargo. But there were benches at the front and back, so people were meant to ride. Vadesh stepped onto the wagon and Loaf followed him.

"Umbo's not here," said Rigg.

"You wait for him and take the next wagon," said Vadesh.

Rigg understood immediately that what Vadesh was really saying was good-bye. So he bounded onto the wagon. It was already moving forward when his feet hit the floor, accelerating so quickly that Rigg fell over and slid to the back of the wagon. Vadesh had somehow given the wagon the command to go while Rigg was still standing on the platform. If he had hesitated, if he had tried to call out to Umbo, anything but board the wagon at the instant that he did, Vadesh would have left him behind.

It's Loaf he wants, because Loaf has the jewels.

Or maybe it's the other way around -- I have something Loaf doesn't have. Something Vadesh fears. I have knowledge. I was trained by an Expendable, and Loaf was not.

What did Father teach me that Vadesh should fear? Whatever it was, Rigg was not aware of it. Everything Rigg could remember had to do either with trapping animals and surviving in the wilderness, or the training in politics, economics, languages, and history that had enabled him to thrive in Aressa Sessamo. If nearly getting killed a dozen times could count as thriving.

And science. Father had taught him biology, physics, astronomy, engineering. As much as Rigg could absorb. Useless things that suddenly became useful when he was getting tested by leading scholars to determine whether he could have access to the library.

Useless things that suddenly became useful. But Father couldn't have known that I would face such a board of examiners. Could he?

One thing Father did know, though, was that one day I would face another Expendable. If every wallfold contained an Expendable like Vadesh and Father himself, and if the jewels somehow allowed their owner to control the Walls and take them down, Father must have taught him what he needed to know to deal with the threat of someone like Vadesh.

But all of Rigg's language and negotiation skills had to do with humans, and Vadesh wasn't human. He didn't want what humans wanted, he didn't fear what humans feared.

What did he fear? Surely the worst thing had already happened, when all the humans in his wallfold had died. What could Rigg do now that would make Vadesh want to be rid of him?

It was a joke that Expendables had to obey humans. Father didn't obey anybody, and Vadesh only pretended to comply with human commands, when he bothered even to pretend. I have no power over him. No way to make him do anything he doesn't want to do. Because he knows more than me, I never have enough information to give him a command that he can't weasel his way out of. Even now, we have only his word that this wagon leads where he says he's taking us, or that the jewels can even do what he says they do.

And it bothered Rigg more and more that the two jewels that mattered -- the ones that Vadesh had identified as controlling the Wall of Vadeshfold and the Wall of Ramfold -- were clutched in Loaf's fist instead of being in the bag with the rest of the jewels. It sounded like nonsense, the idea of the jewels being attuned to anyone who had grown up in the wallfold. That seemed wrong. But it was true that Vadesh must have a set of jewels of his own, and he couldn't do anything with them or he would have done it, so apparently he did need a human to do whatever he was planning to do.

Where was the lie? More to the point, where was the truth hidden within the lie?

Meanwhile, the wagon began to move so fast that Rigg had no concept of their speed. He didn't know how to measure it. He knew that he could normally walk a league in about an hour; he could run much faster, but in short bursts. This wagon was going so fast that even the fastest horse couldn't keep up with it. So as the minutes wore on, the tunnel gradually taking them lower and lower, moving in a nearly straight line, Rigg couldn't begin to guess how far they had traveled, how many leagues beyond the factory where they had boarded the thing.

Yet however fast the walls of the tunnel went by, there was something wrong.

Oh, yes. The wind. There wasn't any. Moving at this speed should be blowing air past their face faster than any gale. Yet the air was as still as if they were inside a closet.

Rigg put a hand toward the edge of the wagon. Nothing. No wind. He reached farther, half expecting to reach some invisible barrier. Glass, perhaps, only too clean and pure for him even to see it.

Instead, he reached his fingers just a bit farther and suddenly they were being blown backward. He had to press forward just to keep them in place. He pulled his hand away from the edge, and the wind was gone.

"It's a field," said Vadesh. "A shaped irregularity in the universe, a barrier. Air molecules pass through it only slowly, so that our movement doesn't affect the air inside the field except to make a gradual exchange of oxygen."

Oxygen. "So we can breathe."

"Exactly! If the field were simply impenetrable to air, we'd suffocate as we used up the oxygen. Ram taught you well."

He didn't teach me about fields. Or about wagons that could move this fast.

"The Wall is a field, too, you said," Rigg answered.

"Not a physical barrier, though. The Wall is a zone of disturbance. It affects the mental balance of animals, the part of the brain that can feel a coming earthquake or storm. The sense of wrongness. It makes an animal feel that everything that can be wrong is about to go wrong, which fills them with terror. They run away."

"That's not how it felt to me," said Rigg.

"Oh, admit it, that was part of the feeling," said Vadesh. "But you're right, humans have deafened or blinded themselves to a lot of that sense, because you depend on reason to process and control your perceptions. Reason cripples you. So you find reasons for feeling that disequilibrium inside the Wall. And the reason is hopelessness, despair, guilt, dread. Everything that prevents you from intelligent action."

"But we went through it," said Loaf.

"You went through it before it was there," said Vadesh. "Cheating."

"We went back to get Rigg," said Loaf. "We brought him out."

"Very brave. But you penetrated only about five percent of the Wall when you did that. The weakest five percent. No, the field does its job very well."

"So there are different kinds of fields?" asked Rigg.

"Many of them, my young pupil. I can't believe your supposed father never explained any of this. Why, one-third of the controls of the starship dealt with field creation and shaping and maintenance. No aspect of starflight would be possible without it. We couldn't even have crashed into this world and created the night-ring without fields."

"I don't even wish I knew what you're talking about," said Loaf. "I just want this thing to stop moving."

"When we get there. Not much farther."

"You crashed into this world," said Rigg.

"There was no moon," said Vadesh. "And we needed to hide the starships anyway. By slamming into the planet Garden at just the right angle and velocity, with nineteen starships at once, we were able to slow the rotation of the planet enough to make each day long enough for humans to survive."

"And you worked all this out?" asked Rigg.

"Oh, not me," said Vadesh. "That's not what Expendables are for. We don't have minds capable of the kind of delicate calculation that starflight and major collisions require."

"So who did?"

"It was done automatically. Starships are equipped that way. What matters is that a collision like that would have reduced the starships to vapor, even though they're made of fieldsteel. But starships also generate protective fields around themselves that obliterate any mass that tries to collide with the ship. With that field turned on, we never actually collided with anything. The field collided with the planet Garden, and only the stone of planetary crust exploded into dust. Millions of tons of it. Filling the air. Killing most life on the planet. But nothing on the ship itself even got warm, let alone hot enough to explode."

Rigg thought through what Father had taught him of physics. He remembered how the acceleration of the wagon had knocked him off his feet and slid him backward just a few minutes before. "Stopping that abruptly would pulverize everything on the ship anyway," said Rigg.

"Another point for Ram as teacher of little boys," said Vadesh. "The entire starship also dwelt within an inertial bubble. All the energy of our sudden stop was dissipated into the surrounding space. Which accounted for even more of the heat and dust. Fields are everything, boy, and your supposedly loving father taught you nothing about them. I wonder why."

Vadesh didn't seem to understand that increasing Rigg's mistrust of his Father only increased his mistrust of Vadesh himself, who was, after all, the same creature, an identical machine. He was assuring Rigg, in effect, that Expendables lie. As if he needed more proof of that.

The wagon began to slow.

"I can feel us slowing down," said Rigg.

"Thank Silbom's right ear," said Loaf.

"There's no reason to install and maintain an inertial bubble field on a mere wagon -- it never moves fast enough to need it," said Vadesh. "Really, just because you can do something doesn't mean you're required to do it. Not worth the time or energy."

The wagon came to a halt.

So did the tunnel. It simply ended. The walls on every side were of smooth stone. There was no door, no sign, not even a loading dock.

Vadesh bounded from the wagon. "Come along, lads," he said.

"Lads?" said Loaf.

"He thinks he's making friends with us," said Rigg.

"He's a bit of a clown, isn't he?"

"He wants us to think so," said Rigg. "Or else he wants us to think that he wants us to think so. I'm not sure how complicated it gets."

Vadesh -- who could hear everything they were saying, Rigg never allowed himself to forget that -- was standing on the ground near the end of the tunnel. "Come along, the door only opens for a few moments and I'd hate to have either of you get caught in it when it slides shut."

As they got off the wagon, it immediately whisked away back down the tunnel.

"No return trip?" asked Loaf.

"I can always call it back," said Vadesh. "And there are many other ways to make the same journey." Vadesh turned to face the wall. He said nothing, made no gesture -- but he did face the wall. Why, Rigg wondered. Was he communicating some other way?

Apparently so, because the end of the tunnel was suddenly gone. What had seemed to be smooth stone was now a continuation of the tunnel. The wagon could have kept going. Only now, beyond where the tunnel had ended, there was an obvious station, with loading dock, stairway, and other doors, not disguised at all.

Here, though, the stairway went down rather than up. They had come down to get to the tunnel at the other end, and had traveled steadily downward since then, if Rigg's directional sense was at all reliable in a place like this and at such a speed. And yet their destination was lower still.

But they did not take the stairs. "Down," said Vadesh, and a set of doors opened to reveal a smallish room. Vadesh walked in. Loaf and Rigg followed, and then the doors closed. Rigg could not understand why they would enter such a room, which had no doorway other than the one they had come through.

"It's an elevator," said Loaf. "It's on pulleys. The whole room goes up and down, with counterweights to balance us. Some of the taller buildings in O have them, and a bank in Aressa Sessamo had one, too."

"Very good," said Vadesh. "Only there's no counterweight."

They plummeted.

"Exhilarating, isn't it?" asked Vadesh.

Rigg and Loaf were both clutching at the wall, filled with panic.

"Oh, sorry," said Vadesh. "I forget how sensitive humans can be."

Suddenly the sensation of falling went away. "Now we have a mild inertial field. You have to understand that humans knew about this sort of thing when we first built the colony. They used to enjoy riding the elevator down without the field. They enjoyed the thrill."

"Then they weren't human," said Loaf.

"Oh, people get used to so many things," said Vadesh, "if they only give themselves the chance."

The doors opened. There was a bridge in front of them, spanning a gap of about six meters. On the other side was a smooth, convex surface of fieldsteel, exactly like the surface of the Tower of O.

As they stepped into the bridge, Rigg looked to left and right, up and down. "It's the Tower of O, lying on its side," he said.

"Let's say that the Tower of O, as you describe it, was probably intended to be a monument to a starship. Not the real thing. Come along. Ship, open!" said Vadesh.

A gap appeared in the side of the ship, right where the bridge ended.

"Welcome to the starship that brought humanity to Garden," said Vadesh.

"One of nineteen," said Rigg.

"It began as a single ship," said Vadesh. "We had an accident. The physics of it is beyond you, I promise you."

"You never know how much Father taught me," said Rigg.

"I know he didn't teach you that, because even the ship's computers don't understand it. Nineteen computers brought one ship into the folds of space, but brought it out again in nineteen slightly different locations. Oops."

"And where on this starship are you taking us?" asked Rigg.

"To the control room. To the place where all the decisions were made. Where Ram Odin plunged the human race toward its first successful colony on an Earthlike planet."

As they walked along narrow passages, Rigg got the distinct impression that something was helping them move -- that each step took them farther than it should, that their bodies were somehow lighter here. Another field? Probably.

A door opened and they stepped into a spotlessly clean room, walls and floor and ceiling all the same light-brown color. Along one wall there was what seemed to be a track, rather like the passage that the wagon had run along, only much narrower. There were doors at both ends.

In the middle of the room was a table, about as long as Vadesh was tall. Dangling from the ceiling were three lights, surrounded by what looked like arms or tentacles. Vadesh raised his hand and the lights all moved toward it. Also, a seat emerged from under the table and slid into position in front of the table.

"This is where the ship was controlled?" asked Rigg.

"You see the track there -- I know you noticed it, Rigg, you're such a clever boy. There are really three control centers -- one for navigation through space, one for controlling all the systems internal to the ship, and one for field generation and control. Whichever one the pilot needs is brought in along that track and placed on the table here. Very quick and completely automatic. The pilot sits here and the controls come to him."

Lies, Rigg was sure of it. The system seemed unwieldy. Why would controls be hidden away? It made no engineering sense.

The table was about the size of a human body -- just long enough, just wide enough. Rigg looked up at the arms surrounding the lights. Vadesh was controlling the movements of those arms right now. What was on the ends of the arms? Tools of some kind. Hard to guess their purpose.

"Have a seat," said Vadesh to Loaf.

"Don't," said Rigg.

"Now, Rigg," said Vadesh. "I thought you said you weren't in charge of the expedition any more."

"It's not what he's telling us," said Rigg.

"How would you know?" asked Loaf. "You've never seen a starship. How do you know anything?"

"It makes no sense," said Rigg.

"Nothing has made any sense since I met you," said Loaf. "But if this is the way to take down the wall and get home, then I'm going to sit down." Loaf sat.

At once the chair moved -- but only a little, to take Loaf's height and weight into account. Then it held still.

"You see?" said Vadesh. "It adjusts to the pilot. Which it thinks you are, since you have a jewel for this starship."

Rigg wanted to ask Loaf for the jewels, but he didn't want to test Loaf's friendship. Nor did he want to find out just how determined Vadesh was to keep them out of Rigg's possession.

"Shall we bring in the controls for the field generators?" asked Vadesh.

"If that's what will let me bring down the Walls and get home," said Loaf.

"You have to hold up the jewels -- just hold them up, palm open -- and command the starship to bring in the controls."

"What do I say?" asked Loaf.

"Try, 'Bring in the field controls, ship,'" answered Vadesh.

At that moment Rigg made a connection. Vadesh was telling Loaf to speak to the ship and give it a command. Father had taught Rigg a special command language. He had said it was a way to command the stars. It wasn't a real language at all, of course. Just a series of numbers and letters, which Rigg had had to memorize and repeat every few days, then weeks, then years. Father wouldn't tell him how they might command the stars, and no matter how many times Rigg repeated the sequences that Father called "words" in this command language, the stars never did anything. Rigg had called him on this once, and Father had looked at him as if he were a child -- which he was -- and said, pityingly, "It doesn't work here," as if Rigg should have known that.

It didn't work there. But now Rigg was inside a starship. And an Expendable just like Father was telling a human to issue commands.

Loaf had already spoken the command while Rigg was thinking back and making the connection. One of the doors opened and a low cart slid in along the track, then transferred automatically to the table in front of where Loaf was sitting.

Loaf looked at the array of instruments rising from the control panel; as he did, he lowered the hand holding the jewels, but kept it open.

Rigg stepped closer, as if to look at the controls as well. He even pointed toward something with his left hand, reaching across Loaf's body to do it. "I know this part," murmured Rigg. As he did, he grasped the jewels in his right hand.

Maybe the business about the jewels had all been nonsense, but maybe not. Rigg wanted them in his hand when he spoke the words of command. And Loaf made no protest.

Father had told him that the first and most important word was named "Attention," and Rigg began to recite it.

"F-F-1-8-8-zero-E-B-B-7-4 --"

Vadesh glanced down, saw that Loaf no longer held the jewels, and then reached out to the control panel and touched a certain spot on the side.

The whole top of the control panel flipped back out of the way, revealing an open box.

"3-3-A-C-D-B-F-F --"

In the box was something alive. A facemask.

He's going to flip it up onto one of us, Rigg knew at once. He could try to prevent it, but that was useless, Vadesh was too strong, he had proven that already. So all Rigg could do was finish the word of Attention. For it was clear to him now that this was what Vadesh had feared -- that Rigg would start reciting this sequence while holding the jewels. Beginning the word had prompted Vadesh to act; finishing the word was the only thing that Rigg could do.

So when Vadesh did indeed flick out a hand, quicker than either Loaf or Rigg could react, Rigg did not let it stop him or mix up the word.

"1-zero-5. Attention." Rigg hadn't known whether that was just a repetition of the name or part of the word, but he said it all just as Father had taught him to recite it.

The facemask flipped up out of the box and slapped wetly onto Loaf's face. Loaf's whole body stiffened, shuddered.

"Ready," said a gentle voice that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once.

"4-A-A-3, I am in command," said Rigg.

"You are in command," said the nowhere voice.

Vadesh pushed Loaf backward off the chair and lunged toward Rigg.

"Protect me from the Expendable!" cried Rigg.

Vadesh stopped instantly, still posed in mid-lunge.

Loaf lay on the floor against the back wall. His face was completely covered by the facemask.

"2-F-F-2. Information. What is this room?"

"Revival and medical chamber," said the voice.

"What is its purpose?"

"To bring humans out of stasis and revive them. To treat any maladies that have arisen."

"Can it treat my friend Loaf?"

"I do not know."

Rigg had no idea who he was talking to. "Who does know?"

"I do not know."

A machine. The voice had to come from a machine. Probably the ship's computers. One of the nineteen. Or all of them. Whatever it was, it had power over the Expendable, who was still posed where he had stopped, one hand on the seat, the other on the box that had contained the facemask.

"How can you find out whether you can help Loaf?"

"Identify Loaf and let me examine him."

"He's the only other human in the room," said Rigg. "You have my permission to examine him."

"He is too far from the table," said the voice.

"I can't lift him onto that," said Rigg.

There was Vadesh. Vadesh could lift him up easily. But Vadesh was only held in place by the ship's computer, if that's what the voice was. "Who are you?" asked Rigg.

There was no answer.

"2-F-F-2. Whose voice am I hearing?"

"This is the voice of the composite decision-making module of the human interface unit."

"This Expendable is between Loaf and the table, and there's this box on the table that's in the way. What can you do about that without waking up the Expendable?"

"Nothing," said the voice.

Rigg thought again. Maybe there was something wrong with the way he had phrased the command.

No, he needed a new command. "7-B-B-5-zero, Analyze. How can I get Loaf to where you can safely examine him, without letting this Expendable harm him or me in any way?"

In reply, Vadesh abruptly stood up and wordlessly touched the box. It closed, then slid back onto the cart, which zipped along the track and out the door. Then Vadesh strode to Loaf, lifted him easily, and laid him on the table.

"You're making a mistake," said Vadesh mildly.

"Keep the Expendable silent," said Rigg.

Vadesh said nothing more.

"Make him stand back against the wall and turn his back to me," said Rigg. He didn't want Vadesh out of his sight, but he also didn't want him watching.

Vadesh did exactly what Rigg had demanded.

I can't command Vadesh directly, Rigg now understood, but the ship's computers can. By controlling them, I control the Expendable.

"Please examine my friend," said Rigg.

All the floating lights plunged downward toward the table where Loaf lay. The arms reached down and around so rapidly that Rigg could not follow their movements, though he could see that some of them cut Loaf's clothing from his body while others poked him or slid along the surface of his skin.

Almost at once, two of the lights homed in on the facemask, while the other continued the scan of the rest of Loaf's now-naked body. Probes reached down to sample the facemask, which seemed to recoil from some of the arms, but then flexed upward toward some of the others, as if trying to catch and absorb them. Those probes retracted, the arms taking them away to renew their approach from other angles.

Some of the arms tried to pry up the edges of the facemask. That was the first time Loaf made any kind of reaction. His body twitched as if he were startled, and a sharp high cry came from under the facemask.

"Can he breathe?" Rigg asked.

"There is no open passage for his lungs to take in air, but his blood is fully oxygenated," said the voice. "This is the parasite called 'facemask' and it is irrevocably attached to your friend Loaf. It has already penetrated his brain so deeply that it cannot be extracted without causing seizures and death. But it has taken over oxygenation. Your friend will not die."

Rigg was tempted to say, "Kill them both," because he believed that was what Loaf would want.

But Loaf's life did not belong to Rigg; nor did it belong entirely to Loaf. It belonged in part to Leaky, and if she were in the room, Rigg doubted that she would decide so quickly that Loaf's life should end here and now.

"If Loaf were to die," Rigg asked, "what would the facemask do?"

"Transfer to another host, if one could be found quickly enough, or it would die."

"You're familiar with this parasite?" asked Rigg.

"The Expendable has been breeding them for a hundred thousand generations. This is type Jonah 7 sample 490."

"What was the Expendable breeding for?"

"I don't know."

Wrong question. "What are the traits of this facemask type that makes it different from other facemask types?"

"The Jonah strain has been the Expendable's sole focus for eight thousand years. Type Jonah 7 emerged more than three thousand years ago. This type differed from the rejected types by being able to reach adulthood without a host, by being exceptionally quick to attach to the host, by being prepared to recognize and bond closely with a human brain, by being ready to co-metabolize with human blood of any type, and by bonding with higher-function parts of the brain, as well as the brain root and spinal column."

Rigg tried to think these things through. Vadesh believed that symbiosis between facemasks and humans was good, but he had also talked about the facemasks working for instead of against civilized behavior.

"7-B-B-5-5," said Rigg. "Prediction. What will happen to Loaf if this facemask remains attached to him?"

"He will survive."

"Beyond that?"

"Jonah-type facemasks have never been tested on humans. There is no data."

"And you don't know how Vadesh expected this to turn out?"

"Vadesh is dead," said the voice.

Rigg looked at the Expendable. "He can't die. Can he?"

"You call the Expendable Vadesh. He cannot die."

"So whom did you mean when you said Vadesh is dead?"

"The founder of this colony. The Expendables call each other by the name of the wallfold. This is Vadeshfold. Now I understand you. No, I do not know Vadesh's expectations. He used us for storing data but not for analysis beyond a primitive level. He did not discuss or share his thinking with us."

"Will Loaf be safe if I leave him here?"

"He will need nutrition within a few hours. Would you like me to supply nutrition?"

"Yes," said Rigg.

"Waste elimination as well?"

When Rigg said yes, arms began to attach devices to Loaf's body.

"Can you keep this Expendable here, immobile?"

"Yes."

"How long?"

"Forever."

"Then keep him here, immobile, until I tell you to do otherwise."

"Yes."

"Now tell me, am I controlling you because I knew the codes, or because I have these jewels?"

"What jewels?" asked the voice.

Rigg opened his hand. A light moved toward his hand and an arm scanned the jewels.

"These are command module jewels. The red teardrop controls the starship of Ramfold. The pale yellow pentacle controls the starship of Vadeshfold."

"But right now you are obeying me because I spoke to you in command language."

"You said the codes," said the voice. "You are acting commander of this vessel."

"Acting commander," said Rigg. "Who is the real commander?"

"Ram Odin," said the voice. "He is dead."

"So as the acting commander, I'm the only commander, right?"

"Unless someone else knows the code."

"Does Vadesh know the code? The Expendable?"

"I know whom you mean by Vadesh now. Yes, he knows the code."

"Can he use it to control the ship?"

The voice seemed to Rigg to be almost offended. "Expendables do not control us. We control the Expendables."

"Not very well," said Rigg.

"Your judgment is misapplied," said the voice. "Expendables are designed to have almost complete freedom of movement and judgment. They can draw on our data but we do not interfere with their decisions until and unless we are order to by a human commander."

"Vadesh told us this was the control room," said Rigg.

"That was not true."

"Is there a control room? A place where I can use this jewel?"

"Yes."

"Can you take me there?"

At once Vadesh came alive, turning from the wall and heading for the door through which Rigg and Loaf had entered the room. "Follow the Expendable," said the voice.

After one last look at Loaf, lying on the table under the lights, hoses attached to him, the facemask covering his face, Rigg followed Vadesh out into the corridor.


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