None so blind


Space, dark, studded with diamonds. A skein of pale light marks the death-throes of a once mighty star. One of the myriads is noticeably much the brightest, a point of light as bright as a full moon; a G-type star some 2000 AU distant. Its pallid light limns the shape of a great ship, a main bulb with a long stalk, a great ring encircling the main unit at distance, and a smaller ring about the tail. A few lights glow in the shaded half of the forward module; none in the ring.

But it is there that the most vital component of the ship has its being. A hundred four beings, spaced around its circumference, that are engine and weaponry to this ship of the line. Within one of those dark cells, floating naked in a fur-lined womb, a human woman by the name of Veronica Rafkin. Tubes and wires worming from a source buried in the fur lining in a thick and ugly umbilicus that terminates at the base of her neck. Curled in fetal pose, she faces the single transparent wall that opens on the starry sky, her eyes closed, her attention turned inwards upon the outside.

In the communal mind of the ship, the surrounding void is not so much represented, as has its being. The star and its attendant worlds are there, but go ignored, all save one, and than only because about it orbits the system's LinkGate, the only evidence of defensive power in the system. At greater distance, other ships like this, the Tassinflower, can be detected, a total of sixteen, arranged in four groups, at the vertices of a tetrahedron, centered on the Gate, slowly, cautiously approaching, with only the minimum of attention to powering the movement, the rest concentrated on defense against the attack that was sure to come.

Suddenly, a glare of white at three separate points within the advance, rupturing the background of green and blue snowflakes that made up space-time. Three reinforcing wings — enough to shift the balance of the odds. A momentary curse passes through the communal mind of the attack force. They must strike quickly, while the newcomers are still reorienting after their Link, and reassigning units to combat configuration. The other three ships in Tassinflower's group reach out to the Gate, trying to fold it through itself, while Tassinflower reaches out to its fellows, anchoring all four into a unit, and fixing that unit in place.

Such as there is of Veronica in this melding watches all this from somewhere down in the back of her brain, feels the straining of the defenses, staining the green field red-gold, and watches the purple fan out to engulf the Gate, and a similar, far deeper, wave reach out for her. It comes on like a tidal wave, at some not quite definable but superluminal velocity, washing away the red-gold as if it had never been. Screams fill her mind along its linkage as the group of ships are washed away on that tide, and they wash her away too.

She woke all at once, her eyes opening onto a different vista of stars, her body starting, uncurling slowly from its long immobility. But its aches meant nothing to her. The single thought that consumed her mind was the sudden confinement she felt. She could no longer touch space-time with her special Linker senses, no longer comprehend the information passing into her mind from the conduit plugged into her neck. She was Blanked, Blanked, Blanked, and the shock of it numbed her.

Woodenly, she disconnected the umbilicus, and pulled herself along it to the wall, pulling the fur away from a voice intercom.

“Medical section — This is 63. I've been Blanked.”

“Acknowledged. A team is on its way.”

And so it would — the damage assessment routines of the shipmind would have noted the component failure as soon as the randomization had ceased, dispatching the medical team. Her call had been only to reaffirm some sort of contact with the outside world, pale though it was in comparison with what she had known.

Now she would have to leave her comforting womb, and become distinct from her universe, too many years too late. She lay back, and looked out at the now remote stars.

Three months passed, months that were like a descent into hell, a hell inside herself, locked away from the outside world. Her emergence was slow, even with the aid of Guild telepaths, but even they could not truly show her how it was to be trapped inside herself. But time had served to heal as much as they, and while it had changed her, she hoped that also it had been a maturation rather than a loss.

Certainly she no longer looked as once she had, her flaming hair now raven, the fur she had once sported gone, a horselike tail her only modification from the basic form. She swam confidently down the corridors of the advance base, able to rely on eye and inner ear, instead of the feel of space-time about her, for navigation.

An office, her goal. She twisted herself in the air, and grabbed a hand-hold, knocked. The squirrel-like figure within was well known to her — the telepath who had borne the brunt of nursing her back to sanity. And now it would be the farewell for them, as he went on to others, and she went home from the war, as much a casualty as had she a thousand years before lost a limb in battle, a person not truly whole.

He asked her her plans, and she didn't know what she would be doing after she had been Linked back to the civilian Web, and said so.

“So you are leaving the Guild, then?”

“Yes. My war pension will be more than enough to support me — about twice the Inalienable Basic, and in addition to that, isn't it?”

“Thereabouts. You know you ought to stay on — your esper rating is high enough that you might have other talents that were swamped by your telesthetic abilities.”

“So those can be burned away too?” There was no bitterness in her voice, just resignation. The war could go on without her: there was a new number 63 on the Tassinflower now, that was all the Guild cared. Whatever undiscovered abilities she might possess, could lie undisturbed, until chance brought them to the fore. Then, well enough, the Guild could draft her if such was its policy at that unknowable time. Twenty years now she had plied the Web, as Gatecrew or Navy, two decades that had seen the thousand year peace of the Partnership of worlds shattered by the final breakdown of the uneasy relations with the Ggappi complex, the final decision to turn a state of no contact into active competition — economic — or military. The Partnership would win, somewhere over a thousand years hence according to the latest forecasts, as the forced continual migration of the economic base weakened the Ggappi — not bad for a civilization holding about one tenth of the systems that the Partnership held, that could only wither away in front of an inexorable advance, while the Partnership grew. Surrender was an unguessable quantity, but it was likely not to come for decades yet, if at all. The Ggappi would know exactly what they faced, so only conscious stubbornness could have prolonged the fight so long.

“Going home, then?”

“Don't really have one. My family is dispersed, and the Guild is all the background I've had for nigh a half of my life. I suppose it's time I set myself up a base of some sort. A small ship perhaps… I don't know.

“Oh, damn it all. This is just wasting time. Good-bye, and thanks, thank you very much for your help.”

“Fare well, Veronica. Fortune be with you.”

She turned and swam away, feeling that her decision to call and say goodbye had been stupid. She would leave now, to be alone, in a world she had never known. The ship would be parting soon, and come what may, she would be aboard. She sighed, and began to pull herself along the hand-holds, to get her away from this place of unhappy memories as fast as she might, and into the world of her future.

This is scraping the bottom of the barrel, but I'm putting this up for completeness' sake. That's as far as it goes, establishing a character, waiting for a plot. Veronica is set up as a little bit of the Trigger Argee to Nancy's role as Telzey; though this is happening about 500 years before Moving Day.

Even were it still extant, I'd not publish the earlier SF material I wrote. I started in my early teens with a variation on a theme from Galactic Patrol — but prefiguring what Next Gen did to Star Trek, as the lead character was split into two; the competent action hero was distinct from the psychic (who was a woman and a magician, not a psi). Operation Chaos has a lot to answer for. This got followed up with some variations on the Witches of Karres, and a number of false starts at a sort of Mission Impossible in space, before I finally got locked on the Telzey Matuchek meme. Nancy Wolf went through a number of different iterations (Cold war in space action heroine, with bad-guy Commies; Andre Norton-esque variations with Niven influences — getting caught up in Forerunner installations on an Alderson Disk) before Gormenghast's influence permeated the mix enough to get the result that I've published here (which is an editing of a second draft, about 2–3 times as long as the first cut).

This fragment is about the last extended original section of SF writing I'd done until '01, and Castles in the Sky.

© Steve Gilham 2000