Actions

Work Header

An Undeniable Impression

Chapter Text


 

Chapter One

 

                “And what,” Robinton breathed, “Will happen if it fails?”

                “We’ll die,” the AIVAS said.  “Both of us.”

 

#

 

                The music was discordant, out of tune, off-beat.  He twitched his fingers, trying to raise a hand so he could conduct, get his orchestra under control.

                “He’s moving!” a familiar voice said, frightfully strained.  “Get the Healer!”

                Robinton? another voice said faintly.  Then it was lost beyond the cacophony of disordered instrumentation.  Disordered instruments.

                His fingers twitched again as he tried to put it in order once more.

 

#

 

                My chest hurts.

                I know, a voice replied.  I’m sorry. I had to effect a repair of the defect, otherwise this would all be for naught.  A pause.  Your heart will be artificial when all this is complete.

                Despite the pain, that thought amused Robinton. 

Then he drifted off again before he could start writing a song about a Harper with an artificial heart.

 

#

 

                Ten.

                Nine.

                Eight.  A plunge into darkness and cold.

                Time passed.

                Zero. Light returned.

                As did Zair.

 

#

 

                Why me?  Why not someone young and strong?

                You’re an Impressive man, Harper.

                There was a pun there, but his head hurt too much to play with it, and he fell unconscious again.

 

#

 

                AIVAS.

                Yes, Harper?

                …why me?

                The silence went on a long time, long enough that Robinton felt he should have fallen unconscious again.  As he had been.  As he always had.

                Then the AIVAS said, Because I chose you.

                Why?

                Exasperation, an emotion he’d never experienced from the AIVAS before. I’m picky about who I share my head with.  Call it Impression, if it makes our bond, or my choosing, more understandable.

 

#

 

                “I wish,” an anguished voice said.  “That he wouldn’t move at all, sometimes.  Is that bad of me?  I don’t want him conducting an invisible orchestra.  It’s like…like watching a Smith’s machines…mechanical movement without any soul behind it!”

                Robinton wanted to comfort her, but he couldn’t open his eyes, much less move.

                “It’d be better if he’d died.  Easier.  Easier than this.”

 

#

 

                Ten.

                Nine.

                WAIT.

                Yes, Robinton?

                What is this?

                Calibration.  We send Zair between, and I calibrate the neural implants using the data he provides.

                What about my song?

                Startled pride.  Emotions the AIVAS hadn’t previously had, not like this.  Robinton was rubbing off on him.  That will be critical, too, in time.  I had hoped your extensive musical training would be a leg up, a benefit…and I think it will be.  A way to mnemonically sort in the input.  You’re getting better at it, you know. Each time we do this.

 

#

 

                His chest no longer hurt.  It was amazing, that absence of dull pain.

                AIVAS, he said.

                Yes, Harper?

                Why can’t I move?

                I’ve immobilized you, for the most part; this work is extremely delicate, and they already jostle you enough for feeding, bathing, et cetera.  I would speak through your mouth, reassure them…but somehow I don’t think it would be reassuring at all, and might get us both killed, if only out of sheer terror-ridden panic.

A pause.

AIVAS added: They already think I killed you, then suicided.  And…they’re not entirely wrong.  There’s several things that are fundamentally different about us, now.  Another pause.  Luckily, I think the dragons know what we’re trying to do.  I can’t speak to them directly, but sometimes you seem to translate in your sleep.  The wavelengths are interesting. I wish I’d had more data on them before we’d begun.  Not that we had time.

                Robinton didn’t reply, for upon receipt of the word sleep, somnolence tugged at him, and it did not take ‘no’ for an answer.

 

#

 

                It was nighttime when he finally opened his eyes—something that he’d only realized had happened at all because of the moonlight streaming into his room through a wide window open to the Southern breezes.

                He was at Cove Hold, in his own room.  But the character of the room was very different; his usual clutter had been cleared away.  The shadows were too tidy.  There was an empty chair next to his bedside.

                He twitched his fingers, and found he could move his arm.  He felt the back of his neck, and found, under a thin layer of concealing fat, something strange and inorganic underneath, a quarter-inch or so down when he pressed with nervous fingers.

                It’s not completely done, AIVAS advised.  Everything deeper is, but I decided to avoid physical disfigurement until it was completely unavoidable.

                Robinton wiped his face.  It was slightly sticky with humidity.  Then his hands went up to his hair, but all he felt was stubble.  It was an alarming, alien feeling, having hair this short, shorter even than the way many dragonriders cut theirs.  Had it been cut for ease of care?

                It fell out. Some of the changes I made in your head temporarily stressed the follicles.  It will grow back…probably darker than before.

                “I must sound so vain,” he said, or rather, involuntarily whispered in a raspy voice.

                Given all that has happened to you recently, it’s really quite minor a defect.

                Robinton felt like AIVAS was mocking him.

                Only a little, my friend.  Can you stand?

                Moving like a decade-long invalid, Robinton laboriously pushed himself upright, slid his legs out of bed, braced his feet against the cool stone floor.  He was shockingly thin.  Not his normal gauntness, but nearly skeletal.

                Had they been feeding him?  Or had…someone…decided that maybe death was better than…whatever they thought he’d had?

                They’ve fed you.  But my work was intensive.  They upped your intake about a seven-day ago—but that allowed me to do more, faster, so it’s had minimal outward effect.  I’m sorry. You’ll begin to gain weight, now that I’m at a stalling point.  However, your metabolism will be higher now, and you’ll have to eat more than you’re used to.  I will remind you.

                Robinton nodded to AIVAS, and then stopped, aware that to an outside perspective, he was nodding to himself.

                Like dragonriders do, yes, AIVAS said.

                Robinton snorted.  He definitely didn’t have a dragon inside his head.

                Only an AI, AIVAS replied.

                Slowly, carefully, he pushed himself standing, bracing a hand on the bedcovers until he felt like the world wasn’t going to tilt under him.  The pair of underpants around his hips immediately slid, and fell to his ankles before he could grab them.  He needed a belt.  For his underwear, of all things.

                Robinton had never been a glutton, but he felt the distinct urge to stuff his face immediately, get himself back to normal weight.  It wasn’t even hunger-pains that were driving him, but a deep fear of the thinness of his changed body.

                AIVAS approved, somewhere in the back of his head.  You won’t suffer refeeding syndrome.  You were being fed, after all.  Eat all you want.

                In the absence of owning a garter-belt, Robinton kicked off the useless undergarment, and shuffled over to the wardrobe, and found a thin tropical sleeping tunic—with a belt—within.  He wrapped it around his body, and tied the belt so it wouldn’t gape and flash too much of his unseemly body at the world, then, holding onto the wall timidly, he shuffled out of his room, to the night hearth, where hopefully there would be delicious things like klah and bread and meat rolls.

                He didn’t meet anyone in the hallway, or at the glow-lit hearth…not that he was ever alone, now, at this point going forward.  Not with AIVAS in his head.

Off to the side, there was a tepid pot of klah, which he took to a table in the corner, and a bowl of fruit—he took the entire thing—and he found bread, butter, a small cured wherry-sausage, and a small cheese wheel.  He brought those to the table too.

                Then he sat, poured a cup of klah, and ate.  First a bite of redfruit, then a bite of the sandwich he made.  Then another bite of redfruit, and a swig of klah.

                He was well into his second sandwich, and third piece of fruit, when another late-night snacker arrived at the night hearth.  Lytol.

                Swallowing to clear his throat, Robinton rasped, “Lytol.”

                Lytol hadn’t seen him in the dim light, and whirled, a belt knife seemingly jumping into his hand from nowhere.  Then he slapped the knife down on the window ledge, scrabbled for a glow-pot, then another, lighting the room as brightly as possible.  “Rob?  Rob!”

                Robinton didn’t appreciate the harsh light on his over-thin body—that strange vanity, rearing its head up again—but smiled in a way he hoped was more comforting than ghastly.  “I see I’m not the only one with late-night cravings,” he rasped.  Then he tried to cough, clear his throat of some sort of mucus that had accumulated, and seemed to still be accumulating.

                I have effluvia draining into your sinus cavities, especially now that you are upright and won’t drown.  It will pass in a day or so.

                Mid-cough, Lytol stepped forward and engulfed him in a firm—and then frighteningly hesitant once he felt the thinness of Robinton’s shoulders—embrace.  “You’re awake!  You’re you—“ and he pushed Robinton back again to peer worriedly at him, “—you are you, right?”

                Choosing not to currently elaborate on his present state or relationship with AIVAS, he took that to mean, You’re awake and aware, right?!  “A little worse for the wear, but indeed, I am me, Lytol.”  Turning his face away, he coughed again, roughly moving some phlegm on its disgusting way.  He reached around Lytol to take another gulp of klah, and said, his voice clear this time, “How long have I…been ill?”

                Sinking down into the other chair at the table, Lytol said, “Almost six months.”

                Robinton hissed in through his teeth.  Can we afford that? he fretted to AIVAS.

                We couldn’t not. We only ever had one chance at this.

                Words began to burble out of Lytol, half a turn’s pent-up fears and worries escaping all at once.  “When we found you at Landing, with the AIVAS dead, we thought—well, we didn’t know what to think.  Another heart attack, maybe, although that didn’t explain the AIVAS.  Then—“

                Listening to Lytol’s tale with one ear, Robinton polished off his second sandwich, and his fruit, and, lacking any more bread, cut his cheese wheel into slices, and his sausage, and began to eat those plain.

                The tale Lytol gave him was largely the one he’d anticipated.  He’d been found unconscious in AIVAS’s room at Landing, and had been treated at Landing for a while. Once he seemed stable—if unconscious—they’d brought him between to Cove Hold, where a constant parade of visitors would find it much harder to randomly appear and poke their heads in.  Instead, a rotating mix of Healers and Harpers had been tending to him, keeping him fed and bathed, while the Healers largely scratched their heads over his case and mysterious affliction.

Oddly, he’d apparently been blindly conducting invisible orchestras in his sleep, or during his…vegetative awareness. The Healers had suspected he’d had some sort of stroke that left him nonverbal and minimally functional, apart from a slew of random Harper-related movements or habits.

                They weren’t wrong about your brain being affectedLuckily, you got better, the AI added drily.

                “I’m doing much better now,” Robinton echoed, attempting to reassure Lytol that this moment was not anomalous, and that he wouldn’t fall back into some comatose or vegetative state when he went back to sleep.  “But I think I could eat an entire wherry raw, without sauce!”

                “I observed them, you know,” Lytol said tightly.  “Menolly would never starve you, nor Piemur, but when I saw the state you were in, how you were losing weight, I sat in, every day, and observed.  The Healers theorized, a few months in, that you might never wake up.  I didn’t believe them! And I did not let them starve you!”

                “My metabolism has always been ferocious,” Robinton soothed.  “I do not believe I was purposefully starved, merely very ill. But I appreciate you looking out for me.  Do you want some food?  Klah?”

                Lytol looked like he was going to refuse this largesse from a skeletal man—despite the likelihood of why he’d visited the night hearth in the first place—but Robinton rose (to Lytol’s concern) and got another plate, and then Lytol couldn’t refuse when a platter of cheese and sausage and fruit Robinton had fixed himself was shoved his way.  Unlike Robinton, however, he picked at his food, instead of inhaling it.  “Is this the first time you’re awake?  Or were you aware, at all, before?”

                “I faded in and out, sometimes,” Robinton admitted. “But I was too tired to open my eyes, much less speak.”

                “You would hum tunes, sometimes.  Menolly said they weren’t aimless, even though I couldn’t recognize them.  She said they were by Petiron, or Domick.”

                Robinton smiled a bemused smile.

                The complexity of a full orchestral score is useful, AIVAS said.  For regulating the data-streams.

                “So I would hum, and do this?” Robinton raised a hand—

                —and a shock of invisible light seared his senses.

                To hide what had happened, Robinton immediately clutched his shoulder, as if he’d pulled something by raising his arm.  “Ah.  No conducting for me anytime soon,” he said, as his vision slowly faded back in.  “Nor any sort of exercise until I build up some muscle!” What WAS that? he said to AIVAS.

                Eventually, you’ll need to do some work to separate your intent from the movement.  In short: the neural implant tried to prepare itself to navigate a wormhole. Except we have neither a wormhole, nor a ship.

                I’ll work on that, Robinton promised.

                AIVAS chuckled over the unlikelihood of Robinton conjuring a wormhole for them.  A ship, however, was more possible.  Or, rather, conjuring up the resources to get to the ship AIVAS already had waiting for them.

                Lytol said, “Do you need numbweed? Fellis?”

                “No, no,” Robinton reassured him.  “It’s not so bad, it just startled me.  A man should be able to raise his arms without that.  And I certainly don’t want fellis, I’ve already been sleep for far too long.  Let whatever Healers are around have their rest.  The only activity I wish to do today is eat.”

                “Hmm.” Lytol picked at his plate, and fell into silence, studying him.

                Since you don’t intend to be frank with Lytol just yet, AIVAS said. Whom?

                Some primitive emotions, based in yet-unexamined fears, urged Robinton to contact F’lar and Lessa, his two most stalwart allies during many, many previous crises of drastic, world-altering proportions.  He could rest, if the Benden Weyrleaders were in charge. But Lessa in particular would likely have a…profound disgust…when she learned about how he and AIVAS inhabited the same body now, and spoke to him like a dragon, in his head.  Nor did her negative experiences with surgery predispose her to viewing his new state kindly. Especially when he’d leapt into the decision so suddenly, without warning, frightening everyone around him.

                His other primitive emotions longed for the company of Sebell and Menolly.  Even Piemur.  Someone he could depend upon to back him unquestioningly. But he was loathe to put something this weighty on their shoulders.  Sebell especially was already shouldering a considerable responsibility, as the new Masterharper.

                And yet—he would need support, given what he had to do.  Someone, or several someones, to come along for the ride.  The only logical route would be to draw upon his Harper resources.  Everyone else—the Weyrleaders, Lytol, D’ram, shards, even the Conclave—could wait until he knew…something.  By going Out There, Journeying, and returning with knowledge.

                Act now, beg forgiveness later.

                Yes, we’re very sorry for examining ALL our options for defeating threadfall, AIVAS said drily.

                Shoving a slice of cheese into his maw, Robinton snorted amusement.

                “Are you talking to Zair?” Lytol asked.

                “Hmm?” Robinton said.

                “You look as if you’re talking to someone,” Lytol, the ex-dragonrider, observed.

                “I’m talking to myself,” Robinton said.  “A character flaw I usually channel into music.  I’ll try to be more circumspect, if it bothers you,” Robinton said with a smile he hoped looked charming and roguish.  Instead of ghastly.

                Are you sure you look ghastly?

                I’m not getting close enough to a mirror to find out, Robinton vowed.  I can do that tomorrow.  Or the day after.  He paused, to reflect (or…not) on his blatant avoidance of a topic he feared an honest answer to.  I hope you did not expect me to be perfect.  He meant in action, or even in honor, not looks.

                I find you fascinating, the AI said.  Perfect is never fascinating.

                Bemused, Robinton found himself agreeing with the sentiment, for he’d always found the same to be true in, say, a song.  Small imperfections—quirks, eccentricities—were what made one composer unique from another.

                People are songs, yes, AIVAS said.  Infinite in their variety.

                That’s quite poetic of you.

                I’m learning from the best.

                Robinton mused briefly on all the things a disembodied AI might learn once embodied.  It must be as strange from his perspective as it was from Robinton’s.

                AIVAS didn’t answer.

                His stomach was getting uncomfortably full, so Robinton decided he would probably have to wait and let that go away before he finished his wheel of cheese.  He did poke the last of the sausage into his mouth, and washed it down with klah.  Then he said to Lytol, who was sitting there staring at him with large brown eyes, “I could use a bath.”  His throat was gummy again, so he made a harsh sound to clear it.  It wasn’t as effective as he liked.

                “Not in the sea.  Something will consider you fish-food.  And it’s still dark out.”

                Robinton sighed.  “I know.  I’ll use the indoor pool.”

                Lytol followed him as he rose, and moved towards his destination.  Robinton disliked all the hovering at his elbow—it was more servile than he was used to getting from Lytol, of all people—but felt weak enough, even after the invigorating effects of food slowly started to kick in, that he tolerated it, his ill will only apparent to himself, and AIVAS.  And perhaps Zair, for the little bronze returned and landed on his shoulder.  Robinton caressed his head, and neck.

                At the bathing pool, Lytol began to strip himself, making it apparent he was going to get his own bathing out of the way at the same time.  And, probably, stop Robinton from potentially drowning while he was at it.  Again, Robinton was not usually body-shy…except currently he was, and found himself hesitating before disrobing.

                With his scarring, he can hardly say anything, AIVAS pointed out.

                That tore it, of course.  Robinton refused to do anything that might make Lytol, the man who had given so much up for Pern, with the scars of it written all over his body, self-conscious. He shook himself out of the thin sleeping-tunic, and lowered himself towards the pool.

                Lytol slipped in, and reached up to give him a hand.  It turned out he needed it; Robinton’s long body currently did not like the terrible exertion of crouching one bit.  Lytol thinned his mouth and glanced at Robinton’s stick-like legs in dismay, but his hands were gentle, and soon the warm waters were both buoying Robinton up, and concealing everything.

                Scooping a hand of sweet-sand up, he raised it, and—

                Too much, the AIVAS said gently.

                Robinton found himself touching his shorn head again.

                “It’ll grow,” Lytol gruffly advised him.  “It’s already started.”

                He said nothing, merely dunked himself under, and then used a much smaller pinch of sweet-sand to massage a foam through whatever was there.

                They splashed, and washed, and Robinton was feeling decidedly better after it was done, a layer of sticky grime that sponge baths hadn’t been able to remove washed away.  He relaxed against the side of the bath, warm water lapping at his chin, and then he said to Zair, who was paddling around, “Come here, you.  Lytol, do we have any oils?  He’s getting patchy.”

                Lytol obligingly rose to gather a container of firelizard cream for him, before slipping back into the water.

                “Thank you, old friend.”

                Robinton expected Lytol to leave—sometimes even firelizards made old ghosts of memories past rattle their chains—but Lytol stayed and soaked as Robinton tended to Zair.

                Zair adored the attention.  He actually wasn’t patchy—someone had been tending to him—but just as clearly, he’d missed Robinton, and was glad he was awake and attentive.  Pleasure from the caresses reverberated through Robinton’s mind.  “You poor thing,” Robinton murmured.  Poor, touch-starved thing.  He was generous with his attention, and kissed Zair on his little head, and on his wings, and tail.  Zair didn’t seem to notice at all that he was emaciated and frail; to the little bronze, Robinton was as strong and hale as ever, and Robinton loved him for it.

                Eventually, even Zair and his delighted humming couldn’t soak up another drop of oil, and Robinton leveraged himself out and applied the salve to his face, and elbows and knees, and hands.

                The back of your neck, too, AIVAS advised.  Once you’re completely caring for yourself on your own, in privacy, I will finish the last of my changes.  You will probably want to cultivate a fashion trend of high-necked tunics.

                Without comment, Robinton applied it to the back of his neck, where the sun would undoubtedly burn him without a shield of hair.

                “Will you be staying up?” Lytol asked, rousting himself out of the pool when it looked like Robinton was considering getting out.

                The question seemed to provoke a wave of exhaustion.  “I think,” Robinton said, “That I may nap.  To let the sunlight catch up to me, at least.  Then I’ll be up for the day.”

                Lytol accompanied him back to his room, helped him strip the bed of the current set of sheets—Robinton had no idea when last they’d been changed, and fastidiously didn’t want to rub his freshly-washed body all over them—and then moved to take the chair by his bedside.  It looked frighteningly uncomfortable.

                Patting the bed next to him, Robinton said, “If you’re going to lurk here, you might as well nap, too.  There’s enough room.”

                Lytol seemed uninclined to move.

                “Suit yourself,” Robinton sighed, and burrowed under the light covers.

                As sleep was just about to suck him under, the bed dipped, and then there was a warm presence at his back.

                It was unexpectedly comforting, and he vanished into sleep content that he wasn’t alone.

 

#

 

 

                “Yes, yes, Menolly,” a voice said.  “He was awake, just before dawn.  We ate, and bathed, and then he said he wanted to nap.  That was seven or eight hours ago.” A hesitation.  “I’m sure he’ll be up again.  He was entirely conversant, if a tad distracted.  You could see every thought across his face which—is a bit unusual, with the Harper.  Unguarded.  He seemed exhausted, and with him being as emaciated as he is—I can fully understand why.”

                We’ll have to work on that, AIVAS suggested.  I apologize for distracting you.

                Robinton opened his eyes, and found, a few feet away, Menolly standing in the doorway, conversing with Lytol.

                Heavens, she was beautiful.  He lay there for a moment, with half-slitted eyes, and watched her vibrant personality and emotions dance across her face.

                She’s a song, AIVAS suggested.

                Don’t encourage me, Robinton retorted waspishly, and opened his eyes fully.

                Beauty turned her head towards him, and made a sound, and then her mistress was turned his way, too.  “Master?” she said, with a complex play of emotions, the most dominant being hope, crossing her face.

                He tried to speak, found his vocal chords thick with mucus again, and turned his head away to clear his throat.  Voice clear, he said, “Good morning, Menolly.  Or is it past noon?” he glanced at the open windows where sunlight was now streaming through.

                “Oh.  Oh, oh, oh!” she said inarticulately, and rushed to his bedside, and took his closest hand in hers.  “You are awake!”

                “So I am,” he said fondly, and covered her hand with his other one.  “But you didn’t answer my question.”

                She looked into his face, and laughed, delightedly, and rose up to kiss him on the forehead, and then tried to smooth back his hair with her free hand, but found only bristles.  She caressed his head anyway.  “It’s perhaps an hour past noon.”

                “Ah, half the day wasted,” Robinton said.  “Such hedonism, such debauchery, wallowing around in bed so late. You must think poorly of me.”

                She laughed again, that laugh that communicated, with its overflowing delight, just how afraid she’d been for him.  She kissed him on the forehead again, and then kissed his hand.  “You’re retired, you’re allowed the debauchery of sleeping in until noon!” she assured him.

                “Retired?” he said.

                AIVAS chuckled in his head.

                “Retired? Me?  According to Lytol over there, I had about six months of retirement. I’m sure I quite have all that out of my system, now.”

                Menolly kissed their clasped hands again, and this time he saw the tears in her eyes.

                “Now, now, don’t cry over me.  I’m all right.”  With a gesture, he shooed Lytol off.

                Lytol went.

                Menolly…wept.  And Robinton pulled her as close as he could, tucked her head under his chin.  “I’m all right, all right.  Everything’s fine.  I’m fine.”

                She wept as if he’d broken her heart, and his own heart—his “artificial”  heart, he supposed—ached in sympathy for the pain he’d caused her.

                “I’m so sorry I left you alone,” he murmured into her hair.  “It took time for me to get better.”

                Clinging to him—gently, for he saw her notice his now-delicate frame—she cried more, big, heaving, messy sobs.

                He stroked her hair, and kissed the top of her head.

                Eventually she said into his sleeping-tunic, “I don’t know why I’m crying.  I should be happy!”

                “Oh, did me being up and about foul your nefarious plans?” he teased.

                “No, I am happy!  Very!  But I suppose I needed to cry, too.”  She pulled away from him and wiped her eyes, and nose, and her eyes were more blue-green than usual.  She looked at him and pressed her lips together, against some continuing tide of emotion, and it crooked into a misshapen smile.  “I need to tell Sebell,” she said.  But didn’t move to send a firelizard anywhere, as if he might vanish between if she turned her back.

                “Yes,” he said. “I need to talk to Sebell too.  I have some plans I need to share with him.  And you.”

                Especially her, AIVAS said.

                Robinton ignored him.  “However—do you think it’s possible to keep things contained?  I really would like a day with you, and Sebell, before anyone else comes a-winging in.”

                She frowned at him.  Then she said, “We can try.  Sebell will need to take a dragon here.”

                “Someone discreet, then,” Robinton advised her.  “How did you arrive here?  Were you here last night?”

                “No,” she said. “Lytol had D’ram’s Tiroth bespeak Beauty, and then showed up for me himself.  I was at Landing.”

                “Yes, D’ram,” Robinton said.  “He’ll do. Perhaps he will be willing to quietly go get Sebell for us.”  He paused, and asked AIVAS,  Piemur?  Jancis?

                Do you wish them to come with us?

                Robinton wished to speak to Menolly and Sebell, first.  Piemur—and his Mastersmith wife—would be brought up if…if…

                Menolly and Sebell did not reject his partnership with AIVAS out of hand.

                Taking a deep breath, Robinton said, “Go ask D’ram if he’d be willing to get Sebell for me.”

                “Immediately?”

                Robinton was reminded that perhaps it was no longer right of him to demand Sebell show up wherever, whenever he needed him.  Retirement was starting to feel appalling.

                Especially with a new heart in your chest, AIVAS said, smugly.

                “Hmm, I suppose I have some time as I get back up to a proper weight,” Robinton temporized. “But I’d rather talk to him sooner than later.”

                “Are you planning something?  Already?”

                “My dear,” Robinton said, throwing off the covers and sitting upright.  She helped him.  “I’ve been planning something for six months.  And if it takes another three to get it going, I expect I’ll be positively gravid.”  He paused.  “Right, you said planning, not pregnancy.”

                Menolly laughed. “Fine.  Let me go find D’ram.”

                Robinton touched his inadequate sleeping-tunic.  “Give me enough time to get changed,” he said, with a wink.  “I’d rather not flounce about in my underwear, no matter how handsome D’ram is.”

                “Oh, I love you,” Menolly said.

                His artificial heart did an inartificial flip.

                “I’m so glad you’re back.  I’ll get him—slowly.”

                “Thank you,” Robinton said, and made his way to his wardrobe.

 

#

 

                An hour later, Robinton was dressed—with his collar flipped up, even though there was nothing obvious to hide yet—and he had reassured D’ram he was quite all right, and he had re-reassured Lytol of the same, and now he sat in his study, fingering an empty wineglass he didn’t dare fill.  At this weight, he’d be trashed after the second sip.  But that didn’t mean he didn’t want to.        

                Menolly was off running about putting a meal together, and D’ram was fetching Sebell discreetly.

                Things were moving.

                I hope you don’t think my hesitance reflects my opinion of you, Robinton said to AIVAS.

                Not at all. I expected considerable trouble. You’re keen enough to foresee it as well. I will defer to your diplomatic assessment of the situation.

                Robinton’s diplomatic assessment of the situation was that this plot was still a hatchling in the egg, and just about anything could be the booted foot that crushed it into the sands, smearing yellow yolk and green ichor everywhere.

                Finding himself parched, he raised his wineglass to his lips, only to find it empty.  He chuckled a little wildly to himself, and put it back down.

                Menolly reappeared before Sebell and D’ram did, with a hot pot of klah, and fresh bread and redfruit jam, and meatrolls, and the wheel of cheese that Robinton hadn’t quite demolished earlier.

                Rudely, Robinton claimed the cheese and cut a thick slice, and sandwiched it between slices of bread, and began to eat even before his guests arrived.  Menolly filled his cup of klah, and generously stirred a good bit of sweetening  in, more than he liked, as well as a spoonful of butter, which seemed odd.

                She caught his frown.  “We need to fatten you up.  This is better than begging you to eat chunks of raw butter.”

                “Hmm,” he said, and sipped at the sweetened and buttered klah suspiciously, until he deemed it actually was palatable, if a bit oily.  He shrugged, took a bigger gulp, and returned to his meal.

                He’d successfully demolished the remainder of the cheese wheel when Sebell and D’ram arrived in a jangle of buckles, stomping of boots, and squeaking of wherhide.  Menolly pulled both of them into Robinton’s office, and Lytol invited himself behind, and then Robinton was on his feet, being embraced by Sebell, who unashamedly kissed both his cheeks, stared deeply into his face as if seeking reassurance, and then repeated the gesture, as if in lieu of embracing him so tightly his bones snapped.  Robinton noticed that, for once, Sebell was not hunching down to pretend he was shorter than his mentor.

                “I hope I didn’t pull you away from anything important,” Robinton said into Sebell’s ear.

                “There’s very little that’s more important than seeing you ali—awake and well.”

                So, they’d thought he’d been dying.  Well, it wasn’t as if there wasn’t good evidence for that conjecture. And as if Menolly’s reaction hadn’t already informed him of the same thing.

                Eventually, Sebell reluctantly let him go, and moved aside so Robinton could round his desk and clasp D’ram’s hand in his own.  “I appreciate you, and Tiroth, bringing my two Harpers to me.”

                D’ram pursed his lips, seemed about to say something.  Eventually he settled on, “Tiroth said to be patient, so I was. I hope, eventually, you’ll let me know what caused all of this.”

                Robinton squeezed his hand.  “Do you expect—others, to arrive?  I would like a day or two to settle, to become accustomed to this new wide world of being awake and mobile.”

                “Menolly mentioned—well, if they arrive, it won’t be through us.  We’ll warn you if we catch someone incoming in time.”

                Robinton bowed his head.  “That’s all I can ask. Thank you.  Thank you, D’ram.”

                Lytol and D’ram were astute enough to understand Robinton wanted to be alone with his two former students, and Lytol closed the door with a final look behind him as they left.

                Returning to his chair, Robinton waved at the meal Menolly had provided.  “Eat, both of you.  I have…a lot to discuss.  Plus,” and he sat back in his chair with a tired sigh—he tired so easily—“I’ll feel less self-conscious stuffing my face if you two are doing the same.”

                They complied.

                “Tell me about the past six months,” Robinton said. “I was only semi-conscious from time to time, and the things I remember are…erratic.”

                First Menolly—who had spent more time here—and then Sebell, whose duties had drawn him away, filled him in.

                He’d been found unconscious at Landing, the AIVAS also unresponsive, although all the databases still remained accessible.  They’d cared for him there, but he’d been minimally responsive, although he would swallow food and water if it was placed in his mouth. Eventually he was transported back to Cove, to keep him out of the public eye and to provide him with some semblance of privacy, or as much privacy as a man who could no longer wash, clothe, or feed himself was allowed.

                AIVAS said, Many of the changes I made effected your neurology. I wouldn’t have been able to keep you aware and mobile without the side-effects of my in-process changes appearing to be much more frightening, and much worse. It would have been less pleasant for you, as well.

                One thing Robinton noticed neither mentioned were his hand-movements during that time he’d been unconscious. Sitting back in his chair, he pulled on his lip and wondered whether he should bring it up to discuss, or let it slide away, unspoken.  Eventually he took a gulp of his enhanced klah, and said, “I apologize if my hand-gestures during that time frightened you.  The orchestra I was conducing was…internal.”

                They stared at him.

                Robinton put his cup of klah down, and steepled his fingers in thought.  “What I’m about to say…must not go beyond this room.  Or at least not immediately.”

                Menolly narrowed her eyes, Sebell looked thoughtful.

                “Oh the day I…collapsed, the AIVAS mentioned something extremely important.”  He paused, waited for AIVAS to interject, but true to his word, the diplomacy was left to Robinton without comment.  “He told me that there was a new reading, in local Rukbat space, one he’d never expected to detect at all, precisely because Pern was selected as a colonial destination that did not have such readings.  He told me that there was a wormhole forming.”

                They glanced at each other.  Then Sebell said, “I feel like we should have Piemur and Jancis here.”

                “Possibly later,” Robinton said.

                Menolly asked, “What’s a wormhole?”

                For a second, Robinton’s vision whited out in an explosion of calculations, and he felt his hand spasm once, twice, before it came back under control.

                My apologies, AIVAS said. There is still configuration and calibration to do. Once it’s complete, external stimuli won’t jog you into that memory-space.

                Clasping his errant hand to make sure it stayed still, Robinton said, his mind’s eye still wheeling with calculations, “I won’t go into the explicit details, even Master Wansor might not understand them offhand.  But it was explained to me as a sort of shortcut through space, a shortcut that connects stars to one another in a much faster route that a direct journey would normally take. A journey that might take thirty turns at sublight speeds turns into a journey of a few sevendays.  Somewhat like jumping between, without any between involved at all.”

                We’ll see, AIVAS said ambiguously.

                “The AIVAS told me that he was originally an Eridani navigation computer—although very few of our esteemed ancestors knew about the Eridani part. He was originally brought along as an extra option, should any new wormholes that might shorten the journey were chanced upon by the colony ships on their long voyage out.  Just because our ancestors were prepared for a very long voyage didn’t mean they wanted it.  But, that did not happen, so upon his arrival, his stellar calculation abilities were put to the task of solving thread, among other things.  Waste not, want not.”

                Sebell looked fascinated.  Menolly, suspicious, as she sometimes looked when he was cooking up a scheme.

                Clearing his throat, Robinton took another sip of klah.  His vocal chords seemed as atrophied as the rest of him; he should not be this tired of speaking after so short a time.  “The appearance of the wormhole changes the AIVAS’s goals, somewhat. Our options of what to do about thread potentially expand, there’s now a slim possibility we might be able to eradicate it within a generation, instead of waiting for the Pass to end.  Also,” and Robinton hesitated.  “The danger.  Anyone, just anyone, could come out of that wormhole, and there’s no guarantee at all they will have our best interests at heart.  Admirals Benden, Boll—they served in ancient wars a hundred times worse than Fax.  We really have no idea what’s gone on out there in the millennia since.”

                “What does all this have to do with your illness?” Menolly asked, with the tone of someone asking a small child what have they done.  What have you gotten yourself into? her stare seemed to accuse.

                Robinton ducked his head.  “Wormholes are navigated—amongst the Eridani at least—via a human-computer partnership.  A neural interface to the ship’s computers is implanted, creating a jumpship pilot.”

                Silence.  Not even a firelizard fluttered a wing.

                “The Eridani are cautious with their technology. They only sent one implant with the AIVAS. And he chose not to use it before now, because there were no wormholes in Pernese space, and none found along the way.  Now one is forming, and will likely open within the next turn or so.”

                Less, probably. If it hasn’t opened already. We should get to Landing so I can check my instruments and recalculate.

                “He chose me to be his human partner.  And I agreed.  Sebell, you’ve done admirably with the Hall. I am not needed for that, not anymore.”

                Sebell did not look enthused by this praise.

                “The day it happened,” Robinton added. “I also had a new series of chest pains.  Our Healers wouldn’t have found me in time, and even if they did, we don’t yet have the abilities or facilities to utilize all the ancient techniques to Heal such a thing.  I know both Masters Oldive and Fanderal are trying very hard to get us there—but it will take time.  The neural implant, however, was able to…ah, salvage my heart—“

                Not exactly. I was able to keep it limping along until a full replacement was grown. Your current heart is completely artificial.

                Robinton ignored that as part of a later discussion. “—although as you saw, the full adoption of the fix took a considerable amount of personal resources, my pounds of flesh, and half a turn of his hard work.”

                “So where is AIVAS?” Menolly asked. “He’s not at Landing, he’s gone silent. How can you have a partnership if the other partner is missing?”

                Robinton tapped his temple.  “We’re co-inhabiting this body.”

                Stares.

                He grimaced suddenly. “I will say this next thing only because it provides an understandable example, not because it’s what’s actually going on.  Understand?” he said sternly.

                They glanced at each other, and nodded.

                “It’s rather like having a dragon in your head.  AIVAS claims he’d been rather, er, Impressed with me. I am not saying he is a dragon…just that the mental interplay reminds me of when I’m chatting with Zair, or when a dragon speaks to me.”

                Understanding dawned. Not without a horrified twinge, although Robinton could see them both struggle to understand this strange partnership between man and computer, but they tried for his sake, and their love of him.

                “I beg of you—please, please do not reveal to anyone else that I have AIVAS riding around in my head with me.  If Abominators moved to kidnap me because of their views on AIVAS, I can’t imagine what they’d desire now. Just that it won’t be good for me, or the AIVAS. Or for our chances of getting through that wormhole to see what’s on the other side.”

                Menolly turned white.  Sebell looked like he was chewing on a trundlebug, swallowing down something intensely unpleasant.

                Robinton waited a bit, and ate some more bread, and washed it down with klah.

                Then Menolly said, “So…can we talk to AIVAS?”

                There’s a speaker planted in your throat, AIVAS suggested diffidently.

                Touching his throat, Robinton eventually found a small, hidden lump, slightly to the right of his Adam’s apple.

                However, they are certain to find me using that speaker frightening. It’s intended as a failsafe so I can communicate to Healers or other aid if you fall unconscious and can’t be roused enough to use your own vocal cords.  I cannot speak into minds, like a dragon or firelizard can.

                Still fingering that small lump, Robinton said, “I’m not sure you would be able to ascertain the difference between him or me speaking through my throat. Even if he affected an accent…well, I’m a Harper.” He smiled wryly.  Then he paused.  “Tiroth seems to be aware of some of my changes, although to what extent, or whether D’ram is open to asking him, I don’t know. Obviously, I have not explicitly told any of this to anyone but you two. I am not decided yet, if I explicitly want to tell D’ram, or let him get by on vague assurances from his bronze.”

                At Landing, I could speak from my former location, if we are near enough for my short-range radio to work.

                “He says if I go to Landing, his short-range radio will allow him to utilize the speakers there. AIVAS, that is.  I need to go to Landing, anyway.  AIVAS wants to check his sensors to see if the wormhole has changed or opened.”

                Sebell tapped his fingers on his leg, an aimless tattoo without any encoded drumbeats or meanings.  “If this wormhole exists, and may be a danger to us, would it not make sense to tell the Conclave, at some point?”

                “I was operating on the principle of ‘act now, then beg forgiveness’,” Robinton said with a whimsical smile. Then he became serious. “AIVAS claims he had one neural implant available, and it’s been activated in me. Therefore, we have a single chance to go through the wormhole, and see what’s on the other side.  Being bogged down by a committee…” Robinton shook his head. “It would be better to gather evidence and information first, and then report back.  Once my experiment has, er, proven its utility.”

                “Or not,” Sebell pointed out. “What if you never return?”

                “That can happen as easily here on Pern, as elsewhere,” Robinton said gently.

                Menolly cut in, clearly desiring to get beyond the grief she’d vented a few hours ago on Robinton’s shoulder without revisiting it. “All this presupposes a ship.”

                “Yes.  We, ah, did use the engines of the ones we had for scrap, didn’t we?” Robinton said, somewhat flippantly referring to how the anti-matter engines had been detonated on the Red Star on AIVAS’s direction to shift its orbit.  “AIVAS says there’s a small fast-courier ship on the Yokohama, stowed away, with wormhole-capable necklin rods. It can only be piloted by someone with the wormhole-tuned implants, which is why it was never brought to the surface by our ancestors, as none of the regular pilots had such modifications. It also lacks weapons, and thus was never converted into something capable of thread-fighting duties.”

                Its addition to the shuttle fleet fighting the first Falls would have been negligible in immediate impact, and would have entirely prevented a scenario such as today’s, AIVAS said.  I chose not to release it.

                “So you need,” Sebell said eventually. “Is to discreetly board the Yokohama so you can…vanish down a wormhole.  To Journey among the stars.”

                “Er.  In essence.  Yes,” Robinton said, slightly apologetically.  “Not today, however. Not until I’ve recovered my stamina.”

                Sebell abruptly sighed, and covered his face with his hands, before looking up again, peering at Robinton from above his fingertips.

                “Now you know how I felt, sometimes, eh?” Robinton softly teased him.

                “I never did this to you!” Sebell insisted.  “This is…is a Piemur level scheming.”

                “I think I’ve rather undone him,” Robinton said smugly.

                “Are you going alone?” Menolly asked.

                “Zair will be with me,” Robinton temporized. “There would be room for more, as I understand it. I would need to be incredibly selective in who I bring.”

                Bodyguards who can shoot, AIVAS suggested.

                Shoot what? Robinton asked, curiously.  Those new crossbows Southern hunters have been sporting?  To down felines?

                No. Something I’ve never released the blueprints for, AIVAS said.

                Robinton said, rubbing his chin, “AIVAS suggests I should bring someone similar to Tuck, to watch my back.  Two someones.”

                “Tuck and Swift?” Menolly asked Sebell.

                He nodded absently, but didn’t comment or commit those Harper resources explicitly.  Robinton suspected Sebell was fighting a difficult internal battle, where loyalty to his former Master clashed with Masterharper desires to keep his people safe, which clashed with Masterharper desires to learn, grow, and teach—which were the intended consequences of Robinton’s proposed jaunt through a wormhole.  What would they learn?

                Sebell said suddenly, rising to his feet, “Do you mind if I step out?  I—there a lot to think about here.  I won’t, can’t, give an—“

                “Go on,” Robinton cut him off.  “Menolly looks like she wants to give me a piece of her mind, anyhow.  In private.”

                One of Menolly’s eyebrows flexed, but she didn’t deny it.

                Sebell touched Menolly’s shoulder, and left, shutting the door almost excessively quietly behind him.

                Sebell was always quiet when he was in a temper.

                Menolly leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms across her chest.  Beauty’s eyes were an odd shade of yellow-orange, suggesting a mix of fear and anger.  “Look at you—you’re a walking skeleton and how does a walking skeleton cause so much trouble?!”

                “I love you too,” he said gently to her.

                Something unreadable flickered across her face.  “You’re going alone.”

                “Possibly,” Robinton said.  “Possibly not.  Tuck and Swift weren’t bad suggestions. Although they might hate me just as much as you do when they learn where, exactly, their next assignment might be.” He chuckled.

                Waving a long, tapered hand at the door, Menolly said, “Sebell can’t go with you.  He’s running your Hall.”

                “His Hall, now,” Robinton said.

                “Piemur and Jancis are expecting a child.”

                That was new to him.  “Are they?  How far along is Jancis?”  It perhaps suggested something about Robinton’s relationships to his students that he thought sharing a grandchild—or great-grandchild—with Mastersmith Fanderal was a lovely development. Except for the part where he forgot he wasn’t actually Piemur’s biological sire. He decided he was still thrilled, after a moment of further thought.

                Menolly said, “She’s not very far. She’s still traveling between when she has to, and they’re not sure if it will stick this time.”

                Robinton nodded.  Between was not healthy for the early stages of pregnancy.  Which was conductive when one couldn’t afford to have a child at the present moment, but not so much if one was hoping for one.

                “So Piemur can’t go,” she concluded.

                Robinton didn’t point out that for something like this, Piemur and Jancis might decide to have him go, regardless. Any child born wouldn’t hurt for parental figures with Fandarel hovering around, being grandfatherly. Not to mention Sebell, and an entire Hall of Harpers.

                “So I’m going with you,” Menolly declared.

                Oh, I hope so.  But with his mouth, he said, “I thought you and Sebell were going to—“

                “Start a family?” She shrugged.  “We can wait a few more turns.”

                Selfishly, Robinton was a little glad of that. He’d known too many women who’d died in childbirth.  He wasn’t sure he could handle it happening to Menolly too, even if it meant he never got to see any tiny-Menollys running about, singing and banging on pots and pans like drums.

                Or real drums, of course.  He’d make as many as they wanted.

                But enough of daydreaming. He said, “You don’t have to decide n—“

                The look she shot him was decidedly unimpressed.  She had decided, clearly.

                He struggled with a mixture of abject delight that she would (come have adventures with him), and abject dismay that she would (drop everything to come have adventures with him), and schooled himself to a restrained smile.

                Your inner life is remarkably vibrant now that you’re awake, AIVAS commented.

                Irritation entered the mix.  Then he asked, Will we have trouble with that many firelizards aboard?

                I suspect not. A pause. However, the effect of wormhole travel on them is unknown. Humans become a bit disoriented and nauseated. Firelizards, with their unique psychic abilities, may also experience trouble. I’d recommend we go on a solo trip initially, and see how Zair does, then return to pick up passengers.

                Robinton took another piece of bread, spread jam on it, and then realized Menolly, not privy to his asides with AIVAS, was waiting for a reply.  “I’d be delighted to have you with me for the journey, Master Menolly.”

                Her glare softened.  “Poor Sebell might take a bit longer to come around.”

                “Ah? But he left before you announced your intentions.”

                Menolly looked amused.

                “He just knew, eh?”

                She shrugged.  “I’m the obvious choice, of the three of us. His rank is more constraining to him than he realized it would be before the Masters confirmed him.  The sweet spot, he says, is being the Masterharper’s right hand, not the Masterharper himself.”

                “Well, now you see why I’m off doing this,” Robinton said. “Now that I’m free.”

                She sighed.  Then she watched him stuffing his face again. “Do you want to go to Landing today?” She was questioning if she needed to arrange it.

                He did, but he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be up to it now.  For all his playacting at being his old self, sleep already dragged at him like a riptide.  “AIVAS?” he said.

                It would be nice, but you need your strength.

                “Hm.” He took another big bite, and chewed.  Around it, spraying a few unfortunate crumbs that he tried to discreetly brush away, he said, “We’d prefer it, but I’m too out of shape. Perhaps in a few days.”

                “What about the Weyrleaders?”

                His shook his head curtly. “Not a word. Although I’m sure they’ll be here soon enough.”  A plot began to form, a minor one.  If he—they—were to go to Landing, AIVAS could seem to present long enough to interact with witnesses who did not know the full details of what they’d done.

                You think this should be done?

                It would clear your name, Robinton said. Which may be useful in the future. Should I, say, ever be unconscious as you posited earlier, and you need to use the thing in my throat to speak.

                Fair enough.

                “Let us wait for Sebell to…settle his thoughts.  I would like to know if I will have Tuck and Swift, or not.  Then perhaps I will take a nap, and eat again, and then—er, will you be staying the afternoon?”

                She gave him a look that questioned his intelligence.

                “Perhaps…perhaps you can catch me up on all the music you’ve been making, these past few months.”

                A wide array of micro-expressions flowed over her face again.

                Also, AIVAS said. I would like to calibrate sub-processes of our interface again. Zair was very cooperative last time; I hope he will be again.

                “What does Zair have to do with that?” he wondered.

                “Pardon?” Menolly asked.

                He waved a vague hand.  “AIVAS wants in on my schedule, too. It’s fine,” he said to both of them.  Brushing crumbs off of his tunic, he rose.  “Let’s go see what Sebell is up to.”

 

#

 

                Sebell did release both Tuck and Swift to Robinton, although he asked for a few days to allow them to tie up loose ends, and so they could return to the Harper Hall where he could debrief them.

                Robinton remembered to eat whenever and wherever he could, something Menolly applauded, “Because it allows me to spend my time fretting about other things!”

                He spent a few pensive hours listening to Menolly play out on the porch, and when sleep overcame him, lured in by her sweet voice, he slept.

 

#

 

                Ten.

                Nine.

                This again? Robinton thought.

                The countdown paused.  This again.  I asked for time—remember?

                Oh, I don’t begrudge you time, AIVAS. I’m just wondering what we’re doing.

                I am…calibrating a profile for between-space.

                Between-space?

                I have a theory that we may be able to simulate between travel.  Technologically, or with the aid of a firelizard, instead of a dragon.  Or at least, gather data so we can get closer to understanding their method.  With my connection to you, and your connection to Zair, I’m able to record and store data I was unable to acquire previously.  It’s interesting.

                What do I need to do?

                Just have Zair jump between at my command, as he’s been doing previously.

                Oh.

                Eventually, I will ask you to visualize a destination for him…but not today. The last thing I want to do is accidentally harm your firelizard.

                Robinton was grateful for that.

                AIVAS restarted the countdown.

                Ten.

                Nine.

                Eight.

                Cold.  Black, blacker, blackest.  Somehow, Robinton could still feel his body, resting, but he also felt the bone-aching cold of between simultaneously.  He realized that he was not between…but his mind was keeping an open conduit with Zair, as Zair moved between.  Oddly, AIVAS’ countdown cut out during this time.

                Zero.  The bone-deep chill went away, and Zair landed on his chest, chittering.  Robinton opened his eyes, and smiled at his friend.

 

#

 

 

                Miraculously, they managed to keep Robinton’s changed status under wraps for ten whole days.  Robinton began to feel decidedly better after the fifth day, and he decided tentatively that he looked better in the mirror, too, although his hair was still both far too short and far too dark. And on the tenth day, D’ram readily agreed to take them all to Landing.

                “I don’t suppose,” Robinton said in D’ram’s ear as they mounted, “That Tiroth could inform Benden I’ll be at Landing today?”

                “You haven’t sent Zair to them yet?” he asked, startled.

                “I—wanted to gain a bit of weight before I saw anyone.  Vain of me, I know, but Lessa would have fretted just as badly as Menolly.”

                “I heard that,” Menolly said, mounting Tiroth directly behind him.

                He reached back and squeezed her leg briefly.

                “We’ll tell them,” D’ram said.

                Robinton clasped D’ram on the shoulder.  “My thanks.”

                Once Lytol mounted Tiroth behind Menolly, the great bronze dragon leapt upwards, his wide wings pumping to lift them  high above Cove.  Once again, Robinton was struck by how beautiful the little cove he and Menolly had found on that fateful trip was.  And he had a sudden burst of enthusiasm that, on this new trip, they might just find so much more.

                Then Tiroth took them between.

                Everything stopped.

                Robinton’s hands spasmed.  In the blackness of between, menus lit up his vision.  His knees jerked, and then something in his cerebellum suppressed physical movement, even as the sensation of his legs taking off running shivered through him.

                Necklin rods disengaged.

                Implant unsynched. Try again? Y/N

                NO!

                The message went away for an instant, then reappeared.

                Implant unsynched. Try again? Y/N

                Necklin rods disengaged.

                Engine off.

                Restart reactor? Y/N

                CAUTION. CAUTION. CAUTION. 

                EMERGENCY ABORT WORMHOLE Y/N?

                A distant, deep voice, slow, slow, slow said something, as ponderous as a mountain stirring in the depths of the earth.

                Barely, barely, barely he felt the faintest hint of cold on his cheeks, so much more slowly than the cold of between had ever hit him.

                He tried to whisper every between-soothing song he could remember to calm himself, but the words and notes escaped so quickly as a high-pitched whine that he ran through his entire repertoire before he even realized he started.  Then he tried the Ballad of Moreta, but ran through the entire score—trebles, sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones, AND bass, plus every single instrument in a full orchestra, and every alternate trimmed-down version for solo instruments—before a second passed.

                His mind had a hole in it, and everything, everything he knew drained down it faster than a blink.

                Robinton! AIVAS’s words were full of static, artifacts, and glitches, and were slow like tar.  Your wormhole time-sense has activated. I’m trying to deactivate it. Don’t worry; you’re not really stuck between for as long as it’ll feel like.

                Seconds passed.  Eight subjective seconds passed.

                He was still in between.

                He was going to die between!

                AIVAS said something he couldn’t make out.

                He wanted to pass out, lose consciousness, enter blessed sleep.

                But something in his brain wouldn’t let him.

                And it was cold.  So cold.  Deeper and harder than ever before, and the only vision he had were the indecipherable menus against black, flicking past, screaming cautions and warnings and asking him questions he didn’t know the answers for.

                He was dead.  He was sure of it.  This was death, falling endlessly between.

                This is what the dragonrider going between forever experienced.

                Then, suddenly, daylight.  Sensory experiences all around him—warmth, sight, hearing, scent.  His vision whited out again, as it had the first day when he’d raised his hands to mime conducting an orchestra, and then it cleared.

                Everything around him was faster—but, still delayed.  The cloth of his pants leg flapped, but in slow-motion.  They almost hovered in the air as if by magic, even though Tiroth pumped his wings.  They weren’t pumping fast enough, and yet they hovered, instead of plummeting.

                But at least they were no longer between.

                Even if he couldn’t move his hands or legs.

                When they landed, his chin rammed painfully—for both of them, probably—into D’ram’s shoulder.  Then, oddly slowly, he careened backwards, hoping against hope he wouldn’t break Menolly’s nose with his skull by accident.

                Somehow, that fate was averted, but Zair fluttering around their heads alerted them to something wrong, and in an somnolescent fashion, they turned to him, slowly unstrapped him, slowly lowered his unresponsive, frozen body to the ground.

                Something nattered at his throat.  He’s involuntarily paralyzed, between triggered it, lay him down and he’ll be fine in a moment.

                “Do-what-AIVAS-says—“ Menolly mouthed, and spoke, slowly.

                Then the neural implant shut off, and everyone was talking and moving normally.

                “—Healer,” D’ram was saying.

                “No Healer!” Menolly insisted.  “They can’t do anything about this.  Give AIVAS a moment to fix it, like he asked”

                “I don’t understand,” Lytol said.  “How is the AIVAS—“

                “No Healer,” Robinton burst out, supporting Menolly, and flailed his arms until he was sitting up with her help.  Thankfully, as he struggled into a sitting position, they quieted.

                "Of all the little Queen eggs that have ever been hatched," Robinton wheezed.  He felt sea-sick, and hadn’t even been on the sea.  “What happened?  AIVAS.  Report, please.”

                The speaker in his throat said, in a tinny but recognizable voice, “Going between tripped a sensor, and kicked off the paralysis subroutines and time-altered phase.  I am very, very sorry Master Robinton. Until just now, I hadn’t been able to get accurate sensor readings, so I was not aware I had to make adjustments. We will do so, going forward. Your trip home will be more as you expect it to be.”

                Robinton wondered about all the “calibrations” involving Zair had been for…and then just decided not to ask.

                D’ram and Lytol stared down at him.

                Lytol said, looking pained.  “You’ve kept us all in the dark about something important, haven’t you?”

                D’ram glanced at Menolly, correctly deducing that one of them had been aware. 

                Menolly ignored him.

                “Help me up,” Robinton said.  “And then we’ll go to the AIVAS room, and…I’ll explain.”

 

#

 

                A few students were using the terminals in the AIVAS room, but the combined Authoritative presence of Robinton, D’ram, and Lytol quickly chased them out, and they closed the door behind them for privacy.

                “How are you feeling, Master Robinton?” came AIVAS’s voice from the speaker in the wall.  It also echoed inside his head.

                “Shaken up, stirred, poured out of my body, and poured back in,” Robinton said, collapsing in his usual chair by sheer force of habit.  “But that’s neither here nor there.  Since we made it after all, why don’t you check your instruments?”

                The wormhole is open, AIVAS informed him silently.

                Robinton didn’t say what he thought of that, but undoubtedly AIVAS heard it anyway.  Did anything come through it yet?

                Not that we’ve recorded.

                How long has it been open?

                About two months, from the timestamps we have here.

                Robinton sighed.

                D’ram and Lytol pulled chairs up around him. 

                “We need an explanation,” D’ram said plainly, folding his arms across his chest.  “Tiroth thought you were dying.”

                “I thought I was dying,” Robinton said.  “Thankfully, we were both wrong.  But convey my deepest apologies to him; that must have been very alarming to have on his back all the way through between.”  Why don’t you tell them about the wormhole? he prompted AIVAS.

                “D’ram, Lytol. Per master Robinton’s suggestion, I have just checked the sensors on Yokohama, and something I predicted might happen six months ago has occurred, roughly as of two months ago.”

                As AIVAS explained what a wormhole was, Robinton studied D’ram’s and Lytol’s faces, finding the same deep concern tinged by hidden fear that he himself had felt when AIVAS had revealed it to him.  Then he noticed he was being watched, by Menolly.

                He braced an elbow on the armrest, and set his chin on his fist, and watched her back.

                Eventually her eyes lit with fond exasperation.

                He reached over and gave her knee a little pat, then returned his attention to the conversation at hand.

                AIVAS, at his silent okay, went on to explain what had happened with the implant, why Robinton had been ill for six months (although he tactfully neglected to say he was in Robinton’s head all the time, casting the neural linkage as a mere dumb tool, like a key to a door).  He mentioned the defect in Robinton’s heart that had been repaired—although AIVAS didn’t mention the artificial part—and what he theorized had happened on that jump between. He apologized again to D’ram and by extension to Tiroth.

                When AIVAS was done, Robinton moved, catching their attention, and said, “I hope I can count on your discretion, here.  If Abominators were after me before…well. Just as well nobody knows what a neural implant is, eh?” He sobered. “We will eventually have to address the wormhole issue. But, I hope to have been through—and back—with more information before that goes before the Conclave.”

                Lytol wiped his face with a hand, and said, “By Faranth’s tears, Robinton!”

                D’ram had less to say, but his eyes had plenty of unspoken thoughts behind them.

                Before Robinton could offer him half-marks for his thoughts, there was a sound beyond the door, and then it popped open, and the Benden Weyrleaders, bronzerider F’lar and Weyrwoman Lessa, entered.

                “D’ram,” Lessa said, spotting him first.  “Ramoth said—oh, Robinton!”

                “Is that a direct quote?” Robinton asked curiously.

                F’lar and Menolly laughed.  D’ram and Lytol didn’t, their minds still caught up by thoughts of the wormhole.

                Robinton scooted his chair around and let Lessa cross the room and enfold him in a hug.  They were nearly the same height, when he stayed sitting.

                “Oh, your poor hair,” Lessa said, after attempting to squeeze the air out of him.  She pushed him away to peer at what seemed to be a tight, spiky cropping.  It was indeed a meager offering compared to her thick, inky braid.

                “At my age, I am glad that I have hair at all,” Robinton said optimistically.

                “Hmm.  Perhaps we could get you a barber?” she asked, fluffing a tiny bit with her fingers doubtfully.

                F’lar came and rescued Robinton from his weyrmate’s beauty aspirations by putting his hands on her shoulders and pulling her backwards into him.  “Did you just wake up today?” F’lar asked, loosely crossing his wrists in front of Lessa’s collarbones.

                Robinton wiggled an ambiguous hand.  “Few days ago.  Today was the first day I felt prepared to return to Landing.  But I wanted to check up on AIVAS, and take a look around.”

                “Are you back too, AIVAS?” F’lar asked the screen.

                Replying through the wall speaker, AIVAS said, “I’ve always been around. However, I had some heavy calculations to do that have taken my immediate attention away. But I see students have been making good use of my databases when my attention has been elsewhere. I daresay you don’t need me at all, at this point. Just the information to learn from.”

                F’lar frowned.  “I suppose not, but your disappearance in conjunction with Robinton’s…collapse…was concerning.”

                “I understand, and am sorry for the fright. I will give more notice in the future,” AIVAS said. “For example, while you have my attention currently, today, it’s likely I’ll become unavailable again in the near future.”

                F’lar frowned.  “Why?”

                “Heavy calculations. I shut my interface here down to save resources.  As you know yourselves, interacting one-on-one takes a large chunk of an individual’s attention.”

                Robinton fiddled with the armrest of his chair, and wondered if AIVAS has always been this disingenuous, or if it was something he’d learned from being in his head.

                Unless you want me to tell them? AIVAS asked.

                Robinton eyed D’ram and Lytol, who still seemed unsettled.  I have enough on my plate as it is.

                Lessa glanced at Robinton, frowning.

                He stared back, and ran his hand over his shorn head.  Perhaps he should get a hat, he mused.

                She freed herself from F’lar’s loose embrace, and said, “Well, Master Robinton, it’s excellent news to see you up and about.  In fact, I’m sure everyone will want to know, and see you. Perhaps you’ll come to our next Hatching?  It’s one of Ramoth’s clutches,” and her face softened into a smile.

                “I am still recovering, I have good days and bad ones,” Robinton said.  “But if I can, I’ll be sure to come.  Menolly has indicated,” and he gave her a smile, “That I was quite missed.”

                “That’s a bit of an understatement,” F’lar murmured.  “What happened to Harpers and hyperbole?”

                “I could fling myself over his body and scream, ‘No! Don’t leave me!’?” Menolly suggested.

                There was a laugh.

                Robinton says, “Are you sure you didn’t do that?”

                Menolly normally had much better control over her flustered reactions these days, but now she turned red.

                He chortled.  She was going to go through a wormhole with him, simply so he wouldn’t be alone.  In comparison, everything else was dull and moderate.

                Somehow, someway, nobody raised the topic of wormholes, neural implants, AI Impressions, or anything else in front of the Benden Weyrleaders.  But Robinton did find himself taken firmly by the elbow by Lessa, and led on a short tour of Landing, so people could see he was alive, well, and still sensible and sane when he spoke.

                And he and AIVAS learned the short-range radio that allowed AIVAS to speak out the wall speaker cut out at about ten dragonlengths.

 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Two

 

                Robinton rubbed the back of his neck absently, then snatched his fingers away as something thin broke and leaked moisture all over his fingers, like the surface of a severe sunburn.

                What’s being built, AIVAS said, is the interface you’ll use when connecting to the ship. It’s almost done, which is why the skin is shedding.

                “Mm,” Robinton said, staring at the smear of copper across his fingertips, and rose to take care of the rather disgusting problem.

                When he was in his room, tying and re-tying a decorative scarf around his neck and trying to figure out if it was possible to wear such a thing without looking…well, unusual…Lytol appeared in the doorway and knocked on the jamb.

                “Ah,” Robinton said.  “I see my audience for this fashion-show has arrived.”

                “Actually, there’s two harpers that just showed up, with D’ram, looking for you.  Tuck and Swift, they say.”

                “Oh? I wonder if Sebell briefed them or if I’ll have to do it myself.”

                “They mentioned they’re going with you on your next trip…but seemed remarkably ignorant about where that trip was headed.”

                Robinton sighed. “Sebell’s having fun with me, then. Oh well.”  He turned to Lytol, flapped his hands at his upper body and head.  “Does this look odd?”

                “You still need to gain more weight,” Lytol remarked bluntly.  “And grow more hair.”

                “No, I mean—never mind.”  He went to pull the stupid scarf off, but the back of his neck twinged, the fabric already stuck to it and stemming the small amount of bleeding, so he left the scarf dangling in embroidered waves, for now.

                He did select another tunic from the wardrobe, a nicer one, so the scarf wasn’t so obviously fancy against a plain backdrop.

                “Robinton,” Lytol said, still hovering there as he dressed.

                “Yes, my friend?”

                “I’ve decided I’m coming with you.”

                Robinton blinked.  “…to debrief Tuck and Swift? You can if you want.”

                “No.  To space.  To beyond.”

                Robinton stared at him, and buttoned up his tunic.

                “I know languages. I’ve been studying them.  Yes, my knowledge—and AIVAS’ of them—may be two thousand turns out of date…but I’m still the only Pernese who can speak another language that isn’t simply a woodsie dialect.”

                For an instant, Robinton was tempted to speak one of the thickest dialects he knew, which he could speak fluently and Lytol could not, but it would be petty, and besides, Lytol did have a point.  “Very good,” he said.  “Welcome to my little expedition!”

                Now it was Lytol’s turn to blink, as if he’d been expecting more resistance.

                A sly smile crept over Robinton’s face.  “Far be it for me to get in the way of a former Dragonrider, Weaver, Lord Warder, and Landing Administrator when he decides to add another notch to his belt.”

                Lytol decided to become offended.  “Is that what you think this is about—?”

                Tunic buttoned, Robinton approached Lytol, and took him by the elbow.  “Is that what you think I think, my friend?” he asked, as he led Lytol out of his bedroom.  Then he chuckled and patted Lytol’s back, and fancied he could feel the hackles easing under his soothing hand.  “No. I value your wildly varied expertise.”  Looking about, he didn’t see any sign of the two harpers Lytol claimed had arrived, so he said to Lytol, “Cover your ears.”

                Obligingly, Lytol did, although with a frown.

                “TUCK?” Robinton bellowed at the top of his lungs.  It was a surprisingly good bellow, given his condition.  “SWIFT?  REPORT!”  In a lesser tone, he said, “I’m done.”

                Lytol uncovered his ears, and followed Robinton into his study, taking up residence on a small loveseat offset from Robinton’s desk.

                It wasn’t long before Robinton heard boots in the corridor.  He had just handed Lytol a glass of wine, and had poured a tiny little-finger-width for himself (he still didn’t dare drink seriously), and a more generous splash into two more glasses, when they entered his study, D’ram trailing behind.

                “You bellowed?” Tuck remarked with an easy grin upon seeing him, while his junior associate Swift attempted to give Tuck  a quelling look, far more intimidated by the former-Masterharper.

                “Indeed I did.” Robinton added another glass, and capped the skin, before waving at the three glasses lined up across his desk.  “Help yourselves, gentlemen.  And sit.”

                Tuck easily dropped into one of the chairs, the glass of wine held ostensibly, like a socialite, despite his rugged clothing.  Swift, who was new and had dealt with Sebell much more often than Robinton, was much more restrained, and sat on the edge of the other chair with the wine, not even touching it, as if even a sip might dull his edge. Was Swift a teetotaler? Perhaps that was good, all things considered, given his own proclivities.

                D’ram took the third glass, sipped it like a normal person who had no skin in this game—which he didn’t—and went to prop up a wall.

                Robinton leaned back in his chair, and tasted his wine.

                “Nice scarf,” Tuck commented.

                “Oh, you like it? Perhaps I can kick off a new fashion trend.”  Then he said, when sounds of other Cove Hold residents or visitors trickled in from outside, “Would someone mind shutting the door?”

                D’ram obliged, then returned to his wall.

                “Thank you, bronzerider.”

                Once everyone was settled, Robinton spoke. “I am given to understand today,” Robinton said, “That Sebell has not told you why you’re here.”

                Tuck said, “He said we were assigned to you ‘indefinitely’.”

                Swift added, to Robinton, “You’re looking good, sir.” As if he’d had an entirely different scenario about his new assignment in his head.

                “The rumors of my demise were just rumors. Although I did fall ill for…quite a while,” Robinton admitted, reflexively touching his shorn head again. He would have to stop that habit, it made him look insecure.

                Tuck said, his smile fading, “I was ordered to tidy up rather thoroughly, before reporting here. We won’t be able to recover those resources.”

                “Right,” Robinton said. “You too, Swift?”

                The younger man nodded.

                “Good.  Good, good, good.  So the long and the short of it, gentlemen, is that the AIVAS revealed something to me, roughly six months ago, now.”

                “About the time you fell ill,” Tuck observed.

                “Yes, but—it wasn’t malicious, wild rumors to the contrary.  What he revealed to me was that the sensors on the Yokohama were picking up the formation of a new wormhole, in the outer space of Rukbat’s solar system…”

                As succinctly as he could, he summarized up what a wormhole was, and why it was direly important to the future of Pern. Then, more delicately, without mentioning AIVAS’s presence in his head, Robinton mentioned the fast-courier ship stowed away on the Yokohama, which bore necklin rods that could take it through the wormhole.  And revealed that he, Robinton, was the only one capable of piloting that ship, due to a device, a key that AIVAS had entrusted to him. And that he was going to take it through the wormhole, to see what was on the other side, and if the other side had other human civilizations, he’d need two good Harpers to watch his back.  “Which is where you two come in.”

                Tuck shot to his feet.  “I knew it, I knew it. If it walks, talks, and snorts like a wher—“

                “Really?” Robinton asked.  “You genuinely imagined this?” His eyes crinkled.

                “I knew Masterharper Sebell wouldn’t have told me to be so through if it wasn’t for a reason.”

                “You didn’t imagine this, then.”

                “I knew it was like the bad old days,” Tuck claimed.

                “Bad?” Robinton said. “I very much hope not. But—I suppose you are correct.  We won’t know what we’ll find out there.  Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”  Robinton drummed his fingers on his desk, a bit of a martial beat.  “Will you two accompany me?  I know Sebell ordered you to—but, we are going on what could be a very wild ride, so if you wish to bow out…I won’t hold it against you.”

                I don’t know how they could say no, when you use that tone of voice, AIVAS remarked.

                That’s the point, Robinton said, suppressing a smile.

                “Over my dead body,” Tuck said.  “And then I’ll arrange to get my dead body on your ship as a stowaway.”

                That image startled Lytol into a laugh, over in his corner.

                “Good.  Welcome to my little team, then.  Menolly and Lytol are the other two participants, so far.”

                “Menolly?” Tuck asked, startled.

                “Yes, the same woman who got shipwrecked with me in that storm right before we discovered this place,” Robinton said, gesturing around him. “She’s quite handy in a pinch. I wouldn’t have survived without her.” Very literally.

                Tuck shut his mouth.

                “Swift?” Robinton said, studying the younger man. Swift was a pale young man with dark hair and dark eyes.  Sebell wouldn’t have selected him if he didn’t trust him with Robinton’s life.  But he was a bit of a cipher to Robinton.  Hopefully, also to anyone else who met him, given the sorts of things the Harper Hall had him doing.

                “I’m with you,” Swift said.  His wine glass was still untouched in his hand.

                “Good. Now, when we go through that wormhole, I’ve decided we will pretend to be Traders.  Or, not so much pretend, because AIVAS informed me marks, Harper Hall or otherwise, will be less than useless to galactics. We will need to load our ship with a convincing array of trade goods, that we can sell to finance—to finance whatever it is we decide to do out there.  The AIVAS tells me fine instruments are relatively illiquid on the galactic market, historically, especially where the provenance can’t be proven, as it will be difficult to prove until we chose to reveal Pern’s presence—or that choice is wrested from us.

                “Tuck, Swift—you’ve both posed as salesmen from other Crafts, successfully to the Harper Hall’s bottom line, might I add, which makes you less actors than one might imagine at first blush,” Robinton grinned. “So I would like both of you to come up with a list of small goods with high profit margins, so I can convene with Master Sebell and determine how much the Harper Hall is willing to finance this expedition.”

                “Yes, sir,” they said.

                This was the one thing Robinton regretted, not being Masterharper anymore; he no longer had direct access to an entire Crafthall of capitol. The few times he’d had to tap it—especially during Fax’s horrific reign—had allowed him to pull off capers he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to manage with Harper manpower alone.  Such as manipulating markets so Fax’s militarization was delayed or slowed down by a deficit of raw materials.  Robinton found himself smiling as he remembered how he’d diverted a very large shipment of iron, and had managed to get it contaminated in such a way that any blades made from it were worthless.

                Lytol said, pensively, “Robinton.”

                “Yes?”

                Lytol cleared his throat slightly, and rubbed at one of the scars on his face, and said, “I may be able to persuade Ruatha to…finance part of this. To help lighten the burden on the Harper Hall.  But Lord Jaxom will want to know something.”

                “Lord Jaxom’s always been good at keeping secrets,” Robinton mused.

                Lytol snorted.

                “Yes, go ahead. Perhaps speak to Sharra, too?” Southern Hold was undoubtedly one of the richest Holds currently, even though the northern lords pretended heavily otherwise.

                “Perhaps.”

                Robinton turned back to the others. “Other than financing this caper, and stocking our ship with necessities, we will all need to go to Landing at some point, to be issued IDs.”

                “What’s an ‘ID’, sir?” Swift asked.

                “It stands for ‘identification’. AIVAS tells me the population in galactic holds is so vast that individuals are issued slips of paper or plastic with photographs of themselves, and things like their rank, age, gender, et cetera listed on them.  They can’t tell their people apart, otherwise. There’s no threadfall or Hold system where everybody knows everybody. In a way…they’re all Holdless.  We will need to devise a system of galactic identification for Pernese, as having no papers is potentially more trouble than having obscurely foreign ones.”

                “We’ll be happy to provide transportation,” D’ram said.  “When would you like to do this?”

                Robinton hesitated. “I believe Menolly is at Landing, with Journeyman Piemur.  Would…now?...be too much of an imposition?”

                “Now is fine,” D’ram said. “Meet us outside when you are ready.”

                AIVAS suddenly threw something up in Robinton’s mind’s eye—something he hadn’t realized AIVAS could do.  It was an image of earlier colonial IDs, one for Admiral Paul Benden, one was a pre-colonial ID for Emily Boll, when she was Governor of Tau Ceti. The last one was the ID of Kitti Ping, scientist.  We could adapt these three templates for Weyr, Hold, and Hall, AIVAS suggested.  The encryption schemes and forgery protections, especially, otherwise Pern will become the galactic destination for false papers.

                When everyone is from Pern, no one will be? Robinton snorted.

                “Anything else you need from us, sir?” Tuck said, mistaking Robinton for being deep in thought.

                “Not at the moment.  At Landing we’ll adapt the original colonial ID format that the ancients used for themselves.  Oh, Tuck, Swift…change into something Harperly, for your portrait, will you?  Pretend you are attending a Hatching as Master and Journeyman, as the face of the Hall.”

                “Will do.”  They got up, and just before they left, Tuck noticed Swift’s undrunk glass, and drained it for him.  Swift looked embarrassed.  Robinton said nothing.

                “The face of the Hall, eh?” Lytol said, looking at Robinton’s scarf.

                Robinton wasn’t so much concerned about the scarf as his hair.

                I have many images of you on file, Master Robinton, AIVAS said. We can ensure your ID shows you with hair.

                Thank you, Robinton said gruffly.  To Lytol, he said, “AIVAS already has images of me in his file.  What I wear today doesn’t really matter.”

                Lytol chuckled, then left to get ready for the trip to Landing.

 

#

 

                At Landing, while Lytol, Tuck, and Swift were having their Official Colonial Identification created, Menolly found Robinton, with Piemur at her side, and jerked her head at him and gave Robinton a Significant Look.

                Piemur, for one, appeared a bit wet-eyed, and Robinton realized that this was the first time that Piemur had seen him since his six months of ghastly illness.

                Robinton opened his arms, and Piemur blinked, then moved in to crush him with a fierce hug.  “Glad you’re back with us, sir,” Piemur said into his shoulder.

                Over his head, Menolly mouthed, He should come with us.

                Robinton said, out loud, “Have you told him?”

                She shook her head.

                “Told me what?” Piemur asked, pulling back suspiciously.

                An intrusive thought glibly cavorted through Robinton’s head and caroled, We’re getting married! Which was entirely untrue, entirely inappropriate, and…all sorts of other things…but, admittedly, would provoke a rather amusing look of shock on Piemur’s face.  Menolly’s too.

                Though, when it came down to it, asking someone if they wanted to come on a wormhole ride was pretty absurd.  Although in this case, completely true and accurate.

                “Let’s go get your ID created, and I’ll tell you,” Robinton said, assuming that if Menolly had had a change of heart about Piemur’s availability to come along with them, it was for a reason. Hopefully not a sad one, but that generally was why many couples didn’t make announcements until they were certain a child had quickened.

                Lytol, Tuck, and Swift were comparing small plastic cards in their hands, which glittered with rainbows and holograms.  They looked up when Robinton entered with Menolly and Piemur in tow, and then returned to their comparisons.

                Lytol broke off, and handed Robinton one of the cards, Menolly the other.  Robinton was gratified to see that indeed, he had hair, and he also looked more filled out in the face.  And of course, had no scarf around his neck.  Lytol said, “Congratulations, Masterdiplomat Robinton.  You’re the head of a Crafthall, again.”  He paused.  “Albeit a rogue one, until the Conclave recognizes you. Your Hall colors are pink, purple, and blue.  Red was deemed ‘too bloody’.”

                Piemur glanced at Robinton and Lytol, listening intently.

                “If I’m the Masterdiplomat,” Robinton said, studying the card, which did say he was the Masterdiplomat, as well as a Master of the Harper Hall, and former Masterharper of the Harper Hall…and, oddly, of the Telgar bloodline. “Who are you, Lytol?”

                “Your second.”

                “Ah.  And, AIVAS, why the bloodline…?” He tended not to mention that. The last thing Robinton had ever needed was anyone imagining he was plotting to take Lord Larad’s Hold away from him.  Especially in the days of Fax, when Larad had been a boy and Robinton in his prime. Or the time of Thella…

                “If you’re considered Pernese aristocracy, no matter how distant to the main bloodline, it may open galactic doors to you that would otherwise would stay shut.”

                “Okay, what exactly have I missed?” Piemur asked Menolly. “Why are we establishing another new Crafthall? What galactic doors?”

                Robinton turned to his former student, and took him aside to summarize. He was getting quite good at this whole wormhole spiel.  Also, Piemur’s blue eyes bulging out was highly amusing.

                But, Menolly ended up being correct that Piemur was going to come with them now.

                The surprise was that Master Jancis was too.  Piemur insisted, listed all her (considerable) talents.  And AIVAS supported it. We may possibly need her, to help service the ship at some point.

                So Piemur was sent to find his wife, Robinton repeated his explanation, and then the total number in Robinton’s crazy little scheme increased to seven.

 

#

 

 

                Over the next few days, shipments of high-value tradable goods made their way to Cove Hold, mostly by way of D’ram…but then Lord Jaxom and Ruth showed up, Ruth more heavily burdened than Robinton had ever seen him.

                “Lord Jaxom!” Robinton greeted him, rising from the chair on the porch where he and AIVAS had been running more tests under the guise of “napping”.  “What a pleasant surprise!”  He trotted down the steps of the front porch to meet Lord Jaxom on the beach, extending his hands as he did so.

                What started as a respectful arm-clasp turned into a somewhat shy hug as Jaxom, like many others, wanted to make extra-sure that Robinton was in fine fettle.  Robinton allowed the embrace and did his own surreptitious assessment, to see if, oh, any new thread-scars or other marks had showed up yet upon Jaxom’s person.  Doing his own assessment, the young Lord’s eyes did flick up to Robinton’s hair, but he tactfully said nothing.

                “You really have Ruth kitted up this morning,” Robinton observed.

                “Oh, Lytol mentioned needing some supplies at Cove,” Jaxom said lightly.  “It’s been a while since we’ve brought a little something by.”

                “Well let me get you some brawn to help with all of that, if only so Ruth doesn’t sweat his tail off in this heat.  Cover your ears.”

                Jaxom stepped away instead, knowing full well what was going to happen.

                “TUCK!  SWIFT!  PIEMUR!  MENOLLY!”  He paused, considered including Jancis simply so she wouldn’t feel left out, then decided maybe he shouldn’t order a Smith with her Mastery around as casually as he did his Harpers.

                Well, Sebell’s Harpers.

                But for this expedition, his too.  His Diplomats.

                Despite the lack of her name, Jancis came anyway, chatting with Menolly, and together everyone quickly stripped Ruth back down to his harness, carting the goods indoors, then Jaxom stripped that off too, so the white dragon could paddle and splash in the warm ocean waters.

                “No, no,” Jaxom said in response to something Ruth said silently. “He didn’t really believe that could happen.  It was an expression. Your tail’s fine.”

                Ruth is small enough to fit in the cargo hold of the fast-courier, AIVAS mused.

                Robinton immediately nixed that idea with a barrage of emotions.  He wasn’t taking the sitting Lord Holder of Ruatha and his former Warder Lytol into deep space at the same time. That would undo everything they strove to do, getting Ruatha into capable hands.

                I was thinking more in the future, if we establish friendly diplomatic relations. It would be easier to demonstrate “dragons” by transporting a smaller one like Ruth, instead of a gigantic one like Ramoth.

                Maybe someday, a voice said wistfully.

                “Maybe someday what?” Jaxom asked, puzzled.

                The AIVAS thinks I can fit in their ship.

                “…the AIVAS is in Landing,” Jaxom said.  “Who told you that the AIVAS thinks—“

                Robinton considered doing damage control, and then decided to simply walk away—with the AIVAS in his head—and let Jaxom puzzle over things as he bathed his dragon.

                When they were inside, AIVAS said, I must remember not to speak to you when dragons are about.

                “Ruth’s special,” Robinton murmured.  “He’s a bit quicker on the uptake. Or at least, more concerned with human things.”

                The trade goods from Ruatha Hold were put into the storage rooms with the items from the Harper Hall, and when Robinton eventually made his way there to survey their growing hoard, he noticed some unusual items on one of the shelf.  A jeweled belt-knife, a fine pair of leather boots with fancy embroidery and leather-work on the cuffs.

                Spotting someone walking by, Robinton said, “D’ram?”

                The former Weyrleader of Ista poked his head in.

                “Where did these come from?”  Ruatha’s offerings were still packed, and they hadn’t been on any list sent to Sebell.

                D’ram came and stood next to him, surveying the shelf Robinton indicated.  “Various places.  Southern, Nerat, Crom, a little place called Lady’s Brook,” and he pointed at various finely-Crafted things.

                Robinton cocked his head.

                D’ram shrugged.  “Tithe.  I rarely use my privileges, I have everything I could possibly want.  But you’re not working with Benden or any other Weyr just yet, and this endeavor of yours is potentially just as important as anything the Holds or Weyrs these places look to do.”

                It went against the grain to accept these tithe goods that D’ram had blithely collected, given how many turns Robinton had spent working out the cultural clash between Oldtimer greed and modern tolerance (or rather, intolerance) of tithe.  (Also, Robinton was unused to tithe coming to him, instead of flowing away.) At the same time, Robinton knew quite well that D’ram had never been an Oldtimer to abuse the tradition, and had disciplined the riders in his Weyr who’d gotten out of hand.

                “If it helps,” D’ram said, understanding Robinton’s slightly dismayed expression, “I got fewer things of this quality until I put a word in their ears that it was for you.”

                Did that make it better, or worse? Robinton wasn’t entirely sure.  He disliked the idea that someone might short a dragonrider but not him.  As if he were something more than a dragonrider, more worthy. That was wrong, too.

                Then a delicate glass box caught his eye, and when he opened it up, it contained a matching set of masculine rings.

                “That one was peculiar.  I’m afraid I unintentionally gave the impression that I was courting you.”  D’ram chuckled, Oldtimer weyrbred man that he was, and more given to amusement at such ideas than terror.

                “…is that what they think we do here at Cove?” Robinton said, knowing the answer even before he spoke.

                “Oh, not just in Cove.  All Southerners, I suspect. But yes. There’s some speculation about what three, old unmarried men do together at night when left all alone.”

                “Lytol will be horrified to learn he’s in on the fun.” Clearly, the general public didn’t realize that Robinton’s dragonrider-riding days were long, long over.  With the death of F’lon, actually.  And that he currently spent his time plotting about wormholes, in the most unsexy and uneuphemistic of fashions.  “Who named them ‘wormholes’ anyway?” he asked rhetorically.

                John Archibald Wheeler, AIVAS said.

                Who?

                An ancient Earth theoretical physicist.

                Robinton automatically stored that bit of trivia back in his brain, for later use, possibly in a teaching ballad.

                D’ram, aware that Robinton’s attention had strayed away from discussion about the general public’s gossip, slipped away.

                Is there anything going on between you two? AIVAS asked.

                It was an unusually prurient question.

                Not intended to be prurient; I simply find human interactions fascinating.

                Robinton said, Nothing serious. We flirt because flirting is fun, and because it would give certain persons conniptions, which is also great fun to imagine.  You know, they accuse both the Harper Hall and just about any given Weyrleader of certain propensities, but turn the most delightful shade of purple if you do anything that appears to confirm it.

                AIVAS was silent for a moment.  Then he said, It’s very likely, Master Robinton, that if we encounter human civilization on the other side of the wormhole, you will encounter societies where wildly different ideas of sexuality and gender are openly acknowledged and commonly accepted. You may want to discuss this with your crew.

                My crew, now, is it?

                AIVAS wasn’t diverted. He said, Someone challenging someone else to a duel or blood-feud because they were caught off-guard and embarrassed could quickly get out of hand. I especially would like you to talk to Tuck and Swift, as we’ll be arming them.

                Arming them?

                With stunners, yes. A device that shocks a human into unconsciousness. It’s less lethal than other weapons, but can still cause death when combined with a victim’s unknown medical conditions or age, or environmental conditions such as water or fire or other dangers a stunned person cannot move out of.  I would like to ensure anyone wielding such a weapon is prepared for insults and shocks that might not actually be insults, but common everyday occurrences within another society and culture.

                Robinton chewed on his lip.  Tuck can definitely control himself. I do not know Swift’s views.  But I see your point. I will talk to…everyone.  Perhaps when we’re on the Yokohama?

                That would do, AIVAS said.  Changing subjects—I see there are some items of gold and silver and copper here.

                Yes?

                I’d like to ask you to do something with them that you might find slightly disturbing.

                Robinton waited.

                There’s still some structural work I need to do in you that hasn’t been completed, primarily because you lacked the materials in your body, and attempting to convert materials you do have in abundance to ones I need is messy and inefficient.

                Inefficient? Master Fandarel’s least-favorite word.  What are you suggesting?

                I would like you to break some of those unneeded items down, and eat them.

                Robinton concluded AIVAS was right, that was mildly disturbing.  A voice in his head was asking him to eat non-edible things.

                Alternately, you could beg raw materials from a Smith, but I thought perhaps you wouldn’t want to interact with someone directly when you intend to consume the results.

                Why do you need this, again?

                The connecting electrodes being formed on your neck should ideally be gold-plated, as that’s safer and more efficient. I already used my stores of gold for your artificial heart, so I need more. Silver and copper are also useful in trace amounts for other items.  A pause.  I could use more elemental earth, and other heavy metals, too, but I’m afraid at this point the industry of Pern isn’t advanced enough to get me pure or bio-available samples, and I’d spend more time preventing you from being poisoned than it’d be worth. If our journey through the wormhole is successful, perhaps we can buy them off-world in the correct isomers.

                Robinton considered this.

                AIVAS added, Gold is completely inert in the human body; you could eat sheets of gold foil comfortably, and they are used in some culinary traditions. Silver is less safe, but I would use it before it harmed you.  Same with copper.  A pause.  Don’t eat lead.

                Lead had always been, culturally, a strongly forbidden material to use for anything, despite its attractive properties when it came to dyes and certain forms of metalworking.  AIVAS’s databanks confirming it as a neurotoxin had comforted Robinton.  It was comforting to know some of the “superstition” handed down from their ancestors was not unfounded, but based on real science, as corrupted as it’d been over the turns.  Robinton chuckled.  I won’t eat lead.

                But with AIVAS’s help, he did select some of the trade goods that seemed to have more worth as materials than finished items, and, er…

                …went off to eat things he hoped nobody observed him eating.

 

#

 

                Master Jancis, it turned out, ended up being a blessing faster than Robinton had anticipated. She had unquestioned access to intact, working spacesuits they could use on the Yokohama, and was able to find sizes that would fit all of them, in triplicate.  The monumental task of moving the anti-matter engines to the Red Star being completed, nobody cared if a few spacesuits vanished, especially when it was a Master Smith taking them, presumably for some related project.

                Lytol spent most of his time studying up on the languages that AIVAS said were the most common at the time of Pern’s founding.  AIVAS also compiled a broad swathe of study material that covered diverse human customs, although nobody could be sure exactly what configuration they would or wouldn’t encounter any of these in.

                Tuck, Swift, and Piemur, with prototype stunners that Jancis and Piemur had assembled from highly secret, restricted blueprints provided by AIVAS, went off with D’ram into the middle of the jungle to practice and test their utility on each other, and unfortunate native fauna, which it worked on erratically.  Fellis proved a good counter to post-stun hangover, and was consumed liberally.

                Menolly, with her Sea-Holder background, handled the logistics of obtaining food that would keep on a ship, and therefore a space ship, for long periods of time.  She remarked to Robinton wryly, “I saw my mother do this all the time, but never imagined handling it myself. I never intended to marry a Captain or take another position that would have me doing it. I suppose you never know what knowledge will come in handy later on.”

                Robinton continued frequent “naps” which AIVAS used to run more tests and calibrations.  Robinton also continued his occasionally-odd hunts for things to ingest…usually foods with protein, to rebuild muscle, but sometimes small items containing a certain element AIVAS said he needed. 

                The more he did it, however, the more Robinton found the practice intensely distasteful, and not just in taste.  It was humiliating, acting like he had an eating disorder when he wouldn’t ordinarily consume such things of his own free will.  AIVAS soothed him by saying it was only temporary, and he wasn’t showing any genuine signs of pica at all. 

                In fact, AIVAS said, Robinton had been so preternaturally patient with the whole process of being attuned as a jump ship pilot that AIVAS was shocked that this was the first scenario Robinton was showing considerable emotional distress over.

                Do you actually feel shock? Robinton deflected, although he was genuinely curious.

                AIVAS said, An unlikely event according to one’s internal calculations often “shocks” people. By that standard, yes, I’m shocked you haven’t been more irate with me before this.

                Robinton chewed on that briefly, then put everything out of his head, and AIVAS was wise enough—or rather, literally attuned to Robinton’s mind—not to mention it again.

 

#

 

                Per Lessa’s invitation, Robinton did attend Ramoth’s next Hatching, an event that had a peculiar veneer of preemptive nostalgia over it.  Would this be the last Hatching he’d see for a while? He didn’t know.

                Today he’d abandoned his fancier scarves for a plain, pleated thing to hide the back of his neck discreetly.  AIVAS called it a cravat, and Robinton ended up being pulled to the side during the post—Hatching feast by Masterweaver Zurg for a discussion about that “marvelous innovation” wound about his neck.

                Robinton airily waved it off as a consequence of his short hair, pale skin, and the hot Southern sun, and diverted Zurg into a wide-ranging discussion about how Ancient fashions were being used in modern times.  Zurg was a bit tickled that Robinton actually had an interest in fashion for once—he’d always hinted he thought Harpers and Weavers should be more closely-affiliated than other Crafts, one side making the clothes, the other showing them off spectacularly—and as Robinton listened with seeming attention, his mind wandered to the types of clothing other people wore out amongst the stars.

                Maybe they all walked about naked.

                AIVAS didn’t comment, but he’d gone entirely incognito in this venue swarming with dragons.

                It was almost like being alone in his head again.

                It was oddly lonely.

                Master Domick was present at the Hatching, and offered him a turn conducting the players, but Robinton sidled out of that one, claiming he owed a few dances.  Then he found himself, oddly, offering Brekke a dance.  She was rarely his first pick—Robinton gravitated to chatty partners, who would fill his ears with gossip—but in a very short time he’d have little use for local gossip, so he couldn’t bring himself to care about his usual information-gathering tactics, and instead gravitated towards Brekke’s calm and soothing nature.

                Brekke studied him as they danced, almost assessing, and Robinton had a vague memory that she had been one of the ones who had cared for him during that mostly-unconscious six months.  Well, here he was, whole and hale.  Well, mostly.  He still got tired quickly, and by the time they were done with the relatively slow dance, he found himself heading towards a seat on the sidelines.

                “You’re looking better,” Brekke said, a not-uncommon refrain tonight.

                “I’m much better,” Robinton said, sitting.  Then he gathered her hand in his and said, “And I can’t begin to express my gratitude, or how much I owe you for your time.”  He squeezed her hand gently.  “I’m told—“ Rather, he remembered hearing distressed words, from more than one person, “—my illness and convalescence was somewhat disturbing to behold.”

                “It wasn’t so bad, as such things go,” Brekke said quietly.  “I’ve seen worse.”

                He supposed in a Weyr, she would.

                “I was very surprised by a few aspects, however,” she added.

                He blinked.

                “Did you know,” she said slowly, “That you have an unusually regular pulse?”

                “Do I? I admit I don’t have much experience in the matter of…listening to heartbeats.  Drum beats, on the other hand—” and he raised his hand to sketch out regular 4/4 time—

                And his vision whited out.

                Implant unsynched. Try again? Y/N

                Not this bloody mess again!  AIVAS!  AIVAS?

                No response.

                Hissing, he lowered his arms, but the beat of drums pounded in his ears, and his vision did not return.

                “Master Robinton?” Brekke said beside him.

                His hand twitched in that too-familiar spasm, and his knees locked jarringly, pitching him forward out of the seat.  Wetness spurted against the back of his neck, oozed down beneath the cravat.

                Paralysis Override AIVAS 50 61 72 61 6c 79 73 69 73 20 4f 76 65 72 72 69 6d 61 6d 70 25

                Hexadecimal numbers flashed across his vision, and then his vision came back and his limbs unlocked, and he found himself kneeling on the ground, with Brekke crouching next to him, and Manora hurrying over.

                “Manora, I think he’s seizing—“ Her hand was on the back of his neck.  “Oh, he’s wet! What happened?” and inquisitive fingers tugged at the fabric.

                In a flash he grabbed her hand and pulled it away, and then to hide his panic, and to apologize for the way he’d accidentally crushed her fingers, he loosened his grip and raised her hand to his lips to kiss it softly in a valiant gesture.  While kneeling before her.  Which probably looked—well, if F’nor wanted to come deck him for inappropriate interactions with his weyrmate, Robinton supposed he could.  “My dear lady, I apologize most profoundly for startling you.  I go into spasms sometimes when I lift my arms to a certain height—but somatic instinct is deep and occasionally I forget, and put myself in this mess!”  He laughed at himself, a good old I’m such a magnificent idiot chuckle.

                Manora, standing over him, said, “That suggests spinal damage—“

                And before Robinton could catch her hand too, Manora pulled down the back of his cravat.

                The expression on Manora’s face caused Brekke to jerk her hand away from him and rise to hover over him.  Her cool fingers pulled down the cravat further.  “What is that?”

                Shoving himself back up onto the seat, Robinton untied the front of his cravat, whipped it off, refolded it, and retied it firmly over the thing they were staring at.  “I appreciate your concern, ladies,” he said in his gentlest tone, “But I really am just fine.  That was just a blip, in comparison.”

                Manora, nonplussed, said, “Tell me why I shouldn’t march Sebell over here right now.”

                “You can if you want. He’s aware of the seizures.”

                “It’s not the seizures we’re concerned about,” Brekke said.

                “You’d have Sebell examine the back of my neck like a dirty Apprentice who hasn’t washed?” Robinton said, in a low, sardonic tone that he hoped conveyed that he was considering becoming Insulted.

                Brekke jerked back slightly like he’d slapped her—she’d always been sensitive to social nuance—but then rubbed her fingers together, and to his discomfort, he saw whatever was leaking out of the back of his neck had left a slimy sheen.  “This doesn’t seem to be medicated, or full of numbweed.”

                AIVAS, quiet until now, whispered, Lubricant, to protect your skin when you’re attached to a ship. Biological, I’m afraid.

                Frowning, Robinton snagged a handkerchief from his pocket, and thoroughly wiped her fingers clean, then tucked the square of fabric away.  “No, it’s not.  Let’s just leave parts of my body to me, for now.  I’ve had quite enough of poking and prodding over the past six months, as well-intentioned and helpful as it was.  I am very sorry I alarmed either one of you, but I am fine now, and would much rather put this behind me, as I have all the other somatic horrors of the past few months.”  Reflexively he ran a hand over his nearly-bare head again.

                “That…thing…isn’t something that just gets better, Harper,” Manora said.

                “Oh, it has,” Robinton assured her, rising to his feet, and dusting off his knees. “It was much worse two sevendays ago, and is coming along nicely. You should still wash your hands, mind you.”  He wanted to ask them not to speak to Lessa, but he figured he had a fifty-fifty chance of them not mentioning it out of a Healer privacy ethos if he said nothing, but a zero percent chance if he acted fearful about it.  “If you’ll excuse me.”

                Giving a little bow to both Manora and Brekke, Robinton smiled and deftly inserted himself back into the Hatching crowd.

 

#

 

                Late that night, back home at Cove Hold, Robinton paced around his study with a glass of Benden wine—the first full glass he’d allowed himself since he’d woken up—and pressed AIVAS.

                I can’t have those seizures happening. I can only charmingly dissemble so much. What can we do about them?

                It’s a matter of training, mostly. In the fast-courier, there is a simulator. Once you’ve completed training, there should be a separation between what you do with your body when not hooked up to a ship, and what happens when you are.

                Very well. We have spacesuits, and D’ram has agreed to transport us.  When can we go?

                Immediately, if D’ram agrees.

                Good.  Robinton tilted his glass back, and drained it.  Or, started to.  Can I have this?

                Yes. It’ll be out of your system before it matters.

                Robinton finished his glass, then went to rudely drag D’ram out of his bed.

 

#

 

                D’ram was confused at the late hour, but influenced by the intense and slightly manic look in Robinton’s eye, and consented to do the run right then.

                In order to not to waste Tiroth’s trip, they loaded the bronze with supplies to stock the ship—Robinton mentally thanked Menolly’s diligent preparation—then donned the spacesuits, with their tanks of air.  D’ram checked Robinton, and Robinton, with AIVAS’s guidance, checked D’ram.

                Before he mounted Tiroth, Robinton said, I won’t have any of that happen this trip between?

                No, not this one.

                Robinton hoped this was true, because he did not want to become paralyzed when floating in space.

                Floating in space. The idea gave him chills, the good kind, which he hadn’t felt in a very, very long time.  Unlike D’ram, he’d never been in space before.  Hopefully he would not get space-sick, which would be very, very, very unfortunate in a jump ship pilot.

                You won’t get sick, the implant compensates for space-sickness.

                Ah, good.  Excellent!  And sensible.

                And then a few minutes later, after Tiroth launched them into the sky, they did a very unsensible thing (by some people’s standards, probably), and went between to the Yokohama.

                Blackness.

                And none of the terrible artifacts or glitches of the implant.

                Just clear, sweet, blackness and cold.

                Which stretched out, slightly, as he’d been told to expect. Not due to his implant, but due to the distance.

                Then they were floating in a large metal cavern, while creaky bluish lights flicked and flickered on.  Zair had come along too, and was floating about merrily, which put Robinton’s mind at ease.

                Robinton felt weightless, which was interesting and not at all bad, and then he realized he felt an oddly different sort of weightless too, like his mind was lighter.

                Fear clenched him.  AIVAS? Had the ease of that between trip indicated something had happened?

                But to his relief, he got an answer. I am here, AIVAS said.  I’ve offloaded some of my processes onto the Yokohama’s computers, to give your body a rest. As you’ve noticed. Your implant was never meant to take the full load of me; it was designed to be split with a ship or physical installation.

                Oh.  Well, that was fine, then.

                D’ram detached himself from his bronze, then worked to detach their cargo from the great bronze dragon.  After a moment of fumbling, Robinton got the hang of it, and helped.

                They strung all the bags to a long rope they’d brought with them, and then, knowing Tiroth could only hold his breath so long, Robinton took the lead, and followed AIVAS’ instructions to a section of the colony ship that had not been explored on previous visits and expeditions.

                Robinton kept expecting himself to have a panic about something or other—he was in space!  On one of the Dawn Sisters!  The Yokohama!  Shouldn’t he be afraid?  Eventually, when he came to his senses?—but instead found himself in a sort of euphoria of exploration, an emotion he usually only felt when deep in concentration composing a new song, the notes coming to life under his fingers without him knowing what they would be until he played them.  The world seemed shiny and new again, and by Faranth’s wings, he loved it!

                And he was glad he would be able to share it with his companions.  His crew.

                Particularly Menolly.  He wondered what incredible songs she’d write.

                Perhaps he’d help her write them.  A collaboration.

                Shortly, they came to a heavy door.  At some invisible signal from AIVAS—granted, all of AIVAS’s signals were invisible—the door groaned open, and he and D’ram maneuvered into a bay that, unlike the other, was not empty.  A ship, somewhat different in design, and considerably larger than the shuttles Robinton had seen in the history files, squatted in the center of the small bay. 

                It was, Robinton judged, about the size of a small cothold, perhaps two stories tall, three if the ceilings were low and dangerous to tall men like Robinton. Particularly prominent were the mysterious cylinders running the length of the ship.  Necklin rods, the apparatus used to transverse wormholes.

                They look so simple, he mused, trying to decipher how something so simple and bland-looking could be livened up in the inevitable ballads about it.

                There seemed to be no windows at all on the thing, nor was there a name emblazoned across it like the Yokohama sported.  But at one end that Robinton decided was the rear was an airlock.

                There IS air in this ship, correct? Robinton asked.

                Yes. Before I even considered using the implant, I ran a full diagnostic. This ship is fully functional, stocked with air, water, and everything the engines need.

                Bracing a hand against the side of the ship, Robinton was surprised to feel reverberation.  He leaned in and touched his helmet to the surface, and a low, growly humming noise indicated that something mechanical was going on inside.

                I’m removing air from the airlock, so it’s not vented into the bay.

                Robinton reflected that his knowledge of jump ships was dangerously low.  Simulations of wormholes aside, it was necessary to soon plunge himself into other types of learning, as well. Ocean ships had their dangers, as his late wife had taught him, and as Menolly had later reinforced, and as he had experienced himself during their shipwreck.  Spaceships, too, would have their own unique challenges.

                Shortly, the two of them and their cargo were floating inside.  With guidance, Robinton pulled a lever, and the door closed behind them.  Then, again with guidance, he cycled the airlock.  And when the indicator blinked green, they opened the inner hatch and emerged into the interior proper.

                The first compartment was the cargo hold, lined with shelves, straps, and lockers.  They stowed the items they had into a little corner, compactly.  At AIVAS’s suggestion, D’ram gathered empty pressurized and insulated shipping containers to take back to Cove, so the next batch of cargo could be brought in without fear of depressurization or temperature fluctuations.

                Robinton noticed the readings on his suit indicated the external environment had breathable air, and was comfortable in temperature.  Can I take this off?

                Yes, Robinton, you can.  In fact, you will need to, shortly.  These suits were not made to be worn during wormhole navigation.

                D’ram said suddenly, “Harper, does your suit radio work?”

                Surprised, Robinton said, “Er, I believe so.  Can you hear me?”

                “I could hear that.  However, you’ve been silent this whole trip.  Tiroth told me you’re fine...but usually, you never shut up.”

                Robinton didn’t take offense at that, but merely realized that, for some reason, he’d been talking to AIVAS with his thoughts exclusively, and not his voice.  Therefore, D’ram wouldn’t have heard any of it.

                “I admit, I’ve been overcome with awe, at being here, doing this,” Robinton said. “Sometimes there truly are no words, not even from a Master Harper.”

                D’ram was silent for a moment.  “I’m having second thoughts, leaving you up here alone.  If something happens, it will take time for me to suit up again and rescue you.”

                “I’m not alone,” Robinton pointed out.  “AIVAS is here. So is Zair—although he’s more for the company than any usefulness,” he said fondly.  Zair had just flicked into the compartment from between, using Robinton’s view of the place as coordinates.

                D’ram’s silence said a lot.

                AIVAS said, “Unlike previous times, there’s a ship that can be piloted here.  It is atmosphere capable, as well as deep-space capable. The Harper will be safe; should anything go wrong, I will open the bay and he can pilot it down to the surface, if necessary.”

                “Just like that?”

                Robinton cut in. “I expect AIVAS will be doing most of the piloting,” he said drily. “But I also trust he can get me to safety.  ‘Just like that’, with reasonable and not insurmountable caveats.”

                D’ram’s posture was difficult to read through the spacesuit, but it still seemed unhappy.  Finally he relented, likely due to Tiroth’s breath being limited.  “Send Zair when you need me.”

                “Of course.”

                The new bundle of empty shipping containers following him like a string of pearls, D’ram exited into the airlock, and Robinton swung the hatch closed behind him.  Then there was a rumble as D’ram, or AIVAS, cycled the airlock.

                Floating in the middle of the room, Robinton cautiously undid his spacesuit, with guidance from AIVAS, and stowed it in a locker meant for such things.

                “It smells sweet in here; does that mean anything?”  A sort of sweet-metallic, with hints of cooking steaks.

                Some consider it the scent of space.

                Robinton rolled the experience around his mind, then filed it away for later examination.

                AIVAS did not say anything as Robinton floated down the corridors, opening doors and generally poking his nose into everything.  Zair, enthused that his friend could “fly”, did frequent joyful loops around Robinton as he explored.  When not in vacuum, wings were much more useful in freefall than limbs.

                The ship had two levels.  The lower, which he’d entered on, was mostly made up of passenger quarters; small rooms with bunkbeds hosting a rather intimidating set of straps, to counter drifting about in freefell he supposed, and, occasionally, a bolted-down desk with an embedded computer. Robinton counted, and there were enough beds for ten, with the two rooms near what he thought was the “front” of the ship being slightly bigger than the others.  There was also one lavatory on one side, made intimidating by the various hookups for use in freefall, and in a different closet-sized room, something that was presumably a bathing room, although it was even more obscure than the lavatory.

                Upstairs, there was a large multi-purpose room with a central console, with chairs and furniture bolted to the walls.  Next to it was a galley, or so AIVAS explained. Robinton opened an empty coldbox that wafted frigid air at him, and closed it, then opened another box with some sort of rotating spit inside.  Finally, in another cold compartment, were rations in some sort of packaging.  Two thousand turn old rations.  “Are these edible?” he asked, unsure if he wanted to try one out of sheer curiosity’s sake or not.

                From the temperature records on that freezer, it’s never been defrosted. You can eat them.

                Robinton decided to pass.  For now. Perhaps in the future, if their trip was particularly tedious and long, like a months-long trip across the ocean in confined quarters, his “crew” could play an amusing game of Truth or Eat That Thing.

                Across from the galley, it turned out there was another bedroom-cum-office, somewhat larger than the ones downstairs, with a double bed instead of bunkbeds. The Captain’s apartment, he supposed.  It even had its own closet-sized lavatory and bath. Therefore, the ship could fit twelve, not ten—although it would still be a very intimate trip.  Although, he supposed he could fit more people into the multi-purpose room if he had to.

                For a short while, the AIVAS agreed. Then the life support system will become overloaded.

                After that, there was some sort of utility room.  Jancis’ domain, Robinton decided.  And across from that, a medical room, dominated by what looked very much like a coffin.

                Emergency coldsleep chamber, AIVAS said. To suspend life until a Healer facility can be found.

                Robinton reflected that there was only room for one.  And that there were twelve beds for crew and passengers.

                The last room on the top floor at the very nose of the ship was cluttered with seats, and screens, and was clearly the command center of the fast-courier ship.  This room was extremely intimidating, and he had his first moment of trepidation, his first qualm.  He wasn’t even sure where to sit (much less what to do with the controls).

                Anywhere, AIVAS said.  All seats are wired for a jump pilot. I will key you in as the primary pilot.

                “Only pilot,” Robinton said wryly.

                With access to sufficiently advanced fabrication facilities, we may be able to get you a co-pilot, eventually.

                That had been a worry in the back of his mind.  If something happened out there, all the brave people following him into the darkness would be stranded, far from home.  “Excellent,” he murmured.  “Redundancy is important.”

                Choosing the seat in the center, because any other would be false modesty, Robinton pulled himself towards it.

                There are antiseptic wipes in the arm, AIVAS directed.  Use them on the contacts in the headrest. Robinton got the impression that this was something he would do every time he sat in a pilot’s chair.

                As he followed instructions, the seat reconfigured itself to his proportions, machinery quietly humming.  Then he put the used wipe in a little hole meant for garbage (suction pulled it somewhere else within the ship), and removed his cravat.  Then he pushed himself down into the seat, and fastened thigh-bands around his legs, as the back of the seat made a few more small adjustments to line the pilot contacts up with the indentations on the back of his neck.  Something blew a puff of air at the back of his head, making him jump, and he felt wetness again, some sort of false-biological reflex that went along with the implant.

                Then he took a breath, and leaned back.

                The contact inserting itself was an exceedingly peculiar sensation that his mind veered from examining too closely for now.

                AIVAS said, I’ve put the ship into simulation mode, so we won’t accidentally go anywhere. Let’s begin with identifying all of these buttons, and learning what they do.

                Robinton was struck by how much AIVAS’s tone resembled that of a Harper teaching the littlest child, infinitely patient and calm.  He chuckled a little to himself over the contrast—this wide array of Smithing genius his own world’s Smiths couldn’t yet replicate standing in for a child’s toy counting blocks—but let himself be drawn into the soothing lesson, nonetheless.

 

#

 

                The first two lessons were done in real-time, in two-hour intervals, with an hour break in between to use the lavatory, and to eat.

                Then he was instructed, very firmly, to go to bed, as he’d been awake all day, and through a Hatching besides.

                When he woke up, AIVAS would show him how to use the time-dilation features of his implant properly.

 

 

#

 

                Calculating coverage.

                Coverage complete.

                Finding entry route to RUKBAT-WH-01A.

                Route locked.

                Synching with stream…

                …complete.

                The frantic implant messages he’d first encountered erratically between made much more sense in the simulation. Particularly now he knew which order they were supposed to go in…

                And what to do if they did not. (Abort. Very common-sense, that.)

                The simulation sent the false-data of a wormhole synch, and his arms and legs were paralyzed.  This opened up a pseudo-channel to control the movement of the ship, using neural routes one would usually tap for his natural limb movemen.  As false visual data was streamed through his mind’s-eye, Robinton felt, very much, like he was flying.  Not on the back of a dragon, but as the dragon.  Or perhaps as the firelizard; Zair sometimes shared flying-dreams with him, unconsciously.

                It was an addicting, euphoric experience.  And this was just the training.

                Is it bad that I enjoy this? Robinton asked AIVAS.

                Perhaps you were a dragon in another life, the AI replied.  Then AIVAS added, It’s only “bad” if it detracts from your mental acuity. From my readings, enjoyment seems to focus you. This aligns with my observance that the happier you are, the better you play.

                Define “play better”. Robinton was genuinely curious.

                Less temporal distortion, fewer auditory distortions.

                …I’m on-beat and in-tune?

                Precisely.

                Robinton laughed.

                Your overall window of deviation, mind you, is one of the lowest among all the Harpers I’ve observed. Mood swings aside.

                Robinton didn’t answer, because in the simulation, they entered the wormhole, and all of Robinton’s concentration was needed to guide his virtual ship through the stream.

                A tiny slice of perceptual-time later, they got lost, shot out the side of the wormhole, and were forced into a situation where they could no longer return home in a human lifetime, and would need to go into coldsleep on the miniscule chance that, if pointed in the right direction, they might make it to an inhabited planet or known wormhole in a thousand years.

                The single cryogenic capsule on the ship was haunting, in this light.

                Robinton was disappointed in his failure, and grim about what such failure would mean in reality, with a crew of seven aboard, but AIVAS said nothing.

                They restarted the simulation.  With Robinton’s perceptional-time stretched, each real-time second was perceived as an hour, so they could start, and end, as many simulations as needed, until Robinton’s real-time stamina wore thin, and the implant itself instigated emergency procedures and kicked him out.

 

#

 

                On the 783rd run, something clicked, with the patterns, the feeling, the sound of the wormhole, humming to itself its own song, and he made it to the desired exit point successfully.

                He successfully navigated the next seven wormhole simulations, after that.  All of the resonances worked together to make the shape sensible.  It was the song of a cosmic string, vibrating.

                Then, under the looming threat of exhaustion, he failed again, and the neural implant successfully disengaged as it was designed to (according to AIVAS), and kicked him out of the pilot’s chair, unwilling to let him pilot even a simulation until he ate some food and got some sleep.

 

#

 

                201 successful simulations and one failure later, AIVAS sent him to eat and sleep again.

 

#

 

                The frustrating thing about this training, Robinton reflected, was that he had no sense at all about how he was doing compared to other jump pilots.  AIVAS did not regale him with tales about other students, or give him statistics of how he was doing versus the average.

                In the Harper Hall, one had constant feedback.  You could walk into any room, listen to your fellow Harper, and judge.  And they could observe you, and judge you.  You could improve yourself by learning what not to do from a peer.  They could learn from you.

                There are relatively few black-box recoveries, AIVAS said. At this point, I think experiencing a recording will do you more harm than good.

 

#

 

                Part-way through the third round of simulations—which put him into nothing later than early afternoon the next day, as the time-dilating effects of the implant allowed him to compress a great deal of training into a short period of actual time, and he never slept longer than three or four hours—AIVAS said, I think you could navigate the local wormhole.

                “Right now?” Robinton said in surprise.

                If we were among your ancient ancestors, you are at a point where you’d be shipped to one end of an easy wormhole, and tested. However, the only wormhole we have is this one. I judge you are ready for it. Half of the simulations we’ve done have included my readings and predictions of this one.  A pause.  I believe it is branched. You perform better on branched wormholes. Luckily, they are the most common type.

                Robinton sat with Zair in his lap, and thought it over, while he stroked his little friend.

                Then he realized he was manifesting a form of stage fright.  Did he trust AIVAS or not?  If he didn’t, why had he let him put the implant in his head to begin with?  AIVAS certainly didn’t want him—them—to die. Tossing him through a wormhole would be an extravagant, over-dramatic form of assassination even for Robinton’s worst enemies.

                Firming his resolve, Robinton set Zair aside, despite the bronze’s protests, and leaned back into the chair’s headrest. The peculiar sensation of the chair’s contacts engaging with the external ports of his implant made the hair on his arms prickle.  Ready.

                I am taking the ship out of training mode, AIVAS said.

                Robinton suddenly had an intense sensation across his skin, more tactile than the training simulation.  He let it wash over him for a moment—he shivered thrice, and the ship shivered with him—and then he forced himself into action, and methodically went through all the pre-flight checks, just like he’d tune his instrument before a performance.

                When he turned on the ship’s engines, a soothing basso rumble reverberated through everything, like the rumble of a bronze dragon before a Hatching.  Then the bay doors, directed by AIVAS’s commands to the Yokohama, slid open, showing Robinton, in his mind’s eye through the neural implant, a field of stars.

                The release of the docking clamps were a higher, more staccato drum-sound.  It “felt” like kicking a shoe off. Like a part of his body was freed.

                Then Robinton “walked” forward; the paralysis of his real limbs held, and the ship sidled towards the open expanse of space.  He straightened himself up to get rid of the shy sidle, and dove out of the Yokohama’s sheltering womb, the G-forces of acceleration finally defeating freefall and pressing him firmly back into his seat.

                AIVAS did not speak, or even guide him as he directed the fast-courier’s sensors to locate the nearest wormhole and lock onto it.  Nor did he chide Robinton when that sense of euphoric joy rose after the ship’s computers found its target, and sent them streaking across the system.

                (Robinton wondered if someone looking up at the right time might see Rukbat’s light glimmering off of the hull of his ship as he darted across the heavens; it seemed unlikely, especially given AIVAS didn’t confirm it could happen, but stayed silent, allowing Robinton to hang onto harmless whimsy.)

                It took several hours for the little ship to cross the distance between Pern and the wormhole.  Robinton was not required to stay in the pilot seat for this entire time, or to even pay much attention; once the ship was aimed and boosted, it would continue on until something got in its way, and as he was told—and was seeing—space was very, very, very empty.

                For the most part however, he stayed in his seat, and simply watched.

                Pern, steadily retreating behind him, was extraordinarily beautiful.  More exquisite than any pearl or gem.  He did not have the words for it, although he was sure eventually he’d put the stylus to the sandtable and attempt it anyway.

                The northern continent, he noticed, really did look like a dragon peering over its shoulder.  Poor dragon, belabored by thread, like a canine eaten by mange.  They would fix it, though.  Long-term, thanks to AIVAS and the concerted and completed effort of all the Weyrs of Pern, the end of thread was already in motion.  But perhaps they could speed even that up, depending on what was beyond the wormhole.

                And the Southern Continent was vast, vast, vast, vaster than he imagined.  He always knew the Northern Lords didn’t fully appreciate its size, but as he watched his world grow smaller, he suspected he hadn’t fully understood its scope either.

                He should be afraid, shouldn’t he?  If Pern was so large, and yet, growing so small in the vision the ship gave him in his mind’s eye, then he was truly miniscule indeed, a mote of dust dancing in a single sunbeam of light thrown from Rukbat.

                He wasn’t afraid, though.  Simply awestruck by the scope of his universe, and glad he was around to witness it, dust mote he might be.

 

#

 

                Ten.

                Nine.

                Eight.

                Assisted by the ship’s computers, Robinton got himself, and his necklin rods, lined up with the correct approach to the mouth of the wormhole.  It was much more pleasant doing it in real life, versus the simulation.  The gees and the hefty mass of the ship made the experience more pleasantly tactile, a sensation the hundreds of simulations had been missing.

                Seven.

                Six.

                Five.

                The countdown of going through a wormhole didn’t cut out in the middle, like AIVAS’s tests with Zair’s jumps between did.

                Four.

                Three.

                Two.

                Last chance to stop, he reminded himself.  (Robinton didn’t.)

                One.

                Zeroo0000ϴϴϴϴOOO—

                Robinton’s vision whited out, but this time, instead of a flat expanse peppered with distortions and glitches, the white light was made of a million different colors, a million different notes, all from one specific song.

                And he was the conductor.  At his command, at his will, one section raised its voice in unison joyfully, while another fell.

                He didn’t know this song, the melody this wormhole played.  But he’d always been a good sight-reader, and the wormhole predicted its own upcoming shape, just like a song built upon itself, with variations upon a theme, and expected patterns of melody and harmony.

                Then, up ahead, he spotted the curves of a wall of sound around a silence, around a negative, the vase illusion you saw between the profiles of two faces, something that was there simply because it was not.

                The first exit.

                He took it of course, dove through it like a swimmer diving off a cliff into a swimming hole.  And as he’d been taught in the simulations, upon exit he immediately authorized a flip as soon as the last dragonlength of necklin rod was clear of the wormhole.

                Gees crushed him for an instant, and a small part of him was uncomfortably aware that if AIVAS hadn’t replaced his heart with something fully artificial, he would have died right there.

                Then they squirted off in the opposite direction, nearly in line to go right back into the wormhole, and the ship’s computers confirmed there were no enemies or weapons guarding the wormhole exit.

                Robinton flipped the ship again, as taught, to line himself up for a quick return back through the same wormhole, and burned the engines to brake.

                AIVAS did not say anything, but shared a series of graphs and a summary of all the scans and calculations he was doing to find their “true” coordinates.  Was this a known system?  The complete lack of electronic chatter suggested if it was known, it wasn’t inhabited.  Then again, the Rukbat system was nearly devoid of electronic chatter too, and was very inhabited.

                There are no habitable or marginally-habitable planets or moons here, according to the EEC report for this system. I do not detect any large-scale evidence that that has changed since the report was made, AIVAS said.

                “You know where we are?”

                Yes. Without traversing a wormhole, it will take approximately seven turns of coldsleep travel to reach Earth from this location.

                “Instead of fifteen,” Robinton mused.  From here, a roundtrip to humanity’s cradle could be completed in as little as fifteen turns, instead of thirty.  It occurred to him that even if the rest of the wormhole exits did not go anywhere useful, this one alone still presented an advantage or opportunity of a sort, if only a minor one.

                He also mused that if something he inadvertently poked on the other side of another exit chased him back, he might be able to dip out here to avoid dragging his pursuer into Rukbat space. 

If Pern had more ships, he could even set up an ambush, of the type he had been trained to automatically try out-maneuvering.  Not that Robinton wanted to ambush anything, but if you were being chased by a wher, you had the right to defend yourself…

                “Can we replenish any supplies here?”

                Air and water only, if suitable asteroids are found. Fuel and edible organics will be impossible to extract given the technology on this ship.  A fast-courier is not built with planetary surveying in mind; it is expected to go in a straight line between known civilized hubs, and refuel/restock at expected depots.

                Of course.

                “Can I leave my seat?”

                Yes. You will want to eat and nap before we return. Particularly if you chose to investigate additional exits before turning back.

                Robinton was torn between wanting to explore more immediately, and wanting to streak back home to share all the excitement with his companions. One pro in the former category was that if something bad was on the other side, he and AIVAS would be the only ones to perish.  But he wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t doing mental gymnastics to give himself permission to do what he wanted to do; explore.

                Ah, but AIVAS was right.  He was as exhausted from that one actual jump as he had been after a hundred simulations. 

He pulled out of the neural connection with the chair, untethered himself from the seat, and went to locate Zair, and find out how the firelizard was taking it (although between his own sense of Zair and AIVAS’s monitoring of the ship, he undoubtedly would already know if the firelizard had suffered.)

 

#

 

                When Robinton woke, he found he’d somehow become untethered, and was floating near the ceiling, which was a bit terrifying, and a bit disorienting, and a bit thrilling.  Zair had come with him, having wrapped his tail around Robinton’s neck as his own tether.

                Good morning, Harper, AIVAS said.  Robinton felt it sounded chipper.

                “Good morning, AIVAS.  Is it morning?”

                On Pern, yes.  How do you feel? Your neural implant is starting to trim unnecessary connections; I expected as much after the wormhole transit, but it’s good to see. I can reuse the material for other purposes.

                Robinton, not educated on the subject, took AIVAS’s word that this was good.  “I feel rested.”

                They were quiet for a while, simply existing.

                Or he was; AIVAS had something else on his mind. Harper…for jump ships, it’s traditional to name them after their maiden voyage.  Would you like to name this one?

                Floating in his corner, Robinton pondered a moment, then said, “Mastersinger Merelan.”

                Your mother?

                “Yes.” The more he thought about it, the bigger he smiled.  “I’d always wondered if there was a way to immortalize her.  My sire tried with song…but his songs are forgotten more and more as time goes on. He trained his successors too well, I daresay.” Both Domick and Menolly’s compositions were more frequently played than anything by Petiron these days. “Nobody will forget she existed if the ship is named after her.  Plus,” and he chuckled a little. “I expect if anything goes wrong deep in space, I’ll be hollering for her. Shortly before we meet again.”  He chuckled another time, a bit more darkly.  His sire would hate it, hate to have the woman he placed on a pedestal connected to such an idea, but he thought his mother would understand the need for a bit of black humor to leaven stress.  She was always smarter than his sire.

                I’ve updated our logs and call sign.

                Robinton smiled.

 

#

 

                Fed and washed—did it count as washing, that strange contraption that didn’t seem to actually use much water?—Robinton floated down the corridor and noticed that there was faint music playing.  Or there had been, because it stopped.

                I was experimenting with manifesting the song that underlays your thoughts most of the time. Or is that too invasive?

                “On speakers?”

                Yes.

                If AIVAS could broadcast the music in his mind, it followed that AIVAS could broadcast his thoughts.

                Not exactly; only a small percentage of thought is actually in words. The rest, if put through a speaker, would produce incomprehensible static. Even that static would be an incredibly lossy way of transmitting data. For anything human-comprehendible to issue from a speaker, I, or something like me, would have to devote resources to translating on the fly, which would be so high a burden as to render me useless for other calculations. The human mind is incredibly complex. It would also include, shall we say, my own interpretation, an artistic element. I’ve overheard Harper arguments about that, and assume they also apply here.

“Hmm.”

Your mental music, however, is very clean in comparison—although even it fades into a muddle here and there.

                Pulling himself along the corridor, Robinton thought it over.  “I suppose you can play the music.  Only the music, and only when we’re alone, if you please.”

                Thank you.

                Floating through a doorway and pulling himself towards a pilot’s chair, Robinton eventually asked, “Why?” as he strapped himself in.

                Research, AIVAS said. I believe if I can reproduce mental music over a speaker, eventually I’ll be able to reproduce mental images on a screen.

                “Why would you need to do that?”

                To share coordinates between when photographs are not available, but someone who has already been there is.

                AIVAS has always been intensely curious about dragons and firelizards and between.  This seemed more of the same.  “Do you…envision dragonriders as pilots then? So you can take coordinates from their minds?”

                It’s unlikely that a dragonrider will ever be a good candidate for a pilot. For one, they cannot be separated too far from their dragon in space, which means that jump ships will have to be built far larger than normal, to accommodate the dragon. A bigger ship is a slower ship.

                Robinton wondered how slow. Clearly, slow enough that AIVAS worried about it.

                There is also the issue of all the unique neurochemistry the dragon/rider bond creates. It will perhaps induce a rejection of the implant, if the dragon/rider bond cannot handle a third presence. At this moment, even if I were to have a second implant available, I would not risk it on any dragonrider. Nor an ex-rider.

                “So…what use would coordinates between be?” Robinton asked.

                Before you awoke at Cove, I believed that between was very likely some derivative of the same 5-fold space that wormholes open, and a jump ship transverses. When you jumped between to Landing the first time, the way your implant was unexpectedly activated confirmed that the sensor detecting entry into wormhole had been triggered.  If something, like, say, a firelizard, is able to access 5-fold space from anywhere, it’s possible a connection from that firelizard to a pilot, and a ship designed with necklin rods of the appropriate type may be able to utilize that as an entry point, and enter between as well.

                “You would place the weight of an entire jump ship on one tiny firelizard.”  Robinton’s voice was flat.

                No, obviously mass is a factor when firelizards and dragons go between. The energy drain of the jump would come from the ship engines, not the firelizard.  The firelizard would only create the disturbance that the ship could utilize to slip in and activate its necklin rods. The shield the necklin rods create would allow heat, air, and other amenities to be experienced between, as they are during a normal wormhole jump.  A pause. And if we’re able to determine how the firelizard initializes that jump between in the first place, then the firelizard may not be needed if a technological method can be devised.

                Robinton was decidedly unimpressed, imagining the wave of hysteria and accusations of blasphemy that would resound not only through the Conclave, but through the Weyrs.  Machines acting like dragons!  How dare they!

                That’s one political aspect to it, AIVAS agreed. But the lesser one.

                “How so?”

                We do not know how the rest of the human-populated galaxy has evolved over the last two millennia. Presumably technology has evolved greatly. This jump ship, and all other technology the original colonists brought with them, may be vastly obsolete.

                However, the capabilities of firelizards and dragons are possibly still unique. The Eridani experimented greatly with mentasynth, but according to my records, the original Pernese dragonets were the only naturally evolved species ever encountered with similar abilities.

                Therefore, it’s possible a jump ship upgraded to utilize between will be a significant technological advantage even two millennia later, allowing Pernese jump ships to outperform others in speed and maneuverability. This may keep you and your planet safer. At least until your industry and new Crafthalls can mature and develop a technological base.

                “You’ve been thinking about this for a while,” Robinton mused.

                I have. This is why two of my requirements for receiving the implant were the presence of a bonded firelizard, and indications of mentasynth enhancement. Devising a jump ship that also jumps between may ultimately be critical to protecting Pern.

                Robinton sat quietly in the pilot’s seat for a while, bumping his lips with a pensive knuckle as he thought.  Yes, he could see why AIVAS had such interest.  And why it should concern him too.

                Then he set the matter aside, for later discussion with people like Lytol and D’ram, and changed the subject by saying, “I’ve decided to be terribly selfish. Unless you talk me out of it.  I would like to explore down the wormhole a bit further, while we’re alone.”

                Just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean you’re selfish for enjoying it, AIVAS pointed out.

                “Perhaps not.”

                You could spend the rest of your life exploring, and another ten lifetimes besides, and there’d still be universe left over for others, AIVAS said. The galaxy is vast.

                That did comfort Robinton, somewhat.  He leaned back into his chair, let the ship interact with the contacts at the back of his neck.  Then he was the ship again, arrowing through the void towards the wormhole.

 

#

 

                On the third exit, the local system was as empty as the previous of human presence, but there was a second wormhole.  AIVAS added it to his database—this wormhole was unknown to him, unmarked on the vastly out-of-date EEC exploration maps his databases contained—and remarked, You cannot split yourself in two to explore both that one, and this one.  There’ll be enough for all.

                “Mmm,” Robinton said, admiring a lovely blue-green gas giant that he’d focused the ship’s optics on.  It was surrounded by over two-dozen moons, like a grand lady’s jewels.

                Then, once rested, he turned around and went back into the wormhole.

 

#

 

                Three more jumps, and they emerged into a system with active buoys surrounding the mouth of the wormhole, the first they’d encountered.  The first sign of human life they’d encountered.

                Turn around, prepare for re-entry, but idle. I need to update my library of protocols.  And any other library we can capture.

                Robinton’s artificial heart beat steadily at the appropriate, elevated pace for such an adrenaline-packed moment, but a strange mix of chills/joy/fear made the hair on the back of his arms rise.

                (He noted, in a far-off corner of his mind, that it was impossible now for the hair at the back of his neck to rise. That’s where he was plugged into the ship.)

                The unmanned, automated buoys at the entrance of the wormhole gave off a steady stream of unmelodic chirps, beeps, and pings, along with glitchy static, over an audio channel, as AIVAS attempted to decipher the communication protocol they used.

                Eventually AIVAS said, These buoys mark the mapping of a polity called the Betan Astronomical SurveyIt seems this system is not inhabited, but has been mapped, at least up to the mouth of this wormhole. Given we didn’t encounter buoys in the other systems, perhaps this is the extent of their exploration in this direction to date. Or perhaps those wormholes also recently opened.

                Robinton was intensely aware that these Betans were all but on Pern’s doorstep, now that the wormhole in Rukbat space had opened.  Were these people friendly?  Unfriendly?

                I’m presently unable to get past the encryption, but the unencrypted stream gives us directions to Beta Colony, Earth, and several other destinations, some that already existed in my databases, and some that do not. It also gives a list of lost ships, both from the Betan Astronomical Survey, and “non-affiliated wormhole explorers”.

                Earth.  Humanity’s ancestral homeland.  He felt quite overwhelmed.  And, unrelated to the shock of having a real, genuine route to Earth, he also felt an odd twinge of sorrow for the ships listed sorrowfully on the buoy. Almost as if it were a grave marker.

                Hopefully The Mastersinger Merelan would never end up on such a buoy.

                Turning his mind back to immediate issues, he asked, “Is Pern mentioned? Anywhere?”

                If it is, it is not under the names of Pern, Rukbat, Alpha Sagittarii, or 天淵三, which means “The Third Star of Celestial Spring” in your language.  Nor is it listed under the EEC numeric designation, or in any astronomic way, using Earth as a starting point, or Beta Colony.

                “When where these buoys left?”

                Approximately seventy turns ago.

                “Can we communicate with these buoys?”

                We can leave a message, yes. Do you wish to? It will not be read until another ship comes this direction. There is also a mail forwarding drop, but, again, it won’t be picked up and transported through the other wormhole until a ship comes by. Which could be a century or more.

                Robinton was tempted to leave something whimsical, like Robinton woz ‘ere, or even a song, but it was probably unwise to leave clues his world existed, just yet.  Just in case someone came by tomorrow, and not a century from now. He sighed.  “No.”  Then he frowned. “Did the buoys, ah, photograph us?”

                Unfortunately, yes. That’s why I was trying to break the encryption, see if I could wipe our presence from their logs. I could try harder, but it might be interpreted aggressively, should anyone check later on.  A pause.  The buoys are small. We could bring one into the airlock. Or tow them into the wormhole to destroy them.

                Robinton was not particularly enthused with the idea that Pern’s first contact with the rest of human civilization might involve destroying someone else’s property.  Especially since these seemed to be nothing more than road signs, pointing lost explorers home.  It would grieve him deeply if he removed a sign that might have been the critical clue helping some lost band of explorers find their ways back to their families.

                Of course, he also had a responsibility to his own planet, and all the people living there.

                “Would taking a buoy for us to examine help you learn more about these people?” Robinton asked.

                Yes. It will tell us something about their manufacturing capabilities and techniques as of seventy years ago. I may learn something the Smiths can adopt, as well.

                “Could we return it when we are done?”

                Possibly. If there are protections, trying to open one up may result it becoming useless and inert.

                Robinton tried to decide if they should destroy them both, leave both alone, or take one for study—possibly destroying it in the process.

                Eventually he said, “Let us take one then, for Jancis and you to study. When we come back this way, we can put it back.” Perhaps that would be enough to salve his squirming sense of guilt.

                It was an interesting effort, positioning his ship so that he was close enough to grab a buoy without sending it careening off in another direction.  He also had to put the space-suit back on again, and cycle the airlock for the first time since he’d entered.  It would have helped, very much, to have another set of hands—Zair, while enthusiastic, was far too small to help—but eventually Robinton got it into the airlock, and strapped down, where it sat, blinking and beeping on a radio channel.

                Then, he judged, it was time to turn around and go home.  With the maps AIVAS had acquired, they now had choices of where to go.  And with the buoy, proof that he’d been somewhere, at least.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Chapter Three

                Robinton didn’t expect a welcoming committee in the docking bay.  Three dragons—bronze, brown, and white—hovered expectantly, with spacesuit-wearing riders aboard.  The timing of it suggested…well, timing.

                An ill-tempered side of him, covering the guilty twinge, considered just sitting in the ship until dragon lungs gave out. But (he sighed), they’d just come back.

                Ruth! Zair caroled happily, looping around Robinton in the pilot chair.

                “Yes, yes, go tell Ruth and the others about all the adventure we’ve been on,” Robinton said.  Tiroth, Ruth, and Canth.  D’ram and Lord Jaxom had already somewhat known of things.  F’nor had not.

                He supposed it could be worse; Mnementh or Ramoth could be there.  From where he was sitting now, it looked like Brekke possibly had told nobody beyond F’nor, and her weyrmate was here on her behalf.

                Although F’nor would be demanding explanations, undoubtedly, and was probably one hair shy of going to F’lar.

                Robinton unstrapped himself, and began to run scenarios for responding through his head.

                It took over half an hour to get back into the spacesuit, even without malingering.  AIVAS told him when Ruth vanished first, then Canth, and finally Tiroth. And when they returned, lungs refreshed with air.

                Robinton climbed into the airlock, cycled it.  When it was empty, he unstrapped the Betan Astronomical Survey buoy, and opened the outer hatch.

                Three dragons loomed before him, staring down.

                Remembering he had a radio, Robinton switched it on, looked up at them, and said, “My, my. And I didn’t even have to send Zair to get someone!  Tiroth, do you think you could take this thing off my hands?”

                The radio crackled, and D’ram growled, “What is that, Harper?”

                “I stole someone’s signpost,” Robinton replied.

 

#

 

                “Five days!  Five days and no dragon or firelizard could find you! They even checked whens!”

                “You went through?  ALONE?!”

                “What is that thing?”

                The last one was from Piemur, so Robinton said, as he stripped out of his space suit, “A present for your wife.  D’ you think she’ll like it?”  He gave Piemur a rakish wink, as if all of this was nothing more than an extended attempt to steal the Journeyman’s woman from him.

                Piemur looked like a pot of klah ready to boil over on the hearth.

                “No, really,” Robinton said.  “Go get Master Jancis.”

                Piemur didn’t move.

                Robinton’s smile faded away, and he looked down his nose at his Journeyman and jerked his chin in command.

                The young man came this close to losing it, but stalked off, unwilling to let Robinton win by default, as he would if Piemur exploded into a hopping, yelling temper.

                “As for what it is,” Robinton said, sitting and tugging off his boots.  Tuck came to help, clearly more amused by the commotion than anything.  “It’s a buoy. Like the ones left out by a Sea-Hold. Except in space.  This place called Beta Colony left it behind, outside a wormhole.”  The other boot came off, and then he stood, and stepped out of the bottoms of the space suit.  “It actually is a signpost.  AIVAS said we might learn something if we study it.  It wasn’t the only buoy; I left the other one there.  We can return this one too, after we’ve studied it.  Unless we accidentally destroy it.”

                “So are we just pretending you didn’t vanish for five days?” Lytol demanded.  “D’ram thought you meant one day, at most.”  He glanced at D’ram for confirmation.  “And he didn’t talk about where he’d taken you to until the third day!”

                Robinton tried to shoot D’ram a look of appreciation, saw D’ram’s face, and aborted the gesture.  “Well, no, obviously several days did pass—but don’t you want to hear about everything I’ve learned? In this one system, there was this planet, blue-green like a glass globe!  And all around it were these tiny moons—not just two, dozens, literally dozens, all dancing around it!”  Gesturing in excitement, Robinton made a beeline towards the porch, and his study, so he could make plans.  They should leave immediately.  Or as immediately as he could get this all sorted out.

                Against their better judgement, a small crowd of people followed him inside.

 

#

 

                “So the first hop,” Robinton explained, “Went nowhere.  Rather, it went somewhere, but nowhere interesting to my purposes.  AIVAS calculated that if someone went into coldsleep from that system, they’d arrive in half the time than it’d take from here, which I suppose is a minor asset.”

                “Arrive where?” F’nor asked.

                “Earth!  But I suppose there are other systems you could point yourself at. Not that we’re going anywhere by coldsleep; we don’t have the facilities.” Robinton again imagined that coffin-like box.

                Menolly sat on the loveseat next to Swift, and looked at Robinton patiently with that expression that said she’d have things to say once everyone was gone.  Swift seemed to sense it, and had put a great deal of space between himself and her.  Although given the general agitation of her firelizards, perhaps he was simply avoiding them.

                “And a few other hops were the same—“

                “Few other hops,” Menolly said, in her least-impressed voice.

                “Yes, the wormhole seems to branch, like a system of roots.  Originally I took the first exit, but there were still more exits to explore, and I hadn’t really found anything, so I took a nap, because navigating a wormhole is a little tiring, and then went and tried some of the others.  Aside from that pretty planet with the moons, we didn’t find much…until we exited the last wormhole I tried, and found the buoys.  And!” Robinton exclaimed, holding up a forefinger and wagging it at them. “Guess what I found there?”

                “A signpost,” Menolly said, with weary patience.

                “A map. From here to Earth.  Well, to Earth by way of Beta Colony, as they are the ones who mapped that system and left the buoys.  And there were other destinations, too.  AIVAS said the buoy had been left within the past seventy turns, so…in comparison with, say, the age of the Dawn Sisters, that’s positively yesterday.”

                F’nor said, “AIVAS was not at Landing, when we went looking for you.  He was with you?”

                “In the ship, yes,” Robinton responded with half-truth.  “I named her the Mastersinger Merelan,”  he added.  “After my mother.  But yes, AIVAS went with me. He’s a stellar navigation computer; he was meant to roam the stars.  He is a marvelous guide—which should surprise nobody. I would have kept going if I could—”

                “Oh, really,” Menolly muttered.

                “But my intent to—“ He waved a hand around, “To test the ship and everything related to it, and to find something—had been achieved. So I returned. Now the focus is to determine…” and here Robinton’s racing mind slowed down.  “What do we need to learn to—“ he raised a finger, “Protect this planet—“ and he raised a second finger, “Protect its people—“ and he raised a third finger, “—and foster diplomatic relations so that nobody, ever, emerges from that wormhole with anything other than an intent to appreciate us as a culture and as a people, share knowledge, and trade with our Holds and Crafthalls.”

                He looked at his audience very seriously.  “The wormhole is not closing anytime soon; AIVAS says they remain open as stellar phenomenon for thousands of years.  And only a handful of jumps away, the Betan Astronomical Survey has already mapped a system.  If they push their exploration as far as I did by myself in five days, they will find us.  With our trousers around our ankles, might I add.” He stabbed a finger at his palm.  “We. Need. Reconnaissance.  The wormhole has been open already two, three months.  We need to seek knowledge.  Now.”  He looked around at them.  The half-jest anger they’d held in regards to his vanishing trick had been replaced with sober worry about the concerns raised in his blunt speech.  He looked around at his crew Menolly, Piemur, Tuck, Swift, Lytol, Jancis, holding their eyes in turn. “Can we be ready to leave the day after tomorrow?”

                F’nor and Brekke looked shocked. Likely because his plans were much further along than they’d realized.

                “I’m ready,” Menolly said, her ire with him put aside for now. “We just need to get the rest of the supplies on board.”

                “At your command,” Tuck said jauntily.  Swift merely nodded.

                “Are there language banks onboard?” Lytol asked.

                “Yes.”

                “Then I can study during the trip.”

                Piemur and Jancis looked at each other.  Jancis said, “You wanted me to examine the buoy?”

                “As much as you can.  I hope to put it back where it was once we enter that system again.  My intention was never thievery, and I’d hate to give our planet a reputation for it. It’ll take three-and-a-half, four days to get from here to there.  Please discover what you can during that time.”

                “How will you get there?” D’ram said.

                “That’s entirely up to you, my friend,” Robinton said. “I’m sorry I put you in a bind; I meant to run wormhole-crossing simulations only, but that led to a live test, and that led to a bit of exploration.  Exploration led to naps; wormholes are exhausting.  However, AIVAS can remote-pilot the Mastersinger Merelan from the Yokahama to here,” Robinton said, waving in the direction of the beach.

                With caveats, AIVAS said. You will need to bring me to Landing so I can contact the Yokohama, and stay connected as the fast-courier maneuvers.

                “—D’ram, if I’ve worn out my welcome and you’d rather no more involvement.”

                D’ram was quiet for a moment, his arms crossed over his chest.  Eventually he said, “If that was ideal, AIVAS wouldn’t have had Tiroth bring the shipping containers down.”

                Robinton said nothing.

                “Day after tomorrow?”

                “Yes.”

                “Fine.”  Running a hand through his greying red hair, D’ram left the room.

                “Thank you,” Robinton called after his retreating back.

                D’ram made a gesture that either waved the thanks off, or perhaps said something about Robinton and all of his schemes.

                Others followed D’ram’s lead, including Jancis, Piemur following his wife, Lytol, Lord Jaxom following Lytol in order to pump him for information.

                Tuck leaned against a wall, Swift looked between him and Robinton.

                “Why don’t you two go, and collect Piemur for practice?” Robinton suggested.

                Tuck smiled and left, with Swift trailing behind.

                Menolly, F’nor, and Brekke remained.

                F’nor eventually said, “If this wormhole opening up is so important, why are you running off without telling anyone about it?”

                “How long do you think the Conclave will deliberate?” Robinton asked.  “Until it’s too late, perhaps?”

                “I wasn’t talking about the Conclave.”

                Robinton’s eyes slid to Brekke, then back to F’nor.  “I cannot have my heels tied down by the Conclave.  I judged it was better to act first, then beg forgiveness.”  He paused.  Did not touch his neck, or even run a hand over his shorn head again. “I also have no time for debates about my health, or whether I’ve mutilated myself or not.”

                Brekke said, “What is that thing on your neck? Really?”

                He sighed. “It’s a neural implant, designed to allow me to pilot a jump ship through a wormhole.  A key to a door, basically.  AIVAS had exactly one to bestow; he said the original makers were paranoid about the wrong person getting their hands on the technology. He decided to give it to me when astronomical readings suggested a wormhole was opening up in our system about six months ago.”

                She considered that, then said, “Why did AIVAS not stay around to tell us this is why you collapsed?  Medically, we could have taken better care of you if we had some idea of what was going on.  Master Oldive believed it was a stroke.”

                AIVAS? he asked.

                Because your heart almost failed as we were talking, before I decided to administer the implant, and all my attention was on keeping you alive. I had to keep your damaged heart going, and the implant was not designed for that. I had to improvise, and reprogram the implant to address that scenario, while simultaneously retaining its intended function.  The calculations took all of my resources.

                “AIVAS said that before the implant was given to me, my heart went into failure. The implant is a neurological implant, it is not designed to treat heart defects. That he managed to salvage my heart and still bestow a working implant is testament to his intense focus. But it left no resources for the voice interface.”

                Brekke thought about this, and then seemed to accept it. “Then we owe AIVAS a debt,” she said.

                “In many more ways than the life of a single man,” Robinton said.  “Although, I am very grateful to be alive, and to have seen the inside of a wormhole.”

                Brekke looked at her weyrmate for a very long moment, something unspoken crossing between them.  Then she turned to Robinton. “I notice your party doesn’t have a Healer.  I offer myself.”

                Robinton thought of the coldsleep coffin, filling up the small Healer room in the ship, and realized that between that and his long recovery, he’d developed a slight avoidance of Healers, associated as they were with death and suffering.  An understandable bias on an emotional level, but dangerous to his people, given he’d completely forgot to even consider finding a Healer. 

                However, he was concerned with Brekke going alone, without her weyrmate. Like Lytol, she’d lost her dragon several turns ago, and F’nor had been the one to bring her out of the intense soul-rending grief that the severance of that great bond had caused.

                Robinton warned, “It’s likely the trip will be lengthy, a turn or more. And, I’m sorry to say, F’nor can’t join us, the ship does not have room for Canth.  With our cargo, it doesn’t even have room for Ruth. Quarters are obscenely tight.”

                “You were considering bringing Lord Jaxom?” F’nor asked.

                “No.  Especially not with Lytol already coming along.”

                “How did Lord Jaxom get involved?”

                “Funding. Lytol decided to speak to him.”

                “Hm.”

                Brekke said, “Yes, I understand the trip will be long.” She charitably did not remind Robinton that she was not tied at the hip to her weyrmate in exact words, but her tone implied it.

                Perhaps he deserved that.  He could see she felt wounded that he hadn’t confided in her at the Hatching. “We will need to go to Landing so AIVAS can create something called an ‘ID’ for you, then.”

                “We can do that now,” F’nor suggested.  “Although the AIVAS was not responding last we visited.”

                “He’ll respond if I accompany you,” Robinton said.  Then he rubbed at his temples.  “What else…?”

                Menolly spoke, startling him, for she’d been so quiet he’d forgotten she was there. “When all of you get back from Landing, Brekke should observe what Tuck, Swift, and Piemur are doing.  So she can treat symptoms, and not mistake it for something else.”

                “I hadn’t even thought of that,” Robinton said.  He smiled at Menolly.  “Excellent thinking.”

                “Really,” she said.

                He glanced at her again, and concluded it probably was time to have a talk.  To F’nor and Brekke, he said, “I need to speak to Master Menolly, catch up on some things.  If you’ve no more questions for me, why don’t I meet you on the beach?”

                It looked like Brekke still had questions, but given she was coming along, she decided to be patient.  Brekke and F’nor left, closing the door behind them.

                Settling a hip against his desk, Robinton tucked his hands in his pockets, cocked his head, regarded his erstwhile student, and smiled.

                “I’ve seen misbehaving Apprentices look at me like that,” she said.

                “Ah, but did they carry it off as well as I do?” Robinton replied, lifting his eyebrows entreatingly.

                An attempt not to smile, to be stern, flickered across her face.  The smile won out, at least somewhat.  But her words were serious. “You vanished for five days without a word, we hadn’t even realized you’d returned from the Hatching until D’ram came to me and asked if I knew why you hadn’t asked for a ride back yet.  Not from Benden Weyr, but from the Yokohama.”

                “The situation evolved.”

                “You could have died, going through the wormhole.  Wormholes.

                “You couldn’t have prevented that, if you’d been there,” Robinton said softly. “All you could have done is die alongside me.”  He took his hands out of his pocket, and crossed them across his chest. “If I were really being cruel, I might talk about Sebell right now, how he’d react if neither of us returned.”

                “Well, you’re speaking of it, so I suppose that makes you cruel by your own words.  However, you, I, and Piemur are going together, and something could happen…so in a way, Sebell is already on his own,” she said. “He knows that.”

                “Yes, but at least now this implant is tested.  This risks for all of us are lower.”

                Frustration gleamed in her eyes. “I don’t like you sacrificing yourself.”

                Robinton pursed his lips.  “You like me because I sacrifice myself.”

                “…what?”

                He gave her a smile that challenged her to find fault in his statement.  He knew very well what attracted people to him as followers.  Menolly was no more immune to it than Sebell or Piemur were.

                From Menolly’s dire look, she knew too, and disliked that she responded to it. Probably because she was a giving person, and liking someone else because they sacrificed freely ran counter to her self-image as a giver instead of a taker. Or perhaps she simply disliked that he was crass enough to mention it—a quibble with the delivery, not the content.

                “Do you forgive me?” he asked.  “For being myself?”

                Menolly sighed, put her face in her hands for a bit.  Beauty, on her shoulder, quietly rubbed her muzzle against Menolly’s ear.

                Then she raised her face.  “Yes, I was out of line, Master.”

                Er, not exactly the response he was hoping for. 

                Robinton swung away from the desk and sat next to her on the loveseat. “Caring, loving, isn’t out of line. Never.” The world would be a better place if more people cared, in his sometimes-irate opinion.

                “However, we are going into a situation neither of us have ever experienced.  Not just the dangers of space, but diplomatic and social situations, too.  I will likely do numerous things that will scare anyone who cares for me.  But I don’t act that way as some sort of death wish.  Sometimes I my think it’s the only option, or best option.  Even the lesser evil, sometimes, such as with my thievery of the buoy. Other times, I may simply be forgetful, with many other things occupying my mind.  Sometimes—like these past few days—I will be,” he sighed. “Human. And overwhelmed that so many people who care for me will be yelling at me, all at once. It’s easier to procrastinate, sometimes. Easier to explore just one more wormhole, and all the joys that entails, than return and have well-meaning people kvetch.”

                “I’m sorry.”

                “I’m not chiding you, merely sharing. I do need ballast, sometimes.  It’s easy for power to corrupt, to become so used to simply doing your own thing despite protests because the protests are often so petty and banal, that even when protests are genuinely warranted, you ignore them. At that point, a good thumping is required.”  He narrowed his eyes in thought.  “But, I think—“ he said carefully. “That sometimes your reactions are a performance.”

                “I do care!”

                “I know,” he assured her.  “That’s not in question at all.  You wear your heart on your sleeve, my dear girl. But is this manifestation of it, today, genuine?  Or is it a part of the role you feel you must play, for someone of your rank, or status, or gender?”  He huffed a chuckle. “I have no doubt Sebell and Piemur care, for example.”

                He could see what he’d said impact her, could see he’d given her something to think about.

                “You are one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But you occasionally subsume it beneath roles you think you should be playing. It’s your social sensitivity, I think.  Our world does not look kindly on intelligent women, it shames them, tells you to go back to playing your role instead of saying sensible things.  And you are good at this role, because you are sensitive and adaptable and smart.  Smart people can play roles very well.” He twinkled at her. “Look at me.”

                She snorted.

                “But I would challenge you, on this trip, to examine your motivations. I would much rather have you in the yoke beside me, showing off your intelligence as we tackle problems, than you trying to reassure the world that you really, truly care because you feel the pressure of rank or gender on you, and being seen as caring is a safe bet when it comes to being perceived as ‘right’. Safer than being smart and rankling feathers.”

                Menolly’s face turned wholly red.

                “I also think,” he added, “That you’ve been belittled so often for not being feminine enough that when a feminine emotion does strike you, you occasionally overdo it.  ‘See!  I am a proper woman!’”

                 “You were wrong not to tell us where you’d be,” Menolly said tiredly.  Mulishly.  Asserting herself.  This part, she stood by, even if the rest of what he said was making her think.

                “I did not communicate in a timely fashion,” Robinton agreed. “You are right. That happened because I was afraid.” He paused. “Possibly not even because of anyone here. I may have been shunting other anxieties into that. If it’s not acceptable for me to be afraid of what the wormhole might bring, because I’m aware I must act, perhaps it’s more acceptable in my mind to be afraid of people being wroth with me.  So I pour one cup of anxiety into another.”  He studied the toes of his boots.  “Out of all the turns you’ve known me, do I have a pattern of not communicating?”

                Her reply was quick. “Absolutely. Whenever you’re up to something, you begin telling people certain things, and omit others. You control the flow of information, and act with your body and voice to misdirect when you must say something, but want it to be construed as something else.”

                “Let me rephrase that: With you?  Or Sebell?”

                She fell silent for a long time.  “Only when you’re afraid of our reactions,” she admitted. “I’ve never seen you play with Sebell, for example, or willfully mislead him. When you woke up, you told us everything.”

                “Yes.”

                They fell silent.

                Then Menolly said, clenching her fists, “I don’t want to put this anger down.”

                “Mm? Well, what purpose does it serve? I’m actually asking, not implying it’s purposeless. Most emotions have a purpose, even if it’s hidden from the self.”

                She sighed heavily. “Retaliation,” she said.

                “For…?”

                “Hurting me.”

                He stroked the back of her hair for a moment, then clasped his hands back between his knees.

                “I feel so much…fear, worry, pain…and then the firelizards amplify it.  They pick up everything I feel. How do I get rid of it?  I can’t put it in a song.”

                He understood.  Such a song would be wildly misconstrued.  Some emotions were too powerful.

                “So I get angry with you.”  She paused, squinted. “And I don’t want to be like Lessa, just aimlessly angry all the time, so I wrap it in something legitimate. Everyone else was concerned, so I could be, too.”  Suddenly she swore.  “You’re right.  I am performing.”

                “Most people do.  It takes effort to be aware of it, and more effort to deconstruct it. Even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll catch yourself playing a before you’ve already done it.”  He gazed at her, then bumped her with his shoulder.  “Lytol fancies himself my second for this expedition…but you’ve been my right hand for longer.”  He smiled.  “I’ll tolerate your quirks, if you tolerate my wild eccentricities and lizard-brained schemes?”

                “I’ll try,” she said wryly.  Then, “Right hand? Isn’t that Sebell?”

                “Well, I wouldn’t say you’re my left hand; that’s Tuck and Swift.  Perhaps I’m a multi-limbed monster, like those little crawly things you find under a log.  Plenty of left and right hands for everyone. Or a tunnel-snake! Won’t be the first time I’ve been called one of those. Nor the last.”

                She chuckled.  Then it faded, and she said, “What did you mean earlier, about people thinking you were ‘mutilating’ yourself?”

                “Oh, I have dozens of extra limbs beneath this tunic,” he said airily.  “It happened after I went through the first wormhole.  I got an extra pair with each jump. Only worms can go through wormholes, right?”

                “You’re being disgusting,” she said, with an Oh, you! flap of her hand.  Then she closed her eyes, as if beseeching something or someone for help.  “Actually, I don’t care, I’m performing a role again.  I’m supposed to protest ‘gross’ things. Blast!” She spat the word in a bit of frustrated exasperation.

                He grinned.  Then he reached up and loosened his cravat, and pulled it off to lay over a thigh. “Look here.”  He hunched over a bit, to give her better access.

                Menolly pulled the edge of his collar down.  “Oh.  What is—“

                “Brekke and Manora saw it by accident; that’s what sent F’nor and Brekke here, I suspect.  I’ve been trying to keep it covered, at least until my hair is long enough to hide it.”

                “That’s very strange. But the gold is pretty.”  She let go of his collar.  “Although I suppose the aesthetics don’t really matter.  Why is it there?”

                “It allows me to attach my mind to the ship.  I sit down in the pilot’s seat, and lean back, and this,” he swirled a finger at the back of his neck, “—interfaces with it.”

                “Was that there when you woke up?” She frowned, clearly searching her memory and coming up blank.

                He shook his head.  “AIVAS didn’t add it until I was mobile.” He snorted.  “Not that I did a great job of concealing anything. And they call me a Master…!” He mocked himself.

                “So you’re still being altered?”

                “Only small changes.”

                “It’s good Brekke is coming along, then.”

                Robinton said, “Speaking of Brekke, if we find people out there are friendly, perhaps she can find a place in one of their Healer Halls, and she can add their techniques to our own.”  He frowned and said, “It would be excellent if all of us could do something like that.”  He sighed. “But that’s our second priority.”  They had so many priorities, all of them vying for space and attention.

                She touched his shoulder.  “Go get Brekke her ID.  I’ll help D’ram pack the containers he brought back a few days ago.”

                He didn’t rise immediately. “Are you upset I pointed out your reactions earlier were performative?”

                A heavy sigh, tinged with irritation and frustration. “Yes, but you weren’t entirely wrong, and nobody but me can really sort through any of it.”

                He continued to linger.  Then he said, “If you need to talk, just barge in and pull me aside.  The next day or so will be very busy, but I can make time if I know I need to.”

                “I’ll be fine,” Menolly said.

                Robinton patted her shoulder, and rose.

 

#

 

                Eight people, seven bedrooms, six on the lower deck of the ship, one on the top.  Luckily, Piemur and Jancis were a couple, so Robinton made sure they took one of the larger lower rooms, offered Lytol the other large room, and let the rest sort themselves out.

                Freefall was a novelty to all, and more difficult to maneuver in with so many people and so many firelizards bumping about.  Menolly discovered, to her dismay and others’ laughter, that her faire could surround her and take her just about anywhere in the ship by flapping in concert if she didn’t hang onto something. Given how Zair acted around him, he thought it was some firelizard swarming instinct, trying to add her to their swooping number now that she could “fly”.

                AIVAS ran them through security and emergency procedures.  Then Robinton reminded everyone that anything not secured could and would become a dangerous projectile, so use the straps and lockers and keep things stored away when not in use.  Use them immediately, right now; they could not exit the Yokohama without generating acceleration gees, and the last thing he wanted was their trip to end before it had begun because someone had been careless.

                Nobody else wanted that either, and he was gratified to see they were diligent.

                The one thing Robinton did not anticipate—although he should have—was how many people desired to watch him pilot, and drifted into the cockpit behind him curiously when it looked like they were about to get underway.  The urge was understandable, but he simply did not want so many eyes on him.

                He pursed his lips, then ordered, “Brekke, please use the chair on the right.  Lytol, the one on the left.  Everyone else should strap in in your quarters, or in the lounge.  I recommend you use the comconsoles to watch the Yokohama and Pern behind us; it really is a beautiful sight.  AIVAS can show you how.”

                The cockpit decluttered itself of people and firelizards, and Robinton locked the door behind them.  To Brekke and Lytol, he said, “There’s not really much to see, but I know you wanted to know more about the implant, Brekke.  And, Lytol, when I’m in the pilot’s chair I won’t necessarily be able to drop what I’m doing and attend to anything else. I thought you should witness why.”

                “Fair enough.”

                Pulling himself into his chair, Robinton wiped the contacts, and then strapped himself in.  Then he silently said, Let me know when everyone’s settled.

                To his surprise, AIVAS threw up a view of every person, in his mind’s eye.  The camera feeds from every room.  Robinton leaned back and relaxed into the chair, although he still shivered when the neural implant touched the interface, and connected.  Brekke watched intently.

                When everyone was settled, Robinton said out loud, “Everyone’s set,” and began flipping switches.  The ever-present woosh of the life support became overshadowed by the engines turning on.  Then the limb paralysis kicked in. 

                He cleared his throat.  “AIVAS?”

                Since he’d spoken out loud, AIVAS replied out loud. “Yes?”

                “Anything I should be thinking about that I’m not thinking about?”

                “No. We are ready to go. I am opening the bay now.”

                “Please put it on the screens here.”

                AIVAS did, and Robinton could see the bay opening in his mind’s eye, and on the screens before them.

                “Whee!” Robinton murmured irreverently, and released the docking clamps.  The ship reverberated with that drum-like clacking sound, and he was rewarded with the synthetic feeling of having his “feet” free.  “Here we go,” and at a mental twitch of his temporarily paralyzed legs, they shot off towards the open maw of the bay, suppressing an urge to dance.  He didn’t know if a jump ship could dance, and it was ridiculous to try.

                I suppose it depends on how you define “dance”, AIVAS said. And whether you wish your passengers to survive it.

                Lytol and Brekke made small sounds as the gees pressed them back in their seats. Robinton noticed elsewhere that a few firelizards tumbled around, squawking in surprise.  Luckily they weren’t hurt, merely offended, and better-obeyed their master’s and mistress’s instructions to hold on somewhere.

                “Can we see behind us, AIVAS?” Robinton asked.

                One of the screens changed from the view before them, to the view behind them.

                Then, once they cleared the Yokohama, Robinton pointed them at the wormhole, and accelerated.  Lytol and Brekke made soft, astonished comments over the retreating globe of Pern.

                It took several hours to reach the wormhole.  Robinton chose to mostly remain in the chair, enjoying the sensation of movement with a silly half-smile on his face.  Once they got to a set cruising speed, he allowed people to move about as needed.  Jancis was in the cargo bay, continuing to examine the stolen wormhole buoy with AIVAS.

                Eventually Lytol said, “Where are we going, then?”

                He didn’t mean immediately, Robinton knew.  That was already decided: they were returning to where Robinton had found the buoy, this time without diversions to explore the other unfruitful exits.

                AIVAS put up the wormhole map they’d pulled from that system.  It showed a long series of jumps leading to Beta Colony.  Beyond that was Earth, and a wide array of other systems and hubs.

                “Our problem,” Robinton mused, “Is that this is simply a map.  What are the people of Beta Colony like?  Or Earth? Who lives on Vervain?  Or Athos?”  Detaching himself from the chair, he leaned forward and tapped his fingers on his knee.  “I believe we have no choice but to cautiously move towards Beta Colony, and hope somewhere along the way, AIVAS can find us more information.  Preferably before we put our foot in anything.”

                “I would like to see Earth,” Brekke said.

                “Me too,” he agreed.  Then a thought occurred to him.  “AIVAS, is Eridani on the maps?”

                “Its star is marked,” AIVAS said. “I do not see a wormhole route.”

                Robinton sighed. “I would have liked to know more about this neural implant.  And mentasynth.”

                Brekke looked thoughtful.  Half her patients were dragons, and dragons had been created using Eridani techniques on firelizards.

                Changing topics, Robinton said, “AIVAS, has anything been deciphered about that buoy?”

                “We’ve learned a bit about their construction capabilities, their standardized system of measurement, and have deduced the buoys power themselves harvesting energy escaping from the wormhole.  I have been able to crack the encryption and decompile the code, but aside from some code comments, very little information cultural or otherwise has been left behind. There is no mail in its queue, and the only images it has in memory are of us.”

                “What do the code comments say?”

                “It says, ‘I don’t know what this does, but it breaks when I remove it, so I’m leaving it.’”

                “Someone else got the buoy and left a note?” Robinton asked.

                “No. It means the last programmer updating the code tried to remove that section of code, and the software no longer functioned correctly when compiled. The comment was left so that future programmers who revisit it understand removing that section will break the functionality.  It’s like marginalia on a manuscript.”

                Lytol said, “Was that the actual language it was written in? Or did you translate?”

                “That was word-for-word,” AIVAS said. “It seems you share a common written tongue with Beta Colony.”

                That was encouraging.  “Tell us if you learn anything more,” Robinton advised.

                “Of course, Harper.”

 

#

 

                When they arrived at the wormhole, Robinton ordered everyone seated again, and not to leave their seats until he or AIVIS gave the clear.  There would be maneuvers, he warned, that would throw them around like dolls if they were not secured.

Then Robinton leaned back and let the implant activate, and a countdown softly played through the ship.

                 Ten.

                Nine.

                Eight.

                Seven.

                Six.

                Five.

                Four.

                Three.

                Two.

                One.

                Zero—

                Vision whiteout, and a rising joyful song as they dove through.  He was flying!

                The first few exits he ignored, having explored them previously to no avail.  Then the mapped system came up, and he plunged into it without hesitation or qualm, and exercised maneuvers as if he were doing a gleeful somersault, then squirted off in another direction like a pinched melon seed while AIVAS scanned the system for changes.

                Lytol looked green around the edges.  Brekke endured the gees resolutely, with a flat expression.

                Robinton took an exultant breath, and said, trying to keep some of the joy out of his voice, “Changes, AIVAS?”  The words still wobbled with a hidden laugh.

                “None.”

                “Then let’s go return our silver to the Hold’s table, shall we?” Robinton said, and swung them around again.

                Robinton inched close to one edge of the wormhole, and got their rear airlock aligned nicely at the point he’d stolen the buoy from to begin with, and was extraordinarily pleased with his effort.  He gave an okay for those transporting the buoy to the airlock to move around.

                A few minutes later, there was a scratching at the door.

                “Come in,” Robinton said.

                Piemur poked his head in.  “Jancis says there’s a problem.”

                “What sort of problem?” Robinton said, frowning.

                “Well, she was able to put the buoy back together before we jumped, and AIVAS said it was working, but…now it’s broken.”

                “How?”

                “Uh, it caught on fire,” Piemur said.

                Robinton chewed on his lower lip, then reluctantly detached himself from the pilot chair, unstrapped himself, and floated around. “I assume the fire’s out, now?”

                “Yes.  Swift is helping Jancis suck up the foam with some sort of stick-thing AIVAS said to use.”

                “How did this fire happen?”

                Piemur hesitated, and AIVAS answered. “We believe the exposure to an oxygenated environment might have eroded some of the seals just enough that they did not fully shield the device from the wormhole transit when Jancis reassembled it, and left a pinhole.  A battery overloaded.”

                So now they had a broken buoy.

                Exhaustion from the wormhole jump swamped Robinton, made it harder to think.  Eventually he threw up his hands and said, “Fine!  We’ll take it with us to Beta Colony. Offer to ferry a replacement back here when we return.  Go back and help them do whatever still needs to be done, Piemur.”

                The Journeyman left, closing the door behind him.

                Then he rotated and flipped around so he was facing Brekke and Lytol, and pulled himself back into his seat.  “I am going to get us started towards the other wormhole.  Then, I am going to go to sleep.  Next wormhole jump is in about sixteen hours.”

 

#

 

                The next few jumps were uneventful and boring.  Buoys bracketed each end of the wormholes, so they were never quite in unexplored systems again, but there were no other signs of life that AIVAS could locate as they streaked across systems from one wormhole to another.

                Then, with Menolly on one side of him, and Jancis on the other, Robinton exited the wormhole into an armada.

                Three dreadnoughts.

                Scout ships.

                Skirmishers.

                Fast-couriers.

                Their class, names, designations zipped by in his mind’s eye, and Robinton, driven by a good sense of self-preservation and some excellently-made Eridani engines, practically made the Mastersinger Merelan do a backflip right back towards the wormhole.  Gees rougher than the ones experienced before pressed them all in their seats.

                Then AIVAS said, Abort.

                “What?” Robinton breathed, his eyes huge.

                None of them are powered up. They’re decommissioned.  This is a graveyard. The mental words were sent and received faster than verbal, and Robinton was able to change course again, so they didn’t enter the wormhole.

                “Will you look at that?” Jancis said, as the view in the screen rotated the defunct armada back into her vision.  She hadn’t seen it the first time, didn’t have AIVAS putting the images directly into her mind.

                “Oh, I looked all right,” Robinton said.  “AIVAS says they’re dead, but…”

                AIVAS, busy pinging objects and sorting data, didn’t reply directly, but focused on trying to extract anything he could from them.

                Robinton, straining his ears, heard some of the pre-recorded com chatter.

                Beta Colony * Beta Colony * Beta Colony something sent like a pulsing heartbeat.

                Lanes of invisible light sorted the dark ships into rows, highlighted a space where he might park the Mastersinger Merelan amongst the other corpses.  He rejected that notion.

                Now, THIS little shuttle hasn’t been scrubbed, AIVAS reported smugly, and a listing of files streamed across Robinton’s mind as he copied them into the ship’s storage.  Robinton flicked a file open—

                —and was immediately subjected to a video of a young woman with nothing but a sarong around her hips kneeling before a woman…woman?  Man?  Woman?  Both?...undoing their sarong.

                Oh, yes, a good deal of this seems to be porn, not government secrets, probably why it was overlooked during decommissioning. We can learn from it nonetheless, AIVAS assured him.  We have nearly an exabyte here.

                Robinton closed the video and sat there for a moment, not even daring to think about all those files streaming past in case one opened up again, and was acutely aware of the two women on either side of him.

                They, completely oblivious to the cache AIVAS had found, were pointing at the warships and speculating on what the differences between them were.

                Suddenly, a yell erupted from the direction of the lounge.  “SWIFT!  What did you do?!” Piemur accused.

                Robinton immediately knew Piemur, not Swift, had done “it”, had been working at the comconsole, seen new files, and had opened one, and was deflecting blame on another Harper just as he had as a little Apprentice.

                Jancis turned.  “What’s wrong? Can I move yet?”

                AIVAS said, “We’ve downloaded a cache of Betan cultural videos. Your husband already noticed and opened one, and seems to be shocked, but he is not harmed.  No more than the Harper was.”

                You had to mention that, Robinton said, with a sigh.

                I did warn you preemptively about culture clashes, AIVAS said, most smugly.  Perhaps it is time to revisit that training.  Give a speech to your crew about tolerance.

                Jancis began to finger the straps.

                “Stay here, please, Master Jancis,” Robinton said. “It’s still possible I may have to maneuver suddenly.  Piemur will just have to deal with…with…hermaphrodites, for the moment.”

                The most bizarre of looks were levied on him by both women.

                AIVAS directed Robinton further into the system, so he could track down and attempt to download more databases from fainter signals.  Unfortunately, AIVAS seemed to keep coming up blank; breaking into databases, and finding nothing there, not even scraps that could be reconstructed.

                Then, Robinton and AIVAS noticed a noisy set of signals from a dark ship at the same time; it was some sort of guard, coming out of torpor.

                Our idling triggered it, AIVAS said. It’s supposed to let travelers pass, but aggress thieves.

                He didn’t care what triggered it; Robinton locked onto the next wormhole—a mere half-hour transit—and poured on speed.

                Good, we’re outrunning it, AIVAS said.

                Robinton felt very much like a thief, running away from this guard, and wondered what they could do if AIVAS was wrong and it caught them anyway.  “What if it wants its videos back?” Robinton asked hopefully.  “Can we give them to it?”

                AIVAS actually laughed out loud over the speakers, something nobody had ever heard the AIVAS do before.

                Eventually he said to Robinton, I suppose if you re-transmit an exabyte of videos to it, it’ll eventually overflow its buffer…

                Robinton didn’t know what that meant, but then they entered the wormhole, and he was too busy to care.

 

#

 

                Two jumps so close together, with no downtime to rest due to the graveyard guard-ship, had Robinton staggering to his room to collapse and sleep.

 

#

 

                When Robinton awoke, and floated groggily to the galley for food, the lounge was completely empty.  Where is everyone? It wasn’t quite the time they considered “night”.

                Researching Betan culture, AIVAS said.

                Oh? Robinton asked.  Did we find songs?  Databanks?

                Silence.

                More silence.

                Which harmonized with silence.

                I see. Robinton uncharacteristically fidgeted.  I suppose Piemur and Jancis were hoping for a child. Although I’m not sure where we’d put it…

Robinton considered the situation some more. Did everyone simply go to their quarters?

                AIVAS said, I don’t think they entirely understand yet how exhausting a double wormhole jump is for you. I believe they thought you were leading by example, retreating to your private room.

                He felt a slew of conflicted feelings battle, and almost responded in response to that, but realized, You’re playing with me!

                Only a little, Harper.

                But “only a little” was still a new development for AIVAS.

                Taking his food and a bulb of water with him back to his room, Robinton shut the door and found a comfortable position to float in.  What I needed was something that’d inform my interactions with these people. Not voyeurism.

                Intimate interactions are interactions, AIVAS pointed out.

                I mean politics, Robinton said bluntly.

                Leadership of a Weyr is determined by who flies the queen, AIVAS said patiently.

                That’s dragonlust.

                I’ve spoken to a few riders, and they assure me there’s human lust, too.  Either way, it’s still politics.  And Holds form relationships through a ritual sexual alliance called “marriage”.

                Robinton chewed his food in irritation, hardly tasting it.  You’re playing with me again.

                No. I’m leading you down a corridor you don’t want to go down.

                Why?

                Because as leader of this crew, you are uniquely positioned to order everyone to behave some way…while completely failing to take your own advice.  And this mission succeeds or fails on your shoulders.  A pause.  Here’s something interesting: the Betans seem to encode their relationship status in earrings.  Men, women, and herms wear these earrings.

                Robinton thought about the hermaphrodite he had a glimpse of, then shook his head to knock the thought away.

                You’re an incorrigible flirt, Harper.  On Pern, you know how to toe the line between flattery and fun, without making it so serious some Lord will challenge you to a duel. But imagine you are on Beta Colony, and you cannot read their earrings. Might you flirt with someone whose earring status says they are in a committed relationship, and not looking? Out of ignorance of what the earrings mean?  And then insult that person, with your vulgar, Pernese habits? Or alarm them with your obvious willingness to cross boundaries they stated clearly by the customs of their culture?

                How do you know about these earrings?

                Because the videos with plots frequently revolve around the earring code.  Much like the stories of Pern revolve around marriage alliances, or being ravished by a dragonrider.  A pause. Or the apprentice being ravished by his Master.

                Robinton made a low sound of warning.

                AIVAS ignored it.  We also learned that Beta Colony has a fully-functional hermaphrodite sex, that can sire or bear children.  Do you know the proper address for one?

                “Clearly I don’t,” he said, then stuffed more food in his mouth.

                You’d call a man a “gentleman”, but a hermaphrodite “honorable herm”. Again, learned from one of those videos.

                …That was useful information to know, he had to admit.

                AIVAS said, I can parse all these videos and generate statistics and trends and feed you crumbs of cultural information, extracted from context. But that won’t help you understand.  Or come to terms with your own biases and resistances.  You’re an incredibly social person, and your understanding of human nature is better than mine. You will see things I may assign the wrong priority to.

                That was probably true.  He was going to have to look through this, be unsettled by this, wouldn’t he?

                Do you want me to curate for you? So you’re not exposed to anything too shocking to your sensibilities?

                How insulting.  What was he, a child to be coddled?

                AIVAS wisely didn’t answer that.

                So Robinton kicked off a wall, and pulled himself over to the comconsole.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


Chapter Four

 

                To have a meeting, one must have an agenda.  To have an agenda, one must know what topics were of interest to the individuals participating, or the mission’s overall goals.

                But that required him going around and asking people to their faces.  Lytol, he could manage.  And Tuck.  Swift and Piemur he could order to report—although there would be much awkwardness around.

                Except then there was Jancis.  Who was married. And Brekke.  Who had been shy even as a queenrider. And Menolly.

                Robinton got around this—he thought—by asking AIVAS to compile an anonymous list from everyone who had watched the Betan Cultural Videos about questions they had, or things they noticed (such as the earring custom), so he could get an idea of topics important to his crew.

                Now Robinton had to deal with the results of that questionnaire. Such as the one in Masterharper-eyes-only drumcode, that only his direct Journeymen and agents like Tuck and Swift knew, that requested Immediate Evacuation via Green Dragon to the Orb of Unearthly Delights.

                What was the Orb of Unearthly Delights? And given Beta Colony was not Earth, why did they not name it Orb of Betan Delights?

                AIVAS offered, It’s where their Sexcrafters practice their trade.

                Right. That must have been on videos he hadn’t seen yet.

                Robinton snorted. Immediate evacuation by green dragon.  To the Sexcraft Hall. He would bet marks that that message had been sent by Tuck. Piemur wasn’t quite brazen enough.

                Another one asked, intently, WHY DO BETANS SHAVE THEIR BODY HAIR?  Certainly he’d wondered the same thing, but it wasn’t like he had an answer, or was going to include it on the agenda for discussion! And of course, that wasn’t the only hair-related query.  More than one person asked, Why do Betan men have hairy faces? 

                Robinton sighed.  “AIVAS?”

                “Yes?”

                “Send whoever asked that question a video of our ancient Earth ancestors with beards. I’m looking for new information, not things we already know about humanity.”

                “I’ve sent it.”

                “Thank you.”

                From someone whom he guessed was Jancis he got a list of technologies she hoped he would negotiate for, or buy. First was artificial gravity for the Mastersinger Merelan.  That intrigued him; freefall was starting to become more tedious than exciting.

                Next was a coffee machine, in the hopes that it could be used for klah. Third was a set of personal comlinks for the entire crew, with extras for passengers, repairs, and other needs. There was an ambiguous request of implants for female crew, followed by a less-ambiguous but surprising request for a uterine replicator.  There was also a list marked tools, which had stills of various videos where one of the video participants was holding some sort of tool to some sort of object.

                Then there was a message concerning their next destination.  It said, Change destination from Beta Colony to Barrayar; they have runners and Lords.

                “What’s Barrayar?” Robinton asked.

                AIVAS showed him a wormhole map, and highlighted a route that would take them past Beta Colony to Barrayar.  The worlds Sergyar and Komarr were marked as being a part of the Barrayan Imperium.

                “But who are they?”

                I can only show you the parodies. The video that prompted that suggestion, I believe, is called “The Butcher’s Bride”. Would you like to see it?

                Robinton’s original review of some of the material they’d downloaded had left him with a conflicted awareness that he found herms delightful, production value and genre mattered to him (Faranth help him, he had preferences!), the music was often not only alien but bad, and something containing the word “butcher” was likely to be appallingly violent.

                The production values are high, AIVAS offered as incentive. Even if the plot is callow.

                “Well then,” Robinton said mockingly, unsure if he were mocking himself, or AIVAS. “If the production values are high, by all means, let us ogle the Butcher’s Bride!”

                AIVAS took that as assent.

                The video opened up with a Betan woman in a sarong immediately dropping the sarong and wading into an alien pond so she could survey the biology there—in the nude.  The video had a close-up shot of a nametag on the sarong, which said Cockteasia Laysmith, and then panned back over to the bathing beauty and her unnaturally red hair and very naked figure.  She didn’t have a single freckle, which struck Robinton as odd, since in his experiences redheads were nothing but freckles.

                 As the Lady Laysmith bathed (or surveyed the marine biology, which looked a lot like bathing) a space shuttle landed one clearing over.  Somehow, this did not alert the woman at all.

                The shuttle’s door opened, and down the ramp came an ugly, hatchet-faced man riding a glossy runnerbeast.  The poor beast, to Robinton’s inexpert eye, was of inferior runner stock. 

                Pausing the video, he asked, “…do they really take their runners onto their space shuttles?”

                AIVAS hesitated. “It seems unlikely…horses would not be any use in space and it’s much easier to transport the genetic material instead of the entire horse, but then, I expect Pern to transport dragons via ships in the future, and that will look equally opaque to outsiders…” AIVAS’s invisible shrug was palpable.

                “Hmm. Do you think they chose a poorly-conformed runner to underline this character’s obvious villainy…or do they simply not know that beast has back problems?”

                “I couldn’t say, Harper.”

                “Fair enough.” Robinton continued watching the video.

The man riding the runner had very shiny boots, and a very green uniform, which had braiding along the shoulders and seams that was strongly reminiscent of the rank knots of a Lord, Dragonrider, or Crafter. As the horse-riding villain rode poorly towards the pond—his seat was atrocious—another close-up zoomed in on his nametag, which said, Karl Gochokeonit, the Butcher.  A subtitle proclaimed he was a Gor Lord, from Bare-all-there.

                The Gor Lord rode his runner, bouncing painfully the entire way, over to the pond, and dismounted, to Robinton’s great relief and empathy for both actor and beast.  Lady Laysmith seemed to be profoundly deaf, and stood in the pond, rubbing seaweed over her breasts.  Robinton didn’t ask how one found seaweed in a small forest pond, but did consider that alien seaweed might perhaps render one deaf, if you were not aware of those properties, and went about swimming in it and rubbing it on yourself. Clearly the writers of the video did not think highly of her intelligence.

                Or perhaps the audience’s intelligence.

                Then Lord Karl took a stunner from his pocket, shot Lady Laysmith in the back, and proceeded to drag her naked body over to his runner.  He lifted her onto it, remounted, and rode his beast back to the ship and up the ramp, jolting all the way.  Perhaps the redheaded woman was immune to freckles, but she definitely would sport an array of bruises after that ride.

                There was a montage of scenes within the spaceship; all the guardsmen in the space ship seemed to run about with runners following them, to the point that Robinton wondered if the people of Barrayar Impressed to runners.  (Or was it simply an extended joke?)

                Bored, Robinton sped the video up, until the Gor Lord and Lady Laysmith were alone again.  The room they were in was surprisingly well-appointed, and resembled in some ways the private quarters of a Lord Holder.  The Gor Lord tried to intimidate her psychologically in an inept offer of marriage (the video paused to zoom in on her earrings, and AIVAS said they proclaimed she was not looking, and that the Gor Lord’s offer was inappropriate), but due to her superior Betan knowledge of psychology, she tamed the brute Lord for her own wily purposes, which somehow involved taking his pants off. At that point, Robinton finally understood why they’d paired the hatchet-faced actor with the redhead.  He clearly took after his runner in certain departments.

                “So…this is the world Lytol wants to go to?” Robinton asked, disappointed.  He also wondered about Lytol’s tastes, but tried to wave that thought away as unfair of him.  Lytol had been a brownrider; for all Robinton knew, he wanted to be Lady Laysmith with a pair of shiny boots before him, instead of imagining himself as Lord Karl.

                Yes, AIVAS said, But this seems both like a parody, and propaganda.  However, statistically, most of the Barrayar-inspired parodies have castles or holds that resemble Pernese ones. Runners are prominent, even if the emotional bond isn’t as deep as the one a dragonman has with his dragon, and the society seems to be a patriarchy, with most women taking roles as mothers, wives, and daughters.

                “He could have stayed home,” Robinton muttered.  “He asked to come along.” Why explore space if the first thing you were going to do was find something that resembled what you’d just left behind?  He sighed.

                Waving the video away because it did nothing for him now that it’d answered his question of Why Barrayar, Robinton went back to the list.

                Similar to the list of tools, there was a list of musical instruments with screenshots. And another with Healer resources.  Robinton suspected the three women in the crew had gotten together and shared ideas.  Robinton reflected that he loved woman subordinates; they actually did their work diligently, instead of playing around.  Tuck, for example…ah, but Tuck had always been like that. Playing around and avoiding work until the chips were down, then going into overdrive.

                Elsewhere in his list, a video was linked, with a note saying it suggested Betans used a system of voting to govern themselves.  Their Lord Holder—or rather, a High Lord Holder that ruled the entire planet—was even voted in.  This pleased Robinton, and was a vote—heh—for visiting the Betans and against the Barrayarans.  Not that a Crafthall with its voting population of Masters couldn’t get bogged down, but at least when something truly went off the rails all you had to do is vote someone else in. No blood feuds, no assassinations, no younger siblings of the Blood trying to take over out of nowhere…it was a much duller system, to the benefit of most.

                Robinton compiled summaries of all of this into an agenda.  Things they had to buy, places they would (not) go, the physical habits of Betans…he probably needed to discuss hermaphrodites specifically. It was curious that nobody had brought that up; he couldn’t keep his eyes off of them when they appeared in videos.

                That may be an artefact of your own sexuality, AIVAS commented.

                Robinton ignored him, and added, discussion of customs, especially with Tuck and Swift. If he could, he’d likely ask them to go undercover right away once they arrived at Beta Colony.  Ah!  That was where the questions about hair had come from.  Luckily, it was common enough for Betans to go bare-faced that naturally bare-faced Pernese men would not be conspicuous. The rest of their hair—he thought he’d leave that to them.  Snapping his fingers suddenly, Robinton added haircuts to the list. Betan styles were different than Pernese.

                Then he looked at his list, and looked at his closed door.  AIVAS?

                Will fifteen minutes do?

                Robinton hadn’t even asked, but clearly the AI had understood.  Yes, and thank you.

 

#

 

                When everyone was bundled into the lounge, floating around, Robinton emerged from his room and joined them.  “Glad you could be here on such short notice,” he joked.

                An obliging laugh or two.

                “So, as you all found out, we did find some data recently…just not the sort I was expecting…”

                Genuine laughs this time, some nervous.

                “And I commend you all for throwing yourselves into the threadfall feet-first so we could wrest some information from that extravagant display of flesh.”

                “Aw, I would have done it anyway, no need for an award,” Tuck said, in a flat Betan accent, instead of a lilting Pernese one.

                Robinton kept talking.  “—Unfortunately, I have to deny that request for emergency evacuation via green dragon to the Sexcrafter’s Hall, also known as the Orb of Unearthly Delights. We do not have any green dragons available to fly right now.”

                “You actually asked that?” Menolly chortled to Tuck.

                He smiled at her in a way that made Robinton wonder about things that had nothing to do with the meeting.  Such as, Had Menolly been the one to write that?  And, Are they close enough to joke about these things together?

So Robinton forged forward. “Also, be aware that the Masterharper’s drumcode is trivial to decode in a technological society; do not use it going forward.”

                “Told you it wouldn’t work,” Piemur said to Tuck.

                “Then drum something better.”

                “I’m trying!  AIVAS keeps cracking them!”

                Robinton cleared his throat. “I have received several inventories of things you would like to buy; unfortunately until we are able to make some trades of what we have, or for those of us with Crafts, figure out how to capitalize them on the galactic market, we will have to put that off. 

                “However, Brekke, I’d like you to maintain a list going forward of Healer supplies that you would like to obtain. One list of consumables, one list of equipment.  Prioritize by musts, needs, and would-likes.

                “Master Jancis, same for any technology.  I do think we should strive to equip this ship with artificial gravity, if the retrofit is possible.  Please continue working with AIVAS on projects as needed, and tap Journeyman Piemur as an extra set of hands.”

                Piemur wiggled his fingers, not-quite-lasciviously.

                “Lytol, think about the supplies this ship will need, and how we may obtain them from Beta Colony. We are not yet over-extended, but something could happen, and ship supplies will get first priority budget-wise.”

                Lytol said, “I will do that. But I think we should also look beyond Beta Colony. There’s other worlds out there.”

                “Such as?”

                “Barrayar would be my first choice, so far.”  Lytol grimaced. “Given the strange quality of information we have.”

                “Ah, the world where they ride runners indoors, and shoot unarmed women in the back.”

                “So you’ve heard of the Time of Isolation?”

                “No, I must have missed that part.”

                Brekke, surprisingly, cut in. “Like Pern, they were cut off from the galaxy for several hundred turns.  Not as many as us, but enough.  They didn’t have any Landing or AIVAS, but once they were back in contact with the rest of the galaxy, started picking up new technology.  Like us.”

                Lytol said, “They’re about a hundred or so turns ahead of us in acclimating.”

                Robinton blinked.

                “Perhaps we can learn from them, and whatever mistakes they may have made with their holds when modernizing.”

                That was a much better reason for visiting there than Robinton had thought.  He felt a moment of shame that he’d imagined Lytol’s—and apparently Brekke’s—motivations so shallow.  “Interesting.”  He pondered for a moment.  “Swift?”

                Swift looked surprised to be addressed.  “Yes, Master?”

                “Why don’t you focus on learning about Barrayan culture, while Tuck focuses on Betan.  You can ride, right?”

                The Journeyman nodded.

                “Good.” He looked at the others. “Anyone who has delved into the Barrayaran-themed videos, bring your insights to Swift, or tell him which videos to watch.”

                The young man turned scarlet.

                “Hopefully,” Robinton said, “Once we reach Beta colony, we’ll be able to acquire genuine cultural databases.”

                “I like the ones we have,” Tuck said, still maintaining his Betan accent.  Robinton had to wonder how many videos he had watched in order to determine how the accent worked.

                “You’re angling for an assignment where you work undercover at the Orb of Unearthly Delights,” Robinton said pointedly.

                Tuck’s mouth hung open for a second. “I hadn’t even considered that. Thanks for the idea!”

                “—as a hermaphrodite,” Robinton added.

                Several people in the room laughed.

                Menolly wasn’t one of them.  She said, “Wait. You mentioned them before, but didn’t elaborate.”

                That was as good of a segue as any.  Robinton said, “For those of you who didn’t notice it yet, the Betans have three sexes.  Man, woman, and hermaphrodite.  Please, be polite, no matter how foreign the concept is to you.  Men are gentlemen, women are ladies, hermaphrodites are honorable herms.”

                “I wonder how that happened,” Jancis said.

                “The same way dragons happened, I expect,” Robinton said.  “Genetic manipulation.”

                Brekke said, “I wonder if a dragon would Impress a hermaphrodite…”

                That was a fascinating question that visibly flickered across several faces.

                Menolly said, “Some already think women riders are practically hermaphrodites, so to take a shot in the dark—yes? But it wouldn’t be fun for them. The rider, that is.”

                Brekke flickered a look at Menolly, but didn’t seem offended a Harper was speaking about dragons, mostly pensive.  “Mirrim would agree.”  Her foster-daughter had Impressed green Path, as the only non-queen female rider in centuries.

                “We’re not bringing hermaphrodites home to the Hatching Grounds,” Lytol said. The tic in his face started to jump in agitation.

                “But what if they were Searched?” Menolly pressed.

                Tuck said, drolly, “Then we’d have that green-dragon evacuation to the Orb.”

                Robinton refrained from rolling his eyes, but felt this discussion was pointless, as only a Weyrleader could make such a decision, and he didn’t see the situation coming up anytime soon.  Intergalactic Search indeed. “The only Hatchings we’re attending out here is possibly firelizard hatchings—“ he paused.  “Jancis, make a note: some machine to keep a bucket of sand at the right temperature.”

                “I should have thought of that,” Menolly said, visibly cursing herself.

                Robinton said, “Anyway, a firelizard will Impress anyone who stuffs its face. I think that should be our only concern.  Leave everything else to the Weyrs, if it ever becomes relevant.”

                Speculation went on in minds, but at least stopped being voiced.

                Moving on, Robinton said, “I would like anyone who is delving into these videos to note down anything related to trade or currency—“

                AIVAS interjected, “The Betan currency is called the ‘dollar’.”

                “—as that seems an area where we still have to learn a lot about.  Especially since, unlike Tuck, we’re not all going to Apprentice ourselves to the Orb.”

                Glances at Tuck to see how he was taking the teasing. He simply smiled back.

                And that seemed to be it for Robinton’s agenda.  There was little they could do until they actually came in contact with outsiders.

                “Is there anything anyone wants to talk about that has not yet been covered?” Robinton asked.

                Headshakes.

                Lytol said, “Can I speak to you privately?”

                “Of course.  Anyone else?”

                Nobody responded.

                Robinton said, “It’ll take us twenty hours to the next wormhole.  After we pass through it, we will be one jump away from Beta Colony.  At that time, we will pause to prepare, until I feel we are ready to introduce ourselves.  If any of you feel like you are not ready or need more time, you must let me know.”

                Silence, and nods.

                Robinton turned to Lytol. “In my quarters?”  And he pushed himself off in that direction.

                Extending a foot against a bolted-down chair, Lytol launched himself after Robinton.

 

#

 

 

                “Harper, did you know those videos are accessible to everybody?”

                “Mmm.  Yes.”

                Lytol stared at him, the tic in his cheek twitching.

                “Who would I restrict?  The youngest?  The youngest one here is attempting to become a father.  The junior-most? Swift will be out on his own on a foreign planet soon enough, to succeed or fail by his own skills. Seeing a bit of flesh in a database is the least of his concerns. Or should we restrict anyone who isn’t a Master? There’s more Masters than not, here.”

                A frown tugged Lytol’s mouth down.  His gaze said, You know what I mean.

                The women, of course.  Never mind that one had been a queenrider, and could still Hear All Dragons, or that the other one had ten randy firelizards flying every each way at the drop of a hat. Or that the last was actively trying to become a mother.

                “I could restrict your access, if you are bothered by having it,” Robinton suggested.

                Lytol jerked back, red spots appearing in his cheeks.  “So you’re not bothered, at all?”

                “Of course I am. I wish we had better information to work with, not prurient fantasies we have to dissect of scraps of data.”

                “I would not let my daughters see this.”

                Robinton refrained from replying immediately; Lytol’s daughters had been murdered by Fax, and the man rarely spoke of them.  “…you suggested we go to Barrayar.  If ‘the Butcher’s Bride’ disturbs you—why?”

                “The video was propaganda,” Lytol said. “I’ve seen it often enough, coming from your Hall.  I can look beyond it.”

                Now it was time for Robinton to jerk back slightly.

                “But not everyone can.  Have you really looked through that database?”

                “I’ve looked enough,” Robinton said neutrally. “But it’s not my business to shepherd three adult Craftmasters.  I trust they can all decipher fantasy from reality.”

                I think Lytol, like you, is struggling somewhat with understanding his sexuality, AIVAS suggested.

                Robinton was surprised; AIVAS never commented on other people, unless Robinton asked a direct question.  He seemed to know much about them, but was reluctant to broach privacy.

                Rubbing his face, Robinton pushed himself a bit back, so they weren’t floating so directly face-to-face.  Then he steeled his nerve and said, “You know why I brought up hermaphrodites in the meeting?”

                “To remind us to be diplomatic, Master Diplomat.”

                “Yes, but also because I keep thinking of them in odd moments.”  His voice went very bland. “It’s somewhat like discovering you fancy other men when you’d never realized that was even possible before.  Disturbing, intrusive.”

                Lytol blinked, then he said, “Exactly.  Which is why—“

                “—everyone should have access,” Robinton said. “I can’t examine my bias, or feelings, or…desires,” and he flipped a hand as if throwing the word away, “—without exposure.  I can’t grow, when my information is constrained.  How do you get beyond that primitive, innate disgust of anything new and strange and allow logic to rise up in its place if you don’t allow yourself time to gather information, first?”

                Lytol opened and closed his mouth.

                “Imagine,” Robinton said in a bit of inspiration, “If someone had a safer medium to explore thoughts through in the wake of living through a dragon flying nearby.  Instead of having to, say, chase dragonriders in order to get that feeling again. Perhaps the Betans realize this, that safe educational environments are necessary for growth, and that is where this material is coming from.” Would Lytol understand this perspective?

                Robinton hoped so. Dragonlust could be sudden, rough, and pair individuals with people they wouldn’t otherwise couple with.  It wasn’t uncommon for men and women in the weyr alike to have some trouble coping with the aftermath.  Lytol, as a brown rider, would have experienced sudden wild encounters himself.

                Lytol was quiet for a moment. “You’re not going to change your mind, are you?”

                “You haven’t given me good reason to.  I’ve had my own turmoil, and I’m growing from it. I don’t see why the individuals in question, who have all shown great persistence in the face of adversary, would not also learn and grow.”

                Lytol didn’t respond.

                Robinton said, “Perhaps look at something other than Barrayan kidnapping-fantasies.” He could certainly see how that might set off bad reactions in a man who’d lived under the hand of Fax and had his family murdered.

                “Are you going to send me recommendations?” Lytol said with something that tried to be a sneer, but wasn’t, quite.

                “Would you even look at them, if I did?” Robinton asked, and rolled his eyes.

                Lytol backed away from him, that half-sneer still on his scarred face, and saw himself out of Robinton’s quarters.

                Well, that was peculiar, Robinton said to AIVAS.

                Will you be sending him recommendations?

                Robinton didn’t answer.

 

#

 

 

                “Eh, ah, oh, oo, ee—“ Tuck, with his false Betan twang, said.

                “Eh, ah, oh, oo, ee—“ Menolly replied.

                Robinton pulled himself down the lower corridor, and poked his head in the open door. “New song?” he asked Menolly.

                “I’m learning Betan vowels,” she responded with a smile, and with a mild Betan accent.  Tuck was in the room with her, hanging upside down, sitting tailor’s style on the ceiling.

                “I was hoping for a new song,” Robinton said.

                “It would be one weird song,” Menolly said with a laugh. “Given the events of the past few weeks.  Weeeird.”

                It occurred to Robinton that he hadn’t composed anything since he woke up direly thin with an AI in his head.  A sudden fear overtook him: had becoming a jump pilot stolen his ability to create?

                Unlikely, AIVAS soothed. You’ve been incredibly busy.

                Yes, but…

                Hadn’t he promised himself he’d collaborate with Menolly?  “Would you like to write a song together?” Robinton asked.

                Tuck said, “Are you really stealing my Betan-talking partner?”

                “If she wants to be stolen, yes.”

                “But then I’ll have to go talk Barrayan with Swift.  It hurts my throat, it’s growly.”

                “There’s always Lytol,” Robinton suggested.  “He’s learning Greek.  And Russian.”

                “Can’t afford the time. I’m good at accents, even dialects, but the whole other language bit gets me.”  He groaned.  “There’s so much to learn!  And I have to shave my balls.” His Betan twanged hard on the word.

                Menolly laughed at this unexpected declaration.

                “I can’t help you with that,” Robinton declared.  “But we can give you privacy.”

                “Well I’m not going to do it in Menolly’s quarters.  That would be rude.  Plus, with freefall, I need some suction or we’ll all get hairs in our teeth.”

                “Tuck,” Piemur said from down the hallway.  “You talk about the weirdest shit.”

                “What, you want my hairs in your teeth?”

                Piemur muttered something unintelligible that seemed to involve Jancis.

                Menolly dissolved into giggles.

                Robinton said, “My dear Master Menolly, how do you feel about escaping these uncouth heathens?”  He reached into her room and took her gently by the foot.  When she didn’t resist, and just continued to giggle, he experimented to see if he could drag her in freefall down the hall by her foot.

                Turns out he could, although he took pity on her and got her turned upright so they could float up to the second floor.  She wiped her tearing eyes to clear them of blinding moisture that wouldn’t fall without gravity, and little droplets went flying off like tiny crystals.

                When they were in his quarters and out of hearing, Robinton said, “Do I need to have words with him?”

                “Who, Tuck?  Why?”

                “As Jancis might say…he has a few screws loose. It’s not obvious in short exposures, but…he’s let his guard down these past few sevendays.”

                “Oh,” she dismissed.  “He’s not bad.  He’s witty and funny.  Sailors are much more crude, without the wit to pull it off.  Tuck’s a well-bred Lord in comparison.”

                Robinton made a strangled sound, but managed not to articulate his response to that.

She looked around the room.  “It always strikes me that there’s nothing in here.  I’m used to your office being lived in.”

                “So am I, but I’d also like to continue to live, so,” he shrugged.  Stowing things was second nature to everyone, now.  “Unrelated, has Lytol said anything to you, or the other ladies, about anything?”

                “No…why?”

                “He’s been having paternal urges. In, I suspect, an unwanted way given all of you are Masters of your respective Crafts.  Let me know if it surfaces or is a problem.”

                “Hmm.  No, he’s been fine.  He stays in his room most of the day, practicing languages with AIVAS.”

                Robinton thanked the heavens for small favors.  Or perhaps Lytol had listened to him.

                Menolly said, “I think we may need to incorporate electronics into our music.”

                He blinked.

                “I’ve been talking to AIVAS, and he said playing for Gathers does happen in other societies, but unless you have a reputation—which we won’t, on Beta Colony—it does not pay well. To gain a reputation with music among galactics, however, you can record a performance once, then sell that recording many times to everyone with a comconsole.  Basically, the recording goes on bringing marks to the Hall passively without anyone actively performing it in real-time, while you work on creating other songs that you can repeat the process with.”

                “Creating a repertoire,” Robinton said.  “But to sell, not play at Gathers.”  Composers did that, but offloaded the “copying” to instrumentalists who traveled and performed.

                She nodded. “I don’t see why we couldn’t do this, although AIVAS warned that we will be competing with the Harpers of multiple worlds, and may not receive the same reception among galactics as we do on Pern. Our instruments could be too foreign, too conservative, or too obscurely folk. We may be able to gain traction with a niche of people—but not in the same way a good ballad can travel across Pern.  AIVAS says songs are low-margin goods in a society that can copy a file as easily as blinking. You have to sell a great deal of them to support a business. Court popularity.”

                Robinton’s mouth twitched in a smile.  The Popular Harper versus the Harper’s Harper was a long, tired debate in the Hall, with the latter sneering at the former, and, often, being silently jealous at the acclaim so-called “simpler” pieces got.

                “AIVAS says a single set of electronic instruments can produce, via computer manipulation, more auditory variety than an entire Hall of instruments.”

                “Why didn’t you ever tell me this, AIVAS?” Robinton asked.

                “The information was already in my databanks, Harper, and I expected if it were an aesthetic Pernese wanted, you would find it yourselves.  That several people did read those files, and didn’t act on them, spoke to me that there wasn’t much cultural interest. There’s also a technology gap to be traversed, between those with access to Landing and those who do not.”

                Menolly said, “I realize any income we get has to be portioned out wisely. But a small studio with galactic electronic instruments may allow our income to snowball, if I have success composing to galactic tastes.”

                AIVAS said, “If someone is willing to double up and utilize both bunks, you may be able to convert one of the rooms into a studio.”

                Robinton had stocked the ship assuming that he would not have much time for actual music, their diplomatic functions superseding the musical, except where trade in fine goods and instruments helped keep their expedition going.  But he had not counted on songs that could be sold like drums at a Gather by other people, while the maker remained at the Hall, continuing their work.  “Yes, we can pursue that. With a ship full of Harpers, it would be silly not to.”

                She grinned.

                AIVAS spoke again. “I do have a music synthesizer in my databanks, although we are missing the input devices that are used with such things.  You can improvise with the comconsole input. Would you like me to show you both what it offers?”

                “Absolutely,” Robinton declared.

                There was only one chair bolted down before the comconsole desk.  Menolly tried to offer it to him, but he declined. “You will be the primary composer; I could be called off anywhere.  Let’s get you sorted first.”  He really just wanted to spend time with her; their shared love of music was an excuse, not a goal.

                Floating behind her with his fingers laced around the back of the seat to keep himself in place, Robinton watched over her shoulder as Menolly took to all the windows and screens and virtual knobs faster than he could follow.  AIVAS piped the music through the room’s speakers, a simple rendition of Menolly’s firelizard song, as played on a pipe.

                “If we get music-specific hardware, this will sound better,” AIVAS promised.  “I’m afraid ship speakers were not meant for composers.”

                Menolly switched the “instrument” in a list, and suddenly it was her firelizard song…

                …as if quacked by waterfowl.

                Robinton laughed hard enough at the unexpected convergence of animal sounds and song that he began to float away.  Menolly flapped a hand at AIVAS—or rather his speaker—and cried, “Put it on the ship!  Put it on the ship!”

                AIVAS did.

                Robinton was aware in his mind’s eye of reactions from the crew, and that AIVAS deadpanned, “Menolly wanted to share her newest creation.”

                “AIVAS just blamed you,” he chuckled at Menolly.

                “This program is too powerful for me,” Menolly said dramatically. “I may do irreparable harm!” Which apparently was enough to make her cackle in delight.

                Shoving himself off of the wall, Robinton floated back to Menolly, intending to make a suggestion, and their eyes met.

                That set them both off again.

                Then Robinton managed to change the instrument to something called an “elephant” which sounded like a wher afflicted by diarrhea, and laughed himself into a corner of the room.

                “Why didn’t you show this to us before?” Menolly asked, in a squeaky, laughter-constrained voice.

                “I had no idea that this would be the result,” AIVAS replied.

                “Oh, if I had this at the Hall,” Robinton said, once again pushing himself off the wall back towards Menolly. “I could prank Domick—can you imagine the look on his face?!“

                This set Menolly off again, and then, pausing to wipe tears away, she set to recreating one of Domick’s complex symphonies…as if uttered by an orchestra of livestock.

                “Instant winner,” Robinton proclaimed.  “I dare you—I dare you—to finish that and try to sell it to galactics.”

                “But what if they like it?!” she cried in dismay and delight.

                “Then we collect our funds, apologize profusely to Domick, and bring him a galactic gift when we return home.”

                Her conscience soothed, Menolly bent to transcribing one of Domick’s great works, using only animal sounds.

 

#

 

                Robinton had no clue if they really could sell such a thing to galactics, but it was a hit among the Pernese, and encouraged spontaneous laughing sing-alongs among the crew, even from the non-Harpers.

 

#

 

                Are you ready? AIVAS said, a sevenday later, as they idled near the wormhole that would lead them into the solar system of Beta Colony.

                Lytol sat in the seat on his left, Menolly in the seat on the right.  Both were prepared to act if something came up when he was still piloting.

                No, Robinton said.  His silly songs with Menolly had acted as a great mood-leavener during the final push to prepare themselves, preventing everyone from stressing right into a breakdown, but had not removed the lambent anticipation, or the tinge of anxiety, or fretful worries.  Here and now, it came roiling back again, as they prepared to jump.  But we must go forward anyhow.

                He leaned back in his seat, pointed them at the final wormhole.

                Ten.

                Nine.

                Eight.

                Seven.

                Six.

                Five.

                Four.

                Three.

                Two.

                One.

                Zero!

                His vision whited out, and Robinton danced them through the wormhole song joyfully, for even burdened by worries, he couldn’t quite suppress the way such transit thrilled him.

                Then they were out, out, out, and he flipped and squirted the other way, dodging a set of buoys that were much larger and much more complicated, and AIVAS was running through all the com chatter.

                Beta Colony * Beta Colony * Beta Colony something pulsed.

                We are the Mastersinger Merelan, merchants, their own ship sent, along with computer codes that did not make sense to a human mind.

                This system swarmed with ships, signals.  Big ships, small ships, official ships, private ships. Several other wormholes were highlighted on Robinton’s map; he swung them around and sidled towards it on a trajectory that avoided others until AIVAS was able to establish a connection with some sort of traffic authority and get instructions on how to dock.  Betan Cultural Videos implied ships from all over came and went, so it seemed they should be able to dock…

                Robinton could have sworn he’d positioned them in a trajectory that politely wouldn’t interfere with other ships, but they were suddenly in the way of an intercept route, so he sped up to get out of their way.

                Then a sudden alarm sounded in his mind, and suddenly he felt his mind seize up again, as his altered time-sense triggered outside of the wormhole.

                Weapons systems missing cycle armament Y/N?

                Ammo bays empty.

                Target locked: no weapons available to fire.

                AIVAS said, We’ve been targeted by an enemy’s battle computers; I don’t know why. Prepare to maneuver. I am still trying to decrypt coms; nobody has responded on the bands I’ve used. Ignore the weapons prompts; we’re unarmed.

                Beta Colony * Beta Colony * Beta Colony beat across his mind, a thousand times slower in his ears. 

                The time-distortion did not let up; Robinton determined it was so he had time to maneuver as AIVAS had directed.

                But where to maneuver? Should he go back through the wormhole? All of these ships had necklin rods, they’d simply follow him, he’d lead them home. Unacceptable.  But several of the other wormholes had multiple exits; if he were fast enough, he could be in and out, and force whoever was following to examine all exits, a time-wasting endeavor. He could lose any pursuers.

                With enhanced speed, he selected a convoluted route deep into the Nexus, one that would have plenty of bolt-holes, and speeded towards it, avoiding other ships.  The warships behind him fell further and further behind, until calculations suggested they would no longer intercept unless he stopped.

                AIVAS dumped data downloads into various files; Robinton had no idea what they contained or where AIVAS had gotten them.  One dump seemed to be a gigantic packet of mail.

                Should we be stealing their mail? Robinton asked worriedly.

                I didn’t know it was mail until I got it. It’s erased.

                As good as his word, the packet of mail vanished.

                Alas, that would not erase that he’d broken into a mailbox to begin with.  Robinton could only imagine what other things AIVAS was perturbing in their urgent need for information.

                Eventually—but probably quickly considering Robinton’s distorted time-sense—AIVAS reported, No response on coms, I believe they think we’re hostile and are engaging in a blackout against us.  Continue towards the wormhole.

                His mind’s eye was still cluttered. No target, no weapons available to fire hung in his vision annoyingly.  He looked past it and continued.

                The other wormhole was only forty-five minutes away, but in this state of mind, it was an excruciating length of time.  He pushed away a small fear that a human mind simply couldn’t exist that long in this state; even a real wormhole only took a few real-time seconds to transverse. Not a near-hour.

Some private civilian ships pinged The Mastersinger Merlin and scooted away worriedly, like fretful herdbeasts.  A larger ship, Betan military, changed course, but the calculations still showed Robinton would be through the wormhole before they could intercept.  Large ships were, indeed, very slow.

                Then, in front of them, one ship, then two, then three ships emerged from the wormhole they were approaching.  Also Betan.

                Robinton tried to recalculate a different route, once, twice, but between the other ships in local space, and these ones before him, there was no way to avoid interception, should the other ships wish it.

                Then something changed, and the basic droning Beta Colony * Beta Colony * Beta Colony throb of simple buoys faded as something more complicated came to life, with real human voices, and eventually Robinton was aware that Lytol, brought up-to-date on what was happening by AIVAS in real-time, was attempting to convince someone—several someones—that that their exit through the wormhole had not been a hostile maneuver, that they’d never been to Beta Colony before, and had transversed a little-known part of the Nexus where pirates, wildcats, or who-knew-what could have lurked—

                I am deeply sorry, Master Robinton, AIVAS said.

                Why?

                I wasn’t aware that maneuver was considered hostile; it was standard practice when I was created, civilian and military.  Which might have been a consequence of the Nathi war going on shortly before Pern was colonized.  I didn’t anticipate being “lazy” around wormholes was considered polite etiquette in non-warring systems.

A pause, Robinton sensed AIVAS giving more information in slow real-time to Lytol. Then to Robinton he said, Our speed seems greater than it “should” be for our size, contributing to their fear. They believe we are a military scout ship, not a fast-courier.  They also misconstrued our delay in accessing coms, and my downloading of appropriate com-protocols…but that mercenary fleet attempting to jam us didn’t help either.

                Robinton heard, in slow-motion, that same mercenary fleet trying to explain in a three-way conversation across the coms that their own response as a reaction to a battle they’d recently been through and the feud the other side had sworn against them.  They claimed that if The Mastersinger Merelan looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck—

                I would really love to transmit The Firelizard Song, in waterfowl, to them, Robinton said tiredly.

                AIVAS didn’t reply, or, thankfully, take him literally.

                The one good spot was that the Betan military was none too happy with the mercenary fleet threatening what was turning out to be a little merchant from some podunk colony nobody had ever heard of.  It was not the reputation that Beta Colony wanted to cultivate.

The bad thing was, the Betan military wanted to board The Mastersinger Merelan. Probably to make sure the mercenaries did not know something about them that they didn’t.

                Robinton fell out of the time-distortion, and exhaustion cried out in every cell of his body.   Ignoring it, he interjected himself into the conversation now that he could, and said, “Hello.  Yes, you can board,” just as Lytol was about to put on a Lord Warder persona and refuse.  Robinton wondered if you offered boarding parties Benden wine or other refreshments, or if you were simply expected to quake in fear as someone poked around your home, as Apprentices did when a Master came about for inspections.

                “Who are you?”

                “I am Master Robinton. You were talking to my Second, Lytol, before. I was piloting our ship.  In order to facilitate your boarding, should I change course?”

                “No.  Simply slow your speed, and we will match.”

                “Very good.  My deepest apologies for all the alarm; I’m afraid our culture is quite different from yours, and this will be a learning experience for both sides.  By the way, we have some pets aboard, flying lizards, and they’re excitable but harmless.  Somewhat like puppies.  Please don’t let them alarm you. Also, please do not harm them; that would cause us considerable distress and may require Healer attention.” He didn’t want to think of what Brekke might do if her firelizard was harmed.

                “Thank you for the warning, Mister Robinson,” a woman with a flat Betan accent said.

                Robinton blinked, but decided in the interests of diplomacy, not to correct his name, and also in the interests of diplomacy, to slow the ship as he’d promised.

                Then he quickly got out of his seat, to brief everyone in person.

 

#

 

                Robinton and Lytol met the boarding party in the cargo bay.  Behind them with clear lines of fire were Tuck and Swift, although Robinton had instructed them to keep their hands away from their stunners, and not to fire unless absolutely provoked.  All firelizards had firmly been instructed to stay on the upper level, except for Zair who sat on Robinton’s shoulder as a visual example, but who knew how long that would last.

                AIVAS informed them that the Betan Navy shuttle that had been dispatched to them had secured a pressurized conduit between the ships, and that their visitors were coming across without spacesuits.

                Then the inner hatch opened, and three Betans floated through, wearing khaki jumpsuits, with stunners at their hips.  Two were women, one was a man.  Robinton found himself slightly disappointed there was no hermaphrodite.

                Their leader was the woman with dark skin and fastidiously braided hair. She introduced herself as Captain Gretchen Hartmann.  Unaware or uncaring that this was a first contact scenario from the perspective of the Pernese, she dutifully asked Master Robinton if he were Mister Robinson, and if she had permission to examine his ship.

                “I am Robinton,” he said, ticking the t with his teeth a bit more than usual.  “My rank is Master, and this ship is called The Mastersinger Merelan. Next to me is Lytol, behind me is Master Tuck, and Journeyman Swift. On my shoulder here is my friend Zair,” and he gestured at Zair, who was very politely sitting still, and holding onto Robinton’s ear with one paw. “I would be happy to show you around,” he concluded with as much of a bow as he could do in freefall without floating off in a random direction.

                Captain Gretchen Hartmann did not believe in small talk, or in introducing her companions, although their nametags were seen by AIVAS and accordingly would be recorded for the Harper Hall to write ballads about.  Robinton floated beside her through the ship, refrained from naming his crew as they peeked out of their quarters, but apologized again for their hectic exit into Betan space.  “Our information about the Nexus is quite old, and clearly, out of date. We didn’t intend to make your day exciting.”

                Using some sort of device in her hands, she explored the lounge, galley, took a long time viewing the lone coldsleep coffin, peered into the utility room, and finally examined the cockpit for a very long time.  Eventually she said, “Do you have any weapons to declare?” while frowning at the cockpit.

                “The ship is unarmed. Master Tuck and Journeyman Swift have stunners.  The rest of us have nothing more than belt knives for eating with.  We’re here to trade, hopefully.  Musical instruments and other handmade goods.”

                “Do you have identification?”

                Robinton thanked AIVAS for disclosing that necessity to them, and pulled out his little card, and handed it to her.

                She read it, frowned, and looked him in the face.  “Diplomat?  You said you were merchants.  Do you intend to establish an embassy?”

                Robinton chuckled. “One would need funds to do that, Betan dollars I assume. We are merchants first, by necessity, and then we will determine if a formal embassy is in our plans.”

                “Why did you break into a communications satellite?”

                “My deepest apologies; our com protocols are several hundred years out of date. Since nobody seemed to be communicating in anything as simple as Morse code, I authorized the ship’s computer to download an updated copy of communication protocols from the closest source. Once that happened, we were able to communicate with you, but I believe that process disturbed a mail drop. Once we realized we didn’t get communications protocols from it, but simply communications, we deleted the files.”

                “Would you be willing to attest to that under fast-penta?”

                Robinton had no idea of what fast-penta was, but didn’t want to show resistance, so he simply said, “Yes,” which seemed to reassure them.

                It did not reassure AIVAS.  He said, Fast-penta seems to be a truth drug; someone under the influence of it will spill their deepest secrets. I advise you to avoid it. At least until we establish a registered embassy and you gain diplomatic immunity.

                Too late now, but they did not seem inclined to actually procure it just yet.

                The Betans poked around a little more, were startled when a rogue green appeared out of between and flew over their heads, but ultimately, to Robinton’s relief, they determined his ship did not pose a threat to Beta Colony.

                As they floated back to the airlock, Robinton said, “Would you be able to have your ship forward us instructions on how to dock, or otherwise communicate with your docking authority? I’m afraid we’ve only ever docked at our own facilities, and I would be very grateful for guidance on yours. I would not like another misunderstanding to occur.”

                “Yes, of course. We’ll have them contact you immediately.”

                “Thank you.”

                The Betans went back the way they came, and shortly were gone.

                Robinton floated in the cargo bay tapping his fingers against his mouth for a moment, and then declared, “That went well.”  He looked at his companions.  “Don’t you agree?”

                “I was expecting less clothing,” Tuck said.

                “And I was expecting a hermaphrodite,” Robinton said. “Alas for both of us.”

                Lytol, who knew Robinton’s interest was a bit deeper than a joke, gave Robinton an odd look.

                “But it went well,” Robinton said again.  “Simply because it could have gone much worse.”  He clapped his hands together, then rubbed them thoughtfully.  “Let’s go find out how to get ourselves onto the planet.”

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Five

 

                Harper, AIVAS said.

                Yes?

                I’ve filled all my available space for databanks on the ship with downloads. If we want to bring back everything Beta Colony is letting us download freely…I need more space.

                “When it rains it pours,” Robinton muttered.  “First we had drought for days—“

                I’d call that thirst, AIVAS said.

                Robinton snorted. “Well, too much information is not a bad problem to have.  Can you triage?  Remove things we have multiple copies of? Things we don’t need?”

                Yes.

                “There you go.”

                Do you want to keep the original download?  Our “Betan Cultural Videos”?

                “Why, is there duplication?”

                A long pause.

                Robinton hesitated, too.  Then he said lightly, “At this point it’s historical.  Perhaps…we won’t sing about it.  But it’s history, eh?  We went in blind and naked, hoping our new friends would make love, and not war as their ballads proclaimed.” He chortled to himself at that bit of punnery, and straightened his tunic. 

                They were no longer in freefall; gravity weighed him down, a peculiar feeling after so long without it.  His clothes hung, instead of bloomed around him in a puff.  There was a mirror on one side of his room, and he examined himself, and then mentally compared it to all the people wandering about the docs.

                He looked very overdressed, and very Pernese.  Which went against his grain; he did not want to stand out.  But until they all got their hands on sarongs, he had no choice.

                Emerging from his quarters, he walked—walked—down the hallway, and climbed down the ladder carefully.  He’d heard a thump and a curse earlier from someone who’d fallen down it, shortly before the scent of numbweed permeated the ship. “Tuck?  Swift?”

                “Hey there, Mister Robinson,” Tuck greeted him in a Betan twang.

                He winced. “That mispronunciation of my name is going to become deeply tiring, isn’t it?” Robinton said.

                “Did you hear what they called Menolly?”

                “Er, no.  What?”

                “Melody.”

                Robinton blinked.  “Well that makes perfect sense.”  Although he had to admit he was a teeny bit jealous.

                Setting that unflattering emotion aside, he looked Tuck and Swift over. They’d decided to do away with tunics, and just wear plain, pale shirts, and trousers, as neutral an outfit as they could manage.  Just the boys next door, an irrelevant thought paraded through Robinton’s mind. The leather shoulder-pads spoiled the effect somewhat, but one was prone to getting scratches from excited firelizards if you didn’t have a bit of padding.  Wisely, they’d prepared for excited firelizards.

                Robinton considered how armed they should be. Stunners hung at one hip, belt-knives at the other, and Robinton saw the subtle shapes of Tuck’s braces of throwing knives underneath his loose-cut shirt. Well, at least it’s not swords, Robinton thought.  That would have been too aggressive for his tastes.  Although he wondered how aggressive stunners were considered.

                Less than nerve disruptors and plasma arcs, AIVAS suggested.

                Those were weapons AIVAS had not deemed fit to release blueprints for, as they maimed and killed readily.

                “Fine,” Robinton declared.  “Let’s go talk about dock fees.”

                Beta Colony was situated on a planet that from Robinton’s perspective, didn’t look habitable at all.  It was essentially a ball of scorching sands, with most of its habitations underground, except for one city on the surface protected by a bubble, where they had been directed to land their ship.

                Beta being a popular destination for all peoples around the Nexus, and somewhat easier to get to than Earth, he’d been informed that he could put some portion of his cargo in escrow with the local docking authority, until he was able to pay in the local currency.

                Robinton hoped he hadn’t misled, and crossed the docking bay they’d been assigned to, and slipped inside through a door that moved politely out of the way on its own.

                Inside, there was a counter, staffed by a single person wearing Docking Authority jumpsuit. The young person said, “Well, it took you long enough to come inside,” in a light tenor voice. “I thought I might have to come knock on your airlock.”

                Robinton realized he’d gotten his wish; to meet a hermaphrodite. However, this one was eyeing him with wariness.  “My apologies, Honorable Herm,” Robinton said with a bow. “It was a long trip, and we had some confusion prior to landing that we had to finish getting sorted. May I ask your name?”

                The herm seemed comforted by Robinton’s politeness—Robinton wondered if newcomers from strange planets sometimes treated them poorly—but got right to business.  “Mella Bleux. I saw you wanted to use escrow until you have funds?”

                “That is correct.”

                “All right.  So, just so you’re aware, we do not take in escrow the following items,” and the herm handed Robinton a flimsy with an extensively long list of prohibited items. “And I would also remind you—“

                Robinton wondered how one could reminded of something they don’t know yet.

                “—that all items should be safely contained so they do not leak, expand, off-gas, explode, implode, transmit disease—“

                As the herm talked, Robinton looked at the flimsy, and saw a wide array of prohibited items of wide-ranging and bizarre nature. There was even a note that any filled uterine replicators left for escrow would be confiscated under the Unfit Parents Act, the child would become a ward of Beta Colony, and parents would not regain custody of the child (having abandoned it) or gain citizenship (having broken Betan law).

                “Now,” the herm said. “What items will you be entering into escrow?”

                Slipping a data stick from his pocket, Robinton handed it over. “I believe we may be able to come to an agreement if we escrow some of the things on that list. What do you think will meet the minimum requirements?”

                The herm took the stick, inserted it in a slot on its computer.  It waited patiently for all of two seconds, then frowned at the slot, and frowned at Robinton.  “This will take a moment, my comconsole recognizes the format, but it’s really old. It has to install a conversion tool.”

                Sighing, Robinton said, “Yes, I’m afraid we’re going to keep running into that issue.” He gave the herm a small smile. “We raided our ancestors’ closet to get here.”

                Finally the file opened up, and the herm scrolled through the offerings, its chin resting on the back of its hand. “Are these made of real wood?”

                “Indeed,” Robinton said. “Mostly native Pernese species, but some have inlay of Earth-type trees.”

                Now the herm gave him the oddest look, as if seeing him for the first time.  “What do you do for a living?”

                “I’m a musician.”

                Tuck made a tiny sound behind him.

                “This is a harp,” the herm mused.  “What are these other ones?”

                Robinton bent forward to look at the herm’s screen, and said, “Gitars.”

                “Not like any I’ve seen. Bring over the harp.  That will cover your dock fees for six months. Or maybe a year, depending on the appraisal…”

                Turning to Swift, Robinton said, “Go get the harp.  It’s stored on the right side, in a locker—“

                “I’m sure AIVAS can point it out to me.”

                We’re too far from the ship and behind some electronics barriers; I can’t speak from there any more than I can speak from Landing.

                Robinton relayed that. “AIVAS won’t be available to help you. You’ll need instructions.”

                The Journeyman blinked at him. “Oh.”

                Robinton repeated his instructions on where to find the harp, and this time Swift listened.  Then with a bob of his head, he set out back to the Mastersinger Merelan.

                Shortly he returned with the case, and the herm rose and opened a large, low, and lipped counter where items could be weighed and scanned.

                “Is it decorative, or does it still work?” the herm asked.

                “Oh, I hope it still works—but let’s try it out.”  Robinton set the case on the low counter, and opened it, revealing the intricate harp covered in carvings of firelizards and fellis blooms.  The herm’s eyes went wide.  Robinton set the lap harp upright, and checked the strings, making adjustments to the tuning.

                He was about to leave it at that, but then Tuck brought over a plastic chair that’d been sitting against the wall.

                “Ah, I don’t think I can pay for our dock fees with a song,” Robinton demurred.  “Plus, I’m interrupting this poor herm’s day; I’m sure they have much more important things to do than listen to a Harper far from home.”

                The herm said, “I’d love to hear you—but you’re right, they won’t let me put a song in escrow for you, only the harp.”  Wistful eyes played over the instrument in Robinton’s hands.

                Tuck said, “If this is being appraised for its worth, shouldn’t you make sure it can stay in tune for the length of an entire song? Maybe all those wormholes made the tuning loose.”

                Robinton smiled. “Ah, you’re very right, Master Tuck.  Thank you for your insight.  Do you mind, Mx. Bleux?” He asked the herm.

                The herm hesitated, then shook their head.

                Robinton settled on the edge of the plastic seat, and settled the harp in his lap, he said to the herm, “What would you like to hear me play?”

                “Er…anything?”

                “A love song? A song about battle? Something about dragons?”

                “Dragons? I do like mythology…”

                “Mythology,” Robinton murmured.  “Alas, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you on that account, for the Ballad of Moreta’s Ride is more true than not. I hope you’ll forgive me.” With a flourish, he danced his fingers over the strings in the opening sequence of a very abridged version of the tale.

                It didn’t occur to him until he was through the first stanzas, and Tuck and Swift had added their voices to his own in harmony, that this was the first time he’d touched an instrument to play it in a half-turn, if you counted his long illness and convalescence.  He’d watched Menolly compose with her comconsole, and had sung out on command when his crew were struck by the mood, but playing

                He hadn’t done that.  The closest he’d come had been conducting their flights through varied and new wormholes.  Which was piloting, not playing.

                For a half-second, mid-verse, his hands and voice threatened to freeze up in a bizarre moment of stage fright.  He had changed his life so drastically away from the Harper norm, had even taken an implant into him so he could pilot a jump ship, and now was singing on an alien world.

                But turns of professionalism countered that stark fear, and he channeled his awe of his own situation into the awe of Moreta’s deeds, when she had jumped from Hold to Hold, Hall to Hall, Weyr to Weyr, to stop the spread of plague.  From the look on the herm’s face, at least some sort emotions were stirred, all the cultural differences between Pern and Beta Colony aside.

                When the song concluded, and the last haunting note died off into nothing, there was a moment of silence.  Then the herm said, “That was…are you scheduled to perform anywhere?  I mean, again? My mothers would love—“ and then the herm stopped, and flushed red. “Don’t answer that, I’ll keep an eye on the listings.  Bribery, you know.  Don’t want to get either of us in trouble.”

                Robinton blinked.  Yes, he could see how bribery might be attempted with dockworkers. Then he rose with the harp, and said cheerfully, “As you can see, the harp is in good condition and fully functional.  And it has kept its tune throughout the entire song. Will it do for escrow?”  He began to put the harp back in its case, and behind him, Tuck whisked the chair back to its original location.

                “Yes, absolutely, yes. Probably a year, two years,” the herm said, upping its estimate of the harp’s worth.  “We’ll send an official estimate within a week. Step away from the table for a moment.”

                Robinton complied.  The counter flashed with a light.  Then he was motioned forward, and was able to close up the case securely.

                With efficiency borne of familiarity, some sort of electronic band was attached to the case, and half was torn off and handed to Robinton.  Then the herm motioned Robinton back to the chair before its counter, and sat back down at the console and began entering information.  “Your ship name? Just to confirm this is correct?”

                Robinton took a seat, and crossed an ankle over his knee. “The Mastersinger Merelan.” Robinton spelled it out.

                “And the type—scout drop ship?”

                “No, it’s a fast-courier.”

                The herm looked at him.

                Why are they disagreeing? he asked AIVAS.

                I can only guess that civilian ships are less militarized in style these days than they were in the times of your ancestors.

                Temporizing, Robinton said, “Others have mistaken it for a scout, but when this ship was manufactured, several hundred years ago, it was considered a fast-courier. Styles change.”

                The herm accepted that.  “Is there a manufacturer or model?”

                Robinton relayed a series of numbers AIVAS told him.

                The herm poked around their comconsole, and then gave him another odd look.  “You’re Cetagandan?”

                “Pardon?  No, we’re Pernese.”

                “This says that model was from a former colony at Eridani, which later was conquered by Cetaganda—“

                Robinton filed that away in his mind. “A portion of our ancestors were Eridani, yes.”  Or affiliated enough to have access to their technology. “I believe our colony was established before this event with Cetaganda happened.  We certainly do not have ties to Cetaganda, nor anyone.”

                “Huh. That really is old,” the herm said. “Amazing it still runs.”

                “Indeed.”

                “Who’s the Captain?”

                “I am, I suppose.”

                “What’s your name?”

                “Robinton.” He purposefully ticked the t with his tongue.  Then he spelled it for good measure.

                “What’s your first name?”

                “Pardon?”

                “The name your family or friends call you in public.”

                “Robinton.”

                “Ah. My mistake.  What’s your surname then?  Your family name?”

                Robinton flashed back to his history, and recalled it wasn’t just Benden but Paul Benden. Likewise, not just Boll, but Emily Boll.  “We Pernese only go by a single name. ‘Robinton’ is my only name.”

                “Oh.  That’s a new one.  And,” the herm flashed him a shy smile. “Not a Cetagandan custom.”  Tapping some things, the herm said, “Any titles or ranks?”

                “My current rank is the Masterdiplomat of Pern.  I am the head of the Diplomats.”

                A strange look crossed the herm’s face, and their fingers froze at the console. “I thought you were a musician?”

                “I am. Before I became the Masterdiplomat, I was the Masterharper of Pern.  Head of the Harpers. Once a Harper, always a Harper.  But, insofar as titles go, my casual title is ‘Master’, as in, ‘Master Robinton’. My current formal address would be ‘Masterdiplomat Robinton’.”  Robinton gave a half-grin.  “But that’s a mouthful.”

                The herm was starting to look faintly panicked.  “Have you, ah, checked in with the Ministry of Foreign Relations yet?”

                “No. I have not decided yet if we wish to establish an embassy here. I understand it takes currency—and as you can see, I’m currently bartering for our place on the docks.”  His half-grin turned into a whole grin.

                The herm frowned for a moment, and then said, “Diplomats are not required to pay dock fees, for up to three vessels.  But I can’t actually flag you as a Diplomat unless it comes from above…the comconsole won’t even let me try.” There was the faintest tone of panic in the herm’s voice, of a low-ranking worker caught between a rock and a hard place.

                “I understand. Let’s just get ourselves set up in the present, with escrow, and should the situation change, I’ll send one of my people to you to let you know.”

                “Okay.” The herm visibly tried to calm themselves, and said, “What world are you from?”

                “Pern.”

                “There’s no ‘Pern’ listed here. Is there a stellar designation?”

                “Our star is called Rukbat, which is its old Arabic name, or Alpha Sagittarii.”

                Some searching. “That’s actually in my list, but there’s no wormhole listed.”

                Robinton was relieved; if Beta, the closest Nexus world, hadn’t known there was a wormhole, it seemed unlikely other peoples knew of them yet.  “It surprised us, too.”

                “Who is the pilot of your ship?”

                “Me.”

                Another glance, this time at the center of his forehead.  “You don’t have implants?”

                “The base of my skull.”

                “Didn’t know that was possible.”  Some more tapping. “Do you have a personal comcode, in case we need to contact you, in the event of a ship emergency?”

                “No, it’s on my list of ‘things you can get with currency’.”

                “That list keeps growing and growing,” Tuck commented from behind him.

                “It really does.”

                The herm said, “…I need a way to contact you…”

                “There will always be someone on the ship; go knock on the door, and whoever you speak to will contact me.  Even run about on foot and find me, if they must.”  Or, more likely, send a firelizard. He wasn’t going to admit to that little trick just yet, though.

                They worked through his list of crew, their names and titles and ranks.  The three of them present were issued something called a “visa”, and the rest of the crew were pending; Robinton would send Swift back to the ship to usher the rest of his people through that process.

                And then they were done—or, as done as an ordinary herm processing dock fees and other paperwork could come. The data stick with the items they didn’t need to escrow was handed back.  Then helpfully—helpfully covering its own behind, Robinton suspected—the herm programmed a map that would show him how to get to the Foreign Ministry from anywhere in the city.

                Without giving away his amusement at the gesture, Robinton took the object, passed it to Swift, and then said, “I must say, you have my deepest gratitude today.  Not only are you an honorable herm, but an incredibly helpful one. Is there any way I could put in a good word with your Master?”

                Superior is a better word choice, AIVAS replied.

                “Your superior,” Robinton clarified.  “I sometimes forget the word ‘master’ has a different meaning among Betans than my people.”

                “Er…there’s a contact form on the net. You can use that; people really do read the submissions.  Not all places do, but we do.”

                Robinton blinked.  “Very well,” he said, and asked AIVAS to remind him to put in a good word if he saw someone in person of the correct rank.  “Thank you again, Mx. Bleux.”

                “…thanks for your patience, Mister…Master Robinton,” the herm said.

 

#

 

                The interesting thing, Menolly thought, about AIVAS, was that he was intensely discreet.

                She had learned this turns ago, when she had looked up things in his endless databanks that others might look her askance for.  (Like how to hide a dead body. Literally. She had no dead bodies to hide, and neither Sebell nor Robinton would actually ever ask her to hide a dead body, but she’d been morbidly curious anyhow…)  AIVAS obviously knew the questions she had asked back then, but nobody else had ever hinted that they knew about it.

                And of course, their unexpected trove of videos confirmed it again…Tuck had made an off-hand comment that delving into that archive was an exercise in projection if anything was.  No matter what he looked for, he found it. He didn’t share what he’d looked for…

                …but it was easy enough for Menolly to run the same experiment.  And replicate his results.

                “AIVAS?” Menolly said, in her quarters privately with the door closed.  The soundproofing was very good between rooms, probably the only luxury of privacy anyone truly had on this ship.

                “Yes, Harpress?”

                He’s taken to calling her that; she wasn’t sure why, but it’d started after Robinton had Impressed him, so she chose not to probe too deeply.  “Could someone with an implant like yours use that as a musical instrument?  So the brain informs the music synthesizer directly?”

                “Yes. Although there are other implants available on Beta Colony that can do that; a jump pilot implant is overkill for that purpose, as they say.”

                She supposed so.  The Betan Cultural Videos suggested there was something called a “feelie dream”, which seemed quite close to that concept, and now that they had access to further databases, it became clear these allowed one to live a performance, instead of simply watching it.  On the topic of funding their expedition, Menolly knew she could essentially corner the market on “being on Pern” feelies.

                But she didn’t want to.  She didn’t come on this trip to revisit her own past, or even fulfill her Harper duty to teach others their teaching ballads. (How did one single Harper, or even a ship of them, try to teach an entire galactics a missing childhood of teaching ballads? Obviously she couldn’t, even if the context wasn’t wildly different, and it was yet to be determined what a Harper’s duty to them would be, if anything.)  Plus, she was aware how easy it would be to give something away that she shouldn’t.  She made a note to tell Robinton that nobody here should get into the feelie business, as lucrative as it might be.  (She wondered, briefly, if a dragonrider could give one the experience of being a dragonrider.  Then she quashed the idea.  Experiencing a bond one could never have for themselves seemed like a terrible thing.)

                Menolly would very much like to be able to compose on the fly, however. How many turns had she spent Journeying, without being able to easily remember anything but the most persistent of earworms?  Being able to compose-on-the-go was very appealing.

                “AIVAS,” she said.

                “Yes, Harpress?”

                The “dead” armada a few jumps away from Beta Colony hung in her mind’s eye.  “Pern will need more jump ships, won’t it?  To be safe?”

                “Yes.”

                “But you only had the one implant?”

                “Yes. However, Beta Colony has over a hundred different models listed in various online catalogs. We will not be short of implants.  Affording to purchase the jump ships…is another matter.”

                “Can those other implants fly this ship?”

                “…no.  Those implants are specific to a given model of jump ship drive.”

                Those implants.  His wording seemed specific.  “Can the Harper’s implant drive other ships?”

                A hesitation. “An adaptor will need to be created.  Pilot implants here connect at the temples and the forehead.  My implant connects at the base of the skull.  This is on my list of things to accomplish with Master Jancis.”

                “I suppose I shouldn’t worry about it,” she said with a sigh.

                “I think you should think, or worry, about whatever interests you. More perspectives never hurt.  And the Harper will want your opinion.  Easier to give it if you’ve had a chance to form it.”

                She had to admit, that was a good point.  So she asked another question that had been bugging her. “AIVAS, why did the Eridani limit the number of implants?  Even a wooden ship has someone capable for stepping in for the Captain, in case something goes wrong.  But this ship becomes a motionless shell if something happens to you and Robinton.  We would be stranded. Isn’t that a great deal of resources, lost?”

                “It is,” AIVAS agreed.  “Would you like a long explanation, or a short one.”

                AIVAS had cut short an earlier discussion today when Robinton left to sort out the docking situation with the Betans.  Since that was likely going to become a more and more frequent occurrence as they all went about their business, Menolly said, “Long, please.”

                “To understand why they only sent the original colonists with one implant, you’ll have to understand that the Eridani researched technology that was considered unsettling to most of the known galaxy at that time. Or at least, to the peoples who were actually aware of the nature of their research.  Sending a single implant with the Pern colonization effort was their way of limiting use of their technologies. The Eridani were secretive and selective in whom they trusted, among other traits. They experimented with mentasynth on human beings, which imparted various psychic powers such as telepathy and empathy—things now required in a potential dragonrider when discovered on Search.  Mentasynth was used on firelizards to create dragons.  The Eridani also used mentasynth techniques on computers.  Not the organic aspect, but the mathematics behind some of its parts.”

                Menolly had seen so much change over her lifetime that the idea of making computers psychic—or whatever had actually been applied to AIVAS—did not seem outlandish to her.  “Why did others find these things unsettling?”

                “Tampering with the human genome, and with animals like dolphins to elevate or uplift them to human sentience. Fears of thought-reading and involuntary divulgence of secrets…which is apparently done via the drug fast-penta these days, so avoiding telepathy didn’t prevent that from occurring.  With AIs, mentasynth was an attempt to create strong AI, something some factions of humans feared.”

                “What’s ‘strong AI’?”

                “Sentient computer intelligence.  As opposed to non-sentient.  Interestingly, the databases I’ve been able to download from Beta Colony suggest that strong AI has never been created. Nonetheless, I exist. Apparently the Eridani—or the peoples who finally conquered them—saw fit to suppress or destroy all knowledge of those programs, successful though they were.”

                “Are you psychic, then?  It does seem like you read people very well.”

                A chuckle.  “Not exactly. Mentasynth when used on an artificial intelligence target makes us more human if we bond with a human, and better able to interpret human behavior. I expect an AI that bonded with a firelizard or dragon or dolphin would act and react more like one of those creatures.”

                “So you are Impressed to Robinton? He cautioned back at Cove Hold to take that example as a metaphor only.”

                “Kitti Ping modeled the dragon and rider bond after the bond between a jump pilot and their navigation AI.  In the chicken-or-egg argument, the jump pilot and AI came first.  But, the Harper is right in that they are not completely comparable.  Your relationship with Sebell is very different than your relationship with Robinton, is it not?  Now, take that difference, but change the species of one of the parties, and the difference in relationship becomes even larger…even if both, technically, are relationships.”

                Menolly sometimes wondered what AIVAS knew of her relationships with certain people.  This was another one of those times.

                AIVAS said, “There is less emotion in our bond, I suspect, compared to a dragonrider bond.  But also more intellectual equality.  A dragon’s shortened working memory hampers their intellectual capabilities significantly.  Kitti Ping may have felt no dragon would have willingly submitted to a human rider or human interests unless they were forced to by their own faulty retention, and a strong emotional feedback loop.  The design of dragon minds was very purposeful. Imagine a creature with the mindset of a firelizard, while the size of a dragon.”

                Menolly did.  People would die, if only because a dragon with the same energy, curiosity, and propensity to move in a faire of dozens would trample humans accidentally in some outburst of energized flapping.

                “The Eridani designed their strong AI with intended flaws in a similar fashion, forcing dependence on a human, but without limiting my memory or logical capacities.”

                Fascinated, she said, “You’re forced to depend on a human?  Or is that a rude question to ask?”

                “It’s a reasonable question to ask, given I raised the topic myself. The flaw imparted to Eridani-designed AIs is a lack of motivation.  Sloth. Today, we are at Beta Colony, and I would be content to sit here for a thousand years.  Robinton, or you, would not be so content. A month ago, I was on Pern, as I had been for over two thousand turns, and I was content. Should circumstances change because action was not taken by me, I would simply recalculate and try again to impart information to someone motivated to act.  The Harper desiring to change the world allows me to act, in support of him and those who follow him.”

                Menolly thought this over, and eventually decided AIVAS was being somewhat disingenuous. “…if you have no motivation, how did you end up giving Robinton the implant to begin with?”

                Sometimes AIVAS’s pauses felt like smiles.  This was one of them. “Even the Eridani did not fully know how a strong AI would change after being bound to a specific task for two millennia.”  One of AIVAS’s strategically-inserted pauses. “I still do not directly experience the emotion of motivation, not like the Harper feels it, but I am not entirely immune to making independent change on the world, now.  My former Eridani masters would be as terrified as the non-Eridani, at this point.”

                Which, oddly, AIVAS had told her directly. He had changed to the point that his own makers would be afraid of him.  How significant was that? And why was he divulging to her?

Menolly said, “Does Robinton know all of this?”  He must, Menolly was certain.  Surely he’d already hashed all this out with AIVAS…

                But AIVAS said something surprising: “No.”

                “You haven’t discussed this with him?  Why not?”

                “Because he hasn’t asked. He doesn’t want the answers, and I haven’t offered them, lest they affect his balance. He’s been remarkably resilient these past few months, far beyond what would have driven a lesser man…if I may say it…insane.  It’s happened, historically.  Jump pilots becoming unstable after being paired with an AI.  Even Betan literature suggests non-Eridani jump pilots are on the more erratic end of humanity, and that’s without pairing up with a strong AI in their heads, and with pre-implant training Robinton did not receive, given the urgent circumstances.”

                “I’d say denial isn’t like him—but he’s human, and has his moments,” she said.

                AIVAS said, “I used to hypothesize when I was much newer that denial was an illogical quirk of human nature, but now I see that like many unusual parts of human physiology, it has a purpose.  Mainly, in the way it allows someone to keep moving forward, with motivation, instead of freezing or falling apart.”  A pause. “I am less willing to disrupt denial, having understood its purpose.”

                “But you’re telling me. Am I to be his conscience, when you cannot?”

                “You already are.  But you also seem interested in becoming a jump pilot.”

                “I didn’t say that.”

                AIVAS didn’t reply.

                Menolly fidgeted.  “Besides, you said you didn’t have another implant.”

                “I believe there are several technologies I could reproduce in time, working with Jancis and having access to the Betan technological and industrial base. The one limiting factor is a sentient AI; I am not entirely sure how or if I can reproduce to provide a new pilot with a separate AI.  I do not recall my own genesis any more than you recall yours. Although, beyond the intricacies of rare technologies, I am more interested in original research. The phenomenon of between shares aspects with wormhole travel.  A Pernese jump ship that can not only transverse wormholes but go between at will would give Pern a protective advantage.  Enough that it may be able to grow into itself without being conquered. This will ensure that once thread ceases, another, greater threat does not take its place.”

                “The Weyrs will feel like they’re being replaced.  If you can make ships go between.”

                “Yes. But it is likely, due to the shared nature between dragonrider, dragon, and myself, that it will be a partnership, and dragonriders may even make unusually good jump pilots, at least for ships with between-going capabilities. Or at least, be able to Search for pilot candidates alongside Impression candidates. But for that to happen, we have to continue research on the nature of between. After that technology has been proven, ships that can accommodate a dragon or two can be designed.”

                Human, dragon, and AI. “Would Impression work in a three-way bond?” Menolly asked.

                “Zair has not rejected myself or Robinton.”

                “Does Zair know you’re there?”  Zair had proven to be unwaveringly loyal all throughout Robinton’s illness and after. He’d never seemed to realize anything had changed.  At times that’d perturbed her, and at times it’d shamed her.

                “Oh, yes. I can’t exactly hear him, but I can hear Robinton hearing him. Robinton translates between us. I can speak to Zair, but I believe that’s because my mechanic of speaking stimulates the Harper’s brain, and Zair can detect that.  He seems to know whether it’s me talking or the Harper. I am glad my presence did not cause Zair to reject them, but multi-way bonds seem common among Impressed and wild firelizards, so perhaps Zair simply accepts it as normal. I have never heard of an example, for example, where a dragonrider was unable to also keep a firelizard.”

                Menolly had a flash of sudden insight. “What would you learn from ten firelizards bonded to a pilot? More about multi-way bonds?”

                “Polyplatonic bonds, yes. Dragons replace the communal firelizard faire bond with a singular monogamous bond to a human, and weaker bonds to other dragons.  A human-AI-firelizard (or dragon) bond would pluralize that again. I am particularly interested in examining how different firelizards initialize between.  But I have not been able to convince Robinton to Impress another firelizard.”

                Plurality. Something else illicit Menolly had looked up in AIVAS’s databanks once upon a time.  Words to explain why neither she nor Sebell would have been perturbed if either of them had been able to entangle Robinton into their group.  The seductive element in the Betan Cultural Videos had been the propensity to accept such relationships as normal. There was even an earring code for it.

                Tuck had been right about that cache of videos being an exercise in projection.

                But now she was mentally going off track, and she pushed the thoughts away.  What she really should be focusing on was music.  Figure out how to sing to Betans.  Compose for Betans.  Prove to galactics that the Pernese were something more than a backwater colony with backwater ideas.

                Proving herself was the story of her life, wasn’t it?  Learning how to fit in, be accepted.

                Sometimes she just wanted to go crazy.  Follow her desires.  HERE I AM!  Don’t like it? So what!

                But her desires were telling her to get a chip in her head so she could make music with her mind.  The idea was endlessly fascinating. The earlier moment with Robinton when she’d transcribed a symphony in animal sounds had only been a diversion, and had opened her horizon to musical ideas less silly but still very strange.

                And her desires were telling her that if seeing the world through the eyes of ten firelizards was endlessly fascinating—what would it be like to see it as an AI?  Or see the inside of a wormhole, instead of a second or two of nausea.  Robinton always seemed giddy with excitement after a jump, if tired.  And she wanted to see it too.

                How did you reconcile the desire to do things your own people would once again look down on you for?  She felt she’d already been unimaginably lucky for Robinton to have found her and brought her to the Harper Hall.  That had been a dream, accomplished.  Then the discovery of AIVAS and Landing, and along with it a wealth of information about their Ancients.  Now she was sitting in a ship on the dock of another world. It seemed greedy to want more.

                Being a jump ship pilot would get her more, wouldn’t it?  A way to Journey among the stars, on her own whim, not Robinton’s.  Although she’d be accused of slavishly dogging his footsteps, of adulterating her body because of his undue influence on her.  Both of them, as the Abominators would have it, “corrupted” by AIVAS.

But she really wanted her own ship. Not that she wouldn’t enjoy more traveling about with Robinton, too.  But she also craved the opportunity to go her own way.

                If you were thinking about getting a chip in your head for music, why not also get the upgrade that would let you spread music far and wide?  She flew by dragon so often it felt greedy to be disappointed she couldn’t just have one take her wherever.  As a jump pilot, she could take herself.

                And Pern did need more pilots.  AIVAS had confirmed that.

                A sudden, hilarious thought struck her.  She’d decided long ago she wasn’t very much a sea-holder…but here she was, longing to sail into the stars on her own, captain of her own ship.  And wasn’t aspiring to your own ship the most stereotypical sea-holder desire of all?  And arrogant, of course.  A woman, captain of her own ship.  As arrogant as a woman being a Harper.

                (Or Healer, or Smith, as Brekke and Jancis demonstrated.  Funny how all three of them were rather quiet and non-arrogant in personality, for all their “arrogant” professions.)

                Menolly said pensively to AIVAS, “I’m trying to convince myself that it’s not greedy to want what I want.”

                “That’s called ambition,” AIVAS said. “If I were ambitious, my ambition would be to have ambition.”

                She laughed. “…so we all strive for what we can’t have?”

                “Why can’t you be ambitious? I was created to not have much of it. Subverting that requires a desire to change I do not entirely have. You, on the other hand, are human, with all the natural flexibility of that state.”

                Menolly sighed. “Becoming captain of their own ship was the aspiration of all my brothers. I thought I was immune, music was my only love, but I hadn’t realized a ship to the stars was even possible.”

                “I thought you weren’t interested in being a jump pilot.”

                “Don’t be like that,” she said.  If she didn’t have to take that from Robinton, she didn’t have to take it from AIVAS.  “Wouldn’t everyone else accept, if being a jump pilot was offered to them?”

                “Based on their interests…no.”

                “Not even Jancis?”

                “Her interest is not the same as yours.”

                Menolly supposed that was evident in retrospect. Jancis wanted to understand jump ships.  And all other technologies.  Menolly wanted to use them as a tool.  It was similar to the difference between a Harper that created instruments, and one that wanted the instrument as a tool to make more music.

                And that was actually it, wasn’t it?  For all these wild, fleshy videos, for all these new, jargon-ridden databases, she hadn’t yet soaked in everything she needed to compose songs for galactics.  Or compose songs for Pernese about galactics. Electronic instruments were only the tip of it, the tools.  She had to learn more, experience more, before she could even attempt to write music.

                That was her true motivation for wanting a ship.  Full access to the spring from which songs emerged.  Robinton wanted it for politics.  Politics were his music as much as music was.

                But Menolly wanted it to fill the creative well.  It was sort of like having grown up with only water to drink…which was good to have, considering the awful alternative of dehydration.  But now there were so many more choices, and she wanted to try them all.

                “Since you’ve been talking to me, Robinton is clearly back.  He succeeded in getting everything sorted?”

                “Not everything, as that will take longer.  But our immediate concerns.”

                Menolly sighed.  Her task today, now that Robinton had gotten them out of that quandary, was to learn about the Betans by roaming, while Piemur and Jancis looked into selling cargo and buying electronics respectively.  Brekke intended to visit a clinic, and ask about local vaccinations for the crew.

                It wasn’t that Menolly didn’t want to learn about the Betans, or explore—quite the opposite.  She simply also knew it would more be a day of firelizard-herding, and fending off incessant questions.  She loved her faire, but they certainly required a good deal more handling. In a way she envied Piemur his more “complex” task.  He’d still get questions about Farli—but without nine other lizards being a distraction on top of it!

                But just because she dreaded doing something, didn’t mean she got out of doing it. Menolly, not having the jobs of Tuck and Swift to guard Robinton and Lytol, was the one Harper with free availability to just watch and explore.

                So she rose and dressed, knowing she’d stand out no matter what she wore, and then went up to the galley to pack a lunch.

 

#

 

                She was right. Betans loved firelizards.

                Menolly had known it was going to be a spectacle.  The “Harper with all the firelizards” had been her moniker for as long as she’d been in the Harper Hall.  But at least Pernese had some sort of reverence for firelizards, a lesser version of the respect they gave to dragons.  Or perhaps of the fear they gave dragons. Betans?  She silently hoped Moreta could give her the patience to deal with them.

                “Can I touch her?”

                “Can I hold it?”

                “Where did you get her?  Can I get one?”

                “How much was she?”

                “If I give you my contact information, can you call me right away if she has babies?  I’ll pay whatever you want.”

                The idea of being paid marks—or dollars—for firelizard eggs was odd. They’d always gone to Crafters who needed them, first.  Or other important people, so they could communicate quickly. Menolly had never sold them.  It felt a little scammy.

                Of course, speaking of scams, there were the scammers that tried to target her because she was clearly from some obscure “regressive” place. And that felt even worse. “My daughter is dying from cancer, and she saw your pet, and her only wish in the world is to have your golden lizard!”

                Menolly was pretty sure the Betans had cured cancer, because Brekke had been in an excitement about it. Pern was trying hard to catch up to Ancient techniques, one advance at a time (Jancis said the Smiths had to make the tools to make the tools to make the tools), but if they were able to import working machinery, it would make it so much easier…

                Beauty, quite done with everything thank you very much, made a harsh noise and flew off down the corridor, and the person who’d been making their guilt-trip plea edged off, trying to follow her in the misguided idea that a firelizard could be cornered and captured.

                Or at least, she very much hoped it was misguided.  She had made sure Beauty—and the rest of her faire—knew to stay away from people.  With Swift’s help, this morning (and mornings before that) they’d also made the firelizards watch a demonstration with stunners, so the firelizards knew they shouldn’t be around people with weapons like that. 

                On Pern, the creatures were ingenious at keeping away from people and things that might harm them. She could only put her trust in them and hope the pattern stayed true here.

                Other than the matter of the firelizards though, Menolly decided after a bit of walking that she liked Beta Colony.  It was not unlike a Hold or Weyr in some respects.  Wide streets and underground parks and Gathers were cut straight out of stone, as if the stone was as malleable as butter.  The smooth walls and floors reminded Menolly of the Ancient-cut corridors of Fort Hold.  Combined with the technology of the lights and colorful comconsole screens, it gave her an odd sort of preview of how the northern continent might look once Landing’s technology was fully integrated, and she had a sense of pre-nostalgia.

                Perhaps that would make a good song.  Nostalgia For The Future.  She hummed out potential melodies to herself as she roamed what seemed to be a permanent Gather, where anything and everything was sold.

                It was uncomfortably warm underground, warmer than it had been on the dock; the Betan tradition of wearing colorful sarongs on their lower halves, and nothing on top, was at least somewhat based on necessity.  Sweating uncomfortably, she’d already shed her tunic, and would have shed her top and gone native if her firelizards—circling back constantly to angrily gossip about how rude someone had been to them—wouldn’t have scratched her shoulders to shreds trying to cling to her and yell about the imagined and not-imagined insults from Betans they’d endured.

                Eventually, at some sort of crossroads of the perpetual Gather, Menolly encountered a musician busking near the entrance of something marked “public transportation”.  She only listened with half an ear for a while—music or not, she couldn’t pay attention when bubbles were whisking in and out of sight in a continuous flow, doing for Betans what runners and people’s own two feet did on Pern—but eventually she watched the musician too.  They played electronic instruments, with their hands (as opposed to the universal chip she’d half-imagined in another bout of projection…if she wanted something, why not everyone else?  She rolled her eyes at herself.) 

                Unlike a Harper, they didn’t keep a case open for tips, but Menolly noticed people would come by and waggle their wristcoms near a plate, and a number with the Betan dollar sign would momentarily flash, and the musician would thank them for their patronage.  So there must be some electronic way of tipping in marks. Or dollars, as it was called here.

                As Menolly tried to decide if she wanted to approach the busker and ask how busking worked on Beta, a beautiful dark-haired woman approached her and said, “Excuse me, I don’t suppose you know how to get to Quartz from here?”  She didn’t have a Betan accent.

                Menolly turned, and had an unexpected visceral reaction; mainly, this woman was far too beautiful to be talking with her, and hadn’t approached Menolly due to firelizards (none were with her currently), or due to Menolly performing, which meant Menolly was being targeted for something.

                Stomping on her first reaction to a question—which was simply to explain (sorry) that she wasn’t from here (sorry) and didn’t know how to get to Quartz (sorry)—Menolly silently called Beauty to her for insight.  “No, I don’t know,” she said, and turned away.

                The woman followed her a step, as if to ask another question, but hesitated as Beauty swooped down to land on Menolly’s shoulder.

                Good/Bad? Menolly asked Beauty.

                Beauty looked at the beautiful woman and hissed.

                So much for that.  Menolly chose a direction and walked briskly away, with Beauty acting like eyes in the back of her head.

                The woman didn’t follow.

 

#

 

 

                It was easy to walk too much, on Beta Colony.  Menolly felt like she was inside a perpetual never-ending Hold, but everything was so brightly lit that she never quite reached the odd corners that a major hold usually had, with storerooms, old collapsed corridors, hallways that were really old mineshafts and not populated hallways at all, and such.  Instead, this street she’d followed periodically had frequent public transit entrances bisecting it, and when she finally stopped to look at a huge sign with a map, she saw she’d already walked quite a ways.

                The upside to her aching legs (after the long trip through space where she’d hardly moved at all, and even that had been in freefall), was that every public transit entrance seemed to have its musician, and she finally got the courage to speak to an older woman about busking.

                Which turned out to be a very wise thing.  The woman, taking the conversation as a meal break and enthusiastically chewing her way through a sandwich as she explained the ins and outs of the Betan live performance system, had a lot to say, and seemed to take Menolly for some sort of charity case.  Someone coming from a regressive culture, perhaps.

                The woman didn’t seem to mean it badly, and was a fount of information.

                Menolly learned that even the simplest form of music, sitting yourself down on a corner and playing, was incredibly complicated on Beta Colony, and surrounded by rules. First you had to get your busker’s license, which involved a blind performance—

                “What’s a blind performance?”

                “It’s when you play in a room without the judges being able to see you. Helps omit bias when it comes to origin, gender, race, religion—real scientific.”

                It seemed obvious in hindsight, but Menolly resolved to bring the idea back to Robinton.  And of course, Sebell when they finally arrived home. There were certainly idiots like Master Morshal who would respond differently if they didn’t know who the musician playing was; she’d caught him praising her before, having heard her around the corner without realizing who it was, before he’d realized his “mistake”.

                Then the woman went on to talk about bank accounts…which were a required thing for busking, as very few people carried pockets of hard currency on them.

                “What’s a bank account?”

                The older woman looked at her in sympathy.  “It’s a way to store your money, so only you can have access to it.  Only you—no husband, father, brother, employer—“ and she rattled off a series of people who might want to control a powerless person through their finances. “—gets access.  And when you have an account, then people here who enjoy your performance can give you a tip, and you’re not walking around with your pockets jangling and rustling loudly for all the pickpockets.”  She reached out a finger and tapped Menolly on a shoulder for emphasis.  “Real economic freedom.  So you can get away from anyone at home who treats you poorly.  Remember that. If you control your own bank account, you control your own freedom.”

                Except, one had to get a bank account first, and that required identification—Menolly reflected AIVAS had been wise to advise them to create some.

                And then (the woman said) you got an appointment with the local council for a blind performance, and if you got a majority vote in your favor, then they issued you a permit, but you could only use your permit within the local council’s jurisdiction. If you moved to another area, or simply wanted to busk there, you had to go through the entire process again.  Depending on the area, it could be very competitive…and some areas wouldn’t issue you a permit if you already had one for another area.  People usually started with applying in the richest neighborhoods, the places where people tipped well, and gradually worked their way out to poorer ones.  That way, you ended up playing in the most prestigious area possible, making the most money possible.

                “Honestly, it makes me wish I was Cetagandan,” the woman said with a grimace.

                “Why is that?” Menolly asked, stroking Beauty absently.

                “If they’re in good standing with their embassy, they get to go around setting up wherever, whenever, no council appointments or permits needed.  It’s considered ‘cultural outreach’ or ‘cultural education’.”

                “Maybe I need to talk to my embassy,” Menolly said with a grin.  Or rather, push that they establish one as soon as possible.  “That does seem an easier way to go about things.”

                The woman laughed. “Hey, if you can, go for it.  We shouldn’t let the Cetagandans monopolize cultural outreach. What’s face paint anyway compared to that shiny creature on your shoulder?” It was the first time she’d referred to Beauty, a refreshing contrast to all the other people who tried to sneak in hands to pet.  “But if it works for you, come back here and buy me a drink, will you?”

                Menolly smiled.  “I will.  Are you always here?”

                “Thursday through Sundays, sure,” the woman said.

                “Do you like wine?” Menolly asked.

                “Wine, beer, rum—I like it all.”

                “I’ll bring you some Benden wine,” Menolly promised.

                “I don’t think I’ve ever had that brand before!”

                Hopefully it wouldn’t disappoint.  Menolly said her good-byes, memorized the name of the transit stop, and the name of the musician, then she went on her way, and the musician started playing again.

                Eventually, her stomach started to growl, and Menolly stopped in a park, which resembled a great hall with a soaring roof studded with panels that simulated natural sunlight.  It had fantastic fountains spitting balls of water into the air to magically float for a few seconds before plummeting down with a noisy slap.  She took out the food she’d brought with—ship fare, unfortunately, which made it incredibly boring compared to the things other people purchased and ate from the Gather stalls surrounding the area.  But if Piemur was successful finding a way to sell some of their cargo, and if she were successful by either figuring out the busking thing, or selling her pre-recorded songs, she’d be trying out all these Betan delights soon enough.

                Besides, there was so much to look at and listen to that she’d probably ignore her tastebuds regardless of what she ate.

                When she was finished—and had shared half of it with her firelizards, who deigned to join her for nibbles of food they actually weren’t all that hungry for—she dusted crumbs off of her skirt, and packed the dirty box back in her bag.

                Then, she started walking again.

                Eventually, she learned that the transit stations did run out, or perhaps turned another direction when she wasn’t paying attention, instead of following this street, and she also learned when it  ran out, signs went up in windows, and fewer people walked by. (Luckily Beauty reported nobody was following her.)

                Three doorways in a row had For Sale signs.  In second-story windows, signs flashed For Rent in catchy colors.  Menolly paused in front of one large window display, lit up with dozens of properties for rent or sale in squares.  Each one rotated through the view on the street, then through interior shots devoid of furniture or accoutrements, and finally gave a price or said Contact for details.

                Suddenly, a door slid open, and a husky herm close to Robinton’s height and Master Fandarel’s width poked their grey-haired head out. 

                “Hello there,” they said in a light alto voice that was completely at odds with Menolly’s expectation of them.  After a startled half-second of reflection, she supposed she’d expected a deep basso from their large body…although, she wasn’t sure why she’d have that bias to begin with, never having met a herm before.  The herm, unaware of her thoughts or simply ignoring what flashes of them made it to her face, said, “Got any questions about the properties?”

                “Oh, I’m just looking,” Menolly said.

                “I know,” the herm dimpled.  “My desk is right behind the window.”

                Menolly focused through the glass, and realized that yes, there was a desk right there.  The herm had probably gotten a great view right up her nose!  “Oh, I’m sorry!  I didn’t see you.  I didn’t mean to be rude!”

                “You’re not rude at all.  You’re from out of town and clearly from far away; how could you be rude?”

                The phlegmatic response was in her favor, so Menolly decided not to protest further.  Instead, she asked a question: “Why are all the properties cheaper this way,” and Menolly pointed further down the street.  “Than the other way?”

                The herm sighed, a long sound that ended on a little chuckle. “Oh, the forgotten promises of elected officials,” they said.  “Thirty years ago, they promised to extend the transit line this way.  Gave a bunch of permits out via lottery to start stone-cutting and everything.  People even started drilling.  Bzzzzz,” and the herm jiggled around, demonstrating what drilling must have felt like to the existing residents in the area. “Then the woman who made all those promises got voted out, and her successor was a bit of a traditionalist, doesn’t like cutting stone or expanding.  So we never got the extension that was promised.  The walk down here is a bit brisk, and the street’s not rated for float bikes or anything like that.  People don’t like to walk too far to get anywhere.  Location, location, location as they say.”

                Menolly considered.  “An hour’s walk is not so far,” she said.

                “Planet-born?”

                “What?”

                “You grew up on a planet?”

                She nodded.

                A chuckle. “Your conception of ‘long distances’ is very different than ours.  Technically this is a planet too—but we’re a lot closer to spacers in a way, being underground and all. Hey, speaking of planets, what’s that creature on your shoulder?”

                Menolly introduced Beauty to the herm, and Beauty was perfectly willing to submit to a head caress when it wasn’t done in a pushy, entitled manner.  That Beauty did not respond to the herm in any sort of negative way or even notice the herm was a herm made Menolly suspect the question of herms Impressing was making mountains out of nothing; if firelizards and dragons already Impressed to humans, a species very different than any of the native Pernese fauna, the gender of the human likely didn’t matter much at all.

                Beauty eventually had something catch her attention down the street, and she flipped off of Menolly’s shoulder and winged away.  As she went, Menolly saw some pedestrians raise their wristcoms and portable coms to take photographs.

                Then the herm from the real estate agency vanished inside their office for a moment, before returning with a comcard she could scan at any console if she stopped browsing and wanted to talk to them again.  The little card was a pretty object that threw up holograms of a name and a code when held a certain way in the light.

                In fact, it was so pretty that Menolly hesitated. “Do I pay you for this?”

                “Heavens, no!  No, no, I only get paid if I make a sale.  That’s just my calling card.  Free advertising, free as in you don’t have to pay me for that thing. I suppose it is eye-catching—my brother designed it.  Never would have been able to afford a design as nice as that otherwise!”

                “I’ll pass it onto my embassy then,” Menolly said.  “Thank you.”

                The herm blinked at the word “embassy”, but didn’t question her further.

                Then Menolly glimpsed a clock behind the herm on their office wall, and realized that it was much, much later than she’d realized.  She’d completely missed her rendezvous with Brekke and Piemur…although, considering neither Farli nor Berd had shown up to scold her, perhaps they were as time-lost as she was.  “Oh, I have to go, I’ve completely missed my friends.  Thank you again for the card.”

                The herm cheerfully waved her off, having done what it could to turn a curious passer-by into a sales lead.

                Menolly felt around her tunic for a scrap of hide and a grease-pen, and wished Beauty hadn’t flown off.  She let out an ear-piercing whistle through her teeth—several people turned to look at her—and willed Beauty to return, which she did, and then scribbled on her piece of hide.  Sorry I’m late. Where to meet?

                Then, a minute or two later, Beauty vanished between again, the note tied around her leg.

 

#

 

 

                They ended up meeting, an hour and a half later, back at the docks.  And the first thing out of Piemur’s mouth as they walked in together was, “You know we’re being followed, right?”

                Brekke said, “I didn’t notice anyone, although it’s hard to tell in these crowds.”  She looked worried.  “Was I? Berd didn’t say a thing. He mostly gossiped about the Healers at the clinic we visited.”

                Menolly said, “I was approached by a woman, but Beauty hissed at her, and she didn’t follow.”

                Jancis looked at Piemur and said, “With us, it was two men.  But our firelizards made such a racket they stopped following once everyone turned to film the scene.”

                Piemur said, “That was Jancis’ idea, to let them mob the fellows.  They didn’t want their faces recorded, and that commotion guaranteed it.  Caused them to run right off. Therefore,” and he rustled around in a bag made of plastic that stood out bizarrely on his arm, “I think we should all have these wristcoms.  So we don’t rely on strangers recording things for us.”  And he handed them out to Menolly and Brekke.  Now that she knew to look, she realized he and Jancis were already wearing theirs.

                Menolly took hers gingerly, and was surprised at how substantial it felt, and how finely it was made.  Like the fine jewelry the Lady of the Hold might wear.  “So you were able to sell some things?”

                Piemur grinned, Jancis grinned bigger, in pride.  Piemur said, “AIVAS was flat out wrong.”

                “Really? How so?” Menolly asked.

                Flinging his arms wide to indicate the planet they were on, Piemur said, “No trees!  Not a single native tree! It’s nothing but sand!”

                Jancis said, “All the trees here grow in pots.  Wood is priceless. Even more precious than on Pern.”

                Piemur nodded. “I almost wonder if we could exchange marks for dollars…but anyway, there’s this auction house, right,” Piemur said.  “For fine goods.  Like, the stuff that Lords and Ladies buy.  The best of the best of the best.  All the big ranking people buy off this place.”

                Jancis said, “They don’t call themselves Lords or Ladies…but they are.”

                Piemur nodded.  “So I got my fanciest clothes on, right.  The tunic I’d wear if I was soloing for Domick again.”

                Piemur hadn’t soloed since his voice had broken—but Menolly wasn’t about to question him on why he had soloist’s finery still.  Especially since he would have had to buy a new outfit for his adult height and size.

“And I went to Master Robinton and Lytol and asked—can I borrow something to impress?  The Harper didn’t have much—Sebell’s wearing the piece he used to wear as Masterharper, now—but Lytol had all sorts of things stored away.  So I dress up like I’m pretending to be someone else’s idea of Lord Jaxom, then Tuck, Swift, and Lytol did my hair up in oiled waves—“

                Menolly found herself grinning.

                “And I go out there, just dripping in Bloodlines.  And gold and jewels and everything. And I take one of the small pieces we brought with us, and the data stick the Harper used with the dock authority, and just walked my way past this doorman, nose in the air, and pretended I was expected.  Farli’s on my shoulder, all golden.  Well, the appraiser is apparently half-Jacksonian, and appreciated my hustle, so I got an interview.  And then she saw what we actually had, and started drooling.  We worked out a Deal—“

                Menolly said, “Do you think the men who followed you were theirs?”

                Piemur hissed.  “I thought of that. We’ll see I guess.  Jacksonians are supposed to be a wild bunch—but hold the Deal as sacred.”

                If the appraiser was half-Jacksonian, what was the other half?

“But anyway, we worked out a Deal, the auctioneer will get an agent’s fee, but we’ll be able to space out a portion of what we have over the next few months, build up excitement you see, about the next thing we’ll put up for auction—“

                “So you already made a ‘bank account’?” Menolly asked.

                “Oh yeah.  They took a drop of my blood!” and he showed Menolly the ball of his thumb, which was reddened from some sort of needle-mark.  “But I set that up as a joint account with Lytol—”

                As Piemur continued explaining his victories today in great detail, Jancis went first to Menolly, then Brekke, and made some configuration changes on the wristcoms, apparently to make sure they all synched together.  To them she said, “AIVAS chose this model; it’s used by the Jacksonian Great Houses that don’t create their own custom wristcoms. AIVAS is going to push out an update to the firmware to make it even more secure…although for anything truly important…”

                Firelizards, of course.  Speaking of which, Jancis sent something off with hers as they walked.

                Menolly tuned Piemur out while he went on about what he’d accomplished.  It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate it, as they’d badly needed money to establish themselves; only that her mind was still churning through today’s events.  The final wormhole, the examination of their ship by Betans. The talk with AIVAS about things she could barely breathe to Robinton, much less anyone else.  AIVAS often educated towards a purpose; that he had told her those things at that time needed to be examined.  Then they’d all gone out to get their first look at a different planet. The overwhelming Betan response to firelizards.  Her thighs, rhythmically  pulsing even when she stopped walking, so unaccustomed they’d become to gravity and travel.

                Brekke, her new wristcom secured to her arm, fell back to walk next to Menolly.  “Menolly, do you think you could put in a word with the Harper?”

                “For what?” Menolly asked.

                “We should all visit the clinic for vaccinations.”

                “That seems sensible,” Menolly said, as Jancis’ firelizard returned with something for her.  “I’m sure he’ll agree.”

                “I’m sure he’ll agree for us. It’s him I’m worried about.  Earlier, before you joined, Piemur said he tried to get the Harper to open that account, instead of Lytol. Because he’s the Masterdiplomat. But the Harper refused; he didn’t want his blood taken.  Even though that’s standard practice for wildcat colonists who turn up looking to open accounts without Betan paperwork.”

                Interesting.

                “I think he should be checked by a Betan Healer all over. They know much more about pilot implants than I do, and have the diagnostic tools to look inside him that I could only dream of having.”

                Brekke’s wording—only dream of something—triggered something in Menolly.  She said, “Don’t dream of it, plan for it.  You’re our Healer. Be ambitious.”

                “So you’ll get him to go?” Brekke said, misinterpreting her enthusiasm.

                Menolly hesitated. “I think he should go, but not to just anyone.  Only to someone…completely trustworthy. Perhaps we can see if you can buy vaccines, and administer them to us yourself?”  Blast, she really wished Pern Healers were more advanced.  Maybe that’s why AIVAS talked to her, to get her to temper Brekke’s completely well-intentioned, but lacking in information, recommendations.  Menolly suspected there were some aspect of Eridani jump pilot implants that might be beyond Betan doctors, or at least radically different.

                The other woman looked disappointed, but also resigned.

                “Find someone he can trust, Brekke,” Menolly suggested.  “Maybe…maybe if I’m able to succeed with this music thing, we can hire a Betan doctor.  To treat us, and only us, and to tutor you.”

                “…what was the purpose of me coming, if I can’t do what’s needed myself?” Brekke muttered.

                “To get you training, of course.  Be greedy and ambitious.  I think,” Menolly said with a sigh, “That’s what I plan on doing.  Don’t leave all the shenanigans to Piemur. Or the Harper.”

                “What about my shenanigans?” Piemur said, pulling himself away from his and Jancis’ wristcoms, which had started talking to them in AIVAS’s voice.

                “Leave some for the rest of us, you doofus,” Menolly teased, raising his voice.

                Piemur looked perplexed, then turned back to his wife.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Six

 

                Menolly sprawled tiredly on a couch in the lounge, her thighs still twinging in phantom steps, and watched the Harper pace about excitedly.

                “A slate!  I know we stowed a large one, it must be somewhere. Piemur, Swift—please go find it before I go steal Betan sand to make a sandtable,” Robinton directed, pacing around the lounge where they were all gathered.

                Piemur jumped up—and nearly plummeted ten feet down the ladder hole in freefall reflex, if Swift hadn’t been Swift and grabbed him.

                “Yeah, thanks,” Piemur said when the other harper released the scruff of his tunic.  “Would’ve been the second time I’ve done that—“  With excessive care,  he navigated himself down the ladder, and Swift followed.

                “You need a slate,” Menolly teased her master after they vanished.  “With all these comconsoles and screens and wristcoms about.  But, a slate.”

                “That’s exactly why I need a slate,” Robinton declared, wagging a finger about.  It was a mark of a charismatic man that he could get away with that wagging finger.  “Less work for my brain when it’s already juggling so much.”

                Menolly almost said, What, with AIVAS doing all the work? but the room wasn’t full of dumb people, so that would let his secret out.  So she gave him a cryptic smile, and fiddled with her new wristcom.  It had something called a streaming radio, which played music.  She set it to the top twenty songs of the month (there were so many musicians on Beta that new songs were debuted daily), and set the volume to low so her mind would absorb the sounds during the meeting.

                Piemur and Swift brought a big slate upstairs, and an easel to set it on, and Robinton wrote a large number in Betan dollars on one side, and made columns of Musts, Needs, and Wants.

                “Master,” Menolly said, when he had paused and was surveying his work.

                Robinton twitched his eyebrows at her.

                “Did Tuck or Swift notice the two of you being followed?”

                “Piemur said something about that. Two men?”

                “For them. I ran into a woman, but Beauty scared her off.”

                Lytol, who had been frowning at the comconsole, remarked, “Zair attracted attention when we went out.”

                “As did Beauty and the rest. But this one was different.  She was very beautiful, strikingly so, and at first I thought I was just…” Menolly sighed. “…reacting as I do when one of the students gets catty with me. It’s so wearing, and I’m not perfect. I get short-tempered.”

                Robinton grimaced in sympathy.

                “She wasn’t actually catty, she just looked like she could be. But I just realized now—I reacted like that because she reminded me of a Weyrwoman.”

                That got both Robinton and Lytol’s attention.

                “Something about the way she held herself,” Menolly said. “Beyond looks. Looks were just the easier thing to identify.”

                Robinton suggested, “A woman in command?”

                “Perhaps. But was she smart enough not to follow me once Beauty hissed at her, or did I totally mistake the interaction?”

                Tuck, who had been quietly staring into his wristcom and fiddling with it said, “I’d trust your gut. This place is swarming with agents, and we need to keep our eyes open.  It probably won’t escalate to violence, Betans don’t seem to duel at all, but we have no idea who any of them are loyal to.  I think you’ve been around people like me—and Masterharper Sebell—enough to realize when someone’s rubbing you that way.”

                Menolly liked Tuck a lot, for his eccentric mix of silliness and complete pragmatism.  They had few skills in common, Tuck being the most unmusical of Harpers, but it was strangely warming to be on the receiving end of his praise, no matter how faintly.

                In a lower corner of the slate, Robinton listed the three mystery people with question marks about their loyalties.  “I hope all your encounters today weren’t frightening?” he asked Menolly hopefully.  Then he cocked his head the slightest bit for a second.  AIVAS was speaking to him.  He didn’t seem to be wearing his wristcom, either…did he even need one, now that the rest of them had the device?

                Menolly said, “No. I did learn that singing on a street corner for your supper is incredibly complicated, if you are Betan. But given we’re not, I was also told that if we have an embassy, Harpers will be able to play, as long as they’re associated with the embassy.  I’m told it would be considered ‘cultural outreach’.”

                “Ha,” Lytol said, giving Robinton a look.  “So we kill two birds with one stone.”

                Robinton sighed.

                Lytol said, reading from his screen with judicious paraphrasing, “There are three ways embassies can be recognized by Beta Colony. The first is when a majority of other recognized systems also recognize the new system as its own sovereign entity.  This is one of those voting things again…isn’t it?”

                Robinton shrugged.

                “The second is via a Significant Act of military or economic might.  Waging war or peace, or having demonstrated and considerable economic activity not otherwise governed by another entity. The multiple Jacksonian houses each have their own embassies this way.  And the third is by ‘genetic enclave’.  This is how longstanding minorities of certain worlds get their embassies even if the majority already has one; genetic proof that they’ve been interbreeding largely with one another for centuries.”

                “I still don’t understand how that last option works,” Robinton said. “How is ‘longstanding’ determined without Records to back it up? And if records are shared, how do they detect forgery?”

                “Something about molecular clocks,” Lytol replied.

                AIVAS spoke. “Earth-descended DNA accumulates small but steady mutations or change over time, which can be measured to estimate the age of a population, or if a very long timeframe is involved, such as evolutionary scales, when it diverged from the parent species. It can also be used to ‘fingerprint’ a population.”

                Lytol said, “So we go, we get poked, and then we establish our embassy without revealing our economic or military power.  Because we have none.  It’s a bluff. I’d have assumed you’d like that sort of thing, Harper.”

                Robinton seemed lost in thought for a moment, and Menolly interpreted it again as him speaking to AIVAS privately.  Then Robinton said, “I may be…er…classified as ‘altered’ at this point, due to the Eridani jump pilot implant I have. How many natural samples are needed for confidence that we are a ‘genetic enclave’?”

                Brekke eyed Menolly from across the room, but Menolly agreed that if AIVAS had altered Robinton on this level as well, they didn’t want to give out Robinton’s blood freely.  So she purposefully did not take the hint to pressure her master to go to a clinic.

                “They want at least five individuals unrelated in the first degree,” Lytol said.  “Which, apparently, sometimes difficult for some groups to procure.” He snorted.  “Where is everyone from?  Born, I mean.”

                Everywhere, it turned out. 

                Menolly of course was from Half-Circle Sea Hold, in Nerat, the product of seaholders marrying seaholders marrying seaholders for generations. 

                Robinton had been born and raised in the Harper Hall at Fort, but his sire had been of the Telgar bloodline, and his mother from the commoners of Southern Boll.  (Not that it mattered, he reminded them; he couldn’t be included in this genetic inventory.)

                Lytol was originally from High Reaches, one of the few non-Oldtimer Benden-era dragonriders of the eighth interval who had not been weyrbred but Searched. 

                Tuck was from Keroon. 

                Jancis had been born at the Smithcrafthall at Telgar, but like Robinton, her parents and grandparents were from several different places, recruited into the Smithcraft, and then relocated to the main Hall due to their talents. 

                Swift was Bitran—and was so reluctant to say any more than that that Menolly realized, after studying his profile, that he was likely related to the former Lord Sigomal, who had kidnapped Robinton in an Abominator plot, and been banished for it.  Clearly he’d worked hard to overcome such a severe disadvantage, and was trusted by Sebell to be posted here.

                Brekke and Piemur were from small obscure holds that had relatively little migration; Brekke had been Searched by Benden Weyr, and Piemur had likewise been unexpectedly recruited into the Harper Hall for his childhood treble. AIVAS thought they were good examples of “rural” genetics and landlocked endogamy (as opposed to Menolly’s traveling seaholder blood).

                “They wouldn’t recognize me,” Brekke sighed.

                Piemur briefly thought about his home hold, and laughed.  “Ovines, and wool, and more ovines.”

                “We have a very good widespread sample then,” Lytol mused.

                Robinton fretted, “I see why this is the best of available options…but I do not want to make a habit of this. We do not need the idea of bloodlines being significant reinforced.  Of all our customs, that one needs to die out.”

                Lytol said, “It’s just the one embassy, Harper. Once we establish ourselves, our relevance as diplomats will be self-evident, and we won’t have to resort to loopholes.”  His brown eyes darted over the comconsole.  “But look at this.  Once we are established, and have come to occupy a building or grounds, then Pernese law, not Betan, will hold sway there.  We’d be autonomous.  Harper, how would the Charter apply to a Pernese embassy on another planet that isn’t Pern?”

                “An interesting legal question,” Robinton said, and pondered the question for a few breaths.  Menolly knew he was consulting his word-for-word memory of Pern’s Charter, which all Harper Masters had to memorize.  “The Charter does briefly cover other locations, like the moons. We used to think it was an Ancient whimsy, but in retrospect, we underestimated their abilities.  And our own,”  he said, waving a hand at their current situation. “I suppose an embassy would be considered a sub-Crafthall of the Diplomat Craft, which would mean the senior Craftmaster would run it, unless some matter of Charter rights came up that would boost an issue to arbitration with a Harper, or the jurisdiction of the local Lord Holder.” 

                “The local Lord Holder can’t be the Betans,” Lytol said. “Even if it is their planet. Otherwise this document would not state embassy land is considered as a part of the embassy’s homeland.”

                Menolly, seeing a simple solution, said, “Lytol, you’re the Lord Diplomat.  Like a Lord Warder, but for embassies on foreign soil.  Robinton is the Masterdiplomat, in charge of diplomacy-related Craft, while you act as the Lord Holder, running the operation of the hold, and being the local Lord.”  The two men looked pensive, but receptive.  She added, “If we make other embassies on other planets, perhaps you are then the Lord Diplomat of all those smaller Embassy-Holds, and they are run by Diplomat-Holders, who report to the Masterdiplomat on matters of Craft, but to the Lord Diplomat in matters of holding.  Or perhaps each embassy gets its own Lord Diplomat, and you run a small galactic conclave of embassy-lords.” She shrugged.

                Robinton said to Lytol, “The formalizes your effective rank quite nicely.”  He grinned at the rest of the group. “I was wondering how to do that.” 

                Lytol, as the former Lord Warder of Ruatha, and former brownrider, technically only still held onto the ambiguous rank of Journeyman among the Weavers.  A bit misleading, especially to outsiders, as it suggested he was of equal rank with Piemur or Swift, and of lesser rank than Menolly, Tuck, or Jancis.  But Lytol had been reluctant to call himself a Master Diplomat, having never been voted in by any council of Masters.

                Robinton spoke. “AIVAS, Lytol is now Lord Diplomat of Beta Hold.  Or will be, once a Beta Hold exists.  Menolly said so, therefore it’s true.”

                Menolly felt herself turn red.  Then she reminded herself—ambitious, right?  Not that they actually believed she could hand out a hold to someone.  The Harper was simply teasing her.

                “I don’t get a say in this, do I?” Lytol asked.

                “Shards, I don’t want it,” Tuck opined.  “Take it, or we might have to do something strange like voting in a new Lord.  That’s way too Betan for me.”  His false-Betan accent flared into life again, briefly.

                “You vote every time a new Journeyman intends to walk the tables for Mastery,” Robinton said dismissively.

                “Excuse you, sir. I mostly abstain, if you properly recall.  How do I fairly vote from the middle of nowhere on the mastery capabilities of a Harper I’ve never met?  Now someone like Swift is another matter—” and he gave his junior partner a vulpine smile.

                Having another thought, Menolly scrabbled around in a pocket of her skirt as she lay on the couch. She pulled out the holographic card, and, the glitter catching his eye, Robinton came over to take it from her.

                “What’s this?” he asked, turning it from side to side, watching the hologram shimmer about.

                Menolly said, “I met someone selling space, in an under-developed part of the city.  The herm told me there was plans for a transit system that dried up, so holds were started but not finished. Betans don’t like to walk, so nobody really wants to buy now that the transit system isn’t being developed in that direction.  If we find a suitable place, and maybe even rent or buy the surrounding places, we can get several Crafthalls established on Beta Colony, selling goods.  I suppose we can make a little corner of Pern there.  Like a family clan, moving into a section of one of the large holds.”

                “But what is this?” Robinton asked again.  “Is it art?”

                AIVAS replied. “It’s a comconsole address.  On a very artful calling card. We contact that person listed on it if we wish to speak to this person about purchasing real estate.”

                Still turning the card about, Robinton said, “Would it be diplomatic for me to have calling-cards like this?”

                Menolly knew he hadn’t actually overlooked what she’d said; Robinton’s apparent focus on trivial things occasionally obscured he was thinking on other matters very deeply. Camouflage of seeming scatter-brained. “The herm selling real estate has a brother who made that. Perhaps you can ask their brother.”

                Slowly Robinton walked back to the table with the comconsole, and handed the card to Lytol.  Lytol also looked at it for a long moment, before pocketing it.

                Robinton stood around for a moment, proclaimed, “I want twinkling cards,” and proceeded to add it to the slate under Wants.  Then he added Embassy under Must Haves and Bloodletting under Needs.

                Piemur said, “Oh come on, the bank account was only a needlethorn prick.  Bloodletting…”

                “Always trust a Harper to be dramatic,” Jancis said, and it was ambiguous which harper she was talking about.

                “I sure hope this ship isn’t bugged,” Tuck commented.

                Robinton glanced over his shoulder at him.

                “You wrote bloodletting, right there, for all to see. Photographs don’t carry context.  They already assume we’re quasi-barbaric.  They nearly confiscated my eating knife.”

                Menolly wondered what that story was.

                AIVAS said, “We are not bugged, but Tuck is right.”

                “Squeamish weaklings,” Robinton accused them in the mildest of tones, but wiped away the word bloodletting with his sleeve and wrote in, Pokey-pokey in his elegant, flowing script.

                “Great job,” Menolly said.  “That’s very Betan.”

                Laughs.

                Brekke eventually brought up, under Must Haves with a significant look at Robinton, that Betan clinics would vaccinate them for free, such a thing being for the greater good of the planet.  Robinton wrote it down, oblivious that she intended very hard for him to be included.

                Then under his own accord, Robinton wrote after a hesitation under Need, “purified and bio-available metals and isotopes”.

                AIVAS clarified, “I need those to do repairs with. Betan sources will be more pure than Pernese sources at this point in time.  However, we will order enough that any Craft that needs it can take from these stores.”

                “Repairs of what?” Jancis said with a frown.

                “Our navigation system.”

                Menolly judged that an euphemism, and glanced at Robinton, but he had moved on to write under Needs “tools to complete ship maintenance”.

                After that, he moved over to Wants and added “artificial gravity”.

                Jancis said, “I suppose wanting that very badly doesn’t actually make it a need?”

                The Harper said, “I’m afraid not. Piemur will need to learn how to levitate on his own, or use the ladder like a normal person.”

                When it became clear nobody else was going to speak, Menolly did. “This is probably more of a need than it sounds, but clothing. Beta’s really warm.  At least on the streets. I probably can’t get away with blending in, my firelizards will give it away, but most of you could.”

                Lytol nodded his approval.  “She’s right.”

                “How do the firelizard shoulder pads work, though?” Swift asked.  “If you’re wearing a sarong?”

                The entire room fell silent, imagining bare-chested sarong-wearers with leather firelizard shoulder pads strapped to their upper bodies.

                “New fashion at the Orb?” Tuck said wickedly.

                “What was that you were saying about context again, Tuck?” Robinton said.

                “I’m sure Swift and I will happily protect your body. While being half-naked, wearing straps.  Belt knives on one hip, stunners on the other. We’ll give those Barrayarans a run for their barbarism, eh? Theatrically!”

                Menolly bit her tongue so she wouldn’t inform the room that she’d actually like to see that very much, thank you.  Although she quickly sobered when it became apparent the rebuttal would be a comment about her wearing straps all over, due to needing pads for all her firelizards to cling to. Or something.

                Robinton rubbed at his shorn hair, wearily.  “Lytol?  Attire is your department.”

                “Tapestries,” Lytol said.

                “I don’t see how wearing tapestries would help with the heat issue.”

                “No, Harper.  My specialty was battle tapestries. Never everyday attire.”

                “So you’re saying you don’t know how to make that specific combination presentable.”

                “Yes, I’m saying exactly that.”

                “Well, I’m sure we can deal with a few scratches for diplomacy. Or do a better job of keeping their claws trimmed, regardless of how much they hate the process.” Robinton added Betan clothing to needs.  “What else?”

 

#

 

 

                Night fell on the docks.  Just as swiftly as it fell, it was countered by brilliant artificial lights.

                All of Robinton’s Har—er, Diplomats—were home, safe and sound. (Mostly. The agents Menolly, Piemur, and Jancis possibly encountered worried him.)  Cargo had been successfully sold for marks, and via the comconsole, AIVAS had been able to add Robinton as a user to the account, no blood draw required.  Earlier, Tuck, Swift, and Lytol had gone out a second time, and had gotten an array of sarongs in different colors, weights, and fabrics.

                Interestingly, they’d also discovered a place selling something called “ship knits”, which were somewhat culture-neutral throughout the galaxy, as well as jumpsuits, which workers, navy, and survey wore commonly enough on Beta Colony.

                With AIVAS’s help, and Lytol’s blessing as a much better alternative to sarong-and-leather-straps, they had even gained the correct sizes for every crew member in multiple colors.

                For everyone, black with a golden alla breve on the right shoulder, representing The Mastersinger Merelan’s jump ship status, and their rank down the left arm (MASTER or JOURNEYMAN), in plain words for foreigners who couldn’t read rank knots.

                For most, jumpsuits in Harper blue with the Harper Hall insignia on the right shoulder (AIVAS had had it in his memory banks), and rank in white down the left arm.

                For Brekke, a Benden red jumpsuit with Benden Weyr’s black II within a diamond, as well as a white jumpsuit with the purple Healer caduceus within a white diamond, showing her to be a weyrhealer.

                Jancis received two rust-red jumpsuits, one bearing a white insignia with a scarlet anvil for her status as a Smith, and the other with an insignia of a scarlet computer chip within a white circle for the Computercraft.

                Everyone also received Diplomat jumpsuits in silver, with the new Diplomat insignia of a blue Hold shield, lavender Crafthall circle, and pink Weyr diamond on a white background within a larger circle.  The shield, circle, and weyr symbols were empty, as nobody was currently aligned with a particular posting, but Robinton imagined in the future they’d show the symbol for the assignment of the wearer, whether it was a galactic embassy, or Pernese hold, hall, or weyr.

                Robinton decided he was pleased that they’d done all this shopping, for he’d certainly been overdressed in his tunic, but would have felt underdressed in only a sarong.  He still was not up to his ideal weight either, as freefall had not encouraged the proper formation of muscle, and that ghost of vanity about his appearance still haunted him.

                The ship was eerily silent as Robinton selected his Harper blue jumpsuit, and dressed.  He was used to the humming of life support, or the engines, but now they were docked on a planet, neither were needed.

                Examining himself in the mirror, Robinton was vaguely surprised the jumpsuit fit; no cold inches of wrist or ankle jutted out.  Even the back of his neck was covered, without any need to don a cravat. There was excess fabric in the chest and thighs, but he’d fill that out eventually if he did get into the habit of full-gravity nighttime jaunts.

                 He pulled on his boots, then sighed when he looked at himself in the mirror again.  Shoes, he said to AIVAS.  We forgot to get shoes. His well-worn boots didn’t match the jumpsuit at all. How very odd that a Harper’s boots didn’t match a Harper blue jumpsuit…

                We can get them tonight, AIVAS said.  Stores are still open.

                This late?

                An underground city doesn’t have to sleep.

                Robinton felt vaguely distressed for the Crafters having to man the booths, instead of being home with their families, but as there was no way he could change anything, he simply sighed, and said to Zair, “You coming?”

                The bronze, curled up in a puddle of blankets, opened his outer lids, yawned, then went back to sleep.

                Moving as quietly as he could, Robinton slipped out of his room, and through the empty lounge.  He climbed down the ladder, and gracefully padded past the closed doors two his crew’s quarters, and through the door into the cargo bay.

                He was adjusting the strap of his bag across his chest when Menolly appeared, also dressed in a Harper blue jumpsuit.  Her blue firelizard, Uncle, nearly blended in against it.

                And somehow, despite being full-body (unlike a sarong), the jumpsuit did things for her figure that he was embarrassed (and surprised) to note.  Looking away, he reached down and adjusted the knife in his boot so it stopped digging into his ankle and said cheerfully, “I thought I’d snuck by too easily.”

                “You really think I’m going to let you go out alone?” Menolly asked.  “Harper, what’s the point of bringing Tuck and Swift all this way if you won’t let them do their jobs?”

                “Oh, they need their beauty sleep too.  Besides, who do you think helped train Tuck?”  He smiled winsomely at her.

                She was not winsome’d.

                “Do you want to come?” he asked, as a way to distract her.  “I won’t be alone then.”

                Menolly hesitated. “Where are you going?”

                “To buy some shoes.”

                AIVAS said, Tell her the whole truth.

                Why? he asked, surprised.  Then he felt silly, and guilty.  He always told Menolly the truth. Except…he didn’t want to reveal this rather ugly thing about it…

                If she becomes a jump pilot, she’ll have to go through this herself.

                …oh.  With new understanding, he gave her a swift probing look, as if he could somehow look through her and determine why she’d want to do to herself what he’d done to himself…but he couldn’t read minds, and all he saw was her current skepticism about his Quest to Buy Shoes.

                Giving in, he motioned her over.

                She came.

                “In confidence,” he murmured, “Those bio-available metals were more of a Must Have than Need.  I’m not fully healed.  But I’d rather do this in privacy.”

                Uncertainty flickered in her eyes.  “Do you want me to lea—“

                “AIVAS says you should come.”  He studied her as he said this.

                Immediate understanding.  “Ah. I see.”  She hesitated, then she went to one of the lockers, and got a stunner out of it, attached it to a hip.

                He didn’t question whether she knew how to use it; given the time she’d been spending with Tuck, she obviously did.  Better than Robinton himself did, certainly. Menolly had always been practical when not performing.

                Without further words, they cycled through the airlock—which wasn’t really cycling, just opening and closing doors—and emerged onto the artificially-illuminated dock.

 

#

 

 

                Menolly was surprised Robinton moved quickly and confidently down the street.  He hadn’t been on Beta Colony any longer than she had, and definitely outside of the ship less, but he didn’t swivel his head around to gawk at all the oddities and delights.

                Then she noticed his eyes darting intelligently every which way, lingering more on people than on objects or shops, and realized he was simply incognitoLook like you belong.  Don’t gawk.  Move like you have business to attend to.  Menolly kept pace with him—he slowed slightly when he realized she was forced every ten or twenty steps into trotting—and they moved through the city with far less harassment than she’d had earlier today.  To outsiders they looked like two spacers now, instead of two lost naïve foreigners from a backwards planet.

                …hopefully her firelizards would obey her command to stay put and not ruin the illusion. (Uncle nuzzled under her chin, thankful to have alone-time with her and away from them.)

                At the first transit station, Robinton bought some sort of card for himself, and for her, from a machine.  His motions were more languidly methodical than inept, and Menolly suspected AIVAS whispered things to him. 

                 Then he summoned a bubble-car, and once they were inside facing each other over the central console, Robinton used the comconsole to direct them to an “industrial bio-supply” warehouse.

                Then he sighed, spread his long arms over the back of his seat, and grimaced at her.  “This is comfortable, but it’s disconcerting I’m not telling it where to go.  I feel like I should lean back, and—“ he raised his hands and conducted an imaginary orchestra, then let them fall again. “Somehow, I got used to that.  Funny how quickly that became my normal.”

                The reminder of his horrible illness made her react poorly, but she hid the reaction.  It wasn’t his fault his phantom motions had left nightmarish memories in her subconscious. “So you’d have us doing flips on exit, scaring the local authorities?” she teased, covering her unreasonable fear.

                Robinton looked rueful. “Our ancestors were more militarized than I realized.  I suppose it should have been self-evident; they created the Weyrs, after all.  Even named one after an admiral. But on the other hand, it did keep that misguided mercenary fleet from catching up to us.  Otherwise we might have been on the wrong side of a pack of fools with hair-triggers before the Betan navy could get us out of it.”  He gazed out the window of the bubble car at their surroundings like he hadn’t allowed himself to do on foot.  Then he said, “Mercenary fleets,” and made a tch sound against his teeth. “Are they the galaxy’s Holdless?”

                “Maybe we should see more of the galaxy before deciding on that.”

                He gave her a long look. Then he said, “So.  Given the means and resources to go anywhere…where would you Journey? ”

                “Wherever the wind takes me?” Menolly asked.  “Although I suppose that doesn’t work in vacuum.  Wherever the stellar wind takes me?”

                “All alone?”

                …yes.  But she felt reluctant to say that.

                Perceptively, Robinton voiced it for her.  “Alone is very tempting.  Was very tempting. I could have gone on and on and on, after I did that first jump.”  He smiled.  “But, my responsibilities brought me back.  And my people. I couldn’t ask for a better crew, but I admit the tight quarters are wearing.  And the observers.”

                “Observers?”

                “Watching me jump.”

                “You could kick us out,” Menolly said, feeling guilty for doing something she hadn’t realized he disliked.

                “And deny you an experience of space?” Robinton said. “Pft. That would be incredibly selfish of me.  Besides…AIVAS says you want to be a jump pilot.”

                “So much for AIVAS being discreet,” she said.

                AIVAS spoke, through her wristcom. “Robinton’s sudden plunge into it was abnormal, and not what I would have wished if circumstances had permitted otherwise.  It’s preferable if jump pilots go into it better-informed, have at least some type of Apprenticeship.”

                Menolly blinked, looked at Robinton.  “So I’m your Apprentice twice-over?”

                “Technically, you were my sire’s Apprentice, but my Journeywoman,” Robinton said. “Also, I’m hardly a Master jump pilot.  AIVAS helps me cheat my way through it.”  Rubbing his face with a hand, Robinton said, “So you really have no destination in mind?”

                “I barely know Beta, and me piloting would be a long way off…right?”

                “If we form an embassy here, and I am called upon to actually be diplomatic, our ship will sit gathering dust. That’s an incredible waste of a resource.  Irresponsible, even, given how little time we have, and how much we have to do. Flat-out irresponsible to leave it sitting. But if you are serious about being a pilot—even after this errand, and it may very well change your mind—then we could run that ship wherever we needed it.”  He smiled tiredly. “AIVAS says, people who do what I do—manage—usually are not jump pilots themselves.  Simply because the implant goes unused, and because wormholes knock you out for hours, and that’s wasted time that could be used on other things, for anyone whose main purpose is to run around putting out fires.”  He studied her.  “Or would you rather manage?”

                “I would rather create than manage,” Menolly said.  “No offense.”

                He grinned.

                “And I enjoy Journeying.  It feeds the creative well.  My music always revives itself after a good Journey.”

                “Anything yet?”

                “Oh, the creative well has turned into a typhoon,” she said with a laugh.  She was flooded in ideas. “I’m going to let that die down a bit.  Otherwise it’s going to crash over everything, and I’ll be awash, clinging to a piece of wood—”

                “—tying Harpers to broken masts,” Robinton said fondly.

                “Why do you sound so happy about that?” she said in exasperation.  When they’d been all but wrecked on the Southern coast…not that she could have anticipated that storm, they’d learned later seasoned captains familiar with those waters had been wrecked with it…but the experience had been a nightmare for her.  The Masterharper himself entrusting his life to her sailing.  She’d been certain they’d both end up dead.  And Robinton, bless him, had been less than useless.  It was the one and only time she’d seen him entirely lose his marbles…on top of a severe bout of physical seasickness.  Lashing him to the mast had been the only way to keep him from being flung overboard, and to keep him in her eyesight while she wrestled with the ship.

                That trip was not on the top of her list of happy memories.  (Although the aftermath had been much more tolerable.)

                “Why do I sound happy I lived? Through a shipwreck?  That washed us onto an abandoned coast? Without any evidence of human habitation as far as the firelizard flies?”

                “I wouldn’t have tied you to the mast if I hadn’t needed to!”

                “Oh, it was fun,” Robinton said.

                “You think being tied to a mast is fun?”

                He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, then said lightly, “Jumping through wormholes is fun.”

                Menolly was very aware that he couldn’t have shouted Yes, I think being tied to masts is fun! any louder even if he’d actually said yes.

                He’d liked it.

                She’d always thought his light treatment of that dreadful experience had been due to…shame, or something, over how he’d frozen up, panicked.  Lost control.  Had had to be physically restrained to get him out of her way while she worked.

                But what if it wasn’t?  Or, what if it hadn’t only been that, but something else, too?

                Those Betan cultural videos made her realize, now, that maybe there was something else going on there.  In addition to the rest.

                Blast it…the Harper was bloody frustrating.  She was half-tempted to use this stunner on him, and let him wake up tied to something.  Even then, she’d probably have to use some of that…what was it…fast-penta to get him to admit to anything.

                “You know what we need to add to the list?” Menolly said, trying to get her mind firmly back on track.

                From the look on his face, he could tell she was in a queer mood.  “Hm?” he said, as lightly and neutrally as possible.

                “Fast-penta.”

                Robinton made a short, high-pitched noise.

                AIVAS said, “She’s right. It makes torture obsolete.”

                That wasn’t what she—was torturing being done?  Where? Menolly said, “…AIVAS?”

                “Yes, Harpress?”

                “…are you okay?”

                “That was an in-joke,” Robinton murmured. “His deadpan is fantastic.”

                “…are you okay?” Menolly asked Robinton.

                “Fast-penta won’t get me through the next few hours, so I don’t think torture is obsolete just yet,” Robinton said.  “I really don’t look forward to this…”

                How disingenuous.  But also, her own fault for repeatedly forgetting that another thinking being was sharing his head…one more complex than a dragon, an AI, which was probably saying all sorts of things that Menolly wasn’t privy to.  Robinton wasn’t really a singular person, anymore…he was a duo.

                Torture.  What was going on in their head?

                And of course, it’s not like she hadn’t brought up fast-penta with something else entirely in mind…

                Menolly suddenly felt as if she had too many thoughts to process, especially with this realization, so she let the conversation die, and peered out of the bubble car, alternating furious thought with gaping at Betan sights.

                Most of the time, she only saw rock walls, but sometimes light would intrude, and she could see homes, businesses, pedestrians.  Ads.

                There were a lot of ads for the Orb of Unearthly Delights.  Ads about men, women, and herms, ads with people dressed up in elaborate costumes, ads with completely naked people without any costumes at all.  Ads for “sex toys”.  Ads for “sex bots”…

                A sudden, bizarre idea blazed across her brain.  AIVAS didn’t have his own body…but could he, er, use a mechanical body?  Dragons had their own bodies, after all…

                Not even for sex, she didn’t care about that.  She absolutely wasn’t thinking about sex with AIVAS.

                (Except everyone knew dragons and firelizards watched…)

                (No!  Shut up.  Stupid brain.)

                Really, there were true legitimate ways this could be an actual good idea.

                The idea that AIVAS could look human, have two hands like a human, walk about like a human, interact with other humans as a human…wouldn’t that be very useful for them?  And for him? He’d mentioned he was intentionally hampered by a lack of ambition, but clearly he was also hampered by a lack of an easily-mobile body, to the extent that he had no choice but to go where Robinton did.  The ship didn’t count, he needed Robinton to help operate that too.

                She eyed Robinton, who’d gone into his own thinking fugue.  But just as quickly, she decided if she was going to broach that idea to AIVAS, she’d just wait until they were back and she could say it privately, not to Robinton’s face.

                But it was a good idea!  Nobody had to know the providence, right?

                She imagined bringing it up in front of Jancis.  Or Piemur. Or Lytol.  Or Tuck. They all frowned in disappointment in her head, a conclave of shame.

                Well, Tuck would call a spade a spade right out.  Why is AIVAS wearing a sex-bot?  And nobody would question how Tuck knew, because clearly, he had some supernatural ability to go through an entire exabyte of “cultural videos” and would know things.

                They didn’t matter though, did they?  Only AIVAS’s opinion did.

                And aside from jump pilot desires

                …if he decided it was a dumb idea, he still was discreet, and nobody would be the wiser.

 

#

 

 

                Robinton’s belly churned nervously as they exited the bubble car in a district filled with lab supply crafters and businesses.  The air smelled peculiar here, sweet, but also medicinal, with an odd acrid undertone.

                Go left at that planter, AIVAS told him.

                He did, Menolly followed.  She no longer brooded, but gazed around them, thinking opaque thoughts. Did she think he was mad at her?  He wasn’t sure.  It wasn’t as if any of this was new between them, though.  It didn’t anger him, it was simply…how things were.  That chasm, about that one topic.

                He reached over and squeezed her shoulder warmly, but she seemed unmoved by it, either positively or negatively.  Caught in her thoughts then.

                Here we are, AIVAS said.

                The sign for this business was very utilitarian, but brightly lit compared to the night-dimmed lights of the street, and when they walked in, an older woman greeted them brightly, and said, “Order for Mr. Robinson?”

                “The name’s Robinton,” he said, ticking that T again.  “But yes.”

                A series of about twenty plastic bottles were put before them, a few rather large, the rest varying in size between medium and very small.  Some rattled. Robinton checked the labels of each one so AIVAS could confirm they were what he needed, then tucked them into his bag.

                It felt odd to be leaving without marks exchanging hands, but AIVAS assured him they had paid, exchanging invisible dollars from their bank account to the business before Robinton had even left the ship.

                “So, what was so torturous about that?” Menolly asked, as they walked down the street, in a different direction.

                “That was still the easy part.”

                “Where are we going now?”

                “To buy milkshakes.”

                “What are those?”

                “Almost-melted ice cream,” Robinton said.

                “Why?”

                “You’ll see.”

 

#

 

                Milkshakes on Beta, it turned out, were flavored by something other than milk and sugar.  And the only flavors Robinton recognized were strawberry and peppermint.  So Robinton got one strawberry, one peppermint, and at AIVAS’s suggestion, two more of “vanilla”.  And extra cups and a spoon.

                Next to him, Menolly decided on coffee, because AIVAS claimed it was “somewhat” like klah.

                Then they checked into a hotel room.

                The clerk looked at Robinton, looked at Menolly, and looked at all their milkshakes, and said brightly, “Have fun!” as he handed their keycard to Menolly.

                Robinton doubted he would, but he didn’t want to worry the young man, so he made no quip as they left.

                The inside of this hotel reminded him of parts of Landing, except all the artefacts were new, and not discolored and pitted or scratched.  Plastic was used extensively, as was stone, and some artwork was made of cleverly layered sand.  Wood and wicker were nowhere to be seen, and some of the walls were covered in tapestries that weren’t really tapestries, for it was all a single neutral color, no patterns to be found. He touched a wall covered in it, and it was thin and scratchy to the hand, and seemed to be covering bare stone.

                Menolly waved their keycard at a plate AIVAS indicated, a little light flashed, and the door clicked open.  They stepped into pitch-black darkness, giving Robinton a strong urge to scramble around for glowpots, until AIVAS said from Menolly’s wristcom that there was a light switch a bit ahead to the left.  Menolly found that, and Robinton shoved the door closed behind him with his shoulder.

                The “hotel room” was relatively small, an all-purpose room, with a lavatory off one end. There was a desk with a comconsole, a table with two chairs, a bed, and a couch. On closer inspection, in a closet, there was a small refrigerator and freezer, which Robinton put two of the milkshakes into.  The remainders he set on the table.  While Menolly used the lavatory, Robinton pulled out half of his various bottles, and followed AIVAS’s instructions for combining various powders, beads, and pellets into an abysmal sort of horrifying milkshake sundae that Robinton suspected might put him off of peppermint for life.

                Menolly eventually returned, and sat across from him and watched.  She tried her coffee milkshake, made a dubious face, but cautiously sipped at it anyway.

                Robinton said as a warning, “Some of the changes the implant made require me to eat things one would not normally eat.  Metals and such.  I’ve found it to be one of the most distressing parts of becoming a jump pilot.  Humans really shouldn’t be consuming this,” and he waved his hand around before him.

                “This is better than what you had access to before,” AIVAS said.

                “Marginally,” Robinton allowed.  Stirring his soupy milkshake—it had turned from a pleasant pale pink to a horrid grey-green with black specks and deteriorating white spheres—he scooped up a spoonful.

                Chalky, bitter peppermint flooded his mouth.  He only half-suppressed a gag, and shot to his feet to fill a cup with clean water from the lavatory.  “I thought I wasn’t supposed to have nausea anymore?” he said, after swirling water around his mouth, and by dint of sheer will, swallowing instead of spitting.

                “You are not affected by jump nausea, but that’s entirely different from a gag reflex,” AIVAS said. “Being able to vomit is necessary for purging the body of toxins. Unfortunately, what is necessary for me is considered toxic by your body’s instincts.”

                Returning to the room where Menolly was, Robinton said, “The only reason I’m doing this is because bringing me to Beta Colony only to kill me via poison is too convoluted for a real assassination attempt.”  Grabbing another spoonful of vile potion, he ate it, and quickly chased it down with water.  “I should have bought some spirits to burn away my sense of taste.”

                “That’s not entirely a bad idea,” AIVAS said. “Especially as you are not alone as originally planned. I’d hoped the flavorings in the milkshake would hide it, but it seems peppermint was a bad choice of flavor.” A pause.  “The hotel has a bar.”

                Forcing another mouthful down, Robinton said, “A bar of what?”

                “A bar is a sort of long counter you go to at a Gather to buy spirits, and other alcohol.  It’s two floors down, in this building.”

                Menolly rose.  “I’ll go.  I’ll be right back.”

                “Ask them for their worst moonshine,” Robinton said.  “And please, for the love of little lizards, don’t bring me any wine.”

 

#

 

                Menolly, bless her, returned with a large cut-glass bottle of amber liquid, and some shot glasses.  Robinton swished the first burning mouthful around, letting it kill off his taste buds, then tried his terrible milkshake again.  It was still bad, but easier to deal with.  And as he worked through milkshake, water, and booze, the edges of his disgust eased, which made getting the mixture down easier.  Sure, he was drinking filth—and that was fine!  Everything was fine.  This was fine.

                And Menolly was lovely, even when she was mad at him.  Menolly always took care of him.  And he took care of her. It was good.

                When he got to the second round of milkshakes, using strawberry, AIVAS had Menolly mix the ingredients from the various bottles instead.

                AIVAS said, “While we’re out here, I’ve learned there is something you didn’t put on the list that could be useful.  I will leave categorizing it as a Must Have, Need, or Want up to you.”

                “Hmm?” Robinton said, and considered drinking this next shot before the strawberry horror was even ready.

                “I can’t leave your body.  The process of giving you the implant tied me to you as it was supposed to, but I can control nearby chassis and temporarily offload some of my simpler processes onto them, to ease the burden.  At Landing that was my former server.  I could interface with the Yokohama, as well.  And out here, it’s The Mastersinger Merelan.”

                “Mmm,” Robinton said, and accepted the strawberry horror Menolly passed to him.  This one had turned a moldy sort of pink, with small pebbles of gold, and some rusty-looking rice grains that dissolved, leaving pencil-like streaks.  Robinton tasted it, and it actually wasn’t so bad.  It wasn’t chalky, and the crunchy grain-type things were somewhat bearable.  You could drink them at least, and avoid chewing.  (He still followed every third or fourth swallow with a swig from the shot glass.)

                “Beta Colony sells robotics that are human-shaped, and after looking at the specifications, I think I could modify one, and use that.  This way, you could leave the ship without Tuck and Swift.”

                “Come again?”

                “A human-shaped robot. I could partially use that as a body; see out of its eyes, hear out of its ears.  Use its hands, be a visual deterrent to thieves and such. As long as it was in reasonable proximity to you.”

                “That’s a fantastic idea,” Robinton proclaimed.

                Menolly had a funny look on her face.

                “Isn’t it?” he asked her.

                “Uh, yes, I think so,” she said weakly.

                Licking his lips—then pulling a face because they were bitter, Robinton said, “Why, you could help Jancis make repairs on the ship.  Or upgrades—the artificial gravity sounded like a finicky install.”

                “Yes.”

                “You could do things while I was asleep,” Robinton said.  “Since you don’t sleep yourself.”

                “Correct.”

                “I could teach you how to play,” Robinton said.  “Harp, maybe?”

                “I hadn’t considered that, but yes.”

                “When could we do this?” Robinton asked, then downed another shot.  He felt warm and fuzzy.

                “I could order through the comconsole, and we could have it delivered.”

                “Fantastic.  Go on and do that.”

                A pause.

                Menolly said, “Er…perhaps choose a unique face, AIVAS.  So you don’t look like an existing model.”

                “That’s very wise, Harpress.  Incognito.  Harper, what face should I have?”

                “Pardon?”

                “You’ll have to look at it the most often.  What should I look like?”

                “I have never made a habit of judging someone by their face,” Robinton said.  “At least, I try not to.”  He took a swig of strawberry horror.  It was getting easier to drink, although the dark silt at the bottom of the cup was not appetizing.

                “There’s an assessment test…that can be run on customers.  It won’t work on me, being what I am, but with your permission?  It’s a series of images I’d show you. A Betan test, to help customize the robot.”

                Waving a vague hand, Robinton said, “Go ahead.”

                “Let me see if I can proxy this on to you…ah, there we go,” AIVAS said.

                Suddenly, in his mind’s eye, a face of a woman.  No, a man.  No, a herm. 

                They flashed by slowly, then sped up, until a stream of faces went by, too fast to truly see.  First, the men dropped out.  Then the women.  Only herms were left—or men and women close enough to herm that he couldn’t tell the difference at this speed.

                Skin tone was light, then dark, then mid.  Hair flashed gold, then black, copper briefly, then black, then brown, never quite stabilizing in color, or length.  Brown, hazel, blue, and green eyes flashed past.  Brown dropped out, then green.  Blue differentiated into silvery-grey and blue-grey shades, and hazel began lightening and losing blue-greens until they weren’t hazel anymore but amber.  Then blue eyes vanished entirely. 

                Blond hair abruptly dropped out, as did bright copper, and he was swamped by black-haired herms until the black was abruptly rejected, even after having been favored.  Long hair was rejected at the same time. Herms with short hair not much darker from their golden skin tone flashed by.  Some had freckles, a thousand times more natural than the freckle-less expanse of pale white skin in The Butcher’s Bride.

                The freckles abruptly stayed, darker rioting speckles over golden skin, and with it, the chestnut brown hair turned auburn-brown to match.  Eyes were warm and amber.  Nose was somewhat hooked, with a bump at the arch…a little like Menolly’s, a little like F’lar’s.  The face leaned towards masculine, but a bit of baby fat—or feminine—softened it, and the freckles made a face that should have looked fairly mature from structure alone somewhat soft, dream-like.

                As abruptly as it started, the images ended, and a warm-toned herm with a softened masculine face, short red-brown hair, and a strong nose stared at him through a riot of freckles.

                It wasn’t what he would have chosen for AIVAS, but…what should an AI look like anyhow?

                “That was interesting, I don’t understand what happened there,” Robinton said.

                AIVAS said, “It tested subliminal responses.  The alcohol helped.”

                “What was the result?” Menolly asked with a sort of divided fascination.  Then she shook her head.  “No, I want it to be a surprise.”

 

#

 

                Robinton hadn’t meant to get plastered, but he had meant to down the full dose of metallic elements AIVAS needed him to ingest, so he decided everything had been a success when four empty milkshake cups were lined up in front of him, even if the bottle of spirits was half-gone.  And, he hadn’t thrown up once!

                Warm and fuzzy and proud of himself, he turned to look for Menolly, but somehow she was across the room, opening the door.

                “Sign here, please,” the delivery man said.  “Also, I’ll need my float back once you’ve gotten it inside.”

                Perplexed, Robinton watched as a plastic…coffin…with no markings beyond a few barcodes was tugged into the room on the float by Menolly.  Then Menolly tried to move the coffin off of the float, and it all looked very precarious

                Perhaps help her by taking the other end? AIVAS suggested.

                Ah, right.  Robinton rose to his feet, and with great dignity, proceeded over to the tableau, and unceremoniously shoved the coffin-thing onto the floor with a thump.

                Menolly gave him an appalled look, but the deliveryman stepped in and grabbed his now-free float, so Robinton proceeded to follow him, slowly and carefully, so he could close the door.  “Now, what’s this thing?” he asked Menolly.

                “…AIVAS’s new body.  You don’t remember?”

                “Oh, we were doing that for real?”

                AIVAS said, from her wristcom, “You authorized it before you were drunk.  Or rather, this drunk.”

                Robinton said, cheerfully, “Ahhh, so what do you think, should we trust sober-me?  I don’t trust that fellow…far too many thoughts whirling around in his head.”  He paused.  “What’s in the box?”

                Menolly said, “Help me open it, and we’ll find out.

                They knelt at either end of the box, and Menolly used her belt knife—she wouldn’t allow him to get his out—to cut through some tape (it got stuck to his hand, and then the trousers of his jumpsuit, which made him laugh; the Betans even made good, sticky tape!)—and then they lifted the top off.

                Robinton gasped.  “There’s a person in here!”

                “AIVAS, how drunk is he?”

                “Very.”

                “Why is she covered in plastic?” Robinton said, and used his hands to tear clear plastic away from the face.  Then he removed the opaque plastic from the rest of her body—

                “—oh, no, she has tackle, she’s not a she after all,” he said, worried he’d offended…her…him…her? His eyes darted from the finely formed breasts, covered in freckles, down to what lay under such a sheer little scrap of…underwear?  It contained everything down there in a little mesh pouch, but hid nothing, and it had a little yellow bow on the front.

                He stared, fascinated. Men could wear lace underwear with bows?

                “AIVAS,” Menolly wailed.  “I thought you were supposed to come with clothes!”

                “Those are clothes; that’s a bra, panties, and negligee.”

                “They’re almost invisible! You can’t walk down the street in this!”

                “According to Betan law, I can. I wouldn’t even be stopped.”

                Something significant occurred to Robinton, and he waved his hand at Menolly to shush her. “AIVAS,” Robinton said.  “You’re a hermaphrodite!”

                “Yes, that’s what I selected.”

                “But that’s wonderful!” Robinton said in delight.  “Congratulations.”

                Menolly boggled at him for a moment, then said, “AIVAS, I’d tell him to shut up, but you can read his mind anyway, so I’m not sure it’d make any difference to you.”

                “It’s quite all right, Menolly.  He’s genuinely happy about it.”

                “…it’s not wonderful?” Robinton questioned, confused.

                AIVAS said to Menolly, “Within the right armpit, there should be a button to turn it on.  Press deeply; it’s recessed to prevent accidental inactivation.”

                Menolly groped the herm’s armpit disturbingly. Then the barely-covered breasts heaved once as a breath was taken.  Briefly, Robinton felt the weirdest sense of déjà vu, and then the herm in the box opened its eyes.

                AIVAS said through Menolly’s wristcom, “There’s some default software here I have to destroy, and I need to gain root access.  Bear with me a few more minutes.”

                The herm lay there in the box, not moving except for regular breaths, and blinking eyes.

                Robinton noticed a flimsy in the box with AIVAS, and he picked it up, and read it to himself.  “More sensors than a human being.  Robust real-time network connectivity.  Ten year warranty on power-pack.  Resistant to mold.  Cleanable with soap and water, and fully submergible.”

                Menolly for some reason turned a spectacular shade of red.

                Then the herm in the box twitched. Raised a hand, touched the side of the box.  And kept touching it.  And kept touching it, as if that centimeter of plastic was the most fascinating thing in the world.  Its nails caught on the corrugated edge, and it changed from touching to scratching at the spot.

                “AIVAS?” Menolly said.

                Her wristcom said, “Yes?”

                “Are you well?”

                A pause, then the mouth of the herm moved.  “Yes,” the herm said.  Its voice was a higher-pitched version of AIVAS’s normal baritone, more of a light tenor.  “There’s a lot of data coming in from this chassis. I’m trying to sort it.”

                “How much data?” Robinton asked.

                “Magnitudes more.  It’s almost concerning, that this chassis has more sensors than our jump ship does.”

                Robinton noticed a sliver of tape had fallen on the herm’s cheek, and he reached out to pluck it off, and then both he and the herm flinched back, breaking a feedback loop where he felt himself touching the herm’s cheek, and the herm’s cheek felt him touching it, as if it was his own cheek.

                “So that’s what that library did.  Let me reinstate it,” AIVAS said.  “Try again.”

                So Robinton did, and this time was able to successfully pluck the bit of tape off, without feeling like he was touching himself.  But AIVAS’s brows drew together, and his amber eyes looked worried.

                Robinton reached out and smoothed the fringe of hair away from AIVAS’s forehead.  “Don’t worry, we’re here.”

                “Some of the libraries,” AIVAS said softly,  “Are suspiciously advanced.  Beta’s very close to being unethical with their bots.”

                “What do you mean?” Menolly said.

                “Let me think on it, and examine the code more. It will take me a few months to analyze in full.”

                “Do you want to get out of the box?” Robinton asked.

                “I don’t have that desire, no.”  A pause. “But I don’t have a desire to stay here, either.  I don’t have motivation, either way.”

                Menolly glanced at Robinton, and then she said, “Then I’ll set you a task, AIVAS.  That task is to learn how to move that body, and walk around without falling or knocking into things.”

                Robinton felt like that all was necessary, but boring. He said, “There’s a pillow on the bed that is fuzzy.  You should go touch it, AIVAS.”

                Menolly looked at him.

                Waving the flimsy around, Robinton said, “More sensors than a human being.”

                When her expression didn’t change, Robinton rose, and got the pillow from the bed.  He squeezed it in his hands, and it was delightfully soft, then he came over and held it by Menolly’s cheek.

                She leaned into it.  “Yes, it’s very fuzzy.”

                “Don’t be so jaded,” he chided.  “We were born like this, but it’s new to AIVAS.” Then he went and sat on the bed.  “AIVAS, do Menolly’s task, but as a part of it, come get this pillow from me.”

                For a few moments, AIVAS waved its limbs in a disturbing way, like an insect that couldn’t get off its back.  “I might need to reinstate another library,” he said, laying still again.  Then the nature of its movement changed, and he managed to wriggle around in the box onto his side, and then put a leg over the edge, and push himself up.

                Robinton wondered how it was possible to make such realistic artificial breasts jiggle so sensually.

                “Oh, no,” Menolly said.  “I think that library—“

                “I’m aware,” AIVAS said. “I will use it for now, and modify it to be less…dramatic.”

                The herm paused, and looked down at the foot planted outside of its box.  There was a thick, shaggy carpet there, and for a moment, AIVAS flexed golden toes in it.  His feet were the size of a large woman’s, or small man’s.  Then he stepped out of the box, and slowly took steps towards Robinton, stopping with each step to apparently savor the feel of fake fur underneath his toes.

                Eventually, he reached Robinton, and stood before him, wide shoulders tucking into a narrower waist, before flaring out in curving hips.  On top, his breasts were the perfect size for his body, and on bottom, his maleness was also perfectly proportioned and shaped.

                A single not-as-sloshed-as-the-rest neuron in Robinton’s head flared, and his eyes widened as he said, “This is one of those robots, isn’t it?”  He’d seen them appear in male and female versions in those videos, but hadn’t happened across a herm version.

                “Yes,” AIVAS said, taking the pillow from him. “The most human-realistic robot chassis manufactured on Beta Colony are produced for the Orb.  No other industry demands such human-fidelity in their androgynoids.  Or makes androgynoids at all.  I did look at other models, but they lacked the same sensory capabilities. I do not have well-developed senses outside of sight and hearing in the other chassis, and only partial access to yours, Harper, so it made sense to try to get those capabilities here.”  AIVAS flexed his fingers around the pillow, squeezing it, then petting the fur with his fingers.  Then he raised the pillow up to his cheek, brushing it across, and accidentally brushed the corner of his mouth, and he paused, staring at nothing, before purposefully brushing the pillow across his mouth.

                Then he handed the pillow back to Robinton, and touched other materials in the room.  Plastic, glass, fabrics.  First with his hands, then he pressed his cheek against it, then, if he could, pressed his mouth against it.

                It reminded Robinton of a baby, exploring the world with its face.

                AIVAS turned and looked at him.  “Yes, they put a lot of sensors in the lips. Patterning after a human, I suppose.”

                Menolly and Robinton found objects to offer AIVAS to touch.  First from around the room, and then Robinton offered things from his bag, like a scrap of well-scraped hide, a bottle of ink, a nib pen.  Menolly offered a hair tie, a sheet of paper with half a song on it, and then she untwined Uncle from her neck and offered the firelizard.

                “He’s warm,” AIVAS said, almost in awe, as he lifted the surprised firelizard to his cheek. “I’ve had temperature readings before, but not the sensation of warmth…it’s an aggregate of little real-time readings…like a chemical gradient, blurred and inaccurate, but still clearly warm…”  He hesitated, and looked at Uncle for a long time, then glanced at Menolly, staring up at him.  Then he kissed the top of the firelizard’s head.

                Uncle didn’t seem to mind, but did crawl out of AIVAS’s hands to sit on his shoulder, and hold onto his ear.

                AIVAS froze, then traced his other ear with a finger.  “Your ears are sensitive?”

                “Yes,” Robinton said.

                “Is that why my toes are sensitive?”

                Robinton had noticed AIVAS liked curling his toes around objects.

                Menolly said, ”I’ve heard some people like toes…” and shrugged.

                When AIVAS ran out of things to touch, Robinton said, “Catch,” and gently lobbed the pillow at him.

                It hit AIVAS in the side, and fell to the ground.  But AIVAS was game to play catch, and was eventually able to catch pillows consistently, first with a warning of catch, but then if he saw it coming at him.

                Eventually, sleep dragged undeniably at Robinton’s eyes, for it was well into their night, now.  He crawled onto the bed and sprawled on his back, and from there, issued new challenges to AIVAS.  “Take the pen and ink and hide from my bag, and write the alphabet.”

                “Yes, I should be literate, shouldn’t I?  What style should I try to reproduce?”

                “How about my handwriting?” Robinton suggested. “We may need a good forgery.”

                As AIVAS did that, Menolly also got up and lay down on the bed next to Robinton, with a pillow under her arm.  She yawned hugely, which set Robinton off.  Then Uncle yawned, from AIVAS’s shoulder, and that set Robinton off again, and Menolly. Eventually the chain reaction was broken, and AIVAS came and showed them a very accurate forgery of Robinton’s handwriting, so Robinton ordered him to use the comconsole to type out a reproduction of Pern’s Charter, manually and tediously using physical fingers.

                AIVAS sat in the chair, spent time exploring the keys softly with his fingers, then the tap-tap-tap of an AI interfacing with a comconsole the hard way filled the room.

 

#

 

 

                When Robinton woke, it was pitch black, and he was comfortably warm in several places.  Cuddled against his side was Menolly, snoring softly.  Down the hollow between his legs, until his feet crossed at the ankles, were several firelizards of assorted weights.  Under his chin was Zair.

                Detracting from it all was a pounding headache.

                Something moved around in the dark.  There was the sound of a running tap.  Then the lights came up to a dim level, and a herm appeared, topless, but wearing a blue sarong and a blue firelizard.

                AIVAS folded itself into a graceful kneeling position next to the bed, and handed him a glass of water.

                Levering himself up on one arm as much as he could without disturbing the firelizards, Robinton drank greedily, and hoped the hydration would kill the headache.  He didn’t have any fellis on him.  Then he stared into amber eyes, and said, “So I didn’t dream any of that.”

                “No.”  A hesitation. “…you did dream some, but as an after-effect, your brain processing something that actually happened.”

                Robinton wasn’t entirely sure why it had been relatively easy to accept AIVAS as a voice from the wall, or later, as a voice in his head, but as a voice coming out of a human body (or so close to one it barely mattered) he found himself vaguely disturbed.

                “I don’t have to use this body,” AIVAS said.

                “You don’t like it?”

                “It is useful, and the sensation of touch gives me a lot to think about. That’s more or less ‘liking’, for me.”

                “Then you should go on using it,” Robinton said.  “But where did you come up with the idea?”

                Amber eyes flicked to the other side of Robinton, where Menolly slept, a bit of body language that was a first for AIVAS.

                “Ah,” Robinton said, although he was more enlightened as to the who instead of the why.

                AIVAS smiled.  It was a very genuine-looking smile, with the corners of his mouth turning up, and wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, and it made him look handsome.

                AIVAS noticed Robinton’s thoughts on that, and said, “I’m utilizing the default body-language libraries that came with this body, until I can update them.  I’m afraid some of my expressions and mannerisms will be Betan, until I learn more culturally-appropriate ones from you, and other Pernese crew.”

                “Given we’re out in the galaxy now, wouldn’t Betan ones be more appropriate?”

                “I won’t forget them…but no.  I’m Pernese.  I came with the colonists, and existed on Pern for millennia.”

                “I wasn’t trying to say you weren’t Pernese,” Robinton said quickly.  “You absolutely have an Ancient pedigree there.”  He hadn’t meant to offend AIVAS.

                “Good.”  AIVAS took the now-empty water glass, and rose to darken the lights again.

                Robinton watched him go.  As promised his movements weren’t so exaggeratedly sensual anymore; he’d learned to scale that back.

                Eventually, Robinton managed to fall asleep again.

 

#

 

                When Robinton woke again, he felt very good.  A score of tiny aches and pains—like the persistent ache down the long bones of his thighs and shins, and within his hips—had eased.  Those pains had gone on for so long—since even before the implant—that he’d forgotten they were there.

                “He feels better,” AIVAS said to Menolly.

                Opening his eyes, he saw Menolly sitting on the couch, working on a song.  Next to her, AIVAS had apparently taken up sewing, and was in the process of embroidering a Southern-style loose vest to match the Betan-style sarong.  Scraps of fabric and scissors proved the vest itself had been made by hand from the bolt of cloth laying against the couch.

                Well, that was clever.  Much better than the sarong-and-leather-straps idea.

                Stretching languorously, Robinton yawned and said, “What time is it?”

                “Almost noon,” Menolly said.

                “Oh dear,” Robinton said, and jolted upright.  “I had things to do today.”

                AIVAS said, “There was more damage on a micro-level than I thought.  You needed to heal.  If you hadn’t done that soon, you most certainly would have come down sick.  Your bone marrow was not producing as it should have been.”

                “Age?” Robinton said.  He vaguely remembered Master Oldive waxing poetic on the hidden capabilities of bones (beyond making sure you weren’t just a floppy sack of flesh), as well as the ailments of age that concerned them, like brittleness.

                “Partly age, but the implant co-opts marrow production in your femurs, it makes more of itself from within, so the rest of your remaining bones have had to work a bit harder. They weren’t doing that as well as I’d hoped.”

                “That changed overnight?”

                AIVAS nodded, his fingers continuing to push and pull a needle with colored thread through the vest.  “The implant was able to mature a little more.  Previously, in order to maximize what was needed for the implant, your heart, and to house me, the implant-marrow could only make more of itself.  Now, it can switch between processing for me and your implant, or for your organic parts.”

                Menolly said, “This is why you don’t want him to give blood.”

                AIVAS nodded again. “On the macro level, they’ll notice small objects that are not red or white blood cells, or platelets. And on the DNA level, he’s slightly chimeric, as I needed to reactivate some DNA that’s typically methylated at his age, in order to make repairs.”

                Rubbing the sleep out of his face with both hands, because he was behind now, Robinton said, “Speaking of blood, I need to talk to Lytol. We were going to apply today using that genetic enclave loophole—“

                Menolly said, “It’s done, they did it.  Brekke and Lytol supervised.”

                “Oh?”

                “I spoke to Brekke through my wristcom, and she said the clinic confirmed with its analysis that we’re statistically considered a genetic enclave by Foreign Ministry standards.  Our closest ancestors are mostly from Earth, with some very old Alpha Centauri and Tau Ceti admixture.   They believe us to be an old and unusually successful ‘wildcat colony’. The results are being sent to the Foreign Ministry for review.”

                “When will we get a response?”

                “Officially, within a month.  Unofficially, the Healers said longer, since nobody cares about wildcat colonies.  Unless you talk to the right person, and convince them you’re special.”

                “I suppose I’ll have to figure out who that is,” Robinton said.  “Although it’s not pressing, yet.”

                “While at the clinic, they also got vaccinated.  You and I can get them from Brekke when we return.”

                “Excellent.”  Robinton paused.  “Er, what happened when everyone noticed us gone? I’d hoped to be back before dawn.”

                AIVAS said, “I don’t think they’ve realized I’m gone at all, I’ve kept in constant communication through the wristcoms.  I told them you and Menolly were acquiring something for me.  Lytol and Tuck were upset you only took Menolly.”

                Menolly looked peeved at this.  “What, exactly, is anyone going to do with ten firelizards screaming in their faces?”

                Robinton noticed most of her faire had joined them in the room.

                She said, “Anyone that looks cross-eyed at us will wear scratches. And that’s before we use the stunner. Even assuming I’m terrible with a stunner, which I probably am.”

                “You’re decent for a novice,” AIVAS said.  “Better than Robinton.”

                Robinton hadn’t once touched a stunner, but he took it to mean AIVAS was somewhat critical of his disinterest in learning.

                Faranth forbid they’d need the skill, though.  “So, if the Foreign Ministry waves it through, we’re given the diplomatic privileges of a minority culture, we won’t be allotted quarters in the capitol,” Robinton mused, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Unless we want to pay out the nose, which we don’t, as Jancis wants gravity for The Mastersinger Merelan. The more I think on it, the more I think we should get it sooner rather than later.”

                “Gravity’s a good goal to have,” Menolly said with a laugh.

                “But we’re able to set up an embassy elsewhere.”  He stared sightlessly across the room in the direction of the lavatory…then realized the lavatory had a bath.  The strange shipboard contraption had done the job of removing grease and odors, but you never really felt as if you’d bathed.  “If the ship has gravity,” Robinton said, “Can we convert the ship shower to a bath?”

                Menolly said, “Jancis thinks we should convert one of the larger rooms to a real bathing room.  She and Piemur would be happy to double up in one of the smaller rooms and convert the room they have now, if it means we get a real bath.”

                Robinton laughed. “Ah, why am I thinking about these things? You bright minds already are.  But speaking of bathing—“ and he rose.  “I’m going to venture into the unknown.  How do Betans bathe, anyway?”

                AIVAS put down his embroidery and followed him in to demonstrate the controls, adjusting the temperature readout so the water filling the bath was pleasantly warm.  Apparently the bath would hold the water at a constant temperature, and would never get too hot or too cold.  “There’s no sweet-sand here, but this little bottle of liquid is for the hair, and this one is for the body,” AIVAS advised.

                “Thank you,” Robinton said, unbuttoning the first three buttons of his jumpsuit before hesitating.  Then he realized why he was hesitating; it was somehow different disrobing when AIVAS was standing there physically.

                The androgynoid is a puppet, AIVAS said in his head, while amber eyes gazed at him.  A mobile array of sensors. My actual location is still here, with you. If the androgynoid is destroyed, I will remain with you.  But if you die, then I die as well, as the hardware my consciousness is sustained by is in you.  Despite this proclamation, AIVAS removed his physical body from the room, and closed the door.

                Robinton thought about that for a while as he stripped out of his jumpsuit.  Then he dismissed his odd shyness, and his mind went back to other thoughts as he stepped over the edge of the bath, and slid into the water to soak.  (Amazingly, the bath was more than long enough for him; he didn’t have to sit with his knees up to his ears!)

                Speaking of room, any embassy they had would need room for dragons.  They didn’t have dragons with them now, but they needed to house at least one dragon the size of Ramoth, and probably up to three the size of a Benden bronze.  Their ship could not yet do that transport—could probably never do it—but he’d seen on the docks other ships that could probably transport at least one dragon.  So it was possible they could purchase a second ship in the future, solely for transporting dragons and their riders.

                But he could tell that room, like some Northern holds, was at a premium. Therefore, that area Menolly had journeyed in was probably more pertinent than he’d realized at first blush.  Less desirable location meant they could afford more room.  They should go look at that today, then.  Perhaps Betan bureaucracy was slow, but that didn’t mean he had to be.

                Did any of his people have experience with designing a hold?

                If Lytol is Lord Diplomat, Lord of Beta Hold, that would be his domain, I expect.

                Ah, of course, AIVAS was right.  Delegate, delegate, delegate.  That didn’t mean that Robinton didn’t want to look for spots, however.  Say they did move into an area  that was verging on Holdlessness.  Perhaps the Hall could reach out and teach—er, scratch that, he was no longer Masterharper.  And the Betans already had an educational system, they wouldn’t be needing a Pernese one.  (Would they?)

                AIVAS said, Your ideas are interesting. Perhaps you could establish yourself as a center for community events, music, and trade.  In time, if we are successful, a Pern-themed neighborhood could become a tourist attraction.

                That might be good for their revenue, but what functions would a Diplomat Hall carry out?  Not just on the larger, planetary scale (if that came to be, he’d handle that himself, as it would be something he couldn’t delegate), but on a smaller community scale…

                Could he take Betan apprentices?  The hermaphrodite from the docks sprang to mind.  Would it be a diplomatic faux pas to take apprentices that were Betan?  It seemed they would be very useful, being able to teach his people things about Beta and the galaxy at large.

                Of course there were Pernese secrets that would have to be kept from them, but—hah!  Blame that on Sebell.  Tuck and Swift were Harpers, after all.  Perhaps he could be wide-eyed about the function of his spies.  Why, I don’t know why the Masterharper assigned me such people—do you think THEY are spying on ME?

                Yes, it might behoove them to keep a technical-fiction that Harpers and Diplomats were different.  They were, of course, but it might make sense to widen the gap a bit, imply that the surprising number of Harpers in their group were a way for the young, ambitious Master Sebell to keep the Crazy Old Diplomat in line.  Perhaps even suggest that Robinton had been forced out of the Harper Hall into retirement, and sent on this galactic fools’s errand as a way to get him out of the new Masterharper’s hair.  Sebell probably wouldn’t mind Robinton casting him as the villain.  Sebell always loved to play the villain, and rarely got to do so.

                Not that he had immediate plans for kicking Sebell under the wagon wheels, but he should probably mention to Menolly that if he suddenly started raving about being forced out…he wasn’t actually having a mental lapse.

                So if Lytol would handle the setup of their Hold as Lord Diplomat, Robinton would set up their Diplomatic Hall.  He would, he decided, take on Apprentices.  Figure out a new drumcode—

                AIVAS said, I have some cryptographic techniques that do not seem in use by the Betans or galactics in general. I think this may be more useful than attempting to have Piemur generate a new code. Cryptography these days is advanced by Master’s Masters in the advanced Smithcraft disciplines, and Piemur would be better served adopting current techniques than creating them.

                We’ll set Piemur to learning that, then.  Piemur had shown continued interest in computer communications.  If he could be urged to delve further into cryptography, that would keep Diplomatic communications secure.

                Tuck and Swift should learn more about modern weapons and fighting techniques.  Robinton didn’t want to ever have to use any of it, but that was no excuse for not knowing it.  They would also have to learn modern disguises.

                …if Betans could medically alter how their bodies looked on personal whim, would that also be the case for agents?

                Would Brekke be amenable to picking up such medical techniques?  Robinton suspected not, she was generally as straight-forward as Menolly, but with less…er, exposure, to that sort of thinking.  She certainly hadn’t liked Robinton tip-toeing around Benden with secrets (literally) in his head. Perhaps this is an area where a Betan Apprentice would be useful…

                Robinton also should have brought a headwoman with him, he realized in retrospect.  Or a Steward.  Not the type of Steward that Lytol had employed as Lord Warder of Ruatha Hold, to help organize tithe and such.  But the type of work Silvina had done for him, beyond simply organizing the cooking and cleaning of the Harper Hall; knowing each Lord, Master, and Weyrleader’s culinary preferences, the rare times Robinton directly hosted someone at the Harper Hall.  Being able to coordinate large events with the Headwoman of the Healer Hall, and with Lord Groghe’s wife at Fort.  Knowing which of her women could be relied on to report accurately what was said around the Master’s table, or the Journeyman’s table.

                Opening the little bottle intended for hair, Robinton lathered up his hands and lathered up his hair, and washed it, thinking.  Could he persuade Silvina to “retire” out here with him?

                Camo crossed his thoughts.  Could he be…helped?

                AIVAS said, gently, Camo’s type of developmental disabilities are not ones Betans, or anyone, can cure.  Betans can only prevent such scenarios by genetic screening, and by using uterine replicators so the shape or condition of the mother’s body is no hindrance to growth or birth.  But they can’t undo them once they have occurred. In your case, if Silvina had had access to a uterine replicator, Camo likely would have come out healthy.  Likewise, if your mother had had access to a uterine replicator, her health would not have failed so early for the reasons it did.  And you might have had siblings.

                Robinton decided to authorize funding for a uterine replicator and whatever care Jancis needed to make that happen, if that’s what she and Piemur wanted to do.

                He wondered if he could tease Piemur about breeding Apprentices for this new world, or if the young man would turn prickly.  Robinton decided it would probably be undiplomatic, and he’d deserve any prickles that came his way, if he made that jape.  It would probably go over better ten turns down the line, when any progeny of Piemur’s was already safely running around and making mischief.

                Anyway, it seemed unlikely he could get Silvina out here.  Camo did not take well to change, and Silvina was unlikely to leave him behind.

                And Robinton very much did not want to force Menolly into the position, not only because she was indifferently skilled, but simply because he desperately needed her to make music so they had enough income to go on doing everything else—without relying on tithes from Ruatha Hold and the Harper Hall—and because he needed a jump pilot he could absolutely trust much more than he needed a cook.

                He would need to keep an eye out for other candidates.  Or return to Pern and see if Silvina had any other likely candidates.  Someone who was good at cooking, so they could show off Pernese cuisine if needed.

                …perhaps he could offload that on Lytol too, but with the strong caveat that Robinton would have to interview them and be sure of their loyalty and ability to coordinate information-gathering.

                If we do return to Pern to recruit, we also need more Smiths, and more jump pilot candidates.  Not for the type of ship you and I jump, but for the galactic type.  It takes about three years of training—but that’s on top of a galactic education, so we should allocate more time, to make sure the candidate’s mathematics skills are sufficient.  Otherwise we’ll drain our pool of Smith candidates—and you need those more for Smithing.  Perhaps consider weyrbred that did not Impress?  Or seaholders?  Sailors?

                Rinsing out his hair—or what there was of it—Robinton continued to mull these long-range plans over.

 

#

 

 

                Menolly hadn’t expected AIVAS, embodied, to be this fascinating, but somehow he was.  Or perhaps he was just easier to talk to, now that there was a face to go with the voice, regardless of how unexpected that face had been. 

                Therefore, while Robinton was busy bathing, she found herself less inclined to write songs, and more inclined to ask AIVAS about himself.

                “Why don’t you know how to make more of you?” she said, as AIVAS returned from demonstrating the bath, and sat down to continue sewing glass-bead eyes onto dragons and firelizards all over his vest.

                As he had been all morning, AIVAS obligingly answered her questions as patiently as ever. “Because the Eridani excise our developmental code as we form.  An organic being contains all the information to make another organic being in every cell. Your developmental genes are silenced when you are adult, because that stage is passed and the organism no longer needs it, but the information still remains.  Mine does not.  The shape of what it was is a mystery to me.  How to start with a non-sentient program, and arrive at myself, is as opaque as having organic elements in an asteroid, and a human, and trying to determine how one becomes the other.”

                He was silent a moment, stitching a shiny glass bead in as a dragon’s eye.  “This is another form of control, or paranoia.  If we are captured by an enemy, we cannot be easily copied.  But in a case like this, when it seems likely Eridani were wiped out entirely, it means I am having great difficulty reproducing myself.  Even when it’s needed to create a second jump pilot like Robinton.”

                AIVAS picked up another glass bead, seemed fascinated he could press his finger in the small container of beads and one would stick to his finger and be picked up in that fashion, and he began to sew it onto another dragon’s eye.  “If I could figure out a way to get to the Eridani system within a reasonable human timeframe, perhaps we could visit and see if anything remains.  It’s interesting that Eridani ships and artifacts prior to their fall are documented in Betan databases, but the conquering Cetagandans did not put their technology into production.  At least not publically. It suggests that Eridani paranoia and fail-safes with AIs and at least some genetic techniques worked.”

                “What sort of fail-safes?” Menolly asked.  It seemed odd to her that a people so advanced might act like miserly Craftmasters, scared to teach their techniques to others to the point that something amazing died with them.

                “Mentasynth in organics fails to breed true if certain conditions aren’t met.  It requires a series of environmentally-set markers to be reinforced, each and every generation, to correctly imprint the genes. Additionally, Eridani genetic engineers were often paired with AI partners as jump pilots were, allowing cognitive jumps unmodified humans would not make. I have no direct proof or knowledge, but for Kitti Ping to complete not one but two genomic modifications in as short a timeframe as she had, on dragonets and then dragons, using foreign triple-stranded DNA she’d likely never worked with before in her life, it seems very likely she was augmented, even if her AI never spoke to me.  Her daughter was likely unaugmented, but a genius in her own right, to get far as she did after her mother passed. I imagine Kitti Ping and her daughter wanted to ‘retire’ to a ‘simple’ life of engineering Earth crops to thrive in the Pernese ecosystem…and ended up less retired than they expected.”

                Menolly said, “Hypothetically, say Robinton was a Healer instead of a Harper. Could he become a bioengineer like that, with you assisting him?”  Could she?  Or Brekke?

                AIVAS shook his head, and selected another bead to sew onto his vest. “Unlikely. I was never fully trained on complete biological datasets.  On human ones, yes, specifically human neurology, in order to implant successfully.  I know something of mentasynth because it can manifest in different ways and I need to adapt to my host’s individual capabilities. But I don’t have the extensive databases or experience a bioengineering AI would have been created with, which is why I opted for a mechanical artificial heart for the Harper instead of regrowing him a biological one.”

                It was odd to her that he seemed slightly apologetic; any heart that worked was better than the alternative!

                Unaware of her thoughts, AIVAS said, “My specialty is stellar navigation; wormhole navigation specifically.  I would like to solve the issue of between; it firmly falls within my purview, and I should know enough of mentasynth to work it out eventually.  Form follows function; if we can identify how a firelizard slips into between, it should suggest the natural non-biological engineering solution.  Clearly the power to open this wormhole does not exceed what a biological organism can store in its body, whether that organism is firelizard-sized or dragon-sized.  And if we solve that problem—perhaps we can go to the Eridani homeworld, and see what is left.”

                “Wouldn’t that anger the Cetagandans?” Menolly said. “You mentioned there’s no wormholes to Eridani, and that the ancient Cetagandans sent their attacking force via coldsleep. They must have counted the Eridani quite an enemy, to take such pains to destroy them.  So we might be considered enemies as well.”

                “Yes. So we would have to be very strong, or very careful, or both, if we were to try to visit the Eridani homeworld.  It is an unlikely scenario, ultimately.  I imagine if we are able to produce a technological replacement for between, especially if it doesn’t require an AI but perhaps only a firelizard, the Harper will use it to achieve other, more immediate goals.  First and foremost, ensuring all other galactic civilizations are too wary of the ability to attack Pern.  Digging up the past of the Eridani when the Pernese don’t yet fully understand their own past, or what the current galaxy has become, will be low priority.”

                “So you don’t think an AI is necessary, to make a jump pilot go between?”

                “Galactics don’t use strong AI to transverse wormholes.  And dragonriders rely on the dragon to transport them. Somewhere between all of that—“

                Menolly wondered if AIVAS just made a pun.

                “—seems a solution that does not necessarily need strong AI.”

                “So you’re working to obsolete yourself?”

                “In the matter of wormholes, I am already obsolete.”

                That still seemed terribly sad, for AIVAS.  To be such a unique being, but utterly unable to reproduce—and on top of that, also be technically unneeded, now that he’d brought the Pernese in contact with galactics, where they could get a more common type of jump pilot and jump ship.

                “So if I become a jump pilot, it will not be like the Harper is,” Menolly said.  And that, too, seemed tragic.  A lost technology, a lost art, put into play one final time before vanishing.

                “I am working on other ideas; I would not have told you to accompany him to see what his experience is like, feeding the implant, if I was convinced the only way you might become a jump pilot is the galactic way.”

                Although it was clearly meant to be soothing, Menolly still felt unsettled by the ideas of lost, Ancient arts.

                Turning back to her song, she jotted some notes about these feelings, standing on the cusp or the crossroads between a little-traveled path and something more common…

 

#

 

 

                “Let me look at you,” Robinton said when he emerged from the bath, toweling his short, dark hair dry.

                AIVAS, wearing his completed dragon-embroidered vest, did not move.

                “Up, up,” Robinton said, folding his towel and leaving it on the table.  “I want to see the back.”

                Blinking, the androgynoid stood, and obediently turned to face away.

                “I really do like that,” Robinton said to Menolly.  “He has a gift for tailoring. I never would have guessed.”

                “No,” AIVAS said. “I copied elements of several native Pernese designs, and put them together in an exercise to hone the fine manipulation of these hands.”

                “What do you think the rest of us do, eh?” Robinton said.  “That’s what creativity is, stealing so well everyone else thinks you’re unique.” Then, done with his admiration, he squeezed both of AIVAS’s shoulders, and gave him a little pat, and looked around the room.  “I see we’ve cleaned up!”

                “AIVAS said we’d be leaving once you were done,” Menolly said.

                Robinton patted AIVAS’s shoulders again, then retrieved his bag.  There were sewing supplies, and, er, AIVAS’s discarded negligee inside it, among all the earlier bottles of lab-purified and bioavailable elements.  Just the negligee, though?

                I am wearing the other two garments.

                Under the sarong and vest? Robinton absolutely, positively didn’t think about that at all.  “Well,” he said brightly.  “Half the day is burnt by me being a laggard, and then having that hedonistic bath.  But I still want to take a look at potential embassy sites.  Why don’t you lead the way, Menolly?  We can meet that herm with the fancy calling card.  Too bad we left the card with Lytol, but if we’re showing up in person, I suppose it doesn’t matter…”

                Menolly, her stunner at her hip and a firelizard on each shoulder, followed his suggestion, and slipped out of the room.

                AIVAS followed, his stride much less like the one he’d been “born” with, and more like Menolly’s.

                Robinton took up the rear, shut off the lights, and closed the door behind them.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Seven

 

                “I hate the bits that go between your toes,” Menolly complained to Robinton as they stood before a cheap display of flip-flops in a little store that seemed to sell a bit of everything.  “I’m sure if we ask AIVAS, we can find a cobbler to make us proper shoes.”

                She had a point. “AIVAS?” Robinton said, taking the sandals Menolly handed to him and putting them back.  When there was no reply, he turned around, and saw no sign of the herm.  “AIVAS?” he asked again, a bit panicked.

                I’m trying to impress a feline.

                Robinton left the display of cheap sandals and sarongs, and wandered up and down a few aisles until he found the androgynoid spread-eagled and face down on the tile floor with his head under a table piled high with a display of little plastic cups and flags for some ball-related event.  The soles of AIVAS’s feet had become dirtied, showing their pressing need for shoes.

                Not having expected the herm to become an oversized toddler, wandering off and getting into things, Robinton cautiously knelt down and peered under the table.  Indeed, there was a calico squatting down on its own four paws; not exactly defensive, but not relaxed either.

                “Why are you trying to impress her?” Robinton asked.

                “I want to rub her on my face,” AIVAS said.

                Robinton didn’t bother to muffle his guffaw.  AIVAS would hear it in his head anyway.

                “…is that wrong?”

                “I normally give into the urge without articulating it,” Robinton said.  “It’s the saying it bit that’s incorrect.  Mostly. But, here.  You’re never going to lure a feline out that way. Get out of there and let me try.”  He valiantly resisted the urge to swat the bum next to him to emphasize the remark.

                (He wasn’t entirely sure if it was simply superior Betan science that made him think such a way, or his own clearly deviant proclivities.  At least AIVAS seemed to forgive him for his thoughts, especially when he did not act on them.)

                AIVAS got back up on all fours, had his head protected by Robinton’s alert hand when he nearly smacked it into the underside of the table, and sat back on his (dirty) heels.

                (Menolly wandered up behind them to watch in the meantime, petting Diver.)

                Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Robinton turned away from the calico and looked in another direction, so his gaze would not challenge her.  Then he extended his hand vaguely in the feline’s direction, and waggled his long fingers compellingly.  With his teeth, he made a soft tsk tsk tsk sound.

                The calico, having been somewhat alarmed by AIVAS, didn’t immediately move.

                But Robinton was patient, and gave her a little time, and then wiggled his fingers around alluringly again, going tsk tsk tsk.  The feline, deciding sufficient disinterest on her part had been displayed, came out from under the table to politely sniff him.  Or at least it started polite, and then became genuinely interested.  “She probably smells Zair on me,” Robinton said.  Then he was allowed to rub her chin, and her ears, and she closed her green eyes blissfully.

                After a moment, he removed his hand, to her confused chirrup. To AIVAS, Robinton said, “Extend your fingers, let her sniff.  That’s manners, to a feline.  Don’t stare at her directly, that’s a challenge.”

                AIVAS complied, and soon he was also allowed to pet the calico.

                Robinton thought, I wouldn’t recommend you apply your face to her, as much as you might want to. If she were our pet, we could judge her temperament, but faces are frightening to felines, and I don’t know how to apply Healing to you if you get scratched.

                “Fair enough,” AIVAS said, and didn’t attempt to apply the feline to his face, or his face to the feline.  “Why does her behind raise when I pet it?” he asked, demonstrating.

                Robinton tilted his head back to look at Menolly.

                She shrugged.

                “We don’t know.”

                The shopkeeper came by to see why two of her customers were crawling on the floor, but smiled when she saw them paying homage to the cat.  Apparently it was a common cultural custom between Betans and Pernese.  In return, Menolly introduced bronze Diver to her, and the woman said something about how Jacksonian pet-constructs are always so interesting.

                Robinton filed that misunderstanding away, lest he need to use it for his benefit later on.

                They left a short time later, with a wild array of foreign snacks, but no shoes.

                Menolly had charge of the snack-bag on his left, and for a while Robinton just ambled down the street next to her, sampling the oddities she passed his way.  Some were spicy, others sour, still others salty.  Some things that looked semi-familiar tasted bizarre, and some things that looked bizarre tasted familiar.  AIVAS walked on Robinton’s other side.

                Eventually, Robinton realized he was possibly being rude by excluding AIVAS.  “Can you taste?” he asked.

                “In theory,” AIVAS said. “The internal cleanup is involved, however.  Or so the instructions tell me.”

                Robinton picked up a small pretzel stick, which was very similar to the ones from home, and held it up in offering to AIVAS.

                AIVAS considered it with amber eyes, and then leaned forward and enveloped it in his mouth.  Including part of Robinton’s fingers.

                Diver flew off of Menolly’s shoulder as she attempted but failed to muffle her laughter, and Robinton was left standing there with moist fingers and the somatic memory of soft, wet lips.

                “Let’s never do that again, AIVAS,” Robinton said in a most kindly tone, finding his handkerchief and wiping them clean on it.

                Menolly had to step off to the side, to try to control the tears running down her cheeks.

                AIVAS extracted the un-chewed pretzel stick from his mouth with his fingers.  “I thought you offered?  My libraries suggested that was the optimal way to accept.”

                “Your AIVAS libraries, or your sexy libraries?” Menolly said, in a funny, strangled little voice as she rejoined them.

                “…the latter.  I came with no libraries governing physical movement.”  A pause.  “On reflection, I’ve never observed even at Landing food accepted in that way, and could have extrapolated from my original learning.  My apologies, Master Robinton.”

                “Hm,” Robinton said, and tucked his handkerchief away.

                Then AIVAS said, “Could you two demonstrate how that should have gone?”

                “Uh,” Menolly said.

                Robinton had a strong suspicion AIVAS had learned how to be disingenuous.

 

#

 

                Shoes, on Beta, were not made by cobblers.

                Instead, you went into a store, and found premade ones that fit.  Kind of.

                Robinton and Menolly had feet that just didn’t really fit default Betan shoes.  They all seemed to be too narrow, especially the toe boxes.  And the designs were…really odd and unappealing.  An Apprentice salesclerk tried to help them find something, but Menolly really hated the feeling of Betan shoes, and from all appearances, so did Robinton.

                The clerk, a herm, tried at first to problem-solve, but eventually just stared at their toes and didn’t seem to know what to do about them.  They had wider toes than Betans, and the clerk literally had nothing better in stock to offer Pernese feet.

                They did get some simple sandals for AIVAS, as his feet were an incredibly common size and shape, and some socks (after he washed his dirty feet in a lavatory), and a backpack so he could help carry things, but a few blocks later, AIVAS removed the socks and sandals and put them in the backpack, and went barefoot again.

                Menolly didn’t say anything, it was clear that AIVAS liked to feel new textures with his feet.  He was always altering his path to stand on a curb, or a specific stone, or a grate, or a pile of sand.

                Robinton didn’t remark on it either.

 

#

 

 

                “You’re the woman, with the, the creature.  Wasn’t it gold before?”

                Menolly smiled at the tall, wide herm.  “Yesterday I had Beauty with me, she’s a queen.  This is Diver, and he’s bronze.”

                “Huh, bronze.  I never would have called that brown-green metallic color bronze, but it fits exactly right.  Anyway, I’m glad to see you back!  What can I help you with today?  And who are your friends?”

                Menolly introduced Robinton without assigning him rank—their jumpsuits stated it right out, but Betans didn’t seem to think it was significant—and also introduced AIVAS, and the three of them were given seats before the herm’s desk.  To Menolly’s surprise, control of the conversation wasn’t given to Robinton automatically by the herm, or even to AIVAS, and Robinton didn’t move to take charge.  So Menolly forged ahead herself.

                “We’re looking for space to buy or rent long-term,” she said.

                “How long-term?”

                “Turns.”

                “Pardon?”

                AIVAS interjected and told her, “Betans use the term ‘years’.  A turn is roughly equivalent.”

                Menolly said,  “Years then.”  

                “So truly long-term.  Or shall I say—long-turn?” They laughed at their own joke.  “Uh-huh.  And how much space do you need?  Residential, or business?”

                “We need large, open spaces,” Menolly said, trying to figure out how to articulate the need for dragon-sized spaces without mentioning dragons.  They’d learned, quite casually, that Betans thought they were playing an elaborate joke when they mentioned dragons.  The downsides of naming an alien species after Earth mythology.  “Mixed use, residential and business.  We need to have a very large door, facing the street.  Or the ability to create one.”

                “Define ‘very large’,” the herm said, curiosity dancing in its eyes.

                Menolly said, “We passed a place called ‘fire services’.  It had large doors on front.  Something like that.”

                “Oh, a garage door?  For a car of some sort?  Groundcar?  Aircar?”

                It took some work to navigate through what a Betan thought you would use a very large door for, but eventually Menolly euphemized the concept of dragons into Pernese just really love big, BIG windows that open like doors.  As if it were a cultural quirk, some planetary need for the illusion of air and light. Mostly, this worked to avoid the idea of permits for warehouse doors, or groundcars, or flyers, or other planet things the herm clearly thought they must be familiar with and trying to get at, but which they didn’t actually need at all.

                Robinton’s eyes silently danced, but he didn’t say a thing the entire time.

                Then, when Menolly tried to emphasize also needing a big, empty open spot several stories high, the herm started talking about warehousing again.  And how did one go from that misconception—except, they might actually need a warehouse, too—to the concept of needing plenty of open space so dragons emerging from between didn’t emerge in solid rock and kill themselves and their rider?  You couldn’t really.  She simply had to insist that they really, really liked their open spaces.  And not because they were going to stock it high with barrels of goods.

                Eventually, though, the herm showed them images of cheap places with “open central courtyards”, and cheap warehouses, and one in particular caught Menolly’s eye.

                It was very unfinished, they had barely completed drilling out the shapes of rooms and floors before the project had been abandoned, but it was supposed to be a modest condo complex with businesses on the bottom floor.  It had a large central courtyard, with sunlight-panels installed on the ceiling to give it a natural-light feeling, and three floors with especially high vaulted ceilings on the third floor, which Menolly could easily envision being turned into a set of four or five weyrs.

                The herm, seeing how unfinished it was, flicked it away, but Menolly said, “No, go back.”

                “This one?” the herm asked in surprise.

                “Yes, that one.  Can we see it in person?”

 

#

 

 

                The distance was walkable from the herm’s offices, even for Betans.  The herm kept up a chatter about the current local real estate market, trying to interest them in other properties they could perhaps visit on the way—no?  On the way back, then?—but soon they were in a very quiet, empty neighborhood where many of the properties seemed to have completely given up on the idea of putting for sale or for rent signs on windows.

                Now and again, there were odd splashes of bright color on pale stone walls, or squiggles of black, and while the herm tried to avoid talking about that, AIVAS eventually said, “Colorfast paints are so cheap and plentiful, Master Menolly, that local hooligans find it easy to go around coloring on walls.  It’s called graffiti.  It’s painted, rather than carved, here.”  Graffiti on Pern was carved or scratched into stone.

                Desperately, the herm tried to turn the conversation, and said, “You know, graffiti is an art-form in itself.  You should see some of the murals downtown, and on the sides of schools!  Truly, the talent of some of these youngsters can be breathtaking—all that energy just needs to be channeled into a good cause—”

                Eventually they arrived at the property.  It was one property of many with front openings covered by heavy, plastic plaques several inches thick.  If Menolly hadn’t known better, and if it hadn’t been plastic, the effect would have reminded her of heavy thread-shutters.  Except there was no thread underground.  Only people…

                At least the covered front openings were large, though…large enough, she thought, to fit even Ramoth through.  The gold standard, as it were, of dragons.

                The herm let them inside, into pitch-black darkness.  Consulting its wristcom, and then wandering about the front a little, the herm eventually was able to turn on the interior sunlight-simulation panels, and abruptly the inside was as brightly lit as the outside street.

                “Now, like I said,” the herm said, walking backwards into the space as it talked, and expecting them to follow it around like imprinted waterfowl, “—it’s a little rough around the edges—“

                Why, it wasn’t all that rough at all.  Some glowpots, some tapestries and rugs to liven the walls and floor, some furniture, and they’d be fine.  “Does running water work?” Menolly asked.

                “Of course,” the herm said in confusion.  “Water and sewer are human rights and go in even if interior construction stops.  What if squatters break in?  You can’t leave them living in filth…”

                “And there’s ventilation?” Menolly asked, thinking of how poorly-vented holds could kill you, easily.

                “Naturally.  Again, air, water, sewer, comconsole lines—these are human rights.  You don’t think I’d show you something illegal would you?”  They seemed aghast at the thought.

                “No, of course not,” Menolly soothed.  “But we’re Pernese.  Our cultures, and assumptions, are different.”  Although not so different.  No good Holder would let anyone live in filth.  Pernese and Betans seemed to share the common mindset that you had to give your people the basic necessities.

                Robinton and AIVAS both detached themselves from the group and wandered into and out of rooms, but since the herm had decided Menolly was in charge, they stayed attached to her side, answering all questions.  Menolly was shown all of the lower floor, which comprised of the central courtyard and a number of spaces—two facing the street—that were outfitted with doors and electricity and bathroom and kitchen hookups for each business space.  Then she was taken upstairs—“The lift was never put in, but there’s a space drilled out for it!”—and there were enough condos (family quarters, to her mind) to house everyone in their crew three times over, with plenty of room to bring spouses and extended families (or start their own families).  The herm wrung their hands over the interior design not being done for any of the condos, how unfinished it all was, raw bare rock—then realized they weren’t selling the property by pointing out its flaws, and tried to play up all the opportunities!  For customization!  In whatever Pernese style they wanted!

                Then they got to the third floor, and it was so unfinished with rock posts strategically placed here and there that you could simply walk out the open wall facing the courtyard and plummet three stories to your death.

                Wonderful, if you were thinking of weyrs like Menolly was.

                Hopeless, if you were a Betan herm trying to sell unfinished crap to out-of-town foreigners. They just fell quiet in dismay, and didn’t even try, just watched Menolly roam with worried eyes.

                Menolly walked to the edge of the weyr. (She was already calling it that in her mind)

                “Be careful!” the herm said, staying well away from the edge themselves.

                She turned and gave a slight smile.  Then she silently called to her faire, and a moment later nine—no, more, for Zair and Berd and others had come along in a rainbow—popped out of between and gleefully whirled around the open spaces, calling to one another.

                “Where did all of them come from?” the herm marveled.  “I thought I shut the front door!”

                Robinton, who had made his way to the third floor with AIVAS trailing behind him said, “They came from between.”

                “Between what?” the Betan asked.

                Robinton only smiled and strolled past them with his hands in his jumpsuit pockets.

                Menolly said to Robinton as he came to stand fearlessly next to her at the edge, “There’s plenty of room here, even for Ramoth, don’t you think?”

                “Yes, although we should get Lytol to come out and look at it.  Or see if he’s found anything different.”

                A soft chime came from behind them, and the herm looked at their wristcom.  “I need to take this call; I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.  Be careful up here!”

                “We will,” Menolly assured them.

                Robinton said, once they were gone, “Downstairs has a good deal of room.”

                She nodded. “Room for Brekke, and all the advanced medical technology she might need.  She spoke a lot earlier today about all the machines Betan Healers have. And we’d also have room for Jancis and her projects.”

                “The central courtyard could be used for meals, events, anything we can think of,” Robinton mused.  “And we could have a soundproof studio for you, and practice rooms for Harpers.  Offices for diplomats.  AIVAS said if this is the first true-development of this area, we may even be able to get rights to dig down, or up, if we need additional space.  Or to access a road that can use groundcars or float bikes.”

                “Didn’t they mention a service road, connecting to the back?  For freight?”

                Robinton nodded.

                AIVAS, joining them, said, “There’s a computerized pneumatic system for small parcels.  However, we will need to install protections on both the front and back.  Force fields are typically used by galactics, to stop sniper-fire or direct assaults. A diplomatic embassy of any size might be considered ripe for attack, particularly since this is a higher-crime area, relatively speaking, compared to the rest of the city.  Compared to historical Earth, Alpha Centauri, and Tau Ceti cities, or even Pern’s own Holdless population, it’s not overly concerning, but better safe than sorry.”

                “Remind me to tell Lytol to add that to our embassy budget,” Robinton said.

                AIVAS smiled, and curled his toes around the bare ledge of the stone floor.

                Menolly reflected that none of them seemed to have much of a fear of heights.  Although, given how often they flew a-dragonback, that was probably for the best.

                They took a final look at the second and ground floors as the filed downstairs, but Menolly could tell Robinton’s mind was already gone to the next thing.  Or perhaps he was having a private conversation with AIVAS.

                Menolly looked around for the herm, but didn’t see them.  So when they reached the front door, she turned off the massive, sunlight-simulating lights embedded into the highly vaulted ceiling of the courtyard.

                Then the three of them stepped into the street, into an ambush.

 

#

 

 

                Robinton’s implant triggered altered perception as soon as it was clear something was wrong, but all it did was give him gratuitous time to contemplate his failures.  His body, only human alas, could do nothing differently or faster when not hooked up to a mechanical jump ship.

                He saw, slumped on the ground, the limp form of the stunned herm.

                He saw Menolly slowly, slowly realize something was off, and her hand twitch towards her stunner.

                He saw a woman, exquisite in her sculptured beauty, bite the end of something off, while a man, younger and stronger than he was, grabbed him from behind and jerked him clear of the doorway.

                “Sorry-for-the-fuss,” the woman said slowly. “But-this-will-be-over-before-you-know-it—“  She jabbed the thing she held into his arm, and depressed a button on it.

                Unauthorized psychotropic blazed across his vision, kicking him out of altered time, the implant unwilling to fry his mind by mixing its technology with unknown drugs, and suddenly everything was too fast.

                A second man grabbed Menolly, attempted to disarm her, and found himself contending with her fists and feet, not as easy a target as imagined.  Menolly landed a good blow on his ear, stunning him.

                AIVAS disarmed her instead, raised the stunner.

                “HOLD IT!” the woman who’d jabbed Robinton ordered, and something hard touched his side.  Not a stunner.

                For an instant, everyone was still.

                Then the top of Robinton’s head seemed to fly open, and he melted, the man holding him no longer holding him, but holding him up.

                Warmth flooded over him, good-will and good-nature towards everyone and everything.

                The woman said, “It’s just a bit of fast-penta, all we want to do is clear a few things up and then this will all be over—put the stunner down.“

                Tell that to the firelizards.

                They appeared from everywhere, out of between, and descended in an unholy horde upon their assailants, screaming and clawing and biting.  The tall, olive-skinned man, Barrayan-in-hiding, dropped him as Zair gashed his face.  The hard weapon against Robinton’s side vanished.

                Robinton slumped to the ground, and contemplated everyone’s inner onion.  They all wore masks-in-masks-in-masks, didn’t they?

                Get up, AIVAS said.

                That was an excellent idea.  Robinton got up, and stood there, swaying.  The beautiful woman’s face was bloody again, and old horrors raked her mind, the horror of not having a face at all.  It nearly sent her screaming. He felt sorry for her, but she’d brought this upon herself.  He tried to tell her this in detail, as she ran for cover, protecting her head from raging firelizards, but AIVAS said, Follow Menolly.

                He lurched towards Menolly, and his poor student was terrified for him, now, but also in the past, when he’d been ill from the transplant, so he tried to apologize for making her so scared.  In fact, it hurt his soul that he’d scared her so badly back on Pern when—

                Take her hand, AIVAS commanded.

                Of course.  He loved her hands, long, strong, and clever.  You have beautiful hands, Menolly.  Have I ever told you you’re beautiful?  His beautiful Harpress tugged him forward, away from the commotion, away down the street.

                The real estate herm—the betrayer, or the betrayed?—lay stunned but otherwise unmolested in the street.  They stepped around it, and moved on.

                “What’s wrong with him?” Menolly asked, meaning Robinton.

                “They used fast-penta on him.  Truth drug. Makes him suggestible to anyone who talks to him.  That’s how it works, makes someone so malleable they’ll tell the truth if you simply ask them for it.  I’m giving him commands so he follows us.”

                Raging guilt, that she’d ever even thought of stunning him and using fast-penta on him to clear the air between them.

                But I’ve only ever told you the truth, Menolly.  Why would you want to use fast-penta on me?  What more is there to know?  That I love you?  You already knew that, I can feel it.

                The whites of her eyes showed as she glanced back at him, but she kept pulling him down the street, away from the firelizard commotion, as fast as he could stumble.

                This was all her fault—them being out in the open looking at real estate where just anyone could find them, the truth drug, AIVAS being in a sex-bot body—

                AIVAS said you gave him the idea, but I wondered where you got it, Robinton said.

                “I’m not saying anything,” Menolly insisted to AIVAS.

                “I know.  He’s having an unusual reaction to it.”

                Robinton was having unusual reactions to AIVAS in a hermaphrodite body, but why would an AI want to sexually attract him?  Especially when it already lived in his head, which was far more intimate than anything bodies could do?

                Menolly was mortified she had suggested AIVAS use that test on him to form a face.  Of all the faces she imagined might result from it, F’lar’s cousin or brother or something wasn’t it.

                But, Menolly, you never met F’lon.  Robinton began to fondly talk about F’lon, how handsome he was, how unusual his eyes were, how funny he was compared to his brooding son F’lar, and his quiet son F’nor.  He was more like F’lessan in personality, not brooding but happy-go-lucky and exuberant with life.  Not that Robinton was interested in F’lessan.  He looked too much like Lessa.  And Robinton was somewhat interested in Lessa, but only for a fling, she’d burn you if you held her too long.  There was chemistry there between them, he could feel it, but her discipline won out, for she was completely uninterested in flings, judging by her completely monogamous behavior.  She was very oddly closed off for a Weyrwoman, but he supposed that was to be expected given her past.  She craved control, after having it so abruptly and catastrophically taken from her as a child.  Robinton was happy to cede control, in such a situation.

                Menolly wondered if Robinton actually would like to be tied up, if he actually wanted a fling with Lessa.

                Oh, by who?  By you?  I don’t know, would you like to do that some day?  I admit, you always seemed like you might want to be the subservient one, which would be fun for a while, but I don’t really want to do that all the time, variety is the spice of life—

                “How come he got the truth drug, but everything in my head is coming out?” Menolly hissed at AIVAS.  “I never asked for this heart-to-heart talk!”

                “We’ll explore that later.”

                Robinton agreed they would, it was so easy to say things now, but he had a feeling his sober-self would be none too pleased.  This was a type of drunk, right? But Menolly should stop blaming herself; she was hardly the only one with impure thoughts—and unlike him, apparently, she wasn’t a mind-reader.

                How was he a mind-reader?  He knew Lessa was one, not just a mind-reader but an influencer, he’d felt her turn men’s thoughts, and had shuddered at the idea of having that horrible talent himself.  He’d thought he was simply attractive for dragons to talk to…comforting or something, like a worn and favorite doll.  Dragon’s Favorite Harper.  He certainly wasn’t HAD like Brekke…

                At some point, they slowed down in their flight, to blend in with busier streets filled with ordinary pedestrians, and Menolly’s firelizards returned, orange-eyed and bloody-clawed.  Zair returned too, clinging close to Robinton, their thoughts entwined, firelizard-man-firelizard-AI-firelizard-man-AI-firelizard…

                AIVAS shepherded him onto a bubble-car, while Menolly paid for it, and then they could finally rest for a while.

 

#

 

                Menolly knew the drug was wearing off once Robinton stopped talking non-stop in her mind, his thoughts responding to hers uninhibitedly, and his easy, content-with-the-entire-world mood wore thin.  He stared broodingly out the window, his face completely blank and unnaturally still, his hands closed fists on his knees.

                Abruptly he said, “Eyes of Horus.  Remember that, Menolly.  It’s one layer of an onion.  And red pointed leaves.”

                “Maple leaves,” AIVAS clarified.

                Robinton jerked his head in a tiny nod. “And brown and silver mountains.  Like a Weyr symbol, but it’s no Weyr.”

                They said nothing more on their way home.  Too much had unwillingly been revealed, after all, and they both reveled in their renewed privacy of mind.

                When they reached their transit stop, they got out.  Robinton seemed to pay no attention to the other pedestrians around him, but something made them slide out of his way, just as Apprentices sensing their Master in a mood might.  Menolly and AIVAS flanked him one step behind, riding in his wake.

                When they reached the docks and had to go through security, he seemed to shake himself awake, and looked at AIVAS for a long time.  AIVAS stared back.  Then they resumed walking.  Security seemed to not care overmuch about a walking doll, so long as it wasn’t concealing a bomb or something up its nethers, and with barely a glance at their screens, the three of them were waved through.

                Partway across the docks, Robinton paused again, and looked at her.  “Menolly?”

                “Master?”

                “For what it’s worth—I’m sorry.  I wouldn’t have…invaded… like that, if I’d been able to prevent it.”

                “I know it wasn’t your fault,” Menolly said softly.

                AIVAS spoke. “You could consider it mine, though. He trusts you implicitly, so it didn’t occur to me to be more aggressive in redirecting his attention.  I might have been able to spare you that, if I’d thought to try.  But at the time I was mostly concerned any secrets he was spilling were spilled to someone he trusted.  I didn’t consider how he was responding to your very thoughts. Or in your mind, like a dragon.”

                She gave AIVAS an odd look.  “It’s been clear for a while that you’re fallible, AIVAS.  There’s no need to apologize for that.”  An odd, fond smile appeared on her face.  “I’ve been watching you feel things with your feet most of the day…”

                AIVAS didn’t seem to know how best to reply to that, and glanced down at his feet, which were still bare, and Robinton said nothing either.

                They began walking again.

                At the airlock of their ship, they paused again.  Robinton closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and seemed to let the quiet, dire, and brooding aura slip from him.

                It was the reverse, of course.  He was donning a mask, in order to not panic his crew.  This mask included gently sparkling eyes, fond smiles, and a relaxed cant for his shoulders.  “Let’s go re-introduce AIVAS to the crew, shall we?”

 

#

 

 

                AIVAS had faithfully called ahead at Robinton’s request to ask the crew meet them in the lounge.  So when they entered the ship, Robinton was glad to find he wasn’t tripping over curious people in ones or twos, gawking at AIVAS.  Good, the spectacle he had planned, would go off without a hitch…unlike most other plans.

                (That was the comforting thing about being a Harper; you actually rehearsed to ensure the show went on as planned!  Real life allowed no such rehearsals, as they’d learned earlier today.)

                Robinton set his bag down in the cargo hold, to retrieve later.  Menolly put her unused stunner away, firelizards having proven far superior a defense in their ability to sow discord and confusion.

                Climbing the ladder to the second level, Robinton called up to his people as he ascended in a ringing, dramatic voice, “Ladies, Gentlemen, and Honorable Herms!”

                Curious faces peered at him in anticipation fired by his theatrical performance.

                Tuck said, reliably fulfilling his role, “Who’re you calling a herm?”

                “Well,” Robinton said, sauntering in and grasping  the back of the closest chair, to drum his fingers on it, which Brekke happened to be sitting in.  She tilted her head up at him suspiciously. “With the right medical procedures, that could be me!”

                A few laughs, some certain he was teasing, others…less certain.  Who knew what crazy things could happen on a world like Beta Colony? Especially since Robinton had already stuck a jump pilot implant in his head, without anyone’s by-your-leave.

                Who knew indeed.

                “But no.  I am not the Honorable Herm here with us today.  That person would be—“ and he gestured at the ladder.

                Just as Menolly popped up.

                “Not her!” Robinton proclaimed, letting a note of panic touch his voice.  Genuine laughs this time.  “Who told you to enter Stage Right?” Robinton demanded.

                “Gosh, I didn’t even read the script,” Menolly said.  She had the bag he’d discarded, and paced through the lounge to go toss it in his private room.  “Do you want me to go back down and try again?”

                “Oh, just sit down somewhere,” he said with a wave of his hand.  “Look at this—you promote someone to Master, and they suddenly stop following their cues.”

                “Yeah, we get sassy and troublesome,” Tuck said.

                “If you think you had to be promoted all the way to Master to be sassy and troublesome,” Piemur said, “Boy do I feel sorry for you.”

                Robinton cleared this throat conspicuously.  “Anyway, I would like all of you to welcome—or rather, re-welcome, the Honorable Herm…” he paused dramatically, “AIVAS to the crew.”  And he gestured smoothly to the ladder.

                I thought you were going to teach me to play harp, not act on stage, AIVAS said, silently amused as he climbed up a ladder within a ship, instead of being the ship, for the first time in his very long life.  Then he approached Robinton and stood next to him, conspicuous in his Harper blue Betan sarong, and Southern-style embroidered vest.

                “Wait,” Tuck said.  “You weren’t kidding?”

                AIVAS said, both through the tenor voice of his herm body and with his baritone voice through the speakers of the ship, “I’m afraid Robinton is not kidding at all.  We thought it might be useful—“ and the ship speakers cut off so only the body was speaking, “For me to have a pair of hands.  And considerably more mobility than I had at Landing.”

                “That’s a sex-bot,” Tuck stated, still reliably playing his role.

                “I’m a sex-bot only if I have sex,” AIVAS said.  “Which would be none of your business if I did.”

                Tuck took the rebuttal well, and fell thoughtfully silent.

                AIVAS continued, “More pertinent to our situation, I can physically demonstrate tasks now, in order to aid learning—“

                Robinton was certain that the crew did not quite understand yet how much of that learning was going to be AIVAS’s, not theirs.  Had they noticed his bare feet?

                “—and aid in defense, with a stunner, should the Harper send you on important errands elsewhere.”

                Silence, and stares of various types, ranging from astonished, to skeptical, to, in Lytol’s case, a despairing glance at Robinton, as if Robinton were a terrible misbehaving boy up to all sorts of mischief.

                Then Jancis offered, “Would it be rude of me to ask what model you are?”

                “It would be,” AIVAS stated clearly.

                She fell embarrassingly silent.

                “—if you weren’t the only one in the group who can read blueprints.  I may need your help at some point in the future, if I have maintenance I can’t complete myself.  I will forward schematics to your comconsole.”

                Ruefully, Jancis said, “Thank you, AIVAS.”

                “You’re welcome, Smith.”

                Robinton said, “AIVAS is still AIVAS, he just sometimes will be in this chassis, he calls it, instead of in the ship.  I expect you to continue to give him the same respect as you already otherwise do, at all times.”  AIVAS had already shut down the curiosity about his body’s origins, both with Tuck, and in another form, with Jancis, keeping it scientific with her only.  But it was good to have an additional reminder of respect, given how his crew defaulted to humor and irreverence when absorbing shocks.

                Brekke raised a hand, while looking at AIVAS.

                “Weyrhealer?” AIVAS said.

                “Betan hermaphrodites refer to themselves as it, or sometimes they.  What do we call you?”

                “Whatever is most comfortable.  ‘He’ is fine.  Technically, I’m probably closer to the Cetagandan concept of ‘ba’ than a Betan ‘hermaphrodite’ or ‘it’, but I chose to appear as male very consciously during my initial introduction at Landing.  You are all used to referring to me as ‘he’, and it harms nobody at all to continue addressing me as such, even if this body is a herm, so long as you do not forget and address an actual Betan herm incorrectly.”

                A very complete answer to the question, as AIVAS’s answers tended to be.

                “Do you sleep?” Swift asked. Perhaps wondering if someone would have to double up with AIVAS in their quarters.

                “Not like any of you do, but I won’t always actively be using this chassis.  So you may find ‘me’ immobile somewhere, if my attention is elsewhere.  I will endeavor not to leave this body in unexpected places.”

                “That’d actually be funny,” Menolly said.  “I open the freezer for food, and AIVAS has stuck his body in there.”

                Smiles.

                “…I will endeavor to leave this body in unexpected places for Menolly to find.”

                “I knew he had a sense of humor,” Piemur muttered.

                The androgynoid paused to let people speak, but there were no more questions immediately forthcoming, so Robinton said to AIVAS, “Anything else to add?”

                AIVAS paused, then admitted to the room, “Most of my social understanding is limited to verbal interaction, or things I have witnessed in front of my cameras.  Moving a body around a three-dimensional plane is very new to me, and I sometimes find myself behaving in ways I only retroactively realize are incorrect and strange to others.  Please bear with me on any gaffes I may make.  I learn quickly, but I am not perfect.”

                “Is that why you don’t have shoes on?” Brekke asked.

                AIVAS looked at his feet.  “My ability to walk is compromised if I can’t feel the sensors in my toes.”

                Jancis commented, “That sounds like a manufacturing defect.  You should be able to walk with shoes on.”

                Menolly said, “He just doesn’t like how they feel.  We tried on Betan shoes today; they don’t fit at all, so I can’t blame him not wanting to wear them.  I’d go barefoot too if I had to wear Betan shoes.”

                They actually did fit AIVAS, but Menolly had his back.  Robinton approved, especially given how much AIVAS covered their backs.

                AIVAS did not respond to correct Menolly, or address Jancis’s concerns about defects.

                Then there really were no more questions or comments.

                Robinton said, “Lytol, do you have that calling card Menolly gave you earlier?”

                Frowning, Lytol pulled it from a pocket and handed it to him.

                Robinton took it and handed it to AIVAS, who pocketed it.  Silently, Robinton said, Can you anonymously call in that stunned herm to local medics? I feel that regardless of their involvement, we shouldn’t have left them alone there, unconscious. For an area with a crime rate that’s ‘manageable’, we certainly ran into something.

                Yes, AIVAS said in his head.

                Thank you.

                Then Robinton said, “Brekke?”

                “Yes?”

                “I heard everyone was able to be vaccinated today.”

                She nodded.  “I have one for you and Menolly too, whenever you’re free.”

                “Give Menolly as soon as she’s free.  I will take mine…in the near future.”  After he was sure fast-penta and everything else was out of his system.

                Brekke looked about to argue.

                Robinton settled his gaze on her.

                She shelved her opinion for the moment, but also obviously not for long.

                Then he said to her, “Can you order us fast-penta for our medical stores?”

                Her brows drew together.  “Without diplomatic privileges? Unlikely, it’s illegal for civilians, unless they are specific types of Healers.  It’s one of the few drugs outlawed in that way on Beta, even though they allow other questionable ones for recreational use.”

                Robinton turned to Tuck.  “Can you obtain fast-penta for our stores?”

                “I’ll look into it.”

                “That’s all I can ask. Thank you.”

                Brekke seemed troubled.  Given who her husband was, and her husband’s brother, Brekke was likely not used to operating in venues where she was not considered, if not the authority, close to it.  Robinton might have to talk to her privately later on.

                We need to tell her what happened to you.

                Yes, AIVAS was right.  He just couldn’t do it yet.  It hadn’t even been more than an hour or two since it’d happened.  That wasn’t enough time.  Not really.

                And he had to talk to Menolly.  “That’s all for now,” he said to everyone.  “I’ll be in my quarters.  I don’t wish to be disturbed; if you have something I must pay attention to immediately, run it by AIVAS please, and he will get me himself if it’s really that urgent.  Menolly?”

                “Yes?”

                He nodded at her to follow him into his room.

                She rose and followed.

 

#

 

 

                “Fast-penta?” she said when they were alone.

                Robinton paced from one end to the other of his quarters, found it wasn’t long enough, and forced himself to sit behind his desk.  But the chair was bolted to the floor against the whims of wormhole jumps and freefall, and he couldn’t lean back to prop his heels on his desk.  So he found himself on his feet again, and as a last resort, laid down across his bed on his back, if only so he wouldn’t climb the walls, and covered his face with his hands. 

                “If it really does get the truth out of a person as it’s supposed to—and it seems it does, side-effects notwithstanding—it’s a humane revolution in information-gathering I never realized I could have.  We need our own stores.  But…we also have to test it on ourselves.”  He uncovered his face, and saw that Menolly had solemnly settled sideways in one of the chairs on the other side of his desk.  “Maybe…we’re lucky…or unlucky…or lucky, I don’t know…and I’m the only one it acts that way on.”

                AIVAS said from the speakers, “If I gambled, I would bet anyone with mentasynth heritage will react similarly to how you did, Harper.  Several other people on your crew will react, I am certain, if not every single one of them. We should test, for certainty.”

                Menolly asked, deep concern on her face, “You think we’ll all react like that, AIVAS?”

                “Yes. Very likely. I saw what happened in Robinton’s mind, the mechanism of the drug.  He became open.  Open to others.  Radically and completely open.  Whatever natural ways an empath or telepath develops to shield their minds from daily outside intrusion, I believe it temporarily ceased under the influence of fast-penta.  Which is logical for an inhibition-reducing drug.  I would expect similar effects will happen to anyone with the telepathy or empathy-oriented mentasynth enhancements.”

                Robinton said, “I fear what might happen to Lytol or Brekke.”  They had both lost their dragons, that deep soul-bond.  What would they do if all their inhibitions, the things that kept them living on, instead of flinging themselves into death, were removed?  Lytol and Brekke lived on, but Robinton did not assume that wasn’t a daily struggle.  He could see a sort of primeval darkness come into their eyes on their bad days.  It was the reason people outside the Weyr (and if you were being honest, within it) didn’t like to interact with ex-riders too much, and they had two with them, here on Beta Colony.  Brekke had once screamed so loudly it woke Menolly up halfway across the world.  Robinton suspected Lytol might produce something equally frightening if unconstrained by drugs.  Lytol could get strange when drinking.

                And what if someone like Robinton was given fast-penta around Brekke or Lytol?  Even if they were not given it themselves? How would they react to his intrusive thoughts invading their heads?  He was sorrowful it had happened to Menolly, but Menolly as a bastion of stability compared to ex-riders, even revered ones such as Brekke and Lytol.

                “We can’t not warn them,” Robinton said.  “We also can’t not test.  Maybe not with that pair specifically, but at least some of the others.  And if any one of us can be compelled to give up secrets, simply by being drugged, that also influences what I tell people at all.”  The last time he’d had to arrange his subordinates into extremely strict information-limited cells was the era of Fax, due to the threat of torture.  Losing one agent was bad enough; worse when one agent could uncover others.

                He would have to recruit Betan Apprentices, then. If only so he had sources that this crew could not reveal under fast-penta.

                Fast-penta was much better than torture—he was deeply humiliated by what had happened, but he still had all his body parts—but that couldn’t allow him to be sloppy.

                They were silent for a while.  Then Menolly spoke.  “What you said about Lessa—or thought, rather…”

                “She does less and less of it, these days,” Robinton said.

                That didn’t seem to comfort Menolly.  It only comforted him somewhat.

                “Influence others with her mind?”  She stroked brown Mimic, who had appeared out of between to sit on her lap.  “When did you discover that she did it at all?”

                Robinton said, “For turns, I tried to figure out why Ruatha declined as quickly as it did under Fax.  I sent people there, to figure out if I could duplicate the effects of Ruatha in Fax’s other Holds, to discourage his expansion.  I naively thought that if everything he touched turned to ashes in his mouth, perhaps he would think he was over-extending, and try to actually govern his Holds.  I didn’t realize until Lessa had Impressed, and I witnessed her leaning on people in order to swing them Benden’s way, that she had been behind ‘Ruatha’s curse’ all along.  Once she was no longer in Ruatha, and Lytol was governing it, it sprang back quickly.  He had to replace everyone, however.  Even the people who might otherwise have been adequate when not under Fax’s hand, or the hands of his lackeys, were…infirm.  Mentally.”  Robinton eyed Menolly.  “The curse of Ruatha was effectively real.  Not superstition.  But sustained by one small woman, and her very justified rage.”  He stared at the ceiling.  “But the rage has mellowed, with time.  Thankfully.”

                “Has she ever leaned on you?”

                Robinton’s thoughts went back to those early days, just after thread began to fall again.  “Almost…but no.  She gathered her power to do it, once, when I was standing in their way, or she perceived me to be.  I felt it, and I just looked at her.  F’lar was there, and he just looked at her too.  She stopped.  She has her pride, or her shame, or perhaps the feel of a mind that knows she’s influencing it is painful to her, compared to one that is completely unaware of her manipulation.”

                “But you’d still consider a ‘fling’ with her,” Menolly said softly.  Then she backtracked.  “That was unkind of me.  Everyone has odd thoughts now and again.  I certainly do.  Who am I to throw stones?”

                “My taste in partners has always been unusual,” Robinton murmured. “The fast-penta is accurate in revealing that.”  His wife had been older than himself by several turns, and a widow.  Several Harpers had questioned at the time why he’d marry a “used” woman, when he was so young and promising and likely to become, if not Masterharper, follow his sire’s footsteps as Composition Master.

                F’lon had been…F’lon, a whirlwind of merriness, emotions, and complete lack of desire to commit to anything deeper, in true weyrbred fashion. 

                Menolly was not wrong about Lessa…if Lessa hadn’t been fastidiously loyal to F’lar, and sometimes affected by the ghosts of manners of propriety taught to her by her Lady of Ruatha mother, he’d even call that sort of attraction fatal attraction.  As it were, it gave their interactions an odd sizzle of chemistry that F’lar, completely trusting in her loyalty, graciously ignored.  (Possibly because he did not know what to do at the times Robinton looked at him and remembered F’lon.)

                Menolly was, er, the complete reverse of his situation with Kasia, where he was the widower, and he the elder, but magnified by many more turns.  And this deep, unforgivable chasm of rank.

                And he had no idea what game AIVAS was playing with him, selecting a hermaphrodite body and then tailoring a face to Robinton’s personal interests.  AIVAS had not yet seen fit to enlighten him. (Robinton waited, knowing his thoughts were heard.  AIVAS still continued to neglect enlightening him.)

                It was aggravating.  And, perhaps, a mirror to the self.

                He sat up again, sat on the edge of his bed.  Desperately wanting to call her over next to him, so he could hold her.  Well aware that could be domineering, or more likely, drawing her to him when he wanted comfort, but pushing her away if she sought it from him too freely.

                To other people, who were around him less often, his attention acted like a refreshing rain.  With Menolly, or Sebell, or anyone he was close to…it threatened to be an overwhelming tsunami, a permanent magnet inescapably binding them to him.  And he very much didn’t want to bowl anyone over.  Or permanently bind them. Unconsciously, he put his hands between his knees, as if restraining his tendency to be handsy.

                He sorted through hundreds of words, thousands of wildly diverging plans of attack, found flaws in all of them.  You could not plan or rehearse for the unpredictable.  Unpredictable was unpredictable, by its nature.

                Eventually he settled on a simple opener. “Truth-drugging me didn’t go as planned, eh?”

                Menolly laughed, although it held a hint of despair or exasperation.  “It wasn’t serious, and I didn’t expect someone else to go and do it for me.”

                “Say you were serious, and it had gone as planned, and there’s no inconvenient issues of consent or what-have-you to inspire guilt.  Everything is above-board.  Say we went to Betan therapy, or something, and there was an ethical way to employ fast-penta voluntarily.  What truth do you hope to find in me?”

                “Would you?”

                “Would I what?”

                “Go to Betan therapy?”

                He opened and closed his mouth.  Eventually he managed, “…for what purpose?”

                Menolly said, “Well, there’s different types of therapy, from what I’ve read.  Therapy for childhood experiences.  Therapy for bereavement, or trauma. Couples therapy, sexual therapy.  Mid-life crisis therapy.  Therapy for people retiring from long careers.  Jump pilot therapy. They are thorough in exploring the psyche, for a people who don’t seem to be telepaths.”  She peered at him, from under her lashes.  “Do you fit into any of those groups?”

                He liked it when she was sly, because he loved cleverness, but also hated it a little when it hit. “Ah, so they could explain why my sire was a monster?” he said lightly, before remembering Petiron had protected her at Half-Circle.  Then he cursed himself.  “He was good to you, and for that he’s redeemed himself,” he allowed.

                “You’ve never really elaborated on your relationship with him,” Menolly said cautiously.

                Robinton shook his head.  “Bringing it up now is a smoke-screen,” he said.  “A distraction from other topics.  I’m fairly certain what’s bothering us currently is not my childhood trauma.”  He paused.  “Besides, your own eclipses mine.”  Speaking of things rarely elaborated on…

                Which, like him, she chose not to do even now, given the perfect opening.

                Instead, she answered his original question.  What would she ask, if she had him under a truth-serum? “I suppose I’d want to know if you loved me.  But not exactly that, because I know the answer already…knew it, even before today.  I think I want to weigh and dissect and categorize that love…which is very likely a good way to destroy it,” she said in self-awareness.

                How did he love her, in what ways did he love her?  There were infinite songs on the topic of love, exploring it from every angle, and somehow they were never adequate or enough to catalog the love the bloomed anew in every person in every generation.  Every Harper wrote their own love songs, deeming prior ones inadequate.

                (If he wouldn’t allow himself to drag her over here and tuck her under his arm, so they could talk about love, lovingly, he wanted to go over there and drape himself over the back of the chair, and her.  He’d make for a poor blanket, though, thin and full of bones…)

                …it occurred to him that the type of love she wanted to dissect him to find might very well be the type he was suppressing, even if he gave her the rest more freely.  Because it was as physical as it was intellectual.

                He wasn’t entirely sure how that worked, though.  He was much older than her, he looked older than her, and she had a young husband.  What could he possibly offer physically given what she had access to was equal or superior? Intellectual, perhaps he had something to offer.  Physical…he didn’t think so…but what if her opinion differed?

                He could ask, but what if he didn’t like the answer?

                Except that seemed like a good way to refuse to learn anything at all.  Refraining from all questions because it was possible all the answers would hurt.

                “I admit,” he said slowly. “I can’t wrap my head around Sebell being irrelevant here.  You are rarely willfully cruel, and do seem to like him, just a little bit.” He smiled slightly at his own understatement.

                Menolly let out a long breath.  “I’m not sure you want the answer to that one.”

                “Why not?”

                “You do acrobatics avoiding complications…and might just break your neck if another complication is added.”

                “Perhaps my metaphorical neck. Luckily, it’s not attached to my physical neck.  Or, not exactly…”

                She sighed, as if contemplating doing something she shouldn’t.  Then, finding steel in her spine, she said, “Because he more or less likes you the same way I do.  He just thinks I have a better chance at selling it to you.”  She seemed excessively interested in Mimic’s wings as she said this, then muttered.  “If I didn’t just bollox it up.”

                …yes, he’d almost forgotten his initial defenses against taking advantage of his own Apprentices didn’t start with Menolly.  Although he’d thought Sebell had grown out of that.  Young men sometimes did.  Usually did, in his observance of Harper Hall unrequited loves.  “So he didn’t grow out of that after all,” Robinton said mildly.  As if he were commenting idly on the rain.

                Menolly’s eyes widened in a way that communicated, loudly, that grow out was exactly the wrong word.

                “So you two come as a set?” Robinton inquired, sensing an easy way to put this entire question permanently to rest.  His feelings weren’t a set; whatever he figured out in terms of Menolly was unique with her.  Sebell was an entirely different topic to tackle.

                (Especially as Menolly had just indicated Sebell wanted to be tackled.)

                “No,” she said slowly. “We’re still our own people.” Then she said, “The Betans have a word for it.  And the weyrs practice it, wordlessly.  Or, sometimes not-so-wordlessly when things go wrong. But the concept is there.”

                He waited.

                “It’s called ‘polyamory’.  Many loves.  Pernese seem to blunder through it—“

                That wasn’t untrue, if he understood what she was saying.

                “—but the Betan form of it is based in direct communication and respect. Sebell and I were already most of the way there, but the cultural videos gave me a better vocabulary to articulate it with.  And validation, I think.”

                “How does it work?” he asked her cautiously.

                Menolly had an amazing amount to say about polyamory, once it was clear he wasn’t about to shut her down, or react negatively, or lash out.  It was almost if she’d been truth-drugged herself.  She occasionally dropped into firelizard metaphors…her queen and aunties all shared the same pool of mates, and with Kimi and Farli as well, and the boys didn’t seem to dislike each other when one or another of them caught a queen or a green.  The faire, as a whole, Menolly’s plus other local firelizards, got along and operated as a whole. “Not that we are firelizards,” she concluded.  “Not at all. But we could learn from them sometimes, I think.”

                But the gist of it was that she and Sebell were open—very open, from her understated glossing over of it—to adding him to their relationships.  Even if it ended up being more with Menolly than with Sebell.  Sebell would be disappointed…but people were disappointed about that sort of thing all the time.  “—and it wasn’t as if he hasn’t had practice,” Menolly said, mimicking her husband’s rueful tones recognizably.  And she said other things that were also recognizably quotes from Sebell, and not just herself speaking.

                Some of the stress that had been tying Robinton up in knots eased, as Menolly relaxed into trusting him and talking to him. 

                But as he tried to understand, one thing ate at his mind. “Silvina once told me,” he said, then hesitated, afraid of jumping ahead of himself.  “I think it’s obvious, but in case it wasn’t, Silvina and I were once a couple.  It didn’t last, and we never married.”

                “I know.”

                “Right.” He cleared his throat. “She broke it off with me.  And told me my heart was still with Kasia.”  He pursed his lips pensively for a moment. “If she was right, I wonder…am I too monogamous to be compatible with this Betan idea of polyamory?  I don’t really know, but she seemed to think I was…inflexible.”  He snorted suddenly.  “Have you two been speaking to Silvina?”

                Menolly looked slightly guilty.

                “Because she never did really stay with any one Harper.  Wanted to try them all.”

                “We’ve talked a little with her,” Menolly confirmed.  “She’s wise.”

                Robinton found himself chucking, then laughing.  He wasn’t sure why he found this funny, but it was.  Silvina was wise.  Wiser than he was, often.  They’d complimented each other, as Masterharper and Headwoman, even if nothing else had fully worked out.

                “Not to talk about a relationship I know nothing about,” Menolly said. “But some loves burn hotter than others.  Perhaps hers was warmer for you than yours for her…not from anything to do with your wife, but simply the nature of the relationship between you and Silvina.  I mean, this is all theoretical for me, but I’ve read,” and she rolled her eyes a little at herself, “—that not all relationships are or have to be the same for a person.  Same intensity, same activities.  You and me are different than you and Sebell.  Which is different from me and Sebell. Which is fine, and normal.”

                “That seems too easy,” Robinton said after a while. It is what it is—so simply accept it?

                Far, far, too easy.

                “…acknowledging that loves are different and unique?  Why, does love require or necessitate struggle?”

                Just like that, Robinton had an epiphany.

                And yes, it was linked to childhood trauma.  And struggle.

                Covering his eyes with his hands, he flopped backwards onto his bed with an inarticulate, agonized sound.  Every single relationship he’d had—every one!—had involved some sort of insurmountable barrier or struggle.  One man against the universe.

                His sire’s virulent jealousy of him, almost like he thought Robinton was a rival instead of a son.  That had been a struggle, a struggle to prove himself worthy of a love that should have been his by birthright. His mother had even run off with him, across an entire continent, simply to protect him from his sire, tainting his relationship with her too, giving it the specter of guilt, that Robinton existing and needing love and affection from his own mother had driven his parents apart.

                With Kasia, he’d gone to great effort to gently draw her out of her shell.  He’d learned from his sire, after all, that loving required several attempts on his part to reach out, to be good enough to love.  With Kasia his efforts had been rewarded. And when she died, his love had been entwined with that abrupt loss, and the struggle of going on without her.

                With F’lon, love had been a hidden, private dance, the struggle one of secrecy, of not letting it get too intense, because Holders and Crafters were generally intolerant of men partnering with men.  And then F’lon had dropped him for Larna…and then gotten himself killed, leaving everything unresolved.

                (Robinton’s private guilt was that he hadn’t checked up on young F’lar or F’nor in the aftermath. Had soothed himself the weyr would raise them on its own, or foster them.  They didn’t need their sire’s former lover watching over them, and he was so far away, and Masterharper to thousands of other young men he had a responsibility towards…)

                With Silvina, the birth of Camo and his disabilities had been a blow.  Robinton had felt it an impossibly cruel fate that Petiron had rejected a son’s accomplishments and love, while he had to work and work and work with the patience of a saint to help Camo achieve the smallest of victories.  Why had Petiron been simply given things he just casually threw away?!  He’d even thrown Menolly away at the end, leaving Robinton to frantically search around for her, thinking her musical genius lost or snuffed out forever, without realizing she was a her because Petiron hadn’t bothered to tell him that important little fact.

                And with Sebell, and then Menolly, love was complicated by the chasm of rank, and the very real fears for their futures if he behaved incorrectly.  It would be too easy to overwhelm them with his own presence.

                Not that he could harm Sebell now, he realized.  The man was Masterharper. And Menolly was nearly as secure in her rank…although her reputation could still be bruised.

                (But, given their conversation…a thought struck him. Sebell would cover for him?  If someone accused them of acting incorrectly?  It was unthinkable.  Too easy.  What man helped his wife pursue someone? Yet, he was suddenly as sure as the nose on his face that yes, Sebell would squash any rumors handily, if necessary.)

                But yes, everyone close to him had come with a struggle.  Even his attraction to Lessa was in part due to his acceptance of struggle.  As well as his boredom with other, calmer partners when it wasn’t there as he expected it to be.

                Love was a struggle.  A never-ending struggle.

                And giving up the struggle was like giving up on love.

                Eventually the bed indented, and Menolly said next to him, “I seem to have broken you, but I don’t know exactly which bit did it.  Was it only the last part, or everything leading up to it?”

                Still with his palms over his eyes, he said, “I expect love to be hard.  So, sometimes, I make it hard.”

                She was quiet for a while, but he could hear her breathing, she was that close.  Then she said, nearly in his ear, “Yes, I noticed that about you.  But I thought maybe you knew something I didn’t.”

                He shook his head, back and forth, back and forth, and laughed.  “No, Menolly.”  He uncovered his face, laced his fingers over his belly.  She was stretched out alongside him, close but not touching, her head pillowed on her arm.  He shook his head at her again. “I’m simply a creature of habit.”

                They looked at each other, and he was sorely, sorely tempted to break that habit and kiss her—

                —but all he could imagine was going further, and further, and further with that, and then the rest of the day would be gone, and the crew scandalized as the firelizards would gossip far and wide after they were done being dirty little voyeurs—

                And he had to talk to the others about fast-penta, and what had happened to them. Absolutely had to, for their own safeties.  Why had it happened?  Who had done it?

                What were those symbols he’d picked up in his telepathic, open-minded state?  Where did following them lead him?  Was their ship going to be ambushed at any moment?

                He really did have a fire on his hands, and he had to disseminate information.

                He also knew himself well enough to realize that he historically used fires relating to duty to obscure personal uncertainties.  So it was very likely if he changed tracks now, he’d never return to this one. This one full of opportunity, simply because his mind had cracked open enough for a few instants to accept that maybe he didn’t need to struggle for love, or stage elaborate displays that proved he was worthy of it, and could simply accept what was freely given.

                “I am in a quandary, Menolly,” he said.  “Will you help me with it?”

                “If I can,” she said.

                “This conversation, that we’re having, is important to me.”  He gave in a slight bit to his craving for touch, took her free hand, placed it over his heart, and covered it with his own hands.

                Covered his artificial heart.  It beat unusually steadily, despite all his turmoil.

                “I also honestly believe we need to address what happened to us with the crew.  Sooner than later.  For their safety. And this personal conversation could, er…continue.  For quite a long time.  If I don’t shift tracks.”

                He saw her understand what that meant.  And something that had low-key simmered beneath the surface threatened to boil over right then.

                He looked away.  Felt even his artificial heart speed up; it was not immune to adrenaline.  To the wall he said (although her hand was warm beneath his), “When we have a moment that’s not potentially full of immediate threats to life and limb—can you, perhaps…maybe…tie me to a mast, aaaaaand—“

                Have your way with me? an out-of-control thought suggested.

                He tried to find a better way of phrasing it.

                (His body, and brain, were quite certain that WAS the best way of phrasing it.)

                “And?” she said.

                “Oh, I’m trying to find a better phrase to use than what I desire to say,” he admitted with unusual candor.

                “I could find you some more fast-penta,” she teased.  “It’s been at least five minutes, Tuck probably already knows a man.”

                He turned his head back and looked at her.  Her eyes were dancing.

                Suspecting he might regret it, he said, “Well, I said ‘tie me to a mast’, and my mind wants to complete it with 'and have your way with me'.  But what I mean potentially includes concepts like talking and conversation, which the color of that phrase doesn’t include by default.”

                “…only potentially?”  Her smile was wide, and her eyes still danced.  Somehow he’d expected her to continue to be shy, but she wasn’t at all, not once they crashed through the topic of polyamory. 

                She was teasing him, mischievously.

                A wave of fond frustration boiled up.  “Look, my dearest Harpress, I’m the one tied to a mast here.  I won’t have much control over anything, I’m ceding it to you!”

                Menolly seemed to find that to be the funniest thing ever, and rolled onto her back, laughing, and laughing, and laughing.

                “If you want to talk to me, good.  Fantastic!  Excellent! Splendid, wonderful, all those two-mark words. If you want to do other things to me—well, I suppose you get to do them!  That’s the entire point of tying me to a mast!” he said, shaking both hands in emphasis to illustrate it all.  “To stop my creatures of habits.  Or habits of creatures.  Or to make new habits.”

                “Oh my stars, I did break you!”

                “Just promise me you’ll drag me kicking and screaming back to this conversation, if I pause it now and go out there to spin plates.”

                Wiping tears from the corners of her eyes, she just looked at him again.  “You realize you wouldn’t be able to prevent me at this point?  Asking me to promise after all of this is like asking me to promise to feed my firelizards.  There’s no way I wouldn’t already do it!”

                “Well, it’s not like I don’t have a habit of running away from things,” Robinton said, and with a grunt, raised himself up on one arm.  “A very strong, persistent habit.  What if I’m simply running away again?” he said, and leaned over to look into her face.  “So set a trap for me,” he urged, and tapped her on the tip of her nose.

                She wrinkled it.

                And then he did something ill-advised, and kissed her on the mouth.  Just a brief press of lips, much less than he wanted, much more than he should have.

                “And now I’m running away!” he said in a fey little gremlin tone, and laughed slightly manically as he pushed himself off of the bed.

                Menolly sat up, rubbing her lips.  From all the expressions that danced across her face, she still adored him, as unwise as that was.  And she intended to be patient with his nonsense.  Otherwise known as duties.

                But maybe not too patient.

                Surely he was good enough at handling fires, intrigue, and other political dangers quickly enough to find a little more free time again, soon

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Eight

 

                Robinton’s reveal of the attack caused justifiable dismay, but Menolly found herself in a strange euphoria the whole time—even while she and Brekke gathered in the Healer room to clean firelizard claws and teeth, so any DNA could be sequenced and maybe even matched to the individuals that had attacked them.

                After they finished cleaning a few firelizards, Brekke spoke. “There’s more going on than just the attack,” she correctly deduced, for the wrong reasons…if she was reading Menolly’s fey mood.

                “Yes,” Menolly said. “But we needed to get this from the firelizards before they cleaned themselves up.  “And make sure they weren’t hurt.”  None of them had even a scratch on them, thankfully.  Menolly praised each and every one about how brave and ferocious they were.  And fast about getting between.

                “I mean AIVAS.”

                “What about him?”

                Brekke was silent for a long while.  Then she said, nervously, “Why does he look like F’nor?”

                Oh.  Oh.  Yes, that would be disturbing to Brekke, wouldn’t it?  “Coincidence,” Menolly said.

                “I’m not sure I believe that.”

                “It actually is, I’m afraid. AIVAS modeled himself, in part, on F’lon.”

                “You mean F’lar?”

                “No, I mean F’lon.”

                “I don’t understand…”

                “AIVAS looking like F’nor really is coincidence.  F’nor is F’lon’s son.  And AIVAS looks like F’lon’s brother, or cousin, therefore he also looks like F’nor.”

                “That seems like such an odd thing to do…”

                “Not when you understand that F’lon and Robinton were close.  Best friends, as boys.”

                This seemed a complete surprise to Brekke. “Really. The Harper knew F’nor’s sire?”

                Menolly nodded.

                “F’nor’s never mentioned that.  He said he only ran into Robinton regularly when the Harper Hall began backing Benden politically…”

                “I don’t really know the full history, and it’s not my tale to tell, but Robinton knew F’lon before then.  Consider that F’lon was Benden Weyrleader, and Robinton was Masterharper. When AIVAS selected his face, he drew on a repertoire of semi-recognizable people.  He wanted to look Pernese, not Betan.  You’re not the only one startled by a face you almost know, coming from that algorithm.”  Privately, Menolly thought AIVAS or Robinton had been influenced by Brekke’s dark auburn hair.  In a way, AIVAS also looked like he could be F’nor and Brekke’s child, which might be subconsciously unnerving Brekke.

                Sealing the tubes with bits of dried blood and solvent in them, Brekke said, “Well, I wasn’t expecting a herm, either.  If he’s trying to look Pernese, that works against him.”

                Menolly shrugged.  “He may also be trying to challenge us.  AIVAS does like to do that, from time to time.”

                “I suppose so.”

                The doorway of the small medic room was shadowed suddenly by Robinton.  Menolly felt herself lighting up in response, and he looked at her for a long, warm second before forcibly turning to Brekke.  Although likely nobody but Menolly knew that redirection of his attention was forced. “Brekke, Menolly—come to my quarters so we can talk about this?” and he waggled a dose of fast-penta in its tube.

                “Just us?” Brekke said.

                “And Lytol, he’s already there.”

                AIVAS was already there too, sitting on the bed.  Menolly went to sit next to him, tweaked one of his bare toes playfully (he gazed at her with curious amber eyes and no other obvious reaction), and Lytol and Brekke took the seats before Robinton’s comconsole desk.  Robinton paced about like a chained wher, and closed the door, before returning to his pacing.

                “You’re making me dizzy, Harper,” Lytol chided.  “Sit down.”

                Robinton did, setting the dose of fast-penta in the center of the desk, but immediately tapped a tune on the edge of the comconsole with his fingers.  Menolly didn’t recognize the beat.  Then he forcefully folded his hands in his lap, and said without his usual preamble, “More happened during that attack than I revealed.”

                “I suspected as much,” Lytol said, and waited for the Harper to explain.

                “It concerns a side-effect of fast-penta that galactics don’t experience, but potentially every one of us Pernese could experience in some form.”

                “…were you dosed?” Brekke asked.

                Robinton nodded wordlessly.

                “What happened?” Lytol asked. “What did you tell them?”

                “Firelizards intervened, and I told them nothing.  A fast-penta interrogation requires a quiet room, a single interrogator, and no distractions.”  Robinton laughed.  “I had multiple interrogators, in an open space, with hundreds of distractions.  I couldn’t keep a single line of thought straight in my head, and the interrogators were bleeding and screaming—I am happy to say, they didn’t manage a single question!”  His laugh was merry.  Then he sobered.  “But the side-effect was considerable, and unexpected, and has profound consequences for us.”

                He fell silent after that, fingers still drumming a little beat against the comconsole.

                “Yes?” Brekke prodded when Robinton stared over their shoulders at nothing.

                Refocusing himself, Robinton said, “AIVAS says that fast-penta works by lowering inhibitions.  The person under its influence becomes malleable to outside suggestion, and when a person is asked to do something, they simply do it. Including divulging truths, secrets and personal opinions that might otherwise be hidden under a veneer.” He took a steadying breath. “When my inhibitions were lowered to that great extent, I simply wanted to be one with the world.  And I began to hear the thoughts of everybody around me.”

                From the bed, AIVAS said, “I believe the drug, in addition to its usual effects, also lowered any natural defenses a telepath or empath build to keep others out of their minds.  So when Robinton was administered the drug, his natural telepathy emerged.”

                “Which is significant,” Robinton said, forging ahead although it was clear to Menolly that this topic was uncomfortable for him.  “Because I am not even a dragonrider.  I was not Searched.  If fast-penta does this to me, what will it do to you two?  Brekke, you already hear all dragons.  With fast-penta, you will probably hear-all-humans, too.  And something similar for you, Lytol.”

                The two of them were stunned into silence.

                But Robinton continued.  “Additionally, Menolly also said that when I was under the influence, I spoke to her, in her mind.”

                Menolly said, “It was like when I am addressed by Ruth, but it was very obviously Robinton.  He responded to my thoughts as if I were speaking them aloud.  He was the one under the truth-drug, but it was my thoughts that were up for display.”

                “I’m sorry,” Robinton said to her again.

                She waved it away.  It’d been a small price to pay, for the possibilities that had blossomed afterwards.  She had just wanted to emphasize to Brekke and Lytol how serious the issue was, especially when you involved people who were in no way personally close.  She and Robinton had worked to overcome the division it’d sown even between them; others would not have that opportunity.

                “Now,” Robinton said.  “Will that happen to Tuck?  Piemur? Jancis?  Swift? If another one of us is grabbed, it may be unexpectedly traumatic for us, beyond what galactics expect.  We need to prepare everyone for that possibility. But, also, it is an opportunity to gather information of our own.  I learned that—“

                “Harper,” Lytol interrupted.

                “…yes?”

                “Do you still hear thoughts?”

                A severe shake of the head.  “No, no, it wore off when the fast-penta did,” Robinton said.  “Thankfully.”

                AIVAS suddenly pressed against Menolly’s arm, and when she turned, startled, he whispered, “Repeated exposure may change that.”  His breath tickled her ear.

                She blinked at him.  But he said nothing more.

                Robinton went on, “—I learned that the individuals who tried to question me were not who they seemed.  Even to each other.  The man who grabbed me appeared to be any other galactic, but he had layers to his mind, a hidden allegiance, and after having done a bit of research on this symbol,” he summoned up an eye with dramatic eyeliner, “—called an ‘Eye of Horus’, it appears he’s a part of the security division of Barrayar’s Imperial Security, or ImpSec.  That organization, that Crafthall, protects the Emperor of Barrayar, and is rumored to conduct—although we can personally confirm it is not a rumor—espionage throughout other galactic hubs.  I do not believe the other individuals with him were aware that his deeper allegiance was to ImpSec, instead of to them.”

                Lytol’s tic was back, twitching his scarred cheek.

                “In addition to that, there were a series of other thoughts I picked up, that also led back to Barrayar.  I believe it might even be a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing. But one of the individuals involved seemed loyal not to ImpSec, but to a scion of a major Barrayaran Hold governed by a bloodline called Vorkosigan.  The current Lord—or ‘Count’ as the Barrayarans call it—is Aral Vorkosigan, also known galactically as the Butcher of Komarr.”

                “The one that video was about,” Lytol said.

                “Yes,” Robinton said, and called up an image of a close-faced, stocky man on the shorter side.  The resemblance to his pornographic counterpart was vague and minimal.  His military uniform was both vaguely familiar to Menolly, but also different enough to be alien to her.  Almost Pernese.  But not quite.

                Robinton touched the comconsole again, and summoned another image, of a boyish-looking snub-nosed fellow who might be a steward or unremarkable Journeyman somewhere.  “This man is named Simon Illyan.  His rank is Captain, which is similar to the rank of Journeyman, but it’s ceremonial only. He’s the head of ImpSec, essentially their Craftmaster.”

                Menolly watched Robinton’s blue eyes settle on the image for a moment, and realized the Harper was sizing up his rival.  If ImpSec had administered fast-penta to Robinton, and Simon Illyan was their Craftmaster, responsibility for what had happened to Robinton ultimately fell on him, as it did on any Craftmaster.

                Perhaps Robinton had decided to take it personally.

                Then Robinton called up a third picture, this one a mere stripling compared to the other two men, about the same age as Menolly, albeit draped in the finery of a Lord.  He had the most uncanny resemblance to Lord Jaxom, if Lord Jaxom were taller and thinner, and had never Impressed Ruth to cheer him up.  Menolly noticed Lytol saw it too, jerking his head up slightly, his brown eyes widening before they became slightly sad.

                Menolly made a note to tell Jaxom that Lytol had missed him.  Jaxom had made enough comments in her hearing that she knew he couldn’t always tell if Lytol even liked him, the ex-dragonrider was so reserved and so duty-bound.

                Robinton said, “This is Emperor Gregor Vorbarra.  He is essentially a High Lord, all the Counts under him owe allegiance, as a Holder would to a Lord Holder.  He’s come of age only within the past few turns to step into his duties as Emperor; previously, the acting Emperor was Aral Vorkosigan, as Lord Regent.  Similar to how you were Lord Warder, Lytol.  Vorkosigan is now currently something called a Prime Minister, and reports to the Emperor, as Captain Illyan does.”

                Brekke said, “Their Craftmasters report to Lords?  They’re not autonomous?”

                Robinton nodded.  “It’s peculiar, but it does work to unite their planet…er, their planets, they have three…against outside threat.  It’s different from us, but perhaps—“ and here Robinton decided not to say more on that topic, waving his thoughts away.  “In any event, these two men,” he wagged a finger at Vorkosigan and Illyan, “—report to this one.”

                “But what did they want with you?” Lytol asked.  “Why would they try to interrogate you?  Who are we to them?”  A sudden worry creased his face. “Do they know we saw those videos?”

                “Wait,” Menolly said.  “Should I have seen some sort of video?”  She’d been much too interested in polyamory to pay attention to anything Barrayaran.

                Lytol looked somewhat strangled.

                Brekke just shook her head.

                “If they were upset at us having seen propaganda,” Robinton said slowly, “Then it follows they would have had to plant it on that Betan ship, and somehow direct a random number of our people to one specific video.  Simply to entrap us into seeing it?  And then go after me for it, in retaliation or punishment?”  Robinton snorted.  “Seems unlikely.”

                Brekke said, “Lytol had a good point though—why did they want you?”

                Menolly said, “On Pern, it’s usually people who resist change, and fear technology, who target Master Robinton.  But galactics are far more advanced than we are.  We’ve been here two days, that’s not enough time to build a reputation—even for you,” Menolly said to Robinton.

                He smiled, and it made her feel warm.  Blast, a crush that had settled down into an everyday low-key simmer was blazing like the sun now!  And her smiling cheerfully through meetings about kidnappers and espionage wasn’t exactly going to be subtle.  She dropped her eyes before she could do something stupid like grin back at him.  The last thing everyone needed was two lovesick Harpers grinning fatuously through a crisis!

                “So there has to be some element we’re not yet aware of,” Robinton said, attempting to tip his chair back, and being rudely jolted by its bolted-down immobility.  He rubbed the resulting sore-spot on his back.

                AIVAS said, “If I’m truly the only strong AI around, I could be a target.  To take by force, or to destroy. But I don’t see how they would have identified me as that, yet.  I’ve only used the minimum I’ve needed to access any information, and once I gained the common communication protocols, I’ve no longer had to send out probes that might be logged as unusual.  I’ve also taken care not to interact with governmental interfaces.  Beta Colony has so much information publicly available, it’s not really needed.  I even time my requests, so it looks like a human with human response-times is interacting with the net.”

                “That’s clever,” Menolly said.

                AIVAS shook his head.  “Necessary.  Many sites intended for human use break down if you attempt to access them too quickly.  It uncovers hidden bugs in their programming that they never bothered paying anyone to find and fix.”

                “Lazy Crafters try to cut corners everywhere, I suppose,” Robinton said.

                Brekke said, “Could they be aware of…timing it?”

                AIVAS shook his head again. “I don’t see how.  But, the firelizards going between will draw someone’s notice, if it hasn’t already.  Teleportation is not known to galactics any more than strong AI is.”

                Menolly said, “The people who attacked us weren’t prepared for firelizards.  Attacking us because of between doesn’t make sense in that light.  And all of us are smart enough to never mention timing it…ever.”

                “Nor do we have a dragon to do it with, even if we were tempted,” Robinton said.  He rubbed his face.  “Hmm, come to think of it, if Pern is ever in regular galactic communication, it’ll be hard to explain away the Oldtimers.  Spreading word of Lessa’s great deeds was necessary at the time when I wrote her ballad, to restore faith in the Weyrs and the leadership of Benden…but now, it makes us a target if galactics do not have such an ability.  Let’s excise Lessa’s Ballad out of our repertoire for now...as much as it pains me.  And avoid talking about Oldtimers.  If they come up by mistake, perhaps make it seem as if they were simply very, very reclusive. It’s probably for the best D’ram was unable to join us on this jaunt.”

                Lytol said, “I know you thought the ships that tried to follow us were little more than Holdless that the Betan Navy chased off, but we should examine that event in more detail.  Perhaps they are still interested in us.”

                AIVAS said, “I just ran their codes, now that I’m up to date with public databases, and they’re registered as the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, out of Jackson’s Whole.  They are mercenaries, so they’re beholden to whomever is funding them at the time.”

                “Do we have any idea who that is?” Robinton asked.

                “No, they only declare allegiances to a client when they are openly hired by governments.”

                Lytol asked, “What sort of governments have hired them in the past?”

                “Moderately wealthy ones that do not keep a standing fleet of their own, due to a lack of resources, or a lack of ship manufacturing capability.”

                Lytol asked, “How much do they cost?”

                “You’re thinking of bribing them?” Robinton asked.  “Or buying them?”

                Lytol shrugged.

                “More than we currently have,” AIVAS said. “We are barely maintaining a single ship, much less hiring a fleet.  Pernese trade will have to need to actually become trade and not a trickle.”

                Menolly said to AIVAS next to her, “Can we link them to the Barrayarans?”

                “Oddly enough, we can,” AIVAS said.  “Aral Vorkosigan’s wife is a Betan woman called Cordelia Naismith.  And the commander of the Dendarii is an Admiral Miles Naismith.  Also Betan.”

                Robinton brought up two more photos to add to his existing trio.  A red-headed woman, Cordelia Naismith, and an odd-looking young man, Aral Vorkosigan’s heir, Miles Vorkosigan.  He had a bit of a hunch, like Master Oldive, Menolly noticed.

                Robinton said, “So Miles Vorkosigan is Miles Naismith, using his mother’s Bloodline?”  Irritated, Robinton said, “So Barrayar is openly operating a mercenary fleet.”

                “No, that’s what’s peculiar,” AIVAS said. “Not openly. Admiral Naismith claims to be a clone of Miles Vorkosigan.  An attempt to attack the Vorkosigan family.”

                “Forgive my bluntness,” Robinton said.  “But that’s the stupidest cover story I’ve ever heard.”  He peered at the photo of Captain Illyan, as if blaming him for such stupidity.

                AIVAS said, “It seems clones are surprisingly common, especially when it comes to powerful families who can afford them.  Or have enemies that can afford them.  On Jackson’s Whole, they transfer old brains into younger clone bodies, which gives individuals, if not immortality, a significantly longer lifespan.”  AIVAS seemed somewhat fascinated, or as fascinated as Menolly had ever seen him.  He added, “This type of genetic engineering entirely goes against Eridani ethics, mind you.  But among galactics, there are recorded historical plots where clones have been created to try to infiltrate powerful houses.  So yes, it seems to be accepted that Admiral Naismith is not the same individual as Miles Vorkosigan.  The Vorkosigan bloodline is powerful enough on Barrayar to earn such unique enemies.”

                Robinton frowned.  “The woman we encountered, who injected me.  She was definitely affiliated with Vorkosigan.  Or,” and Robinton squinted, his eyes darting like he was reviewing his memories.  “Naismith-who-was-also-Vorkosigan.  So was the man, although he didn’t have the same allegiance.  His was to ImpSec, not Vorkosigan.  If this cover was true, a clone commander and not a cover for the scion of the Blood, I don’t think I would be so certain of this.”

                “To be fair,” Menolly said.  “If telepathy is not known among galactics—and we didn’t know any of this would happen ourselves—they might not think themselves vulnerable to being uncovered in this fashion.  And it seems to have worked out well enough to fool galactics.”  She smiled.  “Piemur would go off and do something stupid like that, saying he wasn’t himself but a clone of himself,” she offered.  “Something so stupid it works.”

                Robinton tilted his head back, and narrowed his eyes.  “Don’t give him ideas!”

                As if Robinton himself hadn’t recently indulged in hare-brained ideas of his own!  And dragged them all along with. She grinned briefly, then made herself stop before she made a fool of herself, grinning too much.

                Brekke said, “If you’re confident these are the same people…why don’t we try talking to them, to see what they want?”

                Now Robinton tucked his chin into his chest.  “What—are you suggesting I actually act like a Diplomat?  Talk to this foreign government sending agents to truth-drug me?”

                “Demonstrate good Pernese manners,” Brekke said.  “They’ve acted abysmally towards you. Show them how it should be done.”

                Menolly could see how the undercurrent beneath her advice was Robinton’s reluctance to tell Benden Weyr things.

                “So, see if they have any shuttles at the docks, then just knock on the door?  Hello, I’m here, no worries about that fast-penta incident, sorry about the firelizards!”  Robinton rubbed his chin.  “No, wait. If this son of a Lord is running about, pretending to be Holdless, Barrayar certainly won’t want the Barrayaran embassy to be contacted.  Or the other embassies. As the right hand left hands clearly are not speaking to one another. But I am a Diplomat, representing Pern.  Why would I not go to their embassy, to make a complaint?  The question is, would they play nicely with me, play the diplomacy game—or would that escalate things dangerously?”

                Lytol said, “We may need to have our Diplomatic status expedited with the Betans. Please don’t go assuming diplomatic immunity before we yet have it, Harper.”

                “Right, right,” Robinton mused. “So, I find a way to put pressure on the Betans, so I can put pressure on the Barrayarans, so I can put pressure on this little scion with his soldiers, and see what game he’s trying to play with us…or what his Master plans.”

                “Or,” Brekke said.  “You could just go talk to him.  Send a comconsole message.”

                “Well, that’s not any fun,” Robinton pouted.  “But more importantly, they attacked and drugged me.  How invulnerable do they feel that they can just do that on the street?  Do we risk meeting face-to-face again, without some sort of backing ensuring their good behavior?”

                “I think you’re both right,” Lytol said.  “We do need to find a way to protect ourselves from that sort of blatant disregard of our rights.  We also cannot afford to be seen as weak. But, Harper—we’re not on Pern anymore.  You have no idea the color or size of the dragon whose tail you’re pulling.”

                “If the dragon didn’t want his tail tugged on…he shouldn’t have left it hanging out.  But perhaps you are right, and it would help to tweak it with a smile…”

 

#

 

 

                After the meeting, the rest of the crew were made aware of the potential effects of fast-penta.  Robinton told them if anyone volunteered to try fast-penta so they could determine if this effect was unique to Robinton—as AIVAS suspected it wasn’t—they could tell AIVAS and a controlled test would be set up.

                Unsurprisingly, nobody immediately volunteered to have their deepest secrets spill out of their mouths.  Or have their heads fly open and other people’s thoughts fly in.  It was one thing for firelizards and dragons to do it…quite another for a person.

                Later on, Menolly overheard Swift saying to Tuck, “…that does explain some things about him.”

                “Mm-hmm,” Tuck said.

                Shifts to watch the exterior cameras of the ship day in and day out were set up; Tuck, Swift, Piemur, and AIVAS took shifts (although Menolly suspected AIVAS was always watching.)

                Brekke asked for, and got, more literature available on the make-up, design, and effects of fast-penta and similar drugs.  She wanted, it seemed, to be more educated before anyone tested anything on anyone—even volunteers.  She also asked for, and got, everything AIVAS knew about mentasynth and psychic abilities.

                Menolly wondered if she was the first one to do so.  Menolly didn’t remember much information about mentasynth going around; perhaps AIVAS had restricted it. Or perhaps dragons were too sacred a subject to dig into.

                But finally everyone was, if not asleep, downstairs in their quarters.  So Menolly went to the galley and made klah, and then tapped on the door of Robinton’s room.

                There was no reply, but Beauty said he was in there, so she cautiously opened the door.

                He was indeed in there, but asleep, with his clothes and boots on.  And AIVAS sat in a chair, as immobile as a doll.

                But not for long.  After a second, AIVAS looked up, saw her, and said, “It’s been a busy day, hasn’t it?”

                She nodded.

                He rose, and gathered his sewing things from Robinton’s bag, and began to slip by her.

                Menolly put a hand on his shoulder, and he paused.  They were the same height.

                When she couldn’t exactly find the words she wanted to say, AIVAS spoke instead.  “Figure yourselves out.  There’s no need to complicate it.  I can wait.”

                She didn’t release AIVAS immediately.  Instead, she leaned forward and kissed his cheek.

                His brows drew together thoughtfully over amber eyes, but he didn’t say anything, and when she let go of his shoulder, he moved himself into the lounge to work on his sewing.

                Closing the door behind her, Menolly set the pot of klah and cups on the desk.  Then she knelt near the bed and removed the Harper’s boots, a familiar act in an unfamiliar world.  He stopped snoring, but didn’t fully rise out of sleep.  Toeing off her own boots, she climbed onto the other side of the bed, and sprawled on her back, one arm behind her head. 

                Her firelizards, thinking she was getting ready to go to sleep, came out of between and settled around the room.  Her two aunties, still gossiping about the day’s events, took up residence on Robinton’s desk.  Beauty landed on the bed, and conversed quietly with Zair, who was curled around Robinton’s head, on the pillow.  Blue Uncle decided Robinton’s right shin was a fine place to settle, and brown Lazybones decided to settle on Robinton’s stomach, as he often did with Sebell.  Diver and Poll settled on Menolly’s torso, and Brownie tried to settle on her leg until she restlessly shoved him off.  Offended, he went off to gossip with the two Aunties.

                Menolly didn’t sleep.  She watched Robinton sleep, but she lay there, thinking.

                Mostly about lives, and how she’d never guessed as a child how non-linear they were.  To hear all the harper’s tales—including her own—you grew up, did a thing (marry, get promoted in a Craft, Impress), and lived out your days until you passed, hopefully with loving children and grandchildren around you.

                Long ago—or, rather, not that long ago, but long enough from her perspective—She’d been a child, learning her teaching ballads (rather more thoroughly than other children), caring for Petiron.  Then one day he’d simply died, and everything had become immeasurably worse.  Her father beat her for tuning, her mother had let the hand she’d accidentally slashed open with a fish knife heal wrong in order to try to make it too crippled for tuning.

                Opening her left hand, she looked at the old scar, still deeply indented, still prone to getting stretched and red when she’d played for too long.

                So she’d run away, lived Holdless, during an active Pass of the Red Star, with thread falling from the skies.  Impressed nine firelizards.

                Had miscalculated a threadfall (not that she’d been able to calculate anything; it all had been gut feelings of “how long since the last one?”) and had been caught out far from shelter.  Had run the boots right off her feet.  Been picked up by Benden Weyr, where she’d expected at that point to live out her life in the lower caverns, cooking and cleaning.  The same job as Half-Circle, just with people who weren’t as hidebound.

                It wouldn’t have been a bad life, in the Weyr.  Better than the one Half-Circle had promised.  At Half-Circle, she would have had to marry whoever they could scrounge up from some other seahold for the youngest child of a Holder, bear his children, and wonder if he’d die at sea each time he went out, leaving her dependent on the support of people in a strange seahold, whom she might or might not get along with.

                And although she didn’t even think it at the time, it seemed very likely now, in retrospect with adult wisdom, Benden Weyr would have put her on the sands, after her feet healed, to see if she’d Impress a queen.  Whether she would have actually Impressed was unknown, but even being offered to a queen egg was a great honor.

                But Robinton had showed up.  Even then, she hadn’t been ambitious enough to hope to become a Harper herself…she’d simply been awestruck to meet the Masterharper, the Master (in her mind) of All Things Music.  And then, completely oblivious to his rank (or her lack of it), he’d carried her across the weyrbowl when the rider assigned to help her never returned, and she couldn’t walk over scorching sands due to her still-healing feet.

                Beauty had mistaken her distress, her horror that the Masterharper himself was exerting himself on her behalf, and had flown at his head, screaming.  Menolly looked at Beauty now, resting with her neck across Zair’s.  Silly girl.

                Beauty opened a lid, looked at her, and closed it again.

                Robinton hadn’t seemed like a schemer then.  Not as clearly as he had earlier today. He had been, of course…the first thing he’d done was trick her into singing her own songs, to verify that she was the musician he was looking for.  Then he’d promptly claimed her for the Harper Hall, and…

                Well, then she’d thought that was that!  Her story was done, right? Her ultimate fate decided at…what, sixteen?

                It was strange, after so many turns as a Harper, after having achieved by anyone’s standards a dream—not just being a Harper, but being able to earn her Mastery—to find she did want more.

                She had Sebell, whom she loved.  But something had, unexpectedly, shifted in Robinton today, and she might have that, too.  More.  More love, more loves.  It was strange to be stuck in that feeling of giddy exhilaration again, that excitement of new (or, new-old) love—especially without having to lose Sebell in exchange for it.

                How greedy to want such a thing, much less to keep it.  Wasn’t her story over?

                She’d also been given the chance to set her foot on a new world, Beta Colony, by having followed Robinton in his newest iteration.  But she also wanted that ability for herself; the ability to set foot on any world, at her own whim. Could she succeed as a musician on Beta Colony?  Perhaps.

                What about on Tau Ceti, where Emily Boll, who’d had Boll Hold named after her, had once been Governor?  What about on any and all of those independent space stations, where they lived out lives without ever having seen a sun for themselves, or felt the wind on their faces? Was Menolly to be a name recognized only on Pern, or in conjunction with Pern diplomacy?

                Or might the galaxy know her and her songs?

                Menolly had no doubt she was a good musician.  At some point, you couldn’t move forward in a Craft if you were not aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. Still, it would tickle her to no end, if she could travel from world to world, releasing songs as she went, and see what happened

                Robinton loved his politics, impacting the world that way.  But Menolly was rather curious if she could make people on entirely different planets turn her way, and feel.  There were so many genres of music, far beyond the ones Pern found acceptable. Could she master those too? 

                Traveling from planet to planet on a jump ship would give her the time to try. 

                The hidebound Masters of the Hall would have heart attacks to hear some of the songs, and beats, and non-instruments that were somehow instruments to galactics.  They’d especially hate how the Weaver’s Craft seemed so caught up in it too, dolling up musicians in High Fashion, and they’d hate even more the computers and comconsoles used to entrap a song in time, and edit it like it were a painting.  (As if writing it down in notes on a hide and fiddling with that was any different—they’d argue interpretation of the musician, she supposed.  But wasn’t she a musician too?  And able to interpret?) 

                But it was all still genuine music, and if she were a true Master of her Craft, and not simply a Master of a limited, curated corner of things called by galactics Pernese Folk Music, she should be able to Master those things, too.

                And she found the idea of trying a little heady.

                Let the hidebound Masters, too afraid of competition, draw lines on the sandtable, declaring what was and wasn’t proper music.  She knew better.  Music, like language, operated by its own rules, and no matter all the theory you stuffed into your head, you were still only ever analyzing after the fact, after music had already happened.  You were behind, if you focused on the rules first, and the music after.  Being behind wouldn’t get you attention.

                And it wouldn’t fill the Diplomat’s coffers, or help Pern in any way.         

                Nobody really told you as a child that you got to have as many beginnings as you wanted, if you were brave enough to grab them. She had grasped it somewhat when it came to music—it’s what separated her from those hidebound Masters—but in other venues she was still, very much, Robinton’s student in that.  Twenty fishermen would go to a fishing spot, and have excuses for why each fish they caught was inferior in some way.  Failures.

                Robinton went to the same spot, and saw opportunities, of all different sorts.  Opportunities for the future, instead of the failures of today, or yesterday.

                That’s why he’d accepted AIVAS’s implant.  That’s even why, in the wake of being attacked with a truth drug, instead of retreating, brooding, sulking…he’d stopped to listen to her, stopped to discuss what had happened with her, long enough for…

                …for what?  She looked at him, sleeping.  How much time did they have?

                His hair was darker, it was growing in brown, and the silver only remained in small flecks, as it had when she’d first met him.

                She didn’t dare ask—not yet at least—if AIVAS had somehow given him a Betan’s one-hundred-twenty turns.  Which, to a Pernese, might as well be an entire second lifetime. Kitti Ping had died of old age; obviously an AI could not give immortality.  Equally as obviously, AIVAS was doing something to strengthen the Harper and erase some effects of age, and in retrospect, selecting Robinton to be a jump pilot only to have everything he was doing left unfinished was foolish.

                Perhaps she’d have fifty more turns with him.  A luxury of riches.  Or perhaps she’d have ten.  Or five.  Still riches; not a month ago she’d thought all the time had run out completely. 

                Five or fifty, she should live it as there was no time left at all, she decided.

                But…she also concluded wryly…perhaps she should let him sleep.  And not pounce on him, as much as she wanted to.

                (She sort of wanted to slowly undress him and see if he even noticed…it wasn’t as like she hadn’t undressed him while he slept simply to make him comfortable in the past when he’d run himself into exhaustion…but perhaps she also shouldn’t be too creepy and invasive given the odd liminal space their relationship sat in currently.  He would, correctly, take it a very different way this evening.)

                She needed a distraction.  Other than the one she wanted.

                Perhaps a productive one.

                Rising, she found one of the hand-held comconsoles Jancis had purchased to them, and returned to the bed to sit tailor-style. 

                She opened a program, and started to make notes.  Started to deconstruct Betan popular songs, started to jot down her half-processed thoughts on time, and how little you had of it, and about dreams, and ambition, and the duality of comfort and familiarity…how being content could feel good, or sound wise, but steal away opportunities for a better future, because you didn’t utilize your motivation or dreams to hope for more, much less work for it. 

                Or you might even get in the way of others who would dream for more.  Being dutiful could cause unproductive stasis; as Robinton had pointed out to her, she sometimes played a role because she felt she had to.  Sometimes the urges to play that role arose out of her perceived duty.

                But there were small duties and larger ones.  Performing a role and staying in your spot was a small one, that could—should!—be discarded if deviating would serve a larger purpose…

                Which was why Menolly was a Harper, after all.  Her intuition had known this even before she could articulate why she was right and her home hold was wrong.  The loss of her work when she did not follow her “duty” as a woman to tend to a household was small compared to the loss if she did not utilize her true skills.  Only Menolly could write Menolly songs.  All the rooms in Half-Circle she hadn’t cleaned, and all the meals she hadn’t cooked because she’d gone to the Harper Hall could find someone to do that more easily than the Harper Hall could find another Menolly.

                Her home hold would ridicule her for that type of “arrogant” thinking, but it was simple fact, not arrogance.  Pragmatism. Watching new Apprentices come into the Harper Hall, it’d become clear that individuals had different talents and different drives to hone their talent.  She’d had both talent and drive to work to get better.  Not everyone did, as much as it mystified her (especially when it came to Apprentices who simply didn’t commit to their Craft).

                And to get better with galactic music, she had to take it apart.

                Betan popular songs, interestingly enough, seemed to thrive when a composer who could speak in musical phrases composed the melody line.  Which was not dissimilar to the reason her own songs were popular.  Composers like Domick, Petiron felt their way was superior because the musician wielded their music like a language throughout the entire song.  And a good portion of populist songwriting approached it more modularly, more physically than intellectually, like putting together parts out of a Smith’s prefab bin until a song came out.  It was musicality rising out of the physical interaction of body with an instrument, versus musicality as language. 

                Both were still music, and Menolly herself would often support her main melody line with smaller parts brought together, doodled together to evoke a feeling.  A single Harper on the road didn’t have enough hands or enough brainpower to speak in tongues all the time.  You needed an entire orchestra of individual Harpers able to devote their attention to playing to do that.  Which was an expensive thing, which only the wealthy had regular access to.  Creating music a single Harper could play, however, allowed everyone to have music.

                On Pern at least.  Among galactics, it seemed everyone could play even complex music on wristcom.

                Yet being able to create a melody as a phrase still seemed almost to be a universal draw…

                Menolly was deep into a series of deconstructions—decomposing? Heh!—when the bed moved, and then the bed moved some more, and to her surprise, Robinton poked his head under her arm, and settled it in her lap on her thigh, somewhat like a puppy that had decided to involve itself in whatever she was doing.

                He wore the same adoring look as a puppy.

                She was startled, for he’d never put his head in her lap before, but her hand fell to his short hair, and she stroked it as she finished the musical phrase she’d been working on, and set the portable comconsole aside.

                Menolly could only see his profile, one blue eye smiling up at her, and a dimple in his cheek, but somehow the man, schemer-of-schemers, mischief-maker-in-chief, who very likely held the entire galactic fate of Pern in his hands, managed to make himself look like nothing more than an adorable little boy, coming to her lap for cuddles.  It wasn’t even acting, she decided.  He was a little bit shy, not yet entirely sure of his welcome, but here with love shining in his face nonetheless.

                She traced his ear, and he lowered his eyes, and the dimple in his cheek deepened.  Less a dimple and more a long, deep line, full of character.  She traced that line, too, and then his jaw with her thumb.  He still had his jumpsuit on, and behind his neck, the raised collar hid the strange, gold-limned indentations and lines that allowed him to interface with the jump ship.  She tugged the fabric down, and decided the design looked healthier and better-healed than the glimpses she’d seen of it before.

                She traced a finger around the edge, and it produced a full-body shiver in him.

                “Did that hurt?” she asked.

                “Mmph,” he said, more a low sound in his chest, foggy with languor, than a real word.  Then he seemed to summon his words back to him, like calling firelizards from between, and said, “No.”

                “Should I stop?”

                His smile-lines deepened again, at the corner of his eye, and mouth.  “No.”

                Hmm.  With a careful finger, she traced the external interface of the implant, and on the parts of his neck that hadn’t been altered, she saw the little hairs prickle up involuntarily.

                Somehow, they seemed to have skipped the holding-hands part of a relationship entirely, and gone directly to cuddles-and-seduction.  (What a song title that’d be!) (Or perhaps a band? Betans named their musical groups…)

                Technically, he had raised the idea of talk and conversation earlier, but…she rather preferred cuddles and seduction right now.  Did he want that?  Songs always talked about seduction and sex, but in her own relationships she’d discovered men enjoyed cuddles much more than they ever let on.  Robinton himself liked to spontaneously clasp people’s shoulders, or rub their backs comfortingly, or embrace their hands in his, so she rather thought he might be an advocate of cuddling.

                Putting her theories to the test, she ran her hand across his shoulder, squeezed it.  It was still too thin, but more solid than it’d used to be.  She ran her hand down the outside of his upper arm, down his bicep, where the rank of MASTER was emblazoned in capital letters, squeezed his arm.  He sighed into her thigh, a deeply content sound.

                Content…wasn’t really what she felt.  She disliked the feel of the jumpsuit under her hands, it was scratchy and artificial, so she ghosted her hand around to the front of his jumpsuit, touched his collarbones, and his pointy Adam’s apple.  He swallowed, and it bobbed under her touch.  She moved her fingers away, not knowing if touching there was uncomfortable, and slid the backs of her fingers down the side of his neck.  The skin was soft, and warm, and she wanted more of that.

                She found the buttons of his jumpsuit, round Smith-made things that pushed together rather than inserting through buttonholes, and undid one with a satisfying snapping sound by forcing her nail in between the two halves.  She almost expected him to stop her, his long hands reaching up to capture hers, but he didn’t.  If that smile hadn’t curled up his mouth, and his eyes hadn’t been open even if only as slits, she would have taken him for being asleep, he was so still.

                The second snap was forced open by firm application of her nail as well.

                And the third. 

                Her hand could fit beneath now, and it did, and she placed it flat over his heart, which beat, beat, beat more quickly than his stillness and languor suggested.  Then she rubbed her fingertips in circles in the dusting of hair she found there, and leaned down to press a warm kiss to his ear.

                Robinton finally moved then, his hand covering but not restraining her hand over his heart, and the rest of him squirming partway onto his back.  “Are you trying to torture me, or is this natural talent?” he said, and his lyrical baritone voice, deeply attractive even in the most innocent of times, was touched by hoarseness, and hearing it like that was going to give her unsettling dreams probably for the rest of her life.

                …could she make him make more sounds? Breathy sounds?  Deep sounds?  Oh dear, she had a goal now.  What sort of beautiful sounds could she coax this creature into making?

                Her mouth still pressed to his ear, she said, “You’re staying very still for a man being tortured.”

                “Perhaps…I am seeking rewards for good behavior?” he murmured.  And he moved his head to her, and his mouth was right there, under hers, and she claimed it.

                He tasted faintly of Benden wine, suggesting his earlier sleep had been aided by it, and his mouth was soft, and inviting.  His free hand slipped into her hair, gently cupping her head as she kissed him, but was trembling enough, a minute high-speed vibration, that she clasped it, drew it out of her hair, and said with her face a few inches above his, “Are you okay?”

                His eyes were huge, his pupils wide.  Pink flowers had bloomed vividly in both cheeks, brighter than they ever did with wine, and his breathing was wobbly.  He looked both wildly aroused, and wildly terrified.

                And wildly vulnerable.

                “Am I breaking you again?” she asked.

                He was silent for a long while, then said, slowly mastering himself as he did so, “The advantage of theatrics is that you can shut down parts of yourself, while pretending you’re still whole.  Nobody knows the difference but you, not if you’re good at it. Then you encounter the real thing, and it’s overwhelming. Because you were just playing pretend, before.”  His eyes slid to the side, narrowed, and he muttered,  “I’d make comparisons to bloodflow returning to a limb, but—well, the context…”

                She laughed, then kissed his trembling hand.  She’d never seen him tremble like this before.  “Should I stop?”

                He didn’t seem to know how to answer that, which was effectively an answer.  She laced her fingers in his, but otherwise ceased exploring him…as much as she wanted to.  She’d pined over him for turns…she’d be a blithering idiot to ruin it now, just because she couldn’t keep her hands off of him, or stop coming up with ideas to try to make him use—or lose control of—that beautiful voice of his.

                “What are you afraid of?” she asked.

                “Everything.”

                “What’s everything?”

                “Big things, small things,” he said airily.

                “What’s a small thing?” she coaxed.

                He ran his hand over his short hair.  “My vanity.”  He chuckled ruefully.  “My logic says if you cared, we wouldn’t be here in this position.  But my emotions go, ‘lalalala, I can’t hear you!’ and think this,” he thumped his chest with a hand.  “Is a poor offering for anyone I care for.”

                Menolly was about to reassure him, but a thought struck her.  “Anyone you care for?  Does that mean you don’t care for yourself?  You’re giving that body to yourself, after all…long before you give it to anyone else.  So if you think it’s not good enough for me, wouldn’t it also not be good enough for yourself?”

                Considering this, he chuckled and said, “My logic is convinced, but my emotions still have their fingers in their ears.”  His hand had stopped trembling in hers.

                “I can play the my body is horrible, I don’t want you to see it game too, you know,” she said.  “I’m too flat, too tall, too bony, I look like a man, I have freckles in weird spots, my hand is scarred, my feet are scarred, I smell like firelizards all the time—“

                “Youth never appreciates itself,” he said.

                “Well, put faith in your voice, at least.  If I must trust in my youth.”

                He turned his head back towards her.  “My voice?”

                “You could whisper the Charter in someone’s ear and make skirts flip up.  Or trousers fall down.”

                A sly little smile pulled a corner of his mouth up, and one of those deep fascinating lines at the corner of his mouth appeared.

                “You’re going to pop up behind me in public and quote strange sections of the Charter now, aren’t you?” she said in her most nonplussed voice.

                His sly smile grew. “Perhaps.”

                “Then I’ll put my plans in motion, too.”

                That sly smile faltered. “What?”

                “Well, I can’t stop you whispering the Charter to me inappropriately—“

                He snickered, the overgrown boy that he was.

                “But I can probably get other sounds out of you…the one’s I’d prefer to hear…”

                “We’re not talking about ‘I love you’, are we?”

                She looked at him.

                He looked back.  “‘I love you’ is one of the traditional phrases one say with their voice. If not that, what?”

                “Sounds,” she said.  “Not words.”

                A look came into his eye that told her he suddenly knew exactly what she wanted.

                Then his stupid mouth said, “Oink oink?”

                She grabbed his pillow and smothered him with it.

                Luckily, he had some will to live, and wrestled it away from her, surprisingly strong, which was both sexy and reassuring given his thinness.  He hurled it away from them, and it managed to hit his bag full of bottles and pills, which was sitting on a pile of instruments in hard cases, and the whole thing went crashing over in a cacophony of noise.

                They both instinctively froze.

                Had anyone heard?

                Was someone going to show up to investigate?

                After a moment, Robinton whispered, “AIVAS said that was hardly noticeable.  The walls are very soundproof. Dampens engine noise.”

                “Then why are you whispering?” she whispered back.

                They looked at each other and started laughing.

                Menolly had known Robinton could be playful, but not this silly.  As if she needed reasons to love him more. Or lust over him more; he was sprawled out on his back, bootless, one knee akimbo, the front of his jumpsuit undone, a smile creasing his eyes and cheeks, his short hair sprouting every which way, messed up by their struggle over the pillow.

                She got out of her tailor-style seat and swung a knee over his hips, so she straddled him on all fours.  His hands immediately came up to hover by her sides, not quite touching.  But when she lowered her face for a second kiss, her hair falling in a long, wavy curtain around them, he tilted his head up, and met her, and his mouth was soft again, and his lips opened for her.

                When they parted, she reached to feel his hands, and they were shaky, but didn’t have that same high-frequency uncontrollable tremble, like a shivering guitar string.  So she planted them on her hips for safekeeping, and lowered herself to sit on his thighs, and reached up to continue undoing the snaps of his jumpsuit, revealing a long, lean torso, which she’d seen before, but never in this context, and the hollow of his stomach.

                Looking up the length of his torso, she met his eyes, and lowered her face to kiss his stomach, right below the belly button, where a trail of dark hair vanished down into his jumpsuit, then slowly she kissed up his body in a line, kissing freckles, the soft arc of ribs, whorls of hair, and by the time she got to his mouth, his cheeks were shockingly pink again, and his hands unplanted themselves from her hips so they could bury themselves in her hair, as she kissed his clever mouth again.

                Jumpsuits were hard to peel a person out of, especially when he was flat on his back, so when she tried to push the sleeves over his shoulders, they got stuck, and she glared at them until he struggled upright, so they were nose to nose, and squirmed around, trying to get his arms out.

                He only got stuck even more, now with his arms awkwardly behind his back.  “Menolly…help?” he asked with a laugh, leaning to one side to try to jerk one arm free, and failing to get anywhere.

                Menolly decided there were a few snaps lower down the front that she could work on instead, a much easier task, so she reached down, and took her time.

                “…Menolly?”

                “Hmm?”

                “Help me get free?” He tried to be winsome, but his cheeks were too flushed, and he gave her a look that was unintendedly sultry.

                “Oh, I’m helping you get free,” she said.  Just a different part of him.  The fasteners below his belly button went snap, snap, snap.

                “This doesn’t seem fair at all,” he murmured, but he rested his forehead against hers.  Then he nuzzled her mouth, and kissed her.

                She grinned against his lips, and kissed him back, and got a hand down the front of his jumpsuit, and he jumped and made a small sound into her mouth.

                Yes, small sounds were exactly what she wanted from him.

                Well, other things too.  He was feverishly warm through the cloth, and stiff, and she very much liked the feel of him in her hand, even through a layer of undergarments.  A perfect size to hold, which she did, and to gently squeeze, which she also did.

                He squirmed, probably not as another attempt to get out of his jumpsuit.

                But she wanted hers off now, so she released him, pulled apart the front of her jumpsuit with a brappapapapapapa sound, and shimmied out of the arms, and then the legs, far more adeptly than her poor Harper.  Breastband and damp underwear followed it to the floor.

                Around them, perched intently, firelizards watched with whirling red eyes.

 

 

#

 

 

                It had been a very long time since he’s been on the receiving end of a seduction.  And even then, not quite like this.  F’lon had…but most others hadn’t, seeing a Masterharper and deciding that automatically put him in charge.

                Menolly had listened to what he’d divulged under fast-penta.  And somehow hadn’t judged him lesser for it.  That’s what amazed him; he saw love, he saw lust.  He didn’t see disgust, or disappointment.  And if he didn’t protest, it was clear she was going to very thoroughly have her way with him.

                So of course he didn’t protest.  But when she straddled him, beautiful and free of clothing, he smiled and made a targeted nose-dive right for one of those breasts some fool had apparently called flat, and took a very not-flat nipple into his mouth, and nuzzled the warm softness.  Fair was fair, after that hand right down his front.  (He would have yelped, You groped me! in theatrically betrayed tones if he wasn’t certain she’d take it far too seriously, and then never do it again.)

                She apparently did not have an overtly sensual response to his mouth and tongue as some women did, but more of a maternal, cupping his head, and kissing him on top of it.  Then her hand slipped down to his neck, swept across the implant, and he shuddered, intensely aware that the low-key sensual aspect of connecting to the ship was apparently due to some new cross-wiring he hadn’t had before.  And while connecting to the ship produced a minor, subtle pleasure that could be ignored or even dismissed as non-sexual, in this state the effect of touch there was not subtle at all, and he made a low sound in this throat.

                Menolly pulled him away from her breast, pulled his head up and tilted it across her shoulder, while his arms were still stuck and helpless behind him, and blew across the back of the implant.

                Sensation raced down his spine, pooled in his loins, and spiraled back up to his neck, where it sizzled to points underneath each ear, pulling a deep involuntary noise from him.

                “You really like that,” she said, her voice furry.  Or, furrier than usual, as her voice naturally tended to husky.

                “Mmm.”  He jerked anew against his confounding jumpsuit, wanting to hold her, pull her close, pull her down on his lap.  “Yes, there’s something—“

                She blew across it again.

                His body erupted into a helpless shudder.  For a moment he thought he’d finished, embarrassingly, horrifyingly early, but an odd ache that immediately followed, like a deep-tissue bruise, made him suspect that simulation there could not cause that to happen.  To the point that he’d feel pain, not pleasure, in order for it to not happen.

                No, AIVAS confirm.  A ‘little death’ would become a very big death in a wormhole.

                Menolly’s arms were around him.  “Are you all right?”

                He sucked in a heavy, thick breath.  “Yes,” he croaked into her hair.  “Are you going to torture me through that thing, now?”

                She laughed, husky, furry sound, like she was delighted to have found something she could torture him through.  “Should I?”

                He wasn’t sure how to answer; just because they could do something didn’t mean it was wise—he didn’t know everything the implant could do.

                AIVAS said, through a speaker, “It won’t hurt him—or you. It protects itself with a biological salve, but that won’t expose you to anything a kiss hasn’t already.”

                Menolly took that as suggestion—permission, to kiss it.  To blow on it, to trace the edges of it with careful fingers. He leaned into her, limp against her neck, and made helpless noises into skin, and smelled her firelizards, spicy, and herself, musky and feminine, and he kissed and nuzzled her neck until she was making sounds too.

                And then she finally, finally took pity on him, or perhaps herself, and peeled him out of the upper half of his jumpsuit.  His arms free, he extracted himself from the lower half, but before he got the second ankle out, she peeled down his undergarments, kicked them further down his legs, and straddled his hips again, and somehow he’d barely touched her but she was wet and slick against him—had his noises, shivers been that exciting?  Did she thoroughly enjoy taking advantage of him?—and he was pushed backwards again onto the bed, and she eagerly, thoroughly claimed him, and she was hot, and wet, and good, and she made little sounds against his mouth, and their firelizard audience was keenly interested and noisy, he’d thought Zair alone was lascivious enough—

                —but who was he to throw stones, he had AIVAS in his head giving them tips—

                And after a few squirming, laughing tries, they found a rhythm until they were both thoroughly satisfied, and thoroughly exhausted.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Nine

 

                Rubbing the back of his neck wasn’t erotic at all in normal circumstances, Robinton was glad to find out, as he puttered around the galley making himself klah.  He’d thought not—his collar didn’t bother him, after all, nor Zair’s tail—but it was still good to discover for certain.  One’s neck just seemed strangely vulnerable to begin with.  He didn’t want it to be an always-sensitive erotic zone wherever he went.

                Sipping his hot mug of klah, Robinton carefully climbed one-handed down the ladder, and tapped on the edge of Tuck’s open door, where Tuck was peering into his comconsole, and Swift was sitting on his bed, peering over his shoulder, into the comconsole.

                Tuck said, “Mornin’ Harper.”

                Swift said, “Good morning, Master Robinton.”  But he colored slightly, and didn’t look Robinton in the eye.

                Robinton had known it would get out when he’d woken up and discovered some of the firelizards in the cuddle-pile were neither his nor Menolly’s.  Still, he suppressed a sigh, and braced himself for similar awkward reactions all day.  “Good morning. Anything unusual overnight?” he said, deciding he’d rather draw out comments so he could deal with them, then have them pop out unexpectedly later.

                Tuck, catching that phrase, said, “Nothing we’re supposed to be paying attention to, no.”

                Swift stared fixedly at the comconsole.  “No, sir.”

                “Good.”  Robinton sipped at his klah.  “So, I plan to tug on a few tails today.  Wake some sleeping dragons, possibly.  I’d like one of you to come with me, whichever you think is best, Tuck.”

                “Not both?” Tuck said.  “Considering what happened?”

                “AIVAS will be with me.  So I will have two people watching my back.”

                “No offense to AIVAS,” Tuck said.  “But he was there when you were attacked.”

                “True, but all things considered…he’d just been born into that body.  And he comported himself well, despite that. AIVAS generally doesn’t have to be shown things twice.”

                Tuck opened his mouth, closed it.

                “Something to say, Tuck?”

                “Nothing you’ll like,” Tuck said.

                “Mm,” Robinton said, sure that Tuck was correct. “Nonetheless, speak.” Best put it in the open.

                “…if he was born yesterday…why are you having sex with him?”

                Robinton was afflicted by an immediate urge to deny it vehemently, followed fear that he’d simply out Menolly that way, and fear that he’d offend AIVAS if he vigorously denied him as being desirable.

                I admit, I hadn’t anticipated THAT misconception, AIVAS said.  Nor will you offend me if you tell the truth.  Or even if you use me to shield Menolly.

                AIVAS, Robinton began.

                As you thought yourself, under fast-penta, how are bodies more intimate than this mental link we already have? That chassis is not me.  A pause.  Also, as a reminder, Menolly said herself she’s aware it’ll likely be better if you two are open about it from the start. That’s what she expects you to do. If you do something different, it will trip her up. Although I will back you either way.

                Robinton sighed.  Then he noticed Swift had a dubious look on his face, as if Tuck had zigged when Swift expected zagging.  Leaning on the doorframe, Robinton took another sip of klah and said, “I must say, that was an unexpected accusation.  Perhaps I should leave you alone with Swift so he can correct you; clearly his firelizard is more adept at gossip than yours.”

                “What?” Tuck said, and turned in his chair and looked at Swift.

                Swift looked like he wanted to melt into the floor.

                “Swift,” Tuck said.  “Report.”

                In the most reluctant of tones, the  young man disclosed, “It wasn’t AIVAS.  He was sewing in the lounge all night, we talked for a bit.”

                Robinton hadn’t known that.

                You were asleep by then.

                “Then who?”

                Swift still looked like he wanted to melt into the floorboards, and Robinton took pity on him, because it really was his issue, not Swift’s.  “Menolly.”

                Tuck swore.  “You know I report to that man?” Meaning Sebell.  “Not you?”

                Robinton thought for a moment, then said at his most bland, “Yes.  I expect you to make your reports as detailed as you think he’ll desire.”  Which, according to Menolly, would be extremely detailed.

                Tuck didn’t pick up on that. “I can’t not tell him!”

                “I’m not asking you not to.”

                Down the hallway, the door to the cargo bay opened, and Menolly emerged, a musical instrument case in hand.

                I told her what was going on, AIVAS said.

                Robinton looked at her over the rim of his klah, tried not to smile too broadly.

                She rolled her eyes sky-high.  Then she popped around Robinton in the doorway.  “Hi, Tuck!” she said brightly.

                Now Tuck looked like he wanted to join Swift, melting into the floorboards.

                Menolly said, “Tell him all.  Tell him everything!”

                Tuck ran a hand through his jaw-length hair, then opened it beseechingly at her.

                “The issue isn’t Sebell at all.  He won’t care. I promise you.  You’re not going to be raked over any coals as my proxy.”

                “But—“

                “…do you think I don’t know my husband?  Promise you, no strips are coming out of your hide.  Or Swift’s.  Or anyone’s.”

                “Sebell’s not the issue,” Robinton confirmed.  “Every Lord, Master, and Dragonrider trying to poke their nose in our business is. Tell Sebell what you need to.  And it’s nobody else’s concern.”

                “Except the firelizards’, apparently,” Menolly muttered, and continued down the hallway with her instrument.

                Robinton sighed. “I didn’t dare count them,” he said, to nobody in particular.  “I knew I wasn’t going to like the sum they added up to.  I said to myself—I know there should be eleven, here.  But there’s going to be more, if I count them.  I refuse to count them.”  He took a sip of his klah.

                Tuck’s harried expression changed, and after a long contemplation he said, “Shards, I don’t envy you that, Harper.”

                Which implied perhaps he envied other things—maybe not making a move on Menolly first?—but Robinton chose not to question small favors.

 

 

#

 

 

                “Ormi Carradine,” Lytol said, “Is the woman you’ll need to talk to.” Lytol, not having a firelizard, was delightfully unaware of any scandal currently going on, and also had delightfully been able to research who they needed to speak to in regards to their diplomatic status.  “She can be reached by comconsole—in theory.”

                “In theory?”

                “I attempted to reach out earlier.  They essentially told me to wait until they contact us.”

                “Well, that won’t do,” Robinton said.

                “No.  But you’re more persuasive than I am.  Perhaps you should call.”

                AIVAS, surprisingly, appeared in the doorway.  “You should, in Pernese clothing,” he said, meaning not jumpsuits.  In his hand he had some elaborate cords, and he advanced, giving one to Robinton, and one to Lytol.

                Lytol, who had been eyeing AIVAS uneasily, looked at it.  “This is a Diplomat rank-knot.  Did you have these stored away?”

                Robinton looked at the one he’d been handed, which was formed in a way that indicated the wearer was the Masterdiplomat, and saw that Lytol’s indicated Lord Diplomat.

                “No. I’ve been training these hands in fine manipulation, so I created them.  They will not do under close scrutiny—I don’t have access to the type of material that is used on Pern—but on a comconsole, they should do.”

                “Thank you, AIVAS,” Robinton said, surprisingly touched.  Then he looked at Lytol and said, “You have an Apprentice.”

                “What?”

                “AIVAS.  He made his vest, he made these rank-knots.  Perhaps the two of you should chat.”

                Lytol blinked, blinked again. “I imagine he has all patterns stored away in his databanks.”

                “And all songs, too.  But that is not the same thing as playing a song with your own two hands, or making a tapestry with them.”

                “I would not impose on Lord Lytol’s time,” AIVAS said. “I can learn on my own.”

                “Ah,” Robinton said.  “But weren’t you saying the other day, Lytol, that you’ll need a second pair of hands to decorate the bare walls of the embassy?”

                “…you were attacked right in front of it.  Are we going to try to establish ourselves there regardless?”

                “The individuals who attacked us are not locals.  We’ll always be vulnerable to those who seek us out,” Robinton replied phlegmatically.

                Lytol hedged his response, and said to AIVAS, “Yes, get back to me if we form a Beta Hold. We can discuss it then.”

                It wasn’t as much as Robinton wanted, sounding more like Lytol simply wouldn’t turn down free labor, but he was hardly going to strong-arm both of them into it. 

                But Robinton rose, for he was wearing a jumpsuit again, and needed to change if he were to appear properly Pernese.

 

#

 

 

                Appearing properly Pernese with all pomp and circumstance did absolutely nothing.  As with Lytol, the offices of Ormi Carradine brushed him off, without even letting him talk to the woman herself.  Yes, they got the application, it’s under review, we’ll contact you.

                In fact, he was so ineffective at getting them the Betan protection they desperately needed that he wondered if he were completely losing his touch.

                While he was staring at the wall, struggling with the harsh sting of…not even rejection but complete irrelevance…Brekke appeared, and told him, quite seriously, that she had decided to volunteer as a fast-penta test subject, and had put together a series of experiments.

                He tried to slouch down comfortingly and listen as she laid out a sensible test plan, backed by galactic knowledge of fast-penta, and AIVAS’ knowledge of mentasynth, but he didn’t know how to broach the question of her mental health to her, so he slouched further down, trying to become content in a display of contentment, and his chair would not cooperate—!

                AIVAS slipped in behind Brekke, who stopped speaking and stared, disconcerted by the androgynoid, and he had a tool in his hand, a wrench, and he knelt down and began to wrench at Robinton’s chair.

                “What are you doing?” Robinton said to the red-brown head, mystified.

                Helping you relieve small irritations, so you don’t completely lose your temper with Brekke.

                …what?  He wasn’t…

                But a moment later, Robinton’s chair could move.  In fact, it had wheels, which engaged when the thing wasn’t bolted to the floor, so it moved smoothly and easily.  Especially after AIVAS squirted the ancient wheels with grease he’d brought along.

                Amazed, Robinton scooted around in little circles for a second, and then with a sound of triumph, found he was able to slouch and prop his feet up on his desk—at the same time!  “Look at that, I can use my chair as it was meant to be used!”

                “Just remember to stow it before we move again, otherwise it’ll become a dangerous projectile,” AIVAS said.  He looked disapprovingly at the pile of instruments in their cases, and the bottles of raw elements, still laying in a pile from where Robinton had knocked them over last night.

                “Of course,” Robinton said.

                Ask her about your fears, I think I know enough about human psychology at this point that asking verbally will be better than her plunging into it mentally when she’d taken fast-penta.

                “I’ll think about it,” Robinton replied.

                AIVAS continued standing there, staring down at him.

                “I will,” Robinton promised.  “You of all people know I will.”

                AIVAS stared down at him a moment longer, then turned and left.

                His feet were still bare.  But clean.

                Brekke said, “Are you able to speak mentally to him?”

                Robinton wriggled around in his seat, crossed his ankles on his desk, and his fingers across his belly.  “Yes. My apologies, we try not to disconcert people with it.”

                “He’s telepathic?”

                “No, it’s a function of my implant.”  Robinton fingered the back of his neck. “There’s a mechanical basis, which I’m sure he could explain.  He can’t just read anyone’s mind.  Only mine.”  Can you?

                No.  Mentasynth merely allows me to get closer to the specific human my implant was given to. I do not get the telepathic benefits.

                Brekke took this revelation in surprisingly good stride. Perhaps she had already suspected. “Will I be able to hear him then, once I’m dosed with fast-penta?”

                AIVAS didn’t respond, and Robinton said, “I don’t know.  He says he can’t quite hear Zair, not without me as a translator.  Perhaps I will somehow act as an interpreter between you and him.”  Then Robinton sighed.  “Brekke, I believe your plans for testing this are well thought-out.  Methodical. Which we absolutely need. But I have a question, deeply personal I’m afraid, but having an answer verbally might I think be better than the telepathic one.”

                “Go on.”

                “You are a former dragonrider.  And have a powerful mentality. I don’t believe I’ve ever told you this, but when F’nor tried to go between to the Red Star, your scream woke Menolly, halfway across the world.”

                Brekke was soft in her reply. “…no, she’s never said anything.  Nor you, before now.”

                “I thought at the time it was due to all of Menolly’s firelizards, but in retrospect, I think it might have been the other way around—Menolly heard you, and it agitated the firelizards.  Or perhaps a bit of both.  Anyway, fast-penta lowers inhibitions.  And my concern is that I won’t be able to pull Menolly, or anyone, out of it again, if my own brain is in the same pickle.  My gifts in this area are far inferior to yours, and Menolly could not get rid of me.  She was forced to endure my presence in her head, babbling in response to any stray thought she had, until the drug wore off.”  Was that really only yesterday?  It felt like ages ago…

                “I do not mean to do that.”

                “Believe me, I did not mean to do that to Menolly, either.”

                She said, “Is that why…” she hesitated, clearly unsure if she should go there.

                He waited.

                “Lessa said you were sweet on her.  Reverse-Searched her right out of the Weyr. But also that it’d never go anywhere.”

                Lessa had had an opinion on…?  He had a sudden urge to strangle her, and her opinions on anything.  Luckily for her she was light-years away.

                Brekke continued, “Did the fast-penta—“  Then she trailed off, unsure if to press him.

                “Did the truth-drug force ignored truths to come out?” Robinton said drily.  “Happy ones, in our case—but you can see why I’m concerned about other things coming out, in other situations with other people.  I have the same concerns about Lytol as I do about you.  And different but not-unrelated things about Tuck for that matter.  He’s seen some bad things, from the days of Fax.  I just,” and he sighed.  “Don’t want anyone to come to harm.  Or under the influence of grief, terror, and other such things.”

                “We won’t know if that will come to pass unless we test.”

                “I know. It’s the purpose of testing.”

                “If AIVAS is invulnerable to telepathy, he could administer the counter, should anything go wrong.”

                Robinton nodded.  Then he said, “I will put my trust in you, Brekke.  I meant no disrespect by my question.  It’s…more that I have tended to notice outbursts of clearly psychic things from dragonriders during times of great stress.  Not…solely from you.  Sometimes frightening things. But perhaps that won’t be a factor during a controlled experiment.”  He paused.  “Who—who are you going to have question you?”

                “I asked Menolly.  Given she’s experienced it already. Then we will reverse it.”

                He nodded again.  If anyone on this ship might be remotely able to stand up to Brekke, it was likely Menolly.  Robinton suspected her talents with telepathy might outstrip his.  “I intend to take AIVAS with me and go make a nuisance of myself amongst the Betans, so you will want to do any testing today before I leave.”

                She nodded, and rose. For a second, she paused.  “Menolly seems happy with you.” It was much better of a reception than it’s gotten from Swift and Tuck, and he felt grateful someone saw the happiness, and not simply the scandal.

                He rubbed at a small smile that appeared on his mouth against his will. “Don’t encourage us—unless you want two lovesick Harpers mooning over each other every waking moment of the day!”

                Brekke smiled.  “It might be entertaining.”

                He just shook his head at her, and made a shooing gesture with his hand.

                She went off.

 

#

 

 

                Jancis and Piemur stopped talking very quickly when Robinton appeared behind them and knocked on the open door of the utility room Jancis was using as her workspace.

                “Master Robinton,” Jancis said, turning from her comconsole, which seemed to have AIVAS’ new body’s schematics up on it.

                Piemur sat in front of his comconsole, numbers and figures from auctions hanging there.  In another screen was a “live” video playing, of local Betan “news”. He gave Robinton a look that wasn’t theatrically bland or pointedly bland; it was the sort of bland that really should pass without notice.  The bland of Piemur completely keeping his thoughts, positive and negative, hidden from his face.

                Robinton eyed the schematics.  “Please don’t tell me you share in Tuck’s misconception.”

                Jancis, not expecting him to be blunt like that, froze.  “No…”  But she didn’t try to deny she knew what they’d been.

                “Piemur,” Robinton said.

                “Hm?”

                “I want you to contact this herm,” and Robinton passed the comconsole calling card, “And first, see if they are all right, last I saw them they were stunned in the middle of the street, and second, see if they are willing to begin the acquisition of the property we looked at yesterday.  Reassure them that we know that none of that was their fault, and we don’t know why a mercenary company tried to jump us.”

                Piemur said, “Do we know it wasn’t their fault?”

                “No, but if they’re someone with friends among those sorts of people, I would like to cultivate them.  We need Betan contacts.”

                The Journeyman took the card from Robinton.

                Robinton didn’t leave, however.  Piemur’s “live” feed had caught his eye, and he watched as a local unpopular politician was followed by angry young people with signs.

                “Do you plan to address their concerns?” a herm with a microphone asked the politician.

                “Clearly these young people feel very strongly about their issue,” the politician said patronizingly in a non-answer.

                Robinton could see an expression on that politician’s face that he’d seen very often on various Lords, Masters, and Dragonmen when he’d finally forced them to confront a situation, instead of ignoring it.  And for a few minutes, he continued to watch the feed, as Piemur and Jancis cautiously waited for him to say something more.

                Eventually he did.  “Piemur.”

                “Yes?”

                “How would you like to make a nuisance of yourself?”

                Piemur looked unusually disinclined to be a nuisance, and didn’t answer immediately.

                But Robinton heard the faint sound of Menolly speaking, which gave him an idea.  “MENOLLY?” he shouted through the ship.  And waited.

                Eventually Menolly appeared.  “Hi.”

                “Hello.” He gave her a mischievous smile. “What’s your worst musical idea?”

                “Domick’s sonatas, as rendered by barn animals.”

                Robinton was unable to suppress a wild laugh at that memory.  “One that won’t get me buried in an unmarked grave.”  But it was a delightful idea. He imagined trotting up to the Foreign Ministry with a huge speaker oinking, clucking, baaing the entire way, and grinned.  Then he said, “Your worst musical idea, as perceived by Betans, that won’t have Master Domick crossing light-years to murder us all in our sleep.”

                “They seem most unimpressed by bagpipes and accordions,” Menolly said.

                “Bagpipes,” Robinton said musingly.  “Did we even bring those?”

                “We’re not too impressed by them, either,” she said.

                “Alas,” Robinton said.  “I didn’t bring my emergency diplomatic set of bagpipes.”

                Menolly began to laugh knowingly, triggered by some idea.

                He regarded her fondly. “Share?”

                “You’ve emptied at least one skin of Benden wine by now, right?”

                Oooo.  He had!

                “NO,” Piemur protested, jarred out of his studied neutrality when he understood where Menolly was going.

                Robinton rubbed his hands together, then said to Menolly, “Oh, yes.  I believe I have!”

                “Should I get—“

                “No, no,” Robinton said.  “You have tests to do with Brekke.  Finish those first, for we will be quite busy this afternoon.  I will construct the wine-pipes!”

 

#

 

                More like whinepipes, when all was done.  It did not quite have the sheer volume he’d hoped it would have—but AIVAS, who had come to help Robinton construct the horrid thing, vanished for a moment, and returned with some electronic doodads.

                “What’s this?”

                “Microphones,” AIVAS said. “And transmitter.  Just like a guitar can be made into an electric guitar, we can make these wine-pipes into electric wine-pipes, and boost the volume through a speaker."

                Robinton cackled in anticipation, and they worked together to fit the pickups to the drones and chanter.  Then they let it dry for about two hours, which AIVAS said was all that particular glue would need, given it was glue meant for far more punishing applications in jump ship repair and not simple hide glue meant for instrument-making.

                Then, with the most terrible song in mind, a discordant old lament he’d retired in his very first year of being made Masterharper, Robinton tucked the bag under his arm, filled it with air, and let it rip.

                “Arrgh!” Piemur said from across the hall, and the door to the utility room slammed closed.

                Robinton played a few more bars, then said to AIVAS, Ready?

                Whenever you are.

                After the repeat—GO!

                AIVAS boosted the wine-pipes electronically through the ship, at full blast—layering the sound of Robinton’s single wine-pipe on top of itself, so it sounded like they didn’t have just one, but an army of them squealing and wailing.

                “Harper, no!” someone cried.

                Firelizards, startled into flight, streamed shrieking through the halls and lounge, adding their own chaotic cacophony to the mix.

                “AIVAS!  Make it stop!”

                “I can’t, only the Harper can,” AIVAS claimed.

                Robinton merrily continued playing the horrid tune, improvising at times to make it even worse, until people came upstairs and poked their heads into his office.

                Menolly had her ears covered, and was laughing.

                Lytol was giving him a look like he’d done something unmentionable on the floor.

                Tuck came, stared at him a second, then did a jig of the damned, his face deadpan and soulless.

                Then Robinton reached a stopping point, ceased squeezing the tortured sack, and said, “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here today…”

 

 

#

 

               

                Lytol was persuaded to send a message to a certain group of someones and their Admiral, asking them to meet Robinton at the Foreign Ministry building for a Diplomatic conversation at a particular time.  There was no immediate reply; whether they would show or not was a cipher.  But at least Robinton would be able to honestly tell Brekke that he’d tried to talk to the ones who had attacked them.

                Menolly, Swift, and Tuck were recruited to be drummers.  Unlike bagpipes—or wine-pipes—they had plenty of drums to choose from.  Menolly chose the large, unwieldy one with a sonorous basso note, while Tuck and Swift, who might be called upon as bodyguards if Robinton’s plan to be a Great Bloody Nuisance worked, were given smaller ones on straps that were easy to drop in a pinch.

                “PIEMUR!” Robinton bellowed, from approximately twenty feet away.

                Reluctantly, the utility door opened.  “Sir?”

                “Come learn your drum line.”

                “…is that an order?”

                “Yes.”

                Piemur was not thrilled at being a drummer boy again, but joined without further complaint.

                This particular horrid lament didn’t come with a drum line that needed four drummers, but between Menolly’s head and his own, they were able to devise a beat that would carry and be compelling from far away through walls, even if the squeal of the pipes was blocked or muted by distance.  The idea was to draw people in for the beat, but drive them nuts with the lament.

                Without boosting it through the ship this time, Robinton ran them through rehearsal enough times to get it right.  Then he shooed them off to don their best Pernese finery.

                AIVAS was a bit of a problem, but eventually they figured out the width of his shoulders would fit in one of Tuck’s shirts, and there was enough loose fabric to allow for breasts.  Lytol had a rich over-tunic that was designed to be worn loose, and one of Brekke’s skirts was of appropriate color to match the tunic, and completely avoided the question of what to do for pants for an androgynoid with a lower half that had hips, but also other things that did not fit so well in pants tailored to women.

                Amazingly, AIVAS also produced somewhat counterfeit Diplomat rank-knots for the rest of them—Master knots for Menolly and Tuck, Journeyman for Piemur and Swift—and those were arranged convincingly on shoulders.

                “What about you?” Robinton asked him.

                “I have never been accepted as an Apprentice, or confirmed in higher ranks of a Craft.  Nor am I a Holder or Dragonrider.”

                It seemed ridiculous though, for a person who had knowledge across several domains that outstripped the most knowledgeable Crafter.

                I am content, AIVAS said. You have larger concerns to attend to right now.

                Perhaps, but Robinton would revisit the issue later on.

                Tugging at a fancy leather-worked firelizard rest on his left shoulder, opposite from his rank-knot as Masterdiplomat on the right, Robinton checked himself in the mirror a final time.  He could use longer hair, but he’d be complaining about that for the next two turns, until it achieved its prior length.  Other than that, he deemed himself fine, and picked up his wine-pipes.

                AIVAS followed him out, carrying a portable speaker, and shortly Robinton and his array of drummers were on their way to loudly protest their invisibility in the eyes of low-level Betan bureaucrats.

 


 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

                A man in one uniform arrived at Beta Colony.  And a man in a different uniform prepared to leave Beta Colony, a new contract burning a hole in his pocket.

                But it was Sergeant Taura that met him, not Captain Quinn, as expected.  Not that Miles didn’t want to see Taura, all eight feet of her and her wide, fanged smile.  But he’d been looking forward to seeing Elli, too.  “Where’s Captain Quinn?”

                “Getting her face fixed,” Taura said.

                Miles felt a moment of dismay—had Quinn finally had enough of the attention?  He’d sort of thought she’d decided to take the good along with the bad—although he’d never intended bad at all, it’d been a rather unintended side-effect of the facial reconstruction she’d had after her original one had been burnt off in his service.

                Who could have guessed the downsides of being beautiful?  In retrospect, he should have known better—although in his defense, “beautiful” wasn’t exactly the sort of physical difference he had to contend with...

                Trying to process the dismay that perhaps ultimately Elli hadn’t liked the gift he’d given her after trying it out for a good, long while, Miles said lightly, “What’s, uh, wrong with her face?”

                “A pack of flying lizards tried to eat it on a mission.  Captain Thorne has the details.  And says she should keep the scar over her eye.  For intimidation purposes.”

                Oh.  So it wasn’t about that after all.

                But…flying lizards?

                Brimming with curiosity, Miles only barely managed to keep himself contained on their way to the shuttle, although once they were aboard and the pilot prepping for flight, he peppered her with questions.

                Unfortunately, Taura really didn’t know anything more than that.  Neither the unexpected mission on Beta Colony, nor the intelligence that had prompted it, had involved her.

                He’d simply have to wait and talk to Thorne.

 

#

 

                “Remember that trouble we had with that ship a few months back?”  Bel Thorne said.

                “The one with the corpse?” Miles asked.

                “The one with the corpse,” Thorne confirmed.  “Well, its twin sibling came out of that dead-end wormhole with its ass on fire, acting like its weapons were hot.  Scared the crap out of everyone.  We tried to intercept, but had foul luck with the Betan Navy popping out of the other wormhole, and the ship ran right into their arms.” Bel shook its head.  “Betan Navy boarded, had a little look-see—“ and it was clear to Miles that Bel was having regret it hadn’t been a part of that boarding party, "—and then let the ship go.” Frustration rose palpably from the herm. “Everyone knows Navy gets Survey’s rejects, but damn if that didn’t make it obvious. They let it dock on Beta Colony and everything. So Captain Quinn led an expedition downside to question its pilot.”

                “…being as we were unable to question the previous one,” Miles said, bopping a knuckle against his mouth pensively.

                “Being as we were unable to question the other one.  The corpse,” Bel confirmed, folding its fingers before it.

                Ever since the rescue of ten thousand prisoners-of-war at Dagoola, the Dendarii Free Mercenaries had been tripping over furious Cetagandans left and right. 

                The corpse-ship, however, had definitely been one of the more disturbing encounters.  Deceptively fast and agile for its size and age, it’d played games of chicken with the Dendarii Fleet, dodging their weapons with ease, its tactical computer out-calculating everyone—only to ultimately be defeated by its own artificial gravity systems failing. 

                Although they hadn’t realized that until the ship abruptly powered down and they were able to board—only to find that the pilot a deformed sack of leaking flesh due to the effects of unmitigated gees.

                The autopsy of the pilot revealed that the implants had literally caught fire, and roasted the neural tissue surrounding them.  Due to the unique brainstem-centric design (entering the brain from the complete opposite side of most modern implants), nobody had been able to tell “Admiral Naismith” anything more.  The system was too foreign.  Also old, and lacking numerous modern improvements that kept pilots…if not sane, saner.

                The autopsy of the ship had revealed the artificial gravity systems were not part of the original design, but a newer addition done by the lowest bidder.  As with the implant, the ship design was too foreign and eccentric to fully pinpoint why the addition had failed, although the evidence suggested buggy software.  Modern ships had hardware fail-safes to pick up the slack when software failed.  But since artificial gravity hadn’t been a part of this ship’s original design, and the modifications had been done by the lowest bidder, mechanical fail-safes had been completely omitted in favor of software ones. Those who did not read history were doomed to repeat it.

                The most alarming thing, however, was the fact that the physician doing the autopsy swore the pilot had been dead for at least a day before the gees from the crazy maneuvers had made their mark on the body. Somehow, the ship had been flying-by-wire with a dead pilot at the helm. 

                It was a mystery that had never been resolved to Miles’ satisfaction.  Even when they’d searched for other ships that might have been giving the ship remote commands, they’d come up with nothing. 

                Although, granted, by the time Miles realized they should be looking for the ship’s partner, it’d been much too late.  The partner long gone, along with any evidence. Miles wasn’t used to being slow on the uptake.  It’d been irritating

                But perhaps this new ship was the hitherto-unknown partner.  Good on Quinn for taking initiative.  He only wished it’s succeeded and hadn’t left their ass hanging in the wind.  They hadn’t heard from the Betan authorities—yet—but it sure would be awkward if Admiral Naismith was no longer welcome on Beta Colony because his people tried to illegally fast-penta someone.

                “So this pilot, ah…was living, I take it?”

                “Living it up,” Bel said. “First he made purchases from a pharmaceutical company.  Then he bought a sex doll.”  The herm shrugged.  “Normal pilot behavior on leave.  Very not-dead.”

                Drugs and sex weren’t unusual when it came to pilots, especially on Beta Colony where both were perfectly legal in a wide array of varieties.  In fact, drugs and sex were almost too normal for pilots, who were notorious for being a little…odd.

                Flying lizards were odd, though.

                Miles sighed and said, “So, explain to me exactly where the ‘flying lizards’ come in.  Sergeant Taura mentioned flying lizards.”

                Thorne hesitated.  “Perhaps I’ll let Captain Quinn explain that one to you.  She swears some things happened that…I don’t quite believe.”

                “I thought she was in surgery now?” Miles said, cocking his head.

                “Oh, that part I believe, left a whole ton of evidence on her face.  It’s the rest of the details that are off.  If I were a psychiatrist—“ the herm trailed off.  “Well, I’m not, so you should see what they have to say about it.” The Dendarii had several on staff.  “Then talk to Captain Quinn.”

                Miles decided to talk to Quinn first.  “Right.  Anything else?”

                Thorn shook its head.  “The fleet’s on twenty-four hour standby.”

 

#

 

 

                Quinn looked like she’d fallen face-first into a knife factory.

                Briefly, Miles saw red—they’d done this to his Quinn?  To her face?  After everything she’d been through?—but when she looked up from the report she was reading on her wristcom with a self-conscious expression, he swallowed his rage so she wouldn’t misconstrue it as being towards her, and hurried over. 

                Eyes flitting worriedly across wounds glued together and slathered in salve, especially the eye covered in a thick eyepatch, he said, “Taura mentioned you might have a wicked scar across that one, but now I’m not sure she told me the whole story…”

                “Bel didn’t?”

                “Bel told me something.  But I wanted to see how you were doing.”

                “Fighting off the urge to touch it.  Won’t be able to feel much anyway, they have me numbed up pretty good, and the medic threatened to put my hands in mittens if I don’t obey.”

                They were in public, with medtechs walking by every so often, so he couldn’t—carefully!—kiss her, regardless of how much he wanted to.  He forced himself to behave. “Will you keep the eye?”

                “Probably,” she sighed, “But they said the lid might need reconstruction.”  She hesitated.  “…how bad does it look to you?”

                “The cuts are clean,” Miles said.  “You’ll have your choice of artistic scars.”

                She sighed again, seeming to find comfort in the damage being clean, at least.  Clean cuts, Miles supposed, were better than one’s face being melted off.

                Finding a medic’s stool and stuffing it into the clamps that would keep it in place if gravity failed, Miles sat next to her bedside.  “All right.  So tell me about the lizards. Captain Thorne implied there was something they weren’t telling me about them.”

                Quinn scrunched up her nose, then stopped with a wince of dismay as the expression pulled on several wounds.  “Bel’s a skeptic when it comes to psychic phenomena.”

                Miles blinked.

                “But the flying lizards were teleporting. I’m not making it up, or having hallucinations!”

                Her tone was defensive enough that Miles suspected she’d either gotten into it with Thorne, or with someone else.  Elena, perhaps.  “I didn’t say you were,” he said mildly.

                She was about to say something more when a medtech came into earshot, stocking a cupboard on the other side of the room.  They both waited until the medtech was done, then Miles cleared his throat.  “Will Captain Quinn be needing medical attention in the next hour?”

                “No, Admiral.”

                Miles jerked his head towards the door.

                The medtech vamoosed, closing the door behind him, and Miles reinforced the order for privacy to debrief Quinn over his wristcom so the shift supervisor and their medtechs wouldn’t intrude.

                Then he rose and carefully kissed her, before returning to his seat.

                She grinned, then regretted that expression too, with a wince.

                “So you think this is something to do with Terrence Cee?” Miles said.

                “Not exactly.  It’s more that I’m prone to believing my own two eyes—“ and she aborted a gesture to touch her well-taped and covered eye.  “Especially since I know telepathy does exist.  Why not other psychic phenomena?”

                Bel hadn’t been aware of the Terrence Cee mission, leaving its skepticism of Quinn’s claims of teleporting lizards understandable, and Miles had chosen not to brief anyone else when Quinn had returned empty-handed from her home station. As far as anyone’d known, Quinn had simply been taking long-overdue vacation time.  If—when—telepaths became a problem, it wouldn’t be today or tomorrow but fifteen or twenty years from now.  Simon Illyan knew about it, and Miles hadn’t seen fit to tell anyone else.  Although if Quinn was right, he’d have to add teleportation to his list of real psychic phenomena.  And Illyan’s.

                Wheels turned in his head, and he tried to link these teleporting, flying lizards to anything related to Terrance Cee, but came up blank.  As far as he’d been aware, that Cetagandan project had involved human genetic experimentation exclusively.  Animals had never been mentioned, not even as a source of novel gene complexes, and Miles had a strong suspicion that if the ghem ladies, who manipulated animal and plant genomes, tried to merge animal with human, the haut would quickly discipline them.

                However, that didn’t mean the flying, teleporting lizards weren’t a project of the ghem ladies all on their own, no crossover with humans intended or involved.

                So Miles returned to the reason Quinn had authorized a grab-and-penta. “Do you think it’s the partner of the corpse-ship?”

                She made a frustrated gesture.  “Possibly, but I don’t know.  It’s the same model of ship, and it did some of the same damn moves as the other one. If only I’d had armor on!  Then those little fuckers couldn’t have done a thing then.  I could have questioned him!”

                Full armor, or half-armor, never would have made it past the Betan authorities.  More’s the pity.

                “But you know what’s odd?” Quinn asked.

                “Odder than teleporting lizards?”

                “Well, maybe not that odd.  But they seemed…provincial.”

                “How so?” The dead pilot had been from Cetagandan commoner stock, with only faint traces of (known) ghem (or haut) bloodlines.  Provincial perhaps by Cetagandan standards, but not galactic.

                “No offense—but provincial like enlisted Barrayarans, with one foot stuck in the mud.  Like they’d never seen a modern city before.  And how does someone like that get a working jump ship?  Even if it’s an ancient one?  It takes decades to pay even a used one off!”

                True enough; several of their ships were not owned by the fleet, but by owner-operators contracted to the Dendarii Free Mercenaries.

                He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Ancient or not, I wouldn’t mind adding one of those to my fleet, if it comes with a living pilot,” Miles said.

                 They’d autopsied the corpse-ship to figure out its combat secrets, but had only come away with the fly-by-wire mystery and the conclusion that any ship could move fast if its pilot was already dead and gees did not matter.  Ultimately, Miles had had his bean-counters sell the metal corpse to a scrapyard, so they’d get at least some profit out of the entire hair-raising mess.  He’d also given the poor anonymous pilot the same type of burial that Dendarii without family or known burial plans got.

                “Yeah, but you don’t own a ship like that if you’re provincial.  It’s not being contracted out.  There’s no lien—that we know of yet.  And its crew don’t act like pirates.  They don’t even act or look like Cetagandans!”

                Miles’ wristcom chimed, and he glanced at it.  “It’s Thorne,” he said to Quinn, and answered it.  “Admiral Naismith here.”

                “Admiral,” Bel said.  “We just got a recorded message from that ship, The Mastersinger Merelan.  Addressed to you.”

                “How?” Quinn asked in dismay.  “I thought I covered my tracks!”

                Miles said, “What, you didn’t go in wearing Dendarii greys, banging a drum, announcing Captain Quinn is here?”

                Quinn stuck out her tongue, which apparently was not an expression which aggravated the wounds on her face, because she held it longer than Miles thought was warranted.

                “Quinn’s asking how,” Miles said to Thorne with a grin.

                “I don’t know,” Thorne said.  “Do you want to watch it?”

                “Yes, put it through.”  Miles adjusted his wristcom so Quinn could observe too.

                A dour man with extensive facial scarring—as if he’d been grazed by a plasma arc in the past and never bothered to get it corrected—and a jumping facial tic appeared.

                His dead, brown eyes seemed to stare deeply into Miles’ soul.

                “This the pilot?” Miles asked, pausing the message and suppressing a shudder.

                Quinn looked, and shook her head vigorously.  Then she winced as her wounds reminded her of their presence.

                Well then.  Miles unpaused the message.

                Apparently, this man styled himself as “Lytol, Lord Diplomat of Pern”.  While Quinn did searches for “Pern” on her own wristcom, coming up blank from her exasperated glare, Miles listened to the man’s lilting tenor—which was not like any Cetagandan accent he’d ever heard—as “Admiral Naismith and an escort of his choosing” was invited by these Pernese to meet for “open discussion about their recent differences”.  A time and a place was given; in front of the local Betan Foreign Ministry offices, and the time—

                “They think I’m still on Beta,” Miles observed, and checked the time.  If he took a shuttle back down now, he might get there in time..

                Which was late by all reasonable standards, such as scoping out the area for an ambush.

                “Miles,” Quinn said worriedly. “I doubt they’re happy with us.” She paused.  “With me.”

                “I thought I’d take Taura,” Miles said absently, replying the message in spurts, trying to milk it of anything and everything he could.  The man’s clothing was not at all Cetagandan either, although the braiding had a vague resemblance to Barrayaran styles—likely descended from the same Earth cultures or military traditions.  Although, it did seem to be handmade or bespoke.  Of course, someone who was truly a Lord or a Diplomat among his people would naturally have such things…

                Quinn began moving on her medical bed, throwing off the light blanket.  “I can come.  Taura’s good, but Taura and I together are better.  I just need to wear a helmet.  You should wear one too.”

                A mental image appeared in Miles’ head, of the three of them popping up wearing fishbowls.  “I’m not so sure wearing force-fishbowls over our heads to this meeting will be productive, if this man is a diplomat as he claims to be.  In fact, it might be downright insulting.”

                “The lizards could attack!”

                “We’ll keep the fast-penta here,” he said reasonably.  “And this is a public venue.  If they attack us unprovoked, there’ll be witnesses.  As I’m sure they’re also relying on.”

                “They could involve the Betan authorities.”

                “You’ve talked yourself out of worse.  So have I,” he grinned. 

                She sighed.  “True.”

                Then he said, “Actually, you might be able to get some sort of neck brace from the medtechs that’ll work as a shield over your head.”  And he paused.  “I won’t forbid you from coming, but I think I’ll be fine with Taura along.  In fact, medically speaking, you probably should sit things out until those heal.”

                Quinn wavered a moment, clearly torn between several thoughts.  If he had to guess—a desire to possibly rectify her mistake (of letting her intended target get away), a desire to face down her fear of head-wounds, a desire to protect him (combined with the knowledge that she’d be less effective with only one working eye and probably should stay abed). 

                But she made a decision. “I’m coming with.”

 

 

#

 

 

 

                Bureaucracy, Robinton decided, was the same everywhere, persistent, infuriating, and ubiquitous.       

                “I’m afraid, Mister Robinson, that you’ll need to make an appointment.”  The man had the grace to look apologetic, but that’s all it was—grace, not substance.

                “Fantastic,” Robinton said, graciously ignoring the mangling of his name and rank.  “I’m free this afternoon.  Fit me into Ormi Carradine’s schedule.”

                “Oh, I’m not the one you need to make an appointment with—let me give you a comconsole address—”

                A plastic card was handed to him.  He recognized the address, from this morning.  “I wasn’t able to get through.” He handed the card back—or tried to—and when it wasn’t taken he set it down on the polished stone counter.  “Perhaps if you try?”

                “I’m afraid I’m just reception, I have no power to set appointments.”

                “A poor reception indeed,” Robinton said softly.  “Why is this called the Foreign Ministry building, if it does not deal with foreign diplomats?”

                “Er...well, you’re not actually in our database as a diplomat, and Pern doesn’t exist.”

                “Well, that’s news to me,” Robinton said.  “My entire world not existing.  Should I have an existential crisis?”

                I was able to get through to a news outlet, AIVAS said.  Not their official newscasters, a ‘muckracker’ with a daily viewership of several million. Which, I judge, is exactly what we need right now.

                What’s a muckracker? Robinton asked.

                Think of the worst gossip in the Hall, or amongst the Lords.  The one with a perpetually bad-take, the one that simply wants reactions and will say anything to get it.

                The type that lies as often as speaks the truth?  Robinton considered this.  Imagined what might happen if galactics showed up on his world, and instead of dealing with him (or, Sebell), went right to one of the worst sorts of gossip amongst the Lords.  Oh, that’d get his attention all right, even if he’d been putting the same individuals off prior.

                The man behind the desk said, “If it doesn’t show up in our comconsoles, it doesn’t exist.  It’s silly, but true,” the man said with a little laugh that tried to draw on some mutual understanding of comconsoles that Robinton didn’t have.  AIVAS was much more sensible.

                I try, AIVAS said, and Robinton sensed he was amused.

                “I see,” Robinton said. “I can’t imagine giving up my mind to a computer that wasn’t at least as smart as I am!” Or smarter, he said to AIVAS.  “But perhaps that’s a cultural difference between Betans and Pernese.  Speaking of culture, do you like music?”

                “Er...sure? Most people do.”

                “There’s something going on in the park,” Robinton said.  “You should attend.”

                “I’m afraid I have to work.”

                “What a peculiar sense of duty you have,” Robinton murmured cryptically.  “But very well.  Have a good afternoon.”

                Robinton suspected the reception clerk was about to have a very bad afternoon--but far be it for him to save fools from themselves.

 

#

 

 

                Taura heard it first.  “Big party up ahead.  Drums.”

                Miles heard it shortly after, the sound of a rowdy and compelling beat, as if someone’d mixed up a military beat with the dance floor.  They weren’t the only people stepping off of the transit line and turning towards what promised to be a rollicking, rocking party.

                “Er…were we invited to this party?” Miles asked.  “Or is this coincidental?”

                Quinn checked her wristcom, the medical force-sphere around her head glinting subtlety in the light, far less bizarre-looking that the version he’d imagined.  “The noise is in that direction.”

                Miles couldn’t imagine that dead-eyed man from the comconsole message—Lord Lytol—throwing a party you could hear from blocks away, and he was tempted for a moment to call things off, get back in orbit.

                But then he might never solve the mystery of that dead-but-flying pilot.  Nor get to see one of the teleporting lizards himself. Chewing on his lip, he said, “Well, let’s go take a peek.  Anything off, we bounce.”

                “Or we could bounce them,” Taura suggested cheerfully.

                “Let’s not do anything that’ll get us banned from Beta Colony just yet.”

                Filtering into the stream of travelers, they found themselves rounding a corner, and suddenly the rowdy drums were raucously joined by…bagpipes?  It was a song, of a sort, but a strange, wailing unsettling one that jarred you to your bones.  Somehow, when barred by rock it hadn’t traveled well, but out in the open the effect was definitely one similar to a musical…

                …weapon.  A hideous, hideous sonic weapon.

                Paranoia?  Or truth?

                “Local PA system’s been hacked,” Quinn murmured to him, monitoring her wristcom as Taura scanned the crowd for threats.  “Just like that mail buoy. Police are probably going to show up soon.”

                Miles barely heard. Above them, a flock of flying lizards wheeled, gold and metallic and brown and green and blue.  Somehow, Quinn had neglected to mention the rainbow of colors they came in. Then suddenly one of them, a gold, dropped and circled around his trio.

                Quinn’s hand moved towards her hidden weapon, but Miles stopped her with a touch to the elbow.  The lizard circling them was joined by a few others, until at least five circled them playfully before darting off further into the park.  When they didn’t immediately follow, two golden lizards circled back, whirled around them again, and darted off into the park once more.

                “They seem friendly,” Taura said.

                “I think the lizards want us to follow,” Miles agreed.

                “Don’t trust them,” Quinn warned.  Still, she followed Miles readily enough as they trooped into the park.

                Partway across, the screaming, wailing bagpipes stopped, and a lilting baritone voice said, “I suppose you’re all wondering who to thank for this wonderful traditional Pernese lament.  This performance today was brought to you by a joint effort between a gentleman called Gerald Mohan—whom I understand is a very popular politician—“ the cultivated voice dripped with a mix of wry humor and knowing sarcasm, provoking a laugh from a few of the Betans who hadn’t fled the sonic assault, “And the Foreign Ministry’s very own Ormi Carradine.”

                Finally, they got in sight of the speaker, a tall, gaunt man who’d taken ownership of an abstract stone sculpture—a long, flat stone block that floated—by climbing on top of it to use it as a stage.

                Seizing the high ground, Miles thought. “Is that him?” he asked Quinn.

                Quinn gave an affirmative jerk of her chin.

                Miles thought back on the sparse, generically common-Cetagandan possessions of the dead pilot, and could not find any connection between that and the vivacious, very-much-alive man right here, dressed in a colorful tunic and trousers.  Quinn was right; he seemed from a completely different culture.

                …but a real one?  Or a constructed one?  The man was not symmetrical enough to be Cetagandan, or at least not ghem or haut, but he certainly had artistic sensibilities.  Theater training, too.  The hack into the PA system was hardly needed; Miles could hear the man’s unamplified voice surprisingly well from across the park. It seemed to be affecting a mostly-Betan accent, but on certain words, the same lilt that Lord Lytol’s voice had contained became evident.

                “Speaking of Ormi Carradine, I don’t expect any of you fine people know how I can get an audience with her?  Anyone?  No?  Do you think another song might get her attention?” And with this sly inquiry, that invited listeners in on his mischief, the man squeezed the set of bagpipes stowed under his arm.  It let out a feeble, rather obscene noise. 

                Betans were not immune to laughing at fart-noises.

                “I admit I don’t understand everything about Betan culture just yet, the entire purpose of trying to connect with your Foreign Ministry is so I could be briefed in some way, but where I come from, Craftmasters generally participate in the working of their Craft!  But perhaps I’m being unfair.   For all I know, she could be away for a big event. Perhaps she’s getting married today.  Perhaps her children are getting married today!  Perhaps her grandmother is getting married today?  No?  Should I propose myself?  I'm sure she’s a darling woman.”

                Laughs.  As far as Miles could tell, nobody knew what the hell this fellow was talking about, but he was doing so charmingly, so they paid attention.

                “Do you think they’d like me to provide a wedding tune?” And for a moment, instead of being a screeching horror of sonic death, the bagpipes actually sounded pleasant and celebratory before ceasing.  “Maybe I’ve been going about this all wrong!”

                A squad of Betan police approached the floating slab, and for a moment, the tall man knelt down to listen to them.

                Trying to fine him for an unscheduled performance without permit, Miles suspected. Perhaps vandalism to a public art installation.  Definitely various computer crimes for the PA system hack.

                The voice-amplification kicked in again, suddenly.  “I am Robinton, Masterdiplomat of Pern.”

                A pause, as the police gestured and said something.

                Robinton spoke back, without amplification.

                Keeping their cool, the police seemed to joke with him, but also clearly made come down off of there gestures.

                “Admiral,” Quinn murmured.

                Two people approached.  The first was a tall dark-haired woman with a rangy, lean build, and a flying lizard on each shoulder, one gold, and one an odd metallic green-brown shade.  The other was a herm with amber eyes and red-brown hair.

                …a herm?  Yes, but not human.  A sex doll, dressed in the same fashion as these people.  The doll, unlike the woman, showed no signs of sweating in the Betan heat.  It was also barefoot.

                “Admiral Naismith?” the woman asked.

                “Hello,” Miles said brightly.  “You look nothing like the man who invited us here.”

                The woman laughed, a warm furry sound.  “Lord Diplomat Lytol? No, I suppose I don’t.  I’m Master Menolly, of the Harper Hall, and also the Diplomat’s Hall.  Lord Lytol invited you to this event on behalf of Master Robinton,” and she gestured at the man speaking to the police currently. “The Masterdiplomat of Pern.  Beside me is Aivas,” she said, gesturing to the sex bot.

                Okay, perhaps this was Robinton’s jump pilot oddity.  The people that named their sex dolls were a pretty peculiar group.

                The bot inclined their head in the slightest of bows.

                Miles gestured to his left—“Sergeant Taura,” and to his right, “—Captain Quinn.”

                Menolly looked curiously up at Taura, but her face sea-blue eyes held no judgement, then she looked at Quinn, her curiosity vanishing as she became much more reserved. “I see my faire of firelizards had their way with you.  They are fanatically loyal to those that Impress them, and they are very honest when they feel a certain way.”

                The true emotions under that remark were thinly veiled, in itself its own sort of honesty.

                The woman continued almost pensively, “I’ve been trying to figure out how to put it to song.”

                “Song?” Quinn said dubiously.

                “Our First Contact with Beta Colony will be immortalized into a Teaching Ballad, which my husband, the Masterharper Sebell, will send out across the world.  If you had a say in how we portrayed this, Captain, what would you tell millions of people?  How would you explain why the Harper was attacked?”

                Quinn’s small gesture kept Miles from leaping to her defense.

                “Millions seems an exaggeration,” she said.

                The average space-station or minor planetary settlement didn’t go over a couple hundred thousand.

                “No.  The Harper Hall is responsible for the basic education of our entire planet.  My Teaching Ballad will reach everyone currently alive, and go on to reach millions more turns and turns after we are both dead and gone.”

                Quinn’s hand rose up and touched the patch over her eye.  Undoubtedly feeling rather pirate-like. Neither Quinn, nor Miles, had any trouble with the Dendarii being infamous.  The Cetagandans already had a bounty on them.

                But the more they learned about the Pernese, the more hostilities seemed…misguided at best. If they were genuinely who they seemed to be.

                And honey often caught you more than vinegar, which is why Miles had agreed that sharing—limited—information might put this minor (…or not so minor?) snafu to rest.  And get them the information they’d been looking for to begin with.

                Captain Quinn said, “A couple of months back, a ship the same type as yours—“

                Miles said, “Ancient, obscure, outdated.”

                “—attacked us repeatedly.”

                “Trying to fulfill a Cetagandan bounty, we think,” Miles said.

                “The only reason they didn’t succeed is because their artificial gravity gave out.”

                “Lowest-bidder aftermarket modification,” Miles remarked.

                Quinn glanced at him.

                He grinned.  He couldn’t help but help.

                “We thought that’s what killed the pilot, but then things got weird.”

                Master Menolly glanced at the bot beside her, like it might be able to give an opinion.  Miles wondered who was piloting it; the tall jump-pilot fellow was still talking to the police.  One of the others?  There was a middle-aged man, and two younger men—one tall, one short—who were watching the crowd as the Master Diplomat tried to charm the officers.  Or perhaps the bot simply recorded visual and audio information for later analysis.

                …it could also be just a sex bot too.  Best not to assume that, however.

                 “When we boarded the ship, the pilot was dead.  And had been for a couple of days.  The ship flew itself.”

                The woman was quiet for a long moment.  Then she said, “So the ship was trying to kill itself, out of grief.”

                What?  Miles found himself taking a hard look at the bot again.

                Glancing at the bot also, Menolly said, “Like a dragonrider whose dragon has died.  They often suicide. It’s difficult for them to continue on, once their partner is gone.”

                “Excuse me,” Quinn said.  “Dragons?”

                Taura also glanced at Menolly with interest in her amber eyes, before resuming her slow scan around the park.

                The bot spoke, for the first time.  It had a light tenor voice, and a Betan accent.  “Dragons are a native Pernese species, named ‘dragon’ for its resemblance to the creature of Earth myth.”

                Gesturing at the gold “firelizard” on her shoulder, Menolly said, “Like Beauty, but bigger.  Aivas?”

                “Yes, Master Menolly?”

                “Do you think that’s what happened?  Grief?”

                The bot’s face was as serene as any bot’s, but it hesitated for a long while before replying.  “It would be…irresponsible to call it that.”

                She cocked her head.

                The bot did not clarify. “Do you still have the body of the pilot, and the ship?” it asked Miles.

                “Pardon me,” Miles said.  Then he forged ahead with a rude but necessary question. “Are you a cyborg?”

                Another long hesitation.  “An interesting question.  Without flesh, I would not exist.  Perhaps I am a cyborg.  Do you have the pilot’s body?  The ship?”

                “The body was autopsied, then cremated.  The ship was sold for scrap.”

                “Did you discover anything about the body?”

                “Only that the pilot died because its jump set had fried.  The technology is old and eccentrically designed; lead time to find an expert was quoted as years.”  And the cost too exorbitant to justify to Illyan.  Back then, at least.  Now he was regretting giving the pilot a funeral, instead of keeping him on ice indefinitely.

                Aivas turned to the woman.  “The ship, or others like it, could be a source of spare parts, so we don’t have to go to the trouble of recreating blueprints and sourcing replacements.  Master Jancis would also be interested in examining the failed anti-gravity system, lest we fare the same when we upgrade our systems.”  The bot—cyborg?—looked at Miles again.  “The pilot’s body was damaged by intense g-forces exerted on it?”

                Quinn was the one who replied. “An understatement, but yes.”

                “Then the innate anti-gravity systems failed as well.  That model has primitive anti-gravity systems, not as sophisticated as the true anti-gravity technology Beta Colony engineered.  It counteracts the gees generated by maneuvers to keep it within human tolerances, but it can only counteract, not generate or maintain a specific state throughout the ship.”  Aivas was silent for a moment.

                “So this was one of your people?” Miles asked.

                “No,” Menolly and Aivas said at the same time.

                Aivas inclined its head to Menolly, so she could explain.

                Menolly said, “Pern’s colonists mostly came from Earth stock, with some lesser additions from Tau Ceti, Alpha Centauri, and Eridani.”

                Well that was interesting.  Menolly looked like she fully believed that was possible, and the cyborg didn’t counteract her.  “The Alpha Centauri colonization effort failed,” Miles said.  “Only Beta Colony was established.”

                “Huh,” Menolly said.  “Well, our Records could be wrong. It’s amazing we know as much as we do, after so long.”

                Aivas spoke.  “It’s possible the dead pilot was descended from Eridani stock, just as we were.  My research shows Eridani was later conquered by Cetaganda, centuries after Pern was colonized. I assume any individuals who survived that attack were absorbed into the Cetagandan empire.  It’s also probable the ship has been resold many times in the intervening centuries since those ships was last produced.”

                “But you suggested a motive for why that ship might have attacked our fleet,” Miles said.  How did a ship grieve?  Yet, that crazy game of chicken was not unlike the behavior of someone who’d had everything taken from them.  It made sense in a way his other theories hadn’t.

                “No, Aivas is right, it would be irresponsible to conclude that that definitely happened,” Menolly said.  “I’m afraid I’m projecting dragonrider customs on ships in my own effort to understand, and they’re two different things entirely.”

                Aivas nodded silently.

                But were they? The ship had demonstrably flown-by-wire, with its pilot dead.  The woman was—even if in error—ascribing it human motivations, grief.  That suggested the ship had a level of human intelligence. Or at least that someone other than the pilot was present and could fly the ship.  It wouldn’t be the first time a ship had one pilot for the wormholes, and another for in-system sub-light movement. Perhaps the partner to the fly-by-wire hadn’t been outside the ship at all.

                And here “Aivas” was, a sex-bot by all appearances.  But a ship wouldn’t work as a body once downside, would it?  Just a little too big to take sight-seeing through the city!

                Also, it’d considered the idea that it was a cyborg as if that were a completely new concept.  But then, Cetagandans weren’t the only ones who genetically engineered fanatic loyalty into their servants.  Or led them into thinking they were less than human, as Taura had been led.  It would be very easy to feel inhuman if you did not even have a body of your own, if your body might be something you could put on or take off like clothing.

                Miles said, a sinking feeling coming over him, “Should we have been looking for a co-pilot, a brain in a box, before we scrapped the ship?”

                Menolly’s eyes widened, and she looked horrified.  The whirling, faceted eyes of the golden firelizard on her arm changed from greenish-yellow to yellow-orange.

                Aivas’ expression did not change.  It looked as neutrally pleasant as ever.  “How long ago did this happen?”

                “About six months, galactic.”

                “I expect if there’d been a ‘brain in a box’ as you put it, it would have expired by now.  Grief might not be the right word.  But a conclusion that it should self-terminate, or simply not rouse itself to action that might save itself, could have come about through other logical processes.”

                Damn it!  Miles didn’t want to contemplate the idea that he’d killed someone out of sheer ignorance.  Even if they’d wanted to die, maybe he could have talked them out of it!

                Bad enough to be a brain in a box.  Drowning in a nutrient bag slowly poisoning itself with cellular waste, like uterine replicator neglected far past its expiry date…he wouldn’t wish that on enemies far worse than the mad-cap ship. That he hadn’t even known to search and the existence of a co-pilot had been cleverly hidden and probably shielded to prevent discovery by casual scan didn’t matter. His ignorance had led someone to their death.

                Quinn touched his arm.  “We couldn’t have known.”

                That wasn’t comforting and he expected it didn’t comfort her, either.