Nicole Hammond is a Sibyl, a special human that has the ability to communicate with a strange alien ship called the Fyrantha.
However, Nicole and all other sentient creatures are caught up in a war for control between two competing factions. Now, the street-kid turned rebel leader has a plan that would restore freedom to all who have been shanghaied by the strange ship.
She just has to unite the many alien races being forced to combat for their freedom, dodge slaving war profiteers determined to capture her, and convince an AI at war with itself to trust her above all else.
Nicole decided to try the ready room first, hoping that if Kahkitah had been caught there and captured he would have left behind some trace of his presence. But there was nothing. No trace, no Shipmasters, and no Kahkitah.
He wasn’t in the pump room, either. But even as she and Jeff sat down to try to come up with their next move the door opened and the big Ghorf slipped inside.
“I’m so sorry to have concerned you,” he apologized.
“Don’t worry about it,” Nicole assured him. “We’re just glad you’re here. How did you get away?”
“I thought it best to continue with the façade my people have carefully constructed these many years,” he said, sitting down beside her. “Instead of running to the first group of Wisps I continued past them as if I had panicked and had no idea what I was doing.”
He tapped one leg, where Nicole could now see a thin line of discoloration. “The Koffren eventually connected with a shot and brought me down.”
“They got you?” Jeff asked, frowning. “And then they just let you go?”
“Yes, but not without considerable persuasion,” Kahkitah said. “I explained that Nicole had asked me to bring food and water for a meeting you were planning. I told them this was my first trip to this region of the Fyrantha, and that I’d only brought a few food bars and water bottles.”
“In other words, just what you had on you,” Jeff said.
“Yes. I told them you were annoyed that I hadn’t brought more. I told them I apologized, that I’d misunderstood. Then, when the Koffren appeared, you told me they were here to kill me for my failure and ordered me to run.”
“What about the fact that you helped me get away?” Nicole asked.
“I told them I thought some creature from the Fyrantha’s dark underbelly had attacked us,” Kahkitah said. “I panicked and pulled you free. I was also startled and confused to learn that you’d left long before the Koffren caught me.”
“And they bought that?” Jeff asked, frowning.
“The conversation wasn’t actually with them,” Kahkitah said. “One of the Shipmasters—Fievj, I believe—did the questioning. The Koffren merely stood by and acted angry.”
“I doubt they were acting,” Nicole said.
“And then he just let you go?” Jeff asked.
“He did better than that,” Kahkitah said. “He brought me to the hive himself. Did you know that centaur armor could fly straight up the heat-transfer ducts?”
“No, but it makes sense,” Nicole said. “They have to be able to get around somehow, and they still don’t control all the Wisps.”
“But he just let you go?” Jeff persisted. “I can’t believe even Fievj is that naïve.”
“Oh, not at all,” Kahkitah said. “He placed a device on the back of my jumpsuit that I assume was a location tracer of some kind.” He whistled something untranslatable. “Sadly, there was a lingering odor from the removal chemical that I found distressing, so I left the jumpsuit in my room and changed into another.”
“They used a chemical to get the stuff off?” Jeff asked. “I’d assumed they would have to cut it.”
“No, it was a far more elegant solution,” Kahkitah said. “They had a small bottle with a dropper built into the lid. Two drops on the tangler tendrils dissolved and evaporated them in short order.”
“A liquid chemical, huh?” Jeff said with a lopsided smile. “An elegant solution. Nice.”
“I don’t follow.”
“A liquid chemical,” Jeff said. “A solution.”
Kahkitah looked blankly at him a moment, then turned to Nicole. “I think I must be missing something.”
“Oh,” Jeff said, the smile disappearing. “Never mind. I forget you’re not speaking English. Solution probably doesn’t have the same double meaning in your language.”
“No, not at all,” Kahkitah said. “But I’m sure the joke was amusing.”
“Like we say, you had to be there,” Jeff said dryly. “Forget it.”
“I will,” Kahkitah said. “Someday, when this is all over, we must discuss wordplay.” He gave a short whistle. “But that is the future. This is the present. I presume you’ve come up with a plan in my absence?”
“We’re working on it,” Jeff said. “We spent most of the last hour worrying about you. I guess we’ll know better next time.”
“Your concern was indeed unnecessary, but nonetheless greatly appreciated,” Kahkitah said, ducking his head. “Hopefully, the information I gleaned during my interrogation will make up for the lost time.”
“You reverse-interrogated them?” Jeff asked. “Nice.”
“I don’t know that term,” Kahkitah said. “I asked no questions, but simply observed. First, the entanglement weapons.”
“You mean the spider guns?” Nicole asked.
“Yes,” Kahkitah said. “Is that what humans call them?”
“I don’t know if humans call them anything,” Nicole said. “It’s what I call them. I’m not sure we even have anything like that on Earth.”
“We didn’t as of a few years ago, anyway,” Jeff said. “What about them?”
“They aren’t designed for the Koffren,” Kahkitah said. “The grip and the placement of trigger and other controls don’t fit hands and fingers their size.”
“So they’re Shipmaster weapons,” Jeff said, nodding.
“So I conclude,” Kahkitah said. “I furthermore don’t believe the Koffren ever shot them before today.”
“You getting that from their rotten accuracy?”
“Rotten at the beginning, but much better at the end,” Kahkitah agreed. “I furthermore conclude that projectile weapons of that sort aren’t completely foreign to them.”
“Interesting,” Jeff said thoughtfully. “Not just that, but the other implications. Fievj was with them in the lower level, and I can’t see him bothering with that centaur section unless it’s stocked with those greenguns.”
“So why were the Koffren using spider guns?” Nicole murmured.
“Exactly,” Jeff said. “Even if they’re trying to take us alive, a greenfire bolt is a hell of a lot harder to dodge than a spider glob. And a precision weapon like that would make it a lot easier to disable a target without killing him or her.”
“Which means they don’t trust them,” Nicole said. “Fievj and the Shipmasters. They don’t trust the Koffren.”
“Not surprising if the Koffren are merely more warriors for the arenas,” Kahkitah said.
“Yeah, well, that’s where it gets confusing,” Nicole said. “One of the Shipmasters—probably Fievj—told me the Koffren had been taken from their homes and were mad about that. But then one of the Koffren said that the one who’d brought them in wasn’t Fievj but Nevvis—he’s another Shipmaster—and that Nevvis deals with the buyers.”
“Could have been a little psych going on,” Jeff suggested. “Pretending they were higher up the food chain to put us at a disadvantage.”
“I don’t think so,” Nicole said. “The Koffren also said they were testing us for our value in battle. I can’t see the Shipmasters telling just anyone what they’re up to.”
“Well, somebody’s lying,” Jeff said. “Big surprise there.”
“Assume for the moment that the Koffren are telling the truth about being buyers,” Kahkitah said. “That raises more interesting questions.”
“Such as?” Nicole asked.
“Have the Koffren always been aboard?” Kahkitah said, ticking off fingers. “Are they newcomers? If so, were they brought in specifically for you, or were they here for a different purpose? Are there more than just two of them?”
“And why would the Shipmasters give them spider guns instead of greenguns?” Jeff added. “By the way, as to that last one, we don’t know for sure that the two in the lower level were the same ones we tangled with in Q1.”
“They were,” Kahkitah said. “I saw marks on their wrists from the tridents.”
“We cut them?” Nicole asked, frowning. “I don’t remember seeing any blood.”
“There wasn’t any,” Kahkitah confirmed. “The marks were not so much cuts or scratches as they were indentation marks. Their skin appears to be quite thick and dense, though there’s a subtle color variation toward the neck that perhaps suggests the skin of their faces is thinner and less durable.”
“Hence the helmets,” Jeff said, nodding.
“That was my thought, as well.”
Nicole winced, thinking back to that first confrontation. Just as well that she hadn’t tried to take one of their swords while the Wisps held them frozen. She probably couldn’t have cut through their skin even if she’d tried.
“Anyway, good catch,” Jeff said. “Though just because we’ve already met these two it doesn’t prove there aren’t more of them wandering around the Fyrantha.”
“Agreed,” Kahkitah said.
Nicole sighed. A lot of questions, not a lot of answers. “So what’s their next step? Bring in a whole army of Koffren to hunt us down?”
“That would be the logical escalation,” Kahkitah agreed. “Assuming the Wisps are willing to do that.”
“If the teleport rooms are in Q1 the Wisps probably wouldn’t have a choice,” Jeff said. “The Shipmasters have that section pretty well locked down.”
“Perhaps,” Kahkitah said. “But I’m beginning to suspect the dynamic is considerably more complex.”
“I agree,” Jeff said. “Let’s hear your take and see if it matches mine.”
“Very well.” Kahkitah paused a moment, steepling his fingers in front of him as if collecting his thoughts. “The Shipmasters are unwilling to face us directly. Not in combat, at least. The Koffren, whether permanent residents or recent arrivals, are therefore pressed into service as surrogates.”
“Only they didn’t do all that well,” Nicole pointed out.
“Exactly,” Kahkitah said. “But at this point, the Shipmasters have a dilemma. If they can’t stop us quickly, they risk us doing permanent damage to the ship, or at least to their plans. But if they bring in more Koffren to assist them, it underscores the Shipmasters’ weakness. Worse, if the Koffren are indeed buyers, they might decide they have sufficient numbers to take the entire Fyrantha for themselves by force.”
“Cutting out the middleman,” Jeff said, nodding.
“Exactly,” Kahkitah said. “I daresay that a ship run by Koffren would be worse for us than a ship run by Shipmasters.”
“If they could really take control,” Nicole said. “The Shipmasters might be able to turn the whole ship against them before they were taken down. If they did that, I don’t think even Koffren would do very well.”
“Perhaps not,” Kahkitah said. “But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t try.” He looked at Jeff. “Did I miss anything?”
“No, I think you covered it pretty well,” Jeff said. “Just one more point. I agree that right now the Shipmasters probably don’t want to show weakness by bringing in more Koffren. But if and when that resolve breaks, it’ll break all at once. In other words, we won’t be able to just push them back gradually. The minute they think we might get the upper hand they’ll crack, and we’ll be up to our armpits in Koffren.”
“Ouch,” Nicole said, wincing. “How do we know when that’s about to happen?”
“Unfortunately, probably not until we’re up to our armpits in Koffren.”
Nicole snorted. “You’re a big help.”
“Sadly, he’s not wrong,” Kahkitah said. “There’s seldom any way to anticipate an enemy’s desperation level. Worse, when Fievj decides to bring in reinforcements he may not bring Koffren. He might instead bring in someone worse, someone we’ve never seen and don’t know how to fight.”
“You think they’ve got someone worse than Koffren they could call?”
“I wouldn’t want to bet they don’t,” Jeff said. “Of course, the nastier the ally, the bigger the risk that they’ll turn on the Shipmasters and we’ll get running battles through the Fyrantha’s passageways.”
“Until the Wisps catch up with them,” Nicole said. “Near as I can tell, they can immobilize anyone they can get a grip on.”
“Which means that if Fievj ever gets control of all of them, in all four quadrants, we’re toast,” Jeff said, scowling. “You’re absolutely sure he can’t send any of the Q1 group here?”
“As far as I can tell, the Wisps can’t even see any of the Fyrantha except the part they work in,” Nicole said. “Plus a corridor or so into the next section.”
“You realize how bizarre that is, right?” Jeff asked. “What if there’s an emergency? Do you have to reprogram all of them before you can send them somewhere else?”
“No idea,” Nicole said. “But I’ve questioned a bunch of them, and that just seems to be the way it works. Trust me, if I could have brought some Q4 Wisps into the Q1 arena, I’d have done so. We’d have taken down the Koffren with a lot less trouble.”
“I’m not doubting you,” Jeff assured her. “I’m just thinking about going up against a quadrant’s worth of Wisps you can’t control. Unfortunately, that’s where the Shipmasters and the greenguns are, so that’s where we have to go.”
“You intend to capture some weapons, then?” Kahkitah asked.
“Well, we’re sure not going to take out the Koffren with the toy arrows and swords the Ponngs and Thii brought along,” Jeff said. “You know, it occurs to me that one other reason the greenguns haven’t come out to play might be that the Shipmasters don’t want the Koffren to even know they have weapons like that. If that’s any part of it, us just having one that we could bring out for show-and-tell might make for a decent bargaining chip.”
“I’m not sure what you think we can bargain for,” Kahkitah said. “But I agree that better weapons are vital. Have you a suggestion on how to proceed?”
“We get a crew together and head into Q1,” Jeff said. “There has to be an armory in there somewhere. We find it, we get in, we get armed, we get out.”
“Just like that?” Nicole asked, frowning.
“More or less,” Jeff said. “That’s the easy-to-remember version, anyway.”
“Sort of skips over the part about dodging Wisps, Shipmasters, and Koffren, doesn’t it?”
“I didn’t say there wouldn’t be challenges,” Jeff said with a shrug. “But the Fyrantha’s a big ship, and there can’t be that many Shipmasters and Wisps aboard.”
“What about Ushkai?” Nicole countered. “If he and the Shipmasters are watching the whole ship, it’s going to be pretty hard to keep dodging everyone.”
“Only if there are enough of them to watch everywhere at once,” Jeff said. “Once we’re ready to move on the armory, a couple of nice diversions will hopefully help clear the way.”
“Though you first have to find this hoped-for armory.”
“Number one on our things-to-do list,” Jeff agreed. “You coming?”
“If you think I’ll be useful,” Kahkitah said.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I can find something for you to do.”
“I’m coming, too,” Nicole said.
“Uh-uh,” Jeff said firmly. “Sorry, but you’re too valuable to risk.”
“And you aren’t?” Nicole countered. “Besides, I know the ship better than you do.”
“And you know the Shipmasters, as well,” Kahkitah said, his birdsongs suddenly sounding thoughtful. “Interesting.”
“What’s so interesting about it?” Nicole asked. “I’ve spent a lot more time with them, that’s all. It’s no big deal.”
“You also understand how to deal with the Thii,” Jeff said, eyeing her thoughtfully. “And from what you told me earlier, you did the same thing with the Ejbofs in Q2.”
“And the same answer for both of them,” Nicole said. “Are we going to go hunt down some weapons, or aren’t we?”
“What do you think, Kahkitah?” Jeff asked, making no move to stand up. “The inhaler?”
“She hasn’t used it for quite some time.”
“Residual effects, maybe?”
“Perhaps,” Kahkitah said. “Though you’d then have to explain why none of the other Sibyls could do such things.”
“Maybe they can,” Jeff suggested. “Maybe they all get these same hints and feelings, but Nicole’s the only one who hasn’t ignored them.”
“Also, none of the others were declared the Fyrantha’s Protector.”
“Okay, just stop it,” Nicole cut in. “If you’re talking about me, you do know I’m right here. Right?”
“We are indeed talking about you,” Kahkitah said. “Specifically, we’re noting the ease with which you understand the Fyrantha and everyone aboard.”
“I already told you that’s not a big deal,” Nicole said. “I had to learn to read people back in Philly. It was how you stayed alive in Trake’s gang.”
“Reading humans is one thing,” Kahkitah said. “Reading Wisps, Shipmasters, and Thii is something else. I believe there’s more at work here than just your Earth experience.”
“I agree,” Jeff said. “I’m thinking you’ve become more of an ally to the Fyrantha than you realize. It’s picking up information on everyone aboard and feeding it to you, maybe on a subconscious level. Giving you stuff you otherwise wouldn’t know or understand.”
A cold chill ran up Nicole’s back. She’d known he was going to say that. Somehow, she’d known.
How in hell had she known?
“We know the Fyrantha’s on our side,” Jeff continued. “The fact that it hasn’t blown the whistle on the Ghorfs’ secret comm system shows that much. If it wants the Shipmasters kicked out, or at least doesn’t want them turning it back into a warship, then it makes sense it would do whatever it could to help you.”
“Yeah, interesting,” Nicole said, pushing herself up off the floor and standing up. A little too fast; a whisper of light-headedness touched her.
Jeff was up and at her side in an instant. “You okay?” he asked, taking her arm in a steadying grip.
“I’m fine,” Nicole said, trying to pull away. For half a second he seemed to resist, then let go. “You must be feeling better.”
“I’m pretty much healed,” he said. “Whatever else the Fyrantha might be, it’s got a really good medical service. Doesn’t mean I ever want to get shot by another greengun, of course.”
“Yeah, let’s all try to avoid that,” Nicole said. “I’m going to Q3 to find Wesowee and Kointos’s gray group. Maybe I can talk them into helping us.”
Jeff glanced at Kahkitah. “I thought you wanted to help us look for the armory.”
“I thought you said that was too dangerous,” Nicole shot back. “So how do I use these secret Ghorf phones?”
Another look between Jeff and Kahkitah, a longer one this time. “Just find another Ghorf,” Kahkitah said. “Seven of the eight Q3 repair teams have one. Any of them will know how to get a message to me.”
“Fine,” Nicole said. “Send a message to Wesowee when you’re ready to head to Q1 so he’ll know I’m coming.”
“Yeah,” Jeff said, sounding distinctly unhappy. “Nicole, I really don’t like the idea of you going off alone.”
“She won’t be,” Kahkitah assured him.
“No, you need to go with Jeff,” Nicole told him firmly.
“Not me,” Kahkitah said. “I was speaking of Moile and Teika.”
“What, the Ponngs?” Nicole scoffed. “Sorry, but I’m not waiting for you to go back and get them.”
“No need,” Kahkitah assured her. “They’re already here.”
Nicole felt her eyes widen. “They’re what? Where?”
“In a room a few doors down the corridor,” Kahkitah said. “I thought they might be useful, so I brought them with me from the hive.”
“And just left them outside?” Jeff asked, frowning. “Why didn’t you bring them in?”
“I thought we might discuss matters they would not yet be permitted to hear.” Kahkitah looked at Nicole. “You will take them with you, won’t you?”
Nicole glowered. For a second, Kahkitah had seemed like the earnest, simpleminded creature he’d always pretended to be.
She would never again see him as simpleminded. But maybe the earnest part was real.
She’d hoped to go off on her own for a little while, to work through the stuff Jeff and Kahkitah had just dumped on her. Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen. Maybe that was what Kahkitah had planned all along. “Fine,” she bit out. “Whatever. Go grab them, and let’s get moving.”
Moile and Teika were more than willing to accompany Nicole, their pointed but otherwise useless swords held proudly.
Useless swords; and out here in the Fyrantha’s hallways, mostly useless Ponngs. But at least they knew how to keep quiet.
They were doing a lot of that now as Nicole led the way up along a nearby stairway, her mind churning. Maybe the idea that she was becoming linked to the Fyrantha was something new, something she’d never thought of before. More likely, it was something she’d already known and simply pushed into the back of her mind with all the other thoughts and memories she didn’t want to admit were there.
Now, thanks to Jeff and Kahkitah, those suspicions had been dragged out into the open where she could no longer ignore them.
It made a certain amount of sense, really. Ushkai had told her the original Lillilli owners had set up the Fyrantha so that only humans could repair it, though he hadn’t known why. Maybe that was because they knew that humans could connect to the ship on a level that would let them become true friends and allies. If Nicole thought about it that way, it was like she suddenly had a boyfriend.
Problem was, she didn’t want a boyfriend.
She’d worked incredibly hard over the years to avoid that exact situation. She’d played Trake’s men against each other, favoring one and then another, talking one into giving her crash space—and hopefully nothing else—then making sure to move on to the next before she wore out her welcome. Every time she’d slipped up, every time she’d been forced to endure one of those horrible and thoroughly unwanted couch sessions, it had left another black scar on her mind that needed to be buried away.
It wasn’t just that there was no one in the gang she liked enough to be a willing participant in such things. It was that anchoring herself to any one person was incredibly dangerous. With all the jockeying back and forth for position, with Trake ruling over everyone with an iron fist, and with deaths and injuries sometimes a monthly occurrence, picking the wrong partner could be fatal for a woman. If she lost her man to gang violence, she would be fair game for whoever grabbed her first. If she lost him to gang politics, she would be bit by the same backlash.
What would happen to her if the Fyrantha lost its battle against the Shipmasters?
Because it might. Probably would, in fact. The Shipmasters had all the cards, all the weapons, and the most critical parts of the ship. They had allies and servants and the teleport rooms and a full quarter of the Wisps. All Nicole had was Jeff, Kahkitah, a handful of humans and Ghorfs—
“Where are we going?” Moile asked from a few steps below her.
Nicole sighed. And two Ponngs and four Thii.
“Up another couple of levels,” she told him. “We’ll be heading back down to the arena, but I want to cross the central heat-transfer duct a few levels above it. Less chance of running into a Q3 Wisp that way.”
“I thought the Q3 Wisps were under your control,” Teika said.
“I haven’t really tested that,” Nicole said. “Anyway, whatever it was before could have changed in the past few hours. Why, you getting tired?”
“Not at all,” Moile assured her. “We will follow the Sibyl wherever she leads.”
Nicole hissed silently. Still playing their self-chosen roles as her loyal slaves. The whole thing still set her teeth on edge.
And it got worse. One of Trake’s gang getting kicked under the bus usually bounced the same mess to his woman. If the Fyrantha lost, and Nicole lost along with it, would that happen to the Ponngs and Thii? The Shipmasters needed the humans to fix their ship, and the Ghorfs to provide the necessary muscle, but she doubted they needed a half dozen aliens who barely came up to Nicole’s chin and had no strength or technical expertise to speak of.
Could she persuade Jeff and Carp to take them into the blue group and teach them how to repair the Fyrantha’s circuits? Maybe their thinner fingers could get into places that human ones couldn’t reach.
Another chill ran through her. What in hell’s name was she doing?
She’d spent half her life training herself not to care about other people, because caring never gained anyone anything but a punch or a knife in the gut. She’d started life aboard the Fyrantha by playing Carp and the others against each other, making sure to never get close to any of them. Maybe she’d gotten a little too close to Jeff and Kahkitah, but that was purely because they could be useful to her as allies.
But the Ponngs and Thii were of no value to her. None at all. So why did she care what happened to them?
Or was any of this coming from her at all? Was it instead coming from the Fyrantha?
Get out of my head! she thought viciously at the ship. You can tell me what to do, but you can’t tell me what to think.
There was no answer. She hadn’t really expected one.
But her concern for the Ponngs and Thii was still there.
Ushkai had declared her to be the Fyrantha’s Protector. He hadn’t mentioned anything about her also becoming the ship’s slave.
Copyright © Timothy Zahn 2020
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