Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley
A NOVEL OF DARKOVER
By Marion Zimmer Bradley & Mercedes Lackey
you up there?” Elizabeth Mackintosh poked her head cautiously into the shaft that held the computer core. She was a small, slight woman, not exactly pretty, but with a gentle yet intense liveliness about her that made “prettiness” inconsequential.
She had thick, dark hair and blue eyes, lovely and clear, and a voice that sounded, as it echoed the length of the shaft, as if she were singing. She didn’t much care for the computers at the best of times, and the narrow shaft that held their working components made her positively claustrophobic. Once she had told Ysaye that the warm gloom, dotted with tiny red working-lights, made her feel as if she were surrounded by a sphere of red-eyed demons. Ysaye had chuckled, thinking she was joking, but it was true.
“I’ll be done in a minute,” Ysaye Barnett called down. “Just let me get this last board back in.” She replaced the board she had been working on and pushed her
fingertips lightly against the panel to start her tall body moving down the tube. In the low gravity of the core, it didn’t take much of a push. The gravity, and her speed, increased as she neared the end of the shaft, and she landed carefully on bent knees next to Elizabeth at the base. Gravity in the main computer room was .8 standard; and, as usual, Elizabeth had a death grip on the rail that ran down the center of the room.
Variations in gravity made Elizabeth nervous; she lived for the day when the ship found a planet she could settle on. Sometimes she wondered why she had ever gone to space—
but then she remembered what overpopulated, noisy, techno-addicted Terra was like and knew she could never go back. Only the very wealthy could afford room and privacy on Terra. Back there, light-years be hind them, she’d never even be able to afford the privacy of a tiny cubicle like her shipboard quarters on the miniscule salary of a cultural anthropologist.
Ysaye, on the other hand, seemed made for life on shipboard. Changing gravity
zones was a game to her—rather like a grown-up version of hopscotch. Her black, wiry hair was braided in cornrows, which kept it out of her face, the equipment she worked with, and the ventilation ducts. She kept her quarters so tidy that the room could pull negative Gs and nothing would fall out of place; she knew the ship’s schedules,
procedures, and emergency drills forward and backward. The junior ensigns claimed that every piece of data in the computer was duplicated in Ysaye’s head and could be
retrieved just as quickly from either place.
One ensign who worked third watch even insisted that the computer woke up at
night and cried for her. Ysaye had informed him with a twinkle in her bright brown eyes that he needed to be careful of his tendency to anthropomorphize. Not that she didn’t talk to the computer herself, of course; but she did try never to do so when anyone might overhear her. After all, she had a reputation as a scientist to maintain.
“Well, that should take care of our little glitch,” Ysaye said happily. Nothing
pleased her more than finding the answer to a puzzle, and this one had plagued the techs for days, an intermittent Loss-Of-Signal from the robot probe that preceded the ship by about a day. “I told them it was in our hardware and not the probe’s. And I’m going to have
hide for not running regular tests to check for that sort of thing.”
“Any more news on our new planet?” David Lorne, Elizabeth’s fiance, entered the
computer room and walked carefully along the rail to join the women. Elizabeth
automatically held out her hand; he took it just as automatically. Like a phototropic response, Ysaye thought. David was like Elizabeth’s sun, and sometimes it seemed that without him she might wilt and fade.
“No name,” Ysaye replied, slipping automatically into reference librarian mode,
and keying commands into the console. “Even the star’s only in the unabridged.
Cottman’s Star. Six planets, the record says, but,” she pulled up a diagram on the console screen, “our latest scan data makes it seven. Three little rockies, four big fuzzies. The fourth out from the sun is habitable or at least on the edge of being habitable. It’s low on dense metals, but it wouldn’t be the first planet settled that’s short on metals. Plenty of oxygen, though.”
“Is that the one with the four moons? Sounds so exotic— like there would be a lot of material for a ballad there,” Elizabeth said.
sounds to you like there would be material for a ballad,” Ysaye pointed out affectionately.
“And why not?” Elizabeth replied with complete seriousness. Ysaye shook her
head. Elizabeth had a habit of relating everything to some ballad or other. Granted, folk music was her hobby, and anthropology her specialty; and granted that an awful lot of primitive history was contained in songs and ballads, but still…There was a limit, at least as far as Ysaye was concerned. The time Elizabeth had tried to compare Ysaye’s tendency to disappear for days when tracing a computer glitch to the abduction of Thomas the Rhymer by the Queen of Elfland…well, it had taken Ysaye weeks to quell all the nonsense about elves and fairies living in the core.
“Any people?” David asked. “Or rather, any signs of sentients?” For both
Elizabeth and David that was the big question. It didn’t matter much to Ysaye one way or the other; she was ship’s crew. But David and Elizabeth wanted to marry and raise a family, and they couldn’t do that on shipboard. Children couldn’t even travel on a ship—
not if they wanted to grow up with anything resembling a human skeleton. Immature bodies were much more delicate and fragile than the planet bound could imagine. They still had time; all three of them had joined the Service right out of the university and were only in their late twenties. Theoretically, sooner or later there would be a planet suitable for either colonization or Empire Contact where the contact and explorations teams could set up shop and stay put for twenty years or more. But after three years of nothing but rockballs, Elizabeth, at least, was getting anxious.
“You’re both telepaths,” Ysaye teased; “you tell me.” It was how they had
originally met, as experimental subjects in the parapsychology lab in the university.
Unfortunately, the instruments hadn’t been set up to measure love at first sight, or they might have had some very interesting data. Ysaye had been the technician working that day, and had dutifully noted down everything else the machines measured. She had never told anyone about the other effects that she saw—or thought she saw. After all,
“seeing auras” was such a subjective experience.
Elizabeth was not at all reticent about her “gift”—even if she was a little
defensive about it. David just shrugged it off; if people didn’t believe him, that was their problem, not his. If really pressed, Ysaye would admit to having some intuition, or the occasional hunch. Other than that, she preferred not to talk about it. “Things invisible to see” and the knowledge she had from no discernible source were something she used but didn’t bandy about.
She had always been something of a loner, and her “talent” had made her lean
even farther in that direction. She had learned as a child how to convey the things that she “knew” in the form of questions to the people around her; a child wasn’t supposed to correct adults in
family, probably because any child was presumed to know less than any adult. But it was very hard for Ysaye to hide what she knew, and so she had chosen solitude instead, as a better sort of “hiding place.”
She had carefully concealed her intelligence as well behind a mask of childish
innocence and spent every possible moment with her computer. This had not been as difficult for her as it might have been for another child; her parents had enrolled her in computer instruction—”home schooling,” it was called—instead of sending her to
public school. They considered the values taught in Earth’s schools irreligious—and sadly lacking in ethics, morals—any differentiation of right from wrong, a subject Ysaye’s mother felt particularly strongly about. Ysaye could
hear her mother in the back of her mind sometimes, whenever someone around her indulged in sliding ethics and fuzzy logic.
“I’m not that strong a telepath,” Elizabeth replied, quite seriously, although Ysaye had been joking. “And besides I
there to be people, so I’m too biased. You don’t have any emotional stake in this; what do you think, Ysaye? Are there people there?”
Neither her parents nor the computers Ysaye worked with had ever considered “I
don’t know” to be an acceptable answer. If you didn’t know off the top of your head, you got more data. Almost as a reflex, Ysaye cast her mind toward the planet and got an answer, all without conscious volition or words.
The planet was inhabited; suddenly she knew that. But she couldn’t explain how
she knew, or prove it, so she temporized. “We’ll find out soon enough,” she said. “I hope for your sake that it is—though I’d miss you if you left the ship. We need
besides a ball of stone and dust; people are starting to get a little bit stir-crazy.”
Little behavioral quirks had threatened to turn into full-blown neuroses in the past couple of months. Ysaye had been somewhat insulated from it all, living as much with her beloved computers as she did—but she’d certainly noticed it. Everyone was looking for some kind of an escape from the other members of the two crews. Even lifelong friends—or lovers—were beginning to get on each others’ nerves.
“Anyhow, it probably means a few months down,” David said cheerfully, “even if
it doesn’t turn out to be inhabited. Plenty of work for us both, Elizabeth, in our secondaries, if not our specialties.” David Lorne was a linguist
xenocartographer, Elizabeth an anthropologist
meteorologist. Everyone aboard the ship had two or three jobs—except for Ysaye and the computer, who did quite a bit of almost everything.
“I’m ready for that,” Elizabeth said. “I’m ready for some
A place where I’m not always bumping into someone. All this travel isn’t getting us anywhere.”
“That sounds kind of funny,” David said, teasingly, “especially when you consider all the light-years we’ve put on this ship.”
“I don’t mean literally,” she replied, making a face at him, “and you know it as well as I do.
speaking, we’re standing still, however many light-years we’ve traveled. I mean, as far as we’re concerned, we might just as well have been confined to a single building in Dallas or San Francisco for the past three years. I’m
of studying textbooks and computer simulations. I want to study something real again.”
“Well, I could stand to be employed again,” he admitted, with a lopsided grin.
“All this space travel makes me feel like I might as well be supercargo. It’ll be good to get back to work.”
There was nothing unusual about David Lorne except his astonishingly clear eyes
and a way he had of looking very straight at anyone he spoke to. He was a remarkably serious young man, already balding and looking somewhat older than his twenty-seven years, but with a subtle and unique sense of humor which he shared with Elizabeth more than anyone else.
“What do you really want to find down there, David?” she asked, feeling suddenly very sober.
“A planet I can make my life’s work; some interesting stuff I can really get my
teeth into,” he answered, with equal seriousness. “A place you and I can make our own; isn’t that what we both want? So we can settle down, have a couple of kids who’ll grow up to be natives of this world—whatever it turns out to be.”
“I’ll certainly be glad enough to get down to a planetary surface,
surface,” she agreed. “I’m so tired of feeling superfluous. Nothing much for you and me to do in space except give concerts for the crew.” Elizabeth didn’t just collect and study ballads, she performed them as well. She had an extensive repertoire and played and sang