The Black Hole
The Metrognome and Other Stories
Nor Crystal Tears
Star Wars ? Sentenced to Prism : Splinter of the Mind's EyeStar Trek ?
Voyage to the City of the Dead
… Who Needs Enemies? With Friends Like These … Mad Amos
The Howling Stones Parallelities
Exceptions to Reality
THE ICERIGGER TRILOGY
Mission to Moulokin The Deluge Drivers
THE ADVENTURES OF FLINX OF THE COMMONWEALTH
For Love of Mother-Not The Tar-Aiym Krang Orphan Star
The End of the Matter Bloodhype
Flinx in Flux
Book One: A Call to Arms Book Two: The False Mirror Book Three: The Spoils of War
THE FOUNDING OF THE COMMONWEALTH
To the friends of Flinx and Pip, who have waited patiently (okay, sometimes not so patiently) for more than a third of a century to see him finallyget some closure. The three of us thank
ABU THE THIEF: “You've got what you want. Now I'm going to get what I want.”
PRINCE AHMAD: “What's that?”
ABU: “Some fun and adventure, at last!”
—THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, 1940
Insofar as he knew, Flinx was the first unofficial, uninvited representative of his species toset foot on the AAnn homeworld of Blasusarr. Very few humans and even fewer thranx had everbeen formally accredited to do so. Only the minimum number essential to facilitate those fewdiplomatic exchanges where electronic representations were insufficient and face-to-faceconversation was demanded had ever been allowed actual physical access. The idea that a singlehuman operating entirely on their own might somehow succeed in penetrating the elaborate andextensive defenses that redundantly englobed Blasusarr was sufficiently ludicrous to promulgateall by itself entirely new orders of cognitive absurdity. Everyone knew that no non-AAnn shipcould so much as approach the outskirts of the homeworld system without being challenged—orblown to bits.
However, the AAnn scientists and engineers who had designed and built those impressiveplanetary defense systems had never envisioned a ship like the Teacher. But then, neither had
The energetic and enthusiastic Ulru-Ujurrians, using all of their exponentially developingskills, imbued the entire body of Flinx's vessel with a chameleonic ability. The ship could socompletely transform its appearance that one moment it could present the perfect likeness anddetection signature of a private passenger craft, and the next that of a heavily armed militaryescort. Now settled in unobtrusive orbit around the AAnn homeworld, it displayed the convincingaspect of a minor clan AAnn cargo vessel. Furthermore, it was not the only persuasivetransformation to have taken place in that vicinity. There was also the elaborate and difficultprovisional makeover Flinx had devised for himself.
So accomplished was the result that he had been on Blasusarr for a local teverravak, or sixteen
days, without drawing more than the occasional casual glance. Perfectly fashioned though itwas, the simsuit that enveloped him completely would have been inadequate to sustain the rusehad he not been so knowledgeable in the ways of the quasi-reptilians among whom he moved. Heknew how to emulate the loping AAnn gait, which involved bending slightly at the knees andinvigorating each step with a slight hopping motion; was intimately familiar with theireloquent repertoire of communicative hand gestures; could eat their food (though the profoundlycarnivorous diet was beginning to have adverse effects on his waistline); and, through the useof tiny but powerful integrated servos lodged in the suit's hindquarters, was even able tosatisfactorily manipulate its integrated lightweight tail. Built-in nanoneuromatics operatedthe suit's double eyelids. Having to view the world through their slitted pupils somewhatrestricted his peripheral vision, but the result was more than adequate. He saw everything thatthreatened to trip him.
Thus camouflaged and experienced, he passed freely if cautiously among his unknowing hosts, theloose spaces and the specially constructed sleeping pocket within the suit providing ample roomfor Pip to both rest and move about while retaining a certain amount of freedom.
Not even the operators of the subsurface transient burrow where Flinx had rented living spacesuspected that he was anything but a nye: a fully mature adult AAnn. Utilizing a mastery of hishosts' language that was rare among his kind, while keeping conversation to a minimum, he foundhimself accepted by his fellow burrow-dwellers as one of their own. He even took care to makeappropriate use of the sand room in his quarters, remembering before departing each day toleave the suitably scaly impression of his simsuit on the heated surface.
Thankfully, the suit's thermosensitive cooling system was up to the task of coping withBlasusarr's demanding climate. The AAnn had evolved on a desert world. While Flinx normally
would have had no trouble tolerating the dry forty-degree heat, any other kind of completelyenclosed suit would have rendered it unbearable. Cocooned within its technologically advancedconfines he stayed cool and reasonably comfortable, and could do most anything an AAnn could dowithout revealing his human identity. Eating, drinking, and voiding were the chief exceptions.He sustained his masquerade by making sure to perform such necessary functions only in privateand under carefully controlled conditions.
The capital city of Blasusarr and therefore the entire AAnn empire, Krrassin was an immenselyspread-out metropolis of long, low buildings punctuated only by the occasional unavoidabletower. While humans favored the view to be had from on high and the thranx chose where possibleto cluster together belowground, the AAnn, having evolved from burrow-ambush predators, stillpreferred to live and work just below and just above the surface. The ideal AAnn dwelling wasone partially subterranean but featuring long, narrow windows that provided a view exactly atground level. In a city the size of Krrassin such panoramas were scarce and available only tothe most privileged. Those forced to live high above the ground or deep below the surface hadto make do with virtual visuals.
Having mastered their harsh environment, the majority of AAnn spent the bulk of their wakinghours living and working within the vast interconnected warren that was the Great Burrow ofKrrassin. Those who ventured outside on foot did so on external pedestrian walkways that,following tradition, crisscrossed the city in a succession of sweeping, concentric S-curves.
It was down one such gently curving avenue that Flinx presently found himself strolling. Hekept to the extreme right or the left, avoiding the center path that was reserved for thosecitizens who wished to engage in ceremonial aggression; whether for purposes of socialinteraction, the striving for upward mobility that motivated all AAnn, or as a preliminary todeeper and more personal interrelationships that extended to but did not necessarily includeprocreation.
Sometimes several fights were in progress at the same time. It was not unusual for these toinvolve members of both sexes. Only rarely did they draw the attention of the preoccupiedpassersby who kept to the concord walks that flanked the contested middle walkway. The majorityof these confrontational encounters were highly ritualized, though actual physical contact wascommon enough. By walking the center path and facing up to come what may, be it hostile,sexual, or social, combatants acquired status. Such status was recorded and cumulative. It wasone very public way an individual AAnn could rise within the social order without being borninto an aristocratic family. As he strove to blend ever deeper into AAnn society Flinx oftenscrutinized such confrontations with intense interest. It was good that he did.
Because on his eleventh day on Blasusarr the forcefully side-switching tail of a carelesslyhurrying worker accidentally jostled Flinx off the left-hand walkway and straight onto thealways contentious, ever challenging Middle Path.
Unlike the wide and winding pedestrian avenues that flanked it to left and right, the centercore was not paved, unless one counted as pavement the expertly stylized and sterilized sandthat had been imported to fill the gently meandering, slightly depressed four-meter-widewalkway. Flinx's clawed, sandal-shod AAnn “feet” slipped slightly in the soft sand as hefought to recover his footing. In the process they smeared the intricate whorls, ripples, andother imaginative patterns both traditional and contemporary that automated preprogrammed sand-grooming machinery incised anew every morning for the enjoyment and edification of passing nye.Recovering his balance as he straightened, he prepared to step back onto the right-sideconcourse.
Only to find his way blocked.
The lightly clad, iridescently scaled challenger was male, his stance unapologeticallybelligerent. Like any other nye one was likely to encounter on the Middle Path, he was lookingfor trouble. Were he not, he would have been striding along on the peaceful left or right walkand not in the sand-filled center. Flinx immediately tensed. At least his antagonist was not anaroused female looking to partner. The ingenious simsuit Flinx wore could replicate many
aspects of AAnn physical behavior, but reptiloid intercourse was not one of them.
It was to be straightforward physical confrontation then. To what end and what degree he hadyet to find out. Within the suit he could feel Pip's coils contracting around his shoulder asshe sensed and responded to her master's heightened anxiety. Controlling his emotions, he didhis best to calm her. Having to restrain her while he was engaged in combat was a complicationhe had learned how to deal with as a child. How difficult it was going to be on thisparticularly dangerous occasion depended largely on his adversary's intentions. With no status
notat risk Flinx was perfectly content to let his opponent triumph. The one thing he could chance was damage to the concealing simsuit and subsequent revelation of his true identity.With luck and caution it would not come to that.
“Sspawn of Zithanitese,” the big male hissed at him. The slur was accompanied by a gesture ofthird-degree contempt. Nothing too serious, Flinx decided as he analyzed the insult. It was toosoon to relax, though. He had to respond appropriately and believably while ensuring that theconfrontation did not escalate. He explored his considerable vocabulary of AAnn invective,seeking just the right balance between defiance and deference.
“Ssoured in the egg ssoundss ssuch,” he retorted, upthrusting and bringing his simsuit-cladright arm around and down in a sweeping motion indicative of second-degree disrespect. It wasan appropriately robust response, but not one so forceful as to invite the drawing of personalweaponry. As he swung his arm he was careful not to activate the sensors that would extend hissimsuit's faux claws to the fullest.
Hissing scorn, tail switching from side to side in his excitement, the AAnn edged to his right.The attempt to get behind Flinx was blatant, executed deliberately and with no attempt atsubtlety. His adversary wanted to prevail in the confrontation, Flinx saw, but not necessarilyby having to pound his fellow citizen into the sand. Not that the AAnn would hesitate to do soif he thought it necessary.
Upon contact with the appropriate control, Flinx's servo-controlled false tail began tometronome in similar fashion, mimicking the back-and-forth swings of his opponent. That wasabout all the artificial appendage could do. If it came to an actual fight, the syntheticmuscles that powered the fake extension were not strong enough to enable it to strike thechallenger a serious blow. His antagonist's tail, Flinx knew, was considerably more flexible,and useful.
Parting his jaws, the AAnn flashed sharp teeth. Flinx responded in kind but could not open hismouth as wide lest its unnatural nature be revealed. Additionally, the limited exposurerepresented a ritual concession of sorts. His adversary promptly pounced on it.
“Your bite lackss sspirit. With ssuch ssmall biting one would sstarve. It would be a mercy tokill you before you die of hunger.”
Though he badly wanted out of the confrontation, Flinx knew he could not concede so readily. Toshow such weakness would be to invite even greater insults—or worse, an actual beating. Underthose circumstances he knew he would have no choice but to respond physically, though he mighthave difficulty restraining Pip from working her way clear of the simsuit in her eagerness todefend him.
“Otherss have tried. Otherss have died.”
Bold words. The AAnn did not have to believe them, or try to test the truth of them. It wasenough that the slightly awkward taller male sliding sideways across the sand had spoken them.Similar ritualized confrontations occurred by the thousands on the hundreds of identical MiddlePaths that threaded their way through Krrassin, its suburbs, and across the length and breadthof Blasusarr. Their purpose was to provide a (usually) nonlethal means of regulating and fine-tuning status among energetic, upwardly mobile individuals, not to generate dozens ofunproductive deaths.
Flinx could not fully display the simsuit's orthodontics, but he could at a touch of twosensors fully extend its synthesized claws. He did so now. But even as he revealed the
simsuit's offensive bodyware he kept moving to his left and trying to circle around hisopponent. How would the AAnn react? What degree of status did he seek to gain from theconfrontation?
To Flinx's relief his adversary responded only with more words. Well-chosen words, to be sure,but far less dangerous than the headlong charge or scything hand swipe the simsuited human waspreparing himself to counter.
“I do not resspond to sspittle with sslassh.”
“Sso you ssay.” Flinx reacted with acceptable neutrality.
The big male hissed once more and turned away. Without speaking another word he resumedstriding down the Middle Path, looking for another fellow city dweller to confront. Flinxsensed his opponent's satisfaction. By being the one to state the initial challenge andsubsequently forcing the other “AAnn” to choose between a fight or evading it, technicallythe nye had won the encounter. Flinx was more than happy to allow the combative male histriumph. The important thing was that actual combat had been avoided.
Busily making their way north and south along the properly paved flanking walkways, the rest ofthe pedestrian traffic had completely ignored the whole hissing, spitting, tooth-and-claw-displaying confrontation. As Flinx continued on his way, careful after his earlier unforeseenbump to hug the walls of low-lying buildings and avoid the Middle Path, he himself passeddozens of other, similar, Middle Walkway altercations. On one occasion he saw two femaleslocked arm in arm, leg in leg, and tail in tail on the sand. Blood stained the intricatelyraked patterns on the ground beneath them. Along with his fellow preoccupied strollers, Flinxignored the fight, which was far more serious than the one he had been involved in earlier.Such battles were routine.
In many ways this frequent daily physical conflict in search of standing and status was morehonest than comparable confrontations among his own kind, he reflected as he strode alongbeneath the blistering sun. Which was more honest: gossiping and sniping about an enemy behindhis back, or trying to rip the skin off said body part? The intended end was the same; only thecultural approach was different. Using both his eyes and his Talent he continued to investigatethe AAnn who surrounded him.
Blasusarr. As dangerous a place in the galaxy as a representative of his species could findhimself in. What he had already accomplished, by deliberately placing himself amonghumanxkind's mortal enemies and successfully surviving in their presence, was as far as he knewan unprecedented achievement.
When he had first voiced his intent to the Teacher, his ship had been appalled. It had objected
strenuously. But it could not, even for what it believed to be his own good, go against itsmaster's orders. So it had disguised itself appropriately, entered Imperial space, slipped intoorbit around the AAnn homeworld, and deposited him via masked shuttle at a vast desert parkoutside the metropolis. Starting from there, the simsuit-clad Flinx had used his knowledge ofAAnn language and culture to work his way into the city.
He had set himself the challenge partly because it was something no one else had ever done,partly because it was such an outrageous notion that no one had ever imagined trying it, andlastly because of what he had learned in the course of his previous sojourn on Gestalt: he nolonger much cared what happened to him. If he survived his present enterprise, it was anaccomplishment he could pass off with a shrug. If he failed, he would die, and that was nogreat loss either. Though it tried to argue him out of both the exploit and the depression thatunderlay it, the Teacher did not succeed. Now it drifted in veiled orbit, brooding and worryingabout his day-to-day circumstances. It did not worry about itself, of course. Its intelligencewas artificial, its worry programmed, its concern a function of a specific set of predeterminedcode.
Along with the Teacher's shipmind, there were also certain active elements of the vessel'sdécor that worried about his health. They too were powerless to prevent him from embarking on
what both their organic and inorganic minds were convinced was nothing less than a recklessjaunt.
Flinx's slide into increasingly irresponsible behavior had been accelerated enormously by whathad happened to him and by what he had learned of his origins in the course of his recent visitto the frigid world of Gestalt. His lengthy, determined quest to find his father had ended inthe revelation that such an individual did not and, in fact, never had existed. In discoveringthat half of his biological heritage consisted of nothing more than an impersonal concoction ofdesigner proteins, artificially leveraged by indifferent scientists to produce a zygote thatwhen matured would, they hoped, display certain interesting mental abilities, he had feltsomething fundamental drain out of him. He had been nothing more than a test, an experiment,one among many.
That the end result had turned out to be at once disappointing and far beyond anything itsoriginal Meliorare developers had envisioned was of no consolation to the experiment himself.
The discovery had left him more down on himself and on his species than at any time in hislife. Well short of his thirtieth birthday, he had spent the preceding decade desperatelytrying to learn the truth about himself, only to wish now as he stalked the streets of alienKrrassin that he had never bothered to try. The search had led him to wondrous revelations andastounding adventures, to great friendships and an ever-strengthening love, but also tounsought, uncomfortable realizations about humankind and to a deepening personal malaise fromwhich he seemed unable to extricate himself.
His unique empathic abilities had placed him in the position of potential savior of the galaxy.They had also rendered that potential savior increasingly indifferent to both his and its fate.Why should he trouble himself, if he was only the product of human experimentation and nothumanity itself? He could live out the remainder of his natural life with Clarity Held. Socould their children, should they have any. Though the threat to the Commonwealth and itsgalactic surrounds was advancing at increasing speed, he would be long dead before it began toaffect the outermost star systems. Why risk his own life and happiness to save a species towhich he belonged only through invention?
Could he even call himself human anymore?
Within the confines of the suit, Pip shifted uneasily in response to her master's troubledthoughts. While ever a comfort to him, her presence was also nonhuman. Empathetic butsimplistic. Nor did he expect to find sympathy or understanding here, on the homeworld of theCommonwealth's most powerful adversary. He had come because it was a thing that had never beentried, and because he no longer deeply cared whether he lived or died. The time he had spentamong the troubled youth of Visaria had given him a reason to stumble on. That brief flash ofhope and inspiration had been more than negated by what he had learned about himself onGestalt.
As he wound his way slowly up the winding curves of the paved pedestrian walkway, he found itnumbing, if not exactly relaxing, to roam among intelligent but nonhuman sentients. When hisstill unpredictable, erratic Talent was functioning he was able to perceive their emotions.These were more consistently hostile, more inherently combative than those of his own kind. Yetthey possessed a confidence and tranquility all their own, due not only to their alienness butto the culture in which they were grounded. Fight, argue, challenge—within this constantconflict lay a serenity that derived from consistency. It also inspired and drove eachindividual AAnn to always do their best, or else find themselves doomed to mediocrity. Humanspossessed a similar drive, but one that was moderated by compassion.
What did it matter? What among either species, or among the thranx, or among any of the otherintelligent species whose future was threatened by the Great Evil that was speeding toward thegalaxy was worth the sacrifice of his own brief, transitory happiness? He thought of Clarityand Mother Mastiff, of Bran Tse-Mallory and Truzenzuzex. Surely those were examples ofindividuals worth saving. Because they happened to be his friends, or his love? Did anythingelse recommend them and link them?
Then it struck him.
Intelligence. Regardless of how he thought it was misused, in spite of how those who werefortunate enough to possess it frittered it away on trivial personal pursuits or fecklessquarrels, that was the light that could not be allowed to go out. If the Great Evil was notconfronted, if he did not do what little he could to help divert or defeat it, then he wasultimately as guilty as the billions he condemned. It had nothing to do with the confuseddelinquents of Visaria, or the slow-moving thinkers of Jast, or any other particular sentient
. Trillions ofunderstandspecies, humans included. It had to do with preserving the ability to
stars and billions of years had culminated in a spark of comprehension here, a flash ofawareness there. Experiment or not, he felt he was ethically bound, as an ancient Terran poethad once declared, to “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” If that realization couldbe applied to an individual life, surely it was applicable to sentience as a whole. The shiningclarity of his own intelligence, for example, was something that stood apart from the confusionof his origins.
A knife stabbed straight through his head, piercing the frontal lobe and shocking him all theway down to his toes. Subject to and unable to avoid the mental flare, poor Pip contractedspasmodically against his upper thigh.
All his deliberating, the best of his intentions and the worst of his indifference, continuedto be held hostage to the horrific headaches that had increasingly plagued him as he grew andmatured. Resist though he did the one that had just struck him, he still found himself unableto do little more than stagger into a public voiding slit cut from the inward-slanting jet-black wall of the nearest building. Leaning against the interior halfway between the street andthe sanitizing receptor, his chest heaving as he sucked down short, trembling gasps, he foughtto stay upright. If he let the agonizing pain overcome him and passed out, whatever decision hereached about the threat facing the galaxy or about anything else would be rendered moot. Themost perfunctory medical check would expose him for the impostor he was and see him sent offunder heavy guard to the nearest enforcement center. Fortunately, the voiding slit wasunoccupied when he stumbled into it.
It did not remain so for long.
Shorter than a male AAnn but wider of hip, the elegantly clad female who entered behind himstarted to turn away to allow the individual in front of her to finish his business unobserved.Taking a second look at the slightly slumped male figure, she hesitated. His stance showed hewas improperly positioned to properly void. Instead, he appeared to be leaning against theenclosing, curving wall for support. This insight instinctively suggested two possible coursesof action. She could attack him while he was physically weakened and potentially gain status.Or she could demonstrate compassion, offer help, and perhaps gain the same. Much depended onhow seriously he was incapacitated. If only a little, then a challenge would be worthwhile. If,however, his condition was serious, then an assault on another nye who was not in condition tofight back would cause her to lose merit.
Without having to turn to see her, Flinx sensed her confusion along with her presence. Despitethe pain coursing through his skull he concentrated on calming Pip. The last thing he neededwas for the flying snake to burst free from some unnatural opening in the simsuit to attack astartled passerby. In response to his silent urgings, Pip remained tightly wound around hisright arm and made no move to defend him.
“Pssannch.” He fought to stand upright and move away from the wall. “A falsse calling. Thebody playss trickss with digesstion. The sstation is yourss.” He managed to straighten. Theinvisible gnomes mining for gold at the back of his skull continued their agonizing attempts atextraction.
Intensely bright slitted eyes stared into his own. One eyelid closed briefly, then the second.“You look unwell, citizen.”
Designed to accommodate one nye at a time, the voiding station made a single privacy bend as itcut deeply into the wall. It was very narrow and they were very close. He started to edge past
her, remembering to finger the correct sensor so that his tail would not slap into her. Were itto do so, the action could be interpreted as either a challenge or an invitation to classicallyviolent AAnn cuddling—neither of which he wished to incite.
“A momentary pain. An old fighting injury, incurred againsst the bugss.”
“Ahriinn!” She backed up, giving him as much room as possible to slide past. Soldiering wasrevered among the AAnn, with those who had seen action against their traditional enemies thethranx being held in the highest regard of all. “Iss there nothing I can do for you?”
Her words could have been an attempt to promote more intimate interaction. At the risk ofappearing impolite, he fought back the pain in his head as he stepped toward the windingwalkway beyond.
“I am mated,” he gasped weakly in her direction.
“Sso am I,” the female responded. “I freely abjure reproduction.”
, and in addition to that I am late for duty.” With his“No time,” he muttered. “Bachaanssk
left arm he executed a second-degree gesture of appreciation and stumbled out onto the street.
The throbbing that threatened to tear his head off his shoulders finally began to subside.Thankfully, the female did not pursue, choosing instead to make use of the hygienic facilitythat had given him temporary refuge. He could feel Pip relax slightly against his arm,responding in kind as his own concern eased.
It had been a near thing. He decided then and there he would take no more such risks. He haddone enough, had won the hand he had played, had more than achieved the outrageous goals he hadset for himself when he had first decided to embark on the attempt. Having survived ateverravak in the most closely guarded, sacrosanct part of the entire Empire, he would not pushhis luck any further. The gamble had been well taken, the time judiciously spent. It confirmedto him that irrespective of species, what ultimately mattered was that the glow of intelligencebe preserved. That was what was worth fighting for, no matter which political or racial entityeventually came to dominate the galaxy. As a consequence he, Philip Lynx, would do his personalbest to see that the ember of sentience continued to burn. No matter what he was, no matter how
he or anyone else defined him, he saw that he remained one with that purpose.
Thus strengthened in resolve, he loped along until he found the public transport that hadoriginally brought him to this part of the great city. Entering the small automated vehicle, heignored his fellow passengers and turned to ease back into a support slot, taking care toensure that his tail did not strike anyone nearby. Like the majority of his fellow travelers,save for the elderly or infirm, he disdained the use of the U-shaped fold-down seat, preferringto flaunt his health and fitness by standing for the duration of the journey. With one four-fingered hand he reached up and used a pointed claw to clean between several teeth. As it neverbecame dirty, his perfectly rendered artificial dentition had no need of the attention, but theaction helped him to blend in among the other passengers.
At individually selected stops various AAnn stepped on or off the nearly silent vehicle. Ittook some fifteen minutes for the high-speed urban transport to reach the densely developed,heavily populated inurb where Flinx had taken lodgings. No one looked in his direction when heexited the public vehicle.
As he strode slowly toward the building where he had lived for the past ten days, he reflectedthat he now knew more about the day-to-day workings of the Imperial capital than thoseCommonwealth specialists who were considered to be the most knowledgeable on the subject. Thatthe sectors where he had spent his time were of no military importance whatsoever did notmitigate his achievement. Working his way into and through the city subsequent to hisunsanctioned arrival he had chosen the present quarter as his base of operations specificallybecause it could be defined by its ordinariness. Going about their daily tasks while dealingwith no more than the minimal number of socially acceptable face-to-face challenges, mid-levelAAnn generally avoided their neighbors and kept scrupulously to themselves.