Max Daniels (Roberta Gellis)
The Space Guardian
“Very well, Mhoss, the jest has gone far enough. Rumors buzz. The staff wonders. Even your most accustomed companions are shocked. Now thumb the cancellation of your withdrawal from the Institute.”
Twelve cold gray eyes of the Guardian Institute‟s Director glared into the mild brown ones of a very attractive humanoid female. That glare, shining out of the coal-black gleaming face, had been known to throw strong beings into convulsions, but it had no more effect on Lahks Mhoss than to start a twinkle in her eyes. Nonetheless, her face remained grave and her voice was even a little sad as she replied.
“It is no jest. I have said so over and over. It is my right to withdraw at any time up to the final imprinting. I choose to withdraw, Director.”
“Why? You state no reason.”
“The form gives reason as optional. I prefer not to state mine.”
“People who do things without reason can be considered irrational and psyched.”
Lahks shook her head; her long, straight black hair swung gently, caressing coffee-satin cheeks. “You have my psych reports. They are of public record. To refuse to state a reason is not the same as not having one.” The twinkle in her eyes deepened and the corners of a generous mouth twitched a little, as if they were tired of unnatural gravity and sought their normal smiling shape. “Besides, you would not want it known that an irrational individual could proceed so far in the Institute‟s course—would you?”
Neither the glare nor the expression of the Director changed, but a faceted ring on his many-fingered left hand glittered suddenly, indicating an infinitesimal movement. He did not see the flicker of Lahks‟ eyes pick up the sign, but he knew she had seen. She missed nothing;
in fact, she was one of the finest products of the Institute—except
for her warped sense of humor, her passion for practical jokes, and an apparent desire to keep everyone in a constant state of turmoil. The Director was swept with an emotion he had not felt since his own children (now grandfathers) had been very small; that jerk of the hand had been the vestigial remains of a strong impulse to deliver a spanking. In fact, if it had not been for the psych reports Lahks had just mentioned, her penchant for nonsense would have catapulted her out of the Institute in the first few weeks.
Those reports indicated that the principles of the Guardians that needed to be painfully instilled into others were a deep-seated instinct in Lahks Mhoss. She was so suitable for the purposes of the Institute that faults for which others would have been expelled were punished
in Lahks by disciplinary measures. Had that been a mistake, the Director wondered? Of course, there was also the fact that she was Ghrey Mhoss‟ daughter. Then, picking up the conversation without apparent pause, he spoke with cold deliberation.
“And your father, what will he think of this extraordinary behavior?”
Red flickered briefly behind the brown of Lahks‟ eyes. She shrugged shapely shoulders. “He will think that I had an excellent purpose.”
For the first time since she had entered the room, all the Director‟s eyes moved away from her face. “What do you know about your father, Mhoss?”
“I know that he still is,” she snapped, her voice as brittle as
untempered glass, “which is more than you know.”
“How do you know?”
“I am my mother‟s daughter.”
And when the Director looked up from his brief contemplation of the single jewel he wore, he was gazing at a pallid albino. Only the faint pink of eyes and lips gave color to skin and hair of translucent whiteness.
“So!” Not a single eye flickered.
First round to me, second to you, Lahks thought.
“Your reasons are easy enough to perceive,” he continued, “but your logic is at fault. Do you think it will be easier to find Ghrey yourself than with the full strength of the Guardians behind you?”
Abandoning any effort at sobriety, Lahks laughed. The warm chortle was so intimate and carried so strong an invitation to share amusement that the discipline of a lifetime was strained to preserve the Director‟s gravity. His hand twitched again.
“Certainly,” Lahks replied in a delighted gurgle. “Safer, too.” Pert silver curls bobbed against her forehead. Her mood changed abruptly and she leaned forward, saying earnestly, “That is literal truth. Even if you did not send me on some harebrained cosmic wild-goose chase as soon as I was imprinted—which I would lay heartstones against hair-rings you would—as long as I do not have the final imprinting, no key information can be obtained from me, nor am I conditioned to death-by-will. If I should be trapped and taken, they can drug me to the ears, brain-probe me—anything. I cannot be a danger to the Guardians because I do not know anything important. I will be safer because both drug and machine will proclaim my ignorance.”
“You think such alternatives preferable to death?”
“Anything is preferable to death. An emptied mind can be refilled. A damaged brain can be repaired. Besides, I do not intend to be caught.”
The question was most casually asked, but Lahks did not fall into the trap. Her laughter gurgled out again while she shook her head.
“I do not know. If I knew, I would tell you—in all truth, I would.
This much I promise—if I find where he is and who holds him and it is possible to inform the Institute, I will do so. I like to laugh, but I am not a fool. For rescue missions a strong concerted attack is best. For the seeking of information, one alone is most efficient.”
“It is a large universe,” the Director said dryly. “If you do not know where to look, where will you begin? Lahks, do you think we have not been seeking Ghrey?
“I will look there.” Unerringly, as if drawn by wires, the silver head turned, and the pink eyes stared out toward the rim of the galaxy. “The rim? Intergalactic space? Another galaxy?”
“I tell you, I do not know.” For the first time a hint of impatience shadowed the girl‟s voice. “I have told you everything I know myself.”
“Very well, Lahks. Remember the promise you made. I cannot stop you. We will grant a leave of absence for personal business before final imprinting. Now”—the many-fingered hands folded softly together, belying their strong impulse to wring the pretty neck—“will you tell
me why you did not ask for a leave of absence in the first place instead of sending through this withdrawal?”
The warm chortle filled the room again and Lahks leaned forward to plant a resounding kiss above the rows of eyes. “Because it would have been granted and I would not have seen you to say good-bye.”
There was a long breath-held silence; all the glowing eyes of the black face closed tight. “That will be ten demerits and a full-period
pay loss,” the Director said very, very softly. “Remember,” he added, in a slightly more natural voice, “that you are a member of the Guardians, and conduct yourself accordingly.”
A spurious expression of deep reverence appeared immediately on Lahks‟ expressive countenance. Once more the Director closed all his eyes and struggled for control. He came of a long-lived race, and in more time than he cared to remember no one had filled him with an equal desire to laugh and commit mayhem at the same time. Eyes still closed, he lifted his hand and pointed the jeweled digit at the door. Lahks giggled, but she turned to go. If she intended to make the shuttle, she had little time to waste.
Grinning broadly, she considered the Director‟s remark. The years of training in every sophisticated form of physical violence, sedition, and treachery, every method of twisting fact to one‟s own purpose, in the procedures of bribery, corruption, blackmail, extortion, and mental torture passed through her mind. She wondered mildly as she reached for the door what limits being a member of the Guardians could place on her actions.
Between the time the door hid her from the Director‟s view and the latch clicked so that the secretary looked up, Lahks had converted hair,
skin, and eyes to their original form. Few knew of her mother‟s people at all; fewer had any real information about them; and if no one at all—except the Director, whom she did not really consider—connected
her with those legendary folk, she would be safest of all.
Lahks‟ goodbyes were already said, and her scanty belongings were in a locker at the port; there was nothing to do but up ship and out. As the acceleration chair gently enfolded her in resilient foam, she thought of the next step. The Institute shuttle would set her down at a major transshipment port. From there she had her choice of hundreds of systems all in the general direction she had to go. Of these, Lahks had chosen the fourth planet of a G-type star called Wumeera. Although it had been colonized by mammalian humanoids early in their star-travel history, it had never developed an elaborate urban civilization because of its inhospitality. The climate alternated between searing deserts and freezing mountains; it offered little in the way of arable land or mineral wealth; there were dust storms that could strip the flesh from the bones and blizzards that could bury one in minutes; and there were dangerous, although unintelligent, natural denizens. Anyone who stayed alive on Wumeera was tough.
Yet, in addition to an indigenous population that had learned to live in its manic conditions, Wumeera attracted a wide range of adventurers. Those who were greedy enough, sly enough, strong enough—or lucky
enough—could steal, win, or find a heartstone.
The foam folded back, but Lahks did not move. Other passengers curious to see the stars twist and dance as real space coiled into a new form according to the irresistible logic of mathematics went to the lounge. There viewscreens exposed distance curling into a knot at the command of intelligence. Terra-descended humanoids called the rules, which had bent a straight line into a tight coil that a spaceship could climb like the rungs of a ladder, Carrol‟s equations. Other races of star jumpers attached different names to the formulas. Regardless of the trivialities of mortal creatures, the equations performed their functions with sublime indifference to the names given them.
Lahks had seen the stars dance often enough, however, to forgo the pleasure in order to pursue her thoughts. The heartstone—it was so much
in her mind that she had slipped and mentioned it to the Director. She pushed knowledge of the slip away. He would not interfere with her, but should she delay her prime purpose to obtain one? There were as many legends about the heartstone as about her mother‟s people, and—Lahks‟ expressive brows lifted—she did not know the truth about
one any more than she knew the truth about the other.
It was possible, Lahks thought, that her mother had never been meant to bear a human child, but she so ordered her body that it performed the feat. Perhaps the sustained strain was too great and she died—but
Lahks did not think so. It was more likely that, in spite of her love for Ghrey, Zuhema had gone back to her own people. In any case, before Lahks was old enough to understand the nature of her dual heritage, Zuhema was no longer there to teach her. What Ghrey knew, he kept to himself. Lahks learned from him only that it was necessary always to conceal her inborn abilities. What use she had of them she had learned by private experimentation, and this was what drew her to the heartstone.
One legend among many linked the Changelings to the heartstone. When these two came together, it was rumored, their combined force could alter the universe. Lahks‟ lips curved up. She did not believe that,
but it was possible that possession of the heartstone would unlock the latent powers she knew were in her. Partly she desired that. Power for its own sake meant nothing. But to know you have abilities you cannot use is frustrating. Lahks felt like a cripple who, with mechanical aids, did not need his limbs, but, because walking was his inborn right, desired use of them. If she had a birthright, she wanted use of it.
What the Changelings could do beyond molding their own flesh into any semblance, Lahks did not know. Even in that direction her ability was limited by her human part. She could not change the shape or form of her body except in appearance. She guessed the Changelings, like many other races of the galaxy, had psych power of some kind. Her mother—she remembered that much—had known where she was and what she
was doing even when a considerable distance away, and Zuhema could make her presence and desires known to Lahks from afar. What other powers the Changelings had and how these abilities would be altered by her human heritage were questionable.
Lahks was a weak telepathic receiver, but that was not surprising because Ghrey was a Shomir, and telepathy was natural to many of them. And, although Ghrey had no record of telepathic power in his dossier, Lahks had “felt” him after Zuhema was gone. When he was away on the business of the Guardians, a presence, warm and reassuring, kept her from a terrifying sense of aloneness. Even after Ghrey had been declared missing, Lahks remained sure of his existence and sure of his safety. Only in recent months had the sense of presence changed. It had taken on physical direction and a summoning character. There was no urgency in the summoning. Lahks was in no fear as to Ghrey‟s immediate need, and she had the utmost confidence in the signal—whatever it was. She
must come, but there was no hurry. She had time to seek a heartstone if she could use one.
That was the crux of Lahks‟ immediate problem. She had chosen Wumeera for the type of men who dared its dangers and for its proximity. But the heartstone was there. Ranging in size from a pea to a small egg, the stone had defied analysis by the most sensitive devices. Its chemical composition had, of course, been determined, but that meant as little
as saying that man was made up of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, with traces of other elements. Instruments that could detect the energy reflected by starlight from the absorptive surface of a dead sun did not react to the heartstone; yet it changed its temperature in one‟s
hand, now warm, now cold. Films sensitive to every range of the visible, infrared, and ultraviolet scales recorded nothing when used to photograph the heartstone—nothing.
Although to the eyes the round or oval stone, dazzling pink to deep red, showed regularly pulsating, coruscating bursts of silver, gold, electric blue, and shocking green within its depth and sometimes rippling over its surface, cameras recorded nothing. No pictorial representation of a heartstone had ever been obtained by mechanical means. Neither the shape of the stone in silhouette nor the background, as if the object were transparent, showed. At all ranges of all radiation, a blurred, irregular blotch with the background dim and distorted was recorded on the film.
So much factual information was stored in the InfoBank; however, it was not the end of the tale. Lahks had scanned what seemed miles of legend, fiction, and personal recounting of experience concerning the heartstone. There were stories of the stones moving by themselves, of their eating away, dissolving, or vaporizing their containers or the surfaces on which they rested—except living organic matter; flesh was
never harmed. Indeed, there were legends of heartstones healing wounds and curing illnesses.
The most persistent stories, however, were of symbiotic psychic relationship—at least it was assumed to be symbiotic, because the heartstone‟s bursts of color became more brilliant, its pulses quicker, its color brighter. What power it conferred on its intelligent symbiont was much in doubt even in legend. And here there was no longer any record of personal experience. Anyone who had entered such a relationship with a heartstone was either totally vague or totally silent. Nonetheless, friends, relatives, and various other onlookers had much to say. Unfortunately, it was very contradictory. One said the heartstone had changed a saint to a monster, another marveled at the alteration of a moody man of barely normal intelligence into a cheerful genius; still another bewailed the slippage of a brilliant, active thinker into a state so dreamy and detached that it was little to be distinguished from idiocy or insanity; finally, there were those who claimed all such tales to be fabrications because they had seen and handled the stones with no response at all.
Lahks stirred restlessly in her seat. Decision could, of course, be delayed until she reached Wumeera and estimated the difficulties and advantages more closely. No sooner had she made the trite observation than she laughed aloud. What a lot of bother to rationalize to herself
something she intended from the beginning. No sooner had Wumeera and the heartstone come together in her mind with the legends about her people than she knew she had to have one.
The decision formalized, Lahks leaned back and closed her eyes, trying to open herself wide, to listen with that strange receptor that was neither ears nor mind for her father‟s sending. It was there, where it always was, emitting alternate or sometimes combined waves of reassurance and beckoning. There was no change, no indication that the decision she had made had been communicated. Unconsciously, Lahks turned her head in the direction of the call. With all the force in her, she tried to send a message back until, after a few moments, she felt the flagging of her energy. Then she listened again.
Almost immediately, certainly in no longer than it would take a person to listen to, consider, and digest an important statement, the answer came: stronger reassurance, which arrived first in a wave that seemed to promise support, then something negative. Lahks tried to reach toward the sending, tried to open her receptivity still further. Disapproval… No, not that—anxiety; her father was concerned about the dangers she might face, was urging caution, but there was no sense of forbidding. A sensation of loss, a passionate desire to hear Ghrey‟s voice, swept over Lahks. She sent once more with a burst of energy that drained blood from her face.
“Where are you, Papa? Where?”
And then it seemed to Lahks that she had opened out her very skin into a receiver in her desire to obtain a reply. It came—puzzlement,
sorrow, reassurance, beckoning—and on its heels a faint roar, quickly deepening in intensity. For a startled moment Lahks fastened her attention on that sound that was no sound. In the time-space between two heartbeats, she was seized, wrenched a million different ways by the prayers, dreams, hopes of swarms of intelligences.
Lahks did not realize that her physical body had echoed her mental shriek of terror, but an attendant‟s hand on her shoulder and anxious inquiry helped rescue her from the vortex of need that was sucking at her psyche, threatening to disperse it into atoms once it had a good grip. She shut off everything, even her father‟s sending, which had become absorbed into that all-encompassing ocean of longing. “Miss Mhoss, are you ill?”
The tightening grip on her shoulder and the anxious voice snapped her eyes open. “Ill?” she gasped, still dazed.
“Is something wrong? Are you transition-sick?”
“No.” The pieces of Lahks‟ personality seemed to snap together with rubber-band resilience. She had learned something new. She summoned an apologetic half-smile. “It must have been a bad dream.”
The attendant looked puzzled. Few people had bad dreams since
personality adjustment was so easy, but the universe was large and many strange types inhabited it—especially those who worked at or visited
the Guardian Institute. He only asked if he could get Lahks something to help her.
“No, thank you. The effect is ephemeral,” she replied. “But you can tell me how long it will be until we make Lyrae Haven. I seem to have lost track of time.”
“Fifteen tu, Miss Mhoss.”
Lahks watched the half-raised, gracefully swaying tail of the attendant as it retreated with a frown that had nothing to do with her usual idle puzzlement as to why her particular breed of humanoid had shed such a useful appendage. She was wondering whether she dared open her receptors to her father again. She had not guessed that every living thing that “wanted” sent. Now she realized that she had been trained, perhaps prenatally, to receive on a particular… well, call it wavelength, although the energy sent and received certainly had nothing to do with sound or light. That would be why telepaths born into nontelepathic groups were so frequently insane; there was no one to train them to restrict their reception. But her father… Lahks fought off panic. For the first time in her life she was utterly, completely, alone.
The warning bell rang. People filed back to their seats. Foam enwrapped them. The effects of Carrol‟s equations were negated. With its customary startling shake, space uncoiled itself and lay flat. Lyrae Haven sent out a slender, probing finger, which the ship grasped firmly. It crawled forward at ten thousand km/tu. The probing finger changed to a softly clasping hand and the ship was pulled gently into its lock. The seat released her; Lahks stood up and defiantly shook out her long black hair. Leading string or no leading string, she would seek out Ghrey. The first phase was finished; now began the second.
Lahks registered under the number assigned to her as a Guardian trainee at the transient hotel where her reservation had been sent. It was the largest at Lyrae Haven and the busiest. People came and went constantly, sat in the lobby, met friends, asked silly or serious questions at the desk. Nonetheless, the clerk would remember the white teeth that flashed in a smile in the coffee-colored face, would remember the silken swing of long black hair as Lahks asked about ships leaving for Old Terra. There was one the following day. Lahks nodded, passed her Institute card over, and asked that a reservation be made and charged at the trainee rate.
The clerk nodded respectfully and a little regretfully. Guardians, even trainees, were not to be trifled with. He passed the card into
the recorder, punched the information, then handed the slip to Lahks to be thumbprinted. That would about wipe out her accumulated back pay, but since Lahks did not plan to be anywhere near where it would be possible to draw upon it, she did not worry. Up in her room, she worked swiftly. The burglar-proof section of her traveling bag opened in response to her ring-finger impress. Several medium-sized good-quality gems were extracted from its contents.
After much arguing and negotiating to establish a paper currency or credit system, gems still remained the interplanetary medium of private exchange. They were easy to carry, simple to evaluate in standard credits, impossible to counterfeit (at least it cost so much to make a gem that would pass spectrophotometric analysis that the real things were bargains by comparison), and, on all humanoid planets and most nonhumanoid ones, gems were highly desirable.
The outer section of the case provided Lahks with a gray-brown tunic, soft leather boots, and an over-the-shoulder pouch to replace the striking red-and-black traveling suit she had been wearing. Dressed, she looked in the mirror to check. A rather triangular face, framed in ash-brown hair cut straight across the forehead and square under the ears, stared back with tilted green-gray eyes. The eyes warmed, and the mouth, just a shade too large for the pointed chin, curved up. This was Lahks I, or Transform I; it was the way she remembered herself as a child before she learned she could look any way she wanted.
The major trouble with the Changeling property was the tendency to forget how you wanted to look. As a child, this had resulted in a constant shifting of color and feature. Lahks had to be confined with a “serious illness” for several months until she had learned the control principle. Unfortunately, there had never really been adequate opportunity to practice, and Lahks had compromised by working on five Transforms, which, once she thought of them, would lock in automatically until she consciously thought another Transform into being. Within each Transform she could make major or minor changes, or choose an entirely different appearance, but such effects had to be held with conscious effort. For short-term emergencies, total alterations were useful; for extended periods they were dangerous, owing to the tendency to slip back into one of the standard Transforms.
When Lahks was sure she was in and stable—Transform I was oldest and
most familiar, but she had been using II for many years—she listened
attentively at the door. The tiny pickup in her right earlobe informed her the corridor was empty. She slipped out, thumbed the lock-plate quickly, and in two jumps was halfway down the corridor. From there she could have come from any of several rooms and she walked sedately to the downwell and stepped on the plate. No eyes followed her as she walked quietly out of the hotel, an ordinary-looking girl in ordinary,
inexpensive traveling clothes.
In the hotel the sunlight of late afternoon had filtered softly through windows that looked out on peaceful countryside. On the other side of the doorfield, cross streets offered psyche-shocking choices. Parallel with the main facade of the hotel, a wide, dignified thoroughfare showed elegant shops and cafes at mid-morning. At right angles, the screaming lights, sounds, and scents of a honky-tonk town on Saturday night presented a hurly-burly of wild entertainment, stalls filled with bizarre goods, and garishly lit Places of Pleasure.
Having glanced once at the night street, Lahks walked along the facade of the hotel and idled past the elegant shops, stopping now and again to examine a particularly appealing item. Halfway along she turned into a wide doorway completely surrounded by government seals. Here she exchanged her gems for GC notes that would be negotiable in Wumeera and made reservations for transport in the name of Tamar Shomra. The banker‟s clerk reached to turn off the privacy screen, but Lahks shook her head, leaned forward confidentially, and gave instructions. His face carefully blank, the clerk nodded and began to punch keys in the recorder beside him.
When Lahks emerged, her face wore a frown and her teeth held her underlip, as if she were deep in thought. She walked slowly back toward the hotel, her bulging pouch tightly clasped under her arm. When she was opposite the hotel entrance, she stood for a moment, as if irresolute; then with a furtive glance over her shoulder, she darted into the night alley. Before she had gone twenty meters, the bulging pouch was pulled sharply and its strap flapped loose. Lahks‟ green-gray eyes lit with
anticipatory laughter showing tiny silver-gilt flecks. She had hoped someone from the Guild would have noticed her exit from the Bankers‟ Exchange and had made herself an ideal mark. There was little question that anyone attempting purse-snatching would be from the Guild. Local lightfingers were not encouraged at transshipment points. To survive in so small and easily policed an area, a thief or smuggler needed protection, and that was best afforded by the Guild.
Although the pull on her pouch had the true, sharp snap of the professional, Lahks‟ bag shifted only fractions of a centimeter. Simultaneous with the shifting came a low cry of alarm. Lahks turned on the instant, chuckling.
“Don‟t pull,” she advised. “This is good stickfast. It will take the
flesh off your bones before it lets go.” Her voice was low, pleasant, carrying no threat. The smile that curved her lips was quite genuine.
The youngster who faced her sullenly, his hand invisibly welded to her pouch, was just what she had hoped for. Well dressed, well fed, looking like the scion of any well-off family, he was typical of a Guild man in a transshipment area. Within seconds of having her pouch, he