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Chapter Two

The Inspector General's angry voice pounded out of the audio pickup on Simeon's private frequency.

"CK-963, respond!"

"Discovered!" Keff cried, slapping the arm of his couch. The next burst of harsh sound made him yelp with mock alarm. "Catch us if you can, you cockatrice!"

"Hush!" Carialle answered the hail in an innocent voice, purposely made audible for her brawn's sake. "S . . . S-nine . . . dred. H . . . ving trou—" Keff was helpless with laughter. "Pi . . . s repeat mes . . . g?"

"I said get back here! You have an appointment with me as of ten hundred hours prime meridian time, and it is now ten fifteen." Carialle could almost picture his plump, mustachioed face turning red with apoplexy. "How dare you blast out of here without my permission? I want to see you!"

"Sorr . . ." Carialle said, "br . . . long up. Will send back mission reports, General."

"That was clear as a bell, Carialle!" the angry voice hammered at the speaker diaphragm. "There is no static interference on your transmission. You make a one-eighty and get back here. I expect to see you in ninety minutes. Maxwell-Corey out."

"Oops," said Keff, cheerfully. He tilted his head out of his impact couch toward her pillar and winked. His deep-set blue eyes twinkled. "M-C won't believe that last phrase was a fluke of clear space, will he?"

"He'll have to," Carialle said firmly. "I'm not going back to have my cerebellum cased, not a chance. Bureaucratic time-waster! I know I'm fine. You know you're fine. Why do we always have to go bend over and cough every time we make planetfall and explore a new world? I landed, got steam-cleaned and decontaminated, made our report with words and pictures to Xeno and Exploration. I refuse to have another mental going-over just because of my past experiences."

"Good of Simeon to tip us off," Keff said, running down the ship status report on his personal screen. "I hope he won't catch too much flak for it. But look at this! Thirty percent food and fuel?"

"I know," Carialle said contritely, "but what else could I do?"

"Not a blessed, or unblessed thing," Keff agreed. "Frankly, I prefer the odds as opposed to what we'd have to go through to wait for Simeon's next shipments. Full tanks and complete commissary do not, in my book, equate with peace of mind if M-C's about. Eventually we will have to go back, you know."

"Yes, if only to make certain Simeon's coped with the man. Before we do though, I'll just send Simeon a microsquirt to be sure Maxwell-Corey's left for D sector. . . ."

"Or someplace else equally distant from us. It isn't as if we can't hang out in space for a while on iron rations until Sime sends you an all-clear burst," Keff offered bravely, although Carialle could see he didn't look forward to the notion.

"If the IG is sneaky enough . . ."

" . . . And he is if anyone deserves that adjective. . . ."

" . . . to scan message files he'll know when Simeon knows where we are, and he could put a tag on us so no station will supply the 963."

"We shall not come to that sorry pass, my lady fair," Keff said, lapsing into his Sir Galahad pose. "In the meantime, let us fly on toward R sector and whatever may await us there." He made an enthusiastic and elaborate flourish and ended up pointing toward the bow.

Carialle had to laugh.

"Oh, yes," she said. "Now, where were we?" The Wizard was back on the wall, and he spoke in the creaking tenor of an old, old man. "Good sir knight, thou hast fairly won this scroll. Hast anything thou wish to ask me?"

Grinning, Keff buckled on his epee and went to face him.

* * *

While Keff chased men-at-arms all over her main cabin, Carialle devoted most of her attention to eluding the Inspector General's attempts to follow her vector.

As soon as she cut off Maxwell-Corey's angry message, she detected the launch of a message drone from the SSS-900, undoubtedly containing an official summons. As plenty of traffic was always flying into the station's space, it took no great skill to divert the heat-seeking flyer onto the trail of another outgoing vessel. Nothing, and certainly not an unbrained droid, could outmaneuver a brainship. By the time the mistake was discovered, she'd be out of this sector entirely, and on her way to an unknown quadrant of the galaxy.

Later, when she felt less threatened by him, she'd compose a message complaining of what was really becoming harassing behavior to SPRIM. She'd had that old nuisance on her tail long enough. Running free, in full control of her engines and her faculties, was one of the most important things in her life. Every time that right was threatened, Carialle reacted in a way that probably justified the IG's claim of dangerous excitability.

In the distance, she picked up indications of two small ships following her initial vector. All right, score one up for the IG: he'd known she'd resist his orders and had ordered a couple of scouts to chase her down. That could also mean that he might have even put out an alarm that she was a danger to herself and her brawn, and must be brought back willingly or unwillingly. Would the small scouts have picked up her power emissions? She ought to have been one jump ahead of old Sennet and expected this sort of antic. She ought to have lain quiescent. Oh well. She really couldn't contest the fact that proximity to the IG did put her in a state of confusion. She adjusted her adrenals. Calm down, girl. Calm down. Think!

Quick perusal of her starchart showed the migration of an ion storm only a couple of thousand klicks away. Carialle made for it. She skimmed the storm's margin. Then, letting her computers plot the greatest possible radiation her shields could take without buckling, she slid nimbly over the surface, a surfer riding dangerous waters. The sensation was glorious! Ordinary pilots, unable to feel the pressures on their ships' skins as she did, would hesitate to follow. Nor could their scopes detect her in the wash of ion static. Shortly, Carialle was certain she had shaken off her tails. She turned a sharp perpendicular from the ion storm, and watched its opalescent halos recede behind her as she kicked her engines up to full speed.

Returning to the game, she found Keff studying the floating map holograph over a cold one at the "village pub." He glanced up at her pillar when she hailed him.

"I take it we're free of unwanted company?"

"With a sprinkling of luck and the invincibility of our radiation proof panels," Carialle said, "we've evaded the minions of the evil wizard. Now it's time for a brew." She tested herself for adrenaline fatigue, and allowed herself a brief feed of protein and vitamin B-complex.

Keff tipped his glass up to her. Quick analysis told her that though the golden beverage looked like beer, it was the non-alcoholic electrolyte-replenisher Keff used after workouts. "Here's to your swift feet and clever ways, my lovely, and confusion to our enemies. Er, did my coffee come aboard?"

"Yes, sir," she replied, flashing the image of a saluting marine on the wall, "The storesmaster just had time to break out a little of the good stuff when Simeon passed the word down. I even got you a small quantity of chocolate. Best Demubian." Keff beamed.

"Ah, Cari, now I know the ways you love me. Did you have time to load any of my special orders?" he asked, with a quirk of his head.

"Now that you mention it, there were two boxes in the cargo hold with your name on them," Carialle said.

* * *

Clang. BUMP! Clang. BUMP!

The shining contraption of steel that was the Rotoflex had taken little time to put together, still less to watch the instructional video on how to use it. Keff sat on the leatherette-covered, modified saddle with a stirrup-shaped, metal pulley in each outstretched hand. His broad face red from the effort, Keff slowly brought one fist around until it touched his collarbone, then let it out again. The heavy cables sang as they strained against the resistance coils, and relaxed with a heavy thump when Keff reached full extension. Squeezing his eyes shut, he dragged in the other fist. The tendons on his neck stood out cordlike under his sweat-glistening skin.

"Two hundred and three," he grunted "Uhhh! Two hundred and four. Two . . ."

"Look at me," Carialle said, dropping into the bass octave and adopting the spiel technique of so many tri-vid commercials. "Before I started the muscle-up exercise program I was a forty-four-kilogram weakling. Now look at me. You, too, can . . ."

"All right," Keff said, letting go of the hand-weights. They swung in noisy counterpoint until the metal cables retracted into their arms. He arose from the exerciser seat and toweled off with the cloth slung over the end of his weight bench. "I can acknowledge a hint when it's delivered with a sledgehammer. I just wanted to see how much this machine can take."

"Don't you mean how much you can take? One day you're going to rupture something," Carialle warned. She noted Keff's heartbeat at over two hundred pulses per minute, but it was dropping rapidly.

"Most accidents happen in the home," Keff said, with a grin.

"I really was sorry I had to interrupt your tryst with Susa," Carialle said for the twentieth time that shift.

"No problem," Keff said, and Carialle could tell that this time he meant it. "It would have been a more pleasant way to get my heart rate up, but this did nicely, thank you." He yawned and rolled his shoulders to ease them, shooting one arm forward, then the other. "I'm for a shower and bed, lady dear."

"Sleep well, knight in shining muscles."

* * *

Shortly, the interior was quiet but for the muted sounds of machinery humming and gurgling. The SSS-900 technicians had done their work well, for all they'd been rushed by circumstances to finish. Carialle ran over the systems one at a time, logging in repair or replacement against the appropriate component. That sort of accounting took up little time. Carialle found herself longing for company. A perverse notion since she knew it would be hours now before Keff woke up.

Carialle was not yet so far away from some of the miners' routes that she couldn't have exchanged gossip with other ships in the sector, but she didn't dare open up channels for fear of tipping off Maxwell-Corey to their whereabouts. The enforced isolation of silent running left her plenty of time for her thoughts.

Keff groaned softly in his sleep. Carialle activated the camera just inside his closed door for a brief look, then dimmed the lights and left him alone. The brawn was faceup on his bunk with one arm across his forehead and right eye. The thin thermal cover had been pushed down and was draped modestly across his groin and one leg, which twitched now and again. One of his precious collection of real-books lay open facedown on the nightstand. The tableau was worthy of a painting by the Old Masters of Earth—Hercules resting from his labors. Frustrated from missing his close encounter of the female kind, Keff had exercised himself into a stiff mass of sinews. His muscles were paying him back for the abuse by making his rest uneasy. He'd rise for his next shift aching in every joint, until he worked the stiffness out again. As the years went by it took longer for Keff to limber up, but he kept at it, taking pride in his excellent physical condition.

Softshells were, in Carialle's opinion, funny people. They'd go to such lengths to build up their bodies which then had to be maintained with a significant effort, disproportionate to the long-term effect. They were so unprotected. Even the stress of exercise, which they considered healthy, was damaging to some of them. They strove to accomplish goals which would have perished in a few generations, leaving no trace of their passing. Yet they cheerfully continued to "do" their mite, hoping something would survive to be admired by another generation or species.

Carialle was very fond of Keff. She didn't want him anguished or disabled. He had been instrumental in restoring her to a useful existence and while he wasn't Fanine—who could be?—he had many endearing qualities. He had brought her back to wanting to live, and then he had neatly caught her up in his own special goal—to find a species Humanity could freely interact with, make cultural and scientific exchanges, open sociological vistas. She was concerned that his short life span, and the even shorter term of their contract with Central Worlds Exploration, would be insufficient to accomplish the goal they had set for themselves. She would have to continue it on her own one day. What if the beings they sought did not, after all, exist?

Shellpeople had good memories but not infallible ones, she reminded herself. In three hundred, four hundred years, would she even be able to remember Keff? Would she want to, lest the memory be as painful as the anticipation of such loss was now? If I find them after you're . . . well, I'll make sure they're named after you, she vowed silently, listening to his quiet breathing. That immortality at least she could offer him.

So far, in light of that lofty goal, the aliens that the CK team had encountered were disappointing. Though interesting to the animal behaviorist and xenobiologist, Losels, Wyverns, Hydrae, and the Rodents of Unusual Size, et cetera ad nauseam, were all non-sentient.

To date, the CK's one reasonable hope of finding an equal or superior species came five years and four months before, when they had intercepted a radio transmission from a race of beings who sounded marvelously civilized and intelligent. As Keff had scrambled to make IT understand them, he and Carialle became excited, thinking that they had found the species with whom they could exchange culture and technology. They soon discovered that the inhabitants of Jove II existed in an atmosphere and pressure that made it utterly impractical to establish a physical presence. Pen pals only. Central Worlds would have to limit any interaction to radio contact with these Acid Breathers. Not a total loss, but not the real thing. Not contact. 

Maybe this time on this mission into R sector, there would be something worthwhile, the real gold that didn't turn to sand when rapped on the anvil. That hope lured them farther into unexplored space, away from the known galaxy, and communication with friends and other B&B ship partnerships. Carialle chose not to admit to Keff that she was as hooked on First Contact as he was. Not only was there the intellectual and emotional thrill of being the first human team to see something totally new, but also the bogies had less chance of crowding in on her . . . if she looked further and further ahead.

For a shellperson, with advanced data-retrieval capabilities and superfast recall, every memory existed as if it had happened only moments before. Forgetting required a specific effort: the decision to wipe an event out of one's databanks. In some cases, that fine a memory was a curse, forcing Carialle to reexamine over and over again the events leading up to the accident. Again and again she was tormented as the merciless and inexorable sequence pushed its way, still crystal clear, to the surface—as it did once more during this silent running.

Sixteen years ago, on behalf of the Courier Service, she and her first brawn, Fanine, paid a covert call to a small space-repair facility on the edge of Central Worlds space. Spacers who stopped there had complained to CenCom of being fleeced. Huge, sometimes ruinously expensive purchases with seemingly faultless electronic documentation were charged against travelers' personal numbers, often months after they had left SSS-267. Fanine discreetly gathered evidence of a complex system of graft, payoffs and kickbacks, confirming CenCom's suspicions. She had sent out a message to say they had corroborative details and were returning with it.

They never expected sabotage, but they should have—Carialle corrected herself: she should have—been paying closer attention to what the dock hands were doing in the final check-over they gave her before the CF-963 departed. Carialle could still remember how the fuel felt as it glugged into her tank: cold, strangely cold, as if it had been chilled in vacuum. She could have refused that load of fuel, should have.

As the ship flew back toward the Central Worlds, the particulate matter diluted in the tanks was kept quiescent by the real fuel. Gradually, her engines sipped away that buffer, finally reaching the compound in the bottom of her tanks. When there was more aggregate than fuel, the charge reached critical mass, and ignited.

Her sensors shut down at the moment of explosion but that moment—10:54:02.351—was etched in her memory. That was the moment when Fanine's life ended and Carialle was cast out to float in darkness.

* * *

She became aware first of the bitter cold. Her internal temperature should have been a constant 37° Celsius, and cabin temperature holding at approximately twenty-one. Carialle sent an impulse to adjust the heat but could not find it. Motor functions were at a remove, just out of her reach. She felt as if all her limbs—for a brainship, all the motor synapses—and most horribly, her vision, had been removed. She was blind and helpless. Almost all of her external systems were gone except for a very few sound and skin sensors. She called out soundlessly for Fanine: for an answer that would never come.

Shock numbed the terror at first. She was oddly detached, as if this could not be happening to her. Impassively she reviewed what she knew. There had been an explosion. Hull integrity had been breached. She could not communicate with Fanine. Probably Fanine was dead. Carialle had no visual sensing equipment, or no control of it, if it still remained intact. Not being able to see was the worst part. If she could see, she could assess the situation and make an objective judgment. She had sustenance and air recirculation, so the emergency power supply had survived when ship systems were cut, and she retained her store of chemical compounds and enzymes.

First priority was to signal for help. Feeling her way through the damaged net of synapses, she detected the connection for the rescue beacon. Without knowing whether it worked or not, Carialle activated it, then settled in to keep from going mad.

She started by keeping track of the hours by counting seconds. Without a clock, she had no way of knowing how accurate her timekeeping was, but it occupied part of her mind with numbing lines of numbers. She went too quickly through her supply of endorphins and serotonin. Within a few hours she was forced to fall back on stress-management techniques taught to an unwilling Carialle when she was much younger and thought she was immortal by patient instructors who knew better. She sang every song and instrumental musical composition she knew, recited poems from the Middle Ages of Earth forward, translated works of literature from one language into another, cast them in verse, set them to music, meditated, and shouted inside her own skull.

That was because most of her wanted to curl up in a ball in the darkest corner of her mind and whimper. She knew all the stories of brains who suffered sensory deprivation. Tales of hysteria and insanity were the horror stories young shellchildren told one another at night in primary education creches. Like the progression of a fatal disease, they recounted the symptoms. First came fear, then disbelief, then despair. Hallucinations would begin as the brain synapses, desperate for stimulation, fired off random neural patterns that the conscious mind would struggle to translate as rational, and finally, the brain would fall into irrevocable madness. Carialle shuddered as she remembered how the children whispered to each other in supersonic voices that only the computer monitors could pick up that after a while, you'd begin to hear things, and imagine things, and feel things that weren't there.

To her horror, she realized that it was happening to her. Deprived of sight, other than the unchanging starscape, sound, and tactile sensation, memory drive systems failing, freezing in the darkness, she was beginning to feel hammering at her shell, to hear vibrations through her very body. Something was touching her.

Suddenly she knew that it wasn't her imagination. Somebody had responded to her beacon after who-knew-how-long, and was coming to get her. Galvanized, Carialle sent out the command along her comlinks on every frequency, cried out on local audio pickups, hoping she was being heard and understood.

"I am here! I am alive!" she shouted, on every frequency. "Help me!"

But the beings on her shell paid no attention. Their movements didn't pause at all. The busy scratching continued.

Her mind, previously drifting perilously toward madness, focused on this single fact, tried to think of ways to alert the beings on the other side of the barrier to her presence. She felt pieces being torn away from her skin, sensor links severed, leaving nerve endings shrieking agony as they died. At first she thought that her "rescuers" were cutting through a burned, blasted hull to get to her, but the tapping and scraping went on too long. The strangers were performing salvage on her shell, with her still alive within it! This was the ultimate violation; the equivalent of mutilation for transplants. She screamed and twitched and tried to call their attention to her, but they didn't listen, didn't hear, didn't stop.

Who were they? Any spacefarer from Central Worlds knew the emblem of a brainship. Even land dwellers had at least seen tri-dee images of the protective titanium pillar in which a shellperson was encased. Not to know, to be attempting to open her shell without care for the person inside meant that they must not be from the Central Worlds or any system connected to it. Aliens? Could her attackers be from an extra-central system?

When she was convinced that the salvagers were just about to sever her connections to her food and air recycling system, the scratching stopped. As suddenly as the intrusion had begun, Carialle was alone again. Realizing that she was now on the thin edge of sanity, she forced herself to count, thinking of the shape of each number, tasting it, pretending to feel it and push it onward as she thought, tasted, and pretended to feel the next number, and the next, and the next. She hadn't realized how different numbers were, individuals in their own right, varying in many ways each from the other, one after the other.

* * *

Three million, six hundred twenty-four thousand, five hundred and eighty three seconds later, an alert military transport pilot recognized the beacon signal. He took her shell into the hold of his craft. He did what he could in the matter of first aid to a shellperson—restored her vision. When he brought her to the nearest space station and technicians were rushed to her aid, she was awash in her own wastes and she couldn't convince anyone that what she was sure had happened—the salvage of her damaged hull by aliens—was a true version of her experiences. There was no evidence that anything had touched her ship after the accident. None of the damage could even be reasonably attributable to anything but the explosion and the impacts made by hurtling space junk. They showed her the twisted shard of metal that was all that had been left of her life-support system. What had saved her was that the open end had been seared shut in the heat of the explosion. Otherwise she would have been exposed directly to vacuum. But the end was smooth, and showed no signs of interference. Because of the accretion of waste they thought that her strange experience must be hallucinatory. Carialle alone knew she hadn't imagined it. There had been someone out there. There had!

The children's tales, thankfully, had not turned out to be true. She had made it to the other side of her ordeal with her mind intact, though a price had to be extracted from her before she was whole again. For a long time, Carialle was terrified of the dark, and she begged not to be left alone. Dr. Dray Perez-Como, her primary care physician, assigned a roster of volunteers to stay with her at all times, and made sure she could see light from whichever of her optical pickups she turned on. She had nightmares all the time about the salvage operation, listening to the sounds of her body being torn apart while she screamed helplessly in the dark. She fought depression with every means of her powerful mind and will, but without a diversion, something that would absorb her waking mind, she seemed to have "dreams" of some sort whenever her concentration was not focused.

One of her therapists suggested to Carialle that she could recreate the "sights" that tormented her by painting the images that tried to take control of her mind. Learning to manipulate brushes, mixing paints—at first she gravitated toward the darkest colors and slathered them on canvas so that not a single centimeter remained "light." Then, gradually, with healing and careful, loving therapy, details emerged: sketchily at first; a swath of dark umber, or a wisp of yellow. In the painstaking, meticulous fashion of any shellperson, her work became more graphic, then she began to experiment with color, character, and dimension. Carialle herself became fascinated with the effect of color, concentrated on delicately shading tones, one into another, sometimes using no more than one fine hair on the brush. In her absorption with the mechanics of the profession, she discovered that she genuinely enjoyed painting. The avocation couldn't change the facts of the tragedy she had suffered, but it gave her a splendid outlet for her fears.

By the time she could deal with those, she became aware of the absence of details; details of her schooling, her early years in Central's main training facility, the training itself as well as the expertise she had once had. She had to rebuild her memory from scratch. Much had been lost. She'd lost vocabulary in the languages she'd once been fluent in, scientific data including formulae and equations, navigation. Ironically, she could recall the details of the accident itself, too vividly for peace of mind. Despite meticulously relearning all the missing details concerning her first brawn, Fanine—all the relevant facts, where their assignments had taken them—these were just facts. No memory of shared experiences, fears, worries, fun, quarrels remained. The absence was shattering.

Ships did mourn the loss of their brawns: even if the brawn lived to retire at a ripe old age for a dirtside refuge. Carialle was expected to mourn: encouraged to do so. She was aware only of a vague remorse for surviving a situation that had ended the life of someone else. But she could not remember quite enough about Fanine or their relationship to experience genuine grief. Had they even liked one another? Carialle listened to hedrons of their mission reports and communiques. All of these could be taken one way or the other. The nine years they had spent together had been reduced to strict reportage with no personal involvement that Cari could recall.

As occupational therapy, Carialle took a job routing communication signals coming in to CenCom, a sort of glorified directory-assistance. It was busywork, taking little effort or intellect to do well. The advantage lay in the fact that voices and faces surrounded her.

She was ready for a new ship within two years of her rescue, and thank God for required insurance. As soon as the last synapse connection was hooked up and she was conscious again, Carialle felt an incredible elation: she was whole again, and strong. This was the way she was meant to be: capable of sailing through space, available and eager for important missions. Her destiny was not to answer communication systems or scuttle on a grav-carrier through corridors filled with softshells.

The expenses of the rescue operation and her medical care had been assumed by CenCom since that last mission had been hazardous, but the new CX-963 got quite a shock at the escalation of price in ship hulls. Her insurance had been based on purchase, not replacement price. She'd done a preliminary assessment of the cost but erroneously based her figures on those of her original ship-self. Her savings vanished in the margin between the two as unseen as a carbon meteor in atmosphere. She'd have no options on missions: she'd have to take any and many, and at once, to begin paying her enlarged debt.

Concurrently her doctors and CenCom urged her to choose a new brawn. After losing her last so spectacularly, Carialle was reluctant to start the procedure; another choice might end in another death. She agreed to see one man who came particularly well recommended, but she couldn't relate at all to him and he left in the shortest possible courteous time. She didn't have to have a brawn, did she? Brainships could go on solo missions or on temporary assignments. She might accept one on those terms. Her doctors and CenCom said they'd check into that possibility and left her alone again.

Though there were rarely so many, nine B&B ships were currently on the Regulus CenCom base, either between missions or refitting. She did have the chance to speak with other shellpeople. She was made to feel welcome to join their conference conversations. She knew that they knew her recent history but no one would have brought the subject up unless she did. And she didn't. But she could listen to the amiable, often hilarious, and sometimes brutally frank, conversations of her peers. The refits were five 800s and two 700s with such brilliant careers that Carialle felt unequal to addressing them at all: the eighth was preparing for a long mission, and there was herself. On an open channel, the brainships did have a tendency to brag about their current partner, how he or she did this and that, and was so good at sports/music/gaming/dancing, or how silly he or she could be about such and such—but hadn't they discovered Planet B or Moon C together, or managed to get germdogs to Colony X and save ninety percent of the afflicted from horrible deaths? The 800s were fond of reciting the silly misunderstandings that could occur between brain and brawn. Within Carialle, a wistfulness began to grow: the sense of what she, partnerless, was lacking.

When the FC-840 related having to mortgage her hull again to bail her brawn out of the clutches of a local gambling casino, Carialle realized with a sense of relief that she'd never have had that kind of trouble with Fanine. That was the first of the feelings, if not specific memories, that resurfaced, the fact that she had respected Fanine's good sense. More memories emerged, slowly at first, but all reassuring ones, all emphasizing the fact that she and Fanine had been friends as well as co-workers. Inevitably, during this process, Carialle became aware that she was lonely.

With that awareness, she announced to CenCom that she would now be willing to meet with brawns for the purpose of initiating a new partnership. At once she was inundated with applications, as if everyone had been poised to respond to that willingness. She wondered just how much the conversations of the other brainships had been calculated to stir her to that decision. They had all been keeping an eye on her.

The first day of interviews with prospective partners was hectic, exciting, a whirl of courtship. Deliberately Carialle avoided meeting any who were physically similar to Fanine, who had been a tall, rather plain brunet with large hands and feet, or anyone from Fanine's home planet. Fortunately there were few with either disqualification. None of the first lot, male or female, quite suited, although each did give Carialle a characteristic to add to her wish-list of the perfect brawn.

Keff was her first visitor on the morning of the second day. His broad, cheerful face and plummy voice appealed to her at once. He never seemed to stop moving. She followed him with amusement as he explored the cabin, pointing out every admirable detail. They talked about hobbies. When he insisted that he would want to bring his personal gym along with him, they got into a silly quarrel over the softshell obsession with physical fitness. Instead of being angry at his obduracy in not recognizing her sovereignty over her own decks, Carialle found herself laughing. Even when he was driving a point home, Keff's manner was engaging, and he was willing to listen to her. She informed CenCom that she was willing to enter a brain/brawn contract. Keff moved aboard at once, and his progressive-resistance gear came with him.

Just how carefully CenCom had orchestrated the affair, Carialle didn't care. CenCom, after all, had been matching brains with brawns for a very long time; they must have the hang of it now. Keff and Carialle complemented one another in so many ways. They shared drive, hope, and intelligence. Even during the interview Keff had managed to reawaken in Carialle the sense of humor which she had thought unlikely to be resuscitated.

In a very few days, as they awaited their first assignment, it was as if she'd never been paired with anyone else but Keff. What he said about spending almost all their time together went double for her. Each of them did pursue his or her private thoughts and interests, but they did their best work together. Keff was like the other half of her soul.

Despite her recent trauma, Carialle was a well-adjusted shellperson as indeed her recovery had proved. She was proud of having the superior capabilities that made it possible to multiplex several tasks at once. She felt sorry for nonshell humans. The enhanced functions available to any shellperson, most especially a brainship, were so far beyond the scope of "normal" humans. She felt lucky to have been born under the circumstances that led to her being enshelled.

Several hundred years before, scientists had tried to find a way to rehabilitate children who were of normal intelligence but whose bodies were useless. By connecting brain synapses to special nodes, the intelligent child could manipulate a shell with extendable pseudopods that would allow it to move, manipulate tools or keyboards. An extension of that principle resulted in the first spaceships totally controlled by encapsulated human beings. Other "shellpeople," trained for multiplexing, ran complicated industrial plants, or space stations, and cities. From the moment a baby was accepted for the life of a shellperson, he or she was conditioned to consider that life preferable to "softshells" who were so limited in abilities and lifespans.

One of the more famous brainships, the HN-832, or the Helva-Niall, had been nicknamed "the ship who sang," having developed a multivoice capability as her hobby. Though she docked in CenCom environs but rarely, Helva's adventures inspired all young shellpeople. Although Carialle was deeply disappointed to discover she had only an average talent for music, she was encouraged to find some other recreational outlet. It had taken a disaster for Carialle to find that painting suited her.

Encapsulated at three months and taught mostly by artificial intelligence programs and other shellpeople, Carialle had no self-image as an ordinary human. While she had pictures of her family and thought they looked like pleasant folks, she felt distinct from them.

Once Carialle had gone beyond the "black" period of her painting, her therapists had asked her to paint a self-portrait. It was a clumsy effort since she knew they wanted a "human" look while Carialle saw herself as a ship so that was what she produced: the conical prow of the graceful and accurately detailed spaceship framed an oval blob with markings that could just barely be considered "features" and blond locks that overlaid certain ordinary ship sensors. Her female sibling had had long blond hair.

After a good deal of conferencing, Dr. Dray and his staff decided that perhaps this was a valid self-image and not a bad one: in fact a meld of fact (the ship) and fiction (her actual facial contours). There were enough shellpeople now, Dr. Dray remarked, so that it was almost expectable that they saw themselves as a separate and distinct species. In fact, Carialle showed a very healthy shellperson attitude in not representing herself with a perfect human body, since it was something she never had and never could have.

Simeon's gift to Carialle was particularly appropriate. Carialle was very fond of cats, with their furry faces and expressive tails, and watched tapes of their sinuous play in odd moments of relaxation. She saw softshells as two distinct and interesting species, some members of which were more attractive than others.

As human beings went, Carialle considered Keff very handsome. In less hurried situations, his boyish curls and the twinkle in his deep-set blue eyes had earned him many a conquest. Carialle knew intellectually that he was good-looking and desirable, but she was not at all consumed with any sensuality toward him, or any other human being. She found humans, male and female, rather badly designed as opposed to some aliens she had met. If Man was the highest achievement of Nature's grand design, then Nature had a sense of humor.

Whereas prosthetics had been the way damaged adults replaced lost limbs or senses, the new Moto-Prosthetics line went further than that by presenting the handicapped with such refined functions that no "physical" handicap remained. For the shellperson, it meant they could "inhabit" functional alter-bodies and experience the full range of human experiences firsthand. That knocked a lot of notions of limitations or restrictions into an archaic cocked hat. Since Keff had first heard about Moto-Prosthetic bodies for brains, he had nagged Carialle to order one. She evaded a direct "no" because she valued Keff, respected his notion that she should have the chance to experience life outside the shell, join him in his projects with an immediacy that she could not enjoy encapsulated. The idea was shudderingly repulsive to her. Maybe if Moto-Prosthetics had been available before her accident, she might have been more receptive to his idea. But to leave the safety of her shell—well, not really leave it, but to seem to leave it—to be vulnerable—though he insisted she review diagrams and manuals that conclusively demonstrated how sturdy and flexible the M-P body was—was anathema. Why Keff felt she should be like other humans, often clumsy, rather delicate, and definitely vulnerable, she couldn't quite decide.

She started Simeon's gift tape to end that unproductive, and somewhat disturbing line of thought. Although Carialle had a library that included tapes of every sort of creature or avian that had been discovered, she most enjoyed the grace of cats, the smooth sinuousness of their musculature. This datahedron started with a huge spotted feline creeping forward, one fluid movement at a time, head and back remaining low and out of sight as if it progressed along under a solid plank. It was invisible to the prong-horned sheep on the other side of the undergrowth. Carialle watched with admiration as the cat twitched, gathered itself, sprang, and immediately stretched out in a full gallop after its prey. She froze the frame, then scrolled it backward slightly to the moment when the beautiful creature leapt forward, appreciating the graceful arc of its back, the stretch of its forelimbs, the elongated power of the hindquarters. She began to consider the composition of the painting she would make: the fleeing sheep was frozen with its silly face wild-eyed and splay-legged ahead of the gorgeous, silken threat behind it.

As she planned out her picture, she ran gravitational analyses, probable radiation effects of a yellow-gold sun, position of blip possibly indicating planet, and a computer model, and made a few idle bets with herself on whether they'd find an alien species, and what it'd look like.


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