Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

ORBITFALL — #1 of the SETI Library Series

Published by Gregory Benford on October 5th, 2012

That first step’s gotta be a doozy…
Felix Baumgartner steps out tomorrow at 120,000 ft, to fall and break the sound barrier for the first time without an airplane.
http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-stratospheric-jump-20121004,0,2788286.story
I published a story years ago about doing this from orbit, the obvious next step…except this time it’s a woman, accompanied by an alien who wants the thrill:

ORBITFALL

Ruth liked the view, at least.
In the frame chair atop an open deck she had a commanding perspective on the grand curve of Earth, from 110 kilometers up. High enough to boil your blood in seconds, if the visor before her eyes should pop.
And suit pressure loss was just one of the possibilities ahead.
The thought made her press back from the drop. Her hardened suit made movement slow, but she found that rugged heft reassuring. There were manifolds and buffers, shock absorbers and thermal dispersers galore – and she sensed the mass of them as a slowing-down of every movement. Weightless, yes, but swimming in molasses.
What is a librarian doing here? Why did I agree to this stunt?
It might be good for her career, but that wasn’t the reason. Call it a sense of adventure.
The vanes down her back sank into the spongy chair. In the chair next to her the alien stared down at the serene blue-white curve. The upper atmosphere glowed in its afternoon shimmer. Clouds lurked far below like icing on a spherical cake. Behind them the Star Tower was a thin line pointing from its ocean base south of Sri Lanka and on out to the counter-weight beyond view.
To her right sat the alien, blocking her view to the north. It was large, humanoid and sat in an odd way. Slowly it turned to take it all in and then stared at her again. Its name was Akralan and until this moment she had not thought about what the word might mean. A librarian should think of such things. What else had she ignored?
She let the view enchant her a bit more. No way out of this, so be calm.
With Akralan and a support team of everything from engineers to diplomats, they had lifted from the SETI Library on Luna. She had enjoyed the electromagnetic sling, its soaring views of crisp craters flashing by. They had then coasted into rendezvous with the top of the orbital tower. There had been enough time in the downward elevator ride to practice and prepare, including exercises and tech briefings, fitting her suit, mastering its controls.
They rode down to the first Tower station, 100 kilometers above its floating ocean base. Now she and Akralan were jetting up and away, to more amazing views. In moments they would reach their drop position above Tamil Nadu in India, the green splotch spreading below. Cloudy knots of purpling anger fought along the coast.
Too late to back out…
She wondered if their fall would avoid the developing weather.
A long way down, indeed. What had her mother used to say? Adventure means opportunity. Sure, Mom.
They were hovering now. Not orbiting, moving at speeds of tens of kilometers a second. This would have been impossible as a true reentry. All they had to worry about was gravity.
Suit check. White ribs over elbows, shoulders and knees, secured. Red accents of reinforced joints, vanes along her forearms. Heat shield for rigidity and thermal screen. The signature Orbital Outfitters logo on her chest, which carried the smart parachute controls. All up and running.
Her comm rang in her left ear. It was the Prefect, the tone said. Probably calling with some phony last-minute encouragement. She ignored it. I’m out of my mind, but feel free to leave a message.
Akralan turned to look at her, its diamond eyes glittering. The cone nose on the forehead flared wide and red. Excitement? Reading hominid-like alien expressions was a typical error, she knew. But hard to resist.
Breathe easily, they had said. She tried.
It reached over and clasped her arm. Did it want to go now? No way to tell, but the countdown meter available in her left eye said no, there were – with a shock she saw it ticking down, 13 seconds to go.
Somehow the Earth’s luminous beauty had stolen away her time. Automatically she raced through the drill. Just jump out. Legs together. Arms out straight for torque control. No need to pitch down. Just let gravity happen.
She ritually gave her parachute straps a tug. Drogue, yes. Main, snug. No reason to abort there, none at all…
Ding. Time.
She thought about the Library and how safe it was, just her own comfortable office …. and unbuckled her harness.
Akralan did the same, eyes glittering as it followed her every move. Has it done this before? Is it feeling fear?
The eyes told her nothing.
She stood up. For the human species. Damned if she would let it go first.
She took a deep breath and leaped.
No sensation of movement. Weightless. She had already trained to suppress her falling reflexes so she could simply watch as the world hung there, ignoring her. Only after ten breaths – she refused to look at the timer – did she see any slight movement. The world was edging toward her.
And Akralan–? She turned her head slightly to find it and the drag of rushing air tugged at her. A soft whoosh told her she was moving even if her eyes did not.
There was Akralan. Behind her and to her right. She relaxed. This was not a race but it didn’t hurt that she was ahead. Slightly.
She banked her arms a bit and felt a slight spin. Corrected it by moving her arms oppositely. In control, just as her training said. No spins, if she reacted fast enough.
She kept her head looking down and peered to both sides. She felt prickly heat building in the suit and saw rippling air to the sides. Shock refraction. Rattling built along her legs and arms, humming into her body. The atmosphere was playing her like an instrument.
A wave of fear swept through her. But then it tickled. She barked out a laugh. Laughter is just a slowed down scream of terror. Where had she read that…?
The sky brightened and she stole a glance at her other meters in her right eye. Speed nearly a thousand kilometers an hour and climbing fast. A burr of sound coursed through her body. Wind resistance plucking at her. Whispers sang past her head.
The horizon flattened, losing its silky curve. Stars glimmered, bright and true, then faded. Blue fog gathered around her and the puffy clouds fled sideways. She hung in a vast space that whipped by her. Below was…purple.
Something shot by her. Akralan.
It described a helix wrapping around her, zooming past, and then It made a complicated move with its arms outstretched. It slowed, hovered so she could overtake. It waved its arms in darting moves and arced away, spinning the body. She dared not imitate that. Abruptly it banked back toward her and zipped across ahead of her. She could swear she saw the eyes glitter, the mouth pucker.
If we hit, what—
Akralan abruptly shot across her again and hovered, eyes glaring. Some kind of challenge?
It’s snout-nose flared red. It fanned its legs. Hanging only a meter away, it reached over and touched her shoulder. Fear flooded through her.
#
It had all started so simply. A simple call to the Prefect’s office.
The Prefect scowled, itself an unusual event. Normally he kept a blank face turned to his underlings, apparently feeling that it was up to them to yield information, while giving away none himself. But plainly today he was worried.
Ruth decided to tease, widening her eyes. “An alien? Here? The one who came through the Maze last month?”
“The first in four years, yes. It arrived without announcement, other than the braking flare of its ship – quite a small vessel, too.”
While the Prefect went on to describe the ship smaller than a house, Ruth made herself relax. She was a Librarian now, just promoted. Behind her lay the Trainee competition that sometimes made her quick to mock and to take offense with the other Trainees. Now she had to put away the need to prove oneself better than any Prefect twit who had not struggled with the ancient SETI texts for decades. Gone, she hoped, were the restlessness, angst and the nagging ache of the striver.
She cut into the Prefect’s engineering description. “What does that suggest about the nearest wormhole mouth?”
The Prefect eyed her as if she was asking for a state secret. Perhaps she was, at that. “The wormhole must lie within a light-month, the scientists say. The astronomers picked up his deceleration flare and worked backward from that. The engineers think that, given its apparent available reaction mass, it must have come from deep in the Oort cloud.”
“Um,” Ruth said. To get to Earth from the Oort cloud of icesteroids that hung far beyond Pluto, in that little time, implied enormous speeds. She calculated it meant tens of astronomical units in a day. “Impressive.”
“We would like to know more, and perhaps we shall. Thus far it acknowledges that it comes from a society that went through a SETI transmitting era, though not which one.”
“Odd,” Ruth said. “So we may have their signals, but we won’t know how to link them to…”
“Exactly. Mysterious. Further, it will not confirm that it transmits now.” The Prefect sighed. “Frustrating.”
“Maybe this mystery is … part of its ritual?”
“I suspect so. The speech translator who works with it says that after proper introductions – whatever that means – it will help us identify which of our SETI messages are theirs.”
Ruth bit her lip in thought. “Afraid to disclose their location?”
“Probably. It would not be the first hint that a SETI broadcast came from a site quite distant from the host society.”
The galactic Byzantium, Ruth thought. Intrigues within mysteries buried in shadowy plots. “So you and I can work with this alien now?”
“Nothing so hasty,” the Prefect said sourly. “It will only work with those who can translate directly from the SETI files, however.” He eyed her significantly. “Therefore, I cannot serve.”
Decades had passed, she knew, since this Prefect had worked with the cryofiles. Ruth had taken years to fathom the labyrinth of those data-forests – the sum of all transmissions received from the Galactic Complex, that host of innumerable societies that had, largely, flourished long before humanity was born. Within those multidimensional databases, Ruth spent her days. Multi-coded, the files were a vast, largely impenetrable resource. The grandest possible intellectual scrap heap. But it could yield priceless ore.
She said carefully, “Why not?” The pyramid of power in the Library of Intelligences was rigid:
Prefects
Noughts
Librarians
Below those ranks were the Trainees, from which Ruth had just graduated after years of hard work. Below her were Seekers of Script, who assisted librarians. Below then, and the real strength of the Library, were Hounds. The venerable term came from the “data dogs” or “miners” of ancient times, before the Library had moved to Luna. At least she did not have to deal with the sexless Noughts on this issue.
“I do not handle texts directly, and this alien thinks that matters.” A perplexed twist of the Prefect’s mouth lasted only a second. “I chose…you.”
“I’m honored.”
“You may not feel that way in a moment,” he said dryly.
“In a moment?”
“It’s here now. To meet you.”
Her eyes widened, this time in alarm. Librarians seldom saw aliens. Usually it was in a minor role, to ask for help in deciphering or explaining interactions between SETI sites. Beacon History was not one of Ruth’s areas.
“But I haven’t prepared—“
“The people at State Relations went through a month of ritual greetings just to get it to talk. We’ve been through a day of ceremonials to even sit down. It believes in a ‘cusp interval’ when it can properly meet others. We learned this only an hour ago. It’s got to happen now.”
“How…do I dress?”
“Your uniform—“ He cast a gaze down it, nodded. Luckily she had just run it through the cleaner this morning. “—will mean little to it. I take it that these aliens’ manners resemble the ancient Japanese. It demands an hour minimum introduction, for any cultural interaction.”
“How do I—“
“State did the hard work. That’s what took a month. Plus training the computer aural translator. Its name, as rendered into something we can pronounce, and is acceptable to it, is Akralan.”
“Its star?”
“It will not reveal that, as yet. The astrobio types tell us it must come from a star similar to ours, a bit smaller mass. Its world has less surface water and more noble gases in the air.”
“What about its culture?”
“Akralan says it has come because we are humanoid, like itself. Their society saw pictures of us in one of our transmissions. Akralan says humanoids must stick together, in a way. As the newest humanoid species, we must come to know and respect certain set, ordered ways.”
Ruth had seen many formalized patterns of grammars, symbols and words in the SETI Library. Often they carried coded tricks to prevent unwelcome use. “Do these ceremonials have a purpose?”
The Prefect pursed his lips and momentary bewilderment flickered across his face. “It feels that non-humanoids cannot understand these social mannerisms. So the other shapes and sizes of aliens are somehow lesser. Why, it doesn’t say. That point alone took several days to extract, I gather.”
“Do you have any idea—“
A soft tone sounded on the Prefect’s desk. “The translator is ready.”
#
Ruth made herself stretch her own arm out toward the alien. It rotated its head in a slow circle.
What was that phrase the translator used? ‘Work Wife’ Was this the ritual to become a co-worker? The Prefect had thought so. But…wife? Impossibly, Akralan did a somersault, windmilling its arms. Then it plunged away from her, somehow picking up speed toward the distant clouds below.
So was it… showing off?
It’s playing with me.
She had no time to think. Her head snapped back. Pulses sounded through her—buffeting. She was moving faster than sound and shock waves raced along her, a thousand small hammers finding nooks to hurt.
Not relaxed any more. A warning clang jolted her ears.
Her thermal shedders were laboring, but she felt prickly heat seep into her skin. Breath was a labor. Another clang.
The drogue signal. About to deploy.
She turned to see if her backpack was clear and suddenly wrenched sideways.
Sky. Boots. Sky. Boots. She was tumbling. She forced her arms out the way Akralan had. Wind tore at her arms. They strained in their sockets.
If her drogue parachute popped out while she tumbled, the shrouds could tangle. The chute would not open right.
She forced her arms in the odd gestures Akralan had made. Wind howled around her. She opened her legs to get drag and that brought her around, facing down again. But she was at an angle, getting forced back into a rotation.
She windmilled her arms. That brought her right again, facing down. But she overshot. She reversed the windmill. Eased back into position, facing down.
Bang – the drogue chute peeled away and slammed her hard.
Air rushed from her lungs. She fought the huge hand trying to crush her chest and sucked in a little air. She was losing speed fast.
But the drogue was deployed right, pulling hard at her.
Below, all was blue-black.
#
An enormous cloud towered over the puffy white cumulus near it, stretching up from an anvil-shaped base to a massive head. And she was falling into it.
They were. She looked for Akralan. It was ahead of her now, drogue bright orange.
She closeupped the cloud base and saw lightning fork in quick raging stabs. Her inboards told her it was twice as high as Everest. Wispy ice clouds slipped by her. She looked toward her feet. She was white. Ice caked her now.
And here came the billowy head of the big cloud. Fronds of vapor enveloped her as she shot through layers of cloud decks, shocks slamming through her. Her teeth chattered. So much for thermal overload.
Her helmet had rims of ice crystals. But why she did not feel cold? Then she realized that the buffeting was resonating through her, playing her like a drum. Her teeth chattered in resonance with it.
The ice-white streamers around her thickened and darkness gathered in. Fat, dark boils below loomed and she plunged through them, into …night. It must be cold here, she thought, but she felt warm. The heat from the first, fast friction had protected her.
But…she felt queasy. In the dark she could feel herself begin to spin, arms trying to fly out. The parachute would get fouled if she went into a gyre.
But how to stop? She spread her arms, giving way to the centrifugal. Now she could navigate by the pressure against her, since that was down. She flexed her legs to steer and got slammed around by twisting winds. All in the dark.
Violent gusts rattled her. Gravity returned – which meant she was rising, punched upward by winds that fed the cloud core. Pang went her faceplate. Lesser hammer blows rang along her body. What?
In the dim glow she saw hailstones bouncing off her suit. Rocks of ice, some as big as her fist. They came at her from below, slamming up into her. But she still felt gravity, so she was rising toward the cloud summit. Some huge hurricane was hammering the hail upward.
A crisp, white burst of light seared her vision. She looked down a vast dark tunnel burrowing through the center of the cloud. A lightning bolt twisted across this tunnel, showing her feet apart, arms flapping. Whirling. Head over heels. Dark above. Tunnel below. Dark above again. Tunnel – then it snapped off, leaving her in complete black oblivion.
She looked at her helmet timer. 16.27 minutes elapsed.
It seemed like hours.
#
The Prefect stepped through into the translation room, but Ruth hesitated. Beyond that door was the first alien she would ever meet. She gulped, took a deep breath and followed.
Her first impression was of shadowy skin and eyes like rounded rectangles. Its nose was a single large protruding cone high on the forehead. It wore clothes of an amber hue and sat like a human, though considerably larger. The hands were four-fingered and multi-jointed in an odd way as the creature made rapid gestures, turned its head in elaborate arcs, and then sat absolutely still. It then could have passed as a large storefront dummy.
The Prefect gestured and she sat in a chair opposite the smooth–skinned being. She did not know what to do and looked at the translator, an aged woman. The translator held a flat device that converted acoustic signals, doing the hard work of bridging between languages utterly different. The woman explained that she had developed audio pickups that transduced human speech into its own sounds, but Akralan could not shape human words. She would aid in the halting exchange.
The next ten minutes passed slowly as it spoke, sounding like a bearing about to go. It made hand passes and some strange leg-thrusts from its molded chair. The translator responded in kind. Ruth gazed into the unreadable glittering black depths of its eyes – which swiveled to follow her. She realized that she was fidgeting and stilled herself. The alien’s eyes seemed to glaze.
With the translator Akralan used gestures, words sounding like a song sung by insects, then hand-clasps. The translator said at last, “We have performed the ceremony of greeting. Now it will follow its invocation of need.”
“Its… what?” Ruth found it hard to look away from the eyes.
“Since you will be working with it, there must be a firm introduction,” the translator explained carefully. “It seems to want to…take you as a collaborator.”
“To decipher SETI texts?”
“To…convey ‘necessary knowledge’ – that is the best way to phrase it.”
“To translate some of the holdings?”
“More, it implies. It refers to ‘ancient knowings beyond written’ – which may link through semiotics to the Maze.”
The Maze was a working name for the transport system that threaded the galaxy. Many SETI messages were scraps referring to it. Physicists inferred that the Maze might be an interlocking system of wormholes, and thus a way to move nearer to the civilizations that had sent the messages. But where was the nearest wormhole to Earth? Until they knew that, other knowledge was useless.
The alien made a long series of sounds like gravel sliding downhill. The translator worked the flat device and at last said, “We will observe the ‘reflections’.”
This meant minutes of silence. The alien stared straight at Ruth and made small gestures with its four-fingered hands. She had no idea what to do so sat still.
Silence was one of the ways to deal with aliens, she had been taught. This one said little, a useful weapon. It probably knew that this made talky humans edgy, as if to say, I have come a long way. Now it is up to you.
It occurred to her that staying silent herself might work as well. Use the same tricks. Akralan could never be quite sure that it is not being mocked. And mockery must surely be a universal. The SETI psychologists suspected that intelligence had to have humor as a release valve. Strange elements in the dense SETI messages seemed to be humor, in the sense that they posed odd congruences, or even outright ridicule – the essential elements in what humans thought was funny. But humor had a social use as well – mockery among them.
So she sat and stared straight back at it. Long moments ticked by. Behind her the Prefect did nothing. They were a frozen tableaux.
Then the alien seemed to bristle, the nostrils atop its head flaring crimson, as if taking affront.
“You have passed its inspection,” the translator said.
Ruth raised one eyebrow. The alien wrinkled its intricately lined face in a mimicking way. Then she ventured a smile. Akralan gave her a curve of its slit mouth, but turned down, not up. A deliberate mirroring? Time to take the initiative.
“What’s a ‘firm introduction’?”
“Not a ritual exchange, such as we do now, but a positive act.”
“What act?”
“It requires that to function with you – or any Librarian, though you seem closest in abilities to what it wants – there is a bonding ritual.”
“Ummm. What sort?”
“It wishes to make you its ‘Work Wife’ – a term in its association grammar.”
She blinked. “Wife?”
“This is social gender, not biology.”
”I…become this ‘work wife’ by doing…what?”
“Taking what it calls the Plunge. We know you have athletic abilitiy and –”
“This is some ritual?”
“Akralan says to know the Earth he must be ‘properly introduced’ – which implies he must enter it from space.”
She pondered the alien’s flat, unreadable gaze. Was it male or female? She had no clear way of judging. The eyes glinted as if in challenge. “And I—what? How do I introduce the Earth?
“By escorting Akralan.”
#
The cloud world flashed all around her, lit by tangles of lightning – thick, blue blades like liquid swords. Then they snapped off—and the thunder came.
She did not hear it. Instead she felt it, sounding like a deep note that her body hummed.
Winds poked and pried at her, whipping her arms around. She curled up; head toward what she thought was down – and found in the next blue-white lightning flash that she was looking up. Or thought she was.
A giant hand snatched her around. Her lungs wheezed out all they had. The hand had her by her back—and she then realized that her chute had opened. That settled the argument about which way was down.
She turned to check and lightning lit the parachute canvas. A beautiful domed cathedral over her. Almost enough to make her religious. Then the thunder hit her and she vibrated again. If there was a time to pray, this would be it.
Rain smeared her view. Clouds came rushing up at her. Sunlight broke through in slanting shafts that moisture diffused into halos. Cottony clouds glittered like mountains of spun sugar. The buffeting jerked her around and she felt dizzy with the speed. Will this never end? She plunged through laces of incandescence. The moisture gave rays of light a shimmering beauty and she felt it sweep away her mounting fear.
Then she shot through the brilliance. She turned to look down. The huge tunnel that was the cloud interior now ended in a rippled wall of dirty gray. Those must be rain-saturated clouds, she realized just as she plunged through it–
–into ordinary pattering rain.
Sheets of droplets wrapped around her. Thump – and a giant hand jerked her upward. The main chute popped out, twirling beyond her drogue.
Now she was the bob on a pendulum, swinging widely as gusts caressed her. Ordinary hot-white lightning flashed around her. Thunder boomed and she could hear it, a big door slamming somewhere.
A muddy brown smear told her there was land below. She came down toward a pine forest, looking for a clear spot. There—a bare stretch of rock. She recalled her drop training. Feet together, body bent at the waist, hands and elbows tight.
The rocky slope came at her fast. She hit, rolled. Her helmet cracked down.
Lie still she thought. Do nothing. It felt very good.
Her body ached at a thousand spots. Joints wailed. Rain pattered against her, a goodbye tapping.
She sat up. Nothing seemed to be broken but a lot of her wanted to complain. The parachute tugged at her and she groped for the release. It popped free. Ah! So good to be alive. Even though she could feel a hundred aches and bruises.
Something above– She turned to see Akralan swinging down. It landed effortlessly, remained erect.
Akralan abruptly broke into an odd dance, spinning and barking out sharp sounds like clashing gears. Its snout-nose was not red now.
She staggered over to it. It held out a hand, as if inviting her to dance with it. She did. It spun her around, tapped its large feet on the rock like a drumbeat. More ritual?
She felt like punching it in the chest. No, be the diplomat. Never mind that there are clear signs down below that you wet yourself.
Instead, she stabbed a finger at the audio recording the translator had made for her. Her prepared salute. To her ears it was like gravel churning in a blender. It meant Thus do I introduce you to my world. Now let us begin.
Akralan spread its arms and did a complicated two-step. By now she knew this meant Agreed. Begin.
#
A month later, her soreness was gone but not her smoldering emotions. The Plunge had changed her, Ruth knew, but not exactly how.
“What?” the Prefect demanded. “Akralan will only teach us rituals?”
Ruth shrugged. “That is all it’s delegated to do, apparently.”
“What good is that?”
“Akralan points out that without the protocols needed to pass through a wormhole mouth, the artificial systems that keep those gates open will not let us pass.”
“What does that mean—not let us pass?”
Ruth grimaced. “I don’t think we want to find out.”
“What are these rituals like?”
“Maneuvers in space, signals to send. Some tangled mathematical stuff I couldn’t follow. Think of it as an elaborate key.”
The Prefect returned his face to the familiar stony blank. “Akralan won’t give any hint of where the nearest wormhole mouth is?”
She eyed the Prefect, wondering if the man had any personal life. Or was it all about the Library? Better be the diplomat, then. “That may come, in time. It says it wants to ‘ken’ Earth. That’s an old word meaning to know in a profound way.”
The Prefect’s mouth twisted. “Some high-ranked people will be very irked.”
“Some low-ranked, too. But…” She paused, trying to express an intuition gained from many hours with Akralan. “I am gathering in some ways of thinking about this alien culture. They’re humanoid, but apparently didn’t develop along our lines.”
The Prefect leaned forward, his posture eager, but he kept the blank mask. “It told you some of their history?”
“They’re communal. Live in close quarters, apparently because their world is pretty hostile. So they’re very formal with each other, the way crowded cultures are on Earth – only much more so.”
“It told you this expressly?”
“I inferred from nuances in its speech. This is going to take time. Akralan doesn’t think the way we do, and it has a species history that began when we were small mammals staying out from underfoot.”
The Prefect’s tone turned sour. “So it gives us more ceremony, not substance.”
Come on, freezeface. But she said mildly, “It’s a first step.”
She was beginning to get the feel of this profession. At the very beginnings of the Alien Library, humanity found that it was coming in on an extended discourse, an ancient interstellar conversation. There were no handy notes or crib-sheet histories to guide them. Only slowly did the cyber-cryptographers fathom that most alien cultures were truly ancient, stable for longer than hominids had even been around.
Apparently many intelligent species had a brief technological phase, then relapsed. Most listened in or sent SETI messages for a century or two, then fell silent. Humanity was just beginning its trial period, then. They should not expect the Elders to take much notice of them, or lend much help.
Thanks to millennia of SETI exchanges, the Elders had grown far more complex than the sum of all human societies. This Byzantium among the stars was much stranger than anything humans had ever known.
She said carefully, “Akralan had made it very clear they are helping us out because we’re rubes. Less prosperous, wet behind the ears, younger, ignorant. And it’s right.”
The Prefect seldom reacted immediately to new information. Some computer behind his forehead had to grind away first.
A glaze came over his face as he thought and Ruth had a sudden image flash to mind. Ruth as Superwoman, bounding over vast obstacles Shrugging off pesky hindrances. Her trusty companion, Akralan, leading her into ever more dazzling feats. This connection to Akralan could be a career maker, played right.
But then a chill came into her, a foreboding. There’s something afoot here I don’t like. Librarian Ruth isn’t Superwoman. And shouldn’t be.
The Prefect picked up a datasheet and punched up a message.
“Akralan sent me a request, posed in formal language. It seems to want a companion while it ‘kens’ Earth.”
Ruth had not heard of this. She stayed silent.
The Prefect made a thin attempt at sounding upbeat. “This time Akralan points out that there is a way to ‘ascend’ as well. Apparently that would involve some rocket-assisted way to soar to the top of Everest.” He stopped and peered at her. “I assume you can exercise your same skills as before and—“
“Don’t finish that sentence.” She got up and stalked out. Which took a kind of courage Superwoman Ruth didn’t know.
END