“In old times, popping ’sphere was much more serious.” Reinventing her bedside manner, Nerethe had found, was the hardest thing about pretending that she no longer had any mental abilities. Harder even than wielding hand-held med instruments instead of reworking the flesh with her mind. “When we were planetbound, we didn’t hibernate under any circumstances. We were spacers for over a thousand generations before we developed a survival mechanism.”
“That’s just theory,” the miner said. “Nobody knows what the ancestors were like.”
“There wouldn’t have been any need for hibernation on Urt.” Nerethe snipped at another piece of the patient’s carapace. A shell of thick goo that had been extruded by her skin when the woman hit open space, it had protected her from the vacuum. One of fifteen miners blown into space in an accident, the patient was Quiet, just like Nerethe was pretending to be. She was pregnant, too. With no mental signature to track her by, it had taken twelve hours to locate her cocoon, hours Nerethe spent on call, waiting and anxious. Once they had pinpointed her location, the Loom transited her directly to Nerethe for extraction and a determination on whether the baby was injured.
“What if they fell into water? Or if it snowed?”
They drowned and they froze, Nerethe thought, but to say so would be morbid—she was failing with the banter again. This was all so much easier when you could do it telepathically. “I never could believe that Urt had much snow,” she said.
“I think it snowed.”
Nerethe’s treatment room was better furnished than her own hab, with a plush treatment couch of dusky pink and an imagewall showing babies she had delivered, snuggled in the arms of their parents. Views of space were streaked across the ceiling—another imagewall, but expensive enough to pass for a portal. A trellis covered in pale orange roses climbed the room’s back wall, perfuming the room slightly.
Nerethe herself was wedged into a narrow slot between the treatment couch and the instrument counter. Over the years she had learned to reach for instruments without turning her face away from her patient. Eye contact was important to the Quiet, who couldn’t thread their thoughts in any mind but their own.
The last hunks of carapace fell away. “I’m going to start the scanner now. Try to relax.”
The woman nodded, lips pressed together with tension, her attention fixed deep inside as she stared up at the imagewall showing the scattered lights of Urb. Each tiny flicker was an asteroid; each rock was home to people numbering in the thousands. “I think it snowed on Urt, all the time. I think they just grew a carapace and slept through the winter, and when they woke up everything was fine.”
“You’re probably right,” Nerethe agreed heartily, and started the scan.
She was able to send the woman home with the best of news—no damage to her or the unborn child. Her own relief she barely had time to savor before her brother startled her by transiting into her treatment room.
One moment she was alone, smiling at the scan results; the next he was beside her, a friendly, almost relieved smile on his handsome features. Silly younger brother, none too bright, desperately missed. He was wearing his “I’m in trouble” face, an ever so innocent expression in his little-boy eyes.
Nerethe cried out in delight, a Quiet habit that startled him badly, she could see, even as she vaulted the couch and threw herself into his arms. Warm skin and the smell of him made her spirits soar ridiculously. He felt positively frail, had to be living on one of the lower gravity asteroids of Urb. She clung, hopelessly teary at the sight of him. Then she pulled back suddenly, looked close.
“You’re not sick, are you?”
“What? No. What makes you think?”
“You’ve never come . . . here. To the office . . .”
“You’re never home.” He shifted from foot to foot, slouching in the light gravity which, to him, probably felt incredibly heavy. QuietTown was the largest of Urb’s asteroids. “Can’t we quicken this up?” His voice rose, insinuating.
She shook her head, shushed him, threw a warning glance at the curtain which separated her from the clinic receptionist and her patients. She pulled the curtain shut, tapped the privacy controls, waited for a confirmation on the soundproofing field. “Just talk to me.”
“Okay.” He sighed, rubbed his throat dramatically. “I heard you’re going to the wrangle with Denii Compact.”
“Yes. Kole Hexan asked me to do an analysis on their plague vaccine, and I couldn’t get out of it.”
“Why would you want to get out of it?”
“Because it’s wrong for me to go,” she said. She was Quick, and treaty said that only the Quiet could meet with Urb’s clients and competitors. Few races trusted humans; the word for human in most alien tongues was, literally, Mindpicker. But Urb provided services that were hard to get elsewhere: pollution-free resource extraction from remote asteroids, entertainment scans of distant worlds and wonders, colonial surveys. Not to mention Transition—instantaneous travel across vast distances.
If the Denii found out that a Quick doctor had gone to the talks, the results would be disastrous.
Problem was, she couldn’t tell this to Kole, who assumed that Nerethe had fallen Quiet as a young adult. It had been too easy not to correct the assumption, to almost—but not quite—lie. Kole had eased her into a QuietTown obstetrics practice, befriended her. She had planted the rose trellis in Nerethe’s office, fed her dinner, helped her adjust.
“It’s good you’re going.” Her brother crinked his face into what was supposed to be a pleasing grin. Like most Quick body language, it was flat, unconvincing. “Some people inLoom are a little mad that we were contracted to produce this vaccine. They think the Denii are up to something.”
“They say why can’t they produce their own vaccine . . . I’d spin you the whole discussion if you’d just crack your mind a little . . .”
“Stop saying that.” Her eye wandered to the soundseal, checking. It was fine, naturally. “Everyone knows the Denii biolabs aren’t up to our standards.”
“That’s what I said. But—”
“Who’s angry?” Interrupting threw him off. InLoom, you finished your thought whether the other person had begun to answer or not; conversations braided. Live speech was a dotted line, a Throwback skill and good for nothing except communicating with the Quiet. Jannon was already hoarse from overusing his voice. “What guys are angry that you sold the vaccine contract?”
“You sold it, didn’t you? Family lab’s producing the serum, right?”
“We can’t all be doctors, you know. Yeah, I sold it.”
“What guys are angry, Jannon?”
Hangdog, he dropped the innocent routine. “Intelligence guys. They say you have to pick the Denii envoy’s mind in case they’re up to something.”
She felt the blood draining from her face, knew she was paper-white. She remembered the last time she had felt this way, poring over experimental results and discovering something infinitely awful within her original failed experiment. She let go of his hand.
“Go back where you came from.” Numb lips nevertheless formed the words.
“I’m sorry, Nerethe. I am. Look in me, see how it is.”
Her messenger chirped, drowning out any possible answer. “Nerethe? Sobi Lett’s gone into labor. She wants to meet you in the birthing room.”
“Coming,” she said.
“You have to do it,” Jannon said. “Nerethe, they’re gonna tell everyone in QuietTown who you are.”
With that, shame-faced but message nevertheless delivered, he transited out. Air rushed past her face, eager to fill the space where her brother’s body had been, and the roses whispered in the momentary breeze. Her heart, ever the traitor, ached at his sudden absence.
• • • •
Once Sobi’s son was delivered, examined, and celebrated, Nerethe went back to her clinic. She scorched herself clean in the doctor’s shower before returning to the treatment room. Lying on the couch herself, she opaqued the imagewalls. Her eye fell on a relaxant patch, locked and safe in the Meds cabinet. It had been a long time since she’d started doing things the Quiet way, but tonight temptation finally won out; instead of applying the patch to her skin, she transitioned the drug directly to her bloodstream. A few thousand molecules—the most she could transition alone—but enough to do the job. A rush of chemically induced well-being filled her.
Floating, relaxed, she opened herself to the Loom.
All of Urb rushed to greet her, the interwoven presence of one hundred billion minds, everyone but the Quiet. A melange of feelings and information stitched through her: fifteen, twenty, sixty different threads, all at once. Her mind fell into old habits, sorting and threading. She picked an archive of recipes, dug into the marrow of her favorite discussions, still ongoing after so many years. She tasted the recent med research, got a whiff of city politics. The newest Frist opera was running live on Artsblock Six. Channeled inLoom by its audience, three hundred first-person experiences of the event flowed through the collective human consciousness, tangling with the nostalgia of those who had already seen it in person and the anticipation of people who still wanted to go . . .
Then there was a great emotional rush as her family detected her. Hot, passionate joy as they glommed around Nerethe in a knot, bundling six years of gossip into her mind—the twins had just gotten their Med certifications, Alya was pregnant, Hamen got a gender-switch, there’d been a scandal over an outfit that Berret had worn to his best friend’s graduation. Business, too: in a breath she learned everything the lab had accomplished since she’d turkeyed offLoom. Successes, failures, contracts and clients and research allotments, down to the penny details, a cascade of data. Old ancestors presided over the whole impromptu reunion, winding them round with love and inarticulate approval. Some of them had been all but dead for centuries—when their bodies gave out, they transited their consciousness directly into the Loom.
Hiding as little as she could bear, Nerethe let her aunt and mother pick over the details of her life, saw them worry about her eating habits, add to the recipes, cluck over her reclusive behavior.
A gaggle of cousins who’d been eight or ten when she left came forward shyly to reacquaint themselves.
Things were held back on their side, too. They didn’t draw hard on the experience of being offLoom. They absorbed images of her friendships with the Quiet; they were even impressed that she knew the infamous Kole Hexan. But they didn’t react, didn’t ask why.
They shied away from the intensity of her homesickness, didn’t comment on the way she had missed being onLoom every single minute. They wanted to take it for granted, she could see; didn’t want to be made uncomfortable.
She damped down her hostility and knitted herself into the radiance, the warmth. Prodigal. A moment of celebrity.
Her father was dancing the same old dance, making rote demands for grandchildren while trying to charm her on a deeper level. Something was going on, he knew it. Did it have anything to do with Jannon? He wanted to know.
Deflecting him, she sank deeper into the pleasure of being with the clan. When she’d been young it had been a constant push for air, for breathing room amid the squabbles and gossip, the power struggles and kid rebellions. Family business had been overwhelming and fraught with politics—do you need an assistant? Is there a cousin who could do it? Can you make enough profit on this job so we can afford a place at the Medical College for Leena? Always, someone wanted something.
Funny, she had all but forgotten the good things. In the office, she raised her hand, brushed wetness off her face and transitioned it to steam.
You’re ready to come home, her aunt was thinking.
But she had a practice, she argued. A life.
Somewhere on another of Urb’s asteroids, her aunt shrugged.
And that was why she had come back, wasn’t it? To see which life mattered more. No matter what she did now, her life and practice among the Quiet would be destroyed. Either Jannon’s friends would rat her out or she’d have to betray Kole.
Two presences dangled at the edges of the melee: Jannon and Green. Brother and one-time sister-in-law. The family ne’er do well and the unacknowledged heroine of Urb. Green, who had already been detangling from her romance with Nerethe’s troublesome brother when she found the research Nerethe had abandoned.
Green, who had reconstructed the experiments Nerethe had destroyed.
This was what Intelligence was really threatening to reveal: Nerethe had stumbled onto a way of detecting Quiet children in the first trimester of a pregnancy. She had hidden the data, run away. But it was hard to lose things inLoom. Green was smart and she’d lived in Nerethe’s mind, and she’d needed a project to distract her from the heartache of breaking up with Jannon.
Now the family held manufacturing rights on a Quiet holocaust.
Nerethe held all this close, didn’t let it slip to her family, couldn’t bear to hear the defenses and recriminations. Would you willingly give birth to a child who was blind, they’d ask. Who had no legs? Then why have a child who couldn’t be healed except with rough physical tools? Who couldn’t transition to the energy state when their body aged and their time was running out?
She hooked out a private thread, knotted herself into Green’s cautious reserve. “I’m not angry,” she sent, but it wasn’t quite true, and Green closed herself like a pressure door sealing.
Dismay and concern rippled through the wider family unit.
Stitching regrets, Nerethe turned to business; she delivered the bad news that she wasn’t staying inLoom and asked for hardcopies on the research she needed for the Denii job. It was a pretense—she’d needed to see her family before she decided what she was going to do. Dad’s concern deepened, but she couldn’t help that. Let him worm the truth out of Jannon.
She reminded them that they were welcome to visit in QuietTown, promised to try cooking more and sucked up the opera, filling her head with hot musical noise.
Hot panic dragged at her from Jannon, wanting her to stay inLoom until she’d done the job, but she popped back out into the void.
Curled fetal in the privacy of her treatment room, she bawled, hard racking sobs that made her chest hurt. Finally her sinuses packed up. Breathing open-mouthed, her lips itching as they dried out, she fell asleep.
• • • •
The meeting center was a monument to the will and self-confidence of Kole Hexan, leader of the Negotiators Guild and, by extension, unofficial leader of all the Quiet. Built to Kole’s exacting order, it had variable gravity, color, décor, and furnishings—all available at a moment’s notice. Today blue cushions were arranged in a heap in the center of the floor and the portals were clear. They showed Urb in the distance, the meeting room at a symbolic remove from the city and its telepathic Loom.
“You look exhausted.” Kole was struggling to feed her eight-week-old son. He had just Quickened, connecting to the vastness of the Loom. Tiny face glazed with distraction, he ignored Kole’s wide pale nipple, eyes sliding randomly in their sockets, as she tried to gain his attention. In the corner of the meeting room, Kole’s daughter, Tain, was playing with a stuffed gravdog. “How long was Sobi in labor?”
“Boy. Four pounds, five ounces.”
“That’s a big kid. So, what’s hollowed your eyes?”
“I got a discussion download from the Loom,” Nerethe said. This was factually true, though Kole would assume she had pulled the data through the Quiet computer network.
“Reading? You were enjoying yourself?”
“Don’t tease. I was catching up on the evolution argument.”
“Which one is that?”
“You know. Why haven’t we ascended out of Urb.”
“That old lament? Why do we still age?” Kole moaned. “Why do we get sick? Why can’t we reproduce in the energy state?”
“Loomers always were Quick to whine,” Nerethe said automatically, a Quiet saying she’d picked up that was true enough that it didn’t feel like treason or deceit to sometimes let it out.
Kole’s bubbled laughter cut short when Tish lost her breast again. “Let me guess. There’s a faction claims that the Loom should send citizen volunteers into the pure energy state right now. Trailblazers. Hell with waiting until they’re about to die. Throw off the shackles of the flesh, and the fact that we can’t seem to reproduce in that state means we’re purely not meant to.”
“The Jirain reproduce in the energy state.”
“Says who, legends? Which brings us to the we are unworthy, we must match our phenomenal abilities with spiritual development, onna onna ba bing!”
The nonsense syllables elicited a giggle from Tain, over in the corner. Nerethe rubbed her eyes. Her head itched, as if the underside of her scalp needed a good wash. The taste of the Loom had been intoxicating; she craved it. Human voice, even Kole’s, was acid on her nerves.
Nobody inLoom seemed to understand that the Quiet talked endlessly.
“Come on, baby boy, drink! Then there’s the blame it on the aliens thread, and probably some nut claiming if we want to move on we have to stop living like Throwbacks. Childbirth and capitalism and furniture and visual artists . . .”
“And gravity. They hate gravity,” Nerethe said. “And the heretics. They say that reproduction in the energy state means becoming God. Creating life on a dead world.”
“Are there any left? I thought we’d strip-mined ’em all.” Kole’s face grew serious. “I suppose there’s a faction says they’ll jump to the next level soon. That now they are weeding out Quiet babies prenatally . . .”
Another lash of guilt. “Yes.”
A speaker chimed above them. “The Denii representative has arrived, Envoy.”
“Turn the grav up another fifty percent and then send him in,” Kole said. “Tain, log onto playschool.”
“Five more minutes,” the little girl pleaded.
“Three.” Closing her shift, Kole dug out a gauzy scarf and arranged it around her neck. Nerethe’s stomach bounced as the gravity shifted.
“Evoci won’t mind that Tish is weaving?”
“As long as the kid’s preverbal, he doesn’t care.”
The words were barely out when the doors belled open, revealing the Denii. Gold and yellow and red flesh, wispy-limbed and impossibly frail, he drifted into the meeting room on a cluster of long, spiny legs. Sixteen string-like arms, each ending in fingers as fine as copper wire, encircled Kole’s solid shoulders. A puppet hugging a balloon, Nerethe thought.
“Kole, friend,” he said. “Is this the child?”
Get it over with. As the negotiators murmured over Tish’s slack face and wandering eyes, Nerethe put a directed trickle of thought together, filling the room with her appetite for thoughts not her own. Kole and her daughter were dark, but the baby was a smudge of wonderment and curiosity—Loomtripping, too delighted to notice that it was still hungry.
Evoci Denii’s mind was a charnel house.
Even as his fingers played over the baby, trying to tickle him back to awareness of his surroundings, the alien was thinking about driving its needle-long digits into the child’s flesh. It halved and quartered all of them—Kole, the kids—to bleeding hunks, imagined them blown into space while the severed body parts oozed carapace and blood.
She snapped out, held her face still through Kole’s warm introduction: “Nerethe is one of my closest friends, and it pleases me enormously to bring you two together.” The alien’s close-set eyes examined Nerethe intently, the bright yellow irises and their golden pupils locked, sixteen times over, on her every feature. Sharp fingers brushed her palm in a gesture of friendship, and Nerethe steeled herself not to react.
“It is an honor to meet today, because for once we are not tasked to agree on military boundaries or competing trade practices,” he purred. “Today, we work together.”
She forced another peek into his mind. Imaginary Evoci fingers dug into her belly, piercing organs, withdrawing bloodslicked while she screamed in a fashion that the alien found erotic.
Revolted, she nevertheless split her consciousness, detailed half of herself to answering politely, to working with Kole on the job at hand. The other half dug past the snuffscape, moving narrowly toward the mental archives on the alien’s mission. She ignored the strings leading to other parts of his mind—family life, sexual proclivities, childhood, memories, friends—she had seen more than enough of this soul, thank you very much and oh, Jannon, you owe me.
Now she closed in on the mission objectives.
There were two. The apparent objective was to get the humans to produce inoculations for the coming Denii plague season. Simple, straightforward. Two of their pharmacy ships had collided not long ago, victims of old age and poor maintenance, hazards multiplied a thousandfold by the dangers of vacuum.
Perfectly reasonable, perfectly plausible. They needed help. Urb was competition, not enemy, even if the two races did maintain large armies and careful arms-length diplomacy . . .
Plausible, but a lie. Nerethe picked out the truth.
First they’d plant a couple of lab techs in the inoculation production facility, a reasonable request. And the Denii techs would, sooner or later, be mindpicked. When that happened, their minds would transmit a mental virus, one that would lie dormant in the Loom until it had spread itself through Urb. When it launched, it would scramble the victims’ telepathic signatures, making it impossible to weave into the Loom. The results wouldn’t be deadly, but they’d be significant: chaos, hysteria, reduced transition efficiency, decreased military readiness.
Each participant increased the Loom’s power exponentially. That was why Nerethe alone could transition a few molecules of sedative, while a thousand Loomers could move an asteroid and all its habs and habitants. The whole of Loom, with its hundred billion minds, could move all of Urb across lightyears in a single blink.
This Loomvirus would generate profits and increased security for the Denii Compact, at the expense of fragmentation and troubles for the human city.
Nerethe had broken the law, but she’d done the right thing after all.
I wonder if there’s anything else . . .
Just then, in his frontmind, Evoci pulled off the baby’s fingernails. Nerethe dumped the Denii plan into her long-term memory before she could absorb any more violence. Then she got out, melding into the meeting, becoming a single attentive participant without twitching a single facial muscle at the traitorous creature beside her.
• • • •
Afterwards Kole insisted on going back to her hab, a hermetically sealed world of decent gravity and thick carpets. On arriving they were greeted by Tain’s Pekingese pup, a genetically modified ball of fur that launched itself six feet to land in the little girl’s arms, barking gruffly as she squeezed and then shot off in the direction of her room.
Kole was a chronic nurturer. She had filled the hab with plants—pots and tubs and sacks of spilling, climbing, blossoming greenery. Flickering starsticks were embedded in their soil, providing needed light and physical support. Criss-crossing the ceiling portal, carefully tended vines dangled with clumps of grape and modified cherry.
It was a cozy and relaxing space, more home than Nerethe’s own utilitarian quarters. But now all she wanted was to get somewhere private, dump what she’d learned into Jannon and let him buy off the Intelligence guys. Get her brother out of trouble and save the city from the Loomvirus. Then she could decide if she could live with betraying Kole, if she could just go back to being an anonymous doctor in the bad part of town.
“You didn’t like Evoci,” Kole said, giving the baby a weary glance as he hiccuped once.
She remembered the alien’s foremind, held back a shudder, settled the roiling of her stomach with a gulp of warm, loamy, air. “Tish will learn to feed again in a couple days. If you don’t want to wait, I can get you something to make him swallow.”
“He’ll feed. Why didn’t you like Evoci?”
“I thought he was . . . furtive. Hiding something.”
“Ah hah!” Unexpectedly, her friend smiled. She brandished the green scarf and then, with the air of a magician, produced a tiny zipchip from its folds. “Not a single Quickie knows about this.”
Her heart sank. “What is it?”
“Hab plans for a Denii ship. Voci slipped ’em to me while we were fussing over the baby.”
“Why . . .” She stopped dead and then goggled at her friend.
No moment in the past six years had made her feel less Quick. She might as well have been Quiet, what with this sudden snapping together of significant glances, things unsaid, Quiet diatribes that had trailed off suddenly . . .
“Separation?” she whispered, as if she feared being overheard.
“That’s right. We want to leave; the Denii offered us a straight swap. They’ve even built the ship as a gesture of faith. We can move in as soon as we pay up.”
“Pay what, Kole?”
“That’s the holdup. They want us to prove the Quick send telepathic ringers into client meetings.”
She felt a hot jolt of guilt then, as if she’d been caught, but her friend’s gaze was clear and guileless.
“Don’t see how. I make up mission rosters, and I know everyone on this rock.”
“Is proof of fraud the only payment they’ll accept?”
“It’s a Grail. They want it the way the Quick want Evolution.”
“The Denii understand humans, Nerethe. They know we’d breach treaty if we thought we could get away with it. And the idea’s so contrary to their way of thinking that it gnaws on them.”
“But . . . they don’t trust you to keep Loomers out of negotiations?”
“They do. But the Quick have abilities I don’t. The Denii figure maybe the Loomers could slip someone past me.”
She couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
“If I prove breach of treaty, the Denii sense of honor is satisfied and I’ve made up for any failure to keep negotiations clean.”
“You leave Urb . . .”
“ . . . and the Denii increase their market share on the client worlds at Urb’s expense.”
“There’s plenty of work for everyone, Nerethe. Listen, could you look at the med facilities on the plans? If we ever do catch the Quick playing tricks, we’ll need to be self-sufficient.”
Her throat lumped. “Leaving Urb.”
“Nobody’s forcing you to go.” Kole hugged her fiercely.
“Leaving is hard,” she said quietly. “It’s harder than you think.”
“Staying might be impossible.”
“How many do you think would go?”
“A lot. The last few years have been devastating.”
“Because of the prenatal test, you mean.”
“The City could backlash. Transit somewhere and leave QuietTown behind.”
“I wish I thought that was true. Good riddance. Besides, we’re going nowhere, not unless someone inLoom gets greedy or fearful.” Tish screeched and Kole whisked him onto a changing table. “Not unless they try to slip that ringer past me.”
“In which case you’ll stop them.”
“If I can. I can’t allow a breach if I can stop it.”
“So to get what you want, you have to screw up.”
“Crazy old universe, isn’t it?” Kole laughed bitterly. “Could be it’s a pipe dream. Could be once we get the ship we’ll chicken out and stay.”
“They’ll follow you. You trust Evoci and the Quiet trust you.”
“Yeah. It was all beautifully academic until a couple days ago.” She picked a daisy, brushed it over Tish’s nose, trying to get her son’s attention. His face stayed blank; his eyes continued their endless wander. “Transit’s all one-way now, Nerethe. Half our kids go to the Loom. With the testing . . .”
Nerethe choked on the pollen sweet air of Kole’s hab. Her fault. If she’d stayed to hide the research instead of burning it and leaving the cinders to brilliant Green . . . if she hadn’t been looking for an excuse to run away from home.
“It used to be one in ten thousand Quick-born kids was Quiet. Now it’s one in a million, and falling.”
Kole’s voice was rising, and Tain peeped out of her room, eyes wide and distressed. The baby didn’t even blink.
“He’ll be different, Kole, even if you take him away from the Loom.”
“If we left Urb he wouldn’t have anything to tap into.”
“He’d still be a telepath.”
“He wouldn’t be a Loomjunkie.”
“I wouldn’t have to look into his eyes and wonder if he was telling Throwback jokes to all his friends. Kedge Marx lost his son last week. He’s barely nine, but he transited Downtown . . .”
“Kole.” Nerethe cut her eyes toward the doorway, where Tain was clinging to the puppy with a suffocating grip, lip wobbling and tearful, staring at her brother.
With an effort, Kole dashed at her eyes, slid across the room and pulled her whimpering daughter into a tight hug. “Would you look at the ship specs, please?”
“Sure.” Nerethe nodded reluctantly, pushed aside greenery to get to her friend’s computer, and accessed the chip. Her whole being cried out for mental contact, desperation like withdrawal. She wanted to feel her mother’s mind wrapped in hers. She had to open up and tell Jannon everything.
Just a quick contact, as soon as she was away from Kole. A couple more hours, she told herself, and then she tried to forget it, to pull up the specs and concentrate on the sole task before her, just like any other member of the Quiet.
• • • •
She didn’t send, or even weave back into Loom. It was ridiculous and stupid to delay, but she couldn’t shake the guilt of betraying Kole, not even with Loom endangered and Jannon in trouble. She spent a night with her friend, sat with the baby while Kole pumped her aching breasts. Then while Kole slept she lay with Tish among the greenery, squirting droplets of milk onto his tongue, trying to get him to drink from a bottle.
Her misgivings—the nagging idea that Kole’s trust of Evoci was warranted despite what Nerethe had seen in his mind—were silly and unshakeable. She had to weave in. The city had to prepare if the Denii were going to plague them.
Besides, Kole wasn’t infallible. Nerethe had been lying to her for years.
When her work shift came, she called her location into a Quick transitor and he sent her—in an instant, a breath—to her treatment room.
Even in Quiet Town, med facilities came equipped with a damping field which could prevent Transition. It was a standard safety precaution. Once in a very rare while, shock or extreme pain jolted someone, formerly Quiet, into the Loom. The damping field kept patients from transiting randomly.
It wasn’t intended as a security system.
But when Nerethe arrived, tired and conflicted, stale from an entire shift spent in the same clothes, there were two strangers waiting in her treatment room.
She tapped the field control, blocking out the Loom as they stared at her, a man and a woman, both tall, both bulky. Military, certainly. Their musculature made them strangely identical as they exchanged a glance, frowned.
The hair on Nerethe’s arms prickled.
Her instrument panel registered an energy surge—they’d tried to transit her out.
Cut off from Loom, they were nevertheless still joined to each other. A blunt wedge of telepathic power battered at Nerethe’s defenses, already weakened by lack of sleep and the traitorous desire to connect to someone, anyone. Combined, they were three times as strong as she was, and they peeled at her artificial Quiet, digging at the edges of her mind, demanding to know what she had learned from Evoci Denii.
Worse, she wanted them inside her. Her mouth was watering even as they came closer, approaching slowly on either side of the medcounter, no doubt intent on dragging her out of the damping field so they could take her away.
They’d join up with their cronies, overpower her, drag her back into Loom.
Nerethe snatched up a scalpel and leaped over the counter, jumping gracelessly, moving too slow. The woman caught her ankle in a crushing grip and she pinwheeled back and down. Falling in the slow motion of low gravity, she raked the back of her hand on rose thorns from her trellis. She tried to kick the woman with her free leg. Missed.
All the while, the sense of the two minds, tantalizingly close, so strong . . . and she ought to just go back inLoom, everything she wanted was there, another family reunion, another chance to make it up with Green . . .
No. Not with the Quiet separation scheme still tainting everything in her foremind. She didn’t have time now to get the stitches of Kole’s plan out of her thoughts.
As Nerethe finally hit the floor, the woman wrenched at her ankle, squeezing hard. She slung Nerethe back against the treatment couch. Small flares of pain jarred her neck, hip, the back of her knee.
Then the woman yanked, she jerked, she broke Nerethe’s ankle.
The sound of her own voice, gasping as the pain hit, was shockingly loud. Agony fuzzed the world; as Nerethe blinked it back into focus she saw the man tapping her console, trying to shut off the field. The woman hulked over her, about to bundle her up and away.
She did what any Quiet woman would have done, instinctively, minutes ago. She screamed her head off.
It caught them off guard; the woman flinched back, let go of the leg. Nerethe shot across the treatment room floor like it was slicked with soap, hit the curtain and burst through, still shrieking as she dragged herself away. Quiet patients added their voices to the audible, growing confusion. The receptionist, just arrived for work, bent and grabbed her, winding his arms under her armpits as he pulled her upright.
A babble of words:
Almost like a thoughtbraid, she thought, as her would-be savior slewed her sideways by mistake and jarred the injured leg.
“Kidnappers,” she gasped.
The crowd had her now, borne up on their arms as they formed a protective clot around her body. They intertwined their fingers with hers, clung to her thighs, slipped arms under her shirt and threaded themselves into her hair. A pregnant patient nestled under the crook of her arm. If anyone tried to transit her now, they’d have to move the whole mob.
Bursting through the curtains, the two strangers found themselves facing a crowd of twenty. Acquaintances and friends surrounded Nerethe: patients, other doctors, toothtechs from the dental center, physically nested together and radiant with hostility.
A tiny old man who worked the optometry clinic bared his teeth at them. Sweet, gentle, a grandfather of six, he snarled at the goons like a rabid weasel Nerethe had once seen in Forest Hab. “Guess what we’re thinking, Loomjunkie?”
Apparently they could.
“You have one day, Doctor,” the man warned, and then the two Quick thugs transited away.
• • • •
Being on the receiving end of Quiet medicine was worse than she’d ever imagined—they used sonar on the swelling and regrowth stims to treat the bone before packing the ankle in a plaster that would take days to do the job. All things she did herself, day after day, but she had never before been the patient. Prior to Med training, she had taken her injuries to another doctor within the family, trained Loomhealers who guided her mind as she put herself right telekinetically. After Med, she did the job herself.
Quick to whine, she thought.
Kole had heard of the attack almost before it was over, had collected Nerethe from Treatment and insisted on taking her back home. She settled her on the spartan couch with pillows, fed her cherries, made soup from the instant packs that were all Nerethe kept in her kitchen.
Nerethe let herself be fussed over, lying back on the couch. The only real decoration in the hab was a mobile Green had sent her . . . small paper balloons representing all of Urb’s many asteroids. Miniaturized habitats rose from them—domes and apartment towers—as they floated in the air. The cluster of asteroids was vaguely egg-shaped, with the bulk of QuietTown in its middle.
Green had kept in touch, despite the tension between them, when the rest of the family had not. She had sent letters and gifts and voice messages. The news was often impersonal, but it had still been a lifeline of sorts.
“What did they want?” Kole demanded. “Secrets?”
Meaning the plan to leave Urb, but it was a vague enough question that Nerethe could pretend her answer wasn’t a lie. “Maybe.”
“Can I hold Tish?” She stretched out still shaking arms and Kole dropped the baby into her embrace, a warm and sweet-smelling bundle. Half-asleep, his disconnection from the world was muted. Nerethe couldn’t resist spinning herself just a tiny thread, slurping the mental warmth of his dreams. Just to steady herself.
“Why you, Nerethe?”
“My brother’s in soup with the military. He sold the inoculation contract without government approval.”
“We can make political hay with this. Big protest via channels, big news . . . Loomers abduct Quiet doctor.”
“My family would pay.” Soon enough the military would expose her as a Loomer. Her clinic cronies and patients would be sorry they saved her.
She ran a finger over the baby’s eyebrows. His eyes jerked up, briefly, to hold hers; a flicker of recognition spun and snapped in his mind. A first moment of self-division. “Kole, why do you trust Evoci to follow through on the deal?”
“’Voci’s true blue, Nerethe.”
“You can’t really know anyone.”
“That’s Quick talk, and it’s crap. I know; it’s what I do. That’s why they pay me to steer this mob.”
“Kole, if someone had picked Evoci’s mind, and they said he couldn’t be trusted, would you believe?”
Kole’s face stilled. Her eyes went to the vacant expression on her child’s face. “I’d say that person had committed an unforgivable crime.”
“That person could give you and Evoci what he wants. Proof that Quick compromised business negotiations with a client. The Quiet could move off City.”
“Because I screwed up after all?”
“But he’s not what you say. Keeping your bargain won’t just hurt Urb, it’ll make things worse for the Quiet.”
“I’ve never been wrong—” Kole laughed strangely, abruptly. She plucked her son off of Nerethe’s lap.
“If someone wanted to check, Kole, make sure he is what you say, make sure he can be trusted . . .”
“Someone is being presumptuous. I know my job.”
“Could you make an excuse for us to see him again?”
“No.” Kole’s voice was icy cold—vacuum, Green withdrawing, Loomdeath. “If someone thinks I’ll help her violate my honorable friend, then we’re both terrible judges of character.”
Hitching the baby up onto her shoulder, she walked out of Nerethe’s hab.
• • • •
More than anything she wanted to pace . . . no, more than anything she wanted back onto the Loom. She’d have settled for pacing, but her ankle was too sore. And if she went onLoom she’d be opening herself to another assault from Jannon’s playpals. That would come soon enough, whether she went looking or not.
Of course, she could just give them what they wanted.
You’re ready to come home, Aunt Ceris had said, and it was true. She’d spent six years doing penance, living the Quiet life, denying the Loom in a pointless attempt to make up for discovering the unthinkable. But she was older now, she could live with herself and with them, and she was going to be bounced out of QuietTown anyway.
She dredged the Denii plan out of her long-term memory, gave it a quick once-over like a jewel thief inspecting a stolen diamond. Neural viruses were theoretically possible. Hard to believe that non-teeps like the Denii could invent one, but there would be discussions on the Loom she could check out . . .
Hard to believe they’d risk Military’s wrath.
She riffled the mission details on the virus but there wasn’t much—Evoci was a diplomat; his nest fathers hadn’t told him the mechanics.
A diplomat. Would he go along with this? Hadn’t he considered the possible consequences?
Her doctor’s mind butted in with more objections: Why tell Evoci about the virus at all? If the Denii believed that Urb breached treaty, they’d have to believe that he would be picked. If he was picked, Urb would learn about the plan and cancel the inoculations contract.
Of course, if this thing is triggered by a mindpick, what do they need with the inoculation project? Why not just infect Evoci? Nerethe would pick him, give the virus to the Loom and they’d have their proof, all in one blow.
She was still untangling it when the door to her hab chimed. Cursing, she extricated herself from the nest of pillows and limped to answer it.
It was Green. “Loom’s in knots,” she said. “Rumor’s a Quiet doctor got mugged today. Jannon’s hysterical. Says it’s you.”
“Why did they send you?”
“It was you.” She wound past Nerethe, slipping into the hab with gliding steps, and then folded her arms and pouted. “Are you going to let me help?”
“You can’t help.”
“I meant your injuries.”
“Oh.” She opened her mind, just a hair, and felt the blast of warm air rolling over her as the pain vanished.
Green tugged the plaster off Nerethe’s leg, crushed it between her hands while smiling indulgently. “This is Jannon’s fault.”
“No, Green, it’s mine.”
“Can’t be. I won’t believe.”
“That’s sweet, but . . .” she said.
Green shrugged. “Ceris says you’re coming back.”
Green threw her arms out, stood on one foot and twirled. “Everyone in QuietTown hates me. I stole the Quiet young.”
“Everyone in the Loom loves you.”
“It should have been you.” Green said.
“It didn’t have to be either of us.”
“You let the genie out.”
“I was looking for genetic markers for an allergy.”
“Someone would’ve found it.”
Green began another twirl. “I didn’t come to fight.”
“I came to say that if you came back . . . I’d be glad. Eventually. So would you. There’s a hole, Nerethe. Dropped stitches. Don’t stay gone because of me.” She twirled again, her leg flying, calf muscles flexing as she stretched up onto tiptoe and lowered herself again. “You needed to hear this, right?”
“Yes.” It was the last barrier to going home. To hell with her doubts . . .
. . . but somehow, she still couldn’t send. The Loomvirus was a scam, she was sure of it, a trick to make Urb cancel the inoculations contract and prove they’d breached treaty.
But she’d picked Evoci herself.
“Not yet,” she whispered.
“Then I’m going.”
“Can I transit, or do I have to go into the hallway?”
“If you wanted someone to misread you on a pick, if you couldn’t block a telepath, how would you do it?”
Her brother’s ex-wife swirled to a stop, frowning. “You can’t.”
“If you had to. If you needed someone to think you were dangerous, and you weren’t.”
“Wouldn’t work. A deep pickthrough . . .”
“I didn’t do a deep—” That was it.
She spoke slowly. “What if your foremind was so ugly the person didn’t want to do a deep pick?”
“Nobody likes ugliness.” Green put her hands on the floor, flexed into a handstand. She was thinking now, relaxed—she spun when she was nervous. “If you knew what the picker was looking for, you could maybe put the answers in a nice, tight packet. Drop it in the back brain, you could hope they’d scoop it up and run without doing a deep pick.”
“I don’t think it would work. Gambling on human nature is iffy. You never know when a person’s gonna flee or fight.”
“You can guess.”
“Are you thinking about what I said about the family?” Green grinned shyly.
“Not directly,” she said.
“I miss you,” Green said. She flipped upright, wrapped her arms around Nerethe, squeezed until the warmth of her body had seeped through their clothes.
Then she vanished, leaving Nerethe to her thoughts.
Evoci had laid a trap and she’d almost walked right into it. She could tell that to Jannon’s friends, get them both off the hook. Nobody would cancel the inoculations contract, nothing would happen to the Loom.
She could go home. Nobody would know she’d breached treaty except Kole, and Kole couldn’t prove a thing.
• • • •
The baby was feeding when Nerethe got to Kole’s, slurping lustily while its attention wandered in and out of Loom. In another couple of days he would completely split his focus. He’d be onLoom, but invisibly. For a while, at least, Kole would have the illusion of her Quiet boy again.
She barely moved when Nerethe came inside, just flickered her eyes to take in the vanished limp, the healed bruises. Her face was stone, negotiating face, no friendship or warmth.
“You’re right about Evoci. You can trust him.”
There was no visible reaction, but somehow fury crackled through the air. “You picked him again?”
“No. I worked out how he tricked me.” That got a smile. Admiration, but it was for Evoci, not Nerethe.
“I came to say that I’ll give you the proof. Testimonials, onLoom or off. You can turn me over to the Denii for treaty breach.”
“What’s in it for you?”
“Nothing. Loom won’t have me back once I’ve betrayed them.”
“Why do it, then?”
“I don’t want to.” She’d be outcast. Nobody would have her, Quick or Quiet. Her family would take her into their habs, but she’d never weave with them again.
She couldn’t live that way. She’d spent too long among the Quiet not to know how it would be, condescension and pity. She couldn’t be poor crippled Nerethe.
“If Loom expels you, you will be Quiet.”
“I’d still be a mindpicker.”
“You’ll die when you die. No transiting into pure Loomstuff when you’re about to go. No living in the Loom forever while your body rots in Recycling. No more discussions, no archives, no instant cures . . .”
She had just enough pride left to keep from covering her ears. “I already know this!”
A low, cold growl. “Then why are you here?”
She flashed on Evoci’s foremind, the long copper fingers piercing the jelly of her eyes. “I broke treaty. I committed a crime.”
“Serious one. And you did it because you were Quick and nobody could stop you?”
“I did it so I wouldn’t lose everything I care about.”
“And have you?”
“I think the jury’s still deliberating.”
Reaching into one of her plants, Kole broke off a twinkling length of starstick, dangled it in front of Tish’s face. The baby coughed, sluicing milk over his mother’s skin. Then he followed the sparkles with his eyes.
“You never said which camp you fell into, Nerethe. On the Evolution thing.”
Her guts loosened and she sank onto a low couch. “I never understood the great rush to evolve off Urb.”
“Why rush? That’s a position?”
“Sometimes you can’t go back, Kole. We lost Urt because we were so busy transiting around the stars. We simply forgot where it was. That’s got to be wrong.”
“Maybe,” Kole said. “Loomers forget we didn’t evolve into what we are. We engineered ourselves. Carapace for vacuum survival, low gravity adaptations, telepathy—all deliberate genetic modifications.” She flipped the baby over onto her knees and began patting his back. “And now the Quiet are the ones leaving Urb. Maybe we’re the ones evolving.”
Nerethe risked a quick glance up at Kole, saw that her cheeks were fighting against dimples. “Wouldn’t that just stick in the collective craw?”
“Sometimes growing up means leaving home, Nerethe.”
“I know.” She took the bit of starstick, felt its warmth fizzing into her fingers. “Kole. I’m so very, very sorry.”
“Enough. Throw yourself any harder on my mercy, you’ll dent the damned floor. Assuming ’Voci doesn’t want you, the ship invite’s still open. You can come with us. You know we’ll need doctors.”
She nodded. It was the best offer she’d get. She’d even hoped for it, if only because it meant forgiveness from Kole. “I can’t run any farther from home than that.”
“You won’t run anywhere else, either. Nowhere to go on a habitat ship. You might have to put some faith in your roots, if you’re smart enough to put any down.”
“Unless Evoci wants me.”
Her friend’s face sparkled with wary amusement. “Oh, I don’t think he will. Not for long, anyway.”
She sighed, more relieved than she thought she’d be. “Good.”
“You aren’t gonna ask if I’m sure?”
“I trust your judgment,” Nerethe said. “That’s why we picked you to drive this mob, isn’t it?”
“That’s why we did,” Kole said placidly, and they shared a wary smile as the baby belched and then started to cry.
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