SHE dressed like Audrey Hepburn, but she carried the biggest gun Iíve ever seen. She had a feathery mohican and tiny black shades and the aquiline features of a woman in a Hokusai print. Her name was Yuki Savoy and as soon as I saw her I knew she was going to be trouble.
It was in a bar on the unfashionable lower level of the Hula Hoop. The Hoop was one of the first big orbitals to be put up after the Kraitt arrived on Earth, welcoming us into their far-flung trading empire and sharing the secrets of space-travel with us in return for certain rights to the outer planets. It was your basic big-wheel space station and even now, a hundred years after construction, it looked pretty impressive.
It had its rough neighbourhoods, though, just like a planetside city. The bar was in one of them. Down here the lighting and the gravity were erratic, and even basic life-support had been known to pack up for minutes at a time. The bellows of semi-feral protein cultures echoed along the littered corridors and the whole place shook to the engines of system-ships, coming and going from the low-rent docking pans. Up top they get the warp-yachts and the big, elegant liners named after movie queens, the Theda Bara and the Gong Li. Down here itís all salvage scows, asteroid breakers and smugglers, your basic Orbital Trash.
Which is where Yuki Savoy comes in.
I was sitting at a table with the Quiet screen up, looking out through the viewport. Africa lay golden below me and sunlight glittered on the Indian Ocean. A big Kraitt capital ship was breaking orbit, one of those bulbous alien jobs of theirs with as much bilateral symmetry as a potato. I was watching it and nursing my drink when someone broke the Quiet screen and I looked up into Yuki Savoyís jet black lenses. She said, "Doctor Heyerdahl, I presume?"
I stood up and bowed. Behind the shades her eyes moved swiftly, taking in my unshaven face, my grubby shirt, my tattered old black coat. She said, "I hear youíre looking for passage off-station. Whatís the story?"
I sat down and so did she. "Iíve been stuck here for nearly a month," I said. "I was medical officer on a deep-haul trader, the Wild, Wild Life. We were in Kraitt space, trying to shift a load of videotapes; old sci-fi shows from TV. You know how they love that stuff. Anyway, out in Arcturus we found a Kraitt base that had been hit by pirates. The crew were in a bad way. Well, you know - Iím supposed to be a doctor. I did what I could."
"A regular good samaritan," sneered Yuki Savoy.
"Tell me about it," I said. "Iíve regretted it ever since. You know how cautious the Kraitt are about letting client-races study their anatomy? Well, I accidentally got to find out quite a lot about them."
"I thought Iíd got away with it, until we docked here on the way back to Earth. The rest of the crew were sent on home, but I was quarantined. I canít go anywhere. I canít send communications off station, Iím not allowed to board any registered departure and I havenít the funds to get out on an unregistered one..."
It was mostly true. I stopped short and took a long, slow gulp of my drink, watching her over the rim of the glass. It looked as if she was buying it.
"I could use a science officer with a knowledge of the Kraitt," she said. "I could get you off station, if you are prepared to leave within the next couple of hours. Iíll have to check your story, of course. Are you sure the Kraitt arenít watching you?"
"I think they have forgotten about me," I said. "I donít think they see me as a threat, just a naughty boy who has to be punished. Whatís your ship?"
"I canít tell you that," she said.
"Whatís your destination?"
"I canít tell you that, either."
"Well," I said, "as long as it is off this station, you can count me in."
WHICH is how, an hour later, I found myself waiting outside one of the afore-mentioned low-rent space-docks for Yuki Savoy. I had time to go back to my quarters and pack a bag, but I had not bothered checking out, in case I aroused suspicion. The last thing I wanted were for the local cops to finger me before we even got off the pan. For the same reason I left most of my possessions behind, bringing just a change of clothes and a book and some sophisticated electronic gadgets which are the tools of my trade, hidden in a secret compartment in the bottom of my bag.
Yuki Savoy came quickly along the corridor from hubwards, kicking aside the beggars who crowded around her. They had not been bothering me, but Yuki, in her trim black skirt and jacket, looked like a million Adjusted Yen. She carried a flight-bag and wore her huge gun in a black leather case strapped to her back, with the handle jutting over her shoulder. She nodded curtly to me and, as I hurried to join her, typed an entry code into the door of one of the docks. The screen above the door claimed that the dock was occupied by an in-system ore-carrier, Patrick OíBrian. The ship that stood on the launch pan, however, was no freighter.
It seemed to be mostly engines; three huge Pons-Fleischmann fusion units and the bulbous nacelles of a Kraitt wormhole drive. The space-pocked metal shone under the harsh white lights of the dock. The fuselage was an electric blue wedge, bristling with weaponry and field-generators. Stencilled along the engine-cowling in Japanese, English and Kraitt was the vesselís name: the 13th Floor Elevator.
"What happened to the Patrick OíBrian?" I asked, all innocence.
"Thatís just an alias," said Yuki Savoy, leading me up the gangplank. "Old smugglerís trick. A fake Computer ID registered on the Proxima Station. We have several."
"Is that legal?"
"What do you think, Doctor?"
We stepped through the airlock, which hushed shut behind us. I followed Yuki Savoy along curving, rubber-floored corridoors. She showed me the small cabin that was to be my home for the duration (cleaner than my quarters on the Hoop, at least) and then led me up to the bridge, a large, low-ceilinged, oval room full of hot navigation systems.
You donít need a lot of people to run a ship like that. Yukiís crew consisted of a computer called Henderson and a co-pilot called Johnny Cephalopod. Johnny was some kind of alien I hadnít come across before. He looked like an underweight octopus with too many tentacles. A pleasant, truffley odour rose from him and his voice when he said hello was like thick liquid trickling out of a jar.
By this time the ship was humming with power as the Pons-Flieschmanns warmed up. Yuki and Johnny stooped over their consoles, calling up flickering displays, punching in co-ordinates. The computer did its impression of the captain of the Patrick OíBrian and requested clearance to leave the Hoop. Warning lights blinked, indicating that Customs and Excise were running a scanner sweep. I hoped they would not pick up the stuff in my bag.
"Are you ready to tell me yet?" I asked Yuki Savoy. "Where are we going?"
"I donít see why not," she said, smiling. "Twombley. Weíre heading for Twombley."
"We have a... specialist cargo aboard," she said. "Wait until we are off-station; then I think youíd better come and have a look."
WE got off-station and I went and had a look. She led me, not to the hold, but to the tiny medical bay. Her cargo was in the quarantine cubicle, protected from the outside world by thick sheets of glastic. I peered in. I was impressed.
"Iím impressed," I said.
It was about six feet long and it looked like a jelly-bean would look if Salvador Dali had designed it. Its colour was one that didnít register on our retinas, so the overall tint was a faintly irritating grey. It was - I shall keep you in suspense no longer - a Kraitt egg.
"Itís a Kraitt egg," I said.
"I know that," said Yuki Savoy. "Youíre not here to tell me what it is. Youíre here to look after it and make sure it reaches Twombley in one piece."
"Because we get paid a billion Adjusted Yen on safe delivery. Youíll get your share, donít worry."
"I meant, who wants it so badly?"
"The Xentrasi," she said, then shrugged quickly before I could ask Ďwhyí again. "I know. The Xentrasi are shipbuilders. I didnít know they were branching out into egg-napping, but apparently..."
"So where did you get this thing?" I looked at the egg. It pulsed slowly, patterns of colour rippling across its surface but only visible to us as paler or darker tones of grey. Its outer membrane was faintly translucent and there was a suggestion of burgeoning organic life within.
"We knocked over a Kraitt nursery on Callisto," she said. "I had this terrific idea for a heist..." Her eyes shone with pride, and I could tell that she felt this was the big one, the job she and Johnny would retire on; they were Orbital Trash made good. "We just walked in and took what we wanted. Itís not hard to lift something from the Kraitt. They may be the rulers of the galaxy but they donít know squit about burglar alarms."
"Itís true," I said, "they donít really have any concept of property or theft. On the other hand, they wonít be happy when they find this thing missing."
"They have," she said, "and theyíre not."
THE 13th Floor Elevator sped on towards the outer planets and the margins of the solar system. Once she was out in the interstellar gulf she could engage her wormhole drive and vanish from normal space, spinning up to Twombley. Until then she was in constant danger from Kraitt patrols, which had clearly been put on alert.
Johnny and Yuki busied themselves on the bridge. They had laid in a stock of spare IDs for the ship and they switched them every few hours, changing the engine emission signatures as they did so. Crossing Mars Orbit we became the Chi-Cal system ship Hill of Clear Waters. By the time we neared the Jupiter Station we were a Quarl-Parthan trader called the Coprolite. Kraitt pursuit vessels hovered on the edges of our screens and scanned us briefly, but issued no challenges.
The Kraitt are a strange race. They all grow from eggs, and all the eggs look much the same, but the beings that hatch from them are vastly different. There are the Warrior Caste, like armoured, ambulant cacti with more limbs than you could possibly imagine. There are the Administrators, who look like a cross between a hammerhead shark and a climbing-frame. There are the Scientists, who resemble beanbags stuffed with marshmallow. I had heard of other Castes - Translators, Scholars, Builders, etc - but I had not yet met them.
The question which began to preoccupy me as we raced towards open space was, what sort of egg had Yuki got her hands on?
Unfortunately for all of us, we were about to find out.
WE were a day out from the Hula Hoop and I was standing watch on the bridge when all the proximity alarms suddenly went off. I leapt up, and Henderson announced calmly, "We have company, Mr Heyerdahl..."
He brought the rear view-screen up to maximum magnification. The lambent blue eye of Neptune swam into view and, just emerging from behind the shoulder of Triton, a grubby looking yellow spacecraft.
"What do you make of her?" I asked.
"I cannot pick up an ID," the computer said. "However, she appears to be approaching us on an intercept course. Her current speed is..."
"Forget it," I snapped. "Get me Yuki."
"Ms Savoy is in her quarters, sir. She gave me strict instructions that she was not to be disturbed..."
I hit an override and patched myself through, and Yukiís cabin flickered into view on the screen. She and the octopus were in bed together. With all those tentacles wrapped round her, she looked like one of those Beautiful Women in the Clutches of Fiends From Outer Space on the covers of old Sci-Fi pulps. She scowled at the camera.
"This had better be good."
I explained about the approaching ship.
"Itís probably just some in-system runabout nosing around," she said irritably. "Even if itís a pirate, theyíve got no reason to hit us; thereís nothing in our present ID to suggest we have a valuable cargo."
"Would you like me to remind them of that?" I asked, but I doubt if she heard me, for at that moment the first salvo of E-beams hit our engine pods.
The ship spun through 360 degrees and everything that was not stuck down - me, for instance - hit the roof and fell heavily back to the deck. The lights went out and the spinning darkness was lit by cascades of sparks from shorting systems. As the dim emergency lamps kicked in Henderson announced; "A direct hit to the wormhole drive housing, Dr Heyerdahl - 60 per cent damage. Do you wish me to take evasive action, sir?"
"Yes!" I screamed, "Yes!" Our attacker was trying to disable us, coming after the precious cargo. I had no idea what to do, and no opportunity to do it anyway as a second salvo slammed home.
"Damage to the Pons-Fleischmann drive," the computer intoned. "Massive energy surges in sections C to G..."
"Yuki..." I whispered, horrified, knowing that if the lower decks were absorbing that much energy she could not have survived. But I need not have worried. She and Johnny had been half way to the bridge when the second burst hit and they came stumbling in a moment later, Yuki in her kimono, Johnny running on the tips of his tentacles and flushing amber with alarm. She glanced at the screen. Our attacker was streaking towards us, looking like a battered metal croissant. Even from a couple of million miles away we could see a daunting array of weapons trained on us.
"Oh no," she said, with feeling. "Itís Echo!"
"Echo Varga." She leant against the console, watching the ship approach. "He runs Wire for the Fat Man, but heís not above a little piracy to make ends meet. The ship is the Garden Aeroplane Trap and before you ask, we canít outrun it and we canít outgun it."
"But how does he know weíve got something worth having on board?" I asked.
"Simple," said Johnny. "Heís the man who sold us all the fake IDs."
The comlink bipped and a grinning face appeared on the screen, lantern-jawed and topped with an oily quiff. "Yuki, baby!" it said. "I figured with all the systems you were buying you must have a pretty hot cargo. Something to do with your recent trip to Callisto, maybe? Our Kraitt chums are certainly stirred up! Iíve been waiting out here for you to come by. Hope you donít mind if me and boys drop in and take a look?"
The Garden Aeroplane Trap drew closer and a couple more shots came zeroing in. "Just making sure you donít try and leave," explained Echo Varga. "Donít try anything smart, either: We have Wave Collapsor Cannon targeting your bridge; a hit from one of those can put a kink in your whole day. So howís life? Still snogging the squid?"
Yuki cut the link. Her face looked as though it had been chiselled from bone. "Henderson," she said, "do we have any power left?"
"Remarkably, yes," admitted the computer. "The wormhole drive will take time to repair, but we have been able to absorb his energy beams without sustaining too much damage. Do you wish me to attempt an escape?"
"Not yet," said Yuki. "Wait a while. Let him think weíre shut down." She leant across the console, flicking switches and typing in codes. Johnny and I concentrated on the screens and the approach of the Garden Aeroplane Trap. The 13th Floor Elevator hung motionless as the other ship nosed cautiously in alongside.
"I hope youíve got a plan," I said.
Yuki grinned icily. "I said he was faster and stronger than us," she murmured. "I never said he was brighter."
She stabbed a control and the 13th Floor Elevator suddenly came back to life, her whole motley weapons array discharging at once with a searing flash. As the Garden Aeroplane Trap reeled away I heard her shout "Henderson! Full Power! Now!" and G-forces flung me to the floor.
When I scrambled up it was to find the other ship a dwindling speck on the viewscreen. Johnny gave a honking cheer and wrapped a friendly tentacle around my shoulders. "We iced him!"
"I doubt it." Yuki slumped back in her seat. "Heís not badly damaged. But at least we have a head start. I donít think Echo has the patience for a long chase. Henderson; how soon can we kick in the Wormhole drive?"
"We shall be in open space in another seven hours, Ms Savoy," said the computer. "But Iím afraid the wormhole drive may take time to repair..."
"If I may make so bold, the lower decks also absorbed considerable quantities of energy."
"Damn!" I said. "The Egg!"
They both turned to stare at me as the same thought crossed their minds. The medical bay was right next to the engine pods which Varga had been targeting. If the Kraitt egg was damaged, there was going to be hell to pay.
We left Henderson to look after things on the bridge and went racing down to the medical bay. The corridors were still tingly with static from the energy bursts weíd taken, and I felt my hair prickling up on end. Even so, I was impressed; I had half expected to find the whole drive-section melted to slag. Clearly the Elevator was tougher than she looked.
The controls to the med-bay doors had shorted out, and there were a tense few seconds while we waited for Johnny to find the manual override. Inside we found acrid smoke hanging in a thin, billowing veil just below the emergency lights.
Our cargo had hatched.
The glastic quarantine cubicle lay shattered on the deck. The egg-case was crumpled in the wreckage, gradually fading into our spectrum. The thing which had emerged from it hovered a few feet above.
I donít know what I had expected. A young Warrior, perhaps, its chitinous exoskeleton still soft from the egg, or a flabby Scientist, already constructing simple theorems...
Instead, we saw a kind of glowing mass, vaguely maggot-like in shape, hanging in mid air. It had stubby fins and a variety of anonymous orifices which opened and closed with moist breathing sounds. It was obvious why it had smashed out of the cubicle; it had grown too big to fit inside. It was about fifteen feet long, and nearly as broad at its mid-section.
"Heyerdahl," whispered Yuki Savoy, "why didnít you tell us this was likely to happen?"
"Believe me," I said, "Iím as surprised as you are. I suppose the energy surge must have triggered it to hatch..."
"But what is it?" Johnny asked. "It doesnít look like any Kraitt Iíve ever seen..."
I shrugged. "Nor me. Unless itís some sort of larval form..." I was at a loss. I knew about as much about the Kraitt as any human alive, but Iíd never heard they hatched out with natural AntiGrav fields...
As if disturbed by the sound of our voices the hatchling moved away, drifting over to the far side of the bay. Its orifices opened and closed rhythmically. There was something faintly familiar about its lumpish profile, but I still could not relate it to any form of Kraitt Iíd yet encountered. A tremor ran through it.
"Itís still growing," said Yuki Savoy.
She was right; the creature was getting slowly but visibly larger.
"How big do these things get?" asked Johnny, watching it.
"Depends," I said. "The Worker Caste grow to about five foot tall, the Breeders can be the size of a mountain..." I did some rapid mental arithmetic. If this went on then within a few hours, long before we could reach Twombley, the Kraitt was going to be larger than our ship. It spun around again, patrolling the margins of the room like a fish in a tank, and the three of us beat a hasty retreat.
"Do you think the Xentrasi will still want it?" Johnny asked, as we slid the door shut...
"Of course." Yuki was trying to Think Positive. "We can tell them itís hand-reared and house-trained..."
"If you ever get it to them," I said. They watched me glumly as I explained my theory. From behind the med-bay doors came the sound of equipment being crushed against the wall as the Kraitt underwent another spasm of growth.
WE returned to the bridge. The yellow crescent that was the Garden Aeroplane Trap was still in the rear viewscreen, slowly gaining on us again. Somehow it seemed like the least of our worries now. An E-beam glittered towards us, too diffuse at this range to do more than tickle our hull.
"Maybe if he keeps shooting heíll kill the Kraitt," said Johnny hopefully.
"Donít bet on it," I said. "I think itís eating the energy; absorbing it to feed its growth processes."
"That explains why the whole ship wasnít fried in the first attack," agreed Yuki wearily. "Our guest was sucking it up."
"Miss," Henderson chimed in, "I regret to say that the transverse bulkhead in D section has been breached."
"It's broken through the wall of the med-bay," Yuki translated, checking a display. "What we have here, folks, is your basic alien-loose-aboard-spaceship situation."
"Not quite," I said. I had been watching the thing on the onboard cameras as it nosed out through the burst bulkhead into the hold. It seemed absurd, yet I knew now where I had seen that bulbous shape before. I said, "What we have here is a spaceship-loose-aboard-spaceship-situation."
"I donít understand..."
"Your precious egg," I explained. "Thatís why the Xentrasi wanted it. Itís hatched into a baby Kraitt starship."
"A living ship?"
"It makes sense, I suppose..." I sat down heavily in a spare seat and dialled up a coffee from the mini-canteen. The ship rocked to another salvo from the Garden Aeroplane Trap but we all ignored it. "We know how specialised they are as a race. They design individuals to fulfill certain roles; as soldiers, porters, load-carriers... so why not as ships? A Starship Caste, swimming between the stars, eating light to power themselves, their crew living like tiny parasites inside their bodies..."
A grinding squeal of overstressed metal from below broke my train of thought. Henderson gloomily announced the collapse of some more bulkheads and the loss of basic life support on the lower decks. It didnít seem to worry the Kraitt, born to breath vacuum.
"Maybe we could hop inside it and fly it to Twombley?" Johnny suggested.
"I donít think so," I said.
"Then weíll have to throw ourselves on Echo Vargaís mercy," he shrugged, gesturing with a bluish tentacle at the screen, the approaching Garden Aeroplane Trap.
"Forget it," said Yuki Savoy. "He doesnít have any."
They started to argue: about whether we could all fit in the lifeboat, about whether Echo Varga would just use it for target practice, about whether we could turn the tables on him, boarding the Garden Aeroplane Trap and overpowering the crew. I left them to it. I didnít want to see Yuki or Johnny get killed, and I certainly didnít want to see me get killed. Things had gone far enough; it was time to call for help.
I ran down the companionway to my quarters. There was still air to breathe on that level but most of the lighting was out and the gravity had shut down, so I kept caroming off the walls and ceiling. My bag was floating in the middle of the cabin, spilling underwear. I rummaged inside, unfastened the false bottom and brought out the little devices I had been given before I reached the Hula Hoop. One was a transmitter, the other a neural scrambler. Like all items of Kraitt manufacture they looked bulky and shapeless by our standards. I pocketed the scrambler, hoping I wouldnít have to use it, and set the transmitter going.
By the time I returned to the bridge the Garden Aeroplane Trap was filling the screens again. I was secretly delighted to see that our earlier broadside had damaged the little cutter quite seriously; its whole starboard flank was buckled and blackened.
Echo Vargaís face appeared on the com-screen. He did not look happy. There was a ragged burn across his forehead and the grimy bridge behind him was full of smoke. "Youíre seafood, cuttle-fish features!" he hissed when he saw Johnny. "I was going to take your cargo and let you go, but not after that little trick. You hear that, Yuki? Youíll be in range of our cannon within two more minutes. Iím going to take you apart and pick what I want out of the wreckage..."
Wearily, Yuki cut the link. She looked shattered; even her mohican had lost its usual vigour and flopped limply across her face in sweaty strands. I felt sorry for her. I almost wished she could have got away with it.
We were all watching the screen. The Garden Aeroplane Trap came tumbling in towards us on its attack run, gun ports opening black. It looked as much like something out of Sci-Fi movies as a spacecraft can and not be held up on piano wire. My mouth felt dry. I noticed Johnny snake out a tentacle and gently squeeze Yukiís hand.
All at once, space lit up. A broad fork of energy came crackling past the 13th Floor Elevator to impact against the bows of her assailant. There were some small explosions. Trailing debris, crackling with St Elmoís Fire, the Garden Aeroplane Trap went spinning out of control, end-over-end out into the silent depths of space. Emergency com-channels picked Echo Vargaís faint, despairing scream; "Oh, Bugger..."
We all turned to look at the forward view-screen and the huge, dark shape which filled it, barring the way to the stars. The Kraitt had arrived.
"And about time, too," I said.
Johnny and Yuki spun to face me. I already had the scrambler aimed at them and they froze when they saw it, hands and tentacles half-way to their guns.
"The gameís up," I told them. "In fact, there never was a game. The Kraitt have been trailing you ever since you lifted the egg. They set you up with me so that I could find out where you were taking it and see no harm came to it on the way. They wanted to catch the buyers red handed..."
Johnny began to curse me in some bubbling alien tongue. Yuki snarled, "So all that story you told me was lies?"
"Mostly true," I said. "I did gain knowledge of the Kraitt, and in the way I said. When they found out they offered me a choice; a partial memory-wipe or work as their confidential agent."
"So you became their spy..."
"You two were my first mission," I said. "If it werenít for the situation downstairs I would have come with you all the way to Twombley..."
I moved carefully across the bridge, cutting the engines, letting us drift in towards the waiting starship. Kraitt vessels are always impressive. This one seemed even more so, now that I knew it was a living creature. I allowed myself a quick glance at its looming, frosted hull, and that was my mistake.
Johnny Cephalopod went for his gun. I registered the movement and shot him quickly with the scrambler. He shuddered and dropped across his console in a limp heap, his tentacles as white as old spaghetti. Yuki Savoy was already bringing her gun to bear but the death of her lover distracted her, she shouted his name as he went down. By the time she turned her attention to me again I had the scrambler aimed between her eyes.
"Iím sorry," I said, and meant it. We were being drawn into the Kraitt ship, a bright orifice opening to admit us. Yuki knew she was beaten, I could see it in her eyes.
She shot me anyway, gritting her teeth as she pulled the trigger, hitting me in the chest with a plasma-arc that turned my torso to a fine red steam. As I died my hand must have tightened, quite involuntarily, on the triggers of my own weapon. I remember feeling it go off and seeing Yuki Savoy stiffen and sag as the scrambler-wave destroyed her brain.
I was in a domed chamber with greyish, veinous walls. I knew at once that this was the interior of the Kraitt starship. A long-headed Administrator was bending over me.
"So, Doctor; we meet again!" he said, and burst into fits of giggles.
The thing about the Kraitt that takes most getting used to is their love of crap old sci-fi shows from television. One of them told me once that they had only got interested in Earth and its inhabitants when their listening post in Proxima started picking up early episodes of Star Trek. This one, my regular contact, had clearly been waiting weeks to say ĎSo, Doctor; we meet again.í Just for good measure, he said it twice.
"Very amusing," I said. I felt terrible. "Why didnít you tell me the thing would hatch into a spaceship?"
"We didnít think you would need to know. We like to keep all information about ourselves secret, until it becomes absolutely impossible to conceal it. You are priviledged, Doctor Heyerdahl. You are certainly the only human being who knows the secret of our... hem... our shipbuilding techniques. Itís a pity you could not complete the mission; it would have been interesting to see who came forward to make the purchase once you reached Twombley."
"I killed them," I said, remembering.
"Yes," agreed the Kraitt. "Such a pity; we had rather come to like them, during our surveillance. A very invigorating young couple. Still, they killed you as well, so I suppose fairís fair."
"But Iím still alive..."
"Of course you are, old chap. We canít afford to lose our best human agent, can we? We simply made a copy of your personality and down-loaded it into a new body. Iím afraid Ms Savoy didnít leave much of the old one..."
I ran a hand over my chin and found it smooth and beardless. I sat up. There was a panel of some reflective substance set into the living wall beside us, and in it I got the first glimpse of my new self. I am young and female. I have a feathery black mohican and the aquiline features of a woman in a Hokusai print.
"You canít do this!" I protested.
"Whyever not? Itís a perfectly good body and Ms Savoy had finished with it; there was no way of reclaiming her personality after you scrambled her."
"I know," I said, blinking at myself, "but this is adding insult to injury! Anyway, Iím a man! How am I supposed to live in her body?"
"Oh, youíll get used to it," said the Kraitt affably. "Just be grateful we didnít give you the squid."
He passed me a kimono and gestured for me to follow him, through a door which irised open in the wall. Walking in Yukiís body did not feel as strange as I had expected. My Kraitt friend assured me that, while the scrambler burst had wiped all her higher thought processes, simple memories remained; things like how to walk and how to breath. "There may be other trace memories," he said. "Nothing to worry about..."
We went along glowing, organic corridoors until we came to a transluscent membrane which looked out into space. A few other Kraitt were gathered there. It was like standing behind the lens of an enormous eye.
Outside, the 13th Floor Elevator hung motionless against a backdrop of stars. It looked dead, and gaping cracks had appeared along its mid-section. I found that I could remember the feel of the pilotís seat against my new body.
"Watch," said the Kraitt.
Slowly, the little spaceship bulged and split and the young Kraitt hatchling emerged. It looked soft and delicate beside the enormous ship we stood in. It manoeuvred experimentally, eating starlight. We all cooed like watchers at a fireworks display. It spun end over end, testing its powers. It was still growing. Soon, the Kraitt Empire would have a new Starship.
THAT is about all.
My Kraitt masters have a job for me, infiltrating a minor rebellion in Tau Ceti. I am looking forward to it. I still like the Kraitt, and I still think they make a better job of running our solar system than we ever could. I am getting used to being female. I am getting used to seeing Yukiís face every time I look in the mirror.
There are still memories, though, like echoes of her personality which the scrambler did not manage to obliterate. They came at night to start with, just on the edge of sleep; memories of worlds Iíve never seen and people Iíve never met; the taste of Xis in a Wire Joint on Spol, the odour of Johnny Cephalopodís pudenda.
Lately there have been other things too, things I notice while I am awake, thoughts which are not my own, habits which were not those of my former body. I have been studying the interior of this living starship in a way that I would not have done before, paying close attention to the cargo, the movements of the crew and the access tunnels leading to the shuttle pods.
Iíve had this terrific idea for a heist...