Neenan couldn’t recall how long or far she had travelled, or how many jumps she had made, before her crash-landing on the Red Stone Planet. Weeks, she thought, but sometimes it seemed as if it might have been much longer. Years. How old was she now? The question had no meaning, depending as it did on the orbital motion of a far-away planet in another solar system, in another plane.
She’d left behind Fibo and Main-Tank and Gun and Hollice, her closest friends and partners in crime. She’d had to, the pace of travel would have killed them. The plan had been that Neenan would go on ahead, keeping herself one step ahead of the Elite forces, leading them on a merry chase long enough for the rest to recover and get off-planet. She wondered if they were still alive, somewhere. She hoped so. She could imagine them holed up in some grubby spaceport in the Peripheries, where the Comintern patrols didn’t come so often, laundering their take a bit at a time. Keeping their heads down, but still finding time to go out dancing to the fast, jaggedly repetitive music that Main-Tank loved so much.
She could remember the slow, dawning elation she’d felt when she’d gone four jumps without encountering any trace of the Elite, then five, six, seven. Then a dozen or more. Slowly she began to accept that she’d done the impossible: she’d outrun the Elite, she’d gone so far so fast that they couldn’t follow. That made her mighty. A master of the universe.
But then the fever, the black-outs, the sudden bouts of shivering and crying. She knew she should stop, set down somewhere and rest, but it wasn’t as if she could afford to stop anywhere for very long. She thought the Elite were gone, but she couldn’t be sure, and it wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to gamble on. All jump-travel left a trail through multispace, and anything that left a trail could be tracked.
So she kept moving, now and again stopping at some planet or space station for supplies, but never staying longer than she had to. And her memories became blurry. Until she’d found herself shivering, fevered, vomiting, and dizzy. Sometimes she found herself lying on the floor, and wondered how she’d got there. She knew nothing about the region of space she was travelling through. There were some minor electronics problems, which should have been easy to fix, but every time she opened the casing and looked at the circuit board underneath, she found that she couldn’t focus, couldn’t trust herself to do the repair. She told herself that flying around in this state was suicide, began scanning for any signs of civilization at all, and pointed her ship toward the first faint radio signals she came across.
She hated the idea of setting down on a planet she knew nothing about. Normally she would have spent a day of so lurking in high orbit, sifting through the local transmissions and the local worldnet, searching for clues about how safe it was, and what cultural faux pas might get her killed, but she couldn’t make sense of their transmissions anyway. She had trouble standing up, and hadn’t managed to bathe or undress herself in days.
As she was easing herself into the planet’s upper atmosphere the minor electronic problems showed themselves to be less minor than she had hoped, and Neenan entered the planet’s sky as a fireball accompanied by a sonic boom. She spent a few minutes that felt like hours wrestling her trajectory, and finally performed what Sarenna would have called a “controlled crash landing” into the side of a mountain. It was an ugly piece of flying, the worst she’d done since she’d been in Basic Flight, a million years ago. When she woke up several days later, her first thought was: “Sarenna’s going to kill me. She won’t put me in the brig or give me a disciplinary, she’s just going to pull out her side-arm and shoot me.”
But Sarenna, like everything else Neenan had ever known, was thousands of parsecs and several dozen layers of multiverse away. She was lying in a bed in some kind of infirmary, and the stranger sitting in the chair next to her said:
“You’re awake, good. My name is Opel. This is a Nahilander research settlement. You’re in the infirmary. Welcome.”
Neenan tried to sit up, but didn’t get very far. She managed to croak: “My ship?”
“Took some damage, and we had to do some more damage to cut you out, but our engineers say it can be repaired. And the medics say that you are going to be alright as well, if that’s of any interest to you.” The stranger had smiled at her sardonically, but not unkindly.
Landing on the Red Stone Planet had been a very, very lucky role of the dice. The Nahilanders were generous and gentle. Their mechanics cut her out of her ship and took her to their infirmary, where their medics looked after her. No mention was ever made of payment. Opel took a particular an interest in the ragged traveller who had arrived with a sonic boom and a blaze of smoke and flame, and left a burnt-out crater in the valley floor. She visited the patient every day while she was in the infirmary, answering her questions and telling her of Nahiland and of the Red Stone People, and once the patient was well enough to leave she invited her to stay in her own home, high above the valley floor.
Opel was a beautiful woman, tall, regal, golden brown, with black and grey hair tied in a braid that fell over her shoulder. Her eyes were close-set, dark, and striking, framed by thick black eyebrows and lashes in contrast to her pale brown skin. She had a pointed nose and a generous mouth, a mouth that could smile ear-to-ear. She was perhaps forty, perhaps fifty. Her movements were slow and graceful, and full of purpose.
The Nahilanders were not native to the planet, any more than Neenan was. The planet’s inhabitants had disappeared millennia before, leaving behind them only ruins. Opel and the other Nahilanders had been there less than a year. They were anthropologists, come to explore the ruins, to take photos, make videos and write articles about the planet’s lost civilization, to bring back to the people back home. They called it the Red Stone Planet, for the ochre-coloured stone of the ruined buildings that filled the valley, and they called the long-lost people they were studying the Red Stone People.
The researchers had built their own sprawling settlement, on a stony area in what had been the outskirts of the City of the Red Stone People. They lived in their ships, not fast lean squirmishers like Neenan’s ship, but massive, ponderous ships with spacious living quarters, recreation facilities, greenhouses, and comfortable communal areas. In the year since their arrival they had spread out beyond their ships as well; there was an outdoor kitchen and eating area, covered with canvas to keep off the rain but without walls, and several rectangular section of cleared turf with lines and circles painted on, and buckets along the edges, for playing a game called ‘hoops’, whose rules Neenan found incomprehensible. The Nahilanders were poor workers, it seemed to Neenan; they spent more time playing with their children, socializing, and cooking great communal meals, than they did working. The feasts were usually followed by singing and dancing under the great tarpaulin, sometimes to recorded music, but more often than not to live music that they played on instruments they had brought with them from home. The instruments were made from wood and metal, and were played by plucking wires or blowing through tubes or banging two objects together. Neenan had never seen anything like it.
Despite the luxurious living quarters available in the Nahilander ships, Opel had built herself a cabin in the hillside, and had invited Neenan to stay with her as soon as she’d been well enough to leave the infirmary. It suited both of them better than the hustle and bustle of life down below. The cabin had a big wooden deck overlooking the valley below. From this vantage, both the ruins and the Nahilander settlement were invisible, covered up by vegetation. The valley seemed to contain trees and several burbling streams, nothing more.
At first Neenan spent most of her time in bed, but gradually she became stronger. She spent many long afternoons sitting on the deck with Opel, sometimes talking, often companioniably ignoring each-other as Opel worked at a carry-console while Neenan stared at the trees, at the mountains, at a little waterfall where a stream gushed over a sheer rock face.
On one such day she stepped out onto the deck. Opel was half-sitting half-lying in a deck chair, reading. She wore clothes that Opel had given her, a shirt of some soft materiel, white and decorated with little blue flowers, with a double-row of fasteners down the front, and matching trousers. She was barefoot. Although she had just woken up it was already early afternoon. It was a gloriously sunny day. The sky was full of flying animals, some naked and leathery, and some covered in a special kind of fur which, according to the translator, was unknown in Neenan’s native language. In the cliff-face across the valley, the little waterfall shone so brightly it hurt to look at. Ignoring the deck chairs, she padded across the deck and sat down at the very edge, letting her legs hang over.
“How are you feeling?” Opel asked her.
Neenan scowled, although from this vantage no-one could see her.
“I keep thinking I’m somewhere else,” she complained, “my memories are mixed up. Time is mixed up. I remember everything, but I don’t know what happened first. It’s like all my memories are happening at once, and it’s all mixed together. And my memories are mixed in with dreams, and I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not.”
She went quiet, half-fearing that admitting she feared for her sanity, would make it true.
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Opel told her.
“I’m going mad, and you want me to not worry about it?” Neenan asked peevishly.
“You’re not going mad,” Opel replied soothingly, “you’ve just got a bad case of jump-sickness. The stories of your life have gotten muddles, that’s all. It’s not surprising, you’ve travelled further than any human was ever meant to. Try to rest.”
“You don’t understand,” Neenan replied angrily, “I can’t even tell if my memories are real or not.”
“Does it matter so much?” Opel asked mildly.
Neenan sputtered with anger.
“The universe is made of dreams,” Opel said smoothly, “it’s held together by the telling of stories. We recreate the universe every day with the stories we tell, without even realising it. We tell the stories to each-other over and over and over until they become true. That’s the scaffolding of reality. But you’ve travelled too far, alone. The supports buttressing your reality grew too thin, too sparse, and your universe is caving in a bit, that’s all. It’s probably only temporary.”
Opel stood up, and rapped on the window. “What’s this?” she asked.
Neenan looked at her suspiciously. “A window,” she said.
“There’s no such thing as a window,” Opel replied, “it doesn’t exist. It’s just a story.”
“It looks real enough to me,” Neenan said.
“The window is just a story,” Opel insisted, “it only exists because we tell a story to each-other, about a window.” She rapped on the glass again. “There are some silica, sodium oxide, and calcium oxide molecules here that might possibly have some objective existence independent of you and I, although in truth I am doubtful even of that. But the window is a dream.”
“You can call it silica or glass or window or whatever you want,” Neenan said, annoyed, “it’s the same thing.”
“If it’s the same thing, why do we have so many words for it?” Opel asked, smiling.
Neenan frowned. “I want to see my ship.”
Opel was unperturbed by the sudden change of topic.
“Are you well enough to make the journey back down to the valley?” she asked, “not in the chair this time. If you’re not well enough to walk down, you’re not well enough to go at all.”
There was no road from the valley floor up to Opel’s cabin, just a walking path. The Nahilanders had got her up there using an ingenious device they built especially for her, of strong ropes and pulleys and a hanging chair and a small motor.
Neenan stood up. “I’m well enough.”
“In that case, go fetch me my work gloves from the high cupboard in the tool room.”
Neenan didn’t have the strength to reach into the high cupboard. Just walking out onto the deck had left her breathless, and she kept having dizzy spells, which left her afraid to climb onto a chair or step ladder.
The notorious pirate Neenan, she thought, the most wanted criminal in the Union. If only the Elite could see me now.
“I’ll go down some other day,” she said.