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An Undeniable Impression

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Chapter One

 

                “And what,” Robinton breathed, “Will happen if it fails?”

                “We’ll die,” the AIVAS said.  “Both of us.”

 

#

 

                The music was discordant, out of tune, off-beat.  He twitched his fingers, trying to raise a hand so he could conduct, get his orchestra under control.

                “He’s moving!” a familiar voice said, frightfully strained.  “Get the Healer!”

                Robinton? another voice said faintly.  Then it was lost beyond the cacophony of disordered instrumentation.  Disordered instruments.

                His fingers twitched again as he tried to put it in order once more.

 

#

 

                My chest hurts.

                I know, a voice replied.  I’m sorry. I had to effect a repair of the defect, otherwise this would all be for naught.  A pause.  Your heart will be artificial when all this is complete.

                Despite the pain, that thought amused Robinton. 

                Then he drifted off again before he could start writing a song about a Harper with an artificial heart.

 

#

 

                Ten.

                Nine.

                Eight.  A plunge into darkness and cold.

                Time passed.

                Zero. Light returned.

                As did Zair.

 

#

 

                Why me?  Why not someone young and strong?

                You’re an Impressive man, Harper.

                There was a pun there, but his head hurt too much to play with it, and he fell unconscious again.

 

#

 

                AIVAS.

                Yes, Harper?

                …why me?

                The silence went on a long time, long enough that Robinton felt he should have fallen unconscious again.  As he had been.  As he always had.

                Then the AIVAS said, Because I chose you.

                Why?

                Exasperation, an emotion he’d never experienced from the AIVAS before. I’m picky about who I share my head with.  Call it Impression, if it makes our bond, or my choosing, more understandable.

 

#

 

                “I wish,” an anguished voice said.  “That he wouldn’t move at all, sometimes.  Is that bad of me?  I don’t want him conducting an invisible orchestra.  It’s like…like watching a Smith’s machines…mechanical movement without any soul behind it!”

                Robinton wanted to comfort her, but he couldn’t open his eyes, much less move.

                “It’d be better if he’d died.  Easier.  Easier than this.”

 

#

 

                Ten.

                Nine.

                WAIT.

                Yes, Robinton?

                What is this?

                Calibration.  We send Zair between, and I calibrate the neural implants using the data he provides.

                What about my song?

                Startled pride.  Emotions the AIVAS hadn’t previously had, not like this.  Robinton was rubbing off on him.  That will be critical, too, in time.  I had hoped your extensive musical training would be a leg up, a benefit…and I think it will be.  A way to mnemonically sort in the input.  You’re getting better at it, you know. Each time we do this.

 

#

 

                His chest no longer hurt.  It was amazing, that absence of dull pain.

                AIVAS, he said.

                Yes, Harper?

                Why can’t I move?

                I’ve immobilized you, for the most part; this work is extremely delicate, and they already jostle you enough for feeding, bathing, et cetera.  I would speak through your mouth, reassure them…but somehow I don’t think it would be reassuring at all, and might get us both killed, if only out of sheer terror-ridden panic.

                A pause.

                AIVAS added: They already think I killed you, then suicided.  And…they’re not entirely wrong.  There’s several things that are fundamentally different about us, now.  Another pause.  Luckily, I think the dragons know what we’re trying to do.  I can’t speak to them directly, but sometimes you seem to translate in your sleep.  The wavelengths are interesting. I wish I’d had more data on them before we’d begun.  Not that we had time.

                Robinton didn’t reply, for upon receipt of the word sleep, somnolence tugged at him, and it did not take ‘no’ for an answer.

 

#

 

                It was nighttime when he finally opened his eyes—something that he’d only realized had happened at all because of the moonlight streaming into his room through a wide window open to the Southern breezes.

                He was at Cove Hold, in his own room.  But the character of the room was very different; his usual clutter had been cleared away.  The shadows were too tidy.  There was an empty chair next to his bedside.

                He twitched his fingers, and found he could move his arm.  He felt the back of his neck, and found, under a thin layer of concealing fat, something strange and inorganic underneath, a quarter-inch or so down when he pressed with nervous fingers.

                It’s not completely done, AIVAS advised.  Everything deeper is, but I decided to avoid physical disfigurement until it was completely unavoidable.

                Robinton wiped his face.  It was slightly sticky with humidity.  Then his hands went up to his hair, but all he felt was stubble.  It was an alarming, alien feeling, having hair this short, shorter even than the way many dragonriders cut theirs.  Had it been cut for ease of care?

                It fell out. Some of the changes I made in your head temporarily stressed the follicles.  It will grow back…probably darker than before.

                “I must sound so vain,” he said, or rather, involuntarily whispered in a raspy voice.

                Given all that has happened to you recently, it’s really quite minor a defect.

                Robinton felt like AIVAS was mocking him.

                Only a little, my friend.  Can you stand?

                Moving like a decade-long invalid, Robinton laboriously pushed himself upright, slid his legs out of bed, braced his feet against the cool stone floor.  He was shockingly thin.  Not his normal gauntness, but nearly skeletal.

                Had they been feeding him?  Or had…someone…decided that maybe death was better than…whatever they thought he’d had?

                They’ve fed you.  But my work was intensive.  They upped your intake about a seven-day ago—but that allowed me to do more, faster, so it’s had minimal outward effect.  I’m sorry. You’ll begin to gain weight, now that I’m at a stalling point.  However, your metabolism will be higher now, and you’ll have to eat more than you’re used to.  I will remind you.

                Robinton nodded to AIVAS, and then stopped, aware that to an outside perspective, he was nodding to himself.

                Like dragonriders do, yes, AIVAS said.

                Robinton snorted.  He definitely didn’t have a dragon inside his head.

                Only an AI, AIVAS replied.

                Slowly, carefully, he pushed himself standing, bracing a hand on the bedcovers until he felt like the world wasn’t going to tilt under him.  The pair of underpants around his hips immediately slid, and fell to his ankles before he could grab them.  He needed a belt.  For his underwear, of all things.

                Robinton had never been a glutton, but he felt the distinct urge to stuff his face immediately, get himself back to normal weight.  It wasn’t even hunger-pains that were driving him, but a deep fear of the thinness of his changed body.

                AIVAS approved, somewhere in the back of his head.  You won’t suffer refeeding syndrome.  You were being fed, after all.  Eat all you want.

                In the absence of owning a garter-belt, Robinton kicked off the useless undergarment, and shuffled over to the wardrobe, and found a thin tropical sleeping tunic—with a belt—within.  He wrapped it around his body, and tied the belt so it wouldn’t gape and flash too much of his unseemly body at the world, then, holding onto the wall timidly, he shuffled out of his room, to the night hearth, where hopefully there would be delicious things like klah and bread and meat rolls.

                He didn’t meet anyone in the hallway, or at the glow-lit hearth…not that he was ever alone, now, at this point going forward.  Not with AIVAS in his head.

Off to the side, there was a tepid pot of klah, which he took to a table in the corner, and a bowl of fruit—he took the entire thing—and he found bread, butter, a small cured wherry-sausage, and a small cheese wheel.  He brought those to the table too.

                Then he sat, poured a cup of klah, and ate.  First a bite of redfruit, then a bite of the sandwich he made.  Then another bite of redfruit, and a swig of klah.

                He was well into his second sandwich, and third piece of fruit, when another late-night snacker arrived at the night hearth.  Lytol.

                Swallowing to clear his throat, Robinton rasped, “Lytol.”

                Lytol hadn’t seen him in the dim light, and whirled, a belt knife seemingly jumping into his hand from nowhere.  Then he slapped the knife down on the window ledge, scrabbled for a glow-pot, then another, lighting the room as brightly as possible.  “Rob?  Rob!”

                Robinton didn’t appreciate the harsh light on his over-thin body—that strange vanity, rearing its head up again—but smiled in a way he hoped was more comforting than ghastly.  “I see I’m not the only one with late-night cravings,” he rasped.  Then he tried to cough, clear his throat of some sort of mucus that had accumulated, and seemed to still be accumulating.

                I have effluvia draining into your sinus cavities, especially now that you are upright and won’t drown.  It will pass in a day or so.

                Mid-cough, Lytol stepped forward and engulfed him in a firm—and then frighteningly hesitant once he felt the thinness of Robinton’s shoulders—embrace.  “You’re awake!  You’re you—“ and he pushed Robinton back again to peer worriedly at him, “—you are you, right?”

                Choosing not to currently elaborate on his present state or relationship with AIVAS, he took that to mean, You’re awake and aware, right?!  “A little worse for the wear, but indeed, I am me, Lytol.”  Turning his face away, he coughed again, roughly moving some phlegm on its disgusting way.  He reached around Lytol to take another gulp of klah, and said, his voice clear this time, “How long have I…been ill?”

                Sinking down into the other chair at the table, Lytol said, “Almost six months.”

                Robinton hissed in through his teeth.  Can we afford that? he fretted to AIVAS.

                We couldn’t not. We only ever had one chance at this.

                Words began to burble out of Lytol, half a turn’s pent-up fears and worries escaping all at once.  “When we found you at Landing, with the AIVAS dead, we thought—well, we didn’t know what to think.  Another heart attack, maybe, although that didn’t explain the AIVAS.  Then—“

                Listening to Lytol’s tale with one ear, Robinton polished off his second sandwich, and his fruit, and, lacking any more bread, cut his cheese wheel into slices, and his sausage, and began to eat those plain.

                The tale Lytol gave him was largely the one he’d anticipated.  He’d been found unconscious in AIVAS’s room at Landing, and had been treated at Landing for a while. Once he seemed stable—if unconscious—they’d brought him between to Cove Hold, where a constant parade of visitors would find it much harder to randomly appear and poke their heads in.  Instead, a rotating mix of Healers and Harpers had been tending to him, keeping him fed and bathed, while the Healers largely scratched their heads over his case and mysterious affliction.

Oddly, he’d apparently been blindly conducting invisible orchestras in his sleep, or during his…vegetative awareness. The Healers had suspected he’d had some sort of stroke that left him nonverbal and minimally functional, apart from a slew of random Harper-related movements or habits.

                They weren’t wrong about your brain being affectedLuckily, you got better, the AI added drily.

                “I’m doing much better now,” Robinton echoed, attempting to reassure Lytol that this moment was not anomalous, and that he wouldn’t fall back into some comatose or vegetative state when he went back to sleep.  “But I think I could eat an entire wherry raw, without sauce!”

                “I observed them, you know,” Lytol said tightly.  “Menolly would never starve you, nor Piemur, but when I saw the state you were in, how you were losing weight, I sat in, every day, and observed.  The Healers theorized, a few months in, that you might never wake up.  I didn’t believe them! And I did not let them starve you!”

                “My metabolism has always been ferocious,” Robinton soothed.  “I do not believe I was purposefully starved, merely very ill. But I appreciate you looking out for me.  Do you want some food?  Klah?”

                Lytol looked like he was going to refuse this largesse from a skeletal man—despite the likelihood of why he’d visited the night hearth in the first place—but Robinton rose (to Lytol’s concern) and got another plate, and then Lytol couldn’t refuse when a platter of cheese and sausage and fruit Robinton had fixed himself was shoved his way.  Unlike Robinton, however, he picked at his food, instead of inhaling it.  “Is this the first time you’re awake?  Or were you aware, at all, before?”

                “I faded in and out, sometimes,” Robinton admitted. “But I was too tired to open my eyes, much less speak.”

                “You would hum tunes, sometimes.  Menolly said they weren’t aimless, even though I couldn’t recognize them.  She said they were by Petiron, or Domick.”

                Robinton smiled a bemused smile.

                The complexity of a full orchestral score is useful, AIVAS said.  For regulating the data-streams.

                “So I would hum, and do this?” Robinton raised a hand—

                —and a shock of invisible light seared his senses.

                To hide what had happened, Robinton immediately clutched his shoulder, as if he’d pulled something by raising his arm.  “Ah.  No conducting for me anytime soon,” he said, as his vision slowly faded back in.  “Nor any sort of exercise until I build up some muscle!” What WAS that? he said to AIVAS.

                Eventually, you’ll need to do some work to separate your intent from the movement.  In short: the neural implant tried to prepare itself to navigate a wormhole. Except we have neither a wormhole, nor a ship.

                I’ll work on that, Robinton promised.

                AIVAS chuckled over the unlikelihood of Robinton conjuring a wormhole for them.  A ship, however, was more possible.  Or, rather, conjuring up the resources to get to the ship AIVAS already had waiting for them.

                Lytol said, “Do you need numbweed? Fellis?”

                “No, no,” Robinton reassured him.  “It’s not so bad, it just startled me.  A man should be able to raise his arms without that.  And I certainly don’t want fellis, I’ve already been sleep for far too long.  Let whatever Healers are around have their rest.  The only activity I wish to do today is eat.”

                “Hmm.” Lytol picked at his plate, and fell into silence, studying him.

                Since you don’t intend to be frank with Lytol just yet, AIVAS said. Whom?

                Some primitive emotions, based in yet-unexamined fears, urged Robinton to contact F’lar and Lessa, his two most stalwart allies during many, many previous crises of drastic, world-altering proportions.  He could rest, if the Benden Weyrleaders were in charge. But Lessa in particular would likely have a…profound disgust…when she learned about how he and AIVAS inhabited the same body now, and spoke to him like a dragon, in his head.  Nor did her negative experiences with surgery predispose her to viewing his new state kindly. Especially when he’d leapt into the decision so suddenly, without warning, frightening everyone around him.

                His other primitive emotions longed for the company of Sebell and Menolly.  Even Piemur.  Someone he could depend upon to back him unquestioningly. But he was loathe to put something this weighty on their shoulders.  Sebell especially was already shouldering a considerable responsibility, as the new Masterharper.

                And yet—he would need support, given what he had to do.  Someone, or several someones, to come along for the ride.  The only logical route would be to draw upon his Harper resources.  Everyone else—the Weyrleaders, Lytol, D’ram, shards, even the Conclave—could wait until he knew…something.  By going Out There, Journeying, and returning with knowledge.

                Act now, beg forgiveness later.

                Yes, we’re very sorry for examining ALL our options for defeating threadfall, AIVAS said drily.

                Shoving a slice of cheese into his maw, Robinton snorted amusement.

                “Are you talking to Zair?” Lytol asked.

                “Hmm?” Robinton said.

                “You look as if you’re talking to someone,” Lytol, the ex-dragonrider, observed.

                “I’m talking to myself,” Robinton said.  “A character flaw I usually channel into music.  I’ll try to be more circumspect, if it bothers you,” Robinton said with a smile he hoped looked charming and roguish.  Instead of ghastly.

                Are you sure you look ghastly?

                I’m not getting close enough to a mirror to find out, Robinton vowed.  I can do that tomorrow.  Or the day after.  He paused, to reflect (or…not) on his blatant avoidance of a topic he feared an honest answer to.  I hope you did not expect me to be perfect.  He meant in action, or even in honor, not looks.

                I find you fascinating, the AI said.  Perfect is never fascinating.

                Bemused, Robinton found himself agreeing with the sentiment, for he’d always found the same to be true in, say, a song.  Small imperfections—quirks, eccentricities—were what made one composer unique from another.

                People are songs, yes, AIVAS said.  Infinite in their variety.

                That’s quite poetic of you.

                I’m learning from the best.

                Robinton mused briefly on all the things a disembodied AI might learn once embodied.  It must be as strange from his perspective as it was from Robinton’s.

                AIVAS didn’t answer.

                His stomach was getting uncomfortably full, so Robinton decided he would probably have to wait and let that go away before he finished his wheel of cheese.  He did poke the last of the sausage into his mouth, and washed it down with klah.  Then he said to Lytol, who was sitting there staring at him with large brown eyes, “I could use a bath.”  His throat was gummy again, so he made a harsh sound to clear it.  It wasn’t as effective as he liked.

                “Not in the sea.  Something will consider you fish-food.  And it’s still dark out.”

                Robinton sighed.  “I know.  I’ll use the indoor pool.”

                Lytol followed him as he rose, and moved towards his destination.  Robinton disliked all the hovering at his elbow—it was more servile than he was used to getting from Lytol, of all people—but felt weak enough, even after the invigorating effects of food slowly started to kick in, that he tolerated it, his ill will only apparent to himself, and AIVAS.  And perhaps Zair, for the little bronze returned and landed on his shoulder.  Robinton caressed his head, and neck.

                At the bathing pool, Lytol began to strip himself, making it apparent he was going to get his own bathing out of the way at the same time.  And, probably, stop Robinton from potentially drowning while he was at it.  Again, Robinton was not usually body-shy…except currently he was, and found himself hesitating before disrobing.

                With his scarring, he can hardly say anything, AIVAS pointed out.

                That tore it, of course.  Robinton refused to do anything that might make Lytol, the man who had given so much up for Pern, with the scars of it written all over his body, self-conscious. He shook himself out of the thin sleeping-tunic, and lowered himself towards the pool.

                Lytol slipped in, and reached up to give him a hand.  It turned out he needed it; Robinton’s long body currently did not like the terrible exertion of crouching one bit.  Lytol thinned his mouth and glanced at Robinton’s stick-like legs in dismay, but his hands were gentle, and soon the warm waters were both buoying Robinton up, and concealing everything.

                Scooping a hand of sweet-sand up, he raised it, and—

                Too much, the AIVAS said gently.

                Robinton found himself touching his shorn head again.

                “It’ll grow,” Lytol gruffly advised him.  “It’s already started.”

                He said nothing, merely dunked himself under, and then used a much smaller pinch of sweet-sand to massage a foam through whatever was there.

                They splashed, and washed, and Robinton was feeling decidedly better after it was done, a layer of sticky grime that sponge baths hadn’t been able to remove washed away.  He relaxed against the side of the bath, warm water lapping at his chin, and then he said to Zair, who was paddling around, “Come here, you.  Lytol, do we have any oils?  He’s getting patchy.”

                Lytol obligingly rose to gather a container of firelizard cream for him, before slipping back into the water.

                “Thank you, old friend.”

                Robinton expected Lytol to leave—sometimes even firelizards made old ghosts of memories past rattle their chains—but Lytol stayed and soaked as Robinton tended to Zair.

                Zair adored the attention.  He actually wasn’t patchy—someone had been tending to him—but just as clearly, he’d missed Robinton, and was glad he was awake and attentive.  Pleasure from the caresses reverberated through Robinton’s mind.  “You poor thing,” Robinton murmured.  Poor, touch-starved thing.  He was generous with his attention, and kissed Zair on his little head, and on his wings, and tail.  Zair didn’t seem to notice at all that he was emaciated and frail; to the little bronze, Robinton was as strong and hale as ever, and Robinton loved him for it.

                Eventually, even Zair and his delighted humming couldn’t soak up another drop of oil, and Robinton leveraged himself out and applied the salve to his face, and elbows and knees, and hands.

                The back of your neck, too, AIVAS advised.  Once you’re completely caring for yourself on your own, in privacy, I will finish the last of my changes.  You will probably want to cultivate a fashion trend of high-necked tunics.

                Without comment, Robinton applied it to the back of his neck, where the sun would undoubtedly burn him without a shield of hair.

                “Will you be staying up?” Lytol asked, rousting himself out of the pool when it looked like Robinton was considering getting out.

                The question seemed to provoke a wave of exhaustion.  “I think,” Robinton said, “That I may nap.  To let the sunlight catch up to me, at least.  Then I’ll be up for the day.”

                Lytol accompanied him back to his room, helped him strip the bed of the current set of sheets—Robinton had no idea when last they’d been changed, and fastidiously didn’t want to rub his freshly-washed body all over them—and then moved to take the chair by his bedside.  It looked frighteningly uncomfortable.

                Patting the bed next to him, Robinton said, “If you’re going to lurk here, you might as well nap, too.  There’s enough room.”

                Lytol seemed uninclined to move.

                “Suit yourself,” Robinton sighed, and burrowed under the light covers.

                As sleep was just about to suck him under, the bed dipped, and then there was a warm presence at his back.

                It was unexpectedly comforting, and he vanished into sleep content that he wasn’t alone.

 

#

 

 

                “Yes, yes, Menolly,” a voice said.  “He was awake, just before dawn.  We ate, and bathed, and then he said he wanted to nap.  That was seven or eight hours ago.” A hesitation.  “I’m sure he’ll be up again.  He was entirely conversant, if a tad distracted.  You could see every thought across his face which—is a bit unusual, with the Harper.  Unguarded.  He seemed exhausted, and with him being as emaciated as he is—I can fully understand why.”

                We’ll have to work on that, AIVAS suggested.  I apologize for distracting you.

                Robinton opened his eyes, and found, a few feet away, Menolly standing in the doorway, conversing with Lytol.

                Heavens, she was beautiful.  He lay there for a moment, with half-slitted eyes, and watched her vibrant personality and emotions dance across her face.

                She’s a song, AIVAS suggested.

                Don’t encourage me, Robinton retorted waspishly, and opened his eyes fully.

                Beauty turned her head towards him, and made a sound, and then her mistress was turned his way, too.  “Master?” she said, with a complex play of emotions, the most dominant being hope, crossing her face.

                He tried to speak, found his vocal chords thick with mucus again, and turned his head away to clear his throat.  Voice clear, he said, “Good morning, Menolly.  Or is it past noon?” he glanced at the open windows where sunlight was now streaming through.

                “Oh.  Oh, oh, oh!” she said inarticulately, and rushed to his bedside, and took his closest hand in hers.  “You are awake!”

                “So I am,” he said fondly, and covered her hand with his other one.  “But you didn’t answer my question.”

                She looked into his face, and laughed, delightedly, and rose up to kiss him on the forehead, and then tried to smooth back his hair with her free hand, but found only bristles.  She caressed his head anyway.  “It’s perhaps an hour past noon.”

                “Ah, half the day wasted,” Robinton said.  “Such hedonism, such debauchery, wallowing around in bed so late. You must think poorly of me.”

                She laughed again, that laugh that communicated, with its overflowing delight, just how afraid she’d been for him.  She kissed him on the forehead again, and then kissed his hand.  “You’re retired, you’re allowed the debauchery of sleeping in until noon!” she assured him.

                “Retired?” he said.

                AIVAS chuckled in his head.

                “Retired? Me?  According to Lytol over there, I had about six months of retirement. I’m sure I quite have all that out of my system, now.”

                Menolly kissed their clasped hands again, and this time he saw the tears in her eyes.

                “Now, now, don’t cry over me.  I’m all right.”  With a gesture, he shooed Lytol off.

                Lytol went.

                Menolly…wept.  And Robinton pulled her as close as he could, tucked her head under his chin.  “I’m all right, all right.  Everything’s fine.  I’m fine.”

                She wept as if he’d broken her heart, and his own heart—his “artificial”  heart, he supposed—ached in sympathy for the pain he’d caused her.

                “I’m so sorry I left you alone,” he murmured into her hair.  “It took time for me to get better.”

                Clinging to him—gently, for he saw her notice his now-delicate frame—she cried more, big, heaving, messy sobs.

                He stroked her hair, and kissed the top of her head.

                Eventually she said into his sleeping-tunic, “I don’t know why I’m crying.  I should be happy!”

                “Oh, did me being up and about foul your nefarious plans?” he teased.

                “No, I am happy!  Very!  But I suppose I needed to cry, too.”  She pulled away from him and wiped her eyes, and nose, and her eyes were more blue-green than usual.  She looked at him and pressed her lips together, against some continuing tide of emotion, and it crooked into a misshapen smile.  “I need to tell Sebell,” she said.  But didn’t move to send a firelizard anywhere, as if he might vanish between if she turned her back.

                “Yes,” he said. “I need to talk to Sebell too.  I have some plans I need to share with him.  And you.”

                Especially her, AIVAS said.

                Robinton ignored him.  “However—do you think it’s possible to keep things contained?  I really would like a day with you, and Sebell, before anyone else comes a-winging in.”

                She frowned at him.  Then she said, “We can try.  Sebell will need to take a dragon here.”

                “Someone discreet, then,” Robinton advised her.  “How did you arrive here?  Were you here last night?”

                “No,” she said. “Lytol had D’ram’s Tiroth bespeak Beauty, and then showed up for me himself.  I was at Landing.”

                “Yes, D’ram,” Robinton said.  “He’ll do. Perhaps he will be willing to quietly go get Sebell for us.”  He paused, and asked AIVAS,  Piemur?  Jancis?

                Do you wish them to come with us?

                Robinton wished to speak to Menolly and Sebell, first.  Piemur—and his Mastersmith wife—would be brought up if…if…

                Menolly and Sebell did not reject his partnership with AIVAS out of hand.

                Taking a deep breath, Robinton said, “Go ask D’ram if he’d be willing to get Sebell for me.”

                “Immediately?”

                Robinton was reminded that perhaps it was no longer right of him to demand Sebell show up wherever, whenever he needed him.  Retirement was starting to feel appalling.

                Especially with a new heart in your chest, AIVAS said, smugly.

                “Hmm, I suppose I have some time as I get back up to a proper weight,” Robinton temporized. “But I’d rather talk to him sooner than later.”

                “Are you planning something?  Already?”

                “My dear,” Robinton said, throwing off the covers and sitting upright.  She helped him.  “I’ve been planning something for six months.  And if it takes another three to get it going, I expect I’ll be positively gravid.”  He paused.  “Right, you said planning, not pregnancy.”

                Menolly laughed. “Fine.  Let me go find D’ram.”

                Robinton touched his inadequate sleeping-tunic.  “Give me enough time to get changed,” he said, with a wink.  “I’d rather not flounce about in my underwear, no matter how handsome D’ram is.”

                “Oh, I love you,” Menolly said.

                His artificial heart did an inartificial flip.

                “I’m so glad you’re back.  I’ll get him—slowly.”

                “Thank you,” Robinton said, and made his way to his wardrobe.

 

#

 

                An hour later, Robinton was dressed—with his collar flipped up, even though there was nothing obvious to hide yet—and he had reassured D’ram he was quite all right, and he had re-reassured Lytol of the same, and now he sat in his study, fingering an empty wineglass he didn’t dare fill.  At this weight, he’d be trashed after the second sip.  But that didn’t mean he didn’t want to.        

                Menolly was off running about putting a meal together, and D’ram was fetching Sebell discreetly.

                Things were moving.

                I hope you don’t think my hesitance reflects my opinion of you, Robinton said to AIVAS.

                Not at all. I expected considerable trouble. You’re keen enough to foresee it as well. I will defer to your diplomatic assessment of the situation.

                Robinton’s diplomatic assessment of the situation was that this plot was still a hatchling in the egg, and just about anything could be the booted foot that crushed it into the sands, smearing yellow yolk and green ichor everywhere.

                Finding himself parched, he raised his wineglass to his lips, only to find it empty.  He chuckled a little wildly to himself, and put it back down.

                Menolly reappeared before Sebell and D’ram did, with a hot pot of klah, and fresh bread and redfruit jam, and meatrolls, and the wheel of cheese that Robinton hadn’t quite demolished earlier.

                Rudely, Robinton claimed the cheese and cut a thick slice, and sandwiched it between slices of bread, and began to eat even before his guests arrived.  Menolly filled his cup of klah, and generously stirred a good bit of sweetening  in, more than he liked, as well as a spoonful of butter, which seemed odd.

                She caught his frown.  “We need to fatten you up.  This is better than begging you to eat chunks of raw butter.”

                “Hmm,” he said, and sipped at the sweetened and buttered klah suspiciously, until he deemed it actually was palatable, if a bit oily.  He shrugged, took a bigger gulp, and returned to his meal.

                He’d successfully demolished the remainder of the cheese wheel when Sebell and D’ram arrived in a jangle of buckles, stomping of boots, and squeaking of wherhide.  Menolly pulled both of them into Robinton’s office, and Lytol invited himself behind, and then Robinton was on his feet, being embraced by Sebell, who unashamedly kissed both his cheeks, stared deeply into his face as if seeking reassurance, and then repeated the gesture, as if in lieu of embracing him so tightly his bones snapped.  Robinton noticed that, for once, Sebell was not hunching down to pretend he was shorter than his mentor.

                “I hope I didn’t pull you away from anything important,” Robinton said into Sebell’s ear.

                “There’s very little that’s more important than seeing you ali—awake and well.”

                So, they’d thought he’d been dying.  Well, it wasn’t as if there wasn’t good evidence for that conjecture. And as if Menolly’s reaction hadn’t already informed him of the same thing.

                Eventually, Sebell reluctantly let him go, and moved aside so Robinton could round his desk and clasp D’ram’s hand in his own.  “I appreciate you, and Tiroth, bringing my two Harpers to me.”

                D’ram pursed his lips, seemed about to say something.  Eventually he settled on, “Tiroth said to be patient, so I was. I hope, eventually, you’ll let me know what caused all of this.”

                Robinton squeezed his hand.  “Do you expect—others, to arrive?  I would like a day or two to settle, to become accustomed to this new wide world of being awake and mobile.”

                “Menolly mentioned—well, if they arrive, it won’t be through us.  We’ll warn you if we catch someone incoming in time.”

                Robinton bowed his head.  “That’s all I can ask. Thank you.  Thank you, D’ram.”

                Lytol and D’ram were astute enough to understand Robinton wanted to be alone with his two former students, and Lytol closed the door with a final look behind him as they left.

                Returning to his chair, Robinton waved at the meal Menolly had provided.  “Eat, both of you.  I have…a lot to discuss.  Plus,” and he sat back in his chair with a tired sigh—he tired so easily—“I’ll feel less self-conscious stuffing my face if you two are doing the same.”

                They complied.

                “Tell me about the past six months,” Robinton said. “I was only semi-conscious from time to time, and the things I remember are…erratic.”

                First Menolly—who had spent more time here—and then Sebell, whose duties had drawn him away, filled him in.

                He’d been found unconscious at Landing, the AIVAS also unresponsive, although all the databases still remained accessible.  They’d cared for him there, but he’d been minimally responsive, although he would swallow food and water if it was placed in his mouth. Eventually he was transported back to Cove, to keep him out of the public eye and to provide him with some semblance of privacy, or as much privacy as a man who could no longer wash, clothe, or feed himself was allowed.

                AIVAS said, Many of the changes I made effected your neurology. I wouldn’t have been able to keep you aware and mobile without the side-effects of my in-process changes appearing to be much more frightening, and much worse. It would have been less pleasant for you, as well.

                One thing Robinton noticed neither mentioned were his hand-movements during that time he’d been unconscious. Sitting back in his chair, he pulled on his lip and wondered whether he should bring it up to discuss, or let it slide away, unspoken.  Eventually he took a gulp of his enhanced klah, and said, “I apologize if my hand-gestures during that time frightened you.  The orchestra I was conducing was…internal.”

                They stared at him.

                Robinton put his cup of klah down, and steepled his fingers in thought.  “What I’m about to say…must not go beyond this room.  Or at least not immediately.”

                Menolly narrowed her eyes, Sebell looked thoughtful.

                “Oh the day I…collapsed, the AIVAS mentioned something extremely important.”  He paused, waited for AIVAS to interject, but true to his word, the diplomacy was left to Robinton without comment.  “He told me that there was a new reading, in local Rukbat space, one he’d never expected to detect at all, precisely because Pern was selected as a colonial destination that did not have such readings.  He told me that there was a wormhole forming.”

                They glanced at each other.  Then Sebell said, “I feel like we should have Piemur and Jancis here.”

                “Possibly later,” Robinton said.

                Menolly asked, “What’s a wormhole?”

                For a second, Robinton’s vision whited out in an explosion of calculations, and he felt his hand spasm once, twice, before it came back under control.

                My apologies, AIVAS said. There is still configuration and calibration to do. Once it’s complete, external stimuli won’t jog you into that memory-space.

                Clasping his errant hand to make sure it stayed still, Robinton said, his mind’s eye still wheeling with calculations, “I won’t go into the explicit details, even Master Wansor might not understand them offhand.  But it was explained to me as a sort of shortcut through space, a shortcut that connects stars to one another in a much faster route that a direct journey would normally take. A journey that might take thirty turns at sublight speeds turns into a journey of a few sevendays.  Somewhat like jumping between, without any between involved at all.”

                We’ll see, AIVAS said ambiguously.

                “The AIVAS told me that he was originally an Eridani navigation computer—although very few of our esteemed ancestors knew about the Eridani part. He was originally brought along as an extra option, should any new wormholes that might shorten the journey were chanced upon by the colony ships on their long voyage out.  Just because our ancestors were prepared for a very long voyage didn’t mean they wanted it.  But, that did not happen, so upon his arrival, his stellar calculation abilities were put to the task of solving thread, among other things.  Waste not, want not.”

                Sebell looked fascinated.  Menolly, suspicious, as she sometimes looked when he was cooking up a scheme.

                Clearing his throat, Robinton took another sip of klah.  His vocal chords seemed as atrophied as the rest of him; he should not be this tired of speaking after so short a time.  “The appearance of the wormhole changes the AIVAS’s goals, somewhat. Our options of what to do about thread potentially expand, there’s now a slim possibility we might be able to eradicate it within a generation, instead of waiting for the Pass to end.  Also,” and Robinton hesitated.  “The danger.  Anyone, just anyone, could come out of that wormhole, and there’s no guarantee at all they will have our best interests at heart.  Admirals Benden, Boll—they served in ancient wars a hundred times worse than Fax.  We really have no idea what’s gone on out there in the millennia since.”

                “What does all this have to do with your illness?” Menolly asked, with the tone of someone asking a small child what have they done.  What have you gotten yourself into? her stare seemed to accuse.

                Robinton ducked his head.  “Wormholes are navigated—amongst the Eridani at least—via a human-computer partnership.  A neural interface to the ship’s computers is implanted, creating a jumpship pilot.”

                Silence.  Not even a firelizard fluttered a wing.

                “The Eridani are cautious with their technology. They only sent one implant with the AIVAS. And he chose not to use it before now, because there were no wormholes in Pernese space, and none found along the way.  Now one is forming, and will likely open within the next turn or so.”

                Less, probably. If it hasn’t opened already. We should get to Landing so I can check my instruments and recalculate.

                “He chose me to be his human partner.  And I agreed.  Sebell, you’ve done admirably with the Hall. I am not needed for that, not anymore.”

                Sebell did not look enthused by this praise.

                “The day it happened,” Robinton added. “I also had a new series of chest pains.  Our Healers wouldn’t have found me in time, and even if they did, we don’t yet have the abilities or facilities to utilize all the ancient techniques to Heal such a thing.  I know both Masters Oldive and Fanderal are trying very hard to get us there—but it will take time.  The neural implant, however, was able to…ah, salvage my heart—“

                Not exactly. I was able to keep it limping along until a full replacement was grown. Your current heart is completely artificial.

                Robinton ignored that as part of a later discussion. “—although as you saw, the full adoption of the fix took a considerable amount of personal resources, my pounds of flesh, and half a turn of his hard work.”

                “So where is AIVAS?” Menolly asked. “He’s not at Landing, he’s gone silent. How can you have a partnership if the other partner is missing?”

                Robinton tapped his temple.  “We’re co-inhabiting this body.”

                Stares.

                He grimaced suddenly. “I will say this next thing only because it provides an understandable example, not because it’s what’s actually going on.  Understand?” he said sternly.

                They glanced at each other, and nodded.

                “It’s rather like having a dragon in your head.  AIVAS claims he’d been rather, er, Impressed with me. I am not saying he is a dragon…just that the mental interplay reminds me of when I’m chatting with Zair, or when a dragon speaks to me.”

                Understanding dawned. Not without a horrified twinge, although Robinton could see them both struggle to understand this strange partnership between man and computer, but they tried for his sake, and their love of him.

                “I beg of you—please, please do not reveal to anyone else that I have AIVAS riding around in my head with me.  If Abominators moved to kidnap me because of their views on AIVAS, I can’t imagine what they’d desire now. Just that it won’t be good for me, or the AIVAS. Or for our chances of getting through that wormhole to see what’s on the other side.”

                Menolly turned white.  Sebell looked like he was chewing on a trundlebug, swallowing down something intensely unpleasant.

                Robinton waited a bit, and ate some more bread, and washed it down with klah.

                Then Menolly said, “So…can we talk to AIVAS?”

                There’s a speaker planted in your throat, AIVAS suggested diffidently.

                Touching his throat, Robinton eventually found a small, hidden lump, slightly to the right of his Adam’s apple.

                However, they are certain to find me using that speaker frightening. It’s intended as a failsafe so I can communicate to Healers or other aid if you fall unconscious and can’t be roused enough to use your own vocal cords.  I cannot speak into minds, like a dragon or firelizard can.

                Still fingering that small lump, Robinton said, “I’m not sure you would be able to ascertain the difference between him or me speaking through my throat. Even if he affected an accent…well, I’m a Harper.” He smiled wryly.  Then he paused.  “Tiroth seems to be aware of some of my changes, although to what extent, or whether D’ram is open to asking him, I don’t know. Obviously, I have not explicitly told any of this to anyone but you two. I am not decided yet, if I explicitly want to tell D’ram, or let him get by on vague assurances from his bronze.”

                At Landing, I could speak from my former location, if we are near enough for my short-range radio to work.

                “He says if I go to Landing, his short-range radio will allow him to utilize the speakers there. AIVAS, that is.  I need to go to Landing, anyway.  AIVAS wants to check his sensors to see if the wormhole has changed or opened.”

                Sebell tapped his fingers on his leg, an aimless tattoo without any encoded drumbeats or meanings.  “If this wormhole exists, and may be a danger to us, would it not make sense to tell the Conclave, at some point?”

                “I was operating on the principle of ‘act now, then beg forgiveness’,” Robinton said with a whimsical smile. Then he became serious. “AIVAS claims he had one neural implant available, and it’s been activated in me. Therefore, we have a single chance to go through the wormhole, and see what’s on the other side.  Being bogged down by a committee…” Robinton shook his head. “It would be better to gather evidence and information first, and then report back.  Once my experiment has, er, proven its utility.”

                “Or not,” Sebell pointed out. “What if you never return?”

                “That can happen as easily here on Pern, as elsewhere,” Robinton said gently.

                Menolly cut in, clearly desiring to get beyond the grief she’d vented a few hours ago on Robinton’s shoulder without revisiting it. “All this presupposes a ship.”

                “Yes.  We, ah, did use the engines of the ones we had for scrap, didn’t we?” Robinton said, somewhat flippantly referring to how the anti-matter engines had been detonated on the Red Star on AIVAS’s direction to shift its orbit.  “AIVAS says there’s a small fast-courier ship on the Yokohama, stowed away, with wormhole-capable necklin rods. It can only be piloted by someone with the wormhole-tuned implants, which is why it was never brought to the surface by our ancestors, as none of the regular pilots had such modifications. It also lacks weapons, and thus was never converted into something capable of thread-fighting duties.”

                Its addition to the shuttle fleet fighting the first Falls would have been negligible in immediate impact, and would have entirely prevented a scenario such as today’s, AIVAS said.  I chose not to release it.

                “So what you need,” Sebell said eventually. “Is to discreetly board the Yokohama so you can…vanish down a wormhole.  To Journey among the stars.”

                “Er.  In essence.  Yes,” Robinton said, slightly apologetically.  “Not today, however. Not until I’ve recovered my stamina.”

                Sebell abruptly sighed, and covered his face with his hands, before looking up again, peering at Robinton from above his fingertips.

                “Now you know how I felt, sometimes, eh?” Robinton softly teased him.

                “I never did this to you!” Sebell insisted.  “This is…is a Piemur level scheming.”

                “I think I’ve rather outdone him,” Robinton said smugly.

                “Are you going alone?” Menolly asked.

                “Zair will be with me,” Robinton temporized. “There would be room for more, as I understand it. I would need to be incredibly selective in who I bring.”

                Bodyguards who can shoot, AIVAS suggested.

                Shoot what? Robinton asked, curiously.  Those new crossbows Southern hunters have been sporting?  To down felines?

                No. Something I’ve never released the blueprints for, AIVAS said.

                Robinton said, rubbing his chin, “AIVAS suggests I should bring someone similar to Tuck, to watch my back.  Two someones.”

                “Tuck and Swift?” Menolly asked Sebell.

                He nodded absently, but didn’t comment or commit those Harper resources explicitly.  Robinton suspected Sebell was fighting a difficult internal battle, where loyalty to his former Master clashed with Masterharper desires to keep his people safe, which clashed with Masterharper desires to learn, grow, and teach—which were the intended consequences of Robinton’s proposed jaunt through a wormhole.  What would they learn?

                Sebell said suddenly, rising to his feet, “Do you mind if I step out?  I—there a lot to think about here.  I won’t, can’t, give an—“

                “Go on,” Robinton cut him off.  “Menolly looks like she wants to give me a piece of her mind, anyhow.  In private.”

                One of Menolly’s eyebrows flexed, but she didn’t deny it.

                Sebell touched Menolly’s shoulder, and left, shutting the door almost excessively quietly behind him.

                Sebell was always quiet when he was in a temper.

                Menolly leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms across her chest.  Beauty’s eyes were an odd shade of yellow-orange, suggesting a mix of fear and anger.  “Look at you—you’re a walking skeleton and how does a walking skeleton cause so much trouble?!”

                “I love you too,” he said gently to her.

                Something unreadable flickered across her face.  “You’re going alone.”

                “Possibly,” Robinton said.  “Possibly not.  Tuck and Swift weren’t bad suggestions. Although they might hate me just as much as you do when they learn where, exactly, their next assignment might be.” He chuckled.

                Waving a long, tapered hand at the door, Menolly said, “Sebell can’t go with you.  He’s running your Hall.”

                “His Hall, now,” Robinton said.

                “Piemur and Jancis are expecting a child.”

                That was new to him.  “Are they?  How far along is Jancis?”  It perhaps suggested something about Robinton’s relationships to his students that he thought sharing a grandchild—or great-grandchild—with Mastersmith Fanderal was a lovely development. Except for the part where he forgot he wasn’t actually Piemur’s biological sire. He decided he was still thrilled, after a moment of further thought.

                Menolly said, “She’s not very far. She’s still traveling between when she has to, and they’re not sure if it will stick this time.”

                Robinton nodded.  Between was not healthy for the early stages of pregnancy.  Which was conductive when one couldn’t afford to have a child at the present moment, but not so much if one was hoping for one.

                “So Piemur can’t go,” she concluded.

                Robinton didn’t point out that for something like this, Piemur and Jancis might decide to have him go, regardless. Any child born wouldn’t hurt for parental figures with Fandarel hovering around, being grandfatherly. Not to mention Sebell, and an entire Hall of Harpers.

                “So I’m going with you,” Menolly declared.

                Oh, I hope so.  But with his mouth, he said, “I thought you and Sebell were going to—“

                “Start a family?” She shrugged.  “We can wait a few more turns.”

                Selfishly, Robinton was a little glad of that. He’d known too many women who’d died in childbirth.  He wasn’t sure he could handle it happening to Menolly too, even if it meant he never got to see any tiny-Menollys running about, singing and banging on pots and pans like drums.

                Or real drums, of course.  He’d make as many as they wanted.

                But enough of daydreaming. He said, “You don’t have to decide n—“

                The look she shot him was decidedly unimpressed.  She had decided, clearly.

                He struggled with a mixture of abject delight that she would (come have adventures with him), and abject dismay that she would (drop everything to come have adventures with him), and schooled himself to a restrained smile.

                Your inner life is remarkably vibrant now that you’re awake, AIVAS commented.

                Irritation entered the mix.  Then he asked, Will we have trouble with that many firelizards aboard?

                I suspect not. A pause. However, the effect of wormhole travel on them is unknown. Humans become a bit disoriented and nauseated. Firelizards, with their unique psychic abilities, may also experience trouble. I’d recommend we go on a solo trip initially, and see how Zair does, then return to pick up passengers.

                Robinton took another piece of bread, spread jam on it, and then realized Menolly, not privy to his asides with AIVAS, was waiting for a reply.  “I’d be delighted to have you with me for the journey, Master Menolly.”

                Her glare softened.  “Poor Sebell might take a bit longer to come around.”

                “Ah? But he left before you announced your intentions.”

                Menolly looked amused.

                “He just knew, eh?”

                She shrugged.  “I’m the obvious choice, of the three of us. His rank is more constraining to him than he realized it would be before the Masters confirmed him.  The sweet spot, he says, is being the Masterharper’s right hand, not the Masterharper himself.”

                “Well, now you see why I’m off doing this,” Robinton said. “Now that I’m free.”

                She sighed.  Then she watched him stuffing his face again. “Do you want to go to Landing today?” She was questioning if she needed to arrange it.

                He did, but he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be up to it now.  For all his playacting at being his old self, sleep already dragged at him like a riptide.  “AIVAS?” he said.

                It would be nice, but you need your strength.

                “Hm.” He took another big bite, and chewed.  Around it, spraying a few unfortunate crumbs that he tried to discreetly brush away, he said, “We’d prefer it, but I’m too out of shape. Perhaps in a few days.”

                “What about the Weyrleaders?”

                His shook his head curtly. “Not a word. Although I’m sure they’ll be here soon enough.”  A plot began to form, a minor one.  If he—they—were to go to Landing, AIVAS could seem to present long enough to interact with witnesses who did not know the full details of what they’d done.

                You think this should be done?

                It would clear your name, Robinton said. Which may be useful in the future. Should I, say, ever be unconscious as you posited earlier, and you need to use the thing in my throat to speak.

                Fair enough.

                “Let us wait for Sebell to…settle his thoughts.  I would like to know if I will have Tuck and Swift, or not.  Then perhaps I will take a nap, and eat again, and then—er, will you be staying the afternoon?”

                She gave him a look that questioned his intelligence.

                “Perhaps…perhaps you can catch me up on all the music you’ve been making, these past few months.”

                A wide array of micro-expressions flowed over her face again.

                Also, AIVAS said. I would like to calibrate sub-processes of our interface again. Zair was very cooperative last time; I hope he will be again.

                “What does Zair have to do with that?” he wondered.

                “Pardon?” Menolly asked.

                He waved a vague hand.  “AIVAS wants in on my schedule, too. It’s fine,” he said to both of them.  Brushing crumbs off of his tunic, he rose.  “Let’s go see what Sebell is up to.”

 

#

 

                Sebell did release both Tuck and Swift to Robinton, although he asked for a few days to allow them to tie up loose ends, and so they could return to the Harper Hall where he could debrief them.

                Robinton remembered to eat whenever and wherever he could, something Menolly applauded, “Because it allows me to spend my time fretting about other things!”

                He spent a few pensive hours listening to Menolly play out on the porch, and when sleep overcame him, lured in by her sweet voice, he slept.

 

#

 

                Ten.

                Nine.

                This again? Robinton thought.

                The countdown paused.  This again.  I asked for time—remember?

                Oh, I don’t begrudge you time, AIVAS. I’m just wondering what we’re doing.

                I am…calibrating a profile for between-space.

                Between-space?

                I have a theory that we may be able to simulate between travel.  Technologically, or with the aid of a firelizard, instead of a dragon.  Or at least, gather data so we can get closer to understanding their method.  With my connection to you, and your connection to Zair, I’m able to record and store data I was unable to acquire previously.  It’s interesting.

                What do I need to do?

                Just have Zair jump between at my command, as he’s been doing previously.

                Oh.

                Eventually, I will ask you to visualize a destination for him…but not today. The last thing I want to do is accidentally harm your firelizard.

                Robinton was grateful for that.

                AIVAS restarted the countdown.

                Ten.

                Nine.

                Eight.

                Cold.  Black, blacker, blackest.  Somehow, Robinton could still feel his body, resting, but he also felt the bone-aching cold of between simultaneously.  He realized that he was not between…but his mind was keeping an open conduit with Zair, as Zair moved between.  Oddly, AIVAS’ countdown cut out during this time.

                Zero.  The bone-deep chill went away, and Zair landed on his chest, chittering.  Robinton opened his eyes, and smiled at his friend.

 

#

 

 

                Miraculously, they managed to keep Robinton’s changed status under wraps for ten whole days.  Robinton began to feel decidedly better after the fifth day, and he decided tentatively that he looked better in the mirror, too, although his hair was still both far too short and far too dark. And on the tenth day, D’ram readily agreed to take them all to Landing.

                “I don’t suppose,” Robinton said in D’ram’s ear as they mounted, “That Tiroth could inform Benden I’ll be at Landing today?”

                “You haven’t sent Zair to them yet?” he asked, startled.

                “I—wanted to gain a bit of weight before I saw anyone.  Vain of me, I know, but Lessa would have fretted just as badly as Menolly.”

                “I heard that,” Menolly said, mounting Tiroth directly behind him.

                He reached back and squeezed her leg briefly.

                “We’ll tell them,” D’ram said.

                Robinton clasped D’ram on the shoulder.  “My thanks.”

                Once Lytol mounted Tiroth behind Menolly, the great bronze dragon leapt upwards, his wide wings pumping to lift them  high above Cove.  Once again, Robinton was struck by how beautiful the little cove he and Menolly had found on that fateful trip was.  And he had a sudden burst of enthusiasm that, on this new trip, they might just find so much more.

                Then Tiroth took them between.

                Everything stopped.

                Robinton’s hands spasmed.  In the blackness of between, menus lit up his vision.  His knees jerked, and then something in his cerebellum suppressed physical movement, even as the sensation of his legs taking off running shivered through him.

                Necklin rods disengaged.

                Implant unsynched. Try again? Y/N

                NO!

                The message went away for an instant, then reappeared.

                Implant unsynched. Try again? Y/N

                Necklin rods disengaged.

                Engine off.

                Restart reactor? Y/N

                CAUTION. CAUTION. CAUTION. 

                EMERGENCY ABORT WORMHOLE Y/N?

                A distant, deep voice, slow, slow, slow said something, as ponderous as a mountain stirring in the depths of the earth.

                Barely, barely, barely he felt the faintest hint of cold on his cheeks, so much more slowly than the cold of between had ever hit him.

                He tried to whisper every between-soothing song he could remember to calm himself, but the words and notes escaped so quickly as a high-pitched whine that he ran through his entire repertoire before he even realized he started.  Then he tried the Ballad of Moreta, but ran through the entire score—trebles, sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones, AND bass, plus every single instrument in a full orchestra, and every alternate trimmed-down version for solo instruments—before a second passed.

                His mind had a hole in it, and everything, everything he knew drained down it faster than a blink.

                Robinton! AIVAS’s words were full of static, artifacts, and glitches, and were slow like tar.  Your wormhole time-sense has activated. I’m trying to deactivate it. Don’t worry; you’re not really stuck between for as long as it’ll feel like.

                Seconds passed.  Eight subjective seconds passed.

                He was still in between.

                He was going to die between!

                AIVAS said something he couldn’t make out.

                He wanted to pass out, lose consciousness, enter blessed sleep.

                But something in his brain wouldn’t let him.

                And it was cold.  So cold.  Deeper and harder than ever before, and the only vision he had were the indecipherable menus against black, flicking past, screaming cautions and warnings and asking him questions he didn’t know the answers for.

                He was dead.  He was sure of it.  This was death, falling endlessly between.

                This is what the dragonrider going between forever experienced.

                Then, suddenly, daylight.  Sensory experiences all around him—warmth, sight, hearing, scent.  His vision whited out again, as it had the first day when he’d raised his hands to mime conducting an orchestra, and then it cleared.

                Everything around him was faster—but, still delayed.  The cloth of his pants leg flapped, but in slow-motion.  They almost hovered in the air as if by magic, even though Tiroth pumped his wings.  They weren’t pumping fast enough, and yet they hovered, instead of plummeting.

                But at least they were no longer between.

                Even if he couldn’t move his hands or legs.

                When they landed, his chin rammed painfully—for both of them, probably—into D’ram’s shoulder.  Then, oddly slowly, he careened backwards, hoping against hope he wouldn’t break Menolly’s nose with his skull by accident.

                Somehow, that fate was averted, but Zair fluttering around their heads alerted them to something wrong, and in an somnolescent fashion, they turned to him, slowly unstrapped him, slowly lowered his unresponsive, frozen body to the ground.

                Something nattered at his throat.  He’s involuntarily paralyzed, between triggered it, lay him down and he’ll be fine in a moment.

                “Do-what-AIVAS-says—“ Menolly mouthed, and spoke, slowly.

                Then the neural implant shut off, and everyone was talking and moving normally.

                “—Healer,” D’ram was saying.

                “No Healer!” Menolly insisted.  “They can’t do anything about this.  Give AIVAS a moment to fix it, like he asked”

                “I don’t understand,” Lytol said.  “How is the AIVAS—“

                “No Healer,” Robinton burst out, supporting Menolly, and flailed his arms until he was sitting up with her help.  Thankfully, as he struggled into a sitting position, they quieted.

                "Of all the little Queen eggs that have ever been hatched," Robinton wheezed.  He felt sea-sick, and hadn’t even been on the sea.  “What happened?  AIVAS.  Report, please.”

                The speaker in his throat said, in a tinny but recognizable voice, “Going between tripped a sensor, and kicked off the paralysis subroutines and time-altered phase.  I am very, very sorry Master Robinton. Until just now, I hadn’t been able to get accurate sensor readings, so I was not aware I had to make adjustments. We will do so, going forward. Your trip home will be more as you expect it to be.”

                Robinton wondered about all the “calibrations” involving Zair had been for…and then just decided not to ask.

                D’ram and Lytol stared down at him.

                Lytol said, looking pained.  “You’ve kept us all in the dark about something important, haven’t you?”

                D’ram glanced at Menolly, correctly deducing that one of them had been aware. 

                Menolly ignored him.

                “Help me up,” Robinton said.  “And then we’ll go to the AIVAS room, and…I’ll explain.”

 

#

 

                A few students were using the terminals in the AIVAS room, but the combined Authoritative presence of Robinton, D’ram, and Lytol quickly chased them out, and they closed the door behind them for privacy.

                “How are you feeling, Master Robinton?” came AIVAS’s voice from the speaker in the wall.  It also echoed inside his head.

                “Shaken up, stirred, poured out of my body, and poured back in,” Robinton said, collapsing in his usual chair by sheer force of habit.  “But that’s neither here nor there.  Since we made it after all, why don’t you check your instruments?”

                The wormhole is open, AIVAS informed him silently.

                Robinton didn’t say what he thought of that, but undoubtedly AIVAS heard it anyway.  Did anything come through it yet?

                Not that we’ve recorded.

                How long has it been open?

                About two months, from the timestamps we have here.

                Robinton sighed.

                D’ram and Lytol pulled chairs up around him. 

                “We need an explanation,” D’ram said plainly, folding his arms across his chest.  “Tiroth thought you were dying.”

                “I thought I was dying,” Robinton said.  “Thankfully, we were both wrong.  But convey my deepest apologies to him; that must have been very alarming to have on his back all the way through between.”  Why don’t you tell them about the wormhole? he prompted AIVAS.

                “D’ram, Lytol. Per master Robinton’s suggestion, I have just checked the sensors on Yokohama, and something I predicted might happen six months ago has occurred, roughly as of two months ago.”

                As AIVAS explained what a wormhole was, Robinton studied D’ram’s and Lytol’s faces, finding the same deep concern tinged by hidden fear that he himself had felt when AIVAS had revealed it to him.  Then he noticed he was being watched, by Menolly.

                He braced an elbow on the armrest, and set his chin on his fist, and watched her back.

                Eventually her eyes lit with fond exasperation.

                He reached over and gave her knee a little pat, then returned his attention to the conversation at hand.

                AIVAS, at his silent okay, went on to explain what had happened with the implant, why Robinton had been ill for six months (although he tactfully neglected to say he was in Robinton’s head all the time, casting the neural linkage as a mere dumb tool, like a key to a door).  He mentioned the defect in Robinton’s heart that had been repaired—although AIVAS didn’t mention the artificial part—and what he theorized had happened on that jump between. He apologized again to D’ram and by extension to Tiroth.

                When AIVAS was done, Robinton moved, catching their attention, and said, “I hope I can count on your discretion, here.  If Abominators were after me before…well. Just as well nobody knows what a neural implant is, eh?” He sobered. “We will eventually have to address the wormhole issue. But, I hope to have been through—and back—with more information before that goes before the Conclave.”

                Lytol wiped his face with a hand, and said, “By Faranth’s tears, Robinton!”

                D’ram had less to say, but his eyes had plenty of unspoken thoughts behind them.

                Before Robinton could offer him half-marks for his thoughts, there was a sound beyond the door, and then it popped open, and the Benden Weyrleaders, bronzerider F’lar and Weyrwoman Lessa, entered.

                “D’ram,” Lessa said, spotting him first.  “Ramoth said—oh, Robinton!”

                “Is that a direct quote?” Robinton asked curiously.

                F’lar and Menolly laughed.  D’ram and Lytol didn’t, their minds still caught up by thoughts of the wormhole.

                Robinton scooted his chair around and let Lessa cross the room and enfold him in a hug.  They were nearly the same height, when he stayed sitting.

                “Oh, your poor hair,” Lessa said, after attempting to squeeze the air out of him.  She pushed him away to peer at what seemed to be a tight, spiky cropping.  It was indeed a meager offering compared to her thick, inky braid.

                “At my age, I am glad that I have hair at all,” Robinton said optimistically.

                “Hmm.  Perhaps we could get you a barber?” she asked, fluffing a tiny bit with her fingers doubtfully.

                F’lar came and rescued Robinton from his weyrmate’s beauty aspirations by putting his hands on her shoulders and pulling her backwards into him.  “Did you just wake up today?” F’lar asked, loosely crossing his wrists in front of Lessa’s collarbones.

                Robinton wiggled an ambiguous hand.  “Few days ago.  Today was the first day I felt prepared to return to Landing.  But I wanted to check up on AIVAS, and take a look around.”

                “Are you back too, AIVAS?” F’lar asked the screen.

                Replying through the wall speaker, AIVAS said, “I’ve always been around. However, I had some heavy calculations to do that have taken my immediate attention away. But I see students have been making good use of my databases when my attention has been elsewhere. I daresay you don’t need me at all, at this point. Just the information to learn from.”

                F’lar frowned.  “I suppose not, but your disappearance in conjunction with Robinton’s…collapse…was concerning.”

                “I understand, and am sorry for the fright. I will give more notice in the future,” AIVAS said. “For example, while you have my attention currently, today, it’s likely I’ll become unavailable again in the near future.”

                F’lar frowned.  “Why?”

                “Heavy calculations. I shut my interface here down to save resources.  As you know yourselves, interacting one-on-one takes a large chunk of an individual’s attention.”

                Robinton fiddled with the armrest of his chair, and wondered if AIVAS has always been this disingenuous, or if it was something he’d learned from being in his head.

                Unless you want me to tell them? AIVAS asked.

                Robinton eyed D’ram and Lytol, who still seemed unsettled.  I have enough on my plate as it is.

                Lessa glanced at Robinton, frowning.

                He stared back, and ran his hand over his shorn head.  Perhaps he should get a hat, he mused.

                She freed herself from F’lar’s loose embrace, and said, “Well, Master Robinton, it’s excellent news to see you up and about.  In fact, I’m sure everyone will want to know, and see you. Perhaps you’ll come to our next Hatching?  It’s one of Ramoth’s clutches,” and her face softened into a smile.

                “I am still recovering, I have good days and bad ones,” Robinton said.  “But if I can, I’ll be sure to come.  Menolly has indicated,” and he gave her a smile, “That I was quite missed.”

                “That’s a bit of an understatement,” F’lar murmured.  “What happened to Harpers and hyperbole?”

                “I could fling myself over his body and scream, ‘No! Don’t leave me!’?” Menolly suggested.

                There was a laugh.

                Robinton says, “Are you sure you didn’t do that?”

                Menolly normally had much better control over her flustered reactions these days, but now she turned red.

                He chortled.  She was going to go through a wormhole with him, simply so he wouldn’t be alone.  In comparison, everything else was dull and moderate.

                Somehow, someway, nobody raised the topic of wormholes, neural implants, AI Impressions, or anything else in front of the Benden Weyrleaders.  But Robinton did find himself taken firmly by the elbow by Lessa, and led on a short tour of Landing, so people could see he was alive, well, and still sensible and sane when he spoke.

                And he and AIVAS learned the short-range radio that allowed AIVAS to speak out the wall speaker cut out at about ten dragonlengths.