One of the space-adapted Ousters, Palou Koror, handed us the skinsuits. I had used skinsuits before, of course -- the last time being just a few weeks earlier when Aenea and I had climbed T'ai Shan, the Great Peak of the Middle Kingdom -- although it seemed like months or years ago -- but I had never seen or felt a skinsuit like these.
Skinsuits go back many centuries, the working concept being that the best way to keep from exploding in vacuum is not a bulky pressure suit as in the earliest days of spaceflight, but a covering so thin that it allows perspiration to pass even while it protects the skin from the terrible heat, cold, and vacuum of space. Skinsuits had not changed much in all those centuries, except to incorporate rebreathing filaments and osmosis panels. Of course, my last skinsuit had been a Hegemony artifact, workable enough until Rhadamanth Nemes had clawed it to shreds.
But this was no ordinary skinsuit. Silver, malleable as mercury, the thing felt like a warm but weightless blob of protoplasm when Palou Koror dropped it in my hand. It shifted like mercury. No, it shifted and flowed like a living, fluid thing. I almost dropped it in my shock, catching it with my other hand only to watch it flow several centimeters up my wrist and arm like some flesh-eating alien.
I must have said something out loud, because Aenea said, ``It is alive, Raul. The skinsuit's an organism . . . gene-tailored and nanoteched . . . but only three molecules thick.''
``How do I put it on?' I said, watching it flow up my arm to the sleeve of my tunic, then retreat. I had the impression that the thing was more carnivore than garment. And the problem with any skinsuit was that they had to be worn next to the skin: one did not wear layers under a skinsuit. Anywhere.
``Uh-huh'', said Aenea. ``It's easy . . . none of the pulling and tugging we had to do with the old skinsuits. Just strip naked, stand very still, and drop the thing on your head. It'll flow down over you. And we have to hurry.''
This inspired something less than great enthusiasm in me.
Aenea and I excused ourselves and jogged up the spiral stairs to the bedroom level at the apex of the ship. Once there we hurried out of our clothes. I looked at my beloved -- standing naked next to the Consul's ancient (and quite comfortable, as I remembered) bed -- and was about to suggest a better use of our time before the treeship docked. But Aenea just waggled a finger at me, held the blob of silver protoplasm above her, and dropped it in her hair.
It was alarming watching the slver organism engulf her -- flowing down over her brown-blond hair like liquid metal, covering her eyes and mouth and chin, flowing down her neck like reflective lava, then covering her shoulders, breasts, belly, hip-bones, pubis, thighs, knees . . . finally she lifted first one foot and then the other and the engulfment was complete.
``Are you all right?'' I said, my voice small, my own blob of silver still pulsing in my hand, eager to get at me.
Aenea -- or the chrome statue that had been Aenea -- gave me a thumbs-up and gestured to her throat. I understood: as with the Hegemony skinsuits, communication from now on would be via subvocalization pickups.
I lifted the pulsing mass in both hands, held my breath, closed my eyes, and dropped it on my head.
It took less than five seconds. For a terrible instant I was sure that I could not breathe, feeling the slick mass over my nose and mouth, but then I remembered to inhale and the oxygen came cool and fresh.
Can you hear me, Raul? Her voice was much more distinct than the hearpatch pickups on the old suit.
I nodded, then subvocalized, Yeah. Weird feeling.
Are you ready, M. Aenea, M. Endymion? It took me a second to realize that it ws the other adapted Ouster, Drivenj Nicaagat on the suitline. I had heard his voice before, but translated via speech synthesizer. On the direct ine, his voice was even more clear and melodious than the birdsong of Sian Quintana Ka'an.
Ready, responded Aenea, and we went down the siral stairs, through the throng, and out onto the balcony.
Good luck, M. Aenea, M. Endymion. It was A. Bettik speaking to us through one of the ship's comlinks. The android touched each of us on our respective silver shoulders as we stepped next to Koror and Nicaagat at the balcony railing.
Lhomo was also waiting, his silver skinsuit showing every ridge of delinieated muscle on his arms, thighs, and flat belly. I felt awkward for a moment, wishing either that I was wearing something over this micron-thin layer of silver fluid or that I worked harder at keeping in shape. Aenea looked beautiful, the body that I loved sculpted in chrome. I was glad that no one but the android had followed the five of us onto the balcony.
The ship was within a couple thousand klicks of the Startree and decelerating hard. Palou Koror made a motion and jumped easily onto the thin balcony rail, balancing against the one-sixth-g. Drivenj Nicaagat followed suit, and then Lhomo, then Aenea, and finally -- much less gracefully -- I joined them. The sense of height and exposure was all but overwhelming -- the great green basin of the Startree beneath us, the leafy walls rising into the unblinking distance on all sides, the bulk of the ship curving away beneath us, balancing on the slim column of fusion fire like a building teetering on a fragile blue column. I realized with a sickening feeling that we were going to jump.
Do not worry, I will open the containment field at the precise instant you pass through and go to EM repulsors until you are clear of the drive exhaust. I realized that it ws the ship speaking. I had no idea of what we were doing.
The suits should give you a rough idea of our adaptation, Palou Koror was saying. Of course, for those of us who have chosen full integration, it is not the semisentient suits and their molecular microprocessors that allow us to live and travel in space, but the adapted circuits in our skin, our blood, our vision, and brains.
How do we . . . I began, having some trouble subvocalizing, as if the dryness in my mouth would have any affect on my throat muscles.
Do not worry, said Nicaagat. We will not deploy our wings until proper separation is achieved. They will not collide . . . the fields would not allow it. Controls are quite intuitive. Your suit's optical systems should interface with your nervous system and neurosensors, calling up data when required.
Data? What data? I had only meant to think that, but the suitcom sent it out.
Aenea took my silver hand in hers. This will be fun, Raul. The only free minutes we're going to have today, I think. Or for a while.
At that moment, poised on the railing on the edge of a terrifying vertical drop through fusion flame and vacuum, I did not really focus on the meaning of her words.
Come, said Palou Koror and leaped from the railing.
Still holding hands, Aenea and I jumped together.
For our purposes today, the lightwings need only be a kilometer or so across, came Palou Koror's voice in my ears. Were we traveling farther or faster, they would extend much farther . . . perhaps several hundred kilometers.
When I raised my arms, the panels of energy extruding from my skinsuit unfurled like butterfly wings. I felt the sudden push of sunlight.
What we feel is more the current of the primary magnetic field line we are following, said Palou Koror. If I may slave your suits for a second . . . there.
Vision shifted. I looked to my left to where Aenea fell, already several klicks away -- a shining silver chrysalis set within expanding gold wings. The others glowed beyond her. I could see the solar wind, see the charged particles and current of plasma flowing and spiraling outward along the infintely complex geometry of the heliosphere -- red lines of twisting ever-shifting chambered nautilus, all this convoluted, multilayered, multicolored writhing of plasma streams flowing back to a sun that no longer seemed a pale star but was the locus of millions of converging field lines, entire sheets of plasma being evicted at 400 kilometers a second and being drawn into these shapes by the pulsing magnetic fields in its north and south equators. I could see the violet streamers of the inward-rushing magnetic lines, weaving and interlacing with the crimson red of the outward-exploding sheets of field current, I could see the blue vortices of heliospheric shock wave around the outer edges of the Startree, the moons and comets cutting through plasma medium like ocean going ships at night plowing through a glowing, phosphorescent sea, and could see our gold wings interacting with this plasma and magnetic medium, catching photons like billions of fireflies in our nets, sail surfaces surging to the plasma currents, our silver bodies accelerating out along the great shimmering folds and spiral magnetic geometries of the heliosphere matrix.
In addition to this enhanced vision, the suit opticals were overlaying trajectory information and computational data that meant nothing to me, but must have meant life or death to these space-adapted Ousters. The equations and functions flashed by, seemingly floating in the distance at critical focus, and I remember only a sampling:
This is fantastic, came Lhomo's voice. Amazing.
I rotated my head far enough to see our flyer friend from T'ien Shan far to our left and many kilometers below us. He had already entered the leaf zone and was swooping and soaring just above the blue blur of the containment field that surrounded the branches and spaces between the branches like an osmotic membrane.
How the hell did he do that? I wondered.
Again, I must have subvocalized the thought, for I heard Lhomo's deep, distinctive laugh and he sent, USE the wings, Raul. And cooperate with the tree and the ergs!
Cooperate with the tree and the ergs? My friend must have lost his reason.
Then I saw Aenea extending her wings, manipulating them by both thought and the movement of her arms, I looked beyond her to the world of branches approaching us at horrifying velocity, and then I began to see the trick.
That's good, came Drivenj Nicaagat's voice. Catch the repelling wind. Good.
I watched the two adapted Ousters flutter like butterflies, saw the torrent of plasma energy rising from the Startree to surround them, and suddenly hurtled past them as if they had opened parachutes and I was still in freefall.
Panting against the skinsuit field, my heart pounding, I spread my arms and legs and willed the wings wider. The energy folds shimmered and expanded to at least two klicks. Beneath me, an expanse of leaves shifted, turned slowly and purposefully as if in a time-lapse nature holo of flowers seeking the light, folded over one another to form a smooth, parabolic dish at least five klicks across, and then went perfectly reflective.
Sunlight blazed against me. If I had been watching with unshielded eyes, I would have been instantly blinded. As it was, the suit optics polarized. I heard the sunlight striking my skinsuit and wings, like hard rain on a metal roof. I opened my wings wider to catch the blazing gust of light at the same instant the ergs on the Startree below folded the heliosphere matrix, bending the plasma stream back against Aenea and me, decelerating both of us rapidly but not painfully so. Wings flapping, we passed into the bowering outbranches of the Startree while the suit optics continued to flow data across my field of vision.
Aenea and I followed the Ousters, using our wings in the same way they used theirs, soaring and then flapping, braking and then expanding to catch the true sun's light to accelerate again, swooping in among the outer branches, soaring over the leafy outer layer of the Startree, then diving deep among the branches again, folding our wings to pass between pods or covered bridges out beyond the core containment fileds, swooping around busily working space squids whose tentacles were ten times longer than the Consul's ship now decelerating carefully through the leaf level, then opening our wings agin to surge past floating schools of thousands of blue-pulsing Akerataeli platelets, which seemed to be waving at us as we passed.
There was a huge platform branch just below the containment field shimmer. I did not know if the wings would work through the field, but Palou Koror passed through with only a shimmer -- like a grceful diver cutting through still water -- followed by Drivenj Nicaagat, then by L'homo, then Aenea, and finally I joined them, folding my wings to a dozen or so meters across as I crossed the energy barrier into air and sound and scent and cool breezes once again.
We landed on the platform.
``Very nice for a first flight'', said Palou Koror, her voice synthesized for the atmosphere. ``We wanted to share just a moment of our lives with you.''
05.09.29 / Garth Huber