Jo Clayton: Crystal Heat

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Jo Clayton Crystal Heat
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    Crystal Heat
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Jo Clayton

Crystal Heat

Prologue: Rumblings Before the Game Begins

A conversation by letter, or how to keep your thoughts away from a ubiquitous and apparently omniscient employer.

… so that’s over. I really didn’t want to send the disruptor back to Sunflower Labs, but it was Digby’s call, so back it went. I believe he managed to duplicate it first and his techs are market cream, so could be he’ll have a defense out before that thing becomes too much of a problem.

I’ve been called in tomorrow. It seems that there’s another investigation that can use my talents. I’m beginning to have second thoughts about this job, Lee. And just maybe about Digby himself. Which is why I’m writing this, not just giving you a call.

Anyway, I’ll see how this one goes.

Any Hunts on the horizon? Lilai should be old enough by now for you to leave her without worrying too much. Selfishly, I rather hope you’ll be home when this new business is finished. I need somebody to talk things over with without prying little electronic ears straining to hear what I’m saying.

Aleytys dropped the letter on the table beside the drone capsule where it coiled up into the tight cylinder it’d been when she took it out of the capsule. She poked it with her finger, watched it rock back and forth till, it settled to stability again.

“Was it worth the expense?”

Aleytys lifted her head. Grey stood in the doorway looking tired and cranky. She suppressed a sigh; she didn’t want to deal with his crotchets, but she’d asked him to come. “Just a note from Shadow. She’s got a new investigation. I want a Hunt, Grey. I don’t care what it is.”

“So that’s what this is about. Every time that woman shoves her nose in here, you get all stirred up.”

“No. This is me talking. It’s been two years, Grey. It’s time I was out again.”

“There’s nothing suitable. I told you. When something comes in that’s right for you, I’ll call you. Is there anything else?”


Without trying to protest further, she watched him turn and leave; it was only after she heard the whine of the lifting flier that she dropped her head in her hands.

1. Shadow on the Job

I refuse to be intimidated by a spook. Shadith folded her hands in her lap and smiled politely at Digby’s simulacrum.

He’d been fiddling with it again. It was solid now, with the weighty feel of real flesh though it was nothing more than colored light she could walk through if the thought didn’t revolt her. He sat at a real desk (a broad battered stretch of dark wood), in a real chair-an antique leather thing that swiveled and had micromotors installed to make it creak and tilt as if it moved to the shifting of his body. The instrumentation, though, was simulation. He had no need for exterior connections to the kephalos buried deep beneath the building, the kephalos which created the simulacrum and controlled all functions in here. In a sense, he was the kephalos.

Today he was being the academic in conference with the wayward student. He wasn’t wearing the fez with the gilded tassel that he affected sometimes, but had gifted himself with silver-gray hair flowing in thick waves from a noble brow and a severe expression that went well with that beak of a nose.

Odd how recognizable he was in all his incarnations… hm, incarnation was not precisely the right word since whatever flesh he’d once worn must have long ago rotted back to the earth it was born from.

The simulacrum looked up… no. Digby looked up, laughter in his eyes, a sly self-mocking twinkle. He always puts a twist on things, she thought. He knows just how much this isn’t impressing me.

“Hm.” The voice he was using was a rough tenor. “Your little Ghost Yseyl is profoundly insane in terms of her culture. Quite at home in ours, though, perhaps more than you are.” With a twitch of non-lips into an ironic smile, he lifted a simulated sheet off a nonexistent pile, pretended to read it, then looked up. “The disruptor is on its way back to Sunflower. The rep was delighted with the swiftness of the retrieval. And most impressed.” He turned another page. “I begin to think Ginny Seyirshi was right when he called you a catalyst. By the time you were through with them, the Ptak world was thoroughly chewed up, their commerce disrupted, one war winding itself down through attrition and, a new one fruiting. The place is probably going to be chaotic for years.”

He dropped that last sheet, fitted his hands palm against palm, and contemplated her. “You managed with admirable discretion to keep any mention of-Excavations Ltd. from notice. However, in other areas, discretion was… hmmm… noticeably lacking. The peripheral effects of your activities are… hm disconcerting. Added to your tumultuous romp through the assorted worlds:during the Dyslaera affair, there’s a pattern that… hm… shall we say, limits your usefulness.”

“So I’m fired?” Shadith slid forward in the chair, irritated, prepared to get to her feet. She was getting rritated and saw no need to listen to a bunch of painted light scolding her…

“Jump jump, hat Stop acting like a startled flea, Shadow. No. Of course you’re not fired. It just means I have to be careful to use you in places that I wouldn’t mind seeing trashed in your inimitable fashion. As long, of course, as we are not visibly engaged in that trashing. The areas in which I can use you are limited but they do continue to exist.” He leaned back, laced his non-fingers across his non-belly.

She watched his careful mimicry of the gestures of the flesh and wondered about it a little. Is he trying to be sure that he doesn’t lose that self which comes so pungently through his poses? Odd how that chimed-with what she’d written to Aleytys. Maybe it’s because he is like me, like Swardheld and Harskari, that I don’t trust him. Immortal and immaterial in that his essence lived in a matrix of forces with even less to hold his self intact than she’d had. At least she and the others from the Diadem had the body of the wearer to remind them what they were and the limits of the field that preserved-them. Digby was, in a sense, scattered across half a hundred worlds-maybe more-with no limits, nothing but his will to avoid dissolution. What’s he up to? I see this manifestation of him, but how much of that is construct? How much is meant to reassure me and his clients?

She pulled her attention back and saw Digby waiting with exaggerated patience. “So,” she said. “Why am I here?”

“The Kliu Berej have hired Excavations Ltd. They’ve lost a Taalav Gestalt array from Pillory. The prison planet they run. Hm. Not a prisoner, a life-form native to the world. One of the weirdest I’ve ever come across. An assemblage. The various parts reproduce and grow to adulthood as separate forms, then in the last Change grow into each other to create the Gestalt. Which means to breed and grow a Taalav you need an assortment of smaller parts. Which is why they call it an array. I’ve put the information the Kliu provided in your packet, you can read the details later. Always remembering that clients have been known to lie their brains out, So don’t trust it too much.”

“They want the array returned? Sounds complicated.”

“No. They want to know where it is so they can destroy it. The Taalav extrude a crystalline substance and shape it into complex forms. The Kliu have a monopoly on those crystals and mean to keep it. They wanted the thief, too, but weren’t willing to pay double to include him in the deal, so all I, contracted to do was locate the array. And to keep the search quiet. You can see why. Once something like that happens, every jack and smuggler with delusions of grandeur will be out trying to find it himself.”

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