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The Hand of the Rose



The visitor entered the hangar as visitors always entered the hangar--with her head tilted back and her eyes peering upward. The ceiling rose so high, and created such an overawing feeling of vastness of space, that to find oneself beneath it suddenly was to find oneself a small prey animal suddenly, exposed, on an endless unbroken plain. The immensity of the hangar suggested nature, but was emphatically human. Far from inspiring, therefore, it cowed. Its floor stretched away to an indoor horizon; its far walls stood unseen, just shadowy probabilities.

The visitor glimpsed Ivek. She called to him: "Mr. Protector. Mr. Protector."

Invisibly, Ivek winced. Ivek pressed his lips. Ivek erected the squareness of his shaved cranium. A civilian, he coded. Another civilian. Their approaches ever surprised, rankled. Their ease in manner took accustomization—-those unconscious slights in their movements. Ivek would chide this girl, he felt, for her familiar tone; instruct her, or snub. But he would not. Ivek was a Protector. He stood assigned here for her sake: To field her questions: To aid her pastimes. Ivek stepped behind his glass display case. Ivek lay his meaty hands atop his glass display case in a formal gesture of readiness. The civilian visitor breathed now before him. She looked down into the glass display case.

"What's all this for?"

The tone rang intrusive to Ivek. The half-smile of the civilian presumed, affronted. And she had failed this time to address him as Mr. Protector. Ivek stepped from behind the glass display case. Ivek squared his square shoulders. Ivek erected his square cranium. Ivek observed the civilian visitor bent at the belt now, her head tilted downward, her eyes peering into the glass display case. In the case, plotted across an arm of blue fabric, stood nine trophies. Eight of the trophies represented the armed services Ivek had fought under. The ninth lie separate. The ninth trophy was a living hand held open and upward with a rose bulb growing out of its palm. The rose bulb seeped blood.

"Hey, what are these?"

Ivek raised his cold eyes to the civilian visitor. Ivek felt no impulse to acknowledge this query. Ivek carried no obligation to acknowledge this query. He was a Protector. Ivek secured his sector. Ivek supplied needful data. There ended his prescribed duty. The rest remained his prerogative. Explaining himself was not required.

And a quiet moan ponged from somewhere high.

Ivek's icy glare shot upward.

Ivek peered upward.

Affirmative.

The great hinges lowed; the winging process had commenced.

Then the civilian visitor noted Ivek's sudden tension. She looked upward. Then every human on the floor of the hangar noted the roof's shifting. For a thousand metrons, for as far as one could see, every head hung tilted back, every eye peered upward. Ivek glanced to the bishop's seat from where the mediacast would singe. Already the Cathedra hovered, torquing to and fro slightly, anticipant; and the mediaface raved; and its arms gesticulated irrationally. The grating metallic echo of an agitated voice reached Ivek. Civilian, he coded indifferently.

And then Ivek began to run.

The arrival of the warcairns always overwhelmed. The touchdown of a great starcraft, it was, multiplied infinitely. One lost his speech before a warcairn, his breath. One stood immobile. Warcairns docked often enough to dissuade one's urge to worship them. But only their frequency stayed these soarings of mood. One never became accustomed. The ceilings winged outward. Eyes peered through to the faint blue of an eve-tinged sky. Then the eyes realized that sky to be not sky at all, but the warcairn itself. For hours the impression held--the senses naming this breadth of even clarity an open space, the intellect arguing otherwise. Not till the fabrics of the immeasurable craft hung very near, in clear view, did their minute seams dispel the illusion.

And Ivek was running.

Ivek ran along the tarmac to clear his sector of the awestruck. Stupefied by the advent of a warcairn, visitors would gaze spellbound into the access funnels as they opened, unfolded, inflated, descended and finally crushed them. The victims never even moved. To absorb this event took initiation. One needed exposure to the fleet in orbit, or to a few outer system firefights. With such came perspective. And with perspective, tolerance.

One visitor.

Then two.

Ivek shook these out of their daze.

Then a third he startled.

Warm hangar airs rose toward the warcairn. The airs condensed as they neared the craft, resolving to a light rain. Puddles pooled across the tarmac and the circulation vents exhaled fog. Ivek's boots splashed as he sprinted through the changing climate. His eyes strained through the false rains and mists. But, the far corner of his sector he found. Panting, Ivek found it. Ivek stood. His sector had been cleared. Panting, Ivek stood. And then he looked up again to the sunlit warcairn.

Such immensity! Unspeakable! The endless extension of the vessel's keel left the impression of shapelessness, of formlessness, of a bizarre insubstantiality. And still above it, Ivek knew, the fuselage rose to imponderable heights, far out of sight. And creepingly this mass fell, so slowly, the warcairn easing earthward while hardly betraying motion. Just ever more massive, it grew, one microscopic movement at a time, ever more awesome.

And now, escort craft.

The fighters plummeted through the hangar's roof gap, hovered momentarily, and then zipped off toward their moorings in the halter hangars. The ripping shriek of their cellbanks knocked Ivek out of his own stupor. He broke and ran. Ivek canvassed his sector a second time, boots hammering the shimmery floor across a hundred square metrons, skidding under his pivots. Ivek confirmed his sector's clearance. Then Ivek red-glassed his sector for a third confirmation. Ivek confirmed his sector's clearance. Then a rumbling penetrated his torso--that drone, that chest-pounding oscillation of dock configurance. For hours still this throb would possess him, compromise his respiration.

Ivek turned from his perimeter, steadied. Ivek strode toward his station, assured. His sector had been cleared. He had cleared his sector. Ivek's first glance found the bishop's seat hovering athwart the hangar's threshold. Ivek's second glance found the civilian visitor still positioned abreast the glass display case. The civilian visitor stood agape. Ivek stepped to the glass display case. He took a hungered breath. Ivek lay his sweating hands atop the glass display case, turning his palms upward. The gesture broke the civilian visitor's spell.

"But what's it all about?" she breathed in a hush, still peering upward.

Open electricity flowed beyond them, singeing, crackling, buzzing.

The woman, the civilian, the visitor no longer existed for Ivek.

Ivek pronounced, "The warcarin is docking. Please leave the facility."

The visitor did not move. She peered still upward.

Ivek repeated then, authoritatively, with force. "The warcairn is docking! You must leave the facility immediately!"

Visibly, a shudder passed over the civilian visitor. She would not meet Ivek's gaze. The civilian visitor swallowed. She shuffled away anxious, stricken, with glances upward. She would not look back. Ivek watched her drawn figure edge past the bishop's seat. The swivel-throne wobbled now beyond hangar's portal, appropriately distant.

Ivek drew a labored breath. Ivek looked down to his open hands. Ivek peered then through the glass top of the display case. He peered stolidly. There, plotted across the arm of blue fabric, rose his two trophies from the Air Force, rose his two trophies from Orbitry, rose his two trophies from System League, rose his two trophies from Off-Landings. Just one Hand of the Rose stood among these awards, apart from the others, alone. Just one. Never did they grant more than one Hand, Ivek considered. Never. And only rarely did they grant even one. Reflecting thus, Ivek felt a lifetime of field campaigns awaken in him as a flush. The sensation subsided instantly. Ivek shook his head slightly.

He took a labored breath.

Ivek eased his meaty hands to the edge of the glass display case. He gripped its gold molding. Ivek lifted open the glass top of the display case and lowered his hand. He caressed with his fingertips his Hand of the Rose. The living hand started. Then Ivek plucked with his fingertips the rose bulb growing from its palm. The living hand flinched. Ivek lifted the blood-seeping rose bulb to his face. He inhaled its bittersweet aroma. He lay the bloody bulb on his tongue. Ivek bit into the bloody rose, sucking its juices. Ivek chewed the bloody rose, swallowing it gravely. He looked back down to his Hand of the Rose. Already, there, a bud sprouted from the wound at its palm. Already, there, the bud matured, swelling into a ripened rose bulb, seeping droplets of blood.

Ivek tilted back his head. Ivek peered up into the great breadth of the descending warcairn. Infinitesimally slowly it fell toward him, creepingly. He watched it. Ivek was a battle-hardened man, the veteran of hundreds of mortal campaigns, but even so, as he stood there peering upward, tears began to roll from his eyes.



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John Dishwasher

The Hand of the Rose