panoramic view. Mountains and purple grass in the distance. Brown slickness closer in.

And yes, the station was completely surrounded by starfish. Yellow starfish everywhere.

“Pfeh.” Harry shivered. Most of the jaundiced monsters had six arms, though some had five or seven. They didn’t appear to be moving. That, at least, was a relief. Harry hated ambulatory allaphors.

“Pilot mode!” he commanded.

With a faint crackling, the floating helvetica M was replaced by a jaunty, cursive P.

“Aye aye, o’ Person-Commander. Where to now, Henry?”

“Name’s Harry,” he grunted. The perky tones used by pilot mode might have been cheery and friendly in Anglic, but they came across as just plain silly in Galactic Seven. Yet the only available alternative meant substituting a voice chip programmed in whistle-clicking GalTwo. A Gubru dialect, even. He wasn’t desperate enough to try that yet.

“Prepare to ease us along a perceived-flat course trajectory of two forty degrees, ship centered,” he told the program. “Dead slow.”

“Whatever you say, Boss-Sentient. Adapting interface parameters now.”

Harry went back to the window, watching the station grow four huge wheels, bearing giant balloon tires with thick treads. Soon they began to turn. A squeaky whine, like rubbing your hand on a soapy countertop, penetrated the thick crystal panes.

As he had feared, the tires found little traction on the slick brown surface. Still, he held back from overruling the pilot’s choice of countermeasures. Better see what happened first.

Momentum built gradually. The station approached the nearest yellow starfish.

Doubt spread in Harry’s mind.

“Maybe I should try looking this up first. They might have the image listed somewhere.”

Once upon a time, back when he was inducted as Earth’s first volunteer-recruit in the Navigation Institute survey department — full of tape-training and idealism — he used to consult the records every time E Space threw another weird symbolism at him. After all, the Galactic civilization of oxygen-breathing races had been exploring, cataloging, and surveying this bizarre continuum for half a billion years. The amount of information contained in even his own tiny shipboard Library unit exceeded the sum of all human knowledge before contact was made with extraterrestrials.

An impressive store … and as it turned out, nearly useless. Maybe he wasn’t very good at negotiating with the Library’s reference persona. Or perhaps the problem came from being born of Earth-simian stock. Anyway, he soon took to trusting his own instincts during missions to E Space.

Alas, that approach had one drawback. You have only yourself to blame when things blow up in your face.

Harry noticed he was slouching. He straightened and brought his hands together to prevent scratching. But nervous energy had to express itself, so he tugged on his thumbs, instead. A Tymbrimi he knew had once remarked that many of Harry’s species had that habit, perhaps a symptom from the long, hard process of Uplift.

The forward tires reached the first starfish. There was no way around the things. No choice but to try climbing over them.

Harry held his breath as contact was made. But touching drew no reaction. The obstacle just lay there, six long, flat strips of brown-flecked yellow, splayed from a nubby central hump. The first set of tires skidded, and the station rode up the yellow strip, pushed by the back wheels.

The station canted slightly. Harry rumbled anxiously in his chest, trying to tease loose a tickling thread of recognition. Maybe “starfish” wasn’t the best analogy for these things. They looked familiar though.

The angle increased. A troubled whine came from the spinning rear wheels until they, too, reached the yellow.

In a shock of recognition, Harry shouted—“No! Reverse! They’re ban—”

Too late. The back tires whined as slippery yellow strips flew out from under the platform, sending it flipping in a sudden release of traction. Harry tumbled, struck the ceiling, then slid across the far wall, shouting as the scout platform rolled, skidded, and rolled again … until it dropped with a final, bone-jarring thud. Fetching up against a bulkhead, Harry clutched a wall rail with his toes until the jouncing finally stopped.

“Oh … my head …,” he moaned, picking himself up.

At least things had settled right side up. He shuffled back to the console in a crouch and read the main display. The station had suffered little damage, thank Ifni. But Harry must have put off housecleaning chores too long, for dust balls now coated his fur from head to toe. He slapped them off, raising clouds and triggering violent sneezes.

The shutters had closed automatically the instant things went crazy, protecting his eyes against potentially dangerous allaphors.

He commanded gruffly, “Open blinds!” Perhaps the violent action had triggered a local phase change, causing all the nasty obstacles to vanish. It had happened before.

No such luck, he realized as the louvers slid into pillars between the wide viewing panes. Outside, the general scenery had not altered noticeably. The same reddish blue, Swiss cheese sky rolled over a mauve pampas, with black mountains bobbing biliously in the distance. And a slick mesa still had his scoutship mired, hemmed on all sides by yellow, multiarmed shapes.

“Banana peels,” he muttered. “Goddamn banana peels.”

One reason why these stations were manned by only one observer … allaphors tended to get even weirder with more than one mind perceiving them at the same time. The “objects” he saw were images his own mind pasted over a reality that no living brain could readily fathom. A reality that mutated and transformed under influence by his thoughts and perceptions.

All that was fine, in theory. He ought to be used to it by now. But what bothered Harry in particular about the banana allaphor was that it seemed gratuitously personal. Like others of his kind, Harry hated being trapped by stereotypes.

He sighed, scratching his side. “Are all systems stable?”

“Everything is stable, Taskmaster-Commander Harold,” the pilot replied. “We are stuck for the moment, but we appear to be safe.”

He considered the vast open expanse beyond the plateau. Actually, visibility was excellent from here. The holes in the sky, especially, were all clear and unobstructed. A thought occurred to him.

“Say, do we really have to move on right away? We can observe all the assigned transit routes from this very spot, until our cruise clock runs out, no?”

“That appears to be correct. For the moment, no illicit traffic can get by our watch area undetected.”

“Hmmph. Well then …” He yawned. “I guess I’ll just go back to bed! I have a feelin’ I’m gonna need my wits to get outta this one.”

“Very well. Good night, Employer-Observer Harms. Pleasant dreams.”

“Fat chance o’ that,” he muttered in Anglic as he left the observation deck. “And close the friggin’ blinds! Do I have to think of everything around here? Don’t answer that! Just … never mind.”

Even closed, the louvers would not prevent all leakage. Flickering archetypes slipped between the slats, as if eager to latch into his mind during REM state, tapping his dreams like little parasites.

It could not be helped. When Harry got his first promotion to E Space, the local head of patrollers for the Navigation Institute told him that susceptibility to allaphoric images was a vital part of the job. Waving a slender, multijointed arm, that Galactic official confessed his surprise, in Nahalli-accented GalSix, at Harry’s qualifications.

“Skeptical we were, when first told that your race might have traits useful to us.

“Repudiating our doubts, this you have since achieved, Observer Harms.

“To full status, we now advance you. First of your kind to be so honored.”

Harry sighed as he threw himself under the covers again, tempted by the sweet stupidity of self-pity.

Some honor! He snorted dubiously.

Still, he couldn’t honestly complain. He had been warned. And this wasn’t Horst. At least he had escaped the dry, monotonous wastes.

Anyway, only the mad lived for long under illusions that the cosmos was meant for their convenience.

There were a multitude of conflicting stories about whoever designed this crazy universe, so many billions of

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