PART I: THE SNAKE
sky of the Ocean Moon was blue enough, impossibly blue, bluer than the eye of a
newborn. But its surface was not blue at all, as Doctor Blackbear Windclan had
expected from the picture-perfect video brochure. As the shuttlecraft bore him
and his family ever closer through the clouds, the curve of ocean appeared dusty
green, as if a featureless meadow covered the globe. Could this really be
Shora, the Ocean Moon?
reassure himself, Blackbear squeezed the ankles of his two-year-old Sunflower,
seated on his shoulders, then he touched the hand of his goddess, Raincloud.
Raincloud was a linguist whose training in the tongue of a forbidden world had
earned her a job on this free one.
returned his look confidently. A goddess of elegant stature, she had the
earth-toned complexion typical of their people, the Clickers of Bronze Sky. She
carried on her hip their six-year-old Hawktalon, whose cascade of black braids
twined in spirals like her mother’s. The braids, full of patterned beads, were
works of art which Blackbear spent hours redoing each week. Mother and daughter
wore their best rei-gi garments, as did Blackbear: russet linen trousers
that flared like skirts, their hems bordered with embroidered volcanoes and
fireweed. A belt tied the garment at the waist—for Raincloud, a black belt.
adjusted his turban at his forehead. “This planet looks more like a swamp than
an ocean.” Shora, home of the native Sharers and the ageless Elysians,
was an ocean world—the only inhabited world covered entirely by ocean. And yet,
the closer came the ocean’s surface, the more it looked like a field of
vegetation, scraggly green and brown patches with brackish puddles in between.
It made his stomach churn, already unsettled from the shifting g-forces of the
it’s Valedon, by mistake,” he added, referring to Shora’s dryer moon-twin. A
country doctor from the frontier of Bronze Sky, a world still largely
uncharted, Blackbear distrusted all spacecraft and, for that matter, any
contrivance that produced light and speech from no discernible origin.
he would put up with it. For what he sought on this ocean, countless doctors
would give their lives: the secret of immortality.
laughed, eyeing the vast “swamp” some ten thousand meters below. “You could
herd a lot of goats down there.” Her voice clicked crisply, in the language
that had earned their people the epithet “Clickers.” Clickers farmed the
Caldera Hills of the Dark Goddess, beneath a volcanic bronze sky. Twenty
light-years distant, yet Bronze Sky was just a rei-gi tumble away from
here, through a hole in the galactic Fold.
braids bounced, and she pulled herself up a notch on her mother’s back. “Can we
really keep our goats after all, Mother? And have room to let the dogs run? Oh
please, let’s send for the dogs—”
clicked Raincloud. “I told you, we’ll be indoors the whole time, within a giant
like a bubble, you said,” Hawktalon added.
the republic of “immortals.” Elysians never aged. They lived a thousand years
or more, within their twelve opulent “cellular cities” that floated upon
even in Founders City,” Hawktalon reminded her mother, “people kept dogs.” The
capital of Bronze Sky was the only city the six-year-old had ever known.
looked up from the observation deck and turned toward the back of the carpeted
oval compartment. “Servo, please,” she called. Raincloud spoke Elysian, the
language of the ageless ones, as well as Sharer, the speech of the
ocean-dwelling natives who long predated the Republic of Elysium. Most important,
she spoke the language of Urulan, the dreaded barbarian world whose missiles
threatened the worlds of the Free Fold. Elysian intelligence had recruited her
for her knowledge of Urulite. “Servo, please tell us what makes this ocean
brown when its sky is blue.”
azure sky was no disappointment, Blackbear conceded, coming from a world whose
volcanic dust painted its noonday sky yellow, with hours of blood-red sunset.
very perceptive and interesting question, Citizen,” came a sibilant voice from nowhere.
frowned suspiciously. On his shoulders Sunflower bounced and craned his neck
with interest, his stuffed wolf cub doll dangling in his father’s face.
answer, Citizen,” continued the servo voice, “is this. On Shora, by this time
of year, the raft seedlings overgrow the entire ocean.”
that was it. Living “rafts” like radial tree branches grew out onto the water.
Unlike Elysians, the web-fingered Sharers actually lived outdoors upon the
the servo spoke, Raincloud murmured simultaneous translation for Hawktalon.
This talent had earned the goddess a job as interpreter for the Sharer embassy
in Founders City, where Blackbear had studied medicine. Elysium, of course, had
Sharer experts aplenty; their treaty with the ocean-dwellers required continual
consultation. For Elysian Foreign Affairs, Raincloud would be translating
signals from spy satellites at Urulan.
Blackbear would do medical research, at the Longevity Laboratory of the famous
scientist Tulle Meryllishon.
just two weeks,” the servo voice told the Windclans, “the giant seaswallowers
will migrate from the south pole, consuming the overgrown raft seedlings you
see below, along with anything else in their path. Despite our best efforts,
one or two Sharer rafts are lost each year.”
Blackbear exclaimed. “But—what about us?” Elysian cities, like the living
rafts, floated upon the ocean, each one a great sphere of nanoplast some four
kilometers across. The city of Helicon, the Windclans’ destination, lay ahead
now, a gleaming pearl set in the seedling-choked sea. The pearl grew steadily
larger as they approached. A single dwelling for a million immortal souls; the
sight of it took his breath away. Yet even a structure so huge could be swamped
by the sea.
city of Helicon could be lost, Citizen,” the voice added. “Its surface was
breached, once, forty years ago. If the leak had not been fixed, the city would
have filled and sunk in fifty-three point six days.”
bounced happily on Blackbear’s shoulders. “Snake, Daddy,” he clicked. “Ss-ss,
I hear snake.” The sibilant Elysian voice, which the child could not
understand, sounded like hissing.
asked, “But what happens if—”
right, it’s a snake. Now be quiet, Sunny.” The child insisted on hearing his
pronouncements repeated, to make sure their wisdom had sunk in.
laughed. “Sunny thinks he heard a snake. What a baby. It’s not even Snake Day
servo added, “Does my vocalization fail, Citizen?”
said, “No, but—”
so, please report my defect to Service Sector Oh-three-twenty in the Nucleus of
Helicon, for training. Actually, Citizen, the sinking of Helicon or any other
Elysian city is most unlikely; no such event has been recorded in nine
centuries since the founding of the Republic. The city’s compartments are
pressurized at all levels, and a buoyant fluid fills its transit reticulum,
like a great living cell. Attention: Helicon’s surface lies just beneath us.
See the sunlight sparkle on its shimmering dome? Prepare for landing.”
indentation appeared in the city’s surface, as if an invisible giant had
pressed a thumb into it. The thumbprint deepened and widened, and the shadow of
the shuttlecraft fell across it.
his side, Raincloud clicked, “Strap down again.”
four of them returned to their seats, which automatically strapped them down
for safety. Blackbear zipped Sunflower’s empty juice cup into his travel bag.
announced, “I’ll carry my own bag off the shuttle.”
you’ll ride for now,” her mother insisted. No respectable Clicker adult would
walk in public without a child on her back, or his.
pouted, and her much-worn stuffed fruitbat hung listlessly. A bit old to be
carried, she would have to put up with it until Raincloud conceived another
child. Back home in Tumbling Rock, the clan always had a number of little ones
to hold; but here, of course, they had only these two. Clicker goddesses spaced
three or four years between children, to prolong the nursing of each.
craft shuddered to a halt. “Thank you, Citizens, for enjoying my service. A
reminder: You will be met at the transit node of Octant Six by your host, Alin
Anaeashon, mate of Tulle Meryllishon ...”
Meryllishon was the lab director. Meryllishon was not a clan
name, for Elysium had no clans. The shon name referred to the nursery of
birth. Each city had its central shon, where the children were born and
raised in common.
arrangement was incomprehensible to Blackbear, for in Tumbling Rock even
orphans had extended families. But then, the Elysians could have no children of
their own. Immortality came at a price.
Elysians were sterile. Their lack of germ cells was a side effect of the
genetic treatment of their embryos, in the artificial wombs of the shon. The
embryos, all derived from non-Elysian sources, had to be grown in culture.
was the link between aging and fertility? No scientist had yet cracked it, but
Tulle Meryllishon was trying. That was the Fertility Project, which
Blackbear had come to work on. There were frontier worlds to populate, new
fertile hills to fill with growing families. Few non-Elysian parents cared to
produce children who could expect no children of their own. But if the
Fertility Project succeeded, every child in the Fold could be born immortal.
the shuttle, the chill air brought a scent of orange and salt from Shora’s
ocean. A wind shrieked overhead across the lip of the cavity which held them in
the surface of the Elysian city.
winced and covered her eyes. “The sun—it burns, Mother.”
away from it, dear,” Raincloud reminded her. This sun blazed without mercy
through the clear blue sky, untempered by volcanic haze.
lip of the cavity rose around them and constricted, blocking the sun. Now the
lemon-colored disk of Valedon, Shora’s moon-twin, appeared against the blue.
Then the shuttle lifted off out of the cavity, and the lip soon closed
cavity now became an enclosed vesicle, diffusely lighted. Within the vesicle,
so small after the expanse of sky and ocean, Blackbear felt trapped. But
Sunflower caressed his forehead and leaned forward with interest. “Going
downstairs,” the child clicked softly.
Sunflower, ‘downstairs.’” The vesicle was floating downward at about a sixty
degree angle, along a fluid-filled branch of the transit reticulum. The flow of
liquid carried the vesicle in its path.
Citizens, to Helicon, capital of Elysium, home of butterflies for a thousand
years.” Another disembodied servo voice. Blackbear’s hair stood on end. “Would
you be seated, Citizens?” the voice added.
said, “Yes, thank you,” in faultless Elysian.
Blackbear, a lump of nanoplast pushed up and molded itself into a chair. The
entire vesicle must be made of nanoplast, an “intelligent” material. But how
could that stuff form such intricate shapes? Similar chairs took shape for the
four of them. Hawktalon exclaimed with delight, and the beaded braids jangled
about her face.
I ever fail to serve promptly, please report my defect to Service Sector
Oh-three-thirteen. Now, the latest news. The Urulite Imperium claims that the
Valan freighter Sardonyx entered Urulite space before it was destroyed.
Urulan threatens Valedon itself with interstellar missiles ...”
figures sprang up on a little holostage, before the incurving wall of the
vesicle. Hawktalon shrieked and clapped her hands. Blackbear shuddered,
wondering where such a backward planet as Urulan could have gotten interstellar
missiles. What if they hit Shora as well as Valedon? At any rate, the news was
bad enough without showing it in three dimensions.
chair oozed to fit his shape as he stretched. Was there anything in Elysium not
“alive,” responsive and motile? Or rather, were there any live Elysians,
other than holo figures?
the left, another vesicle entered the stream and approached alongside. Its
surface touched and seemed to melt in. The two vessels fused, their walls
joined and widened to reveal several passengers.
were small, compact people, rarely taller than Blackbear’s shoulder; they were
designed to make the most of their living space. Their complexions ranged from
pink to brown, one of them pale as cream; their genetic stock, Blackbear knew,
included sperm and ova from all worlds of the Free Fold, even Bronze Sky. They
wore Valan talars with long patterned trains, now bundled up by pairs of
“trainsweeps.” Trainsweeps were beetlelike servos, with their six legs poking
out beneath their polished shells, scurrying behind their masters to keep the
trains in order. Their Elysian masters did not speak or even smile in greeting;
a custom common to cities, Blackbear had learned during his medical training at
Founders University. Back in Tumbling Rock, however, in the Caldera Hills, if
one failed to recognize a passerby, one immediately said hello to make the
nearest of the seated Elysians wore a train of unusual length, requiring two
pairs of trainsweeps to carry the folds of pale green silk. He must have been
at least five hundred years old, therefore; she or he, Blackbear could not tell
which, he realized with a shock. A goddess, after all, he decided, much
embarrassed, adjusting his turban self-consciously. A “woman,” an Elysian
female, though the Elysian word did not connote all that the Clicker “goddess”
did. Her hair fell unbraided to her shoulders, and her talar reached to her
sandaled feet. The portion of her train that clasped her back was embroidered
with butterflies, deep blue heliconians, their long wings marked by red bars
and edged with white.
of Elysium’s twelve cities took a different butterfly as its emblem;
heliconians, for Helicon. Blackbear had forgotten why this was so, but
nonetheless he sighed to see something familiar. Bronze Sky, like Valedon and
most other inhabited worlds, had been terraformed long ago with stock from
ancient Torr. Shora had not; thus the native rafts and seaswallowers remained.
But the first Elysians had brought butterflies from their terraformed home
now—trainsweeps and housekeepers on sale,” the servo voice continued. “The very
best from Valedon.” Shora’s moon-twin was well known for the manufacture of
servos. “All at The Golden Fritillary ...” The shop address went beyond his
grasp of Elysian.
selling goddesses,” clicked Raincloud mischievously.
Blackbear asked, “How’s that?”
in Urulite, our word ‘goddess’ would translate as ‘domestic property,’ which is
what the Elysians have put on sale.” A trilingual pun.
said Blackbear, “we’re far from Urulan and its barbarians, thank the Dark One.”
Twice as distant as Bronze Sky, Urulan had closed itself to foreigners for two
centuries, and allowed few of its own to venture out. Fortunately Raincloud
would see no live Urulites in Elysium.
aren’t all bad,” she reminded him. Raincloud had studied Urulite with an émigré
professor, an escaped slave.
good ones leave or die.” Like Shora, Urulan had never been terraformed, but its
people were as uncivilized as its plated fourteen-legged carnivores. In an age
when most worlds traded freely across the Fold, Urulan’s goddesses were herded
like sheep, and their male warriors fought each other with crude nuclear bombs.
They even bred gorilla hybrids as slaves—like Raincloud’s old teacher.
was tugging insistently at his father’s collar. “Doggie,” clicked the child.
see Doggie. Sunflo’ fly down. Fly down, see Doggie.”
looked down. At the end of the Elysian’s bundled train, one of her six-legged
trainsweeps wiggled back and forth slightly. “Sunflower, that’s not a dog, and
you can’t fly down now.”
shrugged. “Let him down, why not.”
too!” Hawktalon slid to the ground.
was no place to run, after all. Blackbear let Sunflower down and watched him
toddle off on tiptoe after his sister, both swinging their animal dolls behind
them. They inspected the trainsweep, taking in its every move.
them, apart, in this world of strangeness, Blackbear fought back a wave of
anxiety. It was an old fear he had, about losing his child. It must have
started years before, at age seven, when he had lost his youngest brother in
the swollen river. He barely remembered what his brother looked like, now;
whenever he recalled the incident, or dreamed it, it was Sunflower he saw in
Elysians with their unburdened shoulders and smooth complexions, yet they might
be eighty, or eight hundred ...
course, there were Elysian children, Blackbear reminded himself. Raised in the
artificial wombs of the shon, seeded from the best imported genetic
stock, just enough children were born to offset mortality by accident and rare
disease. Just enough to fill the jobs the city needed. But not enough for each
one to carry one.
node, Octant Six,” said the voice. “Prepare to disembark.”
vesicle had fused to several more vesicles by now, including one that descended
from above and had to lower its occupants onto the platform. It had formed
itself into a great length of sausage. After some minutes, its rate of flow
lessened. Out of the translucent fluid ahead there appeared a white wall, into
which the vesicle merged and opened. The Windclan family gathered up their bags
and stepped out.
entered a vast pulsating cavern. Here, vesicles fused to the cavern, while
elsewhere new vesicles pinched off, flowing down other branches of the
reticulum. The ceiling played a lightshow of butterflies, their long golden
wings sporting black spots; another heliconian variant, he guessed. Below
thronged the Elysians, their hair neither braided nor bound up in turbans,
their trains extending back several meters to their trainsweeps. Countless
servos mingled about, tall loud-spoken ones vending drinks and sweets, broad
flat ones offering transport, disconcerting little insectlike ones quietly
vacuuming the spotless floor. Even overhead, little bell-tinkling hovercraft
glided by. And still, not a child to be seen....
was not just that in the Caldera Hills, the fertile slopes and endless forests
needed many hands for harvest, and children were the growth industry of a world
with a dozen empty continents to populate, facing floods, fires and landslides
along the way. Beyond that—
was an adult without children? How could one even begin a conversation, without
presenting one’s offspring or younger sib? Among Clickers, even children
presented their dolls. Could these Elysians feel? Could they care about
others? Was eternal youth worth the price?
thought of his father with prostate trouble, and his last patient, the elderly
woman from the next town whom he had treated for kidney failure just before he
left home. Why was aging linked to fertility? Blackbear hoped soon to
learn. The Fertility Project could change everything. Everyone might then have
ageless children of their own. It was too late for Hawktalon and Sunflower, he
thought with a pang, but then he and his goddess expected another six or seven
Raincloud’s back, Hawktalon exclaimed, “Oh, look who’s here!”
trainsweep had left its master and followed behind them. Astonished, Blackbear
stared at its polished silver surface, which reflected splotches of gold from
the ceiling butterflies.
glared at her daughter. “It’s the one you were pestering.”
Goddess,” exclaimed Blackbear, his stomach in knots. “What if someone thinks we
didn’t, Dad.” Hawktalon was indignant. “Go away, bad Doggie,” she told
the trainsweep, but her cheerful tone belied her words.
said, “We’ll leave it at ‘lost and found,’ somewhere. Servo?” she called.
“Where’s that damned servo voice when we need it?”
winced, wishing she would watch her language in front of the little boy.
then, Sunflower half slid off his shoulder and leaned toward a vendor, a servo
shaped like a lamppost attached to a tray of scooped sweets. “Ice cream.
said Blackbear. “No ice cream, that’s that.” Wherever was that Elysian
to meet them, he wondered.
child tensed ominously. His eyebrows wrinkled, and the corners of his mouth
pulled down. Then he let out a wail that caused heads to turn.
hurriedly brought him down and rocked him in his arms, but it was no use.
Sunflower screamed and flailed his limbs in all directions.
Hawktalon covered her ears.
was searching around. “Try to spot an ‘information vendor.’ They look like—”
ringing bell sounded overhead. It was an airborne hovercraft. The hovercraft
landed right in front of Blackbear. It spouted an Elysian phrase which he did
not catch. Two servos emerged, emergency lights blinking around their heads.
lay patient on the floor, head raised.” A stocky machine, about as tall as
Hawktalon, spoke in the soothing tones of a flight attendant. “Some
hyperventilation, we see.”
other servo, shaped more like a lamppost, extended two long tentacles snaking
around the child in Blackbear’s arms.
shouted, adding in Click-click, “get off, by the Goddess!” He bent at the
knees, his left foot slid back, then he twisted the grasping servo over in a
somersault. Rei-gi aimed for gentle disengagement.
not damage City property,” the lamppost intoned as it rearranged itself. “A
fine may be charged.”
stocky servo observed, “The child is foreign, a defective. We are not equipped
to treat defectives. We must call reinforcements. Meanwhile, please lay patient
on the floor.”
snapped Raincloud. “We’ll put you on the floor.” Raincloud had earned a
black-belt, as did all goddesses, several levels higher than that permitted
men. “Defective, indeed,” she muttered, her eyes dark as those of the six-armed
Goddess of the Hills.
swung her hands up in a practice move.
me ...” An Elysian man stood nearby. “Doctor Windclan, I presume?”
childless man wore a talar of tawny brown, almost like the sky of Bronze Sky.
His train had a border of what looked like autumn leaves, unlike the gaudy
butterflies of the other Elysians. Tall for an Elysian, he still had to look up
to Blackbear’s face. His complexion was smooth as a baby’s, yet his impeccable
grooming and composure marked his maturity.
said Blackbear hopefully.
a slight bow, the man added, “I am Alin Anaeashon, mate of Tulle Meryllishon.
Meeting you is my highest duty; my mate has told me so much about you.”
course, Blackbear recalled. The Director’s “mate” would have to meet him first,
an Elysian custom. The same would be true for Raincloud’s supervisor, and for
any other Elysian they had to meet.
nudged him, whispering a phrase in his ear. Blackbear nodded stiffly; it was
hard to bow, with the child on his neck. He returned the formal phrase. “My
mate Raincloud will hear glowing reports of you.” He hoped his accent was not
too bad. The word “mate” still bothered him; it could mean either goddess or
an honor,” said Alin. “And your ... little friend; has he received proper
child was still sobbing on and off.
said, “Let me present Sunflower, my ...”
shonling,” prompted Raincloud.
here’s Fruitbat,” clicked Hawktalon, extending her stuffed animal.
buried his face in his father’s shoulder, but held out Wolfcub by its tail.
defective was hyperventilating,” insisted the servo. “The foreigners obstructed
our care. Reinforcements will arrive.”
enough, a second hovercraft was settling beside the first.
training is defective,” Alin calmly told the servo. “First, foreigners require
consent for treatment. Second, the patient is clearly a shonling.”
servos immediately drew back. “He is not registered with any shon,” said
one. The lamppost-type added, “Please report our defect to Service Sector
the servos reentered their hovercraft and took off. Sunflower was calmer now,
just sniffing at intervals. “Bird,” he clicked, eyeing the departing
hovercraft. “Bird fly away.”
Alin smiled slightly. “Sorry, the medics were only trying to help. If you
register your child with the Helishon, you’ll have no more trouble.” The
Helishon was the main nursery-womb of Helicon.
plan to register,” said Blackbear. “But we’ve only just arrived.”
say ...” Alin was looking past Blackbear to something behind him in the street.
turned. There was the runaway trainsweep still, behind him now, as if carrying
an invisible train. His heart sank again. “It followed us out of the vesicle,”
he explained, much embarrassed.
gave a peal of laughter, like a delighted child; for the first time, the
Elysian seemed to come alive as a real person. “I expected you in native dress,
but—a trainsweep without a train? Tulle will love it!” His look of gravity
returned. “Never mind; its network must have crossed connections and oriented
to you by mistake. Just look up its owner and give his mate a call.”
asked, “Couldn’t we just turn it off?”
shook his head. “It might take a while to retrain. Let’s get you to your house,
shall we?” He motioned them to follow. Blackbear thought of his longhouse on
the mountainside, with the goats scampering down to pasture below. “We’ll just
take the next vesicle, this branch, and tell the servo your address. You’ll
need rest; we’ll get acquainted tomorrow, on the way to the lab. No problem,
tomorrow’s another Visiting Day for me.” The Elysians had a three-day work
week, restricted by law. An inefficient way to do business; but then, the
immortals could take their time.
clapped her hands. “Oh Daddy, can I go to the lab, too?”
answered, “Not tomorrow. You must come with me, to meet important people.”
Raincloud wanted to show off her firstborn goddess at Foreign Affairs.
week,” Blackbear promised. As the long golden train behind Alin passed before
him, he suddenly saw that what looked like dead leaves in the border pattern
were in fact butterflies after all, anaeans, their crinkled brown wings evolved
to resemble litter on the forest floor. Clever camouflage; these butterflies
were more than they seemed.
Elysian host led them down a “street” that felt more like a tunnel, Blackbear
thought. The facades at either side were all shaped like the profile of an
hourglass, their foundations curving down into the street while their upper
stories arched into the luminous sky-ceiling. The shop windows were wide open,
without even mesh screens to keep out insects. Not that he had seen any
insects, save for an enormous garden of butterflies; the sight drew his gaze
backward as they passed.
your house,” said Alin at last.
saw what appeared to be the faint trace of a doorway in the wall before him, at
the end of a gently sloping ramp. He gave Alin an uncertain look, trying to
muster up the courage to ask the location of the handle. But before he did so,
the center of the door pinched in and molded outward, until a doorway had
formed, jambs and all. His toes curled within his shoes.
get used to nanoplast,” Alin assured him. “It always startles foreigners at
first. Think of it as a sort of modeling clay inhabited by billions of
molecular servos. That’s what they told me when I was a shonling.”
smiled despite himself. This Elysian had not forgotten his own childhood, after
all his centuries.
for your help,” said Raincloud. “When should we expect our luggage?” Traveling
on Bronze Sky, their luggage had always seemed to end up behind.
paused as if surprised. “Is anything missing?”
blinked, then looked inside.
solid oak dining table, its legs fully assembled, stood in the near room, upon
the woolen rug woven by Blackbear’s brothers for his wedding. The curtains,
which he had sewn to fit the windows back home and expected to have to redo
completely, now hung upon windows shaped perfectly to fit. Raincloud’s clan
portrait, with her three sisters, twelve brothers, and assorted nieces and
nephews, and himself beside her, hung right there on the wall. He had packed it
away in three layers of wrapping.
felt shock and indignation. Who had dared to go through their things?
skipped through the doorway. “Look—it’s our house already!”
bad,” Raincloud admiringly told the Elysian. “Your people are most
the house took care of everything.”
anger subsided. As usual, his goddess was less particular about interiors than
he was. He should be grateful, he realized, for packing and unpacking was the
one thing that could drive him and Raincloud to snap at each other. Still, as
he went inside to look around, he wondered at the lack of privacy. In Tumbling
Rock, no stranger would enter a house unasked.
Dark One will need a shrine, though.” Raincloud had located the figure of the
Dark Goddess, standing most inappropriately at the rear of the sitting room.
The black glazed figure, about half height, had the traditional six arms of the
Goddess: her lower two hands held a baby to the breast; her middle two grasped
a fanged snake at its head and tail, its midsection caught in the Dark One’s
mouth; and her upper two hands lifted overhead in a gesture of the dance, their
said, “Just tell your house to push out another room. You’ve not yet filled
hundred cubic meters is your quota,” said a voice. “Your rooms at present total
seventy percent of quota.”
gave a start, and looked around.
am your dependable housing unit,” said the voice, “manufactured by the Valan
House of Chrysolite. If I ever fail you in any way, citizen, please report my
defect to ...”
mouth fell open, and a chill reached his toes. He thought, Even our home has
the doorway, Alin observed, “The holostage should connect right here. Let’s
have the news,” he called to the house.
gossamer shell of light appeared in the sitting room, above the holostage. It
formed a man, full-size, wearing a talar with cut stones arrayed across his
chest. It was the prime minister of Valedon, Shora’s sister world, standing
right there in the Windclans’ home. “The Ministry categorically denies this
allegation,” the man’s voice boomed, too loud for comfort; Hawktalon clapped
her ears. “It is inconceivable that any Valan vessel would violate the
recognized space boundary of Urulan, or of any sovereign world. Surely the Free
Fold will accept our word, the word of a peace-loving democratic society, over
that of a state mired in feudal barbarism—”
please,” ordered Raincloud.
voice ceased, but the speaker remained.
used to be feudal enough, a few centuries back,” muttered Raincloud.
house full of ghosts, thought Blackbear.
house obligingly tunneled an extra room for the shrine of the Dark One. It also
reshaped Hawktalon’s bedroom at her impudent request, giving it a domed ceiling
like that of the Temple back home. Then it produced their dinner out of a
“window” in the kitchen, roasted goat flesh with potatoes, steaming hot, as if
by magic. Before Blackbear even looked for a broom, several servos like large
cockroaches came out and sucked all of Sunflower’s crumbs off the floor.
fascinated him, yet annoyed him, too. “Those servos will try to do your braids
next,” he grumbled to Raincloud as he undid his turban and shook out his hair,
then slid exhausted into their ready-made bed.
I’d toss them out, first.” Her arms stretched back amongst the braids, and her
breasts rose, as beautifully dark as the rich soil of the Hills. Then she
reached up and pulled him over on top of her. Suddenly she was as hungry and
desirous as the Dark One devouring the snake. They weren’t quite so exhausted
after all, Blackbear decided.
next morning, the Windclans were up early for morning prayers to the Dark One.
The Goddess Mu, her name too sacred to be uttered, existed in forms infinite in
number, smaller than the smallest particle, and ever present. The six-armed
form was her favored aspect among humans. Hawktalon lighted the beeswax candles
before the polished image, under the watchful eye of her mother. The fragrance
of the candles helped Blackbear feel more settled. Perhaps the hand of the Dark
One would protect them, even here, so many light-years out from the Hills.
prayers came rei-gi. The Dark One forbade all instruments of death, but
the defensive art of rei-gi helped ward off highwaymen and starving gold
miners on the frontier. The main principle of rei-gi was to apply a
small force, precisely timed, to deflect an attacker’s thrust and tumble him
house obligingly tucked their furniture into its walls, and Blackbear spread
out the mat. The living room was just long enough for one good tumble over the
shoulder, ending with a resounding thump of the foot. After the tumbles, over
and over, they practiced throws and escapes. Hawktalon was already good enough
to toss Blackbear overhead when he caught her from behind, the “Tumbling Rock”
move, which gave its name to their home village. Even Sunflower could squiggle
out from his mother’s arms when she held him up.
rei-gi was designed especially for people carrying children, Blackbear
and Raincloud practiced with a twenty-pound sack of beans strapped to the lower
back. Hawktalon practiced, too, with a smaller sack. Then Raincloud sat
Sunflower behind her hips, in a leather harness designed to protect his head.
He laughed with delight as she sparred, unaware of the meticulous training
required to keep him safe.
last Raincloud set out with Hawktalon to meet the mate of the Sub-Subguardian,
her supervisor at the Nucleus. “Look, Mum,” exclaimed Hawktalon as she stepped
out the door. “There’s Doggie!”
Doggie!” echoed Sunflower, running outside in his bare feet.
enough, the runaway trainsweep was still there. It had waited all night
outside. It was no longer moving, though.
frowned. “Didn’t you report it last night, dear?”
told the ‘house’” said Blackbear, exasperated. “I hope its owner claims it
sure they will. At least its power has run down, so it’ll stay put.”
me, Citizen,” spoke the house; Blackbear gave a start. “This trainsweep has
nearly exhausted its reserve. If it goes out completely, it will require costly
obviously needs retraining already,” Blackbear muttered.
well, Citizen, that can be arranged—”
mind,” he interrupted, shying at “costly.” “How do I ...” His vocabulary
it,” completed Raincloud.
extension cord snaked out of the house and connected to the trainsweep for half
a minute. The little servo promptly woke up and jiggled toward them, to
Sunflower’s delight. Blackbear felt as foolish as if he had just fed milk to a
have to take it inside,” said Raincloud, “so it won’t follow us all the way to
waved good-bye, walking alongside her mother—a significant concession,
a sigh, Blackbear shooed the trainsweep inside. As it turned out, the little
servo kept the two-year-old’s attention while Blackbear spent an hour
rearranging furniture and rediscovering packed clothing. He was anxious enough
to get started at the Fertility Lab, but he had no idea when the Director would
deign to see him. Whatever was her mate Alin to “report” about him? This
Elysian social ritual was trying.
morning, Blackbear,” called Alin’s voice, apparently from the sitting room.
“Are you there?”
Blackbear hurried over. There stood the “ghost” of Alin Anaeashon with
his train of dead-leaf butterflies, in a column of light upon the holostage
where the Valan minister had harangued them the day before.
hope you slept well, your first night in Helicon? It will be my highest duty to
introduce you today. Tulle wants to show you an exciting discovery in heart
said Blackbear, collecting himself. This holostage must take incoming calls,
like the visiphones in Founders City. “I am eager to get started—”
along, then,” said Alin, “and meet me at the swallowtail garden just outside
train made a graceful arc as he swept around, his sandals tapping quietly,
their soles curved up in front of the toes. As he shrank away in the distance,
the image of his surroundings remained in the column of light. There were tall
trees, beautifully sculpted, and what seemed to be thousands of butterflies
flitting about them. The sight caught Blackbear’s heart, despite his eagerness
to get to work.
discovery in immortal heart development, that did sound exciting. He quickly
packed Sunflower’s diaper bag, reminding himself it was about time for potty
training. Then he carried the child out the door, managing to keep the
trainsweep inside before the door closed. A sort of squeaking sound emanated
from inside; servos squeaked like that, now and then.
navigated the street-tunnels between the concave facades, and then the vesicles
of the transit reticulum. He could appreciate the “cellular” structure of the
city, with its membranelike network of channels, culminating in the central
Nucleus. The founders of Helicon, who had created the ageless Elysians, had
been doctors from the planet Helix, come to learn molecular biology from the
Sharer lifeshapers. The Heliconian Doctors, like their Sharer hosts, had shaped
Elysium through biology; and yet, they went much farther. No Sharer could have
dreamed of nanoplast.
avenue leading up to Science Park was wider and taller than the residential
street. Upon the radiant skylight giant birds of paradise alternated with the
blue shapes of heliconian butterflies. Below, the Elysians passed with their
trains like flowing streamers. On a shop windowsill, a medical helicopter set
down, bells ringing, and a couple of servos scrambled out. Blackbear wondered
who was getting “treated” this time. No Elysian need call a doctor a day’s
journey off across the mountain.
butterfly dipped before him, a large yellow swallowtail with black ribs and
rows of blue and red spots. It hovered, then fluttered off ahead. As he walked,
there came another, then another.
his shoulders, Sunflower tried to raise himself higher. “What that, Daddy?”
a butterfly, Sunny.”
Sunflower repeated carefully.
rose before him, right up to the sky-ceiling, covered with shimmering
butterflies. The scent of blossoms, where the insects sipped nectar, was
compelling. The little black-lined tails of the nearer ones seemed to wink at
him. Closer, one could see the fat orange-stalked caterpillars devouring the leaves;
the trees must require special care.
the trees, Elysians stood or sat upon crescent-shaped benches of nanoplast. A
few conversed quietly, but most simply stared or meditated, seeming lost in
thought, as they viewed the butterflies. “Butterfly viewing.” They almost
seemed to be praying. Did Elysians have any sense of worship? The Sharers
worshiped their entire ocean as a Goddess. Clickers served the Dark One; but
could She reach here, across the light years, Blackbear wondered uneasily.
caught sight of Alin at last, staring up at the trees. Alin wore a talar of
pale green, bordered again with anaean leafwings. His train and trainsweeps
were missing. At first he did not quite see Blackbear; then he looked up, as if
emerging from a dream. “I still wonder, what it would have been like,” Alin
said in a low voice. “I had a chance, you know, to visit Helix....”
blinked at him. The planet Helix had been destroyed, nine centuries before.
gaze sharpened. “Excuse me, Doctor Windclan. I trust you slept well, your first
night in Helicon? Do you enjoy the garden? The swallowtails are my favorite, I
must confess. In Helicon, of course, heliconians are favored. They’re the
longest lived of the lepidoptera, and the original emblem of our people.
‘Elysian’ is an old misreading of ‘Helishon.’” He smiled apologetically.
“Words interest me. I’m a logen, after all.”
logen was a sort of public philosopher. The logens, Raincloud
said, were inspired by the “wordweavers” of The Web, a Sharer
dug a foot into Blackbear’s chest. Wincing, Blackbear gave in and let the child
down to toddle off.
your shonling registered, now?” Alin asked, his gaze following the child
nodded. “The house took care of it.” The house seemed to know everything,
serving almost as a surrogate family. With a pang, he suddenly missed all his
brothers and sisters again. It was more than he could bear; even the secret of
immortality might not be worth a year of loneliness.
you gave birth to him yourself.”
myself.” Blackbear chuckled. “The ‘goddess’ gives birth; the man nurtures.”
course, I’ve seen Tulle’s capuchins give birth. Tulle raises all sorts of rare
creatures from dead worlds, in her preserve in Meryllion. Still, that would be
something to give birth to a human child, however defective.”
frowned. His toddler was considered “defective” here because he would age and
die. “Are Elysians never born defective?” he asked suddenly. “Does the embryo
treatment ‘take’ every time?” Medicine was rarely perfect.
percent. The rest are unbalanced, somehow; they die of premature aging, within
the first year. Much of Tulle’s research aims to reduce that. But the embryo
treatment is amazingly efficient, when you think of it, all the thousand-odd
genes to be modified within a single fertilized egg.”
One in ten infants died? The idea shook him. He must have seen that figure
before, but somehow it had not sunk in.
eyed him quizzically, and Blackbear realized he had missed the Elysian’s last
remark. “Excuse me?”
a suggestion. Every shon has a visitor’s program, to teach our children
cultural diversity. They’d be delighted to accept yours for a year or two.
Think of it: the best education in the Free Fold.”
thought of it, and he nearly passed out. Just to imagine Sunflower out of sight
was impossible. “No thanks,” he forced himself to say. How could he ever
explain to this perplexing immortal? Amongst the turbulent Caldera Hills, when
any moment might be one’s last, it was a comfort to know that one’s last would
always be spent in the arms of those one loved.
you tell me about yourself?” Alin gestured toward one of the half-moon-shaped
benches, near the pavilion. A servo with a tray came out, bringing tea and
delicacies shaped in extravagant forms of birds and ocean creatures. “Tulle
will want to know all about you. Tell me, Blackbear, what do you do for
excitement, on your world?”
long would Tulle’s mate keep him here, he wondered. “Excitement?” he muttered
vaguely. “Three volcanoes overlook Tumbling Rock, one extinct, but one never
knows. We have earthquakes, about once a month. We all run outside and try to
guess how many houses will stay up.”
an outdoorsman! You’ll get along with the L’liite student in Tulle’s lab; he
actually lives outside, on a raft on the ocean,” Alin said with a slight
shudder. “Tulle and I rarely leave the cities. It’s too much bother, with all
the medics you have to take along.”
L’liite student—then he would not be the only foreigner in the lab, Blackbear
thought with relief. L’li was the planet from whence the first Clickers had
emigrated, two centuries ago, when Bronze Sky was terraformed and settled.
mate,” Alin added, “is she an outdoorsman, too?”
was trying to locate Sunflower, who was exploring beneath the next table. This
garden had no children’s corner. “Raincloud serves the Dark Goddess at
the Temple. She has borne two children. She is fluent in five languages,” he
concluded with a touch of pride.
the Urulite translator, yes?” Alin sipped his tea. “Urulite experts are
The Prime Guardian recruited her, but now she’s only to work for a
Sub-Subguardian.” The Prime Guardian chaired the Guard of Twelve, representing
Elysium’s twelve cities.
mean Sub-Subguardian Verid Anaeashon? Well, better a rising star than a
was a thought. He would tell Raincloud her supervisor was called a “rising
finally gave up trying to catch a butterfly and tiptoed back to his father.
“Read book,” he clicked, his hands leaving damp marks on Blackbear’s shirt.
“Read book now.”
watched curiously. “The child makes such delightful noises.”
is our language,” Blackbear explained self-consciously. “Click-click is spoken
only by our people.” Clickers had been a rural religious minority on L’li; they
remained a minority on Bronze Sky.
climbed up his father’s leg and settled himself in his lap. “Book, now.”
leaned forward confidentially. “Now that we know each other better,” the logen
said, “tell me something; I’ve always wanted to ask a ‘parent’ of
do you think of compassion?”
mouth fell open. “Compassion” was an Elysian word he vaguely recalled from the
know what The Web teaches, about compassion,” Alin went on. “Of course
nowadays, different readers teach differently; but The Web itself speaks
plainly, I think. Do you believe compassion is a virtue, or is it a form of
selfishness, in fact the deadliest of all desires?”
had never read the Sharer classic, although of course Raincloud had. Maybe he
had better, if these Elysians made such a deal of it. Why this riddle
game—would they never let him get to work? Meanwhile, Sunflower was squirming
insistently, and Blackbear caught a distinctive odor from his diaper. “Please
escaped to a nearby pavilion, where he changed the child’s diaper and, to make
up for the lack of storybooks, recounted the folktale about the rabbit who longed
they emerged, a hovercraft had set down in the garden, and a couple of servo
medics were attending someone. People had gathered round to look, talking
excitedly. Alin stood at a more respectful distance. “He slipped and twisted an
ankle,” Alin explained. “The medics want to do a scan on it, to make sure it’s
okay. Only two legs to last a millennium.”
longer,” Blackbear graciously responded. “For the ‘immortals,’ who knows?”
look changed, and for a moment his face darkened. “The oldest of us has barely
reached a thousand. Even ten thousand years would be just a speck of time.”
aback, Blackbear tried to frame an apology; but the Elysian had already
regained his composure. “Let’s be going, shall we? Ordinarily, I entertain
Tulle’s students for two days, but I know foreigners are always anxious to get
started.” Alin stopped at the pavilion for his train of leaf-winged butterflies
which he had left there with those of the other Elysians. His own four
trainsweeps recognized him instantly, springing up and scurrying out behind
strode down the cavernous street-tunnel, coming at last to Science Park, the
oldest laboratory in Elysium, the birthplace of immortality. A long, sloping
ramp curved around, melding into the concave facade. Nowhere in Elysium had
Blackbear seen a stairway; with good reason, he realized. Alin’s train swung
neatly around the ramp as he ascended, kept in order by his trainsweeps.
the top of the ramp, a sheer face of marble stood before them. There was no
sign of an entrance, save for an arch of illuminated inscription, whose sense
Blackbear tried to puzzle out. Something like, Where learning is shared, the
waters break through ... Perhaps that was, the waterfall breaks through
the inscription a cleft formed in the “marble,” like an embryonic cell dividing
in two. The cleft molded itself out into a doorway, a fancy one with fluted
trim and an ornamental arch.
Daddy, door.” Sunflower bounced happily on his shoulders. A magic doorway was
no stranger for him than anything else in life.
a door,” said Blackbear. “But don’t fly down, now,” he warned the child.
column of warm air met his face, like a summer wind except for a faint
medicinal odor. Elysian interiors were kept too warm for Blackbear’s taste.
Alin removed his train for the servo arm which slithered unnervingly out from
the wall. The walls of the hallway were plain, save for panels of blinking
lights that made Sunflower stretch out a hand and cluck with interest.
the ceiling, positioned as if to greet all who entered, hung a holographic
display. It showed an animal, like a transparent snake with its hollow gut tube
visible, undulating sinusoidally. The image must be magnified, for only a
microscopic organism would look so transparent. A worm, a nematode perhaps; he
could just distinguish the individual cells of its intestine. The worm traced
an S, over and over again.
female Elysian approached: at last, the Director, Tulle Meryllishon.
More than five hundred years old, with the figure of an adolescent, her long
blond hair hung straight as a waterfall to her shoulders, where a single clasp
at her right held up her loose-fitting gown. The border of her talar flashed a
pair of metalmarks, pink wings with metallic black edges.
the talar scampered a live monkey, a capuchin with its hood of black fur.
Reaching the Director's shoulder, the capuchin twined its tail and blinked at
bowed to his mate. “My duty is fulfilled. Doctor Windclan meets our highest
yes, thanks,” Tulle replied, bowing with a smile. “I shall call on your mate at
the earliest opportunity, Blackbear.” She followed his gaze to the display of
the magnified worm. “Do you recognize our friend up there? Caenorhabditis
elegans, the first organism in which a gene for aging and fertility was
discovered. This specimen was a mutant which lived twice as long as wild-type,
but produced only a fifth as many eggs. The mutant gene was known on Torr, in
the pre-interstellar era. Today, we know a thousand such genes—in humans. And
yet ...” She looked back over her shoulder.
man and a goddess were approaching, too tall and large-boned to be Elysian.
“Here are the people who really run the lab,” Tulle explained. “Our students,
Onyx and Draeg. The Elysian students will send their mates to see you
was the L’liite “outdoorsman” Alin had mentioned. A tall fellow with unruly
auburn hair, well developed in the shoulders, Draeg wore a rough knee-length
tunic, his legs bare. He would have made a scandal in Tumbling Rock, in front
of the goddesses; what if one demanded his favors?
Draeg grinned and patted Sunflower on the head. “That’s some kid you’ve got,
Brother,” he said in L’liite, a language Blackbear knew well. Bronze Skyans all
spoke L’liite, for most of their ancestors had emigrated from crowded L’li.
sweetheart,” agreed Onyx, the senior student, a goddess from Valedon. She raised
a hand to touch Sunflower, who in turn reached for the flashing red stone hung
at her neck. Her ringers were webbed in between; Blackbear tried not to stare,
intrigued though he was by this sign of Sharer ancestry. Intermarriage between
the twin worlds must be common. “Watch out, little imp,” Onyx told Sunflower,
“or Tulle will nab you for the Preserve.”
don’t scare him off,” Draeg protested. “Just when we need the help.”
course not.” Onyx touched his arm. “I’ve been here the longest; any machines
you need to get working, just ask.”
along,” beckoned Tulle, “we must show you Draeg’s latest discovery. You recall
the heartless gene? This new heartless mutant develops an ageless
heart, yet it makes fertile gonads, too.”
first heartless mutants had failed to develop hearts, but this one must
be a subtler change. And the secondary effect on the gonads was most
interesting. Developmental genes rarely had a single function; rather, they
acted on different body parts at different stages.
can’t wait to get started,” Blackbear told the Director as they walked down the
corridor, passing doors that appeared and disappeared disconcertingly. “Must I
really only work three days a week?” The Elysian “Right of Visitation,” which
restricted the work week, seemed a pointless hindrance.
laughed, as if he had told a good joke.
a foreigner,” Onyx explained, “you can get an extra work day if you cite
‘religious law.’ It does help pay the bills.”
intoned, “We are all most religious, around here.”
gave a low chuckle. “The cost of living’s notorious in Helicon. But Foreign
Affairs set you up, didn’t they?”
that moment Sunflower was attempting to fly down from his shoulder and enter a
door that had just appeared. Fortunately, the door turned out to be their
destination at last.
room contained a simple holostage without control panels. “The servo simulates
development of the embryo,” Tulle told him. “Most longevity genes also play key
roles in early development—and heartless is no exception.”
down,” ordered Draeg. The room darkened. “It’ll work this time, you’ll see.”
central servo came back with a brand new program,” said Onyx. “It had better
new program’s just what I’m afraid of.” Draeg barked some more commands.
image appeared, fully dimensional, about one meter tall, of a human embryo. The
squarish bulb of a head was tucked under, while the limbless back section with
its track of somites curled upward, ending in a pointed tail. Through the bulge
of the heart, blood pulsed rhythmically.
watched as if transfixed. The detail was breathtaking, clear enough for him to
count the somites. About six or seven weeks, he guessed; the living embryo
would be smaller than a fingernail.
look at the heart,” said Tulle. “Focus in.”
spoke again to the servo. The bulging heart grew larger until it filled the
stage. Its twisted tube of tissue had already ballooned into ventricles and
explained, “We can test any model by simulation. We can mix and match different
alleles for each gene, and see what the model predicts. This model predicts
both an ageless heart and fertile germ cells.”
nodded. “How can you tell?”
can’t, at this level,” said Draeg. “You have to go subcellular.” He addressed
the holostage again, this time interrupted by Onyx.
don’t think you want to do that,” Onyx warned. “If I were you, I’d try ...”
Blackbear was lost.
image wavered and shuddered. Then it burst into a snow of light. The room went
Reset, will you?” came Draeg’s voice. “I said, reset.”
whimper, then a sob, came from Sunflower. Then the child broke down altogether.
“Light out,” he sobbed. “Light!”
took the child down and tried to comfort him, The door reappeared, filling the
room with light from the corridor. Still, it was no use; the child had had a
long day. He had missed his nap, Blackbear realized.
must have overloaded the program,” Onyx was telling Draeg over Sunflower’s
that’s what we sent it out to fix,” said Draeg.
said Tulle with a stern wave of her hand. “The shonling—can’t you see
he’s in trouble?”
was still racked with sobs, his little chest heaving in and out. “Poor dear,”
agreed Onyx, patting his shoulder.
outside, bells rang. A panel opened in the wall, and the medic hovercraft
mouth fell open, and he held the child close. “It’s all right,” he exclaimed.
“We don’t need any ‘care.’”
eyed him closely, then she nodded. “It’s all right, off with you,” she called
out to the emerging servos.
lost, metalmen!” added Draeg.
Draeg,” said Onyx.
just machines. Can’t I get out some frustration?”
don’t know,” said Onyx uneasily. “Those servos make me wonder sometimes.”
medics had left by then, and Sunflower was rocking to sleep in Blackbear’s
muttered Draeg. “You’ve got to get away from them. That’s why I live outside on
a Sharer raft. Cheaper, too.”
ran a diagnostic series on the controls, calling one unintelligible command
after another, with occasional input from Tulle. At last the living fetal image
is beautiful,” Blackbear said at last. “Where do you take it next?”
test our model in vivo,” said Tulle at last. “Not in humans; not just
said, “We’ll test it in the simian hybrid first. The Elysian students culture
the simian embryos. You’ll meet them tomorrow.”
frowned fiercely and looked away. Of course, Blackbear thought, there would
have to be testing in humans.
was well past six when Blackbear got home. The door to the apartment oozed open
at the sight of him. With a sigh he swung Sunflower down; thumb in mouth, the
child curled up on the floor, half asleep. The imprisoned trainsweep scurried
over, but for once the child took no notice.
column of light remained above the holostage, just as before he had left that
one answered. Raincloud and Hawktalon must still be out. Why would the
holostage be on? It still displayed the butterfly garden where Alin had called.
“Goddess—did I leave it running all day? House,” he called in Elysian, “why
didn’t you turn that off when we left?”
I failed to hear your request, Citizen, please report my defect to—”
mind. Please turn it off, now. How many credits did it cost?”
holostage went dark. “No cost.”
was right; he had received the call from Alin. Relieved, he took a step toward
sitting room—something had changed. The far wall, where Blackbear had removed
the figure of the Dark One, now contained a wide blank panel with a frame that
reached from floor to ceiling. What was this? It was unlike Raincloud to
he moved closer, the panel came to life with an ocean scene. Great white-tipped
waves rolled in the distance, and the roar of the spray shook his feet. The
image was so designed that as he moved, the view in the “window” moved with
him, just like a real ocean in the distance outside a window.
spoke the window. “I am a climate window, a greeting-gift from Citizen Alin
Anaeashon, mate of Citizen Tulle Meryllishon. Please choose your
view. I have many selections: sunrise and sunset, of twenty types; snowcapped
mountains, sunlit or rain, eighteen varieties; plains with stampeding herds of
ten different exotic animals; volcanoes, gentle or explosive ...”
shook his head in amazement, as the list droned on with the rolling waves.
Citizen Alin Anaeashon hopes that I prove pleasing to an outdoorsman
like yourself. If not, I may be returned or exchanged at The Golden
Fritillary for six hundred credits. Please choose your view.”
touching gesture, thought Blackbear, recalling Tulle’s mate with some warmth.
But what if he had to reciprocate? Where would he get that kind of cash?
returned to the kitchen. “Sunflower, what do you want for dinner?”
came a sleepy voice.
“kitchen,” too, was a talking window where things appeared—real food, at least.
If only the “climate window” in the sitting room could provide real mountain
grass, too, he would feel much better.
he called. “May we please have two servings of grilled cheese?” He could have
had himself a good steak, he realized, but he was too tired to bother changing
the order. Raincloud still had not come home; she would be cross from traveling
so late past dinner.
kind of cheese, Citizen?”
have two hundred varieties of goat cheese, from five different planets—”
plain goat cheese.” He waved his hand aimlessly. “The local brand. Same for the
bread.” He frowned to himself. Where would the housing unit store two hundred
varieties of goat cheese?
climate window in the sitting room was talking again, asking Sunflower to
choose a view. Sunflower watched mesmerized, tracing the surface of the ocean
waves with his right hand. His other hand pulled absently at his left ear.
child was prone to infections of the middle ear. Concerned, Blackbear pulled
out his otoscope and peered inside both of Sunflower’s ears. Each ear contained
a healthy pink cavern of little hairs, surrounding the pearly disk of the
visitor, Citizen,” intoned the house.
jumped up and went to the door. There stood a blond goddess in a pink gown and
train bordered with swallowtails; a Papilishon. Behind her, the
sky-ceiling had darkened. Blackbear wished he had checked first; it was unwise
to be seen with a strange goddess after dark.
she said. “My apologies; I’ve come at last for my mate’s trainsweep. Thanks so
much for reporting it.”
runaway trainsweep was still there, all right, just inside the sitting room. It
immediately scurried back to the bedrooms.
breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m so sorry for the trouble; I did my best, you
no, the fault is ours entirely. We ordered a new brand of trainsweeps; we
should have stuck with the Chrysolite House as usual. Is there anything we can
do for you? My mate, you know, is a Helishon of nine hundred years. He’d
love to show you the city; he knows all our history, from the day the
Heliconian Doctors landed.”
I’ll remember.” Blackbear realized he had been right at first, after all; the
trainsweep’s owner, with the free-flowing hair, had been a man.
went and dug out the trainsweep, which he found hiding beneath Sunflower’s bed.
Despite himself, he felt sorry for the machine. Was he going crazy? He would
never get used to this place.
Elysian goddess sighed. “I’ll have it retrained.” She bent over and pressed
something beneath the machine’s underside. Its gentle humming died. Another
trainsweep left her train to come over and hitch the runaway to its back, then
returned to its position behind her. She bowed. “My mate will hear glowing
reports of you. And remember, if you ever want a tour ...” She turned to go,
her train sweeping around forming a wide half-moon.
“Doggie!” wailed Sunflower
from behind his father’s legs. “I want Doggie ...”
dear; dinner must be ready.” But the child was inconsolable. Completely worn
out, he would not eat his dinner; it was all Blackbear could do to sing him to
sleep in his darkened bedroom. The child’s head nestled on his shoulder, its
scent sweeter than perfume. In the darkness thoughts of the day past whirled in
his head, the giant embryo looming in the shadows with its ageless heart. Where
learning is shared, the waterfall breaks through.... This work would be
even more exciting than he had hoped.
sounded faintly outside the room. Raincloud and Hawktalon were home at last.
Blackbear gently laid Sunflower in his bed and adjusted a pillow on the floor
in case he rolled out, for he had only just switched from the crib.
the kitchen, Raincloud sat at the table looking tired. Blackbear gave her a
good hug and massaged her shoulders. “You must have had quite a day. What can I
get for you?”
shrugged. “How about veal stuffed with mushrooms and water chestnuts.”
Raincloud had taken advantage of this “kitchen” in no time. How did it ever
prepare things so fast? he wondered. It was fine for now, but he hoped she
would not be spoiled for his own cooking back home.
you?” he asked Hawktalon, wrestling her arm.
about chocolate marble cake with ice cream?”
been eating ice cream all day.” Raincloud sounded exasperated.
cream?” Blackbear asked. “At the Nucleus?”
never got to the Nucleus.”
toured the entertainment district all day with Iras.”
Letheshon was the mate of Sub-Subguardian Verid Anaeashon. Verid’s
mate was not a man but a goddess like herself. Such pairings were common among
Elysians, between men as well. Blackbear could see it for goddesses, but he
found it hard to imagine a man worshiping another man.
circus, the arcade, the swallowtail garden,” Raincloud ticked off her fingers.
“Iras said the Sub-Subguardian was booked solid all day, with one ambassador or
wandered off into the sitting room. The climate window introduced itself and
commenced its catalogue of views.
relayed Raincloud’s request for veal to the house, making it a double order.
“That’s a shame,” he sympathized. “These Elysians are a chatty lot. You’d think
they’ve got nothing better to do.”
had plenty to do. She’s a loan officer for Bank Helicon; she kept getting calls
the whole time, to finance solar power satellites on L’li and servo factories
on Valedon. A servo warned her now and then about Visiting Hours.”
grinned. If Elysium was famous for one thing, it was banking. Where else could
you pay back a loan over two centuries? “Well, I’m sure the Sub-Subguardian
will see you tomorrow,” he said. “Alin called her a ‘rising star.’”
stared thoughtfully, then nodded. “Iras said the same.”
veal was as good as it smelled. He savored each forkful, thinking that onions
and garlic might make it even better next time.
thunderous roar shook the floor beneath their feet. An earthquake? Blackbear
leaped to his feet, and Raincloud ran out to fetch Sunflower to safety.
there was no “safety,” trapped as they were in this sphere of a city. For that
matter, how could there be an earthquake?
the sitting room, the climate window displayed a massive volcanic eruption,
complete with chunks blasting out of the mountainside and red lava spraying
into the sky. Hawktalon had her hands clapped over her ears, jumping with glee,
her beads dancing around her head.
room was silenced. The window display continued its lurid eruptions, giving
viewers the unnerving sense of flying in an airplane right overhead. “How dare
you, Hawk,” he exclaimed. “You’ll wake your little brother.”
giggled. “I only did what it told me, Daddy. ‘Please choose your view.’”
came in, cradling Sunflower. “That’s not half-bad,” she said, admiring the
window. “Does it do earthquakes, too?”
of ten kinds, Citizen, and three tidal waves,” said the window.
a great idea for earthquake drills. We must keep the kids in shape, after all.”
She settled in the chair and undid her breastflap for Sunflower to nurse.
can’t keep this gift,” Blackbear told her. “It cost six hundred credits. How
could we reciprocate?”
won’t expect such expense from us. They think we’re dirt poor. Besides, we’ll
have to entertain Alin here; he’ll see if you kept it.” She thought it over.
“Still, it would dishonor our clan not to reciprocate. I’ll come up with
Sunflower dozed off, Raincloud beckoned Hawktalon to come up for a token sip.
Then, looking up at Blackbear, she added mischievously, “Your turn.”
have mine later,” he returned with a smile. He was feeling better, settling in;
they were still a family, even so far from their clan.
watched Raincloud soaping her back and arms before bed, a truly divine sight.
“I should redo your braids again.”
let’s plan on it. You can do Hawktalon’s, too. I’ll make sure I get home
earlier.” She frowned; something was on her mind. “Blackbear ... I think they
want me to leave Hawktalon home.”
fingers tightened. “Did they say that?”
didn’t say, but you know, I can read people.” Raincloud got out of the
bath, and Blackbear wrapped a towel around her. “Iras kept on talking about her
shon, and how Hawktalon would enjoy it with all their activities.”
clasped her arms. “I wouldn’t let her near a shon.”
turned her head and regarded him curiously. “Really? The shon is
supposed to be a model nursery, not that I believe in nurseries. But one day a
week wouldn’t hurt. They enroll foreign visitors free of charge; it’s
considered a ‘cultural experience’ for their children.”
wouldn’t trust them. All of us foreigners are ‘defective,’ remember.” He
paused. “And what about you? How would you get on without her?”
went to class alone, when she was little,” Raincloud reminded him. “You
couldn’t bear to part with her. You took her to anatomy lab, where she drank
formalin one day.”
a taste,” he muttered, wincing at the recollection. “Well, I’ll take her with
me again. She wants to see my lab, after all.”
you sure? What will your Director say?”
won’t mind. That Science Park is full of foreigners. They adored Sunflower.”
nodded. “Elysium runs on cheap foreign labor.”
give it a try.”
flashed him a smile. Still, it saddened him to think of her alone in this
bizarre city, without even a friendly little pair of eyes to share the view.
the morning Raincloud left to meet Iras again,
and Blackbear set off for Science Park with both children. Hawktalon
skipped ahead gaily in anticipation.
the laboratory, Tulle was out for her Visiting Day, showing Alin’s colleagues
about town, Onyx explained. Onyx and Draeg were delighted to see Hawktalon, and
they offered to put her to work on the spot. “She’s a beauty,” added Draeg,
nudging Blackbear in the arm. “My little sister back home is just her age.”
Onyx, who as senior student had the best lab space, had already cleared out a
place by her desk for Sunflower to play. Draeg had purchased a rattle and a toy
servo from a tourist shop.
was deeply touched. This place was already feeling like home.
worked all morning at the embryo program, trying to fix the bug at the cellular
level. Onyx kept shouting “I’ve got it!” and they seemed to make progress,
though after two hours the program still overloaded. Draeg swore his head off
like an angry goddess. Disconcerted, Blackbear knew that a man would never dare
talk like that in Tumbling Rock.
do you expect to see inside the mutant cells?” Blackbear asked. “What makes the
heart tissue immortal?”
new protein appears,” Draeg explained. “This protein scavenges oxygen radicals
whose damage accumulates over time. It will prevent heart failure up to eight
or nine hundred years.”
or nine hundred years? What happens after that?”
knows?” said Onyx. “The Helishon itself has only existed a thousand
nodded. “A thousand years without aging—that sounds immortal, to me.”
and Onyx exchanged glances. Onyx said, “We never say ‘immortal,’ only
‘ageless.’ Most Elysians who escape accident will make it to a thousand, but a
small percentage won’t. Nothing’s perfect. And in the future, say, by the year
ten thousand, who knows?”
see.” Blackbear considered this. So the Elysians had their “defectives,” too.
chuckled. “Who do you think pays our salaries?”
pays a good wage,’ as the Sharers say,” quoted Onyx. “The Guard pays our
salaries, of course, to work on longevity. Tulle manages a dozen students,
scattered around Science Park. Only the three of us emphasize fertility, an
offshoot of her main project. You’ll probably look at egg cell development;
that’s hot right now. The Fertility Project attracts foreign students.”
Guardians,” said Draeg, “are all quincentenarians at least. For them, we’re the
right,” she teased, shoving Draeg in the arm, “Draeg just loves those Elysians;
wants to help them live longer.”
gave her a dirty look. “As you said, it’s all related.”
smiled. “It’s fascinating, but I still find it hard to see why aging and
fertility are so inextricable.”
said, “Remember the nematode—long life, fewer eggs? Evolution picks genes that
make more eggs, early on, at the expense of later lifespan. It’s
...” Blackbear wished he could put into words what troubled him.
have a hard time with that one, myself,” Onyx admitted. “Ask Tulle.”
broke for coffee in the lounge, where a service window overlooked a small
garden of heliconians feeding at passionflowers, their scent filtering in. By
the service window, a holostage displayed two Elysians seated within its column
of light. One wore the motif of dead-leaf butterflies.
stared at the illuminated ghosts. “Say, that’s Alin.”
was speaking calmly to the other man, who was tall for an Elysian, draped in
royal blue heliconians. “Is it not the case that Bank Helicon financed the
construction of interstellar missiles for Valedon? And perhaps some of those
missiles found their way to Urulan, as well? What will the Sharers say, I
violated no clause of the Sharer treaty,” said the man in the blue heliconians.
nodded. “The Sharers would say, ‘Let one fleshborer devour another.’ Where does
that place us, I wonder.”
man looked tight in the face, and his hands gripped the sides of his chair.
Blackbear’s shoulder Onyx explained, “It’s a logathlon, a sort of trial
by words. In public, of course. The defendant is the president of Bank
burst of applause came from an unseen audience. Blackbear remembered that
Verid’s mate Iras worked for Bank Helicon; Raincloud would be interested.
audience will vote in the end,” added Onyx.
looked over. “Those logens are all Anaeashon. Alin’s okay, but
some others cause us no end of trouble.” He tapped his knuckles on the service
window. “Tea for three, metalman.”
frowned and snapped her fingerwebs. “Wait till you get home to L’li and find
yourself talking like that to your father.”
laughed. “That will be the day. Where I come from, a man gets respect. You
don’t take crap from Elysians.”
wondered at this. He had found Elysians reasonably respectful, in their own odd
way. He watched Hawktalon approach the window, grasp it with her hands, and pull
herself up. “Chocolate marble cake, with ice cream on top,” she said in
mouth opened to speak, but he thought better of it. Raincloud would have to
have a talk with the girl; it was better for a goddess to discipline young
announced the holostage. The scene in the column of light had shifted. “Sharers
at Papilion seek to ban motor-driven boats. The underwater noise of the boats
drowns out the long-distance sonic communications of their giant starworms....”
Elysian students he had not yet met entered the lounge. “Students,” of course,
might be anywhere up to fiftyish in age; Elysians took their time about
education. Blackbear rose automatically for introductions, but they walked past
him, the man skipping to touch the ceiling.
morning, Pirin,” said Onyx.
bowed with a flourish. “Good morning, Onyx. It is my highest duty to see you,
as always. I hope the program for your heart model is running better?”
it’s just about there,” Onyx said with a hopeful grin.
new simbrid clone looks very promising,” Pirin offered.
other student, a goddess, clapped her hands. “We can’t wait to try out your
predictions in the simbrid embryo.”
or simian hybrid embryos, were bred from several primate strains to reach a
pattern of development which closely matched the human. Any finding from the
model program had to be tested in the simbrid before applying it to human
told Onyx, “Our mates will be taking the new student to lunch today.”
Presumably he meant Blackbear, whom he was unprepared to address until
introduced by his mate.
good arrangement,” said Onyx. “He will meet them with pleasure.”
two Elysians went to the window to order tea.
stood and stretched. “Time’s wasting—let’s have another go at that program
left the lounge. Onyx’s sandals scraped softly on the nanoplastic floor.
Pirin,” muttered Draeg. “Thinks just because he’s a Helishon he’s God’s
gift,” he finished in L’liite.
on, Draeg,” objected Onyx. “They’re just kids, barely out of the shon;
they take everything seriously. Give ‘em a couple of centuries, they’ll loosen
up like Tulle.”
me, I haven’t the time.”
you’d knock that chip off your shoulder, maybe they’d loosen up sooner. Don’t
mind them,” Onyx told Blackbear. “After your lunch with their mates, they’ll be
perfectly civil. You see, if you were Elysian, and they spoke to you without
introduction by your mate or theirs, it would be the worst possible insult.”
nodded. “It’s something like that, in the Hills. If you approach a man without
asking his goddess, you might be shunned.”
L’liite eyed him skeptically. “What sort of man needs the word of a female?”
for our own protection,” Blackbear assured him. A man who lost his honor might
as well leave the Hills forever.
Have you no strength of your own?”
man is built strong, to carry the children,” Blackbear said. “The ‘goddess’
bears them one at a time; the man carries them all.”
grinned. “Say, I like that. Blackbear, you’re all right, and your kids are the
greatest.” He put a playful armlock around Hawktalon.
girl caught Draeg’s hands, while bending her knees slightly. She took a deep
bow forward, and Draeg somersaulted over her onto the floor.
Blackbear cried, adding in Click-click, “You might hurt someone. You will
definitely talk with your mother.”
Mother taught me to.”
his elbow, Draeg scrambled to his feet. He was not at all displeased. “Where’d
you learn that, you little devil? We’ve got some sparring to do.”
Elysian students’ mates treated Blackbear to
a lively luncheon at a nearby pavilion, complete with acrobats who
tossed juggling pins across the tables and would have tossed Sunflower, too, if
Blackbear had not fetched him back at the last moment. Although the skin of the
young Elysians could scarcely be smoother than that of their elders, their
youth was unmistakable in their spontaneity and careless laughter; they made Blackbear,
with his two children to keep his heart on edge, feel old. Outside, of course,
the Elysians were marked by their trains, the length of which increased a meter
for each century of life.
his return, Pirin and Lorl greeted him with enthusiasm and pressed upon him
several reports of their work, which he stacked in the growing “to read” pile
on his new desk. Then Onyx rounded up everyone for a surprise conference with
Tulle, who had managed to slip away from her visiting duties for an illicit
conference with the lab.
was worried. “Working on Visiting Day—she could end up in the Palace of Rest
for a month.”
why we’re meeting her outside the lab, at the swallowtail garden,” said Onyx.
walls have ears. The servos will tattle.”
five of them, along with three other students whom Blackbear did not yet know,
met Tulle in the same garden where he had met Alin. Tulle’s capuchin scampered
to the floor; Hawktalon and Sunflower were soon in hot pursuit. The lab talk
flew thick and fast, quite over his head.
Tulle was addressing him. “What do you think of the new egg gene? Would the
project interest you?”
swallowed and tried to think of something to say. Draeg observed, “He’s only
got some good questions, though.” Onyx nudged him. “Ask Tulle what you asked
us, this morning.”
He hoped he could frame the question so as not to sound foolish. “I just
wondered, why is there such a tight link between fertility and aging? If the
Heliconian Doctors were smart enough to beat aging, why couldn’t they unlink
the functions of fertility?” The answer had to be obvious; he wished he had not
was silence. Heads turned toward Tulle, but she looked around at the group.
waved his hand. “The evolutionary link is too fundamental. For example, the int
gene is needed for spermatogenesis, but it also functions in the central
nervous system. The int alleles which yield the highest sperm count
happen to cause aging of the brain. A thousand genes like that have evolved,
enhancing fertility in youth but linked to aging. To reengineer that is as
daunting a task as, say, making lungs into gills.”
been done, hasn’t it?” someone asked. “The Sharers shaped themselves to breathe
water. That’s why the Heliconian Doctors first came here to learn from them.”
Sharers did a lot, but not that,” corrected Onyx. “Sharers get some oxygen
through their skin, from the microbes that turn them purple; but even they
can’t breathe water forever.”
doesn’t prove it can’t be done.”
heated discussion ensued, ending with the students falling silent one by one
and looking at Tulle.
spoke at last, oddly reluctant. “The truth is, we have no clear answer to
Blackbear’s question. The records of the Heliconian Doctors who made the first
ageless humans were lost after the Fall.”
Fall of Torr. Once humanity’s birthplace, Torr had been consumed by its own
machines. The machine-world then sent its rule to all living words, and death
to those who would not obey. When the planet Helix learned to jump the space
folds, cheating the speed of light, their first jumpship brought an end to
their ship was too late. Ten years after, at near-lightspeed, came Torr’s last
ship of death. The Fall of Torr meant the Fall of Helix, too. Thus, Shora’s
Heliconians became orphans, amid a chaos of awakened worlds tasting their first
shuddered. “I can’t imagine what life was like before the Free Fold.”
you can,” said Draeg. “Just visit Urulan, and watch them nuke their rebel
what do you think, Tulle?” Onyx persisted. “Why are the ageless
infertile? You must have an opinion.”
own belief,” Tulle said carefully, “is that the Doctors did not try too hard.
They did not deliberately suppress fertility; they didn’t have to, given the
natural link with aging.”
again. Lorl nodded slowly. “It’s interesting, you know. Only the reproductive
functions are defunct in our bodies, not the sexual ones. That is, we lack
wombs and eggs, but our sexual response is normal.”
corrected Pirin succinctly. “Males retain the potency we reach at age
that, Draeg made a crude hand sign at him. “The butterfly stud,” he muttered in
jabbed Draeg with her elbow. “But Tulle,” she objected, “you haven’t said why
the Heliconian Doctors failed to fix fertility.”
said, “They believed reproduction belonged to the Republic, state, not the
the shon,” corrected Pirin. “The shons are independent
corporations. They purchase their gene pool from all the planets of the Fold.”
each shon, through its alumni, elects a Guardian of the Guard of Twelve.
The shons are the Republic.”
evening Blackbear got the kids home early enough to order a gourmet dinner and
oversee a lesson from Hawktalon’s correspondence school. He bade Hawktalon to
add up all the goats on each hillside before playing at the climate window
called Raincloud from the door. “You have to come out and see.”
was resplendent in full Elysian regalia down to the sandals, with just enough
of a train to require a pair of trainsweeps behind. The background color was
bronze yellow, a comforting hue, bordered with butterfly wings of pale yellow
with orange-ringed black spots like rows of coins.
had to see this outdoors,” she said, “before the trainsweeps insist on folding
it up. Well? Do you like it?”
found his voice. “It’s—it’s fantastic. They give you an extra couple of
centuries?” he asked, estimating her train.
base length is two meters; anything less would look ridiculous. It’s a gift
course, a gift from the mate of the Sub-Subguardian, just as Tulle’s mate had
sent the climate window for him. Blackbear shook his head, thinking, their
debts were mounting.
worry,” said Raincloud. “I told you, love, I’m working on that. Anyway, Iras
said that at the Nucleus, robes and trains are de rigueur. She took me
to The Golden Fritillary, where we got the stuff, then spent the
afternoon helping orient the trainsweeps and teaching me how to walk so it
smiled. “I’ll definitely redo your braids tonight. Perhaps I can pick up some
of the pattern.”
The main thing is,” Raincloud explained, “now that I’m dressed ‘official,’ Iras
promised that the Sub-Subguardian will see me tomorrow.”
her new Elysian train, Raincloud walked light on her feet, as if the Goddess
held her up in Her dancing arms. A ridiculously confining garment for a
goddess, she thought, but of course she would not deign to say so. She thought
of Nightstorm, her eldest sister, who could wrestle a bear to the ground or
pull children out of quake-collapsed buildings. Raincloud would face her own
job with equal confidence.
the entrance to the transit reticulum, three servos awaited her. Their build
was the “floor lamp” type, their “lamp” heads bending forward now and then.
News reporters again, she sighed.
you the new Urulite translator?”
the Valan freighter really a spy ship?”
it true that Urulan now targets Elysian cities?”
shook her head politely, as she had for the past two days. Iras had warned her
that any word she spoke might be resynthesized by the less reputable networks.
She adjusted her sleeve at the shoulder, glancing backward where her two
trainsweeps neatly bundled up her train. These trainsweeps seemed content, not
about to run off like the one that had followed her children. She kept
expecting to see Hawktalon behind her, but of course the girl was on her way to
heart had skipped a beat to watch the family part from her, all three of
them. It had been easier before, somehow, when it was just Hawktalon going
off with Daddy to see his patients while Raincloud completed her exams. She
half felt nauseous, as if a new one were just stirring in the womb. It was
about time to start one, she thought, although she hated to give up nursing
Sunflower. Her sister now had five children, by two husbands.
here in Elysium, Raincloud’s education would bear fruit. In Founders City she
had interpreted for Sharers—here, she would meet them on their own ocean. For
years she had studied the Urulites—here she would translate their own
broadcasts and, perhaps, help promote peace. Peace and freedom, the longings of
her old teacher ...
Rhun. That was his name,
the escaped simian slave who had taught a handful of students at Founders
University. Rhun had given her all he knew of Urulan, and more; he introduced
her to the Sharer classics, too. He died young, as those of gorilla ancestry
often did. Yet despite everything, even the horrors of his own past, Rhun had
dreamed that someday Urulan would join the Free Fold.
the transit vesicle a nanoplastic seat arose, molding itself to meet Raincloud
as she sat. The air inside breathed of floral perfumes, which Elysians wore
liberally as if to attract the butterflies. Their trainsweeps emitted an
occasional squeaking noise. Iras had told her this squeaking was just a
byproduct of the circuitry. If so, it must be a common byproduct; the waiters,
the windows, even the hall servo that took the trains at the door, could be
heard squeaking softly if one listened. She imagined it was a language,
“servo-squeak,” and idly tried to puzzle out its sense now and then.
please,” she requested.
Anaeaon.” Anaeaon offered the most reliable news.
Valan jumpship freighter sprang up above the holostage, the one hit by Urulites
enroute to L’li.
Imperator of Urulan has issued a statement ...”
Imperator’s face was never seen in public, but his voice crackled out from the
holostage, presumably a broadcast recorded from Urulan. “Death to the Valan
thieves and liars!” the voice exclaimed. “And let the Elysian money changers
beware. We know all their plans to terraform our world and sell it off to the
highest bidder ...”
How could Elysians terraform Urulan—an inhabited world? This was overblown
rhetoric, even for the old Imperator. His threats would only further strain the
Free Fold; some would even call for Urulan’s destruction. She shook her head.
If only people everywhere would learn, as Clickers taught, to leave destruction
to the Dark One. Humaneness was for humans.
a war with Urulan might yet destroy the Fold. And if they ever attacked here
... Elysian defenses were strong, but if one in a thousand missiles sneaked
through, it would not take much to demolish its twelve cities, pearls floating
upon the sea.
considered this fact calmly, the same way she would wonder which of the Hills
would next erupt to claim its blind sacrifice. Someday, Elysium and L’li and
the others would have to look up from their petty squabblings over shared
fold-points on the trade routes, and make peace with Urulan.
was hard to imagine, though, what peace could be made with a nation that
battered its own provinces to dust, and mated its own females to apes to
produce slaves. A pity, for Urulan’s language and ballads were rich, and its
landscape, never terraformed, bristled with fourteen-plated carnivores amid
forests of giant ferns.
spoke the sibilant voice-over, “a response from the Prime.”
Prime Guardian, leader of the Guard of Twelve, appeared on the holostage.
Across his talar he wore a golden sash, the sign of a Guardian. The sash seemed
to glow, almost outshining his person.
stands for peace,” the Prime declared, his voice filling the vesicle with an
unusual resonance. “We will pursue peace with every inhabited world in the
Fold, and beyond.” Raincloud’s Sub-Subguardian worked with the Prime; she
wondered what that would be like.
seat level,” ordered an Elysian behind her, without the “please.” Servos
counted for nothing. Raincloud, though, had been taught that courtesy to
inferiors was a sign of goddesshood. She thought it best to maintain the habit,
even though the only “inferiors” in Helicon were these machines. Elysians
thought they made everyone equal, even man and goddess; but only their machines
would call Raincloud “citizen,” instead of “foreigner.” A childlike people with
their endless protocol and their meters of silken butterflies....
childlike, she corrected herself. Not at all, she thought again as the vesicle
slowed to a halt, preparing to fuse with a longer vesicle that snaked along a
deeper branch of the reticulum. As the two vesicles fused, her own seat became
a platform which gently melted down into the lower floor, as the “snake”
incorporated the smaller one.
Fields Boulevard, next, Citizen,” reminded the voice.
thanks.” Iras would meet her there, to take her to the Nucleus.
vesicle fused to the reticular wall, and the walls melted through. Ahead and
behind her, the trainsweeps squeaked softly and moved together, prepared to
unfold the trains of their citizens. Raincloud stood, and she followed the
Elysian before her as he entered the transit node, his train unfolding and
stretching out behind him between the trainsweeps. She felt the tug at her shoulders
as her own train did the same. The silken trains took some time to unwind and
flow ahead, particularly as most of their wearers were engaged in lively
conversation. Elysian transit, she thought, was made inefficient on purpose, to
give the passengers ample time for gossip on their way, as if four days a week
of visiting could never be enough.
stark cream white light of the skyvault still disappointed her; if only they
would bathe their mornings and evenings a proper red. The people, too, were of
mostly white or amber complexion. A rich, dark-blooded planet—that was what
Raincloud missed. But she brushed these thoughts aside with a faint
condescension for these people who might live for years indoors without
experiencing the natural product of her namesake.
stood Iras Letheshon upon the gleaming white pavement, speaking to a
hand-sized square box, a portable holostage, probably a call from a client.
Iras had long ruddy curls and an upturned nose, the kind of face that would
have made freckles outdoors. Her butterflies were cornflower blue, with rows of
orange-ringed spots like coins. Her train extended back a good five meters,
with two pairs of trainsweeps; a quincentenarian, at least.
shonsib,” Iras was telling the hand-sized square box, “I assure you,
it’s quite preposterous. Why, the Sharers won’t let us terraform even
uninhabited planets, much less Urulan.” She raised a hand to wave at Raincloud.
“My dear, you carried your train off like a native! Anyone would have thought
you were raised in a shon.”
Raincloud shuddered at the thought, but she smiled. “Thank you,” said
Raincloud. “I hope that I now satisfy the dress code of the Nucleus.”
the letter. Just remember, don’t change pace too fast, lest your retinue can’t
keep up and your train sag.”
that it would get dirty if it touched the street, Raincloud thought. Every bit
of floor space was kept spotless by little sucking servos that scurried like
rats from the gutters. There were no vehicles to spill oil, and certainly no
farm animals to deposit dung. Only Elysians passed, with occasional pet birds
or monkeys, heading up their trains like silk ribbons floating lengthwise down
can’t wait to see you,” Iras assured her. “She has an urgent assignment.”
indeed, she thought ironically. Iras and Verid were “mates”; the idea still
intrigued her. Two men might be lovers, but how a goddess could expect worship
from another goddess was hard to see. Raincloud herself thought of men as
almost another species, exotic birds who carried hidden beauty in their plumage
like peacocks. She adored watching men, especially demure, unworldly men, and
wondering what secrets they might unfold. Nightstorm had teased her about
taking a second husband, but that was not for her. Blackbear alone was worth
more than two.
holo box called again. A L’liite face appeared, requesting something about a
loan. “I’m sorry,” said Iras, “I told you, that’s the best rate I can quote on
a fifty-year term. I’ll be back in the office tomorrow....” She smiled
apologetically at Raincloud. “I’m up to my neck closing the deal on a fleet of
solar satellites the Valans will build for L’li.”
population had swelled to an impoverished twenty billion since the Clickers
left. The L’liites badly needed solar energy, microwaved down from the
satellites; but how would they ever pay the bill, Raincloud wondered.
L’liites are stalling for concessions; I’ve run up huge fines for my Visiting
Day. But the Valans will quietly compensate me. I love dealing with
foreigners,” she added as if it were a compliment. Unusually ambitious for an
Elysian, Iras took a creative attitude toward Visiting Days. A dangerous sport,
in a community whose Right of Visiting replaced any notion of “right of
it true,” Raincloud asked, “that the Sharers won’t let you terraform?” On
Bronze Sky, the Sharer delegates never let Raincloud forget that she inhabited
a murdered planet, its ecosphere erased for the sake of human habitation. For
two centuries since, Elysium had declined to finance another one. It surprised
her to learn that the ocean-dwellers held such influence over interworld
true,” Iras admitted. “We can’t finance anything to do with terraforming, at
least not directly. Indirectly ... well, that’s not my department.” She
shuddered. “It’s bad news to mess with Sharers. But really, don’t you think
L’li will need a new world soon, to resettle their excess billions?”
traffic of silk paused at an intersection, as a group of shon children passed,
probably from a tour of the Nucleus. The word shon derived from a native
Sharer word for “water cradle,” a bassinet which floated in a pool of water to
generate a rocking motion whenever the baby stirred. The children of the Helishon
wore brightly colored pantaloons that ballooned at the wrists and ankles,
with shiny slippers that tapered to a point and curled back. Trainless until
age twenty-one, they skipped and cartwheeled across the street, for all the
world like a troupe of clowns. No wonder Elysians maintained that impish sense
of humor in later life; whenever Raincloud turned unexpectedly, she could catch
that look of “something’s up” in the corners of Iras’s eyes.
man followed them, his train undulating across the street. His long, sandy hair
flowed straight down his back; a sight enough to shock all of Tumbling Rock, to
see so much manhood exposed.
the generen, who runs the shon,” Iras explained. “A generen
acquires much influence, as the ‘parent’ of future voters.
nodded. “Wasn’t Verid once a generen?”
she was,” said Iras, sounding pleased. “Generen of the Anaeashon,
of course, in Anaeaon, three centuries ago. How I remember those days; hardly a
night she spent without a call to one troubled child or another! Many of our
leading logens were once her shonlings.”
way cleared. Ahead lay the sphere of the Nucleus, immersed entirely within a
spherical “moat” of transit fluid. Its surface was pockmarked with vesicles
pinching inward or outward to cross the moat.
trainsweeps gathered up their trains again, as Raincloud and Iras prepared to
enter a vesicle. As the vesicle enclosed its passengers, a servo built like a
sea star frisked Raincloud, its eight whiplike arms passing lightly over her
Iras apologized, “don’t mind the octopods. You’ll get security clearance soon.”
interior of the Nucleus was given to marble facings and imposing velvet drapes.
Most people wore their trains inside, although the trainsweeps had to keep them
half-folded-up, making their wearers look more ridiculous than ever. Following
Iras’s lead, she kept hers on until they reached the suite of the
relief she at last unhitched her train and passed it to the servo arms at the
reception desk. The office suite was paneled in walnut, quietly elegant. A man
walked out as they entered, a striking figure in red black-striped butterflies.
“Good morning, Lem,” said Iras, who of course could not introduce him. The man
was well muscled and carried himself with the tautness of a rei-gi assistant.
Raincloud stared at him frankly, thinking, had he been a goddess, she might
have invited him to spar sometime.
nodded to Iras. “Tell her my mate will call soon.”
be seated,” the room told Raincloud. “The Legate of Imperial Urulan is running
Urulite legation—here? Urulan had no official embassy anywhere in the Free
Fold. Raincloud glanced sideways at Iras.
‘cultural affairs’” Iras whispered. “A small operation, it covers espionage, I
nodded thoughtfully. Still, what business would this legate have here? The
thought of the lost Valan ship chilled her. Never mind, she told herself: Walk
in the shadow of the Dark One.
thicket of reporter servos stood in the corner, their lamp heads bending
forward now and then. A half an hour passed with only the reporters bobbing
patiently by the door, a real door with solid walnut panels and grooved trim. A
good job of carpentry, Raincloud observed admiringly. This Sub-Subguardian had
last Verid’s door opened, a real wooden door, on its hinges. Out strode the
Legate of Urulan, a bearded man in his forties. His shoulders were broad and
thick, like those of her old Urulite teacher, the result of growing up in a
stronger field of gravity. Barely taller than the Elysians, his heavy frame
might have weighed twice as much; his shape gave him the look of an outsized
dwarf. A tunic of fine chain mail over garments of deep blue silk covered his
broad torso, and at his elbows and knees were jointed rings of silver. At his
waist, from the right, hung his ceremonial sword; from the left, what appeared
to be a particle blaster, although it must have been disarmed to be permitted
anywhere near Helicon, let alone the interior of the Nucleus.
memory quickened at the sight of him. To be sure, his blue eyes and aquiline
nose had little in common with Rhun’s dark complexion and simian brow. And yet,
his build and his gesture were the very image of her Urulite-born professor.
She felt as if she had known the man a long time.
servos immediately bent their body-necks forward at the Urulite, blurting
questions in Elysian and in Urulite. He faced them squarely but ignored their
questions. “The fate of a Valan spy ship deliberately entering the space of
Imperial Urulan is no concern of yours. Should the immortal Elysians
choose to meddle in Imperial affairs, let them beware. We’ll find out just how
immortal they are.”
this threat, the man took a sharp turn. Raincloud and Iras had risen
respectfully, but the Urulite, distracted by the reporters, nearly walked into
Raincloud on his way out. The man caught sight of her, and Raincloud
automatically lifted her right arm to clasp his left shoulder, as she would
have greeted her teacher. Her palm felt the cool mesh of metal beneath. “May
the sun rise behind you,” she spoke quickly in Urulite.
clasped her shoulder so hard it startled her. “The sun rise for you! Can it be,
a civilized soul in this barbaric land?”
intervened. “Your Excellency, this is Raincloud Windclan, our new translator.
And ... Lord Zheron ... Imperial Legate for Cultural Affairs.” Iras faltered,
her face pale with shock at the breach of protocol.
told Zheron, “I have studied the classics of your people, especially the ballad
of Azhragh and Mirhiah.”
laughed heartily. “Imagine, the ballad of Azhragh! Lord Raincloud, you must
dine with us at the legation. You will hear from me soon.” With that he
departed at last, the reporter servos trailing behind.
blinked with surprise, then turned to reassure Iras. These Elysians were so
you all right?” asked Iras in a hushed tone.
of course. I only ...” She paused. Framed by the walnut doorway, she saw the
Sub-Subguardian Verid Anaeashon.
was bowing to the reporter servos as they left, an unusual courtesy. Slight of
stature, even for an Elysian, Verid had rounded shoulders and coarse black
hair. Her eyebrows were thick and expressive. They lifted ever so slightly,
now, as Verid turned to Iras.
sighed with relief. “It is my duty to present Raincloud Windclan, who meets our
you, dear. Sorry we ran late.” Verid smiled affectionately at Iras, then bowed
to Raincloud. Her thick eyebrows rose as she added, “This citizen meets our very
you, Sub-Subguardian,” Raincloud said, her face warm from the unexpected
composure recovered, Iras laughed. “You must call her ‘The Owl,’” she
mischievously told Raincloud. “We all do.”
exclaimed Verid with a wave of the hand. “Back to your visiting. Don’t make too
many loans today, or the logens will get after you.”
bowed and departed, the coin-spotted butterflies flashing down her back.
shoulders shook heavily with silent laughter. Then she beckoned Raincloud to
enter the conference room. Her figure did indeed resemble an owl; the thought
hope I said nothing amiss?” Raincloud asked, as the door closed automatically
not what you said,” Verid explained. “You put your hand on the man, in public—a
stranger whose mate you’d never even met. Even our closest friends would never
touch in public.”
course.” Elysians never so much as shook hands; they bowed, and left just
enough room. It seemed a way of keeping space in this rather claustrophobic
Urulites expect physical contact,” Verid added, “among men of the ruling class.
Obviously you know that. It’s one reason they distrust us. Never mind young
Zheron’s threats,” Verid added, a remark which reminded Raincloud that despite
his mature appearance, Verid might be ten times his age. “His statement was for
the press. What is significant is what he left out. He did not call the
Elysians treacherous slaves of the Valan barbarians. He did not accuse us of
scheming to terraform Urulan. He did not even denounce me for summoning him for
this insulting conference. Most important,” Verid added, her eyebrows rising,
“he did not deny that the incident of the Valan freighter represented a serious
error of judgment on the part of the Imperial Command.” Verid nodded to a
sat on the chair, which was made of polished wood with legs curved back
elegantly. From above dangled the usual servo arms, discreetly overhead. Verid
sat across from her and leaned forward, flexing her knuckles. “I am honored,
indeed,” Verid said, her eyebrows arching to her hairline, “to host ‘a goddess
from the Hills of the Dark One.’” The last was spoken with just the right
accents and clicks.
was pleased, though caught off guard. Verid herself clearly knew a language or
two. She lifted her chin and risked a return. “It’s an equal honor to meet one
known as a ‘rising star.’”
that Verid’s shoulders shook again, and she laughed loudly, the sort of laugh
that probably carried outside the room. “One of my shonsibs must have
told you that.” Verid flicked her wrist to a servo arm which slithered down
carrying two glasses. “Yours is plain spring water,” she assured Raincloud, not
identifying the contents of her own. “Now then. Why would a ‘goddess’ leave the
Hills to learn languages spoken on worlds many light-years away?”
question felt patronizing. “Light-years mean little, within the Fold.”
course. How did you learn Urulite ways? Have you lived there?”
no.” Urulan had been closed to foreigners for several generations. “But
Professor Rhun was a native.”
was a pedagogue in a noble household. He escaped on a stolen ship,” she
explained, answering the obvious question. “He traveled twenty years at
lightspeed, then backtracked for two years because he’d overshot, subsisting
all the while on recycled greens. As a ‘pioneer,’ he was lucky to land a post
at Founders University. I was doubly lucky to have him,” she added, although it
had been hard at first to accept correction from a man. She added, with some
hesitation, “He was a ‘sim.’”
were descended from gorilla-human hybrids, a slave population bred on Urulan.
But in succeeding generations, most progeny were sired by human masters, as the
“human” look fetched a better price on the market. Today many sim descendants
were barely distinguishable from purebred humans; but on Urulan, they remained
nodded. “Regardless, he taught you well. Now before we discuss your assignment,
please bear in mind that nothing of what passes between us must go beyond
you—not even to your mate. If I hear otherwise, your value to us will be
am accustomed to confidential work.”
with the Sharers—what a contrast, by Helix! You do avoid reporters, that’s
good. But do you realize that secrecy will be a greater challenge here?”
knew about the reporters. Raincloud’s scalp prickled. “Do all the walls have
in my office.” Verid grinned, tapping the wood paneling with her knuckles. “One
needs a special permit for sonic isolation, to get around the constitutional
Right of Visitation. We’ll arrange it for you, once your clearance goes
this “Right of Visitation” was also a “right of eavesdropping.”
know why you’re here,” Verid told her. “You’re one of a handful of Urulan
experts in the Free Fold. We have reams of intelligence to decipher. For years,
we’ve just passed it on to Valedon—but can we trust them?” She paused
reflectively. “Valan intelligence assures us the Urulites have about six
thousand interstellar missiles, give or take a thousand. But how do they arrive
at that guess? Not a clue. How good is their estimate? Could it be off by a
factor of ten?” Verid leaned forward. “Even more to the point—where did those
missiles come from? A Valan House, perhaps?”
swallowed. “How did Urulan pay for them, I’d like to know.”
good question. Urulan is virtually bankrupt, but it has massive mineral
resources.” Verid spread her hand on the desk. A page of light appeared beneath
her fingers, several characters blinking red. Raincloud recalled a similar
servo table at the apartment, in a side room. The apartment contained a number
of unfamiliar objects whose purpose remained a mystery to the Windclans. “I
have released a file to your account; it will open to your hand only, and will
disappear when observers approach. These are signals intercepted from the
Imperial Command. See what you make of them.”
paused, stroking her chin between her thumb and forefinger. “As for our friend
Zheron ... if he follows up, I would accept the invitation.”
that little “meeting” with the legate had been more than coincidence. Her pulse
raced. “Just what have you in mind?”
wasn’t in your job description,” Verid admitted. “But the opportunity is ripe.
The Imperator is dying, we know that. There’s a chance for change; and Lord
Zheron is one who wants change. We need to help him find the way.”
have to think about this.”
double your pay.”
not that,” said Raincloud sharply. “I must think of my ‘family.’” She used the
nodded. “Of course. You’ve got your own little shon. Raincloud, in all
seriousness you are safe in Helicon—safer than anywhere else in the Fold. You
know how we Elysians feel about personal safety.”
noticed.” They got foreigners to do their dirty work.
leaned forward. “One last question. You have observed us Elysians, rather
intently, I would guess. Tell me what you think. Where lies our greatest
drew a breath and thought quickly. The seconds ticked by. “The Urulite missiles
threaten us,” she began. “Yet the real danger lies here, in Elysium. Elysians
are—” She felt like saying, “overgrown children.” “Elysium is one great
protective shon. Your people, with all their civility, cannot understand
the mind of a people that can sell and trade human flesh ...”
Verid leaned back, her face politely blank. Clearly Raincloud had disappointed
her this time. “‘The monster swallower swallows itself,’” Verid quoted from The
Web, a text Raincloud knew well. “You are right, though, that the danger
caught Raincloud around the shoulders and kissed her, as he helped her undo the
rest of her train.
inquired Sunflower hopefully, eyeing her pair of trainsweeps which stayed
outside. “Doggie for Sunflo’?”
doggie.” Raincloud swept the child up into her arms, his face already clouding
over for a downpour of tears.
was it?” asked Blackbear. “Did you see the Sub-Subguardian at last?”
was it, Mother?” echoed Hawktalon, swinging Fruitbat by her cloth wing.
winced as Sunflower let out a wail. “I met the Sub-Subguardian, and a legate of
Urulite?” Blackbear stared in amazement. “An Urulite—here?”
just ran into him by accident—”
asked, “What’s a ‘legate,’ Mum?”
weren’t supposed to meet any live Urulites,” said Blackbear.
there’s a small ‘cultural legation.’ Verid wants me to deal with them.”
gripped her arm. “Valedon is practically at war with Urulan; another attack on
the trade route is all it will take—”
said, what’s a ‘legate’?” Hawktalon insisted.
‘legate’ is somebody who represents a foreign government,” Raincloud explained.
“The Imperator of Urulan can’t be everywhere at once, dear.”
turned and went to the kitchen to order hot cereal for Sunflower, still angry.
Raincloud followed him. “Before I forget,” she said, “you have to call on Verid
sometime, and I have to call on your lab director. It’s the proper custom.”
give her a proper piece of my mind when I see her,” Blackbear grumbled. “When
do we manage all this visiting, anyway?”
Visiting Days start tomorrow.”
Goddess; I forgot. How does that work? Can’t we get exempted?”
paused. “Let me see ...”
me, Citizens,” came the voice of the house. Sunflower dropped his spoon and
looked around, eyes wide. “May I offer assistance?”
thanks,” said Raincloud. “How does ‘visiting’ work?”
Elysian Constitution guarantees everyone the right to visit and check up on
everyone else. For every three days on the job, the law requires four ‘Visiting
Days’ to entertain your fellow citizens.”
we’re not citizens,” objected Blackbear.
foreigners,” the house continued, “you may apply for an extra workday based on
‘religious grounds.’ You must sign a statement to the effect that your deity
expects unending earthly toil of mortal beings, and that working less than half
the week would cause decline in your mental health and well-being.”
was squirming, and Blackbear felt his diaper. “Diaper, please,” he called. A
clean cotton diaper appeared in the magic kitchen window. Blackbear muttered,
“I might as well use the time to potty-train Sunflower. What’s your
shrugged. “It says a lot about what they think of us mortals. Our Goddess
worship is just a mental handicap; it’s covered by the same department that
regulates servo guides for the blind and visual aids for the deaf.”
yet to see a blind Elysian.”
a small department.”
request would not be cleared for another week, so Blackbear resigned himself to
a Visiting Day. He told the house to set his Visiting Hours from two to five.
This information would be available instantly throughout the city, although he
could not imagine who would care to “check up” on him.
next morning, reckoning by the Bronze Skyan calendar, was the Day of the Snake,
a feast day celebrated each year in the Caldera Hills. The day commemorated the
mythic entrance of good into the world, in the form of a monstrous Snake sent
forth by the Dark Goddess. When the Snake returned to Her, its goodness spent,
She recaptured it between her middle arms and devoured it alive. The Day’s
lesson was a warning to meet the world’s evil with good, from the center of
one’s being, and face the consequences whole.
decorated the figure of the Goddess with “snakes” cut from spirals of colored
paper, as well as two embroidered heirlooms from Raincloud’s mother and
grandmother. “When are we going to get a real live snake, like Cousin Wolf
Eyes?” Hawktalon pestered her mother.
Wolf Eyes’s mother is a High Priestess,” Raincloud reminded her. “She has to
tend the Great Snake year round. If you grow up to be a High Priestess, you can
have a snake.”
rei-gi exercise, Raincloud was eager to start on her translations. She
had located a “terminal” at home, an unfamiliar table-shaped object whose
function she now recognized. The terminal accessed a vast neural network that
permeated the cellular city.
on, Daddy,” begged Hawktalon, “let’s try something hard for a change. Why don’t
you ever swing the stave at me, like you do at Mother?”
Daddy.” Sunflower bounced happily on the mat. “Go upside down.”
you,” shouted Raincloud from the next room, her voice stuttering
with sharp clicks. “May an earthquake swallow your regulations!”
winced. “Please; Sunflower will hear.”
came to the sitting room, perspiring with anger. “That Goddess-cursed tabletop
told me it’s not my work day, and it won’t release my files. Not even the one
Verid gave me.”
it is a Visiting Day,” Blackbear said, though he resented it too.
this is my home.”
occurred to him, no wonder Draeg chose to live outside Helicon in a silkhouse
on a Sharer raft, even during swallower season. “Well, for now, let’s just
remember—‘On Valedon, do as the Valans do.’”
lip curled. “If this were Valedon, we’d be working day and night. Who d’you
think manufactures all those servos? Do you see any three-day factories around
here? How do they pay for everything—banking and tourism,” she muttered.
“Nobody’s got an honest job.”
do,” said Hawktalon. “Come on, Mother. Come swing a stave at me.” She raised
her shoulders and pulled in her stomach expectantly.
Raincloud looked up as if an idea had occurred to her. “I’m going to see Iras.”
She went to put on her talar and train.
had to spend the afternoon at her correspondence school lessons in reading,
programming, and the geography of Bronze Sky. Blackbear was just reading
Sunflower one last book before nap, and planning in his head a long letter to
write to his parents, when the house announced a visitor.
children immediately rushed out to see who it was. Blackbear checked his watch;
it was just past two.
the door stood Alin. He wore a different train, a scene of saffron meadows
rimmed by mountains, but the same dried-leaf butterflies lined the border,
virtually invisible against the background. With him stood Draeg, a lambskin
jacket covering the L’liite student’s scant costume.
Blackbear,” said Draeg, thumping him on the shoulder. “Where’s that little
fighter of yours today?”
say.” Alin glanced beside the door, with a bemused expression. “Did the citizen
never come and pick up her mate’s trainsweep?”
runaway trainsweep was back again, just outside the door. It certainly looked
like the same one, though it had not been there the night before.
Sunflower tiptoed out the door, his arms flapping up and down, then he
threw himself upon the beetlelike servo. Hawktalon followed, jumping with glee,
her beaded braids whipping about her face. “She’s back, Daddy; look, she
two visitors collapsed with laughter. “I told you so,” Alin reminded Draeg.
“You didn’t believe me, did you, that the servo tailed him across the City? You
owe me ten credits.”
owner—she did come and take it back,” Blackbear said lamely.
touching loyalty!” exclaimed Draeg.
even remembered your address,” said Alin. “Tell its owner I’d like to look into
could be wrong with that trainsweep, Blackbear wondered. He hoped its owner
would not be angry at him this time. He summoned his social graces as best he
could. “Won’t you come inside? It is my highest duty to serve you.”
exclaimed with delight to see the climate window in action, set for a view of
grassy hills that came close to the feel of Bronze Sky; clouds obscured the
actual blue sky of the planet it came from. “Let’s see the volcanoes,” he
insisted. “I ordered them special.”
volcanoes appeared, first a quiet, gently sloping one whose lava crept downward
at a trickle, cooling to smooth fields of black, then an explosive one that
delighted the children. As the floor rumbled beneath their feet, Alin said, “I
hear your shonling is quite a fighter. And yourself, as well.”
frowned. “Fighting is for females,” he said, although he knew the Elysian
“female” did not do justice to the Clicker “goddess.”
laughed. “We’ve heard all about your shonling! But Draeg assures me
you’re just as good.”
be modest. Would you accept a challenge? I’ll cover the medic.”
Blackbear stared down at the small, compact Elysian in his immaculate robe of
good,” Draeg assured him. “Look here, Alin, you and I’ll spar a bit, so he sees
what we do.”
there’s really not enough room,” Blackbear objected.
we’ll manage,” said Alin. “Go ahead, switch off the holostage; I’ll cover the
is off,” Blackbear muttered absently. In the meantime, the two visitors set out
giving orders to the house. The walls expanded back and extra mats slid out. A
medical hovercraft settled expectantly at the door. A set of loose-fitting
trousers appeared for Alin out of the kitchen window; it seemed that any sort
of organic material could be “cooked up” there.
visitors stripped to the waist and practiced their strikes. Alin leaped in the
air and thrust-kicked twice before he thudded down, then he and Draeg faced
each other. They attacked in a style involving vicious blows with the feet and
hands. Their power-packed thrusts left their own balance painfully vulnerable;
Blackbear wondered that they could not see that.
he recalled with a pang his brothers and cousins in the Hills; what good times
they used to have. With them, it was fun, less formidable than training with
his own goddess. Despite his misgivings, he kicked off his shoes and swung his
arms to limber up. Inwardly he called on the Dark One, for himself and his
took him on first. After a feint or two, the L’liite slashed down at
Blackbear’s shoulder with the side of his right hand. Blackbear stepped back to
his left, his left arm parrying Draeg’s right. He deflected Draeg’s arm just
enough to guide it downward into his own right hand. Continuing to circle
backward, he caught Draeg’s arm in his right hand, then his left, letting Draeg
hurtle forward by his own momentum. With a twist he brought the man down to the
mat, thudding safely on his side.
Alin clapped, adding to Draeg, “He barely lifted a hand, did he; and there you
went, this way and that.” The move did look like that, “Tree Sways in the
right, Citizen,” Draeg muttered, breathless. “You try him, then.”
sure you can take anything?” Alin asked.
shrugged self-consciously. “We’ll see.”
his surprise, Alin repeated the same move as Draeg. But Blackbear knew better
than to meet it the same way. This time, he slid his right leg forward and
under, like a partner joining the dance. His right arm swept upward to deflect
the blow; then he caught Alin’s arm and swung him around sideways, “Round the
Mountain,” to land on his chest. He pinned Alin’s arm at the shoulder and
wrist, leaving his body immobilized.
this sight, Draeg laughed so hard that tears came to his eyes. “I never thought
I’d see an Elysian flat!”
frowned at this disrespect to a fallen opponent. But Alin picked himself up
with good humor. “It is said, we live to amuse our friends. I think, L’liite,
it’s your turn again.”
he met their attacks, from one side to the next, each time catching the thrust
at just the right time to deflect it. The fourth time Alin was too quick for
him; Blackbear slipped and fell onto his knee, twisting it. Pain shot through
his leg, and he thought with a sinking feeling, it must be sprained. Raincloud
would be furious.
servo scooted out from the hovercraft. Blackbear’s heart pounded, and he
resisted the impulse to pull away as the machine extended its tendrils over his
leg, barely touching here and there. But the pain eased up steadily; he could
just about walk on it again. Rubbing his ankle, Blackbear thought, those medic
servos must know how to treat foreign “defectives” after all.
done.” Alin’s forehead was bright with sweat. “I’d heard of rei-gi but I
had never seen it done by a master.”
then Raincloud returned, unhitching her Elysian train at the door. “By the
Goddess, what’s going on?” she exclaimed in Click-click. “Those children are
out with the trainsweep again—and you ...” She looked him over.
we’re just, uh, ‘visiting,’” Blackbear assured her, flexing his leg.
you fight, too?” Alin asked her politely. “Do give us a try. Your mate has
already gotten the better of us.”
me.” Raincloud would consider it beneath her to spar with men other than her
consort. Also, she seemed to have much on her mind; her visit to Iras must have
brought some result.
worry,” Alin assured her. “We’ll take it easy for you.”
caught his breath at the unintended insult. Raincloud turned slowly toward
them, her face wooden. “A moment, please.” She disappeared in back, then
returned in her wide-bottomed trousers with a sack of beans on her back, slung
low like a seated child. “You both come at once.”
I,” exclaimed Draeg with a L’liite phrase. “Two men against a female—I wouldn’t
be caught dead.”
join Alin,” offered Blackbear, knowing that despite her retort, Raincloud would
be pleased to show off her skill.
two men attacked her from either side. With a swing of each arm, she sent both
assailants to pound the mat. As they dusted themselves off, Alin’s astonishment
was plain to see.
turned to Draeg. “You, there,” she commanded. “You pin my arms from behind, and
let them try again.”
amazed to object, Draeg complied. When Raincloud’s arms were firmly pinned,
Alin and Blackbear rushed her again, harder than before. In a blur of arms and
legs, the three men went sprawling.
Blackbear got up and dusted himself off, Raincloud turned to Alin. “I trust you
are not hurt, Citizen?” she said sweetly.
at all, Guardian.”
dumped the sack of beans, none of which were spilled. The medic servos set
about attending their inevitable bruises.
felt immense pride for Raincloud, and a feeling of warmth for the men. “You
see,” he told Alin, “now we are called ‘brothers of the mat,’ since we’ve been
thrown by the same ‘goddess.’”
that right?” Alin laughed. “Tulle will love it! Thanks so much; you’ve both
entertained us immensely.”
him, Raincloud turned to Blackbear. “Iras gave me one of her accounts today.
Today’s a work day for her, so the account will open, and I can transfer my
documents to work on—”
the front of the sitting room, a shimmering form of a man appeared in the
column of the holostage. The man wore Urulite chain mail. He began to speak in
Urulite, which Blackbear recognized but did not comprehend.
mouth fell open. “The holostage; wasn’t it turned off?”
course it was. Wasn’t it, house?”
receiver was off,” said the house, “by default, as you instructed. The
transmitter remained on; to turn it off by default would soon exceed your
we’ve ... been transmitting ...” Alin caught his face in his hands and seemed
about to faint.
Helix,” Draeg exclaimed, “we’ve been entertaining the whole damned city all the
while! Cheer up, Alin old man,” he said, attempting to pat him on the back. But
Alin pulled back stiffly, retreating to the corner.
I have failed to serve you in any way,” the house added, “please report my
defect to ...”
Raincloud had recognized the Imperial Legate, Lord Zheron. Her face froze at
the sight of him, here in her own sitting room; but it was only an image, after
all. She took a deep breath and stepped forward.
Raincloud,” Zheron was saying in Urulite, “that was the best display of manhood
I’ve seen of any barbarian on this planet. I command the honor of your company
at our legation, on the third of this month. You will dine well, and enjoy the
height of our cultural entertainment.”
am honored,” Raincloud replied, trying to think quickly, aware of Blackbear and
the others watching dumfounded. Verid had told her to accept; but she had not
agreed to do so. “I must ... consult my Deity, as to my plans.” Urulites were
Deity can hardly refuse,” said Zheron. “I challenge you to fight to the death.”
her side Blackbear and Alin looked on, uncomprehending. Raincloud tried to
keep her eyes on Zheron without blinking. For Urulites, a duel was the
customary prelude to a feast, to work up an appetite. A fight “to the death”
was just a ceremonial figure of speech; or was it? Let Verid find some other
foreigner for her schemes.
no goddess backed down from a challenge. Not on the Day of the Snake.
thought occurred to her. “Is Lord Zheron aware that Lord Raincloud is ... a female?”
No Urulite in his right mind would fight a woman.
laughed. “Anyone can see you’re no female.”
vicious warlord this was, the kind her gentle professor had to escape. And
yet, his language reminded her hauntingly of Rhun. Urulites were people, too,
and all those Rhun left behind to suffer. What would Rhun have thought if she
let this chance go?
the Urulite’s image flickered out, Alin was shaking his head, much chagrined.
“Blackbear, I thought I explained about the holostage, the first night you came
sorry,” said Blackbear. “But we’ve never turned the transmitter on.”
never turned it off. The transmitter is on all the time; you have to pay
to turn it off. It’s because of the Right of Visitation. There’s an added fine
for turning it off on your Visiting Day, but I told you I’d pay it.”
mean anyone could have peeked into our living room these past three days?”
shook his head, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face. “Alin—you’ll
never live this down.”
gave him a rueful look. “Sparring ‘in public’—you’re right, I’ll never live
this down.” Nevertheless, he recovered his smile. To Raincloud he said, “I see
the Owl has put you to work.”
said Raincloud. A good thing none of them knew Urulite, she thought.
best be going, Draeg,” Alin concluded. “Thanks again.” He bowed, and Draeg
departed with him. The medical hovercraft, too, took off from the window ledge.
Outside, the children called after it in delight.
Blackbear asked apprehensively, “what was that all about anyway?”
Zheron, the cultural legate,” Raincloud explained. “Inviting me to a duel.”
formality,” she explained. “In the old days, before the Imperium, each warlord
had his own little fief atop a needle rock—you know the bizarre terrain on that
world. The only way two lords could meet was to duel to the death. Nowadays
they’re more civil.”
You sent him packing, of course.”
said Raincloud irritably. “I accepted.”
they’ll fight with weapons—to hurt each other, or worse. The Goddess forbids
any such thing! Raincloud, how could you?”
know I’d never disobey the Dark One.”
his anger, Blackbear turned and went outside to check on the children. Still
playing with the trainsweep, they were leading it up and down the street and
imitating the little squeaks it made as it altered direction.
followed him. “Trust me,” she said soothingly. “I’ll be careful.” From behind
him, she massaged his shoulders. His anger subsided, but he still could not
bring himself to speak. If only they were home, with the clan, he thought; the
Clanmother would have forbidden any such thing.
supper, the blond Papilishon returned for her trainsweep. “We’re so sorry,”
she insisted. “After switch-off, it should have lost all memory; we had it
retrained completely. But this morning, it ran off again, right in the middle
of a busy thoroughfare. It’s unaccountable; we’ll have to ship it back to
Valedon, although I doubt they’ll find the defect, as this sort never shows up
on inspection. I’ve ordered a new one anyway. But please, let me settle for
your inconvenience. A hundred credits to your account? Make that two hundred.”
no, I couldn’t possibly ...” Blackbear reddened with embarrassment.
“Inconvenience” was rarely worth money in the Hills.
I insist. Your inconvenience is worth far more.”
He watched the children huddling over the trainsweep. They looked solemn; they
would not give it up without a struggle, this time. “You might just leave us
the trainsweep,” he offered half-seriously.
eyes widened. “Really?” She looked at him with considerable relief. “You’ll
see, it works perfectly, aside from its imprinting. Well, I can’t thank you
enough. Do let us show you the town, some time.”
Hawktalon leaped in the air and did a flying somersault. “Come on inside,
Doggie; we’ll get you supper.”
had forgotten, the servo would add to their electric bill, just like the two
from Raincloud’s new train.
proved unhappy about taking on another electric consumer, even more so about
his refusal of two hundred credits.
the children,” Blackbear insisted. “It’s their one great toy here.”
eyes narrowed as she watched the trainsweep, which Sunflower now rode upon,
maneuvering about the broadened sparring room. “Maybe there’s a ‘sport’ in its
network. Funny things happen in servo networks; they’re never trainable to
perfection. This might be of interest to someone. I’ll ask Iras.”
evening Raincloud worked late at her translations. When at last she came to
bed, she lay staring pensively at the soft yellow light from the mock window
across the room. Blackbear stroked her braids and looked past her.
he said, but he put his arm around her.
sighed. “Verid says Urulan needs a chance to start talking peace.”
duel to the death is hardly the way to start.”
may be easier for them to talk to me, a foreigner, than to talk with Elysians.
Both sides risk less.”
what do you risk?”
paused. “I don’t know.”
you are. Why not stick to your broadcast translations, what you were hired for.
By the looks of it, there’s more than enough to keep you busy.”
all the same, though, all blather about missiles and terraforming. What else
would you expect them to broadcast? It’s obvious I wasn’t hired for that.”
Sub-Subguardian could have told you up front, before we came.”
we have come?”
can still go home.”
you could go home—and give up ‘immortality,’ just like that.” Her voice sounded
tired, and her eyelids fluttered.
course, I don’t mean that,” he said. “Now that we’re here, we’ll manage. But
it’s all so ... strange.” He thought of the walls expanding at a command, the
doors oozing open, and the holostage on for three days. He shivered down to his
miss Tumbling Rock,” Raincloud admitted quietly. “But we came here for good
reasons. We can’t just quit.”
saw before him his sisters and brothers, and Raincloud’s sisters and brothers,
and all of their children, children, children.... A hot teardrop rolled out of
one eye and fell to the pillow. Then Raincloud’s face loomed over his, kissing
away the tears. He pulled her close at the waist, ready to give her the utmost
pleasure. That at least brought home closer.
awoke with a start. The dream had come again, the one in which he struggled
desperately against the rising floodwaters with Sunflower in his arms. The
muddy waves were relentless, tugging at the child like bestial claws. The end
of the dream was always the same—the child wrenched out of his arms, floating
down into the white-frothed current, just as his youngest brother had done
years before; the Dark One claiming her blind sacrifice. And then he awoke.
the room, the “window” cast a pallid light, nothing like the ruddy glow of
Bronze Sky morning. Raincloud lay asleep, still, her spiral of braids turned
toward him. From the kitchen came shuffling noises; the children had risen
dressed quickly and went to the kitchen. Hawktalon looked up from her bowl of
ice cream, which she evidently had ordered for herself and her brother.
Blackbear had tried to convince the house to ignore Hawktalon’s orders, so far
without success. Its program recognized the children as adult occupants,
equivalent to their parents. This would have to be fixed somehow; it was on
Blackbear’s list for the day.
asked Hawktalon, “did that Urulite really challenge Mother to the death?”
frowned. “Where did you hear that?”
night before, they had ordered the house to wall off the holostage by extruding
shafts of nanoplast from the ceiling, a less costly alternative to turning it
off. Yet even this barrier did not discourage all intruders. Exasperated, he
went to the door.
stood three reporters, bending their lamp heads from their tubelike bodies. “We
seek the Bronze Skyan translator, Citizen Raincloud Windclan.”
is the Urulite’s interest here? Is there any connection to the destruction of
the Valan freighter?”
comment,” he said firmly. “House, please close the door immediately.”
Citizen.” As the frame dissolved and the walls oozed together, the house added,
“Your fine for closing the door on reporters will be twenty credits for a first
came into the sitting room to make a call at the holostage. Blackbear returned
to the kitchen, where he faced his daughter with her half-eaten bowl of ice
cream. “Listen, Hawk: no more ice cream, do you hear? The next ice cream
I see, we’ll send you to the shon.”
felt her stomach. “I’m sick of ice cream, anyway. What’s the shon like,
aback, he said, “Never mind. Go do your exercise.” Then he hauled the old potty
seat out of the bathroom. Uncomfortable memories of Hawktalon’s training days
returned. He hoped the second child would respond better.
Sunny,” Blackbear began. “Time to be a big boy and sit on the potty.”
Sunflower was busy spilling soap powder on the floor, to watch the
scrubber-servos scurry out from the wall and lap it up. This was hardly a
up, Sunflower!” ordered Hawktalon. “Pull your pants down, and sit on that
looked up, much impressed by this unexpected attention from his older sibling.
He tip-toed over and sat on the potty.
should offer him a lemon drop,” added Hawktalon. “He’ll do anything for a lemon
looked at her. “Where are you getting lemon drops?” But he already knew the
answer. That house would have to get fixed.
came back. “Good news. I reached Iras about our runaway trainsweep. She made us
an appointment with a Valan specialist to investigate its network. An
interesting ‘sport’ might be worth some credits.”
thinking!” said Blackbear. As Raincloud’s arm slipped around his waist, he
kissed her, glowing with thoughts of the night before. Then at last he sat down
to eat his own much-delayed breakfast. Yet hardly had he ordered his fried eggs
when a muffled voice called from the sitting room. “Blackbear? Are you there?”
was Tulle’s voice, from the walled-off holostage. Embarrassed, Blackbear jumped
up and ordered the wall to melt back.
was at home in her garden with her capuchin nibbling something from her hand.
Behind her strolled a couple of three-legged grazing animals which he could not
make out. “The lab group is having a party today at the swallowtail pavilion,”
she told him. “We’d love for you to come.”
“social” lab meeting, marginally in accordance with the visitation rule. “Sure,
I’ll come,” said Blackbear, anxious to get started on his project. “While
you’re on, would you happen to know how one tells the house about children? It
lets them get away with anything.”
An interesting problem.” Tulle returned the capuchin to her shoulder, where it
stroked her blond hair. “You might try defining them as pets ...” Seeing his
look, she hurriedly added, “Never mind; the house must have a program for shonlings.”
Raincloud went out to make her visits, Blackbear
got the children dressed and out into the transit reticulum. “Doggie,” of
course, had to come along, too; in fact, Sunflower insisted in riding on top of
her. Once when the child slid off, the trainsweep let out a burst of squeaking
which alerted Blackbear to turn and see. He regarded the machine with new
interest. Perhaps after all this Doggie was not a bad addition to the family.
He endured the furtive stares of passing Elysians, who of course would not
speak to him, not knowing his mate. Only a trade servo approached him to
inquire, was he a traveling sideshow, and would he perform at the next garden?
they arrived at the swallowtail garden, Blackbear left the children outside
with Doggie, warning Hawktalon not to stray from the window where he could see.
Entering the pavilion, he sat at one end of the moon-shaped table, between Onyx
machine’s working,” crowed Onyx, cheerfully snapping her fingerwebs. Her
grandmother had been a Sharer, the aquatic race of women with webbed hands and
feet. “We can get right back inside the embryo and feel the blood pumping
through its ventricle.”
blinked at this. “Feel the blood pumping?”
fixed it,” Draeg told Onyx. “The Valans will buy you out from us one day, and
we’ll be lost.”
and Lorl sat across from each other, with Tulle at the opposite end of the
mooncurve. The little black-hooded capuchin delicately explored the floor at
Blackbear, which project do you think you’ll take?” Tulle asked. “You could
look for mutations in untreated embryos that confer partial longevity; like
Draeg’s heartless mutant, a fertile embryo whose heart and vascular
system don’t age.”
the rest of the body still fails,” Draeg admitted. “You take one step at a
time. It’s like undoing all the work of the Heliconian Doctors.”
modern technology,” Tulle pointed out. “The alternative is to start with a
longevity-treated embryo and look for mutations that partially correct
said, “This mutant has multiple problems with fertility. The primordial germ
cells mostly fail to migrate to the genital ridges. The few that make it
degenerate during meiosis. The gonads develop, but no fertile eggs or sperm are
said Tulle. “But you’ve found some extremely interesting egg mutants.”
make egg cells, the primordial germ cells have to undertake a tortuous journey
within the embryo, migrating from the yolk sac, through the gut layers, into
the germinal layers, to settle at last in the genital region. There, female
germ cells develop into ovaries and undergo the first division of meiosis.
Meiotic division halves the chromosome number, so that once the future egg and
sperm unite, the offspring regains the double chromosome count, one copy of
every chromosome from each parent.
found several mutations in the simulator that enable the germ cells to migrate
properly,” Onyx told him. “The cells make normal pseudopods to help them creep
through the gut to the genital region, where they actually start to form
ovaries before disintegrating. I’m convinced that this one gene I’ve found will
correct egg production.”
gene is that?”
called Eyeless, because it was first identified in a mutant embryo which
failed to develop eyes. My mutants, at a different part of the gene sequence,
avoid that problem. But, like Draeg’s Heartless gene, Eyeless regulates
other things too—including the migration of germ cells.”
see,” said Blackbear. “Do your Eyeless mutations help male germ cells develop,
too?” The early part of germ cell migration is identical between the sexes.
not, at least in the simulations I’ve checked so far,” Onyx said. “In a male Eyeless
mutant, the germ cells end up at the pre-ovarian region, while infertile
testicles develop separately. But we’re working on it.”
went on to explain the molecular structure of the Eyeless gene and its
protein product. Blackbear tried to follow as best he could, because the Eyeless
gene looked like a good project for him. Then Tulle asked Pirin to report
on his new simbrid clone, an embryo which made mutant proteins that improved
longevity. Blackbear stole a look outside at the children. Sunflower was riding
the trainsweep, while Hawktalon had taken out her rattleback stone and was
spinning it upon the spotless surface of the street, watching it slow down
until it “magically” reversed direction. Beyond them, in the street, the
Elysians passed majestically to and fro, their colorful trains gliding behind
Pirin began to get into the details of his simbrid clone, Tulle stopped him a
moment. “Questions, anyone?” She looked along the arc of the table, her gaze
resting at last on Blackbear.
whispered, “Go on, ask something. That’s how you learn.”
felt the blood pounding in his ears. He knew she was right, but he dreaded
sounding ignorant. “I’m sure this is obvious, but—just what is a simbrid?” The
literature he read had been frustratingly vague on the pedigree of this
important embryo culture line.
turned to him politely. “The simbrid, or simian hybrid clone, was derived from
a blend of primate species. Its development closely resembles the human embryo,
but we only maintain it in vitro. It’s a good model system to test
predictions for human development.”
spoke up. “Tell him which primate species.”
gorilla, Homo paniscus, and Homo sapiens.”
chimpanzee, and human. Once considered distant cousins, the three apes now
shared a common genus. “But—” Blackbear found his voice. “But that’s rather
like the Urulite sims, isn’t it?”
grinned from ear to ear, but the Elysian students were shocked. “It is nothing
of the sort,” Pirin coldly replied. “I told you, these embryos are terminated in
vitro, generally before the fourth month. No civilized people would
maintain such monstrosities to term.”
course not,” Tulle interposed. “But Blackbear’s comparison is reasonable.”
nodded. “That hearing we held on the simbrid question was a bad scene. I
thought those logens would eat us alive.”
said, “It wasn’t all that bad. They let us go ahead with the simbrids, didn’t
they? A good thing Alin helped us out.”
Tulle asked, “what would you suppose is the mechanism by which this protein
affects longevity ...”
discussion lost him again. Gorilla hybrid embryos in a test tube—he wondered
what Raincloud would think of this. The thought made him sick, himself. But then,
all medical research needed subjects; how else was it to be done?
Draeg’s mouth opened, and he nudged Blackbear to look out the window. Blackbear
turned, half rising in his seat, thinking the children were in trouble. But the
two of them were still playing in the street, taking turns riding the
pointed Draeg. “The man in white.”
white train, about three meters in length, made its way slowly down the street
toward Science Park. The man at its head wore a white talar without decoration,
or none that could be discerned from this distance. The stark figure conversed
with two younger Elysians at either side, about the age of Pirin or Lorl, who
led shorter trains with typical butterfly trimming. The contrast was striking,
especially to Blackbear, for whom white was the color of death, of stillborn
babies and bleached bones and the frozen caps of the tallest Hills.
the table, voices hushed. “It’s him,” Onyx whispered.
is he?” Blackbear asked.
Anaeashon,” said Onyx. “He’s a logen. A rather dangerous
arrogant bastard,” said Draeg in L’liite. “What’s he doing here, around Science
Blackbear looked out again upon the figure in deathly white. “Who are the
younger ones with him?”
Onyx explained, “who may become logens some day. Both he and Alin
studied with Verid, you know, centuries back.”
students call him Killer,” said Draeg.
teaches lies,” added Pirin. “Lies about The Web. And he has flouted our
aback, Blackbear thought, Draeg and Pirin actually agreed about this. “Is he a
criminal, then?” he asked, warily eyeing the stranger now.
has no crime,” Pirin assured him. “Only ... moral iniquities.”
did not notice, now deep in technical discussion with Lorl.
took a servo for a ‘mate.’” Onyx giggled. “Kal’s first mate died young, in an
accident out on the ocean, and he never quite got over it. So he took a servo
as a ‘mate,’ to embarrass people who sent their mates to call on him—he’d send
the servo in return! It was ever such a scandal,” she said, slipping her Valan
beads between her fingerwebs.
added, “He’s a damned hypnotist with words. If he told the Guard of Twelve to
shut down the entire research establishment, they’d do it—and he just might,
one day. Hey—he’s not stopping here?”
looked up at last. Her mouth opened, as if she just remembered something.
“We’ve run overtime, into my home visiting hour. I had an appointment just now,
with that logen, remember?”
gripped the table. “You’ve got an appointment? With Kal Anaeashon?”
eyes of Pirin and Lorl widened with consternation.
I could hardly refuse, could I?”
baffled, Blackbear turned to Draeg. “What does he want with us? And how did he
find us here?”
knows where everyone is—it’s all on the network. That’s why I live out on a
raft, with the Sharers. Come see my place, will you?”
Draeg. But now—”
interrupted, “Remember, you all, this is just visiting.”
metalman!” called Draeg loudly to the nearest servo. “Another round of drinks
for a lively party. All we need is the Killer to see us at work instead of
winced, thinking, the “network” would hear that, too. He would never get
used to this place. His head felt dizzy, and he wished he had never left Bronze
man in white appeared, walking slowly toward their table. Kal Anaeashon
was shorter than average, even for an Elysian, although the stark whiteness
made him seem taller. His only adornment was a single dried leaf pinned at his
shoulder, presumably in reference to the leaf-imitating anaean butterfly. His
hair was gray, the first gray hair Blackbear had yet seen here, but his face
was as youthful as that of any Elysian.
Tulle rose, Kal bowed very slightly. “Sorry to interrupt your pleasure.”
said loudly, “It’s a great time we’re having. Won’t you have a drink?”
whispered Onyx hoarsely. “That’s an insult; you’ve never even met his mate.”
servo, you mean,” said Draeg.
told the logen, “Please join us. We’re celebrating our latest
progress on the simbrid clone.”
won’t trouble you long.” Kal’s voice was low and deceptively reassuring. “You
know what concerns me, Tulle.”
held any number of public hearings,” she said. “On the simbrids, the human
trials, and so forth.”
hearings were excellent. No one doubts your command of medical research, nor
your concern for individual life. But now your work threatens more. Your work
has broader consequences which, so far, you refuse to address.”
me,” Tulle replied coldly.
stood, barely moving. The others were silent, and at nearby tables the
butterfly-decorated customers turned their heads, hoping to overhear.
ageless Elysians could bear their own children,” Kal spoke in the same quiet
voice, “what would become of us as a people?”
have not addressed this issue in any hearing.”
is not my concern. As Alin says, a logen can make politics out of
again,” said Kal. “It is said, ‘Compassion anywhere breeds caring everywhere.’”
this quote, probably from The Web, both Pirin and Lorl rose from their
seats, their faces wooden. Without speaking, they left the table.
replied, “The citizens select Guardians to decide such matters. The Guard of
Twelve funds my entire project.”
all the Guard’s actions pass the test of wisdom?”
shifted back a step. “I think we can save further talk for the logathlon.
We wouldn’t want to waste our best lines, would we?”
bowed again. “As you wish. At the fourteenth hour, the first of the month?”
Yes, of course, Citizen.”
logen departed. Suddenly, everyone was talking at once. The capuchin
nestled protectively in Tulle’s arms. Onyx was at her side, whispering
shouldn’t have said that,” Tulle muttered. “But they can’t play politics with
believed that the Heliconian Doctors had kept Elysians infertile on purpose, so
that reproduction belonged to the state. But why?
shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe how many hearings we’ve held, on one
thing or another. Now they want to pin the death of civilization on us!”
asked, “What exactly is a logathlon?”
logathlon is a kind of moral trial in public,” explained Onyx. “You saw
one on the news, the other day. In the old days, any citizen could call one,
but today you have to be a registered logen.”
more like a duel,” said Draeg. “A duel of words.” He laughed and wrestled
Blackbear’s arm. “Tulle may be in worse trouble than Raincloud, you know.”
solution to Blackbear’s problem with the house was to register their residence
as a foreign shon. The house now recognized Hawktalon and Sunflower as shonlings,
with limited rights of access to its services.
was furious. “I want my ice cream, and my volcanoes! What is there to do around
here, anyhow? Where are all my friends to spar with? I’m going to stow away on
a Fold ship and go home.”
eyed Blackbear doubtfully. “This is no place for a young goddess. We can do the
schooling, and the exercises, but what then? No responsibilities. At home, she
had the goats to milk every day.”
soon get back to my lab,” Blackbear assured her. “She’ll help me with my
the plague of flies has now spread throughout Papilion, though not yet to other
cities,” came a news voice from the holostage. “They carry no disease, but they
discourage the tourist trade. The flies’ origin remains a mystery, but
authorities are inquiring at local Sharer rafts. And now, the scandal all
Helicon’s talking about. One of our foremost logens was caught fighting
in public ...”
recalled Alin’s incident. “Scandal is nothing compared to what you’ll get from
sighed, tired of hearing about it. “You tell Verid yourself when you visit
have to come up with an appropriate gift, first,” he reminded her, recalling
the train and trainsweeps from Iras.
I’ll need something for Tulle, too ...” More expenses. The hour chimed from the
holostage, eighteen already.
won’t eat dinner,” Hawktalon warned. “Not without my ice cream.”
watch was five minutes fast again—why? He must have missed something in the
local time correction.
said Raincloud, “we’d better review our finances, don’t you think? Even once
our extra workday gets approved, we still won’t break even.”
agreed glumly. “It’s hard to see how any foreigner could, with all those extra
utilities, and the taxes. At this rate, we’ll have to ask the clan for a loan.”
made a nasty face at that.
what do you suggest? With the children, I’ve been asked more than once to
perform in a circus.”
snapped her fingers. “There’s the trainsweep, remember. That quirk in her
network, with unexpected properties, just might earn us something.”
took the trainsweep in, along with the children, of course. The servo firm, a
branch of a Valan house of manufacture, was situated in a grand sweep of a
building even more impressive than Science Park. The specialist turned out to
be a tall Valan goddess with ropes of amethysts across her chest and a light
pen behind her ear. “You can think of me as the servo-doctor,” she told them
with a laugh, rubbing her hands. “Come along, dear, let’s hook you up to the
some reason Doggie was reluctant to comply. She wiggled her front legs and her
stalked visual sensors, then retreated to the opposite end of the room.
muttered the specialist. “Learned aversive behavior ... to retraining,
all right,” Hawktalon told the trainsweep, caressing its nanoplastic carapace.
One side had bright green marks where Sunflower had tried out his crayons.
“We’re right here, me and Sunflower. We won’t let anyone hurt you.”
won’t try to ‘retrain’ it?” Blackbear asked, anxious not to alter the
course not. Just take a look, that’s all.” The specialist hooked up some leads
to the connector port at the rear of the trainsweep. Then Hawktalon led the
little servo through her various tricks, including letting the girl on for a
ride and emitting squeaks when she fell off.
burst of “servo-squeak,” as Raincloud called it, greatly excited the
specialist. “This phenomenon we call ‘sonic byproduct,’” she said. “Sonic
byproduct consists of sonic and ultrasonic vibrations emitted spontaneously by
servos. Its occurrence was unforeseen by the network trainers. One theory holds
that sonic byproduct is a form of communication which evolved independently
said Raincloud. “A servo language.”
course, Mother,” said Hawktalon. “Doggie talks to us all the time.”
specialist smiled indulgently. “The research has proved inconclusive. The House
of Chrysolite won’t support it; any hint of unreliability in their trained
products might embarrass them.”
asked, “What’s the difference between training and programming?”
means telling the hardware exactly what to do. Training means ‘teaching’ a
neural network with built-in uncertainties to go about a partly defined task.
It’s like training a dog: You can predict the result in general terms, but not
smiled. “Like training a shonling.” He thought ruefully of Sunflower,
who by now had learned pretty well what his dad expected in the potty, but it
was so much more fun to “spill it” on the floor and watch the floor-servos
scuttle out to clean it up.
enthusiastically ticked off Doggie’s qualities. “She’s got intelligence, and
feelings, and even—curiosity.”
took out the rattleback toy from her overalls. The rattleback was a wooden
oblong with an obliquely rounded turning surface. She spun it swiftly on the
floor; the object turned and wobbled.
trainsweep immediately crossed the room, coming right up until her front end
arrived just at the wobbling object. The object slowed, then suddenly reversed
and turned round the other way several times before it came to a stop, the
“rattleback” effect. All the while, Doggie trained her visual sensors on the object
as if fascinated.
specialist’s eyes widened with astonishment, but this time she said nothing.
“Curiosity,” Blackbear guessed, was another unintended “byproduct” of neural
network training. Nodding slowly, the specialist took the light pen from behind
her ear and made some kind of note on her electronic sketchpad.
cleared her throat. “How much is it worth?”
for the servo—”
Hawktalon. “You can’t give Doggie away, you promised.”
scan the network, that’s just as good,” said the specialist. “A thousand
credits for the scan.”
smiled. That would at least get them ahead a month.
the Fertility Lab, Blackbear tackled the problem of the Eyeless gene. He
would test a variety of mutant alleles—DNA sequences of Eyeless that
differed slightly—for their predicted effect in the embryo simulator. First he
had to learn to manage the delicate instrument, with Onyx’s patient tutoring.
elephantine embryo loomed before him above the holostage, its triangular head
folded over with two round bulging eyes. “This is the first month, a critical
stage for Eyeless,” Onyx explained. “As you can see, the eyes are normal
with this allele.”
stepped onto the holostage. The “skin” of the embryonic form puckered as her arms
entered, and she stepped inside. Her hand rested lightly beneath the pulsating
bulge of the heart tube, which had yet to develop separate chambers. She
reached up into the head between the eyeballs, cupping them in her hands. “You
can see the lens and cornea tissues are shaping up. Come on in,” she urged.
reluctant, Blackbear stepped inside. He had to remind himself it was only a
model, not the actual sacred act of creation. The outer embryonic “tissues”
surrounded him with a weird fog of light. But the surface of the heart tube
actually pressed back against his hand.
felt nauseous. “How does that happen?” he exclaimed.
program is set to ‘feel’ the heart and eyes,” Onyx said. “You can set it plenty
of other ways; to ‘feel’ the brain and spinal column, for instance, and
penetrate all the rest. Whatever you want. I test a dozen standard settings for
his hand caressed the vessels of the shuddering heart, its rapid pulse never
this will be hard on your stomach,” Onyx warned. “We’re going to expand ...”
Onyx spoke orders to the servo, the embryo expanded around them. The heart
ballooned and dropped out of sight, while the two eyes grew to the size of
basketballs within the gigantic head cavity. It was all Blackbear could do to
keep steady on his feet.
the tail end of the embryo was expanded around them, curving into a transparent
scallop. Tubes of various tissues filled this region, the developing gut and
kidney tissues. Onyx pointed to the posterior tip of the hindgut, just under
the “tail,” where a spattering of red dots stood out. “Those are the primordial
germ cells. The future eggs and sperm. They’ve migrated as far as the hindgut.
Now watch as they develop.” She spoke a word to the simulator.
tubes of light undulated and expanded, as the model tissues “grew,” the gut and
early kidney tubules differentiating. Meanwhile, the red-coded germ cells crept
gradually up through the embryo, dividing and increasing in number as they
moved. At last they reached the ridge-shaped tissue of the early gonads, where
the cells settled and concentrated in two splotches of red.
just reach the preovarian part of the gonad,” Onyx said, “where they’ll develop
fine until meiosis. Anyway, I guess you’ve had enough for your first time.”
What an epic voyage for those tiny cells, and barely one in a million would
ever germinate to become a human being.
spoke to the simulator, and its glowing apparition dissolved. “Let me show you
our tissue culture facility.”
predictions of the egg development program had to be tested in tissue culture
for biochemical side effects before it was worth trying gene replacement in the
simbrid embryo. So, any allele whose simulation showed promise for egg
development would be built into actual genes within cultured germ cells. The
cultures grew in clear vessels that looked like plastic, but in fact were
“intelligent” nanoplast. Each vessel oozed open at the touch of a light pen,
then closed, self-sterilizing.
a week Blackbear immersed himself in his project. His home terminal accessed an
immense range of literature on embryonic engineering. The kitchen window
obligingly printed out bound volumes of text, much to the delight of Raincloud,
who began to request all the Clicker classics. Blackbear wrote his brother
Quail about his progress, and how their children would be born immortal some
own children soon adjusted to the lab routine. While Sunflower occupied himself
with his animal dolls or molded a chunk of nanoplast with a light pen,
Hawktalon helped her father by setting up culture vessels. When Visiting Day
returned, they were happy to go out and tour the butterfly parks.
discussed her Urulite texts with Verid. “Your translations are first-rate,” Verid
told her, sitting forward in her walnut chair, alert as a perched owl. “Zheron
wants to establish an informal channel between us and his master, the
Imperator. Your visit will do much to enhance his confidence in us.”
was skeptical. “A ‘duel to the death’ hardly suggests peaceful intent.”
laughed heavily. “Surely you know better. We must respect cultural
hesitated. “You have to draw a line somewhere.”
has far to go, to meet our standards. We can expect a first step, not a great
know all about Urulite standards,” Raincloud said frankly. “You did say you’ll
double my pay?”
course, hazard pay. Not that you’re in any real danger.”
why are no Elysians willing to play?”
nodded. “You’re right, we need to train Elysian staff. That’s why Lem Inashon
will accompany you to the Urulite Legation.”
Inashon was Verid’s junior associate, the well-muscled fellow she had
run into briefly with Iras. Lem’s mate soon met Raincloud for lunch at a garden
flocks of fluttering blue wings were enough to daunt the most jaded eye. Inside
the pavilion, a pair of Valan jugglers tossed balls of flame. Two things
Elysium never seemed to lack were amusements and money.
know,” said Lem’s mate over tea and flower cakes, “Lem can give you a really
good time, if you like.”
thank you,” Raincloud replied, somewhat puzzled.
mean, a real good time. Lem took quite a shine to you,” the Elysian
explained. “He likes a well-built figure. He’s very potent, and experienced; he
can satisfy foreign women.”
her meaning sank in, Raincloud’s jaw fell. She hardly knew what to say.
“But—but he’s your own mate,” she sputtered at last.
course, dear. That’s why I recommend him with confidence. He arranges the same
for me; we both have sophisticated taste.”
idea of a goddess offering her own consort for service was repulsive beyond
words. How could Raincloud possibly work with this man now?
worry, dear; I can see you’re not interested. Lem himself won’t say a word;
he’ll be quite correct, I assure you.”
thanks,” Raincloud muttered. Cultural difference, she thought wryly.
she had better find out more about Elysian manners. Iras might give her some
pointers. She and Iras had quickly become friends. They understood each other
perfectly on matters of finance and outsmarting bureaucracy. On one coincident
Visiting Day, they spent an afternoon at the circus, a haunt Iras favored
because the servo manager was lenient about overlooking her bank calls.
acrobats in the ring had just completed a quadruple somersault in midair when
Iras returned to her seat from the nearest holostage. “The deal’s done,” she
said breathlessly as the sound of clapping died. “I can’t tell you the terms,
but the L’liites plan to build a hydroelectric dam across the River of Babies.”
The River of Babies was so-called because impoverished L’liites dumped their
unwanted babies in the river, in the traditional belief that their suffering
would earn them reincarnation into families of wealth. “The Valans will build
the dam, actually. A kilometer in height, it will store enough to irrigate an
herself would never seek a loan outside her clan, much less offworld, for
several trillion credits. “That’s a major asset for you,” she said at last.
biggest since taking the L’liite division. So how’s your little shon?
You seem thoughtful, today.”
was called. Raincloud got up and stretched. “I’m working on ‘cultural differences.’”
nodded. “I’ll bet. Elysians do have certain stereotyped beliefs about
foreigners. For instance, they assume that all foreigners are willing to risk
life and limb as acrobats,” she said, nodding to the ring below, where the
performers were rearranging the set for the next act. “Virtually all circus
performers are foreign of course; what respectable Elysian would cavort
like that in public? Of course, the reverse inference does not logically
follow, but there you are.”
that’s why Verid expects me to risk life and limb with Lord Zheron.”
now, let’s not be touchy,” Iras said.
thing—how do I make it clear that I’m uninterested in being shown ‘a good
laughed as if Raincloud had made an exceptionally witty remark. “You can’t
blame them for trying. Everyone knows foreign heterosexual females are, shall
we say, sex-starved? Their men slow down with age, don’t they?”
why would Elysian females introduce me to their mates?”
Elysian style works different ways. For some, it’s just a partnership of
convenience; others keep a lover for a century or more. Verid and I met out of
the shon, and we’re still lovebirds. But forever—who can say?”
was shaking her head. “Where’s their honor,” she clicked softly to herself.
Elysians had no notion of “male honor” in her terms. To think of Lem with his
youthful body, ready to serve her pleasure just like that; and now she had to
work with him daily. What an assault on her virtue.
eyes narrowed at Iras. “Quality is better than quantity. Besides, where I come
from the women increase in desire as they age. Perhaps in ageless
Elysium the men are starved.”
shrugged. “If your virtue ever needs relief, you might try the delights of
reality simulation in the Palace of Rest. Some prefer it to the real thing.”
to wear for the Urulite visit was a puzzle. Chainmail was out of the question.
She settled on her native rei-gi outfit, freshly pressed so the trousers
swung out like bells, with her butterfly train for outdoors. An unlikely
combination, but the best she could manage. Whatever she wore, she still felt
undressed without Hawktalon or Sunflower on her back. Instead, only Lem Inashon,
her admirer in scarlet, accompanied her. Fortunately his behavior was
strictly correct. He had done his homework on Urulan, and he was trained in
Alin’s style of fighting. Still, Raincloud would have felt better with
Hawktalon; she was well acquainted with the girl’s ability to defend herself.
Urulite legation was an unmarked facade on a small street in the diplomatic
quarter—one of the few sections of Helicon immune to the Visitation Rules. No
electronic scandals would arise here.
she and Lem arrived, a doorway pinched open as usual, revealing a man who wore
chain mail with leggings of brilliant geometric designs. He escorted them up a
long hall lined with cultural artifacts, mostly painted screens depicting
traditional Urulite processions, battles, and mythic stories, such as how the
sun-god Azhragh carved the world out of the sky-goddess Mirhiah and sowed it
with people-seeds. The seedlings grew up and got the bright idea of cutting off
their stems with their swords to liberate themselves from the soil.
came to a large hall with a central area ringed by a black circle. Around the
circle were several men with the thick-limbed build of her old teacher, all
wearing swords. They sat in imposing wooden chairs with legs carved into animal
heads with knobbed horns and ringlike mouths full of teeth—the famous
fourteen-legged “caterpillars” that prowled the uninhabitable valleys between
the needle rocks of Urulan. The men stopped talking as soon as she entered.
felt her heart pounding. She reminded herself, they were only men after all,
grown men without even children on their backs. Where were their sisters to
look after them? There was something pathetic about men who had to hide their
own goddesses, then go to such lengths to protect themselves.
sound of a drum reverberated in the hall. One man rose to greet her, clapping
his hand on her shoulder as Zheron had done. “Lord Zheron bids you welcome in
the name of the Imperium. I am Lord Dhesra, weapons master. For your choice, we
have knives, swords, spears, or staves. Apologies, on this barbaric world no
lasers or particle disintegrators are available.”
a pity—she could have used, say, a guided missile. “A stave, please,” she said,
since she had to pick something.
turned expectantly to Lem.
Lord,” said Raincloud quickly. “I represent us both, today; it was agreed.” No
point in risking two casualties where one would do.
nodded to Zheron, who rose and entered the ring. “This is the ring of death,”
Dhesra added, pointing to the black circle. The first person to touch
outside was “dead”.... Rhun’s face arose in her mind, recounting the custom
in his gently ironic tone. The “ring of death”—in the old days, a moat full of
armor-plated caterpillars would have lain outside.
gave her a sharp look, but Raincloud nodded back; all was well, so far. She
accepted the stave from one of Zheron’s men. Then she stepped into the circle.
stood opposite and faced her squarely. Holding his stave in his left arm, he
saluted her with his right arm to the shoulder, and she did likewise. Then they
held her stave horizontal at first, trying to gauge its weight. It was heavier
than the sparring poles she was used to. Her rei-gi training made her
highly conscious of vulnerability as an attacker.
spread his feet and crouched with the stave held between his two hands. He made
a few tentative moves, like a rei-gi assistant, none serious yet, though
she shifted her weight just in case. He stepped sideways, then again, causing
her to circle as well. His aim, she realized, was to steer her gradually back
to the ring.
thrust her stave handle directly at his chest, a move any beginner might parry,
but at least it would get things started. Zheron deflected the blow with the
side of his stave, and a couple of the onlookers laughed. Seeming to sense her
reluctance, Zheron attacked with a broadside swipe. Raincloud ducked underneath
and slipped sideways. He was too far off for her to do much; she would have to
close in, somehow.
blow she parried with the side of her stave. The force of it jarred her hands,
and she felt herself being pushed backward. The heavy pole was a nuisance, she
thought. Would it be too dishonorable to drop it?
though, she was back dangerously close to the ring. Zheron struck again; and
this time, as her stave caught the blow, it flew out of her hands. It clattered
to the floor, the end of the handle falling well across the dark line of the
ring. That was it; the ring was crossed, she was finished.
in the same instant, she saw out of the corner of her right eye that her
opponent had not relaxed his stance. The onlookers were shouting, but the match
was not done. The fallen stave, once released from her body, did not “count.”
lunged forward, his stave horizontal, aimed at her chest. As his left leg
stepped forward, Raincloud advanced with her left, turning slightly to her
right. His stave slid harmlessly across the front of her shirt.
her left hand Raincloud caught hold of the stave between his two hands. In the
next instant, she deflected the thrust upward above his left shoulder; little
force was needed, as Zheron’s own momentum flung him headlong. Meanwhile, her
right leg stepped backward and drew her torso around, cementing her own
a deep bow, Raincloud brought the stave down, including the man who still
wielded it. Zheron fell to the floor and tumbled sideways, tearing the stave
from her grasp.
onlookers shouted and cheered. Zheron had kept hold of his stave, a feat she
admired, but its tip had fallen across the line. Raincloud had won.
heavily, Raincloud watched him snap back to his feet. Nothing looked so
appealing as a man who just lost a hard fight. Her first thought was to help
tend his bruises, an offer a rei-gi assistant would have appreciated,
but she thought better of it.
stood tall, admitting no injury; no servo medics were in evidence. “Lord
Raincloud honors our household,” he announced. More quietly he added, “Next
time request, ‘Spirit only.’ Then we’ll have a better show.”
smiled to herself, and made a mental note of it.
bad,” observed Lem. “I’d like to learn your style.”
said nothing, rather doubting her clan would approve teaching rei-gi to
a such a man.
Urulite warriors were rising from their seats and coming forward. Introductions
followed, with much clasping of the shoulders. Musicians appeared with flutes
and metal drums, playing traditional tunes in an eerie eight-tone scale. The
company soon progressed to the dining hall. Raincloud went along, her arms
shaking now that the tension was gone. Now she could wonder, at last: What were
they really up to?
dining hall had an oval ceiling hung with heavy crystal chandeliers. The long
table upon the dais was set with porcelain and silver of a quality that her
brothers would have loved to see. Beyond the table, richly colored silk
curtains hung to the floor. From between their folds Raincloud caught a glimpse
of a face mask on a pole, customarily carried by every Urulite female. It
fascinated her, despite her revulsion, to see the things Rhun had told her come
was led to her seat across from Zheron. An Urulite man poured wine; there was
not a mechanical servo to be seen.
wondered to what extent the rejection of servos reflected custom, or relative
cost. She refused the wine for herself.
vow to your Deity?” Zheron asked.
indeed,” she said.
this admission, Zheron, too, turned back his wine and requested water for both.
This unexpected token of respect impressed Raincloud.
Zheron asked, “what brings a warrior like you to this world of soft cushions?”
was not a warrior. “I come in peace,” she said.
peace; what peace? Where is peace? Death and abomination fill the skies. Your
Elysian hosts live in a ball of crystal.”
his last remark, she was tempted to agree. But the Free Fold had made genuine
progress, for its members. In any case, it would not do to dishonor her
employer. “Our hosts treat us with great courtesy,” she insisted.
eyebrows knitted, and he exclaimed, “Courtesy is what these people lack.
How dare they interfere with our Imperial affairs.” He referred to Verid’s
summons following the destruction of the L’liite freighter.
first course was brought, a plate of unidentified meats arranged upon grape
leaves. The waiter had thick fingers with stubby thumbs. He was probably a
sim—and therefore a slave.
swallowed doubtfully before she tasted the dish. To his last retort, she told
Zheron, “The Elysians see things differently. ‘Compassion anywhere breeds caring
waved a hand as if brushing away an insect. “Compassion is for females. How can
you deal with women who won’t even put up an honest fight to the death?
Elysians cling to life for centuries. They live in eternal shame.”
are you here?” Raincloud asked suddenly. “What’s here for you, Lord Zheron?”
did not answer right off, but drew back as if to protect his thoughts. “Elysium
is small,” he offered, “the smallest of the Fold’s worlds.” She realized, he
meant population. “Elysians know little of us; they are the last people likely
to gain advantage. If we start here, we have little to lose. If they betray us,
a mere squadron could eliminate them.”
scalp prickled as she realized his meaning. She repressed the impulse to call
him a bully, not a warrior. “Just what do you wish to ‘start’?”
shrugged. “Connection. Alliance. Mutual interest.”
trade, and capital investment. The fruits of peace, however shameful. After
all, Elysium had the greatest excess capital of any world in the Fold.
other guests were getting livelier as the dinner advanced, not surprising given
the size and frequent refilling of their wine glasses. Their jokes and tales
grew more outlandish, and more pointed. Invariably the villain of each tale was
shown up to be no better than a female.
smile,” Zheron observed, watching her keenly. “You disbelieve me?”
of course not, Lord Zheron,” she quickly replied.
think we lack the stomach for it.”
is inconceivable,” she added politely.
some of us do lack the stomach for it, by Azhragh,” he volunteered
abruptly. “Isn’t that so, Dhesra?”
at his right, nodded vigorously. “Those advisors and sycophants who fawn at the
foot of the Azure Throne. They ought to be castrated.”
what to make of this, Raincloud tucked the comment away in her mind for Verid.
leaned forward. “I think you barbarians lack the stomach for it.”
Raincloud knew he meant to provoke her. Facing him sternly, she said, “I do not
understand you correctly.” Surely, she thought with exasperation, she would not
have to fight again?
leaned back, chuckling to himself. “Of course I meant not you,
Raincloud. I meant your Elysians.”
considered this. “You might give them a try.”
will come, then? You will make a pilgrimage to the Azure Throne?”
lips parted without sound, and she shared a startled glance with Lem. Could
Zheron really mean a delegation from Helicon to Imperial Urulan? A world which
no foreigner had entered officially in the past two centuries?
a ... decision shall not be made lightly,” Raincloud replied at last, trying
not to stumble over the words.
course not. The Azure Throne must never be approached lightly.”
Raincloud left the dining hall, Lord Zheron was in a jovial mood, that of a man
at the end of a good feast. Raincloud had the dizzying sense that she was
caught up in a chain of events beyond her control. Perhaps the Urulites wanted
her for the same reason they chose Elysium—she was someone they could
relinquish at small cost if things went wrong.
for her it was not so simple. If either world thought it could use her lightly,
it was mistaken. Let Lem and Verid go to Urulan if they chose; Raincloud was no
pawn in this game.
she approached the door through the hall of cultural displays, someone stepped
out in her path. It was a goddess; or rather, an Urulite female, draped in a
black hooded cloak, holding a white mask on a stick before her face. At her
wrists and ankles jeweled bracelets jingled as she moved, like the clanking of
chains, Raincloud thought. But the female stood fearlessly, leaning toward
Raincloud’s face as if to get a close look at her. Five long seconds passed
thus; then the Urulite female withdrew. As she turned, Raincloud caught just a
glimpse behind her mask of her dark eye with long black lashes, before she
disappeared behind the screen of Azhragh and Mirhiah.
Continued in Issue 28